RSA 2015: Does the Security Industry Need a Reality Check?

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Thinkstock

Yes, it’s that time of year again: The RSA conference is the world’s flagship security technology tradeshow and later this month it will be back in San Francisco. To prepare for the event, the Blanc & Otus Analyst Relations team spoke with many prominent analysts regarding the likely hot topics at this year’s show. Several themes quickly emerged from those discussions – some of which vendors should be worried about:

Vendor marketing is increasingly diverging from reality: While powerful marketing is part and parcel of being a successful vendor, analysts are becoming increasingly fatigued with vendor hype within overcrowded segments. Expect to see more and more research notes countering vendor claims, especially on areas of contentious category creation. Many analysts told us that they increasingly see the show’s value as centering on various networking opportunities, rather than the content vendors provide during the show.

AR Recommendation: When approaching new narratives and messaging work, marketing and communications teams should be asking themselves: “How can we best tell compelling and useful stories?”

CISOs…sweating in the spotlight: The pace of high-profile breaches is increasing and security has never been higher up the boardroom agenda than it is today. While this attention may help the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) secure much-needed funding for security initiatives and technologies, it also increases pressure on them to deliver. Some CISOs do a fine job of explaining their strategies to their boards, peers and the broader company, but too many revert to the comfort zone of ‘speeds and feeds’ speak, and as a result they don’t address business risk succinctly and compellingly enough. This ultimately leads to a failure to secure the necessary behavioral changes at the cultural level, which drastically impacts their ability to deliver in the long term. With growing numbers of ‘non-IT’ executives running their own shadow IT investments beyond IT’s control, this challenge is only increasing.

AR Recommendation: When framing up sales enablement materials prior to launch, sales teams should ask themselves: “How can I help my clients succeed in winning hearts and minds within the business?”

The user politics of digital transformation are unstoppable: Technology has always been successful based on user acceptance at a behavioral and cultural level. This has always been a particular challenge for security teams who have historically wanted to lock assets down. However, the shift towards digital business models – based on cloud, mobile, social and Internet of Things-based technologies – means that old ‘lock down’ style security models simply aren’t feasible (if they ever were). While pioneering vendors are improving the usability of their solutions, they often do a much less compelling job when it comes to addressing the cultural, political and procedural impact of security technologies – specifically how security teams and processes can work with (rather than against) the business. To succeed, security must become invisible.

AR Recommendation: When creating content to support a product launch, product management teams must consider: “How do I articulate how this new technology changes the way the business operates?”

There are no easy answers here. Standing out from the crowd in 2015 – without being excessive – is a real challenge. However, vendors should keep themselves honest by running regular reality checks as the year progresses. Remember:

  • Narrative Always Trumps Messaging – It’s great to have a well-crafted product message, but that hard work is wasted if the broader narrative it sits within isn’t also working. A great narrative generates interesting viral conversations by generating questions and answers that can play back to product strengths. Does the narrative gel with the end user’s experience and situation? Messages need roots.
  • Authenticity Has Never Mattered More – Yes, perceptions matter, but ultimately it is reality and the facts on the ground that makes or breaks careers. Be sure you can stand out with a smart idea, but you must also stand by your claim and own it. Does the excitement of the initial concept marry the possible with the probable?
  • Research Hard, Fail Fast and Re-iterate – Research can make all the difference, turning early adversity into future opportunity. Take a DevOps approach to your communications activities – use analyst inquiry and messaging sessions to quickly develop Kevlar for your Narrative prior to launch. Better to fail early, and then quickly re-iterate your way to success, than continue with an approach that’s not working.

So what’s got you excited about this year’s RSA? If you have an RSA story to share, or want to discuss how analysts can help bulletproof your story then drop me a line at tris.clark@blancandotus.com.

