Crossing the Technology PR Chasm

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

I recently had a meeting with a former client from long ago who was, and still is, one of the innovators in his industry (an integrated management software program for a service industry.) He was lamenting the fact that sales were getting tougher, there seemed to be more competition than ever, and he was having to resort to price cuts to make a sale. His product, perhaps the most sophisticated in its field, was not yet released in a GUI version and he blamed a lot of lost sales on that issue.

As I listened to him and looked over his recent advertising, the real core of his problem became obvious - his market had matured to the mainstream and he was still trying to reach (and sell to) the innovators, whereas the bulk of the market had moved to mainstream users. In short, he needed to 'cross the chasm' in how he communicated with his prospects, but he didn't recognize this issue.

He was getting beaten at sales because his competition had geared their messages to mainstream users, and his was still technology-based and feature-oriented. But the current mainstream users were evaluating products on less-technical issues such as the user interface, and not looking beyond that to the underlying technology.

This client's problem is pretty typical for the high-tech industry where movement from the innovative users into the mainstream can come subtly, and the messaging has to change to appeal to these new prospects. It matters little if you have a superior product if you can't distinguish yourself in the current crowd, or get the point across in the frame of reference of the buyer.

How can you tell if your technology market is moving to mainstream? Here are some tell-tales:

More competition

Inability to distinguish, at first glance, between competing products

Excessive emphasis on price as opposed to functionality

Longer sales cycles, more difficult sales

Not surprisingly, when companies neglect to cross the chasm with their sales and marketing, they also neglect to cross it with their public relations. Early-stage technology companies usually base their PR efforts on technical innovation, because that's often all that they have. But once they gain sales and the market begins to develop, those messages must change to reach the more mainstream buyers who are more users of technology than they are appreciators of technology.

Here's some key differences between early-stage and mainstream PR emphasis:

Emphasis on the technology rather than the customer benefits

'White papers' (theory) rather than customer case studies (reality)

Detail-rich narratives rather than summary statements and overviews

Expectation of technical knowledge (insights) by user as opposed to lack of technical knowledge (superficial or emotional buy)

Messaging in a competitive vacuum as opposed to addressing the popular competitive issues

Resources spent on industry 'educational efforts' (creating knowledgeable buyers) as opposed to focusing on making the sale (qualifying buyers.)

One issue that should not be overlooked is that much of the same mindset that the customer has is also reflected in the media - product reviews shift from the techy books to more mainstream trade publications - but the media's ability to evaluate the technology also declines. There are more 'round up' articles and superficial analysis. If your PR program is benchmarked against the popular features or competitive issues- you can help set the stage in the media by being more responsive to them and providing more customer case studies.

If you look at maturing markets, you can see this play out again and again - one of the most recent being the CRM (customer relationship management) industry, which used to be called 'sales automation'. Up until very recently, it had been highly fractional, then some major players entered it. Their messaging was very different - slick and more like consumer advertising. This serves to create mindshare with senior management, and drives the technical people nuts when they try to perform due-diligence on the technical features and capabilities. ("Why don't we just choose XYZ Software? They're the market leader - they said so their ads," remarks the CEO.) This is the same game Microsoft played when it entered the enterprise server market with NT. When the decision making involves more people who do not make decisions on a technical basis (and often do not have technical backgrounds), then consumer-type advertising and messaging can help shape the decision.

Some may say that this shifting of emphasis is the 'dumbing down' the message, and will result in the loss of the technology competitive edge. Not really - it's just a different way to get your message across. If you want to make sales, you have to understand how your market digests information to make the buying decision - not just how you want them to look at the world.

A fundamental part of the definition of public relations is that it is a two-way communcation process with your markets - in order to be effective at reaching them with your public relations - you first have to listen - to how the customer makes the buying decision. A lot of companies don't take that simple step of listening to the customer - whether due to ignorance, arrogance, lack of the proper tools or lack of understanding ('they don't know what they don't know'.) But the results are predictable - harder and more difficult sales, and loss of market share.

Market leaders in mainstream markets do not necessarily have the best technology, and in some cases their technology is pretty bad - but they tend to set the bar for themes, messages and initial product evaluation criteria. It may be through sheer economic clout - but it is the market reality. If you want to reach your markets and prospects - listen to their questions during the sales cycle and keep an eye on the competition's messaging - and determine how to respond to it with your competitive difference.

Mainstream markets can be a two-edged sword for the technology innovators - the best way to look at it is that the market has expanded, the cost to educate the customer has gone down (and someone else is paying for it through advertising), and the sales cycle is shorter for the right kind of prospect. The real key for your public relations is to develop your themes and messages that piggy-back off the general awareness in the industry, yet clearly establish your distinction and benefits - and that will resonate with the kind of customers you want.

Jeffrey Geibel - All Rights Reserved

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