Wait! What? 3/30: HBO woos tech, Facebook woos media, Comcast … yeah.

gifSometimes Monday morning rolls around and you think, “Wait, I did not read enough news about corporations last week.” So, here you go:

  • HBO treated the SF tech scene to a star-studded Game of Thrones season premiere party. Was it a PR stunt? Yes.
  • In response to a request for comment, a YouTube spokesperson simply sent back an animated GIF to the reporter. It’s inspiring, really.
  • Very Official News: Facebook is in talks with several media companies, The New York Times and BuzzFeed included, to host articles directly on its website. But will the deal ultimately help or hurt media brands? It doesn’t matter. They must obey.
  • Apple is developing smart packaging that allows customers to set up devices before they’re unboxed. Because, like, why would I take my iPad out of the box?
  • Remember that time Comcast customer service was the worst? To avoid future PR nightmares, the rarely beloved cable company just tripled its social media staff. I personally won’t follow up on this development – just ping me if anything hilarious happens.

I’m sorry that four out of those five bullets contain rhetorical questions; the advent of GIFs and listicles has destroyed my ability to form original sentences. Catch us again at our usual time this Friday for another tech-filled #WaitWhat!

XTC 6/16: Viva le Differentiation! Giving Superlatives a Rest in the Quest to Differentiate

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Biggest, best, fastest, first, only … when it comes to making brands stand out, nowhere else in the world at any point in history have superlatives ever been more overused than in the technology sector.

Okay, maybe that’s over-stating it, but that’s my point—in an attempt to get our message out over all the white noise, we stretch superlatives past the point of meaning anything. Whether you’re in a maturing space with massive consolidation and commoditization of technologies, or whether you’re in a hot new space flooded with startups, there are so many different companies clamoring for attention that virtually every PR practitioner has their own formula for smart messaging. But what some companies lack in rhetorical finesse they try to compensate for with brute force of verbiage. It’s the “Spinal Tap” approach to differentiation, where the volume on your value proposition “goes to eleven!”

Even worse, most of the superlatives we fall back on in tech PR are utterly subjective. Words like “best” only mean something in context—best for whom, and under what conditions? Words like “first” only mean something today if you can prove up the competitive barriers to entry. And words like “only” can work against you as easily as they work for you. If you’re the “only” vendor to take a certain technology approach or play in a certain category, it could be a warning sign that you’re on the path to obsolescence, not innovation.

With that in mind, here are alternatives to articulate differentiation:

Differentiate by customer. Not all solutions were meant for all customers. Sit down with your business development, product marketing and analyst relations teams and challenge yourselves to answer the following question: who should not buy our stuff? Which part of the market would be best served going to a competitor, and under what conditions? Differentiate yourselves based on a surgically selective sweet spot in the market—preferably one with money and purchasing power.

Differentiate by problem. A corollary of differentiating by customer is differentiating by problem. What is unique about how you define the customer challenge? In the David Maister “Trusted Advisor” model, the way to make the leap from being just another vendor to being a strategic partner is to help your customer see their challenge in a new way. Help them redefine their problem in a way others don’t. This differentiation also helps you pull ahead of competitors in thought leadership.

Differentiate by revenue agenda. You can also differentiate yourself at a corporate level by demonstrating unique differences between your revenue agenda and that of your competitors. What legacy approach are they defending? How can you call out any discrepancies in how they make money and what’s in the best interest of customers? Are there any disconnects between the promises your competitors make to shareholders and customers? And where is your own business model best aligned with your customers’ needs? Differentiating by revenue agenda is a powerful technique, as it leaves no room for your competition to mimic you.

Differentiate with storytelling. Brand differentiation is an established science. A more emerging technique is to differentiate based on your ability to engage in viral storytelling. That is, outmaneuver your competition with a narrative around your company that is true, compelling, succinct, competitive and eminently shareable. The most important technique to embrace here is the art of the “viral question”—a provocative, open-ended question that genuinely solicits fresh thinking from your audience around how they ought to be defining their challenge and what market myths ought to be challenged.

What differentiation techniques do you find most compelling? Share with us @BlancandOtus.

Reversing the Bastardization of Leadership in Tech PR

Credit: Lee Scott
Credit: Lee Scott

One of the most overused clichés in all of tech marketing is around leadership. All too often, companies claim to be “the leading provider of” their category or “a leader in” the latest trend without giving much thought to what that leadership actually means or why their audience ought to care.

The prevalence of “leader” as a buzzword has an unfortunate side effect: the bastardization of leadership as a concept. Market leadership, thought leadership, and technology leadership need to mean something in order for the tech sector to thrive. The dilution of their meaning ultimately hinders growth and perpetuates a view of PR as less strategic, less valuable and less honest than it really is.

