Inside the Realm of Tech Influencers
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The product management world can be broken down into two main camps: strategic and tactical. Tactical product management is what most product managers do every day: market research, product planning, building business cases, defining requirements, drafting user stories, grooming the backlog, conducting competitive analysis, figuring out pricing, and interfacing with engineering. Tactical programs consume most of the product management effort.
No doubt these initiatives are essential, but in my experience, the battle is often won or lost at the strategic level. No matter how well you manage your product, hard-won sales leads can die on the vine from a lack of brand recognition or negative market perception. How many times have your salespeople run into, “Who are you? I have never heard of your product.” Or, “You aren’t listed on the Magic Quadrant.” Or, “I have heard of you, but aren’t you just a niche player?”
Usually, we think of name recognition under the heading called “branding.” But branding is more than just getting your name out there. It is about creating a positive impression of your company and product among the key thought leaders and influencers. Branding is not only the marketing department’s job; it is also a critical component of effective product management. Who better to position the product, figure out what market segment you want to target, gain recognition for your product, and sway opinions to your side than the product manager?
While there are many ways to increase brand recognition for your company and products, one of the most critical techniques is to get the tech influencers behind you. This is not to be confused with influencer marketing, which in the consumer space typically means targeting bloggers and consumers who will write reviews or maybe getting someone like the Kardashians to endorse your products. In the B2B technology space, the influencers are far more sophisticated, and it takes a lot more than just sending them samples in the mail to win them over. However, getting them behind your product can be vital, as some of the major tech influencers can make or break a new technology company.
Why Tech Influencers Exist
To answer this, it is important to put yourself in the technology buyer’s shoes. There is so much hype out there that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. If you have been around long enough and bought enough technology, you will have been burned more than once by a product or service that did not live up to its hype or by a vendor that could not deliver on their promises. Even customer references are a poor indicator since no two IT environments are alike and what works in one situation might not work in another. A flawed purchasing decision may not just be an expensive mistake, it can also be a real career-limiting move for the CIO or IT department head making that decision.
Another factor is that technology is rapidly evolving. Although some say that Moore’s Law may be starting to plateau, most of the IT industry believes that technology tends to obsolete itself every 18 months, just as it has for the last 50 years. That means if you are going to make a major technology purchase, you want to be sure that what you are buying will not be outdated before the ink is dry on the contract.
Tech influencers help CIOs navigate the crowded landscape of IT vendors by analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of key industry players and selecting the market leaders.
Why Product Managers Need To Engage Tech Influencers
Many product managers genuinely believe that theirs is the best technology on the market. And I have yet to see an engineering team that doesn’t think that they have built a better mousetrap and that the world should beat a path to their door. Unfortunately, in the technology space, that is rarely true. The world is littered with technologically superior products that are now forgotten footnotes in history. No one talks about OS2 today. It is not always the best technology that wins; it is good (not necessarily the best) technology and the best strategic marketing that usually wins. That is why most people know Windows and not OS2. Microsoft didn’t out-engineer IBM; it out-marketed them.
For entrepreneurial product managers, it is imperative to reach out and get the tech influencers on their side. Influencers are usually the ones that define the market space and invent the terminology and buzz words that are used in the industry. They establish the requirements criteria, determine who the market leaders are, and relegate those that fail to impress them to the “niche player” black hole. The Global 10,000 CIOs respect the views and opinions of the most prominent tech influencers. Those IT leaders don’t create a shortlist, issue an RFP, or conduct a “bake-off” without first consulting the leading tech influencers.
6 Types of Tech Influencers
There are many kinds of influencers with varying degrees of authority and not all of them fall neatly into strictly defined categories, but generally speaking, product leaders should consider these six types of tech influencers:
- Analyst firms;
- Innovator and early adopter CIOs;
- Independent analysts;
- Tech bloggers and book authors;
- Trade press;
- Leading IT vendors.
The most powerful and best-known influencers are the analyst firms: Gartner, Forrester, 451 Research, Ovum, Yankee group, and others. Gartner is in a class by itself. It was one of the first analyst firms to focus on information technology and still has the greatest impact on the market. In the old days, it was said that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Today we joke that nobody ever gets fired for buying a vendor in the upper right-hand corner of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant.
Industry analysts require a direct approach. You cannot delegate your relationship with them to your marketing department or PR team. They demand access to your company’s key people: the CEO, CTO, and senior product managers. And you’d better bring your “A” game when you meet them. I often spent as much, if not more, time preparing for a meeting with Gartner as I did putting together a pitch to a top-tier VC. Make sure you have read all of their research, blogs, interviews, and quotes in the press. If possible, talk to some of the Global 10,000 technology leaders to see what they are hearing from the analyst you are meeting with.
The big analyst firms are not easy to convince. They have heard it all a hundred times before. In fact, when you first introduce your company to them, it is better if you do far more listening than talking. After all, the Fortune 50 pay attention to them, so why shouldn’t you? You might learn more than you expect. An early-stage company has to earn the analysts’ respect. They are not just going to fall over because you have the newest shiny thing.
Innovator and Early Adopter CIOs
While the analyst firms are critical to have in your camp, they are not the only influencers. An important but often overlooked group is the “innovators” and “early adopters” among the Global 10,000 CIOs. When I refer to innovators and early adopters, I am using terminology from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.
