6 Marketing Secrets from C-level Government Leaders

photo_Allan-Rubin_65x85by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

Government marketers don’t often get the opportunity to hear directly from the people we’re trying to influence. Sure, we attend conferences and events and listen to the feds talking to one another in moderated discussions, keynotes, and chalk talks. But it’s rare to hear them giving advice to marketers on the best ways to get our messages through to them.

That’s what happened on October 18 at the GovMark Council’s “Selling to Uncle Sam” event. Steve O’Keeffe led the “Connecting with Government” panel which featured three speakers from the audience we try to reach every day:

  • Simon Szykman, CIO, Department of Commerce
  • Keith Trippie, Executive Director, Office of the CIO, Enterprise System Development Office, Department of Homeland Security
  • Dr. Michael Valivullah, CTO, USDA, NASS

After describing their technology and business priorities, the panelists gave us helpful hints on what they click, open, attend, interact with, listen to, forward, and ignore. I heard six key themes emerge for marketers:

1) Do Your Homework

The panel said this multiple times in different ways: “I don’t have time to educate you on my business issues. Do your research in advance, learn what my specific problems are, and be prepared to tell me how you’re going to solve them.” If you haven’t figured that out before you send an invitation, fill their in-box, or pick up the phone, you’re likely to be dismissed. (Shameless plug: immixGroup clients can use our Market Intelligence organization to make this easier).

2) Make your Communication Relevant

Many marketing and sales initiatives begin with broad assumptions and one-size-fits-all messaging about a generic solution. They’re ignored, and it doesn’t take long for you to end up in the spam folder. To paraphrase one panelist, “just because a technology solution is important doesn’t mean it’s a priority for me.” If you’ve done your homework (see #1 above), use that knowledge to ensure your message cuts through the clutter by targeting it to the specific agency or program with which your prospect is involved, using language that addresses their needs.

3) Less is More

All panelists lamented the volume of email, invitations, white papers, and other solicitations they receive. When they do engage, they want to know right up front how you’re going to help them, and they won’t give you much time to get to the point. Keith Trippie used the example of Twitter’s Vine, which allows people to send videos up to six seconds in length, and suggested marketers think about creative ways to hit the high points very quickly. He also added “send me less and I’ll open more of what you send.” Pushing out too many messages too frequently can be the kiss of death.

4) Don’t Focus on the C-Level

Many of our internal stakeholders judge the success of our marketing activities based on the number of C-level executives that participate. I asked the C-level panel point-blank if that was the wrong expectation, and the answer was just as clear: you’re targeting the wrong people. Simon Szykman stressed that CIOs focus on policy and strategy and leave the task of selecting specific technologies to others in their organizations. He thanked me for raising the question and suggested we tell our counterparts in sales that we heard directly from the CIOs that they are the wrong target audience. Instead, we should engage with the people below them that they trust to make technology recommendations.

5) Gain Their Trust

Dr. Michael Valivullah cited the importance of helping your customer solve their problems even if you don’t sell the solution. Leverage your contacts and industry knowledge to point your customer in the right direction, and you’ll earn their trust in the process. Doing so, he said, will make the customer more likely to turn to your business when the opportunity arises, which can yield sales over the long run.

6) Go Mobile

There’s nothing new about the need to transition some traditional media efforts to digital marketing initiatives, but we heard repeatedly about the government’s increasing reliance on mobile devices. Make sure your emails, Web site, videos, and other digital initiatives are mobile-friendly so you’re in step with your customers as they unchain themselves from their desktops and laptops.

Sometimes we have to stand back from our day-to-day activities and remember what our customers and prospects want. If you were there, and you’d like to add anything I missed, please share your thoughts!

Shutdown Shuts Down Defense Conferences

Photo of Allan Rubinby Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

I wish I’d seen this story before I submitted a blog post yesterday about the impact of the shutdown on government marketers. If the topic interests you, check out this article in Defense News:

US Government Shutdown Hampers Attendance at Defense Conferences

The article includes a discussion of the likely impact on the upcoming AUSA Conference:

“If the shutdown continues in the coming weeks, it could affect attendance at a number of major trade shows.