In The Tech Trenches: Analyst Interviews – Alan Pelz-Sharpe, 451 Research

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, 451 Research
Alan Pelz-Sharpe, 451 Research

As we’d previously written in our last AR blog: Analyze This: Getting to Know Industry Analysts, the Blanc & Otus Analyst Relations team is launching In The Tech Trenches: Analyst Interviews. In The Tech Trenches is a recurring Q&A with analysts from around the world in which they share insights about their firm, talk about their research plans and give tips on how the comms community can best engage with them. For our inaugural interview, we were delighted to speak with Alan Pelz-Sharpe from 451 Research.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe
Research Director for Social Business Applications
451 Research
Based in Boston

What drew you to a career as an analyst and what do you enjoy most about your role?

It was sheer accident or divine intervention, depending on your particular point of view. I was coming to the end of a long business process consulting project in 1998 and was looking for a job, I saw an odd advertisement from a firm called Ovum looking for a ‘Document Management’ expert, and as I was the only person I knew that even knew what Document Management was, I figured I should apply. Somehow I got the job and then faced the biggest and most daunting learning curve and air mile accumulation process of my life!

The combined challenge of spotting emerging trends and disruptions, deeply researching them, and then articulating all of it into a digestible way – this continues to energize me. It’s an incredibly hard job to do well, and it comes with a lot of responsibility – my ‘advice’ impacts investment and also hiring and firing decisions each year. I take that responsibility very seriously, and try to drill into my staff the importance of accuracy, fair opinion and never ever resorting to being snarky or taking easy shots. In the process you talk with the tech world’s movers and shakers, get involved in fascinating strategic planning and deal situations, travel the world and meet with some of the smartest folk on the planet. It’s the best job I have ever had.

How does your firm differentiate itself from other analyst firms?

At 451 and my Social Business Applications in particular, we are focused squarely on innovation and future disruption. We are differentiated by the fact that we are a major analyst firm (much bigger than many seem to realize over 100 analysts and influencing over $160B in tech investments over the past five years) that spends a lot of time looking at early stage startups, we are often the first and only analyst firm many have speak to. We don’t have a Quadrant or a Wave (nothing wrong with that, we just have a different approach), nor a checklist of requirements for inclusion. To speak with us you just have to be doing something interesting and different that we – and by extension our client base (forward-looking large enterprises and investors) are going to be interested in knowing about. Due to the sheer volume of small vendors, we act as a filter of sorts to identify the future successes.

Describe your firm’s client base – which type of executives typically subscribe to your services?

As 451 Research has grown over the years the client base has changed – today we seem to attract larger enterprises (over 10,000 employees) in particular. These tend to be firms that have dedicated strategy teams, and IT Directors that want first mover advantage over their competitors, yet they are also firms that have hugely complex IT infrastructures, Global Data Centers, decommissioning and migration challenges, etc. – they like the sheer volume of research and data we generate (we generate a lot!). They also like the ease of access they have to chat to the analysts, and that fact that we are happy to provide actionable feedback. We have also traditionally had a strong client base in both the startup and its related investor community.

What kinds of questions are you getting most frequently from your clients these days? And what kinds of questions do you think they should be asking more often?

Questions trend over time of course but right now, I am taking questions sets from two different but complimentary areas. On the practical nitty-gritty side of things, questions about how to migrate from and even decommission legacy business applications and file shares effectively. Nothing new in terms of topic but the volume of requests here has jumped. On the other side of the equation are questions regarding future of business applications, micro apps, micro tasks, leveraging crowds, intelligent information management and dynamic supply chains. So our inquiry calls increasingly involve analysts from other 451 teams such as Security, Wearables, Dev Ops and Mobility.

Which developments in the world of technology interest you the most today? And which key trends have not received the attention they deserve? 

Personally I am interested in the outer edge/fringe opportunities and challenges for Enterprise Social. I’m thinking here of Micro Tasking and Crowd Computing. Also analyzing customer and employee behaviors and trends. I think that technologies such as Machine Learning, Predictive Analytics, and Artificial Intelligence get good analyst coverage. However, the implications, legal complexity, ethical challenges and the future use and impact of these technologies in the workplace does not.  

Are you launching any new services at the moment, or changing existing offerings?

