Straight-Talk Marketing Rules

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Since joining Rackspace Hosting in July 2013, CMO Rick Jackson has been fanatical about breaking through the clutter of the open-cloud technology company's marketing messages. A 30-year tech-industry veteran and longtime marketing executive, Jackson believes that the best marketing messages favor clear language rather than over-hyped claims about product specs, four syllable words, and hazy promises of business and performance impacts.

Tell me about a current marketing passion of yours.

Whenever I start with a new company, I find that getting the basics right is so important. Right now, I'm working on what we call “breaking through the clutter.” It's about anti-marketing marketing, if you will, in the form of straight talk.

Why is this important in the B2B technology market?

The typical prospects we target make numerous decisions every day. Each one of those decisions is addressed by multiple potential sellers; these decision makers hear from so many different companies. After a while, all marketing, especially in tech, starts to sound the same. Our industry has “cloud washed” almost every marketing pitch. Look at most press releases and you'll see every sentence jammed with four-syllable words and “ilities,” like scalability and reliability. Plus, most marketers insist that every offering has an impact on business growth or the bottom line without any clear mapping of that connection. All of these things set off warning bells in my mind.

Are these business-impact claims off the mark?

No, but there's a better way to develop a message. I think, ultimately, a lot of technology can be mapped to some sort of business outcome, but give me the steps in between. Tell me what it does directly and how that relates to what the business is trying to get done, as opposed to spending all your time saying, “We're all about business growth and bottom-line impact…and, oh, by the way, we provide plumbing.”

What's the source of your desire for straight-talking marketing?

I've been in this industry for just over 30 years, and I believe that this is becoming a lost skill. It used to exist, but over time our views concerning what “good marketing” is have changed. When I started in this industry, we just talked about product specs. It was pretty straightforward, but we didn't do a good job of mapping our products to business outcome. Over time I think we've over-rotated on this notion of solution selling. Now everything is marketed as a business panacea.

Where is this most evident?

You often can't even figure out what a product is because of all the four-syllable hyperbole surrounding its description. We've gotten to a point where I could take a typical press release with 20 sentences and prune it down to the five or six sentences that actually convey meaning. The rest is fluff. We think that by adding all of this additional verbiage, it's becoming more compelling; in fact, I think the key points are really lost. That's just not a good use of customer or prospect time.

Should tech marketers return to focusing on specs?

I'm not advocating that product specs are the right way to do it. Good marketing starts by standing out from your competitors and the rest of the market by being respectful of the customer and their time. We also start with their point of view, which is identifying what it is that they're trying to do. We often refer to this as “the job to get done.” How do we help them get that job done, and why are we the better choice? So, very simple facts. Articulate it the way you would as though you were talking to a friend, not as if you are trying to impress your old high school English teacher.

How do you go about creating more marketing messaging clarity?

First, you have to practice it on a daily basis. I spend a lot of time communicating its importance inside the company. I mention it in every speech I give. I have a poster hanging in the marketing department that says, “If you talk to people the way advertising talked to people, they would punch you in the face.”

You have to reinforce your message. When we read copy to each other, we constantly ask if the point is clear. I always tell my team not to give me any caveats before I read something. I want to read it as if I'm a prospect and it's the first time I've been introduced to this. If you have to give me three pages of notes to prep me so that when I do read it I get those answers, then we have a problem.

What else?

The other thing is that marketing has to take responsibility for driving straight talk through sales-enablement materials. As a CMO, I get lots of cold calls for products and services, and I'm a very impatient prospect. If within the first minute you haven't gotten to the point of what you can do for me without telling me all about the problems I know I have—and by the way, I'm in the job and know something about these problems—then you're done. We take enablement as a serious part of this initiative. We have to create sales-enablement materials that are much more specific about how to talk to the prospect in their words and their terms. These materials have to quickly convey: Here's what we do, here's why we do it better, and here's why it's a benefit to you.

Are you not sold on solution selling?

Done right, yes. But there's a trend today in which many marketers and sales-enablement programs focus on talking too much about the problems a customer might be facing. I find that if you spend too much time talking about obvious issues they confront every day, you're preaching to the choir and losing their interest. It all comes down to being respectful of a prospect's time, and adding value in the exchange, not repeating the obvious.

How has your “breaking through the clutter” message been received?

The hardest part is that old habits die hard. I think intuitively people say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” But it's been difficult to get a marketing organization to truly practice this.

How has sales responded to straight-talk marketing?

The key to success with sales is to give them confidence. If you publish materials that have lots of fluff and don't say much, they won't understand the subject matter that they're portraying, and they won't feel confident. This notion of breaking it down with straight talk really seems to give our salespeople the confidence they want and need.

What's an example of straight talk?

Most times, a prospect wants to know that we provide infrastructure and feel confident that our offerings can be trusted to run. We specialize in running and managing infrastructure, and we're better than anyone else. It works. That's what they need to hear. Does that have an impact on the business? Of course. I can go there, but let's talk about the fact that we provide “five 9s” of reliability. Let's talk about the fact that our service-level agreements are second to none in the industry. That's what they really want to hear from us.

What are the most formidable challenges you encounter in implementing and sustaining this approach?

It really is a discipline that you have to practice and stay on top of. As an industry we all constantly watch our competitors, and it creates a kind of vicious cycle where we copy a lot from each other. I always say that messaging and positioning is cheap because if it's done well, your competitors will have it in 30 days. That's why the same fluff tends to work its way back into the verbiage. To prevent that I've gone so far as to take pieces of our [marketing] content without identifying the source and then read them out loud in a group setting. When the content is completely disconnected from what it was supposed to talk about, it makes the point that we need to stay vigilant.

4 Ways to Make Marketing Messages That Matter

1. Go to the source: Jackson personally reviews nearly every core messaging and positioning document in the marketing function and edits the language so that it's clear, brief, and compelling.

2. Don't dwell on problems: Jackson advises his team not to spend too much time writing about the problems that Rackspace offerings address; prospects and customers are well aware of their problems, and their attention wanes when pitches overemphasize these issues.

3. Boost the sales team's confidence: The best sales-enablement content makes sales more confident that they understand what they're selling. Straight talk—this is what we do, this is why we do it better, and this is why it matters to customers—is the best way to cultivate the understanding that makes salespeople more confident.

4. Vigilantly monitor for ‘‘fluff creep'': Jackson notices that fluffy language continually worms its way back into messaging. To guard against this, he regularly reads aloud to his team anonymous pieces of content that has succumbed to fluff creep.

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