Positioning is a funny thing. You want to hoist a flag that others will rally around–something unique and compelling, something easily understood and valued. It has to be different enough that you stand apart from the competition. But it has to be familiar enough that customers quickly understand what you’re selling. That simple dichotomy–be different, be familiar–sometimes produces a viral feedback loop that can slow innovation across an entire industry.
Take the marketing software industry. A few years ago, I ran a research program at the CMO Council studying the adoption of CRM and related applications. At the time, I identified nearly a thousand vendors creating applications that in some way integrated with CRM. Campaign management. Lead scoring. Sales force automation. You name it.
Some of these applications were truly innovative, some were flavor-of-the-month knock offs. Many were simply automating some small piece of annoying manual labor. But all were targetted toward the same audience–marketing executives. Now, historically, marketing executives haven’t been the most sophisticated consumers of technology. Most marketers with the experience to be a senior executive today went to school before the rise of the Internet, and any new wave of technology can be a learning curve. There are plenty of savvy early adopters, to be sure, but taken as a whole, the marketing profession is still in the very early stages of technology adoption.
So when hundreds of technology vendors meet up with marketing executives, they have a fundamental challenge. How do you communicate a value proposition that senior marketing executives will understand and appreciate? Well, you listen of course. What do marketing executives say they need? Not surprisingly, marketing executives frequently list the challenges that keep them up at night. Generate actionable leads. Demonstrate marketing ROI. Deliver performance metrics and accountability.
And this is where the ideal of differentiation meets the survival imperative of finding common ground with your customer.
As a wide spectrum of application vendors face the obstacle of communicating their Techonology Difference to non-technical marketing executives, the vendors tune their message to the familiar things marketing executives want to hear. Leads. Metrics. Accountability. ROI. Which is fine in the isolation of a sales cycle, but rather problematic as a general trend. Soon, the vendors are all singing the same tune as a chorus, and everything starts sounding the same to marketers. Everything is about generating leads, delivering metrics, providing accountability. And then you find, as I did when I was doing my study, that anything remotely related to CRM that you put in front of a marketer elicits the same response. "I already have Salesforce. Why do I need this?"
This is the Emperor’s New Clothes Factory. Who’s going to tell the Emperor he’s naked when it’s vastly easier to sell more nakedness? And there’s plenty of nakedness to sell. Selling ROI is great, until marketers stop innovating in the absence of a proven business case. Selling metrics is fine, but to paraphrase Einstein, not everything that can be measured is important, and not everything that is important can be measured. Selling accountability is wonderful, but accountability doesn’t guide execution. The problem is a general trend toward easily digestable selling points that minimize innovation and slow the marketing technology adoption curve.
Sure marketers will figure this all out in time. SaaS applications are gradually pushing back IT control over marketing technology, and the emerging next generation of marketers has come of age in a far more wired world. But the evolutionary cycle is excrutiatingly slow and littered with dead bodies. Can’t we speed this up?
What we need as a marketing ecosystem is a big crucible where enterprise marketers and technology vendors can meet outside of the selling cycle. A forum where marketers can learn about technology innovation, and where vendors–particularly their product marketing teams–can better understand enterprise marketing challenges. With more common ground in our understanding of the marketing challenges technology can solve, vendors can develop applications that are not only compellingly different, but meaningfully familiar.
As it happens, I’m in the planning stages of this year’s Elite Retreat in Hawaii, and this issue is shaping up to be one our tracks. If you’re a senior marketing executive with an interest in marketing technology, or a marketing technology vendor, drop me a note and let me know what you think.