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Why IT Departments Need Marketing Smarts

Are IT leaders talking enough about the success of their projects?

by Minda Zetlin, November 2010

What if an IT department built the world’s most perfect system, delivered every project on time and under budget, achieved 100 percent uptime—and nobody cared? Its leaders might be unhappy, but they’d have no one to blame but themselves. Delivering IT excellence is only part of the job of a technology leader and department. The other part is marketing that excellence internally to the department’s business customers.

Analysts from independent research firm Forrester Research consider an IT marketing manager to be crucial for developing and implementing an IT marketing plan to align IT with business; they recommend that companies hire internal marketing managers—at a salary range of US$70,000 to US$100,000 (IT Marketing Manager—Job Profile And Description, Forrester Research, March 26, 2009).

Dennis Risinger, CIO of FCS Financial in Jefferson City, Missouri—part of the Farm Credit System—sees in his own business that IT managers can’t expect their accomplishments to speak for themselves. “I know people in our industry who say that the business should understand how valuable IT is and what we’ve done for the company,” Risinger says. “It doesn’t work that way. If IT doesn’t do outreach to the business side, they may not know about those accomplishments.”

As business leaders see increasingly sophisticated consumer technology and learn more about enterprise IT innovations like virtualization and cloud computing, they are expecting more than ever from their IT departments. And while CIOs might be delivering on those expectations, their counterparts in the lines of business may not know it. That’s why developing and executing a well-thought-out marketing strategy is essential for today’s IT organizations—even though marketing and communications are historically not strong areas for technology professionals. 

“Chief Sales Officer”

According to Risinger, some of his peers in very large companies have actually hired a marketing person to promote the work of the IT organization. That can be an effective way to help raise the profile of IT. But Risinger also notes that this is a luxury most IT organizations cannot afford, so it becomes a task for the entire organization. “It’s my responsibility as CIO to set the proper tone around this issue, so that everybody in IT sees themselves as doing sales and marketing all the time,” he says.

Michael Jones, CIO of the National Marrow Donor Program, believes that marketing must remain a large part of the CIO’s job, with or without a marketing manager. “If you’re spending 70 percent of your time solving problems, 20 percent on people (recruiting, mentoring, and other people management tasks), and 10 percent on marketing, you’re in trouble,” he says. “Dealing with people and sales and marketing combined should easily be at least 50 percent of your job. In fact, my staff jokes that I’m really the CSO—chief sales officer.”

This reality does not necessarily sync with the experience—or expectations—of the IT staff. For CIOs and other IT leaders with little or no marketing training, the first step is to understand what marketing is—and isn’t. For many IT organizations, “marketing” amounts to publishing an annual report or a monthly or quarterly newsletter touting IT’s achievements. These often are formally written pieces that have been reviewed and cleared at many levels of the IT organization but may be ignored by most of the company’s employees.

Some try to do better. “A lot of IT organizations have pretty savvy marketing in the sense that they come up with a nice logo and a slogan and drive everything toward that slogan,” says Faisal Hoque, founder and CEO of BTM Corporation, a management solutions provider based in Stamford, Connecticut. “While that’s a classic marketing approach, it’s focusing on advertising rather than the understanding that brings organizations together.”

Instead, IT leaders need to begin their campaigns the same way traditional marketers do—by listening. “The first step in marketing is market research,” says Shane Aubel, cofounder and lead architect of Accent Global System Architects, a management consulting firm. “You have to understand from the customers’ standpoint the real problems that they’re having. If you don’t know what their needs are, you won’t know how to market to them, and even if you do a great job of selling concepts and ideas, it’s really difficult to hit the mark.”

To get IT staff into the right mindset, Aubel recommends a change in vocabulary. “Stop using the word user,” he advises. “That puts the person in the context of the system, when it should be the reverse. Instead of thinking about how they use the system, think about how they do their jobs and how the system can support them.” Aubel recommends using the term customer or stakeholder instead.

Another good term to learn: market segmentation. Many companies have superusers—administrators and heavy technology users—and business leaders—upper-level executives whose buy-in can be critical to the acceptance of a new technology. Reaching customers in these different roles means tailoring a communications strategy that speaks to their differing needs.

“Figuring out market segmentation should be at the top of the list when doing internal marketing,” says Douglas Charles, vice president of market development and sales at Capgemini. “You have to have different plans, different time frames, and different levels of detail for different groups,” he says. “Some groups may require more buy-in than others.”

