Mark Amtower, partner at consultancy Amtower & Company, says all companies, no matter their size or what they sell, can add the US government to their client list and enjoy guaranteed revenue. His claim seems too good to be true. However, since 1985, Amtower’s firm has helped thousands of companies — big and small — successfully navigate the business-to-government (b-to-g) market.
“The most important thing for companies to understand is that it is a very different market, but it’s comprised of every vertical out there,” he says. “It takes a lot of learning. But if you’re willing to come in and learn, we’ve seen companies even just on the open-market side [sales via government credit card] make $10, $15 million a year.”
Amtower’s latest book, Selling to Government: What It Takes to Compete and Win in the World’s Largest Market, will be released this fall. So what does it take to play in this lucrative market? Here are a few basics marketers need to know.
Government is a broad category, like consumer or business. Thinking of government as one big market is a huge, and common, mistake, Amtower warns. Every vertical market is represented in government, which is one reason why the opportunities are vast — and why successful b-to-g marketers segment as they would in the commercial world. “[The government market] is literally hundreds if not thousands of niches,” says Amtower.
Speak the lingo. When marketing to government, successful b-to-g marketers use government language and phrasing — which is not always the same as industry phrasing, says Amtower. E-learning and webinars, for instance, are referred to as distance learning in the government world. “If you don’t know ‘Gov-Speak,’ you telegraph your lack of knowledge to the market, and they will be less likely to purchase from you,” notes Amtower. To illustrate the importance of language, Amtower says that 9,000 words, out of the 60,000 words in his new book, are devoted to a b-to-g glossary and definitions.
Industry leadership counts. Like private-sector customers, government buyers look for experts and industry leaders. Amtower says companies should build a following by demonstrating expertise and strong leadership in a given niche. “I know of a company that sells promotional products to the government, and they’re very ensconced in government meeting-planner community. They’re all certified meeting planners, and to government, that shows a level of knowledge, a cut above,” he says. “They show up at [government] events and address the needs of that community in ways that perhaps other companies do not.”
Use commercial-world direct marketing best practices to reach targets. Amtower says successful b-to-g marketers employ all media channels to raise visibility and connect with potential government customers, including online and social media. “LinkedIn is huge, and Facebook gets significant play,” he says. The online community for up-and-coming government employees and those who market to them is GovLoop. Amtower says the group is small, with only 32,000 members currently, but its government members are tomorrow’s leaders.
Learn about the market. Failing to understand how the government buys is another mistake marketers make when entering the b-to-g space, according to Amtower. “[Government] has one over-arching set of rules that is quite muddy and not easy to understand,” he says. “Do your due diligence.” There are no learning shortcuts. Marketers should expect to spend as much time studying and becoming proficient at b-to-g marketing and its various verticals as they would to gain expertise in consumer marketing or business-to-business marketing. There are no learning shortcuts.