The next BriefingsDirect discussion explores the changing role and impact of content marketing, using the IT industry as a prime example. Just as companies now communicate with their consumers and prospects in much different ways — with higher emphasis on social interactions, user feedback, big data analysis, and even more content to drive conversations — so too the IT industry has abruptly changed.
There’s more movement to cloud models, to mobile applications, to leveraging data at every chance — and they are also facing lower-margin subscription business models. The margin for error is shrinking in the IT industry. If any industry is the poster child for how to deal with rapid change on all fronts, including marketing, it’s surely the global information technology market.
To examine how the IT industry is adjusting to the dynamic nature of marketing, we’re joined by Lora Kratchounova, the Founder and Principal at Scratch Marketing and Media in Cambridge, Mass. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Lora, you and I have been talking about marketing for years now. We’re in an interesting field, and it’s been such a dynamic time. I have some interesting ideas about where technology is going and where marketing is intercepting, and how they are both changing.
So, let’s start at a high level. Content marketing has proven to be very successful, and you and I have had a hand in this. Creating compelling stories, narratives about what’s going on, and how people can learn from peers as they go through problems and solve them, has become a mainstay in marketing. From your perspective, why is content marketing so important? Why has it been so successful?
Kratchounova: There are couple of reasons for that. The pace of change is tremendous now. People are trying to get their bearings on what’s going on in their markets, and a lot of times, they need to get educated. What has changed with social media now, information is a lot more immediate and transparent, and you can get it from many more sources than the just online presence of a company, for example.
The top-down modeling in the marketing is changing. We used to rely on companies to tell us how to think about the world, and now we can form our own opinions. As we realize that the customer is in the driver’s seat, they educate themselves, and they make the right decisions about how to go about change, companies are realizing that they need to feed into that flow and be part of that discussion. So content marketing has been so successful, because you become an educator, not just selling to people, and especially in IT.
Gardner: And I think people have become much more accustomed to conversations, rather than just a one-direction information flow. “We’re the seller and we’re going to tell you what it is.” Now, people want to relate. They want to hear what others have to think. It’s much more of an actual conversation.
Kratchounova: Exactly. Look at any IT domain. It’s interesting when we look at who is influencing and who the main voices in it are, who the voices that people consider experts are. You pretty much consistently see reporters, journalists, and the analysts folks like you, but then we see that there are a lot of C-level executives from IT companies who are becoming that kind of a voice as well.
That just points to the need for that ongoing conversation, the need for sharing at all levels of the buyer funnel. Once people have bought into a selection, they need to make sure of adoption, and they are maximizing the investment.
So the conversation is very important, and the immediacy of having access to folks and having the ability to exchange a few thoughts on Twitter or LinkedIn has changed the dynamic completely. So it’s absolutely about conversations and storytelling, but it’s still mapped to the buyer’s funnel.
People are still educating and still looking at options for a change or for replacement, one or the other, until they select the people they want to work with. And it’s usually people in brands. It’s not just that they want to work with this company, but the people behind it. We’re moving more to a people economy.
Gardner: As you point out, you can get to the real source of the knowledge nowadays. Publishing is available to anybody whether they’re tweeting, blogging, posting on Facebook, or putting something up on their company website. Anybody who has something to say can say it. It can get indexed and it can be made available to anybody who wants to hear about that particular topic.
Most people now don’t just sit back and wait for information to reach them. They’re proactive. They go out, they start to search, they do hashtag searches on Twitter, and they can do Google or Bing on web.
It’s much more of, “I know something; I’m putting it out there.” And there’s another case of someone saying, “I need to know something; I am seeking it.” They come together on their own. The content makes that possible. The better the content, the better the likelihood that those in a need to know and those in a need to tell come together.
Kratchounova: Exactly, but I think you hit on something very important. Everybody can publish, and a lot of people are publishing. Yet, we’re interested in a love for your people, falling in love for your people, and what they have to say.
The ability to publish is great, and it democratizes the means of how we communicate with each other and educate each other, but yet you still have to earn it. This is very important. People who really are influential are usually domain experts and they’re there to help other people. That’s the other aspect of it that both companies and their marketing teams and their executives need to think about. You have to actively participate and show your expertise, it doesn’t come for granted.
Important of curation
Gardner: And there’s another aspect to greasing the skids between the knowledge and the acquirer of the knowledge, and that is content curation. There are people who point at things, give it credence, and say that it’s a good thing, you should read it; or that’s a bad thing, don’t waste your time — and that helps refine this.
Kratchounova: It’s pretty exciting.
