Friday, July 30, 2010

In the Carr Family

In Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) ultra-flexible environment we view work as something you do, not a place you go. 

From home…at the local coffee shop…at the park…each of my colleagues selects the environment best suited to their taste.  My responsibility is to be clear on goals and expectations, and then demand accountability in results.

Of course, there are times in business when you do need a place to go.  Our client teams meet in-person to brainstorm strategy and creative tactics, we host professional development and team networking events, and, on occasion, a client will come to us for a get together.

Strategic maintains its primary location in downtown Silver Spring, about 20 minutes outside of Washington, DC.  The office is easily accessible by both car and public transportation.

However, those who live and work in the Washington, DC area are quite familiar with the insufferable traffic that is a plaque on commerce in this region.  For this reason, Strategic opened a modest second location in Tysons Corner, Virginia about five years ago.  The location is on the other side of the Capital Beltway with the intent of limiting time on the road between meetings.

We initially subscribed to the traditional lease an office on our own approach and for about a year suffered through a small and expensive space that showed poorly.

When that short-term lease expired, we got hip to the benefits of the executive suite model and signed on with Carr Workplaces’ facility on Greensboro Drive in Tysons Corner.  It’s now been nearly four years of mostly bliss as part of the Carr family.  (Photo: lobby of Carr Workplaces' office in Tysons Corner, Virginia.)

Now, in no way is this post meant to be a love letter to Carr.  In fact, our due diligence of executive suite companies found that all offer exceptional space in convenient locations at comparable cost.

Yet, for Strategic, there have been three reasons why our relationship with Carr has been so productive:

1.  The office is professionally run and has allowed us to host clients, partners and prospective hires, always making a favorable impression.

2.  Carr is invested in the region’s business community and maintains active affiliations with the American Small Business Coalition, McLean Chamber of Commerce, Center City Consortium, among other groups.  When appropriate, we have the ability to tap into their network of relationships to support our agenda.

3.  We have built a personal relationship with our points of contact at Carr.  I’m sure the company’s executive management is competent, yet I wouldn’t know any of them if we shared an elevator.  Truth is, I don’t need to.  That’s because our requirements are met by the Carr personnel we interact with on a daily basis.  And that interaction is always positive.

(Photo: Kimberly Hossler and Annie Draper who run Carr Workplaces' Tysons Corner office.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Validation in Forrester’s Social Media Report…Well...Kind Of

I have given hundreds of new business presentations in the 15 years since founding Strategic Communications Group (Strategic). Some have gone great…a few have bombed, yet, all in all, I’d say in most instances my delivery was on target.

When I was purveyor of public relations services I had a couple of canned phrases I’d call on to illustrate the value of the awareness and credibility conferred by coverage from the media and analyst communities.

“People do business with companies they know and trust,” I’d say. “Public relations builds that know and trust.”

A fair statement and one that also applies to other brand oriented communications programs, such as advertising and event sponsorships. Yet, the return on investment from these types of expenditures is fuzzy at best.

Yes…there is value. But the financial return on that value is difficult to quantify.

It’s for this reason that Strategic has made such a dramatic pivot to re-position itself as a social media marketing consultancy implementing sales-oriented programs for technology and healthcare organizations.

By aligning our work with success benchmarks related to revenue drivers – lead generation, cultivation of prospect relationships and deal capture – we have proven it is possible for a company to derive a measurable return from its external communications efforts.

Admittedly, Strategic’s brand of sales-oriented social media is very much at the early adopter phase. I have never once received a request for proposal for a package of services consistent with what we do well. For us, sales and marketing remains an education of what’s possible with social.

So, you can imagine how jazzed I was when Forrester Research began touting its new research report that explores the ROI of social media marketing. Finally, this would be much needed validation to my contention to marketers that social can be so much more than setting up a corporate blog or Twitter feed, or merely listening to the online conversation.

Were my hopes in Forrester’s report smashed on the rocks?