We are launching a major new service that has been in the works for over a year – detailed market sizing, monitoring and analysis of a number of Social Business sectors – Enterprise Collaboration & Social, Marketing Automation and Web Experience Management. We will be expanding this out to more areas incrementally over the coming year. We also just finished up our Software 2015 M&A Report, which is one of our most important reports of the year. Over the next few quarters – and through the rest 2015 – we will be looking at expanding coverage in disruptive areas of human resource management and crowd computing. Our focus shifts as the market shifts.

What has your experience been historically when interacting with AR, PR and marketing teams?

Very mixed, though there are some stars out there – I enjoy working with the folks at Box, Adobe, Salesforce, EMC, OpenText, etc., all of which have a well-oiled AR machine. But as much more of my time is with startups, the challenge is that they don’t have AR and rely instead on PR agencies. PR agencies are often incentivized to get stuff published, so we come at the briefing with different agendas. We give our thoughts and opinions pretty openly in briefings and can often give a startup a perspective or competitive insight they would normally not have access to. Whilst in turn we get insight into somebody doing something interesting that may impact the market at a future point. Whether that results in anything publishable to our subscribers is a different story; PR firms often don’t value that kind of interaction.

What is the most common mistake that vendors make when they interact with you?

Either they give me the standard sales pitch, or they are expecting one from me. In both cases we are off to a bad start. Particularly annoying is when a vendor ‘explains’ to me the market sector that I cover for a living. I’m happy to have a discussion on our different perspectives but not keen on being lectured. Similarly when I request a briefing on a new product or service and then get one hour’s worth of a startup insulting all their competitors, then things aren’t going well.

My requirements are simple. Tell me about your company, why you exist, the specific problem you solve, and how you solve that problem differently than previous attempts have or do?

What do you like to do to relax when you’re not doing the day job?

I have a small but active side career as an actor (voice and screen) and that takes me completely out of my day job persona and challenges me on so many levels (I studied Method Acting); this in turn relaxes me. Odd, I know…

Blanc & Otus AR Commentary and Key Takeaways

Thank you very much, Alan, for taking the time to share these insights with us. 2015 is looking like a very productive year for the team at 451 Research! Alan raises many great points that vendors should take to heart. Having heard Alan’s perspectives, some related takeaways we’d particularly like to emphasize for vendor communications teams to consider:

  • Briefings – The Need for Focus and Clarity on Capabilities: During briefings with analysts, vendors must (succinctly) outline the problems they can solve. As Alan mentions, this time is best spent focusing on their own differentiation and crucially – the resolution of a customer challenge vs. just critiquing a competitor’s offering. Sharing useful data and relevant insight with the analyst is crucial in delivering a valuable briefing and is a key step in building a lasting relationship with the analyst (something many PR firms do badly). Don’t forget to also ask the analyst for their opinion!
  • Technology’s Societal Impact – Tech vendors often dive into the widgets, speeds and feeds – forgetting to address the human, legal and cultural impact that technology has on workplaces and home. The societal impact of technology is one of the most compelling stories a vendor can tell, if they do it right. Our advice to vendors is to be clear on your narrative and message – ensure you relate these back to problem resolution for the customer.
  • Gauging Vendor Viability – Industry analysts can play a valuable part in contextualizing and clarifying a vendor’s prospects and viability. This insight can be invaluable information for financial analysts and investors who are looking to source market data for their financial models, or validate an investment strategy. For this reason it’s also important that vendors’ Analyst Relations teams work closely with their Investor Relations colleagues. Remember, analysts talk to each other!

We’ll see you next month for the second edition of In The Tech Trenches.

Analyze This: Getting to Know Industry Analysts

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Thinkstock

Industry analysts play a key part in the world of IT. Put simply, they share expert insights with clients, media and investors on how businesses and consumers can take advantage of existing and emerging technologies. Their perspectives impact million-dollar tech deals – a Blanc and Otus and H+K Strategies study found that industry analysts (along with peer-driven word of mouth) are the top driver of B2B tech adoption – but their influence is not always fully understood by communications teams.

This lack of understanding can negatively impact an entire communications program and is a particular problem at this time of year when communication teams are preparing to brief analysts at events like Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and RSA in San Francisco. Some key questions to consider before baking in your analyst relations (AR) strategy for the year include: how can I ensure that I am briefing the right analysts on the right topics? What can I do to really maximize the value of analysts for my stakeholders in the product strategy, marketing, PR and sales teams?

