In this forum I’ve discussed many topics related to software and hardware companies over the last several years. One of my favorite topics is the tech product promotion methods.
I work with a lot of early stage software companies which are at a stage where gaining (or regaining) market traction is crucial to moving the company forward. In these situations finding successful, profitable promotional programs is quite often one of the key activities that will make the difference between success and premature death of the company.
Same old, same old product promotion doesn’t work
So what’s the best way to promote software and hardware products? If you’re asking that question thinking there’s an actual answer, you are likely on a path to failure. One-size-fits-all promotional programs rarely work and if they do, it’s probably just lucky. The most important thing to remember about promotion (and marketing in general) is that each company and product line represents a unique situation. Even with the exact same company and product line, a promotional program that worked 12 months ago has a high chance of failure today. Markets are not static, particularly fast moving, high growth technology markets. And there is a wide range of product and market types within the high technology business sector. The proper promotional approach for a $500,000 enterprise software application with 1000 potential customers is far different from the best approach for a $19/month SaaS package with 5 million potential targets. This seems obvious, but I see a lot of folks falling back on “things that have worked before” in past lives, even if that “before” isn’t all that relevant their the current situation.
If you find yourself falling back on some tried and true formula, you’re thinking “behind” the market, not “ahead” of it. I always chuckle a bit when I see a company post position specifications for a new VP Marketing which states they are seeking candidates only from 10 specific, large software companies that have had recent success in a particular market. It’s very likely that one of those candidates will bring along the “formula” that made “Giant Software Company C” a huge success. Unfortunately, the strategy may be terribly inappropriate for their new company, particularly at a different size/time/market stage. This is an example of “shooting behind the market”—and with tech product promotion programs, thinking ahead of the market isn’t just preferable, its required.
The reason for this is that what usually works best in tech product promotions are novel new approaches (or new spins on old approaches, or approaches borrowed from other market segments, etc.). Once something works, others in a market segment take notice and the copy-cat campaigns flood the communication channels, which greatly reduce a successful program’s effectiveness. Nothing works forever (especially high tech promo programs), so you need to be constantly trying to find the next new promotional program—again, out ahead of the market. It’s similar to when the coach of a sports team installs a new system for his team—it throws the competition off balance for a time, but they eventually adjust and match or counteract what is providing the advantage. And usually copy it form themselves.
First Art in Initial Product Promotion
So how do you approach finding a successful product promotion program for your company—do you just guess? Well, not quite. I always say that promotion is a combination of “Art” and “Science”—with unfortunately, the Art part coming first. The thing is, you will NEVER know with any level of certainty whether a promotional approach will be successful–until you try it. So there is a bit of Art in formulating the initial “test programs”. But of course you don’t guess. The initial program is put together utilizing the experience of the marketer, their past experience with programs in similar market conditions, a snapshot reading of the market conditions and current product position, the amount of budget available and of course the overall goals of the company. But up front, the key is to make small, intelligent bets to start.
Then Science in Downstream Product Promotion
The key word in the above paragraph is “test”. This may be the most important concept in the whole topic of promotion—and unfortunately, one that is dramatically underutilized.
Marketing promotional programs are all too often put together haphazardly, without much analysis of the specific situation. Often they are designed in a certain way because the VP Marketing or CEO has always done it that way, or they are comfortable with a certain approach. In the “old days” executives without much marketing experience liked to see print ads, because in their minds, that was what marketing promotion looked like. If the VP Sales is involved in formulating the promotion budget, trade shows and conferences might be what he’s used to. Or seminar-style promotions might have been preferred, if the executive comes from a market with very high price points. While all of these methods may be very applicable to an individual situation, they are, on average, some of the higher cost, lower return activities in the promotion bag of tricks. Overall, I see thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars wasted on programs that have been given very little thought prior to large execution expenditures. Worse yet, these programs are often approved and implemented with no ability to judge whether or not the chosen programs end up being a good investment for the company. This brings me to the measurement part of promotional marketing.
I’ve never been a big fan of marketing programs which aren’t measurable. When measurement doesn’t occur, it’s often because program implementation just isn’t thought through well enough and accurate measurements could have been put in place—but aren’t. Some programs however, such as “Image or Brand Advertising” just don’t lend itself to correlating the program results to the corporation’s performance. While there is a place for such programs, I recommend that they be left to those monster corporations who can afford ambiguous results within some segment of a their very large budget. For the preponderance of companies out there where every nickel counts, I highly recommend that you for the most part stick to programs with results you can measure. In most cases these days, that means digital (online) marketing.