Understanding these market segments can help with marketing more effectively to the company at large. For instance, Charles says, IT organizations tend to be metrics-driven and therefore may want to include detailed metrics specific to the implementation, such as on-budget and on-time, when presenting information to their business customers. That can quickly cause information overload.

On the other hand, it may be hard for IT leaders to tell which metrics will matter to customers. “Good marketing technique would be to pick a focus group from among the superusers,” Charles says. “Give them the 50 important measures that you have and ask them to pick the three that are critical and everyone needs to know.” 

“Chief Electricity Officer”

Once CIOs have identified their business customers and learned their needs and opinions, they need to communicate the IT department’s achievements and plans. But what’s the most effective way to do this?

Begin by making sure the focus remains on creating business value rather than IT achievements. “Don’t say that you completed an upgrade to version 9; say how the upgrade will affect the business,” says Patrick Gray, author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value Through Technology (Wiley, 2007). “Will it allow us to access a new market? Cut costs and save jobs?”

Gray believes that the emphasis on “five nines” of uptime epitomizes the CIO’s focus on technological details rather than business value. “CIOs worrying about how many nines they have is like being a chief electricity officer and saying that the lights were on 99.999 percent of the time. People expect the network to work, just as they expect the electricity to work. It can’t be your reason for being there anymore.”

Rather than sending a newsletter to the entire company or calling an all-hands meeting, Gray suggests starting with brief, informal, and informative communications to a select group. “It’s pretty easy to publish little position papers that are no more than 200 to 300 words, the length of an e-mail message,” he says. “They should only take a couple of hours to write at first. Once you get in the habit, you’ll likely be able to write them in 20 minutes.”

These short messages could tell about new technology being implemented or discuss new technology trends, such as cloud computing, that business leaders may be wondering about. Instead of sending the message to the entire company, technologists should find a handful of key contacts who are interested in receiving position papers and are willing to give feedback about the value of the information.

“If it’s a highly polished e-mail blast that goes to the whole company, people will ignore it,” Gray says. “If it starts out as an informal message to a small group and builds up some credibility, you’ll find you suddenly have vice presidents and other high-level executives asking, ‘Can I get on the list? I’ve heard your information is great!’”

Most important, he says, CIOs need to make themselves available as a resource to high-level executives and others within the company who want to know more about technology. “Let them know that you’re an expert and that, say, the CFO can tap you for answers to questions such as, ‘How will the iPad affect me?’ Generally, if these executives aren’t getting such information from IT, they’re hearing about it from their teenage sons and daughters. That might not reflect well on your department.”

It will help, Risinger adds, if the company at large views the IT team as innovators. “We have to stay open to hearing ideas when business customers ask if we can use technology to do something new,” he says. It might be a wild idea that would take a million dollars or a year and a half to implement, he adds, but sometimes IT can take a seed of the idea and find a way to do part of what the customer has in mind.

“What you don’t want to do is laugh at them and jump to a ‘no’ answer: ‘No, it’s against policy’ or ‘No, there are security concerns,’” he says. “Security is important, but it’s too easy to hide behind security as a reason for not doing something new.” 

Every Contact Is an Opportunity

Although marketing has to start with the CIO, the marketing mindset must permeate the whole IT organization, and Gray recommends communications training for all IT staff. This is because every contact between an IT person and a customer can serve as a marketing opportunity.

“It’s every person’s responsibility to be a salesperson for his or her profession,” Risinger says. “Little customer interactions, talking with them and helping them through a problem, are all marketing opportunities. Obviously if someone needs to meet a deadline and calls a support line for help, you can’t spend 10 additional minutes on marketing. But opportunities to talk to customers, find out about their needs, and let them know what IT is doing come up all the time.”

“You need to market to all levels of the organization in a targeted way; otherwise, your marketing effort is likely to cave from one side or the other,” Aubel adds. “IT leaders don’t always understand how business decisions are made. They may target the CEO or CFO, without realizing that his or her decisions are driven by divisional managers’ recommendations and that those recommendations may be driven by the grumbling the divisional managers hear from the workforce.” The result, he says, is that projects can be killed without IT ever fully knowing why.

Thus, a well-thought-out marketing effort aimed at the whole organization can bring unexpected benefits. “It often results in better financial and organizational support, a better working environment with the business, and business customers feeling like they have more of a stake in a project’s success,” Aubel says. “That can lead to better morale within IT, especially for those providing support. In the end, everybody benefits.”

For More Information
Generating Excitement and The New Technology Paradigm
Oracle CIO Central
The 12 Questions Every CFO Should Ask the CIO

 


Minda Zetlin is coauthor, with Bill Pfleging, of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006).

 

 
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