While many communications teams do a solid job covering the basics with ‘outbound’ briefings, many still fail to capitalize on the wealth of ‘inbound’ insights that analysts can bring to the table through inquiries, strategy days and consulting projects. It’s a common talking point within AR circles, and analyst firms comment on it too. When framing up any communications and marketing strategy, it’s important to know each analyst firm’s specialties, client base and the methodologies they use to analyze product markets. Getting to also know the analysts as individuals – dislikes, likes and their interpretations of a market space – is also very important.

Never a shy bunch, the AR team here at Blanc and Otus are big fans of sharing insights and best practice with others. As a result, we’ll shortly be launching  ‘In The Tech Trenches: Analyst Interviews,’ a recurring Q&A with analysts from around the world. For each interview we invite a guest analyst to tell us about their firm, speak about their research agenda and share insight on how vendors can best engage with them. We’ll also be offering our own perspective on key things vendors should bear in mind when planning AR strategies and briefing analysts.  We’re delighted to announce that we’ll be kicking off our very first Q&A interview with 451 Research’s Alan Pelz-Sharpe in the coming month.

Not sure which analysts you should be speaking with? Wondering how you can best leverage analyst insights before, during and after an industry event? Then drop me a line at tris.clark@blancandotus.com.

IDC 2015 Predictions – Navigating the Digital Opportunity: A Bridge CIOs Must Cross

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Thinkstock

Research firm IDC recently ran a webinar explaining its CIO agenda for 2015. The call discussed long-term industry trends that have been reshaping the role of CIO and IT shops around the world. I was impressed with both the high percentages that IDC called out as well as the relative immediacy of the predictions – 2016 is not that far off in the future. Some of the more intriguing IDC predictions included:

  • By 2017, 80% of the CIO’s time will be focused on analytics, cybersecurity and creating new revenue streams through digital services.
  • By 2016, 65% of global competitive strategies will require real-time 3rd Platform IT-as-a–Service (ITaaS).
  • By 2016, security will be among the top 3 business priorities for 70% of global enterprise CEOs.
  • By 2016, 80% of CIOs will deliver a new architectural framework that enables innovation and improved business decision-making.
  • By 2015, 60% of CIOs will use DevOps as their primary tool to address the speed and sprawl of mobile, cloud, and open source applications.

IDC framed the discussion around three overarching drivers that are impacting the enterprise, namely Business, Social and Technology:

  • Business: It’s clear that CIOs and their IT shops need to shift from the maintenance and operations model to become brokers of services in support of business objectives. Agility is the order of the day, and the shift to a service model will empower businesses to spin up new offerings in response to customer needs.
  • Social: The workplace has become elastic, in both a temporal and physical sense. CIOs need to support workers throughout the day and night. This is forcing IT to move from a “fortress” or “lockdown” view on security to one that protects assets and individuals. The choice is stark between having a proactive and reactive security plan.
  • Technology: The proliferation of connected ‘things’ is going to create a deluge of data and opportunities for CIOs to place themselves at the center of business conversations. Smart and active analytics will replace what IDC cleverly calls ‘passive analysis and interrogation.’ Also, the ‘everything-as-a-service’ model will oblige IT to restructure ‘everything.’ The pending rate of change cannot be sustained without robust architecture.

Like the other big research firms, IDC sees digital transformation as key for businesses, including the disruptive influence of cloud computing and Big Data (data analytics, social computing, and the ubiquity of smart mobile devices). IDC describes this phenomenon as the 3rd Platform, while Gartner refers to it as the Digital Business Advantage brought about by the Nexus of Forces, and Forrester calls it Digital Business. What is consistent across all of these views is how disruptive this digitalization of business will be in the coming century. Gartner predicts that “By 2020, 75% of businesses will be a digital business or will be preparing to become one.”

The opportunity to re-invent ourselves is breathtaking, and I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” If you haven’t already broken ground on your digital transformation, there is no better time than now.