Well…no. Senior analyst Augie Ray does discuss how marketers can “draw a straight line between investments in social media marketing and financial results.”

However, he affords as much of the discussion to the intangible benefits delivered via social networks – retweets, Facebook fans, site visits, positive ratings, etc.

“They can’t be counted on an income statement, but that doesn’t mean they are valueless,” Ray writes. “Instead, these are leading indicators that the brand is doing something to create value that can lead to financial results in the future.”

Ugghh! Forrester’s Ray makes an unfortunate return to the “let’s hope we one day benefit from this” value proposition of most traditional channels of communication.

Marketers should demand a sales-related ROI from their social media budget. Awareness, positioning, credibility and thought leadership should be viewed as merely the unintended outcome of participating in online communities.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's All in the Positioning

At times, what comes across as a subtle nuance in corporate positioning makes all of the difference.

That was my take-away from a sit down earlier this month at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, DC with Paul Billingham, European Sales Director at Concept Searching.

I’ve done a fair amount of work in the enterprise search market on behalf of clients like Convera and Intelligenx (formerly i411).  So, I was intrigued about Concept Searching and how its software platform might be different.

Billingham was quick to correct me.

“We are an intelligence engine that makes the Sharepoint search experience more relevant and meaningful,” he said.  “Our product is called conceptClassifer and its unique differentiator is what we refer to as fuzzy phrase match.”

Billingham explained that a search in Sharepoint for documents about artificial sweetener using Microsoft’s FAST engine might not uncover content about glucose.  That’s where conceptClassifer steps in.  It identifies relevant concepts in a document set to enhance the search experience.

Is this search technology or an intelligence engine?  The latter positioning earns Concept Searching a high value place at Microsoft’s partner conference.   

Regardless, Concept Searching is another example of an innovative company improving the user experience in the Microsoft ecosystem.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Lesson in Patience and Perseverance

Just prior to the turn of the century business-to-business net markets were all the rage.  Also called online exchanges, these dot com darlings proselytized a shift in how buyers and sellers in industrial markets would conduct commerce.

They loaded up on venture capital at frothy valuations and, in the case of Verticalnet, an online exchange even ventured into the public markets.

Then it all came crashing down soon after the market correction in March 2000.  Some net markets attempted to reposition as enabling technology companies, yet most burned their funding and quietly shuttered.

Bill Angrick’s Liquidity Services has quite a different story.  It begins the same with the company’s creation in 1999 with about $100,000 in capital from its founders. 

Yet, Liquidity Services sidestepped the fall.  Today, the company maintains a healthy standing on NASDAQ, sports 30 consecutive quarters of profitability, has nearly $400M in annual revenue, and manages a cash balance of $68M with no debt.

“Although there is a lot of romance in business-to-customer models, B2B (business-to-business) is the grunt work of the economy,” Angrick told a gathering of executives at an Association for Corporate Growth networking event last Friday.  “We have found online auctions conducted through our Web site an effective way to price niche goods.” (Photo courtesy of ExecutiveBiz.)

Angrick presented four reasons why Liquidity Services as been perhaps the most successful net market to be spawned during the dot com era:

1.  Founders maintained ownership of the company and did not sell out to venture capitalists too early.  Liquidity Services did raise $20M in equity funding from ABS Capital Partners in 2004, yet soon filed an S1 registration with the SEC.

2.  Demonstrated patience and perseverance in the execution of the business plan.

3.  Positioned the company as a services business, rather than a technology provider.  This helped keep everyone at Liquidity Services focused on delivering value to buyers and sellers.

4.  Get to cash flow break even, if that means sacrificing top line revenue growth.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

AvePoint Leads with SharePoint

When AvePoint’s Tony Lanni arrives at the office after time on the road visiting customers and partners he is often greeted by a myriad of unfamiliar faces.

That’s because this global technology and software development shop has experienced dramatic growth in sales and headcount in spite of the lingering effects of the economic slowdown.

