Maddening Messages

Want to drive your competitors insane (assuming they are not already)?

A recent thread exploded on a CMO web site asking the basic question “What do you do that drives your competitors crazy?” Most of the answers were pap, lazily resting on vague superlatives such as “listen to our customers” and “being honest”. I chimed in (of course) with my favorite “poisoning the well”, which does not imply spiking competitor water coolers with toxic substances.

Marketers tend to focus on one key customer stakeholder persona. They put 80% or more of their effort into recruiting the job title they believe will cause a company to buy their product. This is not a bad strategy, but when you have two or more competitors grooming the same stakeholder, getting their attention becomes increasingly impossible. If you are coming from behind, it may be useless.

The counter strategy (and a good primary strategy too) is to talk to other people. In any reasonably complex B2B sales campaign, there are at least three stakeholders; the executive, the manager, the user. There may be many more, such as the staffer, the risk manager, the money man, etc.  Each stakeholder has some authority, be it sanctioned or de facto. For example, a Chief Information Officer (executive) who tries to implement tools that his techies (users/implementers) do not like will be vetoed by his underlings. The veto may happen after the fact, through poisoned culture or even sabotage, but the veto will hold.

By communicating with non-primary stakeholders, you can influence group decisions when you cannot reach the primary stakeholder. This was key to Silicon Strategies Marketing’s strategy for SuSE Linux many years ago. Red Hat owned the mind of techies, so we started talking to CxOs. If you are proactive, you communicate to every stakeholder completely and at the appropriate time to block all forms of competitive communications. But if you can’t, then you can at least find one or more who make a difference from indirect angles (think of it as asymmetric warfare for marketers).

Communicating to non-primary stakeholders can create many useful situations:

Force The Issue: Different products offer different benefits. At the core, one or more differences are materially important to the company, as opposed to being preferential to the stakeholder. By communicating to non-primary stakeholders, these core issues eventually come to the surface. If your product better satisfies the material needs of the company, you win.

Create A Barrier: Even a secretary has veto power (if you don’t think so, cold-call a CEO and see how quickly you get vetoed). If you have a stakeholder who has veto power, you can at least block your competition.

Open The Debate: With our SuSE strategy, we wanted to be on the short list, knowing that if we got that far we were very likely to win deals. Communicating to non-primary stakeholders often assures your product is at least reviewed.

Bias Group By Proxy: In some cases, the non-primary stakeholder has a lot of pull despite not being the key decision maker. If you are very different to them and can bias their brand preference, they will carry your brand and differentiation into the discussion. If the rest of the stakeholders are reasonably indifferent about one or another product, you create a brand bias by proxy.

When going to market, know all your stakeholders and don’t fear wasting time communicating to the non-primary ones. They may make the difference. If your competitors are not talking to them, it will drive your competition nuts.


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