In a digital world things move even faster, so keeping ahead of your competitors is critical. And market intelligencehas never been more central to staying competitive.

  • Analyst relations professionals should be pulling all the levers possible on their inbound AR toolkit, constantly distilling insights from running inquiries, strategy days and events to support market intelligence efforts.
  • Product management teams should be constantly listening to analyst feedback on what customers are prioritizing when it comes to digital. Digital requires a different approach and analyst opinions on what clients are struggling with can be a great source of insight when it comes to refining roadmaps.
  • Public relations teams have a perfect opportunity to leverage digital transformation as the heart and blood of their story. Industries are transforming themselves overnight and PR is the perfect discipline through which to communicate the benefits and disruptive power that this entails.

How are you changing your business model and communications approach to take advantage of the digital opportunity? We’d love to hear your perspective. Please feel free to contact me at: jandersen@blancandotus.com.

An Anchor or an Asset? The Value of Experience in PR Part 3

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Thinkstock

To wrap up our series on the value of experience in PR, we will look at if experience is actually helping us or holding us back.

On one side of the coin, experience is an incredibly valuable business asset that a certain Mr. Shakespeare referred to as a jewel. Even in the rapidly changing technology industry, experience has proven time and again to be the difference between the winners and losers. Yes, there are the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s no coincidence that as their companies grow and come under pressure to generate profits, they quickly fill their management teams with experienced executives.

The danger comes when people cling to experience and fail to acknowledge and embrace changes. People naturally fear change, but for anyone who works in PR, resisting it at either a strategic or tactical level is a fast way to obsolesce. Of course wisdom gained from past experience should be factored in, but it is only one factor to consider.

So how do we deliver innovative campaigns that give us the opportunity to appropriately apply experience and embrace change? One answer comes from the experts at the Innovator’s DNA. Their recent book includes a four-step process they call the Innovator’s Method. It encourages people to start by casting a wide net for insights, spend time exploring the problems and to evaluate the potential solutions before nailing down the strategy. It may sound simple enough, but when pushed for time (which of course no one ever is in this industry), we all know it can be tempting to simply apply past experiences and jump straight into developing the strategy and tactics.

Is experience an anchor or an asset for PR pros then? The answer is it can be either. If we simply rely on recalling and repeating the strategies and tactics of 5 or 10 years ago, we leave so many opportunities on the table. If we use the number of years experience we have to justify decisions and viewpoints, we risk missing out on fresh ideas and insights. And if we stick rigidly to former ways and don’t embrace new channels and forms of content, we have little hope of reaching and engaging audiences in a meaningful way.

It’s an exciting time. The rules are being rewritten. And PR has a huge opportunity. If we can use our experience wisely and embrace the changes, we can reach and engage audiences in new ways. So next time the temptation comes up to use past experiences as the primary guide for strategies or tactics, think first about what has changed and don’t focus on the problems that creates…but the opportunities it presents.

Analyst Relations: How to Get the Most Out of Gartner Symposium

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Thinkstock

Every year Gartner runs its Symposium event in Orlando. Symposium is the key event in the Analyst Relations calendar, due to the sheer number of analysts, vendors and high-level speakers attending. It’s also a great chance to hear Gartner brief the AR community on its latest research methodologies, changes and AR best practices. If you are new to the Symposium experience, here are some topline recommendations on how to get the most out of your time there:

  • Maximize the value of 1:1s – Ensure any 1:1 meetings with analysts are a genuinely good fit with your area of focus or the problem you are looking to solve. There’s nothing worse for either party than a discussion that is light on relevance. Be sure to give them opening context on what you’re hoping to get out of the conversation, especially if they’re not familiar with you, or your challenges. Often analysts are meeting attendees for the first time, so context is king.
  • Plan sessions carefully – As the venue is large and spread across multiple campuses, travel time can be a factor in attending sessions. Be sure to plan enough time between sessions for travel (especially if you’re new to the Symposium experience).  Gartner’s handy agenda builder will help you plan ahead.
  • Talk with CIOs for their reaction to analyst and vendor presentations  It’s one thing to hear what analysts and competitors have to say about tech trends. It’s quite another to observe how CIOs are reacting to those messages. When are they most engaged? When are they rolling their eyes in disbelief? This event provides a rare opportunity for message testing and trying out new angles. It also gives you a glimpse into where Gartner is – and isn’t – hitting its mark with the tech-buying crowd. Take advantage of it!
  • Seek out the unusual – Gartner Symposium sessions cover a wide range of topics. Often there will be novel presentations that look at the tech industry through a fresh lens – Gartner’s Maverick research notes are a great example of out of the box thinking. Gartner is particularly good at approaching topics from a high level, especially when it touches on the intersection of technology and decision maker politics and behaviors.

