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 anna.wood@technologypr.co.uk

Content marketing for leads

Content marketing is high priority for technology businesses. This means that the resources and budget that are allocated to content marketing are growing.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is a form of marketing where you aim to meet prospective customers by posting the content they are looking for on your website. It is a key part of digital marketing for many businesses as it brings new contacts by organic search. That is to say it brings new contacts from people searching on the internet. This means that the “content” you publish should answer the questions your prospective customers are currently asking.   The content can be text, images, info-graphics, video or podcasts, However most of content is simply text. This is probably because it is the easiest and least expensive to create. Video comes second because people seem to love viewing video.

Case studies are very popular for content marketing, especially for technology companies. They are useful for marketing any high value product or service as a success story should encourage more buyers to go ahead and purchase the same solution.

A story or article for content marketing should be unique, i.e. it should not be available anywhere else on the Internet. This is another reason for choosing customer case studies, they belong to your company, and are ideal material to use.

However, companies use other forms of written content as well. “How To” articles and guides to best practice are popular too. News items and comments on industry news are also good. A new piece of research, presented as a report, can work well, because it contains information that is genuinely valuable to the reader.

Whatever the content, it needs to work effectively for search engines as well as human readers. This means that the writer should write with an awareness of the SEO goals, or the text may be edited later to be more suitable for search engines.

While this sounds easy, businesses often find it hard to create enough content that is good enough to use.  It should contain something that people really want to read if it is to work well.

One way to achieve this is to take an editorial approach as editors are used to writing for their readers and understand what makes a good read.

Working to a content plan or content strategy will help.  A content plan will ensure that the writing keeps to the right topics, and that it covers the areas people are interested in. The best content can be often case studies, as mentioned before, or it can be an article based on new research or an interview with a subject expert.

Finally it should be written to a high standard which reflects your company’s brand and values.

Content marketing takes more effort than people realise, but when it is done well, it becomes a very useful source of new contacts. However, when you compare content marketing with other ways of gaining new contacts, such as attending a trade show or staging a marketing campaign, these also come with significant costs. It is not surprising then that if content marketing is to be effective, it is unlikely to be easy or free.