The Challenges of Comparative Marketing

One request that you’ll often hear from your customer as a Product Marketer is why can’t you help me compare your product to the competition?  You have product sheets with screenshots, cool images, value propositions, positioning statements and bullet-pointed details but I need to do a direct comparison, Mr. (or Ms.) Marketer!  

And as a customer-centric professional marketer, I’ve often scratched my head on this challenge, why don’t we do more comparative marketing?  It would help the customer, wouldn’t it?  But there are reasons why marketing professionals don’t often go down this path.

Reason 1: If you’re the leader or front-runner in your segment, why even put your competitors into the customer’s consideration set?  We are THAT good so we have no competition.  (Ok, that’s a bit of optimistic thinking).

Reason 2: I’m managing 8 (insert really large number) products in 3 categories and as an over-worked marketer, it’s hard enough to keep up and communicate the features, values and messaging of my own offering, forget keeping up with every minute detail of all of my competitors.  

Reason 3: The process of getting my comparative marketing assets and copy out into the field (editing/approvals, design, onto website, printed product sheets, sales team, partner/distributor channel) is so lengthy, that by the time it gets to the customer-facing side of my market, the information is out-dated.

Reason 4: The details within my comparative marketing go out with an error or the competitor features change making it look as if my organization, my sales team and my partners don’t know what they are talking about.  And that’s when the legal team comes in.  Also see Reason 3 for the origins of this issue.  

One example I’ll give you is a company’s aggressive comparative marketing in the IT training business.  Six months ago there was a checkbox table of features, functions and specifics of what they had and what the competitors had.  And some very unflattering statements. Fast forward to today and notice how now the comparative marketing has evolved into one or two screen shots and some subjective statements:

But at the core, the customer request is real and they need help on their customer journey .  And they’re asking how can you help them make a more honest and productive decision.  As a customer-centric marketer, my thought is perhaps provide a framework and methodology for your customers to evaluate and prioritize their needs in your product/service segment.  

In essence, teaching your customers how to fish (or evaluate) vs. giving them a fish (check list of features/capabilities in market).  In the end, the customer journey tends to be pretty unique and subjective for each organization so tools and a decision framework to reach an effective solution is really important.  And TRY not to have that decision path land directly at your door-step, Mr. (or Ms.) Professional Marketer!  You do know that your customers understand what you may try to be doing!  😉  

Ron Wen

Getting Into the Flow with Content Marketing

You know the old saying, “it’s about quality, not quantity”!  But that adage isn’t entirely true with regards to content marketing in B2B or B2C spaces.  It’s about quality AND quantity!  Because your audience and people in general, are always looking for good stories and snippets that educate, entertain and inform.  And over time, as your content stream is recognized as being valuable and interesting, your prospects and customers will return and stay engaged when you have a more compelling call to action. 

Case in point, during my last product marketing role I had two email streams, one for Microsoft and one for Red Hat.  Given my company’s long history in the Microsoft training space, our email campaigns typically had much better engagement and open rates than similar Red Hat emails.  Approximately 30% to 35% better open rates which is pretty significant. Our Red Hat training portfolio was resell meaning we didn’t have any Red Hat expertise on staff.  

Thankfully I had and built up a relationship with an external Red Hat consultant and analyst, Kerry.  As Red Hat prepared to launch Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 (RHEL 7), a key release of their flagship offering, I really wanted to take advantage of this big news.  My expectation was that there would be a lot of excitement and pent up demand for education and training on RHEL 7.  

Working with Kerry, we created a very thorough content stream of blog posts and whitepapers leveraging the beta version of RHEL 7 about 3 – 4 months before the product would release.  Lighter weight RHEL 7 blog posts were easier to develop and would drive social media efforts on twitter and Facebook.  As we got closer to GA, we went with more technology rich content like whitepapers for stronger, value-add assets.  

While blog posts and whitepapers are great for passive, inbound marketing, these same great stories are also perfect for outbound emails.  Leveraging the same content and topics, I created an email campaign that would first announce to our customer base about the release of RHEL 7 with great fanfare.  And of course, point to all the associated content we had available for people.  The core training Red Hat training portfolio was a secondary Call to Action.  My next email focused on those key training classes.  Email number three moved to the certification story and then finally the fourth email spoke to higher-level Red Hat training and associated exam prep products available to support the foundational RHEL 7 classes.  

As this cadence of content and emails continued for a span of six months or so, I noticed open rates and click-through rates on our Red Hat emails increase steadily.  By the end of the six months, there was about a 45% increase in Red Hat email engagement.  Those numbers had been pretty steady-state for the previous 2 years so I can comfortably say that the Red Hat content stream really helped drive that customer engagement.  Our customers had started to expect valuable news and information in our marketing content stream.  