One great example from last year’s event was Tina Nunno’s session on CIO’s finding their inner Wolf (by learning the lessons of Machiavelli) in order to succeed politically in an organization. It was an excellent example of the political and emotional context of technology decision making. As well as being insightful, it was also very funny, and clearly resonated with the CIOs in attendance.

This year, Gartner’s introducing ‘Espresso’ sessions – quick fire presentations that are deliberately designed to be edgy and provocative. Examples of topics include: ‘Digital Ethics, or How Not to Mess Up With Technology’ and ‘The Next Digital Disruption Will Be the Human Brain: Is Your Organization Ready for Neurobusiness?’ I’m sure they will spur on a good deal of debate among attendees.

  • Intelligent networking – No, I’m not referencing some kind of new IT network delivery system, but Symposium is a great place to network with lots of smart AR folks. The Gartner Analyst Relations Forum is always well worth attending and is a must for anyone who has AR as part of their responsibilities. It provides a great macro update of Gartner’s latest plans, with many AR pros swapping anecdotes and comparing notes over drinks afterwards.

If you have any questions on getting the most out of Symposium, or how to best approach analyst events in general, please do get in touch with me at tclark@blancandotus.com.

How Valuable is the History Lesson? The Value of Experience in PR Part 2

Credit: Andrew Horne
Credit: Andrew Horne

I used to. We did. When we. These are just three of the warning signs that come up when someone is about to explain a campaign or tactic that they did in the past. They are typically followed by details of what worked and guidance on how that could be applied to the current situation.

It would be naïve and arrogant just to dismiss the insights gained, but if the history lesson is more than 5 years old, the chances are it will be past its sell-by date. The technological changes in marketing (and in PR for that matter) have just been so steep. In fact, some experts argue that marketing has changed more in the last 5 years than the last 500.

In the last post, I looked at how these changes have impacted large strategic PR projects like messaging and positioning, but the ripple effect goes much further. As while PR pros could once rely on TV, newspapers, magazines, and maybe some radio to reach their audiences, the reality today is very different.

To simplify the explosion in channels, many marketing and PR organizations added new teams (and some ridiculous new titles) that focus on specific areas. Lots of PR agencies initially did the same, only to find that breaking out social was akin to separating bread and butter. So if this was the wrong approach, what does the ideal structure now look like?

The Harvard Business Review suggests that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, it recommends that marketing leaders ask themselves “What values and goals guide our brand strategy, what capabilities drive marketing excellence, and what structures and ways of working will support them?” I couldn’t agree more and believe the same is true for PR and communications.

What does this mean for how we reach our audiences? It means that looking at individual channels is a blinkered approach. Instead, we need to think holistically and embrace brand journalism. As Larry Light, former global CMO of McDonald’s and the former chief brands officer at InterContinental Hotels Group, said: brand journalism is now a modern marketing imperative and involves creating “a continuing flow of valuable, relevant, integrated and engaging content — advertising, articles, blog posts, social media, live events, videos and social media.” In other words, it’s a blueprint for modern PR.

That’s not to say that we throw everything out. The relationship building skills that have always been central to reaching and engaging audiences are more valuable today than ever before. We just need to move beyond the idea of a simple Rolodex and instead look at how those skills can be complemented by the wealth of data and technology that we now have available.

Having now looked at the relevance of experience to both strategic and tactical PR programs, the next post will go back to the question of whether experience in PR is an asset or anchor.