Gardner: There are machines doing the same thing. There are algorithms, there’s indexing, there’s both human and machine aspects of winnowing down the good stuff and providing it to people in a need to know, and that’s when we are going to get more powerful.
Kratchounova: Great. I’m sure you know about Narrative Science. I’ve had a professional crush on this company for few years now. They take data, turn it into storytelling, and they think this is phenomenal. Obviously, that’s not going to replace some of the human storytelling that needs to happen, but some of the data storytelling will come from technology. This is one particular application where marketing and technology come together to bring something completely new into life.
Gardner: So we can get knowledge through expertise or we can get knowledge through experience, someone who has gone through it already and is willing to share that with you. If you’re acquiring IT, it’s super important to avail yourself of everything, because it changes so rapidly and the costs are high.
If you make a big mistake in how you’re designing a data center, you’re out millions of dollars, your products don’t work, and your front office are going to come screaming down on you. You have to make the big decisions and you have to make them correctly in IT. It’s not just a service to the business; it is the business.
So, let’s think about the IT industry in particular, and then think about how content marketing as we’ve discussed is powerful. How do IT people acquire content marketing? Do they get it through websites, emails, or tweets? Is it delivered to them at a webinar that they opt into? How does content marketing reach somebody who’s an IT buyer?
Kratchounova: IT depends on the IT buyer, because we can’t necessarily lump them together and ask how the IT buyer goes about it. There are people with different needs, and it depends on their role. If you’re CIO or CTO, there is a different mix of channels and sources you use. If you’re on the dev or on the ops side and looking for specific solutions, you’re going into completely different channels.
For example, if you’re a DevOps professional, you’re maybe on Stack Overflow and you might be seeking advice from other folks. You might be on GitHub and sharing open-source code and getting feedback on that.
If you’re a CIO or CTO, what we have found working with number of different companies, be that global companies or maybe companies that are growing, is that they do seek their peers to validate what the peers are going through. One of the best things that companies can do, when they try to talk to the C-level, is expose some of those connections that they already have from their customers. Make sure that the customers are part of the discussion, and they can chime in.
Another important source of information for the C level in IT would be folks like you, analysts, and strategic system integrators like Accenture and Deloitte, because these folks are exposed to the kinds of challenges that a CIO or CTO would go through. So they have a lot to bring to the table in terms of risk mitigation, optimal deployment, and maximization of the investment in IT. Making those connections and sharing those experiences we have seen work really, really well.
Let me just throw this in as well. The other thing we have seen is that the C level is still going on Google. They’re still doing the searches. We have compelling data, across the board, that in any B2B complex enterprise environment folks are self-educating as well. So it’s not a question of either/or; it’s what’s the right mix for each company depending on channels, depending on where people sit.
Spectrum of content
Gardner: So there is a spectrum of content, some highly technical and defined, on places like GitHub that are germane to a technologist. Then, there is that spectrum up from there to a higher level toward peer review of products and peer review of solutions. Then, there are more business topics about what is strategic, what’s the forward direction, how do I understand at an architectural-level decision processes, and where can I go for more information to find out what’s coming down the pike and then put it in place.
Kratchounova: Think about Spiceworks. They’re probably at five million IT professionals at this point, and the community is there for a reason. So again, with each particular, there isn’t one size fits all. One thing that we always recommend to folks is that if you’re looking to develop an influential strategy and approach IT, it really depends on what domains you span.
You find that even if you’re doing mobile application development, the folks who were really influential and set the standards of that stage are somewhat different from the folks who are concerned with security in mobile app development. So there isn’t necessarily one pool of influencers that you need to go then to develop a relationship and understand what’s in their mind. It really depends on your domain.
Gardner: So if you’re a marketer and you recognize that quality content is super important, you need to have a spectrum of content. It needs to be some content that would be germane to a technologist that’s highly detailed, a how-to type. You need to have peer review and stories, case studies, testimonial type content where the customer is telling what they’ve done, why it benefited them, and what you can learn from that.
You also need to have higher-level discussions with experts to help people chart the next course, the strategic level. So content needs to come across a spectrum, and we recognize that the way in which people get that content might be through search. It might be through web, e-mail, webinars, webcasts, reading certain online sites, listening to certain Twitter feeds or groups, or having a select group of people that you follow. All of that happens.
But what’s interesting to me, Lora, is that all has to do with the web. But what we’re seeing in IT is a rapid movement toward mobile apps, rather than just the web. And in many cases, they’re starting to overtake the web as to where people spend their time. I’m sure you’re using a smartphone and you have mobile apps. You’re not going on the web to find a cab; you’re going to the Uber app to find a cab.
