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NetApp Strives to Differentiate in Commoditized Business

Data Storage Giant Looks to Change Up Messaging and Expand Content Marketing

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Despite what it deemed a successful year of pushing its message through content marketing, NetApp still feels it could be doing more to reach buyers and influencers. In response, it's planning to expand its content strategy and position itself as a business partner rather than just a technology provider.

Bottom line, data storage is fast becoming a commoditized service. And with NetApp's core customer base spending over $1 million per year, it's hard to differentiate on price. Now, the company is looking to highlight the less technical aspects of its offerings.

After over a year of customer research, and the aid of b-to-b focused branding agency Siegel + Gale, the $11.9 billion company has come up with a plan to differentiate itself: show that it is a trusted partner. While the specific vehicles of this new messaging are not yet sorted out, it will likely come in the form of content marketing and possibly some digital video. The first step, according to NetApp CMO Julie Parrish, is getting its employees and channel partners on board.

Julie Parrish
Julie Parrish

"A key point for us to make is making sure we are the teammate our customers expect us to be. I don't see creating banners that say 'Hi, I'm your teammate,' but it's how we talk about our products and service. We play well with others; we team and partner with other brands you know and trust as well," said Ms. Parrish.

She said the company's primary target is large enterprises. (There are about 5,600 that spend over $1 million on storage each year, she said.) "We know who they are and where they are," Ms. Parrish said. "This is also about enabling our sales teams to talk to our customers."

Ms. Parrish noted that, without quantifying, NetApp previously had moderate success with outdoor, social and website promotion. It also has two years' worth of video testimonials and quotes from customers about the importance of the people at NetApp, which the company "could release in a more targeted way," she added.

Content marketing has been the most effective platform for NetApp, including its relationship with Forbes's BrandVoice native-advertising tool.

In May 2012, NetApp partnered with Forbes.com and launched a branded-content page known as NetAppVoice, using the BrandVoice platform, which was designed to give marketers access to the same publishing tools that Forbes.com journalists and contributors use to produce and promote content. The goal was to connect NetApp with C-level executives, strategic business influencers and VPs of IT.

Through BrandVoice, NetApp claims it has been able to deliver relevant articles to readers on a wide variety of business and technology topics. Recent figures from Forbes show that between May 2013 and May 2014 page views increased 386% to 6.1 million. During the same period, unique visitors rose 372% to 4.3 million. Other NetApp/BrandVoice highlights from the same period include: 276,000 social actions, 337 new posts and 492 new followers.

Analysts concur that NetApp has done some content marketing well, but said the company's messaging has been confusing at times and could benefit from a more focused approach.

"Even while they want to be this interesting innovative company, they are also trying to break out of the perception they are a niche provider to the midmarket because they aren't shy about touting their Fortune 100 wins," said Christian Perry, a senior analyst with Technology Business Research Inc. But the more NetApp talks about their big enterprise gains, "they are not differentiating from, say, an EMC [one of their closest competitors]. They want to be big, they want to be across all industry conversations, but they want to be seen as aggressive innovator and that doesn't mix well."

Mark Peters, a senior analyst with technology research firm Enterprise Strategies Group, said that with the likes of Google and Amazon offering cloud data management, coupled with a maturing buyer's market where the distinction between average and excellent products has diminished, NetApp has to find a way to give people more of a reason to buy from it.

"Even though they're distinguishing factor may shift from technical excellence to partner excellence, it won't change the nature of the problem, which is to encourage more people to make specific storage decisions," said Mr. Peters. "They also need to be more assertive. It's difficult because the reason why they make a good partner is because they are a 'nice' company. It is playing in a market that is not full of shrinking violets."

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