Authentic Storytelling—Creative Destruction and The Power of Being Real

Credit: Lin Kristensen
Credit: Lin Kristensen

Let me share a secret about myself: I’m a trouble-maker. I like shaking these up. I thrive on change. And I like daring people to do new things.

Over the course of my career, I’ve expended a fair amount of energy fighting this tendency. Sometimes being a trouble-maker is a pain, and it’s not always popular.

But over time, I’ve found that I’m happiest—and most effective in my job—when I am true to my nature and play the role of a disruptor. To be clear, I get no joy from destructive disruption. But I do thrive on creative destruction—challenging old assumptions and switching things up to clear the path for a better way forward. I particularly enjoy helping friends and clients burn away unhelpful patterns so they can discover their own authentic identities.

That’s what exercises like authentic storytelling can help accomplish—clearing away the debris that interferes with your corporate identity. Debris like buzzwords, unsubstantiated superlatives, hype and over-promise, chest-thumping about financial results, jumping on the latest bandwagon, creating yet another insider acronym, or over-rotating on speeds and feeds. In tech storytelling, the process of creative destruction begins with getting rid of all this white noise to make room for messages that are real, compelling and differentiated.

That’s what we at Blanc & Otus love most about our messaging work. A successful narrative brings out the most authentic aspects of what you, your solution and your people are really all about.

It’s striking how often authenticity arises as an issue. Over time many in our profession fall prey to the “say anything” syndrome. This is not to say that folks are dishonest or misleading, but it is often tempting to contort a corporate identity or brand to whatever will sell best to customers, investors or employees. This is particularly an issue at the start-up phase, when product direction and business models are still fairly pliable.

And yet, at some point you just have to decide who you are and what you stand for. After all, brands are meant to mean something. They’re meant to last. We seem to forget that the original use of the word “brand” signified a red-hot piece of metal twisted into a particular shape that seared designs into living flesh. For early humans, branding often took the form of tribal tattoos that held deep spiritual meaning. Brand was a commitment. It said something about who you really are and what you believed. And in some cases, these brands even conveyed special skills and powers—what today we might even call “benefit statements.”

This sort of empowering transformation is also possible in the world of technology branding and messaging. When a company is crystal clear about its purpose and its value, it resonates with people. It helps close deals. It attracts talent. It drives corporate valuation. And when stories are built around the company’s purpose and vision, those stories become powerful, persuasive and pervasive.

Ultimately, this is what I find most exciting about authenticity in marketing and communications: the ability to bring out what’s real and potent in your company. Not only does authentic storytelling help you communicate your brand, your differentiation and your value proposition more convincingly (because it’s actually true), that same authenticity often inspires others in our industry to do the same.

If you’re interested in hearing more about authentic storytelling, register to come hear me speak at LinkedIn TechConnect next Tuesday, September 23. 

Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part VI: “The Power of The Viral Question”

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Thinkstock

We conclude our XTC series on Viral Storytelling with a quick look at how questions, more than sound bites or “key messages,” can generate real audience engagement and create a longtail effect for marketing and communications campaigns.

To review, we define “Chapter 5: The Viral Question” portion of our story as a provocative, open-ended question designed to generate positive word of mouth around the topics that matter most. And this is important as our study of tech decision makers showed that the number one source of positive buzz is a brilliant question that makes people look smart when they answer it. And that same study found that such discussions had an impact on business priorities and budget line items of a company, as well as on individual purchase decisions.

The potential is impressive, but what makes a viral question powerful? For starters, binary questions are useless. Anything that can be answered with a “yes”, “no” or “I don’t care” is a non-starter. A viral question works because it plays into existing pain, ambition, curiosity or pleasure—it works because it taps into a topic that’s already relevant but frames it in a new way that makes it both fun and productive to answer the question.

