Marie Rourke, originally published for Smarter MSP
Yes, marketing is a pain point for most MSPs. But it doesn’t have to be. If you take the time to assess what you really need to get done, doing it will become that much easier.
The fact is, no one knows your customers and business value better than you do. Sure, an experienced marketing communications pro will help you better articulate your answers and nail your pitch. And if for whatever reason you don’t think you’ve got the right answers, ask your customers this simple question: “Why do you do business with us?”
Get Your Online House in OrderAs you plan for growth in 2016 and beyond, one of the first steps you need to take — outside of developing a relevant, believable, and defendable brand promise — is to make certain your website is worthy. So many partners spend pant-loads of cash on driving customers and prospects to a website that sucks. Not good.
Make an investment and spend your time and your dollars to build a website that works for you, not against you. If you want to attract successful SMBs or Fortune 500 companies, your
Assess What You Want and What You NeedTake a close look at your business and assess where you are today in your MSP marketing efforts. For some that may be the easiest thing you do all day. For others, it may take a little herding to see what is really being done throughout the organization — some of which may surprise you.
For example, when there’s no sign of life around a company’s marketing efforts, associates will often take it upon themselves to market the company. If you’re lucky this effort will uncover a few unsung marketers among your staff with great ideas, or it might point out some rogue cowboys that are doing more harm than good. Either way, an assessment must be made so you aren’t building blindly.
Once you know what you have, think about what you need and, ultimately, what you want. One way to streamline that list is to answer these questions:
It’s OK to Start Small and Keep It SimpleIf you’re new to proactively marketing your business, it’s absolutely OK to stick to the basics. Focus on getting your message right and sharing that message with your team, your partners, your prospects, and your customers. Work on your brand image — the website, the email signatures, the marketing collateral, the T-shirts. And don’t forget to spread the good work about all the great work you do with your associates, partners, press, social media, and of course with your existing customers and targeted lists of prospects.
Keep this in mind: Your marketing efforts don’t have to be massive to be effective. Even the funniest million-dollar Super Bowl ads are just that … funny. Not many people remember what company, product, or service they were promoting, and if they do, it still might not evoke the right call to action.
Be deliberate, consistent, genuine, and professional with your brand and complementary marketing efforts, and the businesses you serve — and are targeting — will take notice.
As an IT service provider, building and communicating your brand effectively should be a top priority every day. It’s not a one-and-done effort. Branding is an integrated and ongoing part of doing business that every IT service provider needs to own.
Many IT service providers and MSPs use press releases to promote their brand and communicate the latest and greatest happenings and viewpoints at their organization. This is a great communication practice that certainly helps drive SEO and, more importantly, builds the company’s brand and credibility.
The challenge, though, is that many channel partners aren’t sure what’s actually press-release worthy, so they simply don’t engage or do so infrequently. Others over-communicate, taking a blanketed approach and promoting anything and everything with a press release.
No matter where you fall on that spectrum, here are some pointers to help you course correct in 2016:
1. Ensure your website is worthyYour press release will drive eyeballs to your website. Does it look professional? Are you clearly communicating how you help businesses use technology to reach their goals? Is there a clear call to action? Are your customer testimonials, industry accolades, and social media sites easy to reference? You don’t want to lose the momentum you gained from a press release simply because people found your website confusing or unprofessional.
2. Determine what is and isn’t press-release worthy Ask this easy qualifying question: Will the “news” matter to people outside of your company? If the answer is “Yes,” ask why and be sure to clearly communicate that when you write the press release. If the answer is “No,” ask why. If you can adjust the message and make it relevant, great! If you can’t, maybe it’s best as an internal announcement or a blog post instead.
Here’s a quick example of what I mean. You’ve just earned a new, advanced networking or security certification. The certification alone checks an important box for your company no doubt, but the news is you are able to “Help SMBs Save Time and Money in 2016” or “Keep SMBs Secure from CryptoWall.” The point is you need to make the news valuable to your reader and the industry you serve.