Formulate, Test & Measure your Product Promotions
So the formula uses some judgment to place your initial product promotion bets. Always make sure that you objectively test different key elements(such as price) of your offer with several controlled options and obsessively, continuously measure the results. Good marketing programs mean always testing and measuring new versions of each key element, which allows you to continuously improve and refresh a campaign. Also remember, measure-ability doesn’t just happen, it needs to be “designed in” upfront. If you don’t think about measure-ability for a specific program until after the fact, you’ll likely have lost the opportunity to measure it at all—or at least as well as you could have with some simple planning prior to program execution.
Top 6 Tech Product Promotion Bets
As I stated above, every product promotion or marketing program needs to be individualized for the current time, market, product line and budget. You’ve got to start placing your bets somewhere (the “art” segment of finding great promo programs, as discussed above). For someone out there just getting started or trying to evaluate where to go next, here are some good programs to consider as part of your basic marketing promotional approach:
Press Relations (PR)—generally my favorite marketing program for most high tech companies. This activity is intended to provide your products and company with reviews and publicity in high tech trade journals, vertical market publications and depending upon the product, possibly general circulation newspapers and magazines, as well. If you have a good product that fills a need, getting positive reviews will provide your company with tremendous leverage and credibility, helping fill the prospect pipeline with eager potential customers. Depending upon your particular market and resource level, hiring a PR firm or a “do it yourself” approach might be most appropriate. But nearly every company with a real solution for a particular market needs to have an active PR program of some sort. The key here is that you need real “news” the press will be interested in–or your campaign will fail. A secondary benefit to an active PR program in the Internet era is that can be helpful to your website’s SEO.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)—unless you’re selling a $1,000,000 product with a potential customer universe numbering less than 100, this is something almost every company should be doing. SEO is the activity which helps your website be found “higher up” in the results of a search conducted by someone using a search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. No time to go into the details here, but it is a high return activity if done well. A little investment of time or money upfront can yield a strong return in revenue and profit gains. Much like PR above, even with no budget to outsource this to an expert, you can conduct an SEO review and make improvements to your website on your own.
Social Media Marketing – This is the latest new marketing craze to go mainstream. There are many social networks out there, the most well known are Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. There are also many good vertically-oriented social media sites. Depending upon your business some or all may be applicable. It’s important to know what you’re doing before charging headlong here–the important thing is to generally avoid in-your-face aggressive marketing, but instead provide useful content, advice to establishing thought leadership. If you haven’t embarked on this successfully yet it’s best to seek advice when starting.
Direct Email to House Lists—if you’re not doing a good job of capturing contact information on your customers and prospects, shame on you! Lack of doing a good job in this area is one of the more striking deficits that I see in the marketing efforts of tech companies, particularly the early stage variety. It’s especially critical to capture email addresses and do it in such a manner that the customer or prospect grants you explicit permission to contact them by email. You’ve likely spent a lot of money making contact with each of these prospects or customers initially; down the road a well-executed direct email campaign to sell them additional products and services can a bring quick boost to your revenue with nearly zero incremental costs. Every software and hardware company should strive to have an active direct email campaign of some sort, to allow your brand to maintain mind-share within your target audience as well as to mine your installed base for high margin revenue.
Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising—(also known as Search Engine Marketing or SEM) while this product promotion area has gotten quite a bit more competitive over the years I still recommend it as a basic marketing program for a great majority of tech companies. These are the small “text ads” that appear next to organic Search Engine results and are labeled typically as “Sponsored Links”. Banner Ads on Websites are also available, my favorite of which are “remarketing” ads to your website visitors. Pay-Per-Click programs are the internet advertising analogy to prints ads in the old printed media world, much like organic search engine results are the online analogy to editorial placements in the print world. The two best known Pay per Click service is Google Adwords and Bing Ads. Although profitability has declined with this marketing promotion method–for companies with highly target-able or niche markets, this can be a very cost-effective and rewarding activity.
Direct Email to Rented Opt-in Lists—this is also an product promotion activity that has taken a hit in popularity over the last few years, due to the problem of SPAM and over-saturation of email in general. But if you’ve done a good job in target marketing overall and you have been successful with emailing to house lists and Pay-Per-Click advertising programs, focused direct email programs to targeted lists may still be useful. Avoid Email Shot-gunning as it almost never works and can harm your brand immensely if poorly done. Just remember, direct marketing in every medium is all about the offer and the list. So if you have a strong offer and are able to rent a list that fits closely with your target audience, email to outside lists can still be a contributor within your overall promotional plan if done carefully.
I hope that this is has been a useful outline of the basics of high tech product promotional methods. As always, I’m very interested in your feedback. Post a comment with your own views.
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