[Author's note: this article was originally published in February, 2002.]
New England is chock full of technology companies in various stages of evolution: business plan authoring, fund-raising, growth management, and maintaining market leadership positions. These companies offer innovative, technology-based solutions to address nearly every conceivable business problem. Yet while these firms push the envelope when it comes to technology application for their customers’ benefit, many of these same companies have not yet taken advantage of the Internet to optimize their own performance.
What became apparent in the aftermath of the dotcom collapse is that the Internet is no silver bullet for improved business performance. Rather, the Internet has proven itself as a reliable tool that can play an integral role in nearly every aspect of businesses, throughout marketing, sales, and operations. It can be used as a lever for performing many crucial business functions better, faster and cheaper.
The key to wringing the most out of Internet investments is to consider the Web throughout the planning process and then employ it appropriately throughout the organization. Once top-line decisions have been made about company offerings and differentiation strategies, the Internet should be front-and-center during implementation planning (i.e., how the organization is going to execute on its strategy). Recognize that prospects and customers have high expectations when it comes to a technology company’s use of leading technologies itself. The “cobbler’s children have no shoes” syndrome doesn’t play well, and nearly every interaction with prospects and customers can be enhanced or improved using Web-based tools.
Look closely at the most successful global technology companies—IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco—as well as New England’s largest such as EMC, Kronos, and Avid, and identify how the Internet is used in their businesses. The good news is that companies don’t have to be multi-billion dollar enterprises to reap the benefits of Web-enablement. On the contrary, some of the most inventive Internet-based solutions are being applied by start-up and mid-sized technology companies.
Marketing & Sales
Along with its staff, the company website has the most prominent profile in the marketplace, and is frequently the first point of interaction a prospect has with the organization. Internet marketing basics call for a strong corporate website that puts forth a credible and reliable image, and effectively communicates the organization’s key value proposition and points of differentiation. Prospects are easily spooked, and the appearance of instability or unprofessionalism can be the primary reason for a capable technology company being eliminated from short list consideration.
An effective website and its accompanying interactive marketing tactics provide value by:
1. Putting forth an appropriate image in the marketplace, and
2. Automating the initial 20%-40% of the sales process
Pre-Internet, many marketing and business development activities were labor- and paper-intensive. Prospects would identify a company or product that appeared to be capable of meeting its needs, and would make initial interaction through a phone call. A salesperson would then provide prospects with general information about the company, and follow up by mailing supporting collateral that reinforced the organization’s value proposition and set the stage for additional interaction (e.g., another call, an in-person meeting).
Today, prospect behavior has shifted so they are now armed with enormous amounts of information about a company and its offerings prior to making initial human contact. Indeed, that human interaction is often merely a formality or administrative call to confirm assumptions developed during the research phase and to set up an in-person meeting, or even make the purchase (depending on the price tag).
When considering which specific interactive marketing and sales techniques to employ, there are numerous options:
- Lead Generation. Upstart technology companies are always desperate for qualified leads, and there’s no better bang-for-the-buck than search engine marketing (SEM). Both paid listings and organic optimization puts the organization directly in front of prospects—throughout the world, 24 hours/day, 7 days/week—when they’re looking for answers to problems. SEM can play an important role in brand-building programs as well. Banner advertising and webinars can also be effective lead generation tools.
- Thought Leadership & Education. Big-ticket and complex offerings like enterprise software or disruptive technologies involve lengthy sales processes and prospect education. An effective marketing program will drive traffic to resource centers that provide prospects with the information and tools (e.g., white papers, calculators) to get smart about the issues and develop business cases to make large purchases. Interactive demos and webinars can serve as virtual salespeople by being engaging and content-rich, and online public relation programs can support brand-building.
- Community. The open source community has thrived largely due to the virtual communities that have flourished, which allow developers to easily reach out to their peers, get questions answered, and use the technologies successfully. Blogs, bulletin boards and portals can provide the backbone for this type of community development, and serve as effective market research repositories as well.
- Customer Relationship Management. Acquiring new customers is difficult and costly; keeping them engaged and actively using a technology once they’ve made a purchase is vital for ongoing success and requires ongoing nurturing and communication. Tools like Salesforce.com, SugarCRM, and IMN are Web-based CRM solutions that are being used by small and large technology companies alike to facilitate personalized communication and to help companies stay relevant and prominent among customers and prospects.
A quick look around the New England technology marketplace reveals a slew of companies using the Internet to bolster performance. XOsoft and Constant Contact aggressively employ search engine marketing to drive website traffic and generate leads. Intranets.com (recently acquired by WebEx) relied heavily on webinars and free Web-based software downloads to grow its customer base. Akamai, Authoria, and StreamServe use sophisticated, interactive presentations to communicate complex product offerings, case studies, and strategic acquisitions.
When applied intelligently, interactive marketing and sales tactics can serve as the lifeline for new business development efforts at technology companies.
On the operations side of the house, the Internet can be used to streamline the activities necessary to support product development and run the business. For just about any task involved in managing a technology business, it is likely there’s a Web-based solution available to address it.
- Research and development
- Finance and accounting
- HR management and training
- Calendaring and logistics
- Customer service
Extranets simplify online interaction with customers and can be treasure troves of timely market research. Intranets (e.g., Sharepoint, Websphere) serve as centralized and secure information repositories to streamline HR, finance, accounting, logistics and company-wide communication. Dozens of live chat solutions support real-time customer support. Web-based phone solutions from companies like Interwise help customers manage their data and voice activities more easily and often achieve cost-savings in the process.
In short, for just about every imaginable task within the organization, the Internet can be used as the backbone for doing it better, faster or cheaper.
A Piece of the Puzzle
Internet-enabling a business will not miraculously cure problems in marketing, sales, or operations. But the Web can play an important role in solving the puzzles involved in successfully launching, growing, and managing a technology business.
When thinking about Internet-enablement, keep the following considerations in mind:
- Recognize that the audience has higher-than-average expectations when it comes to a technology company’s use of the Internet
- Consider Web-based tools and solutions at every step of the strategic planning process
- Ensure that interactive programs are aligned with and/or complement offline initiatives
- Remember that doing business online is a process that requires constant attention and refinement to be successful
The precise application of the Internet at your technology company will depend on a variety of unique factors: budget availability, product maturity, sales goals, employee needs, and the competitive environment. Our observation is that Internet-based programs often take a back seat to more traditional initiatives at many technology companies, so raising the profile of Web-based solutions is the likely logical next step at some organizations. While prioritization is an obvious necessity during any planning process, and each organization has unique needs that dictate where investments are allocated, we believe that many technology companies would realize significant improvements by making the Internet a more significant part of their operations.