3. Don’t rely solely on press releasesWith so many communications vehicles to choose from (blogs, social media, direct mail, email, etc.), a press release and pay-for-play newswire should be reserved for your “bigger, better, and broader” news announcements, and you should limit it to one or two press releases per month (some exceptions will apply).
So, what’s newsworthy? A new service. A new specialization. A company milestone. A strategic win or award. Again, always keep in mind what the news means for the reader — the customer, the partner, the prospect, influencers, and press.
But you shouldn’t ignore the other communications tools out there. Use blogs, social media, etc. to connect with both current and potential customers on other topics as well.
Another option to considerPress releases are also a great way to communicate and reinforce a company’s point of view on a popular or particular topic. You can use press releases to share your business value and thought leadership, as well as celebrate end-of-year successes and New Year goals.
For example, if you’re speaking on a panel or headlining an industry event, promote your point of view and the call to action for customers: “XYZ CEO Outlines Top Cybersecurity Threats Impacting SMBs.” Remember, it’s less about the event and more about the takeaways you think people need to know about, whether they attended the event or not.
There is always more to discuss around the topic of PR. If you have a question, please ask. In the meantime, have a Happy New Year!
In an interview, presentation, or meeting, what you don’t say has significant impact on how your message is received and remembered. In fact, it’s often as important as what you do say. As an executive communications coach, I constantly remind our clients to avoid using words that distract, diminish, and derail the point they’re making.
A few examples include the words but, actually, and honestly, as well as the phrases “We’re trying,” “We believe,” “To be honest,” and “What I can tell you is this ….”
These words and phrases are bad for business and often leave the reporter, the audience, your peers, and your customers to question the truth, relevance, and value of your statements. They also look horrible as attributed quotes in magazines and online.
For example, look at how these statements compare:
We’re trying to help our customers take advantage of the cloud.
We are helping our customers take advantage of the cloud.
Actually, our customers are our top priority.
Our customers are our top priority.
To be honest, it’s business as usual, and we’re having a great year.
It’s business as usual, and we’re having a great year.
I understand your business, but I’d like to know more about the challenges you face with customer service.
I understand your business and would like to know more about the challenges you face with customer service.
Words undermining your credibilityAnother gotcha for MSPs to avoid in casual or corporate conversation is the simple word “so.” In 2014, one of the most widely read leadership articles in Fast Company was How a Popular Two-Letter Word Is Undermining Your Credibility. The article focused on how beginning a sentence with the little word “so” triggers your audience to note that what you’re about to say is different than what you’ve been talking about up until this point and very well may be rehearsed, a tad insulting, and not totally accurate.
The same holds true for “What I can tell you is this ….” Imagine saying that to your partner?! #FAIL It’s certainly not good for business, and it’s even worse for your personal life.
The takeaway: Be mindful of your words and the impact they have on the people you’re engaging. What you don’t say often matters just as much as what you do say and how you say it.
Two areas of business quickly differentiate great channel partners from the rest — Customer Service and Brand Recognition. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once said: “In the old world, you devoted 30 percent of your time to building a great service and 70 percent of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts.” This statement is true for most companies, but it doesn’t represent the reality VARs and MSPs are facing.
Great channel partners have always focused on delivering exceptional service. It’s part of their DNA and core differentiation. Yet, for many, building the company’s brand — much less shouting about it — has never been a priority, until recently.
A new frontier
In response to new technologies, tools, trends, and increased competition, more and more VARs and MSPs are investing in building their own brand while enhancing their service levels. For many, the marketing frontier marks a more business-minded era for the company and the start of an exit strategy — Brand it and build it so others will want to buy it. For others, it is about re-energizing the existing brand and growing the business organically or through acquisition. Either way, growth is a common denominator, as is increased market awareness of their value and specialization.
As a channel PR and marketing guide, it’s rewarding to see the days where channel partners relied on the vendor brand go dark and be replaced with differentiated brand promises that stick. There’s no question the channel has evolved. Business needs are different, and the conversation has changed. IT is a critical part of business strategy and the solution to many of today’s toughest challenges. And the best news is no one is better positioned to capitalize on that than a service-minded, specialized channel partner with a killer brand and the right relationships to make it all happen.