What’s worse, we’re turning “leader” into a self-appointed accolade that runs counter to everything leadership is supposed to mean. Real leaders derive their strength and influence from being in service of something greater than themselves. When a company loses sight of what leadership is really about, they begin the journey into obsolescence.

With that in mind, XTC is going to examine these various aspects of leadership in tech PR and suggest ideas for bringing meaning and impact back into the leadership discussion. Up first: market leadership.

It’s easy enough for a company to claim leadership in any given space. What’s not so easy is to quantify and validate leadership using evidence your audience will value without a lot of extra explanation. That’s why things like Gartner Magic Quadrants and Forrester Waves work—the criteria for leadership are grounded in customer wants and needs and published transparently. With that in mind, here are a few options for quantifying the terms of market leadership:

  • Revenue. Most who can use this option, do. But being biggest or richest doesn’t always mean being best. The story needs to be about what revenue leadership lets companies do for their customers, not just what their customers’ money has done for them.
  • Customers. Having the most customers overall, the highest caliber of customers, or even a high success rate with a particular kind of customer is useful validation. But again, what matters more is why those customers chose the vendor and solution they did. Context matters.
  • Vision. Current market leaders who can claim the most revenue and customers right now are not necessarily the horses to bet on going forward. Gartner predicts that by 2017, 20% of today’s market leaders will be displaced by companies founded after the year 2000. So vision is a critical component of market leadership. But it doesn’t help to simply call yourself visionary. It requires external validation, leading us to…
  • Third-party Validation. Winning awards and scoring a positive ranking in an analyst report has huge impact on sales and reputation. But to turn ratings into revenues, companies must be ready to explain how the criteria and assumptions behind the accolades apply to customers’ specific needs. What’s more, you need more than product endorsement. You need validation of vision and strategic direction to create sustainable momentum.

Next week we deconstruct thought leadership, and how to save it from the buzzword graveyard.

XTC—Examining the Change: Customers Are the New Influencers

L-R: Myself, Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li, and LinkedIn’s Mike Weir take a break before rocking a customer Q&A.
L-R: Myself, Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li, and LinkedIn’s Mike Weir take a break before rocking a customer Q&A.

Continuing in our 2014 Tech Marketers Playbook series, this week we look at treating customers as influencers.

It’s no secret word of mouth among customers influences consumer and B2B tech sales. A Fall 2012 survey of 813 B2B tech purchase decision-makers revealed that word of mouth from peers is the top driver of vendor short lists and deal closure. Industry analysts came in only a few points higher for influence. And the impact of word of mouth has only grown with the expansion of mobile and social platforms.

But what does this mean for tech PR? Where’s the customer influence playbook?

Fortunately, there’s a model from which we can borrow for how to activate customers as influencers: analyst relations. Here are five essential AR techniques that work just as well to turn customers into sales drivers:

  1. Ask viral questions. Our Fall 2012 study, revealed what motivates customers to contribute opinions online. The top answer—pose a thought-provoking question around a timely topic. The number two answer—focus on an interesting challenge they’re facing. Help your customers look smart by inviting them to answer provocative, open-ended questions, much as you would with analysts.
  2. Lean into criticism. When an analyst critiques a tech vendor, it’s a sign of affection (sort of). The analyst is trying to help the vendor by illuminating a blind spot and finding something to improve. Customer complaints hold the same potential. Tech companies who engage customer complaints with an earnest attempt to understand them—and act on them—often end up with a strong advocate in their corner.
  3. Ask for comparisons. Like analysts, customers have a broader field of vision than vendors. Even the most thorough competitive intelligence program can’t kick the tires on competitive offerings like customers can—and customers know exactly what they’re looking for. There are even online platforms to help them. Ask customers to tell you how you stack up, capture their feedback, and find ways to reward them for their critique.
  4. Keep them updated.  Nothing irks an analyst more than being caught off guard by a vendor announcing they’ve upgraded, discontinued or launched an offering. It makes them feel left out. The same is true of customers. If you value the relationship, make sure you’re giving them not only information about changes in your solutions portfolio, but rationales, as well. And then ask them those viral questions around how they will take advantage of the improvements.
  5. Get them talking with each other.  Once you’ve got a few customer champions in your corner, turn them into social media rock stars the same way you would showcase that special analyst who “just gets you.” Feature them in webinars. Promote them in trade press. Support them on LinkedIn. Invite them to your advisory board. Perhaps even invite them to host an opinion column on your own web site. Chances are you’ll not only cement the relationship, you’ll also learn something valuable along the way.

Up next week in XTC: changing your relationship with risk.