The classic challenge of marketing IT services is USP – Five areas to focus on

I remember a contact who told me their IT services business had no USP, or unique selling proposition. True, for companies marketing IT services the USP may not be apparent at a quick glance, but marketing’s role is to change this. IT service is becoming increasingly competitive, so if an organisation cannot present valid reasons to engage, it will always lose out to competitors on bids and pricing.

This article is for IT consultancies, cloud services providers, managed service providers and XaaS providers, which can build large recurring revenues. It is a topic I feel quite passionate about, having worked in and around this sector for most of my career.

At first sight, service providers may seem to offer similar services and solutions which are interchangeable. But why not look at this in a positive way instead of a negative way? You have a blank canvass upon which to present the business as it really is and highlight its best features.

IT services are generally sold as solutions – i.e. the vendor provides a solution that answers a problem that customers cannot solve on their own. Since MSPs can manage their customers’ entire IT infrastructures, including cyber-security, technology migrations and upgrades, they must earn 100% trust from their customers. The challenge today is the modern, supplier-agnostic customer.

Marketing IT services: are all providers alike?

The challenge is to portray your business as the right choice for a new customer, to justify this with good reasons and build trust. This means understanding the company’s brand, its operations and its people and presenting these in the best way.

The visible branding of a business comprises its logo, colours and corporate livery. The IT sector seems to favour the cool blue which sits well in the urban professional world. Associated with this are the visual messages in your marketing – website and documents – often images of your team, HQ building, and sector pictures. All these provide a first-glance snapshot of what your company does, for whom, and how. This part of identity is understood almost unconsciously, but needs to be 100% up to date in style, and fitting for the industry it serves.

Beneath all this, when you discover a business in more detail, you begin to appreciate what makes it unique, and what might actually form a USP. Every business is different and each one will suit a different segment of customers, which they should prioritise.

Identifying the USP

IT services cover many areas: IT “plumbing”, support and maintenance, IT security, back-up and business continuity are the main areas. Cyber security is currently a high priority. The company’s choice of technical partners and vendors may colour how these services are provided.

The IT services business operates to provide specialist IT skills, along with in-house software, user interface, patents and IP. Technical skills are crucial, as customers are choosing managed services to access expertise they don’t have in-house.

Understanding how the business operates, technically, and where it differs from its competition, may reveal a real USP. This means it is important to study competitors and  understand the genuine differences between them.

Shaping USP– service design

If there is no technical USP, there may be a commercial one, or perhaps one can be created through careful service design. Elements of service can be bundled or packaged, with service level agreements and guarantees. Pricing and billing can be designed to suit customers better and make a real difference.

How a service is delivered matters too – the customer experience. Good service should be shaped to nurture existing customers and help win new ones. Making the service easier for customers is a popular goal. The most successful service design will be based on deep insights into customer relationships gained from research or account manager feedback.

Enhancing service might mean coaching the customer-facing team, adding expert advice, or publishing data that shows support calls rapidly resolved. There is an interesting current trend towards using automation to enhance customer service.

Bring USPs to life with Marketing and PR

IT service providers need to prove their worth and earn customer trust through their marketing.

A customer’s decision process starts online and they will study websites before they meet providers. Websites should avoid business jargon and bland corporate profiles that try to be everything to everybody but actually mean meaning nothing at all.

Creating a personality for services business is about people, so it may be helpful to consider designing a website for a services-based business as you would consider writing a CV. Like a CV, it the company’s description needs to be evidence-based and relevant. Customer success stories should say: “These are the markets and business situations we understand, and this is how we help.”

As with a CV, it is good to add non-commercial interests that people care about, such as the charities you support, your social events and your role in the community.

If the business campaigns in its industry, or has important environmental policies, these too could be reasons why a customer would choose to work with you.

Beware total reliance on content marketing, which has become incredibly competitive, with  every company following the same path of inbound-SEO, leads capture and nurturing. The market is very crowded, and everyone is using the same processes. Content marketing is a process, not a communications strategy – communications should revolve around messages, stories, concepts and facts.

To use the military analogy, marketing services is about winning hearts and minds. People and personalities – the character and experience of the CEO and leadership team, the customer-facing colleagues and how they are trained to help – are all part of the story.

Five areas to focus on
  1. Tell the back story – how the business came to be will interest people and inspire.
  2. Be transparent about technology and tools, and how the service really works. Communicate what you do differently or better.
  3. Demonstrate capability – show how you help customers today.
  4. Shine a spotlight on charismatic leaders and key customer-facing employees in interviews and blogs.
  5. Share your plan – where is your industry going and what is your place in it?

Success comes from understanding USPs, then presenting the right facts, achievements and thought leadership to the market. Present your company transparently by telling your story as it is. Use PR to reach out beyond your customer base.

Results-based PR

People like the idea of results-based PR as they like to be able to measure how it provides a return on investment. In the past, we used to measure PR coverage by a unit called AVE. AVE meant “advertising value equivalent”. We simply measured the size of the article and looked to see what it would cost to buy an advertisement of the same size. It was very simple.

We also measured the results of our work by column inches in the printed publications. This was OK up to a point, but it didn’t measure how helpful an article was. If an article is negative, it can be exactly the opposite of helpful and not a good investment at all.

So there was always debate about the value of PR. Some people felt it could not be measured. It was difficult to know whether an investment in PR had been worthwhile.

Also, all publications were treated the same – there was no comparison of their credibility. In reality some titles are more respected than others and the audience is often very different when you compare publications that appear at first to be addressing the same readership.

