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Breaking through to lucrative IT market

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Global IT and telecommunication spending is projected to reach $3.3 trillion annually by 2010, growing at a compound annual rate of 4.5% from the $2.7 trillion spent in 2005, according to Gartner Research. IT purchases in the U.S. are expected to grow to $1 trillion by 2010--including $871 billion this year--accounting for roughly 32% of worldwide spending.

Influencing those U.S. spending decisions are 88.4 million IT professionals and consumers, according to the Millwood Brown IntelliQuest CIMS Spring 2006 report. These influencers include 37 million employees who determine IT needs, identify features, specify products and recommend or authorize technology purchases at work. They range from frontline IT staff to CIO and CEOs.

Unfortunately, getting the attention of IT purchasers and influencers is harder now than ever, said Chris Hill, senior VP-marketing at DirectoryM, an advertising network specializing in helping businesses find local customers. Competition for eyeballs online--the place where IT people spend most of their time--is getting very tight and IT professionals are having to pay closer attention to separate the wheat from the chaff, Hill said.

Further complicating the attempt to reach this lucrative audience is the fact that, increasingly, top IT executives, especially CIOs and CTOs at larger companies, don't come from technical backgrounds.

"These execs are being put in place not for their tech savvy but for their business acumen," said Jennifer Van Fossen, director of marketing for e-business consultancy Definition 6. "More and more major corporations see IT as the solution to a critical business need and less of a strictly engineering-driven function. IT execs are out of the back room and serve as key business decision-makers, with the ear of the CEO and the wallet of the CFO."

Outcomes over features

Fossen said opportunities abound for marketers able to recognize this paradigm shift-that IT managers are more focused on achieving business results rather than simply buying and implementing technology systems. It follows, she said, that marketers need to focus their messaging more on business outcomes than on product features.

Mike Neumeier, principal of marketing communications agency Arketi Group, said he agrees. "A lot of marketers in the IT space want to talk in `bits and bytes, speeds and feeds' instead of the benefits, results and success stories that are far more effective," Neumeier said. Arketi Group likes to create what it calls "customer champions" for its clients, identifying their greatest success stories and using them to drive new business, he said.

Making the ROI case is paramount to marketing success in the IT space, said Charles Epstein, president of BackBone, a PR and marketing agency with a specialized IT practice. "IT departments have been burnt many times by slick marketing messages that over-promised what turned out to be underperforming technologies," Epstein said. "Third-party reviews that support your solution's bona fides, as well as customer case studies, are perhaps the most effective means of validating your worth to this skeptical audience."

One mistake that marketers often make is to get so wrapped up in product positioning that they forget about answering the needs of their customers, said Pamela Swingley, founder of Savvy Internet Marketing, which manages a network of buying guides. "The audience then become industry analysts, the media and investors rather than the users of their products or services," Swingley said.

This is just one more reason IT professionals frown upon overt marketing tactics, she said. "They distrust salespeople, are suspicious of industry analysts and know that press releases and media coverage are usually just hype," Swingley said.

IT executives want hard proof of benefits and ROI, and they often get it by reading online, said Bruce Kennedy Law, founder and president of communications agency Sprout Marketing. "But they don't like to read marketing literature; they read white papers, blogs, peer message boards, case studies and the like," Law said. "They want to discover products, not have them shoved down their throats. They love unorthodox, off-the-wall humor from someone who intimately understands their personalities or, even better, straight-forward, direct benefits from someone who understands their business needs."

A recent survey of more than 2,300 IT and business professionals by ITtoolbox, a popular and well- respected online community, showed that this audience was influenced most strongly by marketing tactics and messaging that wasn't overt. "Among the most influential vehicles identified were white papers [liked by 70.5% of respondents], webcasts [40.4%], e-mail-based ads [37.3%] and sponsorships and microsites [34.3%]," said George Krautzel, ITtoolbox president.

Krautzel said that while IT marketers in general have made big strides with online marketing tools, there are still ways they can improve the effectiveness of their ad campaigns. "They need to strive to take full advantage of emerging marketing technologies, such as contextual matching and demographic targeting," he said. "They should also focus part of their spend on pull marketing so that they are creating demand through an informed buyer. Perhaps most important is to capitalize on opportunities to educate their targets, especially about the problems their products or services solve."

Over the past few years, IT marketers have learned how to take advantage of advanced online communication capabilities, said Jason Young, president of Ziff Davis Media's Consumer/Small Business Group. "Whether it's an event sponsorship, a Flash-based online display ad, a contextual listing, a print insert, a 30-second broadband video spot or a graphic image run in an RSS feed, the most important thing is not the individual messages themselves but that they all work together in a smart way to communicate key attributes and benefits of the company and products being marketed," Young said.

The answer: shoe leather

However, there's still one area of IT marketing that's often overlooked, said John Fox, author of "The Marketing Playbook: The Manual for Growing Organizations" and owner of management consultancy Venture Marketing. "Many people aren't going to like my answer, but it's shoe leather," Fox said. "If you want to be successful, don't bother trying to figure out ... how much to spend on the Web site revamp until you've staffed and properly armed your sales team."

IT marketers too often don't fully understand the sales process and that their main job is to figure out ways to make the sales staff more efficient, Fox said. "They need to optimize the sales process like the operations staff did several years ago before `supply chain' made it into our vernacular."

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