Enterprises cite service as IT vendors' only real differentiation

IT buyers find it difficult to distinguish the competitive difference between IT vendors. This means that it's time to change the way we think about tech marketing.

No one cares about the newest feature in your product. Worse, your would-be buyers can’t tell the difference between you and any of your competitors. This, according to research released by Gartner on “the sad state of differentiation,” which finds that 52 percent of IT buyers find it difficult to distinguish competitive differentiation between providers, declaring “their messages sound the same.”

Time to fire marketing?

The end of speeds and feeds

Maybe. Or maybe it’s time to change the way we think about technology marketing. When was the last time you got truly excited to read a press release about a company’s 5.4 release? I get pitched constantly on such product announcements, and I can’t delete them fast enough. They’re boring, they’re generally not credible (“now 100x faster!”) and they simply don’t matter.

They don’t matter because they’re selling the wrong product.

Rather than selling features, technology companies need to sell a brand, as the offline world has done for years. Coke encourages us to “open happiness.” It doesn’t pitch the number of grams of sugar, or try to describe its taste. Chanel sells a lifestyle that tells its customers “you have arrived” rather than the chemical content of its perfumes. Even car companies like Honda tend to focus marketing activities on branding, not miles per gallon and such.

But tech is different, you say. But you’re wrong. It’s not different, and IT buyers prove it.

When asked by Gartner “How effective do you think most IT providers are in differentiating themselves from their competition?”, a whopping 52 percent gave IT vendors a failing grade:


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Image: Gartner

It gets worse. When asked to comment on why the vendors’ attempts to differentiate themselves fail, IT buyers gave the following top reasons:

  1. Their messages sound the same (79 percent)
  2. Product features and functionality too similar (74 percent)
  3. Hard to gauge product and service quality (65 percent)

Ironically, the more we try to differentiate ourselves with talk of bits and bytes, the more similar we sound and the less we stand out. In fact, of the things that actually do make IT vendors stand out, 67 percent cite “services and support” as the top differentiator.

Companies, not categories

Buried in that data point is a human reality: technology itself doesn’t differentiate, but the people around it can and do. This is doubly so in an industry increasingly driven by developers. Developers can download software from GitHub or another open-source software repository. They interact with other developers in support forums. They don’t need someone to market to them about the various features buried in a new release.

Dilbert calls that fraud. We call it marketing. Either way, it doesn’t work.

It’s particularly problematic in a rapidly changing industry that cares more about companies than categories. Host Analytics CEO Dave Kellogg made this point to me in a phone call this week. As he related, companies like Box or Dropbox don’t fit into neat categories like “content management.” Yet they’ve been very successful by marketing an experience.

Here’s a banner on Box’s home page:


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Image: Box

There’s no mention of file types supported, upload speeds or anything like that. This information can be found if you dig, but it’s not the headline. The headline is the experience, and that experience has little to do with functionality.

Box doesn’t market itself against competitors in the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) space. It markets an experience that happens to include content.

Marketing 301: It’s about the brand

This is the future of technology marketing. It’s about selling an experience to real people, not feature lists to corporate drones.

As it turns out, not only is this the future, but it’s also what makes marketing work today in tech. As Gartner found, 56 percent of IT buyers see ““Brand reputation [as] a key consideration for us for differentiating providers.” But they also feel that most tech companies stink at doing so.

Particularly in this age of the developer, it’s time to rethink tech marketing, focusing more on the experience, and particularly the human experience expressed through services and support.