 The Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington — an event that typically attracts more than 25,000 people — is less than two weeks away. The conference is boasting more than 700 Army and industry exhibitors “using 500,000 square feet of exhibit space.”

The Army continues to plan for the annual meeting pending a final decision from service Secretary John McHugh on whether soldiers stationed outside the Washington-area will be allowed to attend.

Most temporary-duty travel has been canceled or suspended since the government shut down Oct. 1, and a number of soldiers, including some who are scheduled to speak, have expressed to Army Times uncertainty and confusion about whether they will be able to travel to the meeting.”

New Data on How to Reach Government Customers

bphoto_Allan-Rubin_65x85y Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

As today’s government shutdown clearly illustrates, it’s hard to get anything done when two parties are so far apart in their beliefs. Could the same communication breakdown be occurring between government marketers and our prospective customers?

At some point (hopefully soon), they’ll be back at their desks browsing the Web, opening our email on mobile devices, and maybe venturing out of the office once or twice a year to meet with industry face-to-face (assuming they’ve been given the proper hall pass). If we want to capture their attention, we have to follow their lead.

I was recently invited to review and comment on the results of an original research study by Market Connections and Boscobel Marketing Communications:

Connecting with Government Customers in an Era of Event and Travel Restrictions

The study identifies how government employees plan to obtain the information and training they used to receive from live events. Its aim is to give contractors current insights into their target customer base that will help them refocus their efforts to reach government prospects.

I’ve written extensively about the challenges we’ve encountered with live events over the past 18 months, and the study provides data that supports our concerns. It also gives recommendations on what to do about it.

An interesting part of the study highlights a potential gulf between the way we want to market to the government and how our customers want to find information. It’s summarized in the graphic below.

Different Opinions

This data held a few surprises for me:

  • It’s easy to see that contractors have shied away from print advertising in trade publications just from picking one up, but interesting that customers still rate them so highly;
  • Only 21 percent of contractors surveyed think government will get information and training online. Really? There’s this cool new thing called the Internet…
  • Apparently, we in the contracting community think prospects are much more interested in talking to us directly than they appear to be.

There are plenty of other nuggets in here that make it a worthwhile read. I hope you’ll check out the study!

Will New Travel Per Diems Further Erode Event Attendance?

woman sleeping

by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

It’s time for your federal customers to dust off their backpacks, can openers, and camping tents. If they want to attend any trade shows or conferences next year, those “roughing-it” items will probably come in handy. The General Services Administration (GSA) just released its fiscal year 2014 travel per diem rates, and the news for federal marketers is not so good.

The Washington Post reported today that GSA “will raise its travel-reimbursement rates for federal employees this year but plans to end its conference-lodging allowance.” The standard lodging rate “for employees who travel for work will increase from $77 to $83 per day at the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, while the allowance for meals and other expenses will remain unchanged at $46 per day.”

The paper cited an August 30 memo by Anne Rung, GSA Associate Administrator of Government-Wide Policy, in which Rung says the government plans to “save an estimated $10 million by eliminating the Conference Lodging Allowance, which allowed federal travelers to spend 25 percent above per diem rates for conferences.”

How these changes will impact attendance at conferences and trade shows remains to be seen, but I don’t think the extra $6 per day increase will drive much in the way of positive change. Rung states that federal per diem rates were already five percent below average daily market rates. Without the Conference Lodging Allowance, travelers might have to choose between sleeping in their (sub-compact) rental cars and not going at all. Based upon recent history, the latter is probably more likely.

On the positive side, GSA does recognize that some travel is necessary. It recently announced the award of its cost-saving FY 2014 City Pair Program, which offers discounted and pre-negotiated commercial airfare pricing and an increase in the number of available routes for federal travelers. So getting there may be easier, but eating and sleeping are another story.

Rung cites savings of approximately $2 billion since the Administration took aggressive steps to cut travel and conference spending in recent years.

At immixGroup, we’re continuing to do our part to bring information directly to the government instead of asking government employees to travel. Our newest initiative is FedCity, a virtual conference platform we just announced in partnership with Federal Business Council. I encourage you to check it out as a new avenue to reach your customers, as I expect they’ll continue to look for new ways to avoid the campout scenario.

