The “Run Screaming” Imperative

A good friend of mine runs IT for one of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio companies. He fits the IT profile pretty well: he grew up around computers (his dad was a 30+ year veteran of Big Blue), goofed around with programming and hacking (I remember spending 5th-grade sleepovers typing in lines of code to program "Battleship", not to mention hours of "Zork"), he’s into gadgets and motorcycles and servers. Now he is the primary gatekeeper for the technology infrastructure for his company.

If you’re not heavily into direct marketing, you might be surprised to know that this demographic is one of the most expensive to reach effectively. IT decision-makers are one of the most highly prized market segments because they command an enormous percentage of the aggregate business capital budget. Not only are they difficult to reach because the demand is so high and the channels saturated, but they’re typically distrustful of marketers and prickly about having their privacy breached in any way. It’s one of those cosmic allignments that make you wonder about the order of things: a group that hates more than anything to be bothered, smack in the bullseye for people that will stop at nothing to bother them.

So I called my friend yesterday to ask him for some insight about the IT purchasing process. IT purchasing is highly studied by marketers and analysts, and I’m working on a study for one of my company’s clients to look at one particular facet of the process. The study is being designed to better understand the role the Internet plays in actually influencing corporate IT purchases. Much of the structure of industry vertical sites on the Web is tailor-made to influence corporate buying–research, opinions, competitive comparisons, pricing and ROI data–and we want to understand more about the effectiveness of different Internet channels at different points in the buying process.

What’s interesting about the discussion we had is not the insight that will help shape the study–everything pretty much begins with a Google search to start exploring product options, usenet groups to hear war stories about particular products, calls to peers to compare notes, etc. etc. What was interesting was my friend’s characterization of marketing. For him, it’s basically been reduced to a big game: marketers come after him all day long, and he does absolutely everything he can to avoid them. If you call to sell him something, you’ll never reach him. The receptionist will put you into a mailbox that he monitors without ever revealing his name or title. If you send him email, it will be scanned and ignored. That’s par for the course, and typical for IT.

What’s interesting to me is his characterization of those stalwart IT influencing tools: the whitepapers, demos, benchmarking guides and analyst reports. These are touchpoints IT marketers rely on to get their message out, and if my friend is any kind of a canary-in-the-coal-mine, the outlook isn’t good. His characterization of "the game" is that he now assiduously avoids any content in which he can’t clearly discern the motivations of the messenger. Benchmarking study by a leading analyst: who’s funding them? Buyer’s guide in a magazine: who’s advertising? Discussion guides on a popular forum: who’s seeding the boards?

My take on these issues has always been: read them, and think critically about the source. My friend’s take: avoid them and look for more reliable information from peers. He summed up his attitude when he told me he treats it as a game: "any time I think anything has been influenced by marketing, I run screaming."

Instinct or environment?

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