Selling Technical Solutions in a World that Doesn’t Understand
Selling technical solutions is hard.
Just having a great solution—even the best solution—isn’t sufficient. And the news gets worse: selling these solutions is hard for a number of reasons, so there isn’t a quick fix.
Perhaps the biggest reason is that the outside world just doesn’t understand your solution nearly as well as you do.
The world outside your company just doesn’t understand your solution to nearly the same depth as you do.
But the good news is that there are proven strategies that can increase your chances of success.
To help technology companies become more effective at selling technical solutions, Matthew Trushinski (of Miovision) and I recently presented at the Waterloo Technology Chautauqua, which was started by Agilicus founder Don Bowman.
This post gives a bit of background, and summarizes the session at a pretty high level. I encourage you to download the deck and maybe even refer to it as you read through the post.
Also, I’ll note that the cover images used within this post are from a recording Don kindly made (thanks!). At some future date I might put the recording up; for now, let’s just make do with this summary blog post and the exported slide deck.
A Technical Crowd
Unlike the meetups where I’ve presented in the past, which tend to have audiences full of marketing and communications professionals, the audience this time around consisted of engineers, architects, and other technical roles.
This reality meant that Matt and I had to provide a mix of marketing breadth and depth to overcome some knowledge gaps. At the same time, we needed to go deep enough into a few topics to provide practical value. I was thinking, earlier today, that it’d be akin to an engineer coming to a marketing P2P and giving a quick summary of Laplace and Fourier transforms, control systems, and foundational physics, before spending an hour on impedance matching.
To sell a technical solution, your prospects have to hear you and understand you.
Ultimately, our top-level message was that for you to sell a technical solution, your prospects have to…
- Hear you
- Understand you
(in engineering parlance: both are necessary, but neither is sufficient)
…and we wanted to show the audience how to achieve both those results.
On the Docket
Our session followed a pretty straightforward structure:
- Why getting technical marketing right is so important
- Why so many organizations get it wrong
- Being understood: How to create messages that close knowledge gaps, allowing you to showcase your solution’s unique value
- Being heard: How to get those messages in front of your target audiences
- How technical personnel like engineers and architects can give organizations a marketing advantage
That last point is pretty crucial, too, because we really wanted the audience to know how they can contribute to more effective sales and marketing within their own organizations, as opposed to just spending their evening learning some vague marketing trivia.
Technical Marketing is Important
I wanted to make one major point at the beginning: an awful lot is riding on our technical marketing capabilities. In the Waterloo Region alone, there are (literally) hundreds of companies and a couple of tens of thousands of employees who directly depend on selling enough of a technical thing to stay in business, and employed, respectively.
So it’s important that we get it right.
Technical Marketing is Hard
Unfortunately, technical marketing is hard.
For one thing, companies have many more audiences than they often realize. It’s not just customers and investors—think also of partners, employees, analysts, and media, to name just a few. They’ve got largely unique needs and questions.
Companies have many more audiences than they realize, and within a single audience you have to appeal to different roles.
And even within a single group—say, customers—you have to appeal to different roles, like economic buyers, functional evaluators, and non-functional-but-still-technical evaluators. They’ve got even more specific needs and questions.
For most of us—or for tech companies in Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo, at least—our conversations with these audiences are spread out over many months. The Waterloo Region Technology Marketing Spotlight showed more than half the region’s companies experience sales cycles longer than 6 months.
Over the course of those six months, we try to move deals across the finish line. However, we often run into the challenge of creating meaningful differentiation against perceived alternatives; this issue was ranked the most significant sales enablement challenge by local tech companies.
Unfortunately, we struggle to produce the technical, bottom-of-funnel content that shows our differentiation. Instead, we resort to a collection of common mistakes; these mostly stem from the urge to shout about our technology to anyone who’ll listen. Worse still, we shout in proprietary terminology and absent any relationship to market problems.
Well, there are two major reasons why we struggle with technology marketing:
- Most marketers aren’t technologists. Only 23% of tech marketing execs, 16% of tech marketing middle managers, and 9% of tech marketing individual contributors—the ones most likely to be creating content—have post-secondary education in a technical field
- Most of our companies underinvest in marketing. On average, only about 4% of tech employees work in marketing; moreover, a shockingly large number of tech companies don’t have any dedicated in-house marketing personnel at all!