OMB Clarifies Travel and Conference Attendance Policies

Photo of Allan Rubinby Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

The GSA conference scandal has crept back into the news as the IRS has encountered its own high-profile spending scrutiny. So I found it noteworthy when this item crossed my desk today.

The Office of Management and Budget just issued a “Controller Alert” to all Federal agencies, acknowledging the need for Federal employees to attend mission-related conferences and outlining recommendations, including best practices for approving travel and conference expenses. The document adopts many of the measures suggested in a meetings protocol provided by ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, which met with OMB in March. You can find the entire document on the ASAE Web site.

To be clear, the Alert states it does NOT “constitute official guidance or include specific tasks for agencies beyond consideration of appropriate steps to address the issue” of travel and conference spending. It certainly reinforces many of the restrictions we’ve seen over the past 18 months, but it also provides what may be some wiggle room for the post-Sequestration world. That’s how I read statements like this:

“As each agency reviews its travel and conference-related activities, it is critical for each agency to continue to recognize the important role that mission-related travel and conferences can often play in Government operations. Given the unique travel and conference needs of each agency, there are circumstances in which physical collocation is necessary to complete the mission.”

And this:

“…bringing together Federal employees at a single location—such as for program reviews or technical evaluations, presentation of scientific findings, oversight boards or advisory group meetings, …may be the most efficient and cost-effective means for reviewing Government-sponsored efforts, issues, or challenges. Several agencies rely on meetings with industry and academic colleagues to drive innovation and ensure continued advancement in related fields.”

There is, of course this reality: while an agency should not interpret the recent guidance “as a moratorium on all conference events, agencies and related stakeholders should anticipate a continued reduction in conference and travel activity for the duration of the sequestration order.” And to make sure nobody’s having any fun at taxpayer expense, the Alert reminds readers that “events should not include excessive or lavish social components.”

The Alert makes clear that each agency is responsible for implementing its own internal travel and conference policies, and each agency needs to achieve the right balance between reducing spending and meeting mission-critical needs. It encourages agencies to start conference planning by examining whether “physical collocation of Federal employees in a conference setting is a necessary and cost-effective means to carry out the agency’s mission (and that other, lower-cost options, such as videoconferencing, have been explored).” To me, this points to a likely boost in future attendance at, and acceptance of, virtual engagements both within and outside of the agency environment.

Similarly, it makes a distinction between conferences and training events, stating that conferences “should not be considered training events absent a written justification by an appropriate official that specifies the learning objectives and mission or job performance outcomes.”  It further clarifies that “professional training may include Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or Professional Development Units (PDUs) for areas that are relevant and valuable to the job function of the individual employee and that contribute to maintaining professional accreditation or certification.” Takeaway: don’t expect to slap the word “training” on your marketing event and think you’ve covered your bases.

A lot of this is old news, and it remains to be seen whether the IRS spending scandal (as opposed to the IRS political scandal) will result in even tighter restrictions or if there’s not much left to tighten. I’m already hearing that government employees are starving for information and interactions that will help them do their jobs. So what should you do next?

  1. Consider whether virtual events have a place in your marketing arsenal. Try something new.
  2. Align your marketing activities with events that offer real training for government attendees.
  3. Keep an eye on what happens next based on the IRS fallout.

Maybe I’m optimistic, but we may be seeing some cracks in the armor. As always, I welcome your comments.

A Busy Week for Government Marketers

Photo of Allan Rubinby Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

This posting is a bit of a catch-all for government marketers, as it seems we’ve just come out of a very busy week. Among the items that have crossed my desk, both good and bad, here are a few of which you should be aware:

Government Media

My alma mater AOL announced it has sold its government portal, AOL Government, to Breaking Media, Inc. (along with other vertical sites for energy, defense, and industry) after a year and a half of publishing. It is yet to be seen how the publisher of Fashionista, Deal Breaker, and Above the Law will handle a government-focused content and advertising product with a social media bent. We wish nothing but the best to government IT publishing veteran Wyatt Kash and his team, who built a great product for AOL, and we look forward to seeing what he does next.