If you’re looking for a restaurant review, you’re not necessarily going on the web and doing a search. You’re going into a specific app on Yelp, OpenTable, or somewhere else to find out where your restaurants are and you’re going into Google Maps to find out how to get there.
So more-and-more, we’re seeing, on the consumer side, people using mobile apps for more of their processes, for their inquiry, for their actual productivity. Then, on the enterprise side, the business-to-employee (B2E) side, we’re seeing people using cloud services.
We’re moving more toward mobile applications, cloud services, an API-driven world that leverages big data and analytics in order to put context into process. It’s all about user experiences, and mobile delivers the best. How then does content continue to reach people? Do we lose the ability to deliver content when they are in apps?
Kratchounova: I have a different perspective on what you’re describing. I don’t know that we are moving to a mobile app experience necessarily. When we think about the apps and the examples you gave — Yelp or Uber — yes, they’re best-of-breed applications that we use because these are the most frequently used applications.
But what you’re seeing is actually a digital transformation. Digital no longer means the web, as we know it, going online through your computer. You’re actually navigating on a mobile device. So it’s this digital transformation that’s happening, and the trend that we’re seeing is aggregation.
It’s not about one individual app, but it’s more about what is the Flipboard within the enterprise. You’re seeing that sort of aggregation bubbling up to the top because information overload is a huge problem. People can’t prioritize anymore. They can’t toggle among those different applications and companies.
For example, one of our clients, not to necessarily add a plug for them, actually is very germane to the discussion. Harmon.ie does exactly that.
In those kinds of environments, what we’re finding and where I totally agree with you, is the ability to read and understand context, so that you can support the user, be that an employee with internal work experience, or external customers, to support them to get the job done.
The role of content is actually merging with big data, because big data is helping us to understand context and say, “What do we serve this person here?” On the marketing side, and the lingo side it’s more about ongoing customer journeys. Think about the same thing on the employee side, ongoing employee journeys or partner journeys.
Once you understand, then you understand what a partner is trying to do. Why are they are here, what’s the context, what’s the most logical next step or the optimal next step? Now, content becomes both an ability for people to find something, but also for marketers or product development folks. I think those functions are emerging as well to deliver the right content in the right format so that the user can get the job done. That’s my perspective on that.
Gardner: There’s no disagreement from me on this issue of context to process, context to location, context to need for knowledge all being much more granular and powerful going forward. What I am concerned about is that, when I talk to developers, the vast majority of them are much more interested in a mobile-first, cloud-first world.
They’re not much interested in building what we used to think of as big honking applications in the enterprise. They’re much more interested in how to bring services — and microservices — together in context to provide a better productive outcome and how to leverage low-cost services in APIs and from any cloud.
So, to me, it becomes, on one hand, all the more important to have the ability to deliver content contextually into these processes, but at the same time these processes are becoming fragmented. They’re going across hybrid-cloud environments, they include both what we call cloud and SaaS, and I’m not sure where the marketer now can get enough inference to support the injection of content appropriately.
The ways that it’s been done now is usually through the web where we have links, and we have code, and we can do cookies. It’s sort of like, it’s Web 1.0 mechanisms by which marketers are injecting content, but we are moving not only pass Web 2.0, we’re into Web 3.0 cloud platform. To me this is a big question mark.
Kratchounova: It is a question mark. I don’t know that there is going to be one mode of delivering what we’re talking about or one approach or one framework. I’ll give you one example. Look at how web content management has changed. It used to be about managing pages and updating content. Now, web content management is becoming the Marketing Command Center, if you look at a web content management system like Sitefinity, for example.
Now, marketers can deal with the customer through his own mobile and on the web, so they can inject the content that needs to happen there. The reason they can do this now is because there is this ability, the analytics that come from all of these customer interactions of you, actually creating cohorts of people as they’re going through your web experience or online experience. You know why they’re there and what’s the optimal path for them to get where they need to be.
So, you’re seeing this ability to distribute content to post content to people, but in a much more contextual way. So, there is going to be a pull and push, but the push is getting a lot smarter and very contextual.
Gardner: So it’s incumbent upon us who are examining this marketing evolution in the context of the IT industry to create that spectrum of content to make it valuable, to make it appropriate and not too commercial or crass, but useful. And at the same time now, think about how to get this in front of right people at the right time.
It seems to me that if I’m an IT company, and more and more of my services, whether it’s a B2B, B2C, B2E, or all of the above, I need to be thinking about ways that I’m going to communicate with my existing universe or market and move them toward new products and services as they need them in context of their process.