Now with most publications appearing online, and most people becoming proficient with analytics, the measurement of PR has completely changed.  The latest digital reporting tools for PR are amazing. Results-based PR is much easier to achieve now. You can create reports that show exactly what has appeared and where. You can see an influencer score for each publication. You can also see how many readers it has, and the number of people it reached. The number reached will often be higher than the number of subscribers.

You can also see how many links have been added, from the articles to your own website. The links are important for two reasons. First, they can bring traffic to your website, as referrals. Second, they indicate that your website is an important site on the internet. This makes the links valuable in marketing – they help to bring a website to a higher position in search engines.

This has been a huge change for the PR industry, which traditionally didn’t show the results of its work this way.

I would still say that you can judge a campaign by gut feel. If it feels good, that usually means that it has worked effectively. People generally know if something has been worthwhile, but the question is how to prove that on paper? Sometimes it helps to demonstrate results in terms of statistics and numbers.

Results-based PR is here

I am using a very effective PR reporting tool. From this, I can see that the  campaign I worked on during January and February created very close to 100 articles. They reached around 300,000 people in the specialist electronics design markets. The campaign added 43 new back links to the company’s website. We can see pictures of the articles, showing the individual sites where each item appeared, and we can rank them in terms of their  credibility within their industry.


How to build a B2B PR Plan in six easy steps

This article goes right back to basics, and looks at how you might put together a PR plan for a Business to business campaign.

1. It is best to start by defining your audience as clearly and precisely as possible, in terms of their industry sector, their role and function within their organisation, but to go further than this, and consider their interests and likely concerns. This is the foundation of the PR plan.

2. Next, I would suggest considering your marketing messages. How can you present the best of your company in clear terms – say one or two sentences – that your customers will relate to, and which will inspire them to want to find out more about your company, or even contact you? This will be a theme throughout your campaign.

3. What resources are available? – Besides starting with some funds to cover the incidental costs, a PR plan will need some other kinds of resources: “material” in terms of interesting, eye-catching stories, images, anecdotes, examples of customer applications and expert input. An exciting news item can make a press release – an ideal resource. Then, having identified some resources, it may be good to think how to use them to the best effect, bearing in mind that more in depth material is usually used an exclusive basis and news items are only topical for a short period. By now you may have an idea of how your PR campaign is going to look.

4. Acquire a media list. Maybe you can assemble some contacts and make a list yourself, or maybe it’s better to take a short cut and get an instant press list by hiring a PR specialist who’s worked with the right contacts and can bring a media list ready made. The better you know the media – how they put their publications together, what they like to publish, and when – the more successful your campaign will be.

5. Consider timing and build some dates into your calendar. Certain dates may be fixed. You can plan media communications to work around industry events, trade shows and conferences, bearing in mind the dates you require for your product releases, and likely dates for news releases and company announcements. When these dates are pegged to the plan it’s possible to work backwards, and plan activities to hit the right dates and deadlines, allowing for publication lead times and holiday periods. It may be useful to think about the seasonality of the market, and whether to work around holiday periods, and also to dovetail with sales campaigns and other marketing plans.

6. Good management often means looking at results to see what lessons can be learned and feeding this in to the next stage of the plan. There are some neat tools on the market to help you see what has been published about your business and assess its likely reach and impact.

Having suggested that you take this kind of approach to make a PR plan, I would recommend allowing for some flexibility so that you can react to industry news as it unfolds.

Marketing – necessary evil?

It came up in conversation that marketing is “a necessary evil” and an overhead! I can understand that some companies have had bad experiences and have come to feel this way – and I know only too well how careful businesses need to be with their budgets! But whoever made this remark was clearly not getting their marketing right. Marketing should be the biggest and best investment you can make to enable your business grow.

What is Marketing?

It all depends on how you define it. Many people think of it as making brochures, websites, exhibition stands and fluffy PR – it can be viewed as a little arty by those on the engineering side of things. However to be more precise, those aspects of marketing should really come under the heading of Marketing Communications. The real scope of marketing is wider than this. The classic concept of “Four Ps” defines it much better: product, placing (for this read distribution or route to market), pricing and promotion. In most companies, the marketing department is focused on the fourth “P” – the promotional work – but the four Ps model is spot on because it puts the elements in the right order. There is other work to do before the promotional work can be successful – the product has to be right, the pricing has to be right and the route to market has to be prepared.

I will add a note about markets here. The size of a market will dictate the size of the opportunity for an individual company – and the number and relative strength of competing companies in the same market sector will have a bearing on the share that each single player can reasonably expect to achieve.

Successful marketing

I believe that for marketing to be successful – and in this instance I mean promotional marketing – a number of other business questions must be considered first. Top of the list is research to understand the size and scope of the market, competitors, and the potential demand and opportunity for the product or service on offer. Then, the product or service needs to be shaped so that it fits with that demand, at a viable price.

If the background research has been realistic, and if the product or service design and pricing are right for the market, then the promotional work should bring good results.

This article is about marketing budgets, not messaging, so I will not discuss propositions in detail here. However, to conclude, I would say that provided there is a real opportunity in the marketplace, increasing your promotional work should bring a real increase in business – and that those businesses that have done their research and have spent more on their promotions than their competitors will almost certainly do better in the longer term.  This doesn’t favour smaller competitors – which is why the great business gurus like Michael Porter advise smaller companies to specialise in market niches where they can achieve visibility and success without such a large investment.