What I learned in 53 interviews with IT Directors

What dawned on me, mostly, is that we marketers of tech aren’t quite getting it right.

We’re often talking to ourselves.

Here’s what I mean.

For a number of client projects, I have been interviewing IT and technology managers with all sorts of titles. They had all recently installed some new technology, or undertaken a major project of some sort. They were in big companies, small companies, start-ups, government agencies, police departments and lumber yards.

My task was to create articles and case studies and application stories that would be helpful to other IT people in similar situations.

Why did they buy this thing? What didn’t they want it at first? What were they trying to fix? What other solutions did they look at? What pushed them over the fence? Why did they ditch the other options? How did it work out?

Mainly I was trying to get the stories straight, to write good articles and case studies.

But in all this I began to hear some patterns. And it started to scare me.

What these people talked about sounded way different from what we talked about in our happy marketing stuff. I realized we were talking right past these people. We harped on the wrong things. We had the dynamics and triggers wrong. It was off.

We were talking to markets and job titles and enterprises. Not to the telecom manager on the second floor who had specific problems to fix, or projects to get done. We were talking like marketers.

Here are some of the recurring themes that changed how I think about marketing tech and B2B products.

(Much of the following will be a huge ‘duh’ to sales people. You know, the folks who actually talk to customers all day, and get them to buy things. But for those of us who sit in the office typing stuff, this will be a revelation.)

1. They talk English, not marketingspeak

In 78 hours of interviews, I never once heard an IT pro say anything like “Our need was to enhance operational efficiency and reduce downtime, using class-leading products and solutions for managing an enterprise network.”

What human would say such a thing? Only faceless corporations talk like that.

All the IT pros I interviewed talked plain. Yes, they used technical terms and acronyms. But always in plain English sentences. Not in pompous marketing terms like paradigms and transformational initiatives and other such crap.

Talk human to human. Like humans talk.

2. They work at ground level. Not in lofty concept land.

They don’t think about “enabling seamless collaboration and greater productivity throughout the enterprise.”

That is all blue sky and apple pie and website talk. They know they aren’t affecting the profitability of the company (unless it’s a three-person firm.) It’s not their job.

They really don’t care about ROI either, except as a way to justify what they want to do.

They are not empowering workers. That is brochure blather.

When they do think of abstractions like ‘productivity’ and ‘competitive advantage’ it’s always in very narrow terms. Such as in saving time and hassle for their people. Or being able to push things out way faster than before. (“We can get a device turned up in about a minute. Now, one of my good techs can manage three applications.”)

Let them see this thing working. Bring it down to table level. Be specific. Give examples.

3. They ‘buy’ solutions. No one ‘sells’ them products.

A recurring line: “We researched cloud services (or metro ethernet or virtualized servers or CDNs.)  We talked to a bunch of vendors. We talked to a bunch of people. Then WE decided, we saw what we needed, and WE went with it. They are evaluating and buying. NOT being sold.

I know, this notion has been around since the 16th century. But it’s so old it’s fresh again.

Which means I cringe when I see marketers saying crap like “Let us show you how XYZ can improve your user response time.” Or “See why XCD is the optimum solution for your high-bandwidth applications.”

No. Tell them what you have, how it works, nineteen ways to use it, where it helps. You will also win huge points by telling them where it won’t work. Don’t talk about the product per se. Talk about cool things you can do with it.

Half the time, they won’t remember the name of the product they bought. (“It was the MXV. . . wait,  the MVV . . . whatever. The InstaVista?  VistaInsta? The 80-8tt9? Or 8988qt?)

But they alway know what they can do with it. Start there.

4. They want to be responsive to the enterprise.

They seem to get the biggest jazz out of being the ‘go-to, can-do’ people.

“We need to get six new locations on line by the end of the month. Can you do it?”

“Our people want to use iPads and iPhones to get their email. Is that possible?”

“The financial people want to get all our divisions on the same platform. How should we do that?”

They love it when they can fix a problem, please users, come up with good ideas. (“We used to get 48 complaints a day about the system being slow.  Now, hardly ever.”)  They get kudos for pulling things off, making things run, putting out fires.

Make them look good. Make them look like geniuses. That’s where the money is.

5. They buy on gut feel.

When asked, IT directors couldn’t always articulate why they went with one option over the other. Sure, they had some pat answer that sounded smart. (Oddly, that’s when they began to sound like bullet points: “Improved scalability”)

But that was all after the fact.

There was clearly a lot of intuition involved. The solution just ‘felt’ right. Or they just plain liked it. They could picture it working in their shop. They understood it. They could picture themselves convincing their boss, if they had to. Some logic, but mostly magic.

First, they liked it.

They backed into a nice-sounding rationale from there.

So what to do?

Thing is, you can’t directly address any of this in your marketing copy. Well, except to talk plain English, to get down into the real world, to talk ‘cool things you can do.’ You can do all that starting right now.

But you can’t say “Look like a hero to your boss.”  Or, “In your gut, you know it’s right.”

That will never work.

And please, please don’t say “You don’t want products, you want solutions.”

Here’s what I do. Try it.

I picture Jason McJ across the desk. Or Mike T, the guy who ran the website for the sunglasses company. Or Amanda, who worked herself up from a customer service rep, to the person who runs the Help center.

Then I start talking to them. As if I’m sending them an email. Or chatting on the phone.

Start there.