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.

Ten Marketing Trends for 2020

What will be the new marketing trends for 2020? This is my suggestion. I wold love to know if you agree?

1. Content creation –

I have made this number one on my list of marketing trends for 2020 because so many businesses are professionalising the creation of their marketing “content”. With larger companies already on this route, smaller businesses should follow during the coming year.

Larger businesses are hiring armies of in-house specialists to work as content specialists, and I am sure that the strong demand for digital content skills will continue into 2020. The work requires ideas, facts and clear business writing. Video will be part of this story along with blog posting and podcasts.

With everyone publishing so much information, I see two issues. First, audiences are becoming overloaded and may switch off completely. Second, there is a temptation for companies to follow a similar pattern of content to their competitors. That means that the companies who think harder and work more on their creative approach will be the ones whose content stands out. The challenge for many will be to work creatively and still gain approval from their more risk-averse leadership teams.

2. Website design –

Website design goes hand in hand with content and is also important in the list of marketing trends for 2020. The chief trend in website design is to move from “responsive” (mobile friendly) to “mobile first” in order to maintain search engine ranking. This is the chief factor dictating the current redesign of corporate websites. Websites that are “mobile first” have the text and images arranged in longer columns for scrolling. The challenge I see here is that the size of a smartphone screen is not entirely consistent with the explosive growth we are seeing in content – there is only so much you can see on a small screen! And even smaller screens are coming! We must remember those who are reading their email on a wristwatch! I feel that clarity of message, conciseness and eye-catching graphics will be top priority for digital marketing design in 2020.

3. Sustainability –

We have never been so aware of the environment and the issues around carbon, waste and the natural world under threat. I predict that by the end of 2020 every responsible company will want to present a policy on sustainability. The environment is hugely important so this has to be high on the list of marketing trends for the coming year.

I believe that in 2020 it will be essential for businesses to show that they are good citizens, worthy of our custom and doing their part to mitigate the climate emergency. Not trying to look after the environment will be viewed as bad practice – as bad as tax evasion and exploiting vulnerable workers.

4. Sales leads –

The strongest asset a professional marketer can have on their CV in 2020 is a proven track record of creating viable sales leads in their business sector. Expect strong competition and higher salaries for these individuals in the coming year.

5. Email marketing –

Email marketing has been the mainstay of leads generation for many businesses during 2019, but will this change? As with other digital content, the issue is that there is too much of it. I would like to see those who send out marketing emails every day starting to reduce this to fewer, more important messages.

On the recipient’s side, we are getting better at protecting ourselves from the deluge of uncontrolled email. Corporate email servers can identify scam messages and filter out the “rubbish” from employees’ inboxes. Remember that recipients may need to request the server to put emails from a new supplier in their in-box – this means that some email remains invisible in the junk file, and effectively adds a new “opt-in” to the acceptance of a marketing message.

6. Privacy Legislation –

Privacy Legislation is next on my list of marketing trends for 2020. GDPR set the rules for email marketing during the last three years. However, more privacy legislation governing cookies, SMS and telemarketing is probably around the corner for Europe, and I judge that UK businesses should still respect this after the UK leaves the EU.

European legislators are particularly concerned about the inappropriate collection of data through cookies. When you view a web page, it triggers a response from the server which sets a cookie on your browser. After this, each subsequent visit to the same website will trigger more cookies and build an overall picture of your browsing activity which is far more detailed than most people realise. Cookies for tracking and profiling consumers must be consensual to comply with law. The regulators are particularly concerned about real time bidding for online display ads where personal data may be shared with advertisers, etc.

Meanwhile we’re seeing a strong trend towards data driven marketing and more powerful analytics. This will be an interesting area to watch in 2020. Privacy complaints are probably set to grow as data analysis becomes more powerful and data scientists discover exactly where the privacy boundaries are going to be.

7. Social Media –

Arguments about personal privacy are bound to continue. Facebook was fined $5 billion for its privacy errors last year. People will be watching for more breaches of trust and more opportunities for large penalties.

Meanwhile as each social platform becomes crowded or loses its shine, smart consumers will abandon older platforms and move on to newer ones that promise something novel and better.

8. Business Media –

In my own work, I am particularly interested in the new business models appearing in B2B and technology media. In the technology sectors, publishers are moving closer to IT and component distribution with American businesses leading the way. Indeed publishers’ reader lists are incredibly valuable and publishers have been morphing into marketing businesses for some time. I feel a line has been crossed where many publishers are now primarily marketing or events businesses, where disseminating news and opinion has become a means to the end not the end in itself.  Other publications remain as valued news vehicles and maybe always will be.

9. PR –

PR has changed a little – and I detect more interest in PR for the new decade starting in 2020. The chief change is the arrival of new publications, professional bloggers and influencers.

PR remains a great way to reach out to new audiences. PR content can be placed in third party media, including blog sites and social channels – all these are established routes to the market for most businesses.

10. Personal service –

With the digital world so busy, a handwritten note or a posted brochure can be a great way to attract attention!

These marketing trends should set the tone for the new year ahead.

How will you reach out to new audiences in 2020? If marketing content and PR are part of your plan, and if you may need a copywriter/PR consultant,  please contact

Sustainability – Your customers care – what can marketers do?

