The Secret Weapon: Internal Marketing

It's the best kept secret for success: Marketing IT's achievements will boost its credibility, create transparency and might even help win instant approval for your next $2 million project.

In 2001, a member of the senior leadership team at Harley-Davidson, invited to an IT town hall meeting to articulate business leadership's view of the IT function, described it as "a big black box that you pour lots of money into and pray good things come out". For IT co-leaders Laurel Tschurwald and Reid Engstrom, the black box metaphor was a painful wake-up call. "We had always thought that everyone knew what we were doing and valued our contributions," says Tschurwald. In response, the two launched a campaign to demystify IT. They brought in senior business people to review and manage all IT project requests. They initiated internal service-level agreements, IT financial audits and quality-improvement programs. And to make sure everyone heard about the value IT was delivering, they started publicizing their efforts in quarterly "enterprise status reports". The reports recap each initiative's business case, strategic alignment and associated metrics, and summarize the status of every project valued above $US100,000. It's a "key marketing vehicle," Engstrom freely admits.

The idea of marketing IT makes a lot of CIOs nervous. Sure, they're willing to treat their business colleagues as customers, and some have no qualms about charging those same customers for IT services. But launching a campaign to trumpet IT's value, communicate its costs, and promote its products and services? Well, that feels a little too hucksterish to your average IT executive. Besides, who has excess money lying around to invest in marketing?

But marketing IT internally may be the secret ingredient fuelling CIOs' efforts to run IT like a business. We say secret because on average, less than half of the CIOs who say they run businesslike IT shops are actually taking advantage of marketing, according to the CIO (US) survey "How to Run IT Like a Business". Yet, those respondents who have attained such prized and elusive benefits as enterprisewide visibility of IT value and cost, improved customer loyalty and increased IT staff productivity do more marketing than does the general survey population - in fact, as much as 25 percent more. These IT leaders are building thematic, targeted campaigns around IT initiatives and branding projects to increase awareness and build momentum and buy-in. And they're using a range of communication vehicles to bring the message home that IT is run like a business - one that brings verifiable value to the enterprise.

"Marketing is absolutely critical to being internally successful," says Stephen Norman, COO of Merrill Lynch's technology group. "We live in a world where by and large our customers don't understand what we do. So we need to market internally to have a shot at building partnerships and avoiding surprises."

Steve Sheinheit, CIO of MetLife, agrees. "That we have to communicate and market is a fact of life," he says. "If you want to get resources and support, you have to sell your message. Marketing and communications is a natural part of doing business."

Communicating IT's contribution to the business is especially critical given the increasingly tempting siren song of outsourcers. Marketing hype and slick campaigns from offshore vendors and consultants help make outsourcing look mighty appealing on paper. But internal IT organizations may actually provide more services at a better value. IT leaders just haven't taken time to clearly define, price and package their services in an equally appealing format.

Making sure the business is well aware of the IT team's accomplishments also provides IT the credibility it needs to win approval for unglamorous infrastructure investments and the goodwill to weather inevitable storms. "In technology, you always have issues," says Joe Gottron, The Huntington National Bank's CIO. "If you've got nothing to balance the noise in issues, guess what? People are only going to remember the issues. And it won't be long before lights out, game over."

But be forewarned. Marketing will come off as a lot of hot air - and could even damage IT's reputation - if CIOs haven't built an organization that can consistently deliver the goods. And there's a fine line between effectively promoting IT's contributions and tooting your own horn.

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Seek Expertise

Marketing guru Scott Bedbury, who led the "Just Do It" campaign at Nike and turned coffee into a mystical experience at Starbucks, says the best marketers don't merely convey facts - they also tap into people's emotions. "No matter what the challenge, the greatest benefits of any product or service are usually emotional and not entirely tangible," he says. IT people often forget that technology generally helps meet some emotional need, whether it's to gain control or power, avoid risk, feel complete or satisfied, or just realize potential, Bedbury says.

A good first step, then, in building a marketing program is finding someone who understands these needs and knows how to use them to connect with people - an experienced marketing pro. At Tyson Foods, CIO Jeri Dunn employs an organizational change consultant to help with marketing and is looking to hire a vice president of organizational change whose responsibilities will include overseeing communication. Dunn readily admits communication is not her forte and that she needs help crafting messages. She says she tends to assume that everyone has the same level of understanding on IT issues that she does. "The organizational change person will keep me honest," Dunn says. "If I'm going 100 miles an hour, I need someone to say: 'Hey wait, no one's following.'"

Having experienced staffers at least partly dedicated to (and accountable for) marketing communication can help IT groups build proactive campaigns to replace the reactive, defensive communication that is more typical in IT (see "What's Your Marketing Maturity Level?", page 84). Even if a company lacks the resources to devote someone to marketing, the CIO should consider tapping into the expertise of the corporate marketing and communication department. If nothing else, this group will have the independence to see things from the internal customer's point of view.