I started this section with an all-time favourite video: the original Turbo Encabulator.
What’s my point? That video, while (hopefully) clearly a joke, is representative of how too many tech companies sound to the world—including their customers and other important audiences—when they just shout about their technology.
I believe we can—and we must—do better.
Next, I briefly addressed a notable exception: the Innovators of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. They know enough about technology and their own problems to find you, even if your technical marketing is terrible. Crucially, though, they represent a tiny fraction of the market, so you can’t build a sustainable business serving them alone.
To have meaningful conversations with the rest of the market, you need to help your audiences climb the knowledge mountain. Only when you’ve primed them sufficiently with background knowledge will they be willing and able to understand what you’ve got to say about your technology.
Only when you’ve primed them sufficiently with background knowledge will your audience be willing and able to understand what you’ve got to say about your technology.
The next few slides went through a traditional sales funnel model to show how we use different pieces of content, serving different specific audiences and goals, to help people climb the knowledge mountain while moving through the funnel.
Then, I spent a bit of time examining a few examples, including:
- Bridgit’s solutions and use cases
- Bridgit’s product brochure
- RootSecure’s solution brochure
- Telax’ Salesforce integration feature summary
I closed this section off by reiterating that it’s vitally important to explain why something matters. Why? Because doing so, effectively, earns you the opportunity to explain how it actually works. And we need to help our audiences to climb the knowledge mountain before they can truly appreciate our unique value.
…and then it was over to Matt!
Now it was up to Matt to show us how we can ensure our messages get heard.
He started off by running quickly through some examples (from the worlds of air filters and plumbing—he’s been doing some home renos) to illustrate how having the objectively superior solution isn’t enough to get you on the first page of Google.
Then he made a bold statement: it doesn’t matter if you have the best product if no one knows about it.
It doesn’t matter if you have the best product if no one knows about it.—Every marketer, ever
The first foundation Matt gave us was Digital Dynamics—5 characteristics that cause the digital world to behave quite differently than the physical world:
With those in mind, he recommends companies immediately look at introducing UTM tracking, improving their SEO, and using social media. Social media, for B2B companies? Yes!
Matt walked the group through UTM tracking and showed how the technique provides a valuable feedback loop for understanding how audiences get exposed to your content and for optimizing your tactical activities.
Next, he took us all through the basics of SEO, including how to structure content so search bots can accurately index it, the benefits of creating new content regularly (for instance, in a blog), why you should use links quite liberally, and the importance of simplicity.
Then, Matt explained how social media is important, even for B2B companies. Even if your audiences aren’t especially engaged on social media, having well-curated and managed social media accounts helps your overall SEO efforts.
Finally, Matt closed by switching gears and spoking a bit about Agile Marketing, using the example of a rebrand project Miovision executed last year. He used this example to illustrate that modern marketing isn’t about doing a project, full stop, and then moving on to something else. Instead, it’s about rapid iterations, adding to campaigns over time and learning from each one to get better results for the next one.
For the last section, Matt and I showcased a few integrated marketing programs that were both heard and understood, including:
- Sandvine’s online charging video, whitepaper, and technical showcase
- Dejero’s recent activities with similar technical marketing documents
- Miovision’s World’s Smartest Intersection campaign
- Miovision’s Clear Signals campaign
Finally, we closed off our session with a handful of takeaways:
- Recognize that there are many audiences—each has a different need
- Even different roles in the same audience have different questions
- Education is often a prerequisite for differentiation
- Use different pieces of content to achieve different communications goals
- Your marketers need to understand your technology, to some reasonable degree
- Someone needs to explain it to them—a good marketer will keep asking, “So what?”
- Something is going on your website—you’re all better served if it’s correct
- If you’re looking for market problems at the end of your product development cycle, then you’ve got major problems =D
It was a really fun evening, from our perspective. More importantly, judging by the audience focus and questions, it was an engaging and interesting session.
From Matt and I both, our thanks to the crowd who came out to hear from us! And also thanks to Don (and Sonya!) for hosting, facilitating, and recording the session.