Time to take action
If you’re a VAR or MSP sitting on the fence about whether or not to invest in marketing and refresh or rebrand your company, stop contemplating. Your time is now. Your value is building in the eyes of decision makers and business owners, and your expertise is in high demand.
If you’re looking for some pointers on how to get started, check out this post from Agency Ingram Micro VP of Marketing Jennifer Anaya. We presented at CompTIA recently on the topic of branding on a budget. The takeaway was this: Be true to what you deliver, be proud of who you are, and learn how to use the mediums available to you to generate awareness, thought leadership, and demand.
Your brand is your promise. It defines and differentiates you. As Bezos famously said, it’s “what others say when you’re not in the room.” So be authentic. Be bold. And be consistent. Take your legacy of customer service and specialization and shout about it to an audience that wants to hear you in a voice they can relate to and a medium that makes sense. Your service excellence and sincerity is what the new world wants and what the old world misses. Turn up the volume on your value and keep investing in your service-oriented culture.
If your business is evolving, your brand should be evolving faster. If you haven’t touched your brand in the last five to 10 years, it’s time. Stop what you are doing and look around. Do you have a brand that sticks or stinks?
If you are not sure, ask and answer these questions:
Remember this: Your brand is a promise. One of my colleagues Jennifer Anaya, VP of marketing at Ingram Micro, said it best at CompTIA’s 2015 ChannelCon event: “Your brand is something you live every day. It needs to be defendable. And, it needs to articulate the experience a customer would have when they engage with your company.” It’s what defines and differentiates you, and it’s what places you in a blue ocean of opportunity.
How do you rebrand your IT Service Business? Identify your purpose.For IT service providers looking to define their brand’s purpose, it’s helpful to ask these questions: What makes you different than your peers? Why do your customers do business with you? What value do you provide and how is it better than what others bring to the table? Why are you in business? What is all this for anyway?
I know it may sound superficial, but these questions need to be answered by you, your team, your partners and your customers. If you want to be formal about it, it’s called a brand audit.Typically these are done by a third party where all the answers are anonymous, then aggregated and presented back to you with a suggested brand promise. It takes some time (weeks, not months), but again—well worth it because the answers you will find are unlikely to be what you expected. And that’s awesome!
This unexpected, validated insight is what you need to get started on a great brand refresh. Sure, you will need to bring in the talent to brainstorm, design, and execute the brand, but discovering the “why” is critically important to finding and articulating your purpose.
Reports show that people want, and in many cases expect, businesses (like yours) to have a social media presence. When you don’t, it begs the question why not? If your social status is slim to none, it probably won’t make or break a deal, but it certainly will prevent you from getting to know more about your customers, partners, and prospects—and vice versa.
Think of social media as an opportunity playground for hunters and gatherers, as well marketers. Your rainmakers can learn so much by simply listening to what’s happening online and taking the time to review a company’s or decision-maker’s social media outlets such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What are they looking for? An “in.”
How to use social media to improve sales conversations
Smart IT sales and marketing folks use social media to learn, educate, and engage in a friendly, no-pressure environment. It’s an easy way to establish a point of connection by identifying a challenge that you can help solve or uncovering an opportunity you didn’t see coming but know how to take advantage of. It’s also a great way to simply support your customers and partners and forge new relationships.
Businesses and decision-makers share an enormous amount of information on their social media outlets — more than they ever would on a cold call or even over a working lunch. And in many instances, the information shared is telling of the company’s goal and initiatives, as well as current events and happenings, market views, business challenges, and other topics of interest.
MSPs take great pride in understanding their customers’ business models, the industries they work in, and the people they work with and for. It’s a relationship business for most, but for many the social side of sales and marketing remains focused on face time and phone time. Take the time to get online and learn more about your customers’, partners’, and prospects’ social brands. The ante is cheap, and the payout could be more than you ever expected.
