When it comes to finding, serving, and retaining customers, it's a scary time. So many of the things that used to work don't anymore. Even with so much information at customers' fingertips -- maybe because of that info overload -- it's hard for them to learn who we are, understand how we're different, and realize why they should stick with us. If our organizations can't create genuine connections with customers, we're in serious trouble.
Content marketing, permission-based marketing, and community building combine conventional marketing practices with content creation and data analytics to help businesses maintain and build connections with customers, boosting sales and producing applicable data. But none of it fits well into the traditional organizational stovepipes. Is it tech? Is it marketing? Is it sales? Is it finance? Is it data science/analytics? Yes on all counts.
As IT executives and managers, we have conversations about how technology creates business value -- not just cutting costs but also driving revenue. Then we worry about CMOs encroaching on CIO turf, as if our two organizations are Venus and Mars. This is stupid. What we should be focusing on is how the world has changed, how customers are pickier than ever, what the business and revenue dangers are, who is dealing with these changes successfully, and what we can learn from those successful approaches.
I can be as guilty as anyone in overlooking new answers to new problems. I just returned from the Authority Copyblogger conference, which I attended as a hobbyist blogger and essayist, not as a marketer or CIO. I thought that what I would learn wouldn't be relevant to my job as a CIO. Boy, was I wrong.
[What makes a great CIO? Hint: It has nothing to do with technology. Read 5 Skills CEOs Prize In CIOs.]
At Authority, I learned more about a new model of customer engagement. Whether you call it permission-based marketing, content marketing, community marketing, or something else, it doesn't pit the CMO against the CIO. This new model requires us to cooperate, think differently about the scope of our big-org jobs, and not worry so much about who's in charge. It requires us to reshape and even redefine how we do business. Scary, yes, but absolutely necessary.
Ann Handley, chief content officer of MarketingProfs, declared: "We are all publishers and we are all media companies." The corollary and first scary truth? We are all marketers. Why is your company creating online content? To get people to pay attention and take action, hopefully to buy your product. Why does your IT organization send out change notifications or provide intranet training? To get people to pay attention to your messages and take action. We call that marketing.
There's a second, related scary truth: IT must become more integral to the revenue equation by building customer trust and positioning the company as an authority. Seth Godin, one of the world's best known marketers, discussed at the conference what it takes to become an authority -- someone customers listen to.
Big organizations have tended to create marketing "factories," he said, using templates or maps that succeeded before. "I can't work with a map, because if I do someone else will use it and polish and perfect it." Those organizations that stick to the map end up in a "race to the bottom," where everyone is doing the same thing and competing on price. "The problem with a race to the bottom,” he said, "is that you might win."
The alternative? Create something new, something that people participate in. He compared travel site TripAdvisor to American Airlines. "You'll easily switch from AA to something else. It's just a big bus company in the sky," Godin said. But the community -- the authority, the relationships, the trust -- that TripAdvisor has built aren't easily replicable.
Building and marshaling new techniques and technologies is what IT is stellar at, and we must push more of that expertise
and creativity to the forefront of our companies and organizations. "It's always too soon," Godin said. "But here's the thing: When Gutenberg launched the printing press, 93% of people were illiterate. What a lousy time to invent it!"
Look how few truly large organizations have adopted new methodologies such as Lean Startup or actual cloud computing (as opposed to cloudwashing). We always want things to be fully "ready" before we launch them. Said Godin: "Important work always ships before it's ready."
How do you get beyond that fear factor? Handley's suggestion: "Place lots of small wagers, experiment." Then measure how successful those wagers are.
Overcoming fear and doubters
There will be plenty of naysayers. "Smart people are going to say that you're no good when you do important work," Godin said. I remember when my senior network engineer, a very smart guy but a member of the Microsoft one-app-per-one-server camp, tried to talk me out of virtualization. "Jonathan, you may not realize that more than one operating system will be running on one piece of hardware," he told me, with a tacit "you idiot!" at the end of the sentence. We all know how that assertion turned out.
The new marketing is the virtualization of modern business. Most of us, asked if we're willing to throw out the old rulebook to engage with customers and advance business goals, would say yes easily. But most of us won't follow through.
Here's why you'd better overcome your fear of the unknown and follow through:
First, survival. Your company's or organization's ability to survive very likely depends on your ability to help it understand and operate in the new marketing. And marketing is becoming a more tech-intensive business by the minute. I dare you: Dig into this stuff even a little bit and tell me that I'm wrong.
Second, meaning. This is just a better way to do business. Permission-based marketing is replacing the slimy sales reptile, which can't succeed in a world in which the buyer, not the seller, has the information advantage. Don't believe me? Read Daniel H. Pink's To Sell Is Human. The upshot is that the rake 'em and run tactic is giving way to sales and marketing relationships that are honest, and therefore meaningful, which most of us prefer.
Third, prosperity. Your personal brand matters more than ever, and the more you engage in the new, non-mass marketing, the more you personally will prosper. Gone are the days when the ad agency pushed out relatively anonymous content to the masses. In the new reality, employees like you are creating engaging content: Webiners, blog posts, community comments, "ask me anything" chats, tutorial videos. Those IT folks who participate in this marketing will grow their personal brands.
Fourth, impact. The world of mass marketing and industrial organization meant that, individually, we never had much of an impact on our organizations. But in this new world of "1,000 true fans" not only are we working to promote our companies' products and services, but our customers are, too. That's huge.
"Someone in this room is going to change everything," Godin said at the Authority conference. "It's not because they have more resources than you. It's because they care." Care. Produce meaning. That's the path of the new marketing for yourself and for your business. IT can help lead the way.
Trying to meet today's business technology needs with yesterday's IT organizational structure is like driving a Model T at the Indy 500. Time for a reset. Read our Transformative CIOs Organize For Success report today. (Free registration required.)Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio