Sysadmin blog Traditional marketing is all about risk management. Say nice things about your product. Do whatever you can to prevent people from saying bad things about your product. Run down the competition, but do so without being obvious about it. Never under any circumstances admit you're wrong. This "control the message" marketing philosophy is showing rapidly diminishing returns, especially when marketing to technologists.
To put it bluntly: young people can see right through this crap and they are functionally immune to things like product placement, jiggling imagery, spamvertising, cold calling and high-pressure sales. Not only have two whole generations been inoculated against this crap, using these techniques actively triggers enmity among today's discerning technologists.
A new breed of advertising techniques is thus called for. Ones so at odds with the traditional approach that debates about them in marketing circles make Linux distro superiority catfights look like happy kitten fun time. The two big ones currently in use in IT are content marketing and community management.
A sizeable chunk of the blogosphere takes part in content marketing. Many YouTube channels, corporate blogs, even exceptionally useful books count as well. Microsoft's Virtual Academy is also a good example.
The more useful the content that has been created, the better the content marketing is. The purpose behind content marketing is to provide something of value to the content consumer in exchange for their time. Ideally, that "something of value" will push your product; in IT circles it typically takes the form of a review or a white paper.
Content marketing can be done in a few different ways. On the "fairly direct" end of the scale you have white papers, WebEx demos and videos commissioned and published by the vendor directly. If you're a content creator this is a truly great time to be at the top of your craft; the money to be made cranking out this stuff is pretty good.
Slightly more indirect are cases wherein an advertiser will approach a blog and ask it to publish a review or a series of articles on a given topic. In a content marketing world there is a lot of editorial freedom accorded to the writer. Accuracy is viewed as more important than being positive in a review; content marketers have figured out that reviewers have to be free to highlight the positive and negative if their audience are going to trust them.
A blog might also receive a request for a series of articles to be published on a given topic; say "10 articles over the next month about Infiniband". The details are left to the individual writers; the content marketer is mostly concerned that the content created be of high enough quality that it drives page views.
The content marketers in this example want not only that Infiniband be made forefront in everyone's mind over the course of that month but that the information disbursed in the writing be valuable enough that readers understand the technology more thoroughly. If content consumers understand the technology more thoroughly – either a specific product or the technology in general – they will be more comfortable making use of it.
Content marketing isn't always paid for. We all know PR types expend a great deal of effort bombarding the inboxes of journalists with press releases in the hope they write a "news" article about their client; content marketers spend that same kind of time trying to get reviewers to review a product or influence bloggers to write about a subject their client cares about. They'll even be found mucking about in forums or on social media trying to stir up conversation relevant to the topics at hand, usually with links to relevant white papers, articles and so forth.
Community management is closely related to content marketing but is so philosophically divergent from traditional marketing as to be practically the inverse. Traditional marketing tries to tell groups of people what to think, believe and feel. It tries everything from tying those emotions and thoughts (thanks, Pavlov) to imagery, jingles, smells and so-forth straight through to subliminal messaging. Community management is about listening to your customers.
The canonical example of excellent community management is VMware's John Troyer. Credited by many for turning VMware's user community into a bona fide cult, his efforts have become the barometer by which many in their field measure their professional success.
The key is listening. VMware creates an avalanche of legitimately useful content; much of it responding to requests for more information from the community. VMware recognises singular individuals within the community by elevating them to vExperts; a symbol of respect and a professional achievement that signifies a thorough grasp not only of VMware's offerings, but the theory underlying their operation.
Perhaps more importantly, when the community gets grumpy about something Troyer is quick to notice and he has the authority within VMware to kick the matter upstairs. The listening part is key; simply "using" the community by attempting to create a cult following or viral memes without actually responding to community needs increasingly doesn't work.
The best part of any conference: the bar at the after-party (Spiceworld 2012)
The community has responded to this simple act of listening with great enthusiasm. You do not merely get together with fellow sysadmins; you go for vBeers. vBrownbag webexes are highly regarded and I have been told several times that if you aren't at the VMunderground party come VMworld then you don't exist. (Sadly I appear to currently be non-extant.) VMUGs are heavily attended the world over while VMware sells out VMworld every year.
Of all these, only VMworld is run by VMware itself; the community runs the rest. This is community marketing; nurture a community so passionate about your company that with a relatively minor input of additional resources they voluntarily set about evangelising your brand and bringing others into the community. Pretty big return for the simple act of listening.
Your eyes are the prize
The first rule of 21st-century marketing is quite simply "have a good product to sell". The problem with selling your product in the technology space is that it seems lots of people have good products to sell which can compete fairly well. Brand recognition doesn't mean as much when selling to techies; we are types that rely on case studies, statistics, feeds and speeds.
A combination of recent economic woes and the inevitable march of technology are diminishing the job pool for traditional systems administrators. Many of those are moving up in to management; tomorrow's CIOs aren't MBAs, they're sysadmins with 10 or 20 years at the coalface under their belt. Selling to sysadmins was always hard; selling to CIOs is becoming so as well.
For sysadmins it means learning to spot a whole new breed of advertising. It also means that among capable companies – those who want to still be around in 10 years - CIOs and sysadmins don't need to represent 100,000 seats in order to have a real voice.
The technology vendors that win this decade will not simply be ones that produce a decent widget and sell it at an acceptable price. Making their product easy to understand through value-add content marketing and giving customers a voice through community management are soon going to pass from "novel concepts" to "expected". Those that don't figure this out – and soon – will find that the rest of this decade proves to be interesting times indeed. ®