In 2002-2003, I was working on a massive website consolidation program for Sun Microsystems (now Oracle), helping them to consolidate six or seven huge websites with millions of pages of content into a single hub. This hub would become the incredibly successful Sun Developer Network (developers.sun.com). I was the Principal Technical Architect on the project, and we were working closely with the marketing, IT, and product management organizations, along with Sun Microsystems’ agency partner (frog design) to restructure all the developer content. The goal was to present the content, including information about hardware, software, products, downloads, customer forums, and documentation, into a unified branded portal to engage and market to the developer and technical community.
The project was your typical super-complex experience design / content-wrangling / data mining / taxonomy and metadata tagging / migration / componentization / publishing / site-search / re-platforming love-fest. It was actually a very successful project.
Among all the other things I learned on that project (including how a web page can be its own “grandpa” in the site breadcrumb!), I learned a special lesson about marketing and the technical buyer: engineers, developers, solution architects and system administrators hate being marketed to. It was almost never OK for them to be interrupted in their consumption of the information on the site by content that was not completely aligned with their needs and interests, and they were suspicious of anything that resembled a banner, an offer, or any other advertisement.
The website designers and the marketing team were having a lot of back-and-forth discussions. They were coming up with grand designs for cross-selling, personalization, retargeting, and all the things that are pervasive in virtually every ecommerce experience we encounter today.
These techniques were cutting edge in 2002, but one fact remained. All the user testing and interviews with their target market said the same thing: “Do not market to me, just give me what I need, and I will be a happy customer.”
“Just give me what I need…”
Sounds easy, right? Find out what they need, give it to them and they will be happy. Well, as we all know, 15+ years later, that is still incredibly difficult to achieve. Even in the era of big data, knowing what a technical buyer needs is, at best, an educated guess, and at worst, a catastrophe waiting to happen. Recommend the wrong component to an engineer and you could end up with a collapsed building, exploding rocket, poisoned hamburger, etc. And now, with the virtual arms-race that every digital platform purveyor is in to deliver the richest customer experience, I am reminded again: “Do not market to me.”
But what does that really mean?
Since that time, I have designed and delivered many more technical and B2B solutions; building portals, ecommerce sites, and applications for technical, clinical, industrial and all-around expert users. Through each of those experiences, I have learned a great deal about giving technical buyers what they need.
And now, in the midst of a confounding array of ever-more-complex websites, some “anti-sites” are clearly breaking ranks with the “make it like Amazon” conventional wisdom. They are delivering a fast, unrefined, powerful, barebones user experiences for technical buyers. Those sites are adored by users, and marveled at by the industry. I won’t give names in this post, but some careful attention to these sites yields valuable insights about how (not) to market to the technical buyer. On the surface, they appear not to contain ads, cross-sell / up-sell or much, if any, product merchandizing.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that much B2B business is still being carried out today in the old-fashioned way: person-to-person. But as businesses try to scale, and as users become more and more accustomed to transacting online, (even orders of $250K or more!) the digital channels will carry the full weight of business growth. And through all this, companies will be striving to keep up with the new definition of: “Don’t market to me. Just give me what I need.”
This Wednesday, July 26th, at 1 p.m. EDT, I will be exploring the topic of “Marketing to the Unmarketable,” because even after 15 years, that statement, “Don’t market to me,” is still a challenge. I will take a deep dive, accompanied by some trusted experts who are living with this problem, learning from hard lessons, and through a series of approximations, aiming to answer the question: “What do technical buyers really need?”
The discussion will center around:
Technical buyer personas and customer journeys
The role of content and functionality in engaging technical buyers before, during, and after purchase
The value of analytics, AI, and machine learning in supporting the customer experience
Some real-world examples from the market today where these ideas are being put into practice