by Larry Bonfante

Peer to Peer: Why Marketing IT Is Essential

Aug 01, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

Many IT executives frown at the thought of marketing IT internally. It conjures up visions of loudmouths delivering sales pitches—the kind of people we’d prefer to avoid. If we wanted to get into marketing, we would have gotten into…well…marketing. But what marketing is really about is educating people about something that you’re passionate about. For instance, some of you probably spend hours regaling your friends about your tennis game. As CIO of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), I’d like to thank you for marketing our sport!

Many of us grew up believing that if we worked hard and did the right things, people would notice and reward us. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way. The executives and board members who are critical to our jobs have countless issues being thrown at them all the time. Unless we market our ideas to them—communicate and educate—we will never capture their attention, attention that we need to succeed.

Why Names Are Important

Marketing is never more important than when you’re trying to turn around an underperforming IT organization. When I began my tenure at the USTA, our IT team had a bad reputation and no credibility. After I listened to my clients to understand what they perceived the problems to be, my first step was to develop and market an action plan to address them. I named this plan “Operation CPR.” The acronym stood for the three areas our clients had identified as shortcomings: communications, project delivery and responsiveness. Calling it an “operation” helped my team understand that we were in a battle, and CPR reminded them about the areas in which we needed to improve. (It’s not only your clients to whom you need to market but your own people too. What your staff thinks, feels and says to others in the quiet moments when you are not around will have a more profound impact on how people see IT than the messages you deliver from the pulpit.)

By giving the project a name and a brand, we made it clear to our clients that we were taking their complaints to heart. (I knew I had my work cut out for me when at my first board presentation a member told me that CPR wouldn’t work “because the patient was already dead.”)

Getting the Message Out

When marketing, it is important that you are consistent and constant in the delivery of your message. We use every vehicle we can think of to drill home our focus on communication, project delivery and responsiveness. We developed an IT scorecard, administered twice a year, with almost all the metrics we track tied back to those three major themes. We present the results (the good, the bad and the ugly) as well as all the comments we receive at our IT committee sessions at USTA’s annual and semiannual meetings. This audience includes board members, committee chairs and key executives from our 17 section offices. This level of transparency accomplishes two objectives. It allows me to articulate (i.e., market) our progress and successes in a large public forum, and perhaps more importantly, this level of candor lets people know that I can be trusted.

At these meetings we also host an IT “trade show.” This provides our constituency the opportunity to touch and see new IT systems as well as mock-ups of innovations we hope to deliver in the next 12 to 24 months. It also helps us drum up financial support and sponsorship. We publish a monthly newsletter that highlights our progress on our major initiatives and their business value (download a copy by clicking on the link in the online version of this story). It’s critical that these IT missives be written in clear, concise business language and articulate business value. No geek-speak allowed!

For example, last year we upgraded the campus infrastructure at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., where the U.S. Open is held. Nobody cared that we rewired the campus or that we architected and deployed a new secure network. Marketing those feats would have been useless. But people did care that our players had wireless access to the Internet and that our 400 media guests could converge on our media center at the end of the evening and file their stories for the morning editions of their papers. And that’s what we communicated to our stakeholders.

Last but not least, you need to take your message on the road. We have 17 offices to which we provide services. Each is a separate legal and operational entity. Last year I visited with each of these groups to listen to their issues and to make sure that my message was playing in Peoria. There’s nothing like talking with people where they live to let them know they’re important to you. Executives who avoid these trips because they take too much time will have plenty of time to commiserate with other executives on the unemployment line.

You can market your message successfully only if you are viewed as possessing integrity. Consequently, it’s as important to report your failures as it is your successes. You need to tell people what went wrong and why, and what you’re planning to do about it. The ostrich approach is always a mistake. People are smart enough to know that there are issues whether or not you tell them about them.

It Works If You Work It

So, has it worked? The results we receive on our scorecards have improved by 20 percent over the past two years. Our capital projects are now sponsored by our business unit executives, not by IT, and our credibility within the organization has improved to the point where we’ve evolved from being considered a level-two priority (translation: a huge problem) to being seen as an organizational asset. My team is doing a great job, and they’re recognized for it. Perhaps most importantly, when people see me in the hallways, they smile and come to talk to me instead of mumbling under their breath and running in the other direction. Sure, the team members have rolled up their sleeves and worked their tails off to improve and expand our services while dramatically lowering our operating costs, but who would know and understand that if we hadn’t marketed our plan and our progress?

Marketing is a key element of any successful organization. If you don’t believe me, just ask your CEO how important marketing the business’s services and products is to the success of the company. I think you already know the answer.