We’re also keeping an eye on Fierce Government IT, which was just named a finalist for a Jesse H. Neal Award for editorial excellence. I remember from my trade publishing days how big a deal that is. Congratulations to publisher Ron Lichtinger, executive editor Dave Perera, and managing editor Molly Walker for their work on this Web site and newsletter. It has been a busy year for Dave, who just co-authored a book with immixGroup’s Steve Charles called the The Inside Guide to the Federal IT Market. (Shameless plug: if you market or sell IT to the government, buy this book.)

Federal Events

If you’re involved with The Association of the United States Army’s Institute of Land Warfare (AUSA ILW) symposium this week, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: top Army brass have been cleared to attend. The bad? There won’t be as many of them. According to Federal Times, “Army Secretary John McHugh approved the attendance of 76 Army personnel at the conference,” compared to 576 soldiers and civilian employees who traveled to the conference in 2012.

For those looking to support local AFCEA events, the Belvoir Chapter has just postponed its 12th Annual Ft. Belvoir Industry Days conference, scheduled for April 1 to 3, 2013. The chapter cites “current budget directives and fiscal constraints.” I guess even local conferences aren’t safe.

Speaking of AFCEA, we heard at the recent AFCEA West conference from the organization’s president, who held an impromptu meeting for sponsors. Citing recent guidance from DoD, they discussed the approvals process for 2013 conference attendance. Since every service agency has to approve attendance, it is easier to gain approval if only one agency is involved as opposed to multiple agencies, which require multiple approvals.

Further, AFCEA won’t move forward with a conference unless it meets all three of the following criteria:

  1. It is mission critical
  2. It offers a clear value proposition for the government
  3. It provides critical training

AFCEA West, which was declared “mission essential,” cited an increase in government attendance over the previous year (although we haven’t heard that verified, and it’s not too surprising since last year’s event wasn’t strong). Many government employees had to wait until the last minute to receive approval to attend, leading to late registrations. Based on recent events, we expect that to continue.

Thanks to immixGroup’s Jennifer Taylor and FedInsider‘s Peg Hosky for keeping me up to date!

The Federal IT Market

Things are moving pretty quickly, with such game-changers to track as government furloughs, sequestration, the potential expiration of the continuing resolution, FITARA, turnover at the agency CIO level, a new cyber security executive order, and more. If you’re not doing so already, sign up to follow this blog as well as our e-newsletter, Public Sector Business Alert, to learn how these developments may affect your ability to market and sell IT to the government.

A Tale of Two Subject Lines

photo_Allan-Rubin_65x85by Allan Rubin, Vice President, Marketing

I noticed an interesting juxtaposition of subject lines in my (overflowing) email in-box today.

Early in the day, I saw this message from Defense Systems:

DISA collaboration tool doubling its capacity

The top story was summarized as follows: “The enterprise collaboration tool known as Defense Connect Online is about to double in capacity as users seek less expensive ways to conduct meetings and training in austere budget times, reports DISA.” The piece caught my attention as it signaled recognition of the inevitable: government employees are finding new ways to communicate and collaborate since they can’t travel in person.

Not long after, I received a message with this subject line:

Latest Conference Cancellations & Postponements on GovEvents

 This email from GovEvents.com led with the following summary, which serves as a continuation of my last blog post on a similar topic:

I think GovEvents.com is a great tool that provides a valuable service to the community (if you don’t use it, you should). It just struck me as significant that a company which promotes government events led its outreach effort with a message about…the cancellation of government events!

We all know travel budgets and other restrictions are hammering the marketing media mix. We see today that our DoD customers are doubling their capacity to host their meetings, training sessions, and other communications virtually to cut costs and minimize scrutiny from ethics officials and their superiors.

What does this mean for government marketers? Should we be investing more in online media, virtual events, webinars, and the like? Face to face communication will never be replaced, but what will place a close second?

The more important question is: where are you placing your bets?

We’re continually looking into new avenues to help our manufacturers and channel partners reach their government customers. I’d love to hear from you about how your plans are changing.

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