What is AvePoint’s secret to prosperity in uncertain times?  They’ve hitched their fortunes to SharePoint, Microsoft’s collaboration and Web publishing platform with sales well north of a billion dollars.

“AvePoint has the largest SharePoint development team in the world,” Lanni told me last week during a sit down the Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference.  “We’re purely a products company with applications in data storage optimization, back-up, archiving and compliance.”

The fourth employee at a company with a current staff size of more than 700, Lanni explained a core part of his mission as AvePoint’s top corporate strategy executive is to closely align their product development and marketing strategy with Microsoft.  And that means Lanni’s been thinking a lot about the cloud.

“They (Microsoft) are engaging more aggressively in dialogue with partners about their cloud strategy,” he said.  “It’s not just Microsoft telling us.  They’re looking for insight and direction from the partner community, and that’s very encouraging.”

Lanni had to run to his next meeting as his agenda was saturated with more than 100 sit downs during the week long conference.

“The value of this conference is the face-to-face meetings and interactions with Microsoft,” Lanni said in parting.

Note:  this post was originally published in the "Microsoft Partner News" blog.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Enabling Technologies Shows Off Its Solutions Approach

There is a well worn phrase in technology circles that you're never wrong...just early.
That's because enterprise adoption of new and emerging applications takes time and there is only so much influence a vendor can have on the natural cycle of customer decision-making.   The challenge for purveyors of innovative solutions is to remain viable long enough to benefit once customer buying accelerates.

Enabling Technologies Corporation's Ellie Volerthum lives this challenge.  As the marketing lead for a 35 person professional services firm, Ellie has patiently informed and educated mid-market companies and government agencies about the benefits of unified communications.

Rather than focusing on "gee whiz" features and functionality, Enabling Technologies' to-market strategy is to align unified communications with a customer's specific business problem or requirement.  It's classic solution selling.

"Our job in the sales process is total education," Ellie explained during a sit down with me at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference.  "We seek to cultivate relationships at the business level because senior executives can push adoption of unified communications across their organization."

What has been the result of Enabling Technologies' solutions approach to marketing and sales?

Microsoft has recognized the company as its Unified Communications partner of the year two years running.

First Impressions from Microsoft Partner Conference

The Washington, DC Convention Center is certainly buzzing with traffic, technology and tweets.

Just arrived at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference after spending a couple of hours with a client discussing social media priorities, strategies and success benchmarks for the second half of the year.

My first impression is that Microsoft certainly has its act together when it comes to putting on such a grand event. Attendance is estimated at nearly 15,000, yet directional signage is clear and there are a myriad of staffers and event personnel there to point you in the right direction.

Plus, there is plenty of access to the infrastructure needed to conduct business and commerce while at the event. Access to a wireless network is a free and there are a host of quiet, spots to sit, plug-in and bang out a blog post.

Good show, Microsoft. I’m off to my first partner interview.

Visit for more blogs, tweets and content from the company's Worldwide Partner Conference.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Publishers Test Revenue Boundaries

I suspect the recruitment ad from 435 Digital Services for a “social media guru” caught the eye of many a communications professional in search of a new career opportunity.

Was 435 Digital Services a hot, new start-up? The newly formed interactive division of a large ad agency? Or a spin-off of a public relations firm?

No…no…and no. As it turns out, 435 Digital Services is a recently launched consulting initiative from dusty, old school (and still bankrupt) publisher Tribune Companies.

This stab to provide digital and social media marketing services spawned from the Tribune Companies’ Chicago Now blog network. When sales reps attempted to push ad buys, they found that many of their target advertisers knew little about attracting commerce via online channels or search engine optimization.

435 Digital Services was born as an experiment to help the publisher develop new revenue streams.

“We think creating a special group dedicated to that idea is worth trying,” said Bill Adee, the publisher’s digital department vice president.

In another corner of the publishing world, Jonah Bloom, CEO and editor in chief of Breaking Media, is also hip deep in revenue experimentation. Reader access to content archives, conferences and…yes…even journalists may soon be the sole domain of premium subscribers.