One of the key marketing mantras I rely on is repeating your message over and over so it’s digested properly.  You need to go out not just once or twice but many times over the course of a campaign to drive your message in.  By the end of this campaign for the launch of RHEL 7 training, our email open rates had surpassed our Microsoft list and had our Red Hat training business out of the gates, fast!  So when you think of content marketing, focus on quality AND quantity!  And then leverage that great content in a consistent and repetitive fashion for your outbound and customer communications.  You’ll start to see the results if your content is being received by your audience resulting in a stronger pipeline of leads and engagement!  

Ron Wen



Virality and The Power of 666? Uhm no….

Image courtesy of Facebook Analytics
Image courtesy of Facebook Analytics

Virality is a term often bandied about in marketing.  It means that you come up with a phrase, an asset, a meme that becomes so popular, people spread it amongst their peers which organically increases your marketing reach.  And the reality is that it’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  Whether your talking about a Gangnam style video or the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, coming up with a viral idea is tough sledding for most marketers.  

Over 2 billion views as of March 2015
Over 2 billion views as of March 2015

But every now and then you do catch a little bit of lightning in your every day dealings.  I remember a meeting last year with my Product Director, Ben.  We had just added six months of practice labs, mentoring and class recordings to our Microsoft training as a key differentiator.  In our preparation to announce this big news to the outbound sales team, we were brain-storming ideas and a tagline to go out with.   We had to go with verbiage that would capture this key point quickly but Microsoft Training with the three sixes or 666 was definitely NOT going to work.  After bouncing around ideas for 30 minutes, I left Ben’s office scratching my head and started drafting the sales announcement.  

Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes a bit of creativity.  Reaching back to some Microsoft webinars I had run recently, they were titled Unleash the Power of Microsoft SQL Server and Unlock the Power of Microsoft SQL Server.  Hey…  what if we just used the Power of Six?  The power representing these value-add customer features and those features powering the sales calls for our reps.  So out goes the sales announcement featuring “Microsoft’s Power of Six”  And definitely not the Power of 666!  

Sales training was done later that week by the Product Management team which loved the tagline and used it in their presentations.  Before long, our Microsoft training sales reps started asking me for more details about the Power of Six so I generated an internal sales cheat sheet.  And then to complete the story, we used the phrase “Power of Six” in future Microsoft training newsletters and emails reinforcing the tagline externally as well as internally. 

As with any marketing message, repetition is key.  I made sure to repeat it in a variety of outbound emails, landing page copy and social media to sink the message in.  And as effective as the “Power of Six” theme was, the main goal was to use it as a memory tool so customers would clearly understand the value-add and differentiators of our training exclusives.  After 3 – 6 months of use, I would have been happy to move to a new catch-phrase as our product evolved.  

The reality is that virality is unpredictable and very difficult to create and generate.  But you have to be cognizant about how your audience is responding to your message.  Based upon the internal response from our sales reps, I used their interest and take-up as a proxy for our external customer base.  But like anything, writing interesting, tight marketing copy is a skill.  And no different than getting to Carnegie Hall, it’s all about practice, practice, practice.  And keeping your ears open to your audience…  

Ron Wen


The Impact of the Cloud-Subscription Model on B2B Software Marketing

When you talk about digital disruption on businesses, the music industry, television and movies usually come to mind.  You can subscribe to music services and subscribe to media channels to get your content on-demand and in a pay as you go model.  Which is all very friendly for the customer and end-user.   Think Spotify, Netflix and Hulu.  As enterprise software moves to the cloud, that same subscription model comes into play.  Enterprise customers pay as they go and can leave at any time.  Trying out cloud software is often a very easy proposition making the evaluation of an online application a five minute commitment and some convenient clicks away.  

Think about the benefits being ascribed to cloud software: easy to use, low/no software maintenance costs, no infrastructure commitment needed.  Red Hat and its Enterprise Linux support contract follows a subscription model but the cloud takes it one step further.  And in this customer-friendly software model, the business and marketing implications are huge. 

The days of slick marketing with product sheets and lavish screen shots along with over-promising features and benefits have passed.  I remember back in the days of the first boom.  Vaporware and bug-ridden software in pretty boxes being marketed aggressively and with little regard for facts.  At the core of the cloud and subscription model is the shift of power to the customer and end-user.  Any gaps or weaknesses in your offerings and the marketing behind it will be uncovered quickly once the prospect tries your cloud software out.  And if not discovered through the customer trial, it will happen after purchase resulting in negative customer feedback available on social media and other online forums.  How long do you think that customer will stay with you if you inaccurately market your offering?  

The cloud software business is really about a new customer-centric software delivery model.   And in the end, it really makes a lot of sense.  Better products designed to work more effectively for customers and delivering promised results.  And there’s no hiding as your customer moves through the consideration and purchase cycle.  You have to earn their business every day, before, during and after purchase.  That includes all stages of your marketing and a refreshed emphasis on software consumption and customer retention plans. 

Earning your customer’s trust isn’t always easy but in today’s world of cloud-based software, it’s never been more important for B2B technology marketing….  

Ron Wen