The Climate Change movements are not just inspiring but their message is incredibly moving. There seems to be a real chance that people will finally start to take steps to slow down the heating of the planet. The latest headlines about our wildlife are serious. This article isn’t about governments. It is about what businesses and PR / Marketing people in particular can do to play a part mitigating climate change and protecting the environment. There is an important place for sustainability in marketing.

Sustainability may pose a threat to some businesses. I’m thinking of the fast fashion chains and low-cost clothing that is very much part of our lifestyle currently. Interviewing a gentleman in the charity retail sector recently, I learned that the quality of modern clothing isn’t even good enough to recycle it through the charity shop route. This is a worrying trend. Some manufacturers need to rethink their products so that they won’t be left behind in the sustainability revolution. Plastic straws and petrol vehicles come to mind but it goes further than just consumer goods.

Mr Carney’s speech in March expressed his vision that the Financial Sector will be able to direct funds towards more sustainable investments and build  a low carbon economy.

Sustainabilty in marketing

Marketers also have a voice, and should be thinking to the future. They may be able to influence product innovation towards a more sustainable path.  Markets want more products  of all kinds that contribute to solving the climate issues. There will be amazing opportunities for businesses that grasp this – hence the success of electric vehicles and the vegan sausage roll. It will be important to consider sustainability in marketing planning as well as communications and packaging.

I want to make my own work as “sustainable” as possible and am wondering what else I can do? Being office-based, most of what I throw away is paper, packaging, print cartridges and spent plastic pens. I’m already re-cycling paper and cartridges. I can print on both sides of my paper and maybe I’ll switch to a fountain pen to avoid plastic pens. I need more information about how products are made to help me make these decisions. I want to do more, and co-incidentally I found inspiration in the breakfast cereal made by Alara.

Alara is using compostable packaging and won the Sustainability Pioneer Award at the 2019 Sustainable Food Awards. What I like about Alara is their optimism, and their belief that we can make a difference – besides their delicious healthy cereal. Marketers have sometimes been accused of “green-washing” their products, ie overstating their green credentials, but Alara seem to be genuinely trying harder than most businesses.

Packaging falls right in the Marketing area, and we should not waste time in using less plastic and more cardboard and trying new sustainable packaging materials. The Royal Horticultural Society is setting a good example – they have recently changed to compostable packaging for their magazine. All publishers should be moving this way.

Marketing and Public Relations people can influence corporate policies and should do what they can to promote sustainability in marketing at their companies and help the climate emergency. For example:

  • Look for packaging that is plastic-free, compostable or reusable
  • Provide details of the carbon footprint for your company or product, if you dare
  • Outlaw disposable coffee cups and single-use plastic bags, including the giveaway bags at trade shows
  • Use less air travel, forget Air Miles and use videoconferencing
  • Use public transport, walk more
  • Promote cycling
  • Vegetables – consume less meat, choose more vegetarian options, choose organic, home-grown or locally grown produce – key for businesses with catering
  • Use energy generated from sun, wind and water – a greener energy provider
  • Buy recycled and greener brands, for example, Ecover cleaning products
  • Plant trees
  • Have beehives on your roof or land
  • Support a charity that acts to promote sustainability

I am sure I have not thought of everything and I want more information!

What else can we do?

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.

No retainer for PR services?

Why is the traditional retainer for PR services being replaced by a project fee?

A retainer is a fee paid in advance to secure the first option on a service. it is the traditional fee structure used to employ a public relations consultancy. The PR agency is effectively on stand-by to assist the client company with work as it arises. If the work relates to news events or possibly crisis management, the agency could be needed at any time. This is because their work is driven by external events. It means that the PR service can’t be planned into a calendar in the normal way. In these cases the most appropriate way to manage the business relationship is probably to charge a retainer for PR.

Retainer for PR plus?

A retainer was the traditional way to hire a PR consultancy. Today many companies are looking for a different kind of PR service which is more like a promotional communications service. It comes under the umbrella of Marketing and is closely allied with Content Marketing and Digital Marketing.

For this kind of work, the client company will have a marketing communications plan that has probably been constructed around planned announcements, product launches and trade shows. They may have a content plan as well. This can all be pre-arranged in detail. This means that the PR consultancy’s work is mostly planned, and the work can be costed fairly accurately.

This is the reason why my own consultancy works on project fees, with no retainers. I am able to estimate the cost of clients’ projects and I have always worked this way.

A freelance PR consultant is valued for the flexible service they offer, but it is usually better if there is some continuity to the work. Issuing a single press release, for example, is not always efficient. There are several reasons for this. A consultant can work more effectively when he or she has a warm relationship with the editors who matter. With regular clients, the consultant will gain a deep understanding of their company and market, so the work will go much better. He or she will also be well acquainted with the senior executives in the company.

Besides this, issuing one press release is a like running one advertisement. If a company wants to build brand awareness and recall, it is better to run an ad campaign that continues, to make more impact.

Also, the best PR consultancies usually have ongoing commitments to their regular clients, and may not be willing to take on occasional tasks.

There is another, more subtle reason for preferring an ongoing client/consultancy relationship to a retainer for a PR service. It becomes obvious when you begin working with journalists. The relationship with editors and publications is not just a one-way street. We can send them our news material, but they may also contact us with requests when they need information. They may have questions that your executives can answer, or they may be looking for photographs.

These requests will be outside your marketing plan, but if you have a regular  arrangement with your PR consultancy, you are likely to benefit from extra opportunities to provide interviews, case studies and images.