Most of the Global 10,000 CIOs can indeed be classified as the “Late Majority” or even “Laggards” by Moore’s definition. However, there are a few whose corporate culture enables them to take greater risks and try new technologies before they are widely used or accepted. They exist in almost every industry, and they pride themselves on their role in shaping an emerging market. The easiest way to identify them is by reading trade magazines, online press, and blogs. They are the CIOs that are most often quoted when an emerging technology or market is publicly discussed. Alternatively, find out which CIOs are speaking at industry conferences on an emerging market or technology.
This group is vital because these are the people that the industry analysts listen to. No matter how good your pitch is, the analysts will want proof that your product works in the real world and that it is truly innovative and easy to use. The analyst community is not going to take your word for it no matter how slick your demo is. They listen to the practitioners, not the theorists. The innovator and early adopter CIOs are tough nuts to crack, but if they become happy, satisfied customers, you are well on your way to persuading the industry analysts as well. Get enough of these evangelists in your camp, and you can begin to bend even Gartner’s stubborn will.
Other influencers include the independent analysts, who often just focus on a specific technology or market segment as opposed to the big analyst firms that cover the entire landscape. Examples include firms like Tower Group, who cater to financial services organizations, ESG, who focus on infrastructure and hardware, and Constellation, who specialize in IoT and IT Services. The independent analysts can be prominent thought leaders because they are so focused on one specific area. Some of these have emerged out of the practitioner world and have been former CIOs or even technology company CTOs. Their experience gives them considerable credibility because they are not just pontificating: they have real hands-on experience.
Tech Bloggers and Book Authors
Another group are bloggers. Sometimes these are analysts from the big firms or the independent analysts mentioned above. In other cases, they are simply experts who have gained influence because they have a measure of real-world experience and are so prolific at producing content. It is easy to gauge their impact by merely looking at how many followers they have.
The authors of books on a particular subject can exert a substantial influence on a market. Years ago, in my first startup, the biggest influencer was James Martin, who achieved his status by pumping out book after book on information technology. I got many leads by following him to his speaking engagements and handing out my business cards to the attendees. However, before investing a lot of time in these experts, it is wise to check how many copies of the book the author has sold. If no one has read it, it doesn’t really matter what it says.
ComputerWorld, Network Computing, CIO Magazine, Information Week, etc. all have writers who are well thought of and who carry a great deal of influence in the IT space because they are so widely read. You need to approach these writers in the same fashion that you would handle the industry analysts. Just sending them your press releases is not going to cut it.
Newspapers also fall into this category. The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Financial Times, San Jose Mercury News, and others have well-respected technology writers.
Most technology disciplines have publications specific to a particular industry. Security Magazine focuses on cybersecurity, Bitcoin Magazine on cyber currency and blockchain, Redmond Magazine on Microsoft products and so on. It pays to get to know the writers at those types of publications.
There are also new media publications with a fair amount of juice—ArsTechnica, TechCrunch, Wired, Mashable, CNET, etc. You might consider including these sources in your “influence the influencer” strategy.
Leading IT Vendors
Finally, we cannot overlook the influence of the industry’s leading vendors. If companies like IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, or Google endorse your product or partner with your company, it can be game, set, and match in the name-recognition battle. Easier said than done of course, but a strategy that might be worth pursuing. I had great success with one of my past companies when we partnered with IBM even though we were an early-stage company. IBM would bring us in on deals and leverage our expertise to sell their products and services. IBM got instant credibility in an emerging market and we got introductions at the highest level with big IBM customers.
Influencing the Influencers
Influencing the influencers is a crucial strategy for the success of your product and business. Larger technology companies often have a dedicated person or even a group with the title of “Analyst Relations” for tactical tasks like conducting research, supplying influencers with company information, setting up meetings, etc. However, if you are an early-stage company, one with less than $50 million in annual sales, this may not be necessary or even prudent.
Your primary interface with the tech influencers, especially the large analyst firms, needs to be your CEO and CTO, backed up by the product manager. It is just too important to delegate this to someone else, especially your PR firm. Your PR firm is good at writing press releases and making sure the magazines and newspapers pick them up, but very few of these firms have the knowledge or experience to deal with tech influencers. They need to be approached by someone with deep technical, business, and industry knowledge.
Each group of influencers requires a different approach to persuading them. In future blog posts, we will tackle some of the most important influencer groups and provide strategies on how to influence them successfully.
Further reading on the Toptal Product Blog:
Understanding the basics
How do you become an influencer?
People usually become tech influencers by writing a lot on either general tech trends or niche areas, like AI or robotics. The biggest tech influencers usually have a long career in IT.
Why are influencers important?
Tech influencers help buyers navigate the crowded landscape of IT vendors by separating the wheat from the chaff and highlighting the best solutions in the market.
Why are influencers important in marketing?
Tech influencers are important in marketing because they are usually the ones that define the market space and invent the terminology, establish the requirements criteria, and determine who the market leaders are. The Global 10,000 CIOs respect the views and opinions of the most prominent tech influencers.
What does it mean to be an influencer?
A tech influencer is able to influence the buying decision of IT buyers. There are many IT vendors out there, and tech influencers highlight the best of the crop.
What is a trade press article?
A trade press article is an article in a particular industry. Different fields like AI or robotics have publications that focus on topics important to their industries. An article in any of those specific publications is considered a trade press article.
Located in Atlanta, GA, United States
Member since May 3, 2019
About the author
Pete is a veteran product management professional who has taken four companies from startups to successful exits, including two IPOs.