Plus, Bloom predicts the adoption of a direct sales model by publishers. For instance, a reader could purchase a book reviewed by the publication.

Hmmm…I wonder what that sales motivation might do to journalistic integrity and third-party objectivity.

This thrashing about for potential new sources of revenue is a wise move by publishers as its clear the traditional advertising-supported model is no longer viable.

It’s also further validation of my contention of a dramatic and sustained shift in influence from traditional sources of creditability to social networks and online communities.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

3 Landmarks of Health in DC’s Technology and Bio Communities

Social, business or professional communities are often defined by geographic landmarks.

Think the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia as the center of military leadership and intelligence. Or Madison Avenue in Manhattan, NYC as the one-time focal point of the advertising profession.

In Silicon Valley, the image of innovation, entrepreneurial gusto and venture capital is captured in a rather pedestrian, wood paneled cafĂ© called Buck’s. According to an article in the Mercury News, the robust dining and chatter during the breakfast rush points to a re-emergence of the Valley’s technology community.

“There is more activity on the venture capital front. There is renewed enthusiasm,” said Buck’s co-owner Jamis MacNiven said in the article. “A year ago, it was about as bleak as it has ever been. People were talking about the drop in home values and joblessness as opposed to deal flows. Now the topic is back on business.”  (Buck's image courtesy of

While it is encouraging to hear that the business of technology is on an upswing in the Valley, this article got me thinking about the possible hubs of activity for the Washington, DC’s technology community. Where do we look for a barometer of how things are progressing in this region?

I offer three possibilities:

1. The Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The dining room during breakfast is typically filled with top executives from government contractors, private equity types and profile corporate attorneys. The dark suits and ties serve as a reminder that DC is first and foremost a government town.

2. The pool of Northern Virginia Technology Council’s (NVTC) president and CEO Bobbie Kilberg. The organization’s “Hot Tickets” summer soiree is a must attend for anyone who has a stake in the success of the region’s technology community. ("Hot Tickets" image courtesy of NVTC.)

3. Traffic on I-270 in Montgomery County, Maryland. The longer the rush hour, the better things are in the region’s biotech community.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Spotlight on a Brand

Comcast Spotlight’s Erin Pinckney faces a challenge common among business-to-business marketers: how do you effectively promote a brand within a brand?

Comcast Spotlight is the advertising division of the global media and entertainment company. They offer national, regional and local businesses the ability to reach customers in the Washington, DC market through cable television, online, On Demand and on-site advertising.

It’s a business driven by the aggregation of eyeballs, coupled with the ability to segment viewers by topical interest and preferred medium.

As Comcast Spotlight’s director of marketing, Erin’s task is to increase awareness of the division’s portfolio of media offerings for advertisers, while not distracting from the corporate parent’s broader positioning geared towards consumers.

The mission of crafting a credible brand within a brand is comparable to the one Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) has worked on as part of the Monster Government Solutions team. This case study in BtoB Magazine explains more.

Erin was the most recent featured speaker in Strategic’s professional development series entitled “Creativity in Communications.” And creativity is just what Erin employs to meet the rugged expectations of her job.

She encouraged our staff to consider the following:

1. Think inside the box. It’s critical to leverage an organization’s existing resources and assets when marketing a product or service. For instance, Erin has put in place a number of successful co-marketing campaigns with Comcast Business Class, the cable system’s B2B arm that offers Digital Cable, High-Speed Internet and Digital Voice service to businesses across the Beltway Region.

2. Be fearless when brainstorming. Creative ideas are typically revised and refined as they are worked through the production process. Big ideas tend to produce big results.

3. Don’t shy from “stealing” ideas from successful campaigns in different market segments. When you’re exposed to a great concept, idea or campaign – think about how you can translate and evolve it into an effective promotion for your unique product or service.

Erin Pinckney, Director of Marketing, Comcast Spotlight