Last week I wrote about our market positioning. This is the critical thinking that has to go into your business model and marketing strategy for it all to be effective. We’re not talking about ‘Mad Men’-style advertising campaigns. Our business is helping people get their work, running and speaking at events, done more efficiently. Like most business tools, our customers are very discerning because there’s a lot at stake – people’s careers.
Last week we established that we are not a low-cost solution. That requires a huge investment in scale to achieve the near monopolistic market dominance needed to turn a profit. We leave that to the Amazons and Alibabas of this world. There is a startup strategy that aggressively follows this path – Uber and Lyft are the prime examples. For now, you can certainly say that a lot of investor money has subsidised a lot of taxi journeys. No-one is sure what the eventual outcome will be there, but I’m not betting my company on the emergence of Terminator-level artificial intelligence as a way to cut costs (all those pesky human drivers and their need to earn a living).
Instead we follow the strategy of differentiation – providing something that hits a value sweet-spot by meeting specific needs in a market that is big enough to grow the business. Our differentiation is providing a one-stop-shop and collaborative network for all stakeholders in the technology events industry. That is deliberately very specific.
Differentiation can be anything from great design and user experience (Apple) to unique technology (Google). If you’re thinking of founding a startup this is the most important thing to think about – why are you different? The answer should also make clear why you’ll make money and who will pay. In our case, we save people time and make them more efficient, and that helps them achieve their business objectives – always valuable.
It’s a mistake to be so different that you are in a category of one. I use the term ‘category’ in a very specific sense. It means, very roughly, which shelf of the supermarket you get packed on. If you get this wrong, your potential customers will do price and feature comparisons against the wrong competitors and you’ll lose a lot of sales. Getting this right is very hard.
A common tactic is to use existing market categories that have been established by industry analysts. These are companies like Gardner and Forrester that produce reports for C-level executives in large companies. These reports help them make the correct purchasing decisions, or so the theory goes. In reality, this is just another sales channel, and a particular game that you have play in your marketing execution. Analytics are a subject for another day, and not relevant to our current stage, but we will return to them in due course.
For us, our working super category is ‘Sales Enablement’, but that’s far too broad to be very useful. We’ll need to refine this.
To build a positioning strategy you need a framework to help you think it out. Let me walk you through the one that we are using. First we identify the outcomes we want to get to.
We want to ‘own’ a market niche. It’s always best to be number one in the eyes of your customers – that makes internal purchasing decisions much easier – “oh, we just went with the market leader”. So we have to identify this niche.
Marketing strategy work is often structured as the production of a ‘statement’ of some kind. An instructive sentence that really nails the idea. There is indeed such a thing as a market-positioning statement, and we could try to develop one. You’ve seen these before if you’ve done any sort of formal business course: We are an X that does Y, and unlike Z, we … etc, etc.
I find such exercises miss the mark and are less useful than they first appear. It’s easy to end up focusing on an empty formula as a way to avoid the hard thinking, and need for experimentation and talking to customers, that really develops your market positioning strategy.
So, although tempting as a concrete output, we avoid characterising this work as the production of a statement. What we need is a coherent system.
One good place to start is the values that your brand embodies. Stripe, the online payments service, has done an amazing job here. As a startup founder, you know they are on your side. As a startup software developer, you also know, because their technical documentation is second to none. They clearly value founders and want to look after them.
What are our values? In our world, events are high-stress. As a speaker, you have to prepare a talk, and stand up in front of others. You have to travel. (Business travel is, of course, highly glamorous … the first time. When it’s you third trip in as many weeks, not so much.)
As an organiser, events are very stressful indeed. It’s all on you to make it happen, and so much is out of your control. Caterers can pull out. Venues can cancel. Speakers can annoy your audience with bald-faced product pitches, and the wifi never works. Who’d want to be in events anyway?
If you’re exhibiting, you have sales targets to meet and leads to generate.
Will your branded T-shirts arrive on time? Will the stand itself arrive? Can you find your sales engineers to speak to an important client when they’re off sightseeing? And can you coordinate social media with your companies’ speaking slots. It’s all possible … if you work 80 hours a week.
We want to take the pain out of all this effort. So we have to figure out how to communicate the fact that we care. We’re in events ourselves so we suffer too. It’s about recognising that event people deserve some work-life balance as well. We need to develop a marketing message that communicates this value. It’s not the only one we have, but it is a big part of creating meaning for our brand.
Search engine statistics: 2,284 technology conferences, with 6,264 speakers, 5,023 exhibitors, and 1,018 venues.
Marketing update: speakers newsletter – 6,173 subscribers, open rate 10pc. EventProfs newsletter – 684 subscribers, open rate of 21pc. We’re seeing some natural attrition as we move to a new subscriber growth strategy for the newsletters – time to hold the line. The podcast is at 72 downloads. We are moving podcast hosting providers, so that may affect out download counts.
Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.
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