And there’s no better place for inspiration for fun and productive questions than to examine the endless supply of not fun and not productive questions that abound around a company and its offerings. So, for example:

  • If your sales force is getting peppered with boring and non-strategic questions on price and commoditization issues, flip the script and ask, “Where are progressive companies unlocking hidden value from proven technologies?”
  • If your IR team is dealing with continued questions around unwanted acquisition rumors, look at the question behind the question and ask, “How do we empower partners, and what are the win-win’s we are creating for our industry?”
  • If reporters continue to draw unhelpful comparisons between your company and the wrong set of competitors, ask the question, “What business are those companies really in, and what’s their real revenue agenda?” and use the response to that question to differentiate your company more intelligently.
  • And if your customers are buying your entire story, but you’re still experiencing excessively long sales cycles and they seem to be stuck on not seeing tangible ROI, ask the question, “If the ROI seems fuzzy here, then what’s the cost of doing nothing? What’s the risk of inaction?”

These questions, posed across multiple channels, can help change the course of a conversation, initiate a new direction in the public dialogue around your company and your category, and engage your audience in a more meaningful discussion that benefits them as much as it benefits your own marketing programs. Popularize these questions in private desk-side briefings with the influencers who matter—reporters, analysts, bloggers, academics, regulators and pundits. Pose these questions at the end of speeches, panel discussions and interviews. Tweet them. Test them with LinkedIn groups. And incorporate them into your internal communications programs.

Not only will you generate some positive word of mouth, you might just generate some truly useful insights from people with a completely different perspective. And when we genuinely get curious about the answers to these viral questions, it’s amazing what we can learn and apply … and perhaps even inspire the next five-chapter narrative campaign.

This concludes our Viral Storytelling Series. For more information about Viral Storytelling, including training modules and case studies, please contact me at jreynolds@blancandotus.com.

Sponsored Content and Disclosure: When the Cat Should Leave the Bag

Credit: Mr. TinDC
Credit: Mr. TinDC

One of the major trends we are seeing in the technology industry at large is the rise of sponsored content. We’ve long heard the expression “content is king,” and organizations today are investing more than ever before into their content marketing efforts. The trend can be traced to the inherent value in a company presenting themselves as a provider of valuable information as opposed to an advertiser of their own worth.

To further derive value from content, organizations are commissioning influencers and bloggers to cover their company or product. The reasoning is simple: if a knowledgeable third party source says, “Like Company X,” it is more convincing to a potential customer than Company X saying, “Like us.” Yet, immediately the question of ethics comes to mind. After all, just how ethical is it if a company pays an influential person to sing their praises? Fortune recently discussed this very topic, using results from a survey to highlight customer distrust of sponsored content. John Oliver also raised concerns over this growing trend, also known as “native advertising,” in a recent HBO segment. For me, the answer is simple: like with any form of advertising, be transparent with customers. How? Disclosure.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has guidelines for this very subject. Sure, in a relatively new space, sponsored content might seem like it falls in a grey area compared to traditional advertising. But the days of half-page ads above the fold in Section A of the Sunday paper are long gone. And not disclosing when content is sponsored can lead customers to lose trust in a company, ultimately harming reputation.

So here’s a quick guide to ensuring proper disclosure:

Q: When does disclosure need to occur?
A: Whenever a company provides a third-party content writer some form of compensation. In other words, if money or services are involved, disclose.

Q: What does disclosure entail?
A: There is no specific language that needs to be included. However, general factors to consider include:

  • Proximity: Where in the piece is disclosure occurring? Upfront before the piece begins typically works best.
  • Prominence: Is it easily noticeable? Make it as obvious as possible without ruining the content’s quality, both aesthetically and editorially.
  • Format: What format is it in? Disclose in the same multimedia format as the piece (i.e. radio, video, written, etc).
  • Language: Is it understandable? Don’t use legalese. Use clear language to describe the piece as sponsored content.
  • Social Media: Sharing via a social media platform? Be sure to call out in the social post that the content linked to is sponsored.

In general, the onus is on the company to urge the media to take these steps. Doing so can ensure a great piece of content maintains (or improves) your company’s reputation, maintains a positive relationship with the writer and publisher, and builds customer trust. It may be tempting for a company to try and hide they provided some form of compensation to a publisher, but remember: a customer who knows content is sponsored and takes the time to look at the piece is a more meaningful interaction anyway.