“Technologists are interested in technology” – and four more no-nonsense tips for successfully selling to the CIO


CIOs, eh? They’re a picky lot. They know tons about IT, but not so much about it that they live in a tunnel, playing with circuit boards while mumbling to themselves. On the whole, they are extremely high level generalists.

They’re also busy, stressed, and need to balance being on top of the latest tech trends while actually applying them to the wider business.

And then there’s us lot in content marketing, who have to communicate with that critical balance of factors.

It’s been about a year and a half since I crossed the fence to content marketing from the world of journalism, and I’ve already learned a lot. New skills, more than a little new jargon, not to mention the unusual marketing tendency of describing one’s level of availability as “my bandwidth”.

But despite the genius and cunning on display in this sector, one thing I am still sometimes surprised and dismayed at is how disconnected some tech marketers often seem to be from the CIO audiences their content is supposed to serve.

Luckily, at Computing’s recent Tech Marketing * Innovation Forum 2018, we gathered together a group of people who know all about the enterprise IT buyer – because they are actual enterprise IT buyers.

Grilled with authenticity by editorial director Stuart Sumner, the panel revealed some excellent and tremendously helpful home truths to better help your marketing messaging or sales pitch hit home. I thought I’d share some of my favourite ones.


1. Capturing one person’s attention isn’t anywhere near enough

“If you impress one particular senior person, that is only the beginning of the journey,” said Sharon Williams, the former MD of IT at UBS.

“You’ve got to ensure that the right people are engaged or you will get three quarters of the way down the line and you will be scuppered by accounts or some global arrangement that the company has agreed to. It’s not enough for them to fall in love with you.”

Sharon is absolutely spot on here. In my experience, there’s a bit of a tendency to think of your “audience” as names and roles on a spreadsheet, and to aim for that particular persona as a catch-all, panic button solution.

The thing with messaging, and writing targeted copy generally (and this, obviously, includes journalism, which I still base a lot of my thinking on), is to consider what you’re saying and the information and truths it can offer, as well as saying it in an ‘on-brand’ way. It’s actually not rocket science. If you’re saying something useful or interesting, a number of people are going to listen to and appreciate it.

This, opposed to a marketer relying on landing one, mythical big catch by firing an artful messaging harpoon right into a CIO’s brain.

“If there’s something interesting  or educational in it for your team that’s a great way to go,” confirms Sharon.


2. Get away from your desk and actually meet people

If you’re really, really old (say, over 35, in today’s fast-moving world), you might remember a time when the real world was relevant and people dealt in things like paper leaflets, live events and face-to-face conversations.

Lorks, but it still happens that way (in fact events have never been more popular in the IT sector). David Wilde, NED at Mid Essex NHS Hospitals Trust, loves attending a good summit, and talking to like-minded enthusiasts when he gets there.

“If I’m at a conference on something, it’s probably because I’m interested in finding out more about that particular subject,” said David, with unarguable logic.

“That’s a good time to strike up a conversation that’s relevant.”

David followed by offering examples of times he’s happened upon people from vendors who are trying to get hold of him who will simply bring up whatever they want to sell him, completely out of context of the event.

‘D’ya wanna buy some IT, mate? It’s all the same, innit?’. It’s just embarrassing, and buyers are aware of it. So stop it.

“We have events internally to engender and nurture interest,” Sharon added, pointing out that events are also a valued way to catalyse technology passion cross-pollinating across an enterprise.

“We still do a lot of events like hackathons, and our people speaking at events themselves. We see technology can be nurtured in and of itself.”


3. IT isn’t just IT anymore – it’s everything and everyone

Do you know why I planned to write about enterprise IT for a few months until ‘something more exciting came along’, but am still doing it six and a half years later?

It’s because, it turns out, IT is incredibly interesting. It genuinely makes the whole world go round. Your iPhone is IT. Your TV is IT. The plane you ride to go on holiday is IT. It’s only a small step to start taking an interest in how it all works at the back end, rather than just mashing the magic button and taking the ensuing effect for granted.

Accordingly, interest in, and appreciation of, IT has moved way out of being weird blokes hunched over beige boxes, and scattered into the wider business. Sales appreciate a good chat platform to post leads and success stories, HR like decent, well-designed software to figure out what people are doing. Box office staff enthuse over tailor-made audience management platforms. It’s still IT, but it’s built by people who speak a certain language, for a peer group.

If you’re selling or marketing IT and you’re not interested in this fascinating trend, which journalist Thomas Friedman calls “the democratisation of IT”, you’re honestly missing out. Knowing not just why your company or client says it works, but what it actually does, why, and for what sort of personas in the wider business, does stakeholders a massive service in terms of finding new messaging and angle opportunities. It’s also just really interesting!

Buyers agree – they love to see genuine knowledge displayed in what they hear and read.

“It all comes down to business case,” said David.

“I’m not a control freak. But I’m the one who’d get the the sack if it goes badly wrong, and that’s what I get paid for.”

But in the modern world, David relies upon – and expects – those in the wider business who have the knowledge to help inform his decisions.

“I don’t have the time or the breadth of knowledge to make decisions at every level. I can use good business practice and good disciplined decision making to ensure that the people who are making recommendations to me have done that in a good way,” he concluded.


4. On the other hand… IT can sometimes still just be an IT thing

Yes, now I’m contradicting myself. It’s quite simple, but let me explain.

While the wider business now likes and understands technology, they’re so busy working in their roles that they’re not always looking for the next thing.

I know a CIO (who I won’t name for fear of utterly discrediting him, as I’m sure he does lots of other important things) who seems to spend most of his time speaking to vendors about cool new stuff, then wandering round the streets of London or sitting in coffee shops thinking up exciting ways to use it. It’s great work if you can get it, I’m sure.

But basically, while everyone else in the business is having fun with big data and analytics, cloud services, maybe even a bit of AI, it’s still IT who need to buy in server stacks, converged infrastructure, ERP, security platforms… etc. etc. The core function of IT is still going to drive all the more exciting, democratised developments.

“There are lots of things going on within the IT function as opposed to the business function,” agreed Sharon.

“The IT function may not be your first sell, but if you wanted to connect with people who are looking at the more bleeding edge technologies….The interests of technologists are seen as something to be nurtured outside of specific business goals.”

“You will find ways of connecting with those individuals via normal social media channels.”


5. IT is your subject too, so make the effort to own it

I touched on this earlier, but I’m just going to hammer it home to sign off. IT is wonderful. It’s exciting. In many ways, it’s now everything . Distancing yourself from the real nitty gritty of the learning experience and relying on vague wiffle about “dynamic” this and “leading-edge” that isn’t marketing. At worst it’s white noise, and at best, it’s just part of the big homogenised lump of word soup everybody else is throwing around.

You need to know your SD-WAN from your virtualised data centre, or your serverless cloud from your fileless malware. I know it’s hard, and it’s tiring, and sometimes it feels boring. But there’s no beating the good, old-fashioned act of hitting the books. Once you understand the inner workings of things, they all start to fit together, and suddenly you realise you’re speaking something approaching the language of an IT decision maker. Your messaging then magically improves ten-fold.

“What doesn’t work is picking up on buzzwords of the day and building them into your marketing,” Sharon said.

“[The buyer] will understand the difference between a sales ploy that sounds attractive but is not meaningful to them and what’s actually exciting to them.”