Simple ways to market complex solutions

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Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time with Timothy Chou, cloud computing guru, former executive at Oracle and Stanford University lecturer, about marketing complex solutions. We discussed who marketers should really be targeting within an organization, how to get their attention and ways to open the conversation.

Who should marketers of complex solutions target for the sale?

Chou: First, the idea that there is a single decision-maker is a fantasy. In the modern world, it's a group, a community, or as I like to say, a tribe. As a sales and marketing person your biggest challenge is to educate and handle objections from the entire tribe, the people you don't see. Some of them will be technical and want to know more detail about your product. Some of them will want to know more about how you fit in the market, and some will want to hear from your reference customers. The important point is, each of them influences your sale, and you don't know them.

What should we make sure not to say to the CXO?

Chou: Don't ask her what keeps her awake at night. Don't ask him what his company does. And don't start out by telling her how old your company is and how you're the leader in whatever the latest buzzwords are.

  • Do your homework. Know what their company does. In the modern era there is plenty of information in 10-Ks for public companies and online in general. But don't get creepy. Recently a sales person researched the family history of a CIO and pretended to be a long-lost high school friend.
  • Do Specialize. No company can afford to do everything; it's why we make build-versus-buy decisions. It might be cheaper to do your own brain surgery, but would you really want to? Make sure it's clear what you, your company, your products and service specialize in.
  • Do Teach. Whatever your specialization is, teach and educate them on how you see the market and more specifically what your product or service does. It might be months before they need to take action, but if you did a good job you'll be in the mix.

What are ways we should market to executives with complex or confusing solutions?

Chou: First, marketers and sales people can learn a lot from teachers. The most effective teachers teach anecdotally; they are entertaining. Stories stick with people, they internalize them and they share them. This makes a complex concept easier to understand while also helping to make your contacts into part of your sales and marketing machine. The easier it is to share your story the more it will be shared with the tribe.

Secondly, keep your message to three main things you want to teach. At Stanford, I use the "rule of three.' In an hour and 15 minutes I aim to get three main points of learning across. First I would share a compelling story that highlights the three main points of learning, then have the class review and read a related case or brief, and lastly have the class tell their own stories. This approach gets learning to stick.

Thirdly, plant something of value in the brains of those you are speaking with. Any good marketer or sales person will do this naturally. I can get speeds and feeds off the website. What I can't get is the value of a two-way conversation and the education that comes with it. Know something about the issues your customers are grappling with at this moment that you can help them solve.

What is a meaningful way to get the business buyer's attention in a noisy, overwhelming segment like technology?

Historically many enterprise marketers think in terms of a Wall Street Journal advertisement to reach everyone with a message. Of course if you have a thin pipe of communication then you have to come up with a tag line or catch phrase. Typically it will be something like, "better, faster, cheaper', or "9 out of 10 companies use my product.'

But in the modern world we have a fat pipe. Facebook and YouTube have taught us the power of pictures and video to communicate. So your challenge as marketing professionals is to:

  1. Become a student of the power of storytelling. Check out the TED conference for some excellent talks and consider the book "Tell to Win' (Crown Business, 2011). And think about your company story, your product story, and your service story.
  2. Become a student of the power of video. No one reads anymore. Recently someone told me they watched a YouTube video on how to give a cat a pill. Rather than generating PowerPoint slides with 12-point fonts that no one will read, think pictures, think video.
  3. Tell a complete story. Most enterprise products and services are not complex when you're just interested in a 3-minute ad. Where it gets complex, and where the sales get stuck are on the details, like how you handle security or how you integrate with existing products. When you architect your story, make sure it's complete.

Marketing is actually in charge of teaching. Marketers need to ask themselves, "What do I want my customers to learn?'

Lisa Dreher is VP-marketing and business development with Logicalis Inc. ( She can be reached at [email protected], or via Twitter at @LisaDreher.

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