If you or your business are not “socializing” online and want to know where to start, check out this recent blog post from Solarwinds N-able. Social media is simple and strategic when used correctly. It’s also very cost-effective, timely and serves to benefit both sales and marketing!
Businesses (aka your customers) are becoming increasingly involved in social media. On average, businesses using social media spend nearly 2.5 hours a day on the varying platforms. And, studies show that more than 90 percent of businesses have some sort of social media presence, even if it’s not a well-managed one. Further tipping the scales in favor of social is this: Today, 76 percent of marketers surveyed by Social Media Examiner said social media is actually helping their companies close deals.
If you and your company are not “being social,” chances are your competitors are, and they’re loving every minute you opt not to play. Social media is a growing part of any successful, integrated marketing and sales strategy, and it should be (or should become ASAP) a high priority in your professional world. If you’re not sure where to start, ask someone on your staff who is part of Gen X or Gen Y. You might have a resident expert in your midst already!
As for what to do, in a previous social media-focused blog I offered six tactical tips for getting started in social media. In this follow-up message, I want to share three best practices for optimizing your likes, comments, follows, retweets, views, and shares.
Develop a social media culture at your company
One of the key prerequisites for social media success is authenticity. Your audience needs to believe that your message aligns with who you really are. One of the biggest social media pitfalls is sending your target audience mixed messages. This happens when a company’s “official message,” often conveyed through the CEO’s or business owner’s blogs, tweets, and other social media, differs from the messages from salespeople, management, and technicians.
To do social media right, there needs to be a commitment throughout the company to create and promote a consistent message. Everyone within the organization should be aware of the results, too. What’s working? What isn’t? Who should we follow? Where should we engage?
Listen and learn
An effective salesperson takes time to listen and learn about a customer’s business challenges before proposing a solution. The same is true for social. Spend more time listening and learning what makes people tick and what successful social businesses are talking about.
Your messages should address topics customers and partners care about. Don’t just promote your company again and again. The rule of thumb is 80/20. Use only 20 percent of your social activity to promote your brand and the remaining 80 percent to focus on topics and trends that really interest your audience and engage them in a conversation.
Social media is a great place to see in real time what’s top of mind. It’s also a great “in” to learn more about your prospects, customers, and partners. If nothing else, take the time to look around and see what you’re missing.
Avoid social media infamy
Use social media to communicate, advocate, and advance the industry. Every once in a while, a good rant goes a long way, but what you post matters and people will see it forever. So, why not use it to communicate the better and not the worse.
Social media is a great equalizer and gives voices to companies and individuals who might not have the spend to be seen and heard elsewhere. Stay positive, relevant, and real. Your associates, customers, partners, and prospects will take notice. And so could the press.
What is your purpose? This is the single most important question every business must answer in order to effectively market and differentiate in today’s experience-driven marketplace. Forget everything else—vision, mission, values, brand pillars, operating principles, strategies, priorities. Get to the guts of what you do and why you do it by answering three simple questions:
A simple approach to branding
“Define your purpose. Learn how to promote it. Execute against it, and growth will follow.” That was the message we heard loud and clear this week at Xchange Solution Provider 2015 from marketing expert David Mayer of Lippincott, a world-renowned design and brand company with an impressive client roster that includes Samsung, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and Walmart.
What was so refreshing about Mayer was his simplified approach to developing a messaging platform that would stick and that people (associates, partners, and clients) could identify with and easily support. The exercise he shared could fit on the back of a cocktail napkin, but what was even more impressive was that it could done by a business with no marketing expertise (an IT service provider for example). Here is the sketch:
Three Ways We Deliver It:
Do your research
If you are struggling with the answers and want to get to the heart of what makes you unique and why people do business with you versus a competitor—ask! Ask your associates. Ask your partners. And most importantly, ask your customers. They want you to succeed and nine times out of ten will be open to spending a few minutes on the phone to talk about what you do and why it is valuable to them.
If you really want to dig deep, have a third party do the brand audit for you. Sure, you’ll spend a few bills, but what you discover will not only help you build a better brand, but it will help you build a more successful company with a defendable customer experience that you own.