Think about this in a B2C environment in retail, where I am walking through Wal-Mart. I have my smartphone and, as I turn the corner, they know that now I am interested in home goods, and they are going to start to incentivize me to buy something. That’s kind of an understood mechanism by which my location and the fact that I turned a corner and made a decision provides an inference that then they can react to with content or information.
But take that now to the B2B environment where I’m in a business setting. I’m in procurement, I’m in product development, or I’m looking for a supply chain efficiency. I want to move into a new geographic location and I need to find the means to do that. All of those things are also like turning a corner in a Wal-Mart, except you’re in a business application using cloud services, using a mobile device and apps.
If I’m an IT vendor, I’m going to want to have content or information that I can bring to that situation, perhaps even through an example of what other people have done when they face that same process crossroads. So the content can be more important and more germane. These are multi-million-dollar decisions in some cases.
Don’t you think that big companies should be starting to make content with the idea that it’s going to become part of their application services, part of their cloud delivery services, and that they need to use big data and analytics to know when to inject it?
Kratchounova: I absolutely agree. I think that difference between the example you just gave for Wal-Mart and a B2B environment is that, in Wal-Mart, you don’t need to understand so much about who the person is, what their role is, whether they work at an accounting firm or whether they are a physician, for example.
In a B2B environment you do need to understand context, and context is the location or the point where they are in their journey, whatever that journey maybe, and their role as well, because different people do have different decisions to make.
It’s a little bit more complex to bring context in a B2B environment, but it’s absolutely essential. You used the word inference. We always get enamored by the concept of the big data and guess what, once the machines are there, they’re going to analyze everything and it’s going to be this perfect world of marketing where everyone is aligned.
Just look at the history of marketing. We don’t know ourselves as people. We individually don’t know ourselves as well, let alone someone else getting to know us that well. Inference is very important, but it’s going to be a balance between inferring what the person needs and allowing the person to customize this experience as well. So it’s going to come both ways.
Some people going to one extreme or the other. Some people still believe that it’s a relationship-based world and, therefore, there’s no need for a digital experience for their customers or for their potential buyers, which is actually never the case. Other people believe that it’s all digital; therefore they don’t need to touch them in any other way, which is rarely the case, especially in IT.
Gardner: I also suggest to you that the data is more readily available, because I, as an employer, as a corporation, control what’s going on. I know what that employee is doing. I know what apps they’re using. I know what data they’re seeking.
They’re going to provide a feed of data back to you about what’s going on, on those apps from your very own employees.
What I’m suggesting then, as we begin to think about closing out this fascinating conversation, is that you need to have content, stories, and customers lined up, so that you can uncover their path to truth, their path to value, and have that content context-ready. Not only you are going to be using it in webinars, webcasts, podcasts, blogs, but pretty soon, if my hypothesis is correct, you’re going to be using that content in the context of process and inside of applications in cloud services and on mobile devices.
Way of the future
Kratchounova: Maybe this is an opportunity, because it is the way of the future, and some people are more mature and others are less mature, but maybe we can bring other people into the discussion and see what other folks in the field think about where the content is going, how to contextualize and how to deliver it. One of the biggest question is how do we scale this. You can still do a meaningful experience or create a meaningful experience one-on-one, but it’s hard to recreate that even if your customers are 200, 500, or even 5,000 within the IT space.
Gardner: You also have to remember that people’s connections to apps, cloud services and context-aware processes are only going to increase. The Internet of Things and new classes of devices like the Apple Watch are expanding the end points and ways to connect to them. One of the things that’s important with the Apple Watch functionally is that it’s very good at alerts and notifications. It can also detect a lot of context of what you’re doing physically and your location, and it can relate, because it integrates to your phone, with what you’re doing with applications and cloud services.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if you’re wearing an Apple Watch or equivalent, you’re in a business setting, and you come up against a problem that you might not even know yet, but all of these services working together are going to say, “That person is going to be facing a problem; they are going to need to make a decision. Let’s put some information, content, and use cases together for them that will help them as they face that situation to make a better decision.” That’s the kind of role I think we’re heading toward.
Before we sign off, Lora, tell me more about Scratch Marketing and Media, what you do and why that’s related to this discussion we have had today.
Kratchounova: Scratch Marketing and Media is an integrated marketing agency. We help B2B technology companies with market growth. Sometimes that means helping the sales folks within IT companies and sometimes it means working with the marketing folks on things like content marketing programs, PR, and all its relations, and influence their relations in social media.
Gardner: And how could they find out more information about Scratch Marketing Media?
Kratchounova: You can go online at www.scratchmm.com.
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