Look to the mundane for government opportunity

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Few people know as much about marketing to government as Mark Amtower. Since 1985, when he founded his consulting and event company, Amtower & Co., he has focused solely on helping companies market themselves to all levels of governments. He's the host of the weekly radio show "The Amtower Market Report" in Annapolis, Md., and "Amtower Off Center" on Federal News Radio in Washington, D.C. BtoB picked his brain about what it takes to do business with the country's biggest spender.

BtoB: What are the current opportunities to market to federal, state and local governments/agencies?

Amtower: The government market continues to grow at about 3% per year, so vast opportunities remain. In fact, the combined federal, state and local government business represents 25% of U.S. domestic spending. At the federal level, the Small Business Administration is going to change procurement rules by the end of June to favor small businesses with legitimate business products and services.

IT services probably represents the most visible spending. But marketers need to take advantage of the more "mundane" side of government: building and grounds maintenance, property security and vehicle fleet management. In fact, the largest land fleets in the world include the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Army and the General Services Administration. Almost all state and local governments maintain fleets, too. And not only do they need vehicles, but also oil changes, tires, gas, etc.

BtoB: What are challenges to reaching these audiences?

Amtower: The biggest obstacle is the learning curve. Selling to government is not the same as b-to-b. Learning the contracting process is arduous, but worthwhile if you stick to it. Understanding who to send information to is equally important, but not as readily discernable as b-to-b. Job titles and responsibilities are not the same. I often see IT firms, novices and pros alike, looking to get in front of the CIO audience—wrong answer. Two steps down from the CIO (often an appointee, not a career person) reside the program managers who make the real-time decisions.

BtoB: What marketing tactics work best?

Amtower: Different tactics suit different products and services: The more complex the sale, the more face time is required. This means it's vital to find the best venues, including association meetings and area-specific conferences. Positive PR in publications that are read by key audiences is critical—good press is a blessing in the form of credibility. White papers are excellent lead generators in the b-to-g market. However on the pure product [commodity] side, you must take into account the government credit card [SmartPay is the federal card]. The SmartPay program will generate $18 billion in fiscal 2007, largely in purchases under $2,500 which require no contracts.

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