Find the Target

CIOs typically have six distinct audiences: internal IT staff, end users, line of business heads, executive management, the board of directors, and vendors and partners. An effective marketing campaign will tailor messages for each group, taking into account what matters most to each. "If you meet with the CFO, the presentation should be numbers-driven," advises Patricia Jaramillo, CEO of Magnolia Communications, an IT marketing consultancy. "Don't tell me how many outages you had. What did it mean in dollars?"

When marketing a new plant maintenance system to Tyson plant managers, Dunn had the group vice president of production services talk up the system's benefits. "He had more impact making this presentation because he is owner of the business process. He is the champion for the change," says Dunn. One slide in his presentation touted productivity benefits by showing a plant maintenance employee working in front of a PC rather than hanging out in the coffee-break room. That slide would not, however, resonate with salespeople. When Dunn updates the sales team on an IT initiative, she describes how it will save money, which the company can invest in more advertising.

Generally, the higher up in the organization the target, the more simplified the marketing message should be. When Steven Agnoli, CIO of Kirkpatrick Lockhart, writes his monthly status report for executive management, he consciously keeps it short and sweet. "I don't want to get into minute detail on technical stuff," he explains. "It's important for them to understand there's a lot of work going on, we're completing assignments and they're actually getting things for the money they're spending."

Agnoli is also careful to write in business terms to avoid clouding the message with what he calls technical mumbo jumbo. To that end, he enforces the "no acronym" rule for all communication that crosses the IT threshold. "In the IT world, there are probably more acronyms than words," he deadpans.

At Harley-Davidson, initial attempts to educate executives on "the business of IS" met with resistance. "Early on, we had a lot of people who said: 'I don't want to know this stuff. Don't confront me with your business. I don't confront you with mine'," says Engstrom, who shares the title of director of information services with Tschurwald. "We concluded that we hadn't yet put the information in front of people in a manner they could absorb or that really established their interest level." The quarterly report succeeds because it directly relates what IT is doing to the business executives' strategies and goals.

The upshot is that Engstrom, who once had trouble getting anything funded, says he recently gained executive approval for a $US2.1 million project in less than a minute.

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Think Thematically

Once CIOs have identified who they want to reach, they need to think through the key messages or themes to convey. For example, if a CIO is having trouble marshalling support from the executive committee for infrastructure investments, a key message might be that sound infrastructure produces value, says Howard Rubin, executive vice president at Meta Group. He suggests explaining how infrastructure can yield value on three levels: economic (lets you operate at low cost), operational (allows you to tune reliability to what you need) and architectural (you can increase business volume without having to pay a dollar more). Another key message for users concerned about IT costs might be that business executives can control IT costs themselves. CIOs can reinforce this, says Rubin, by identifying user costs as fixed or variable, and pointing out how variable costs can be contained.

At MetLife, Sheinheit comes up with an annual theme to drive the year's IT communication. Last year, the theme was "Finding the R in ROI". This year's theme is "Moving IT to the Next Level". Subthemes include investing for growth and increasing agility. Sheinheit and his team mapped all of the year's IT initiatives against the themes, so all communication about projects is put in the context of how they relate to those overriding goals. MetLife's themes get woven into town hall presentations, newsletters, desktop tchotchkes and something Sheinheit calls "meeting in a box": to quickly cascade the theme throughout the IT organization, the top 50 or 60 IT execs receive prefabricated presentations to take back to their groups. Presentations also go on the IT Web portal for other presenters to draw on, saving time and ensuring message consistency.

Sheinheit launches his themes to the internal IT staff before pitching them to the business audiences. "You've got to get yourself aligned," he says. "You can't give a message to the outside community if it doesn't resonate internally. You drive it down and send it up, and it interconnects in the middle."

Brand IT

Because technology can seem complex, confusing or (believe it or not) just plain dull to those outside IT, putting a meaningful brand name on an IT initiative can help CIOs telegraph the value in a concise, accessible and memorable way. In fact, the CIO survey revealed that branding specific IT projects or services is among the most effective and popular marketing practices.

At e-commerce outsourcer GSI Commerce, CIO Joe Seibert branded an initiative to revamp the project management process and improve time to market. He officially launched "Project Velocity" with a large sign hung over the project management office area and a kick-off pizza lunch for 100 assorted constituents. By relating process improvement to a business value - speed - Seibert's team was able to generate awareness and excitement and bring down the level of fear that accompanies business process change. The increased buy-in and project momentum that branding garners "makes my job a lot easier", Seibert says.

If an IT department suffers from a credibility problem, branding can also be used to help readjust negative perceptions once the underlying problems have been addressed.

For example, IT's reputation at the Defence Contract Management Agency suffered from some real (and some merely perceived) failures. When Mike Williams became CIO in 1999, "the feeling inside the agency was that we weren't up to speed with corporate America", he says. True, some software apps had been deployed before they were ready. "There were too many bugs, and we fixed that," says Williams. But there were still residual pockets of negative perception. Williams changed IT's official name to the IT Customer Service Organization, and one of his group's Web designers came up with an official logo. "Branding and the logo helped signal the idea that we're changing," says Williams.

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