Most people in B2B tech marketing are aware of Gartner’s iconic Hype Cycle. But fewer people have considered it as an incredible guide to defining their marketing strategy.
Align your marketing strategy to the Hype Cycle and you can shortcut a lot of navel-gazing about the right marketing strategy and start executing. It is easy to be side-tracked by strategies and tactics that will simply not deliver results for a company at your level of evolution.
In this extended article, we take you through the stages of the Hype Cycle and lay out the right strategies and tactics to match your market’s acceptance of the core technology.
Where it all began
It was the year the phrase “To infinity…and beyond” became popularized and Toy Story netted over $350m at the box office. Alanis Morissette launched her third album, Jagged Little Pill. The year? 1995. It was also the year that Gartner analyst Jackie Fenn debuted the Hype Cycle. Now into its twentieth year, the well-respected barometer is used to describe the different stages new technologies go through from initial idea to finalized product or service and finally to widespread adoption. Gartner uses a graphical representation to describe the Hype Cycle which is made up of five key phases in a technology’s development.
It’s a model. Like all successful models, it encapsulates a way of thinking about something that previous models didn’t …or couldn’t.
While some observers are frustrated that it doesn’t tell you which technologies will make it through to the end, we have to remember that it has helped people understand something that previously seemed chaotic. Guarantees of success require a level of data analysis or psychic ability that we simply haven’t attained yet.
So with that in mind, here are the five phases and the matching marketing strategies and tactics to push you ahead of your competition.
The first phase in the Hype Cycle is the technology trigger. In Gartner’s own words: “A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.”
Despite what Gartner says about media interest triggering significant publicity, this is not a given for many companies involved in the technology. Tech startup media that almost every tech firm wants to be covered in (TechCrunch, Venturebeat et al) are usually so caught up with technologies in the next phase (the Peak of Inflated Expectations) that they not too interested in even newer and less hyped technologies.
Let’s take some examples of 2015 media coverage of Technology Trigger concepts versus Peak of Inflated Expectations technologies. The blue ones are Innovation Trigger technologies and the red ones are Inflated Expectations technologies:
When you look at it this way, don’t expect what you perceive or Gartner perceives to be hot to immediately translate into widespread media coverage – and the resulting consumer or business awareness.
For many companies in this section, there may not even be a marketing person or team involved yet. Many companies here will be engineering-dominated as they build and refine the technology. The danger here is that companies think about marketing too late. Meaning that by the time they are thinking about hiring a marketer, one or two of their rivals have already launched. Many potentially great companies have already died before they leave Gartner’s Innovation Trigger stage.
No matter how perfect your technology is, if your rivals are already established in your audience’s mind by the time you think you are ready to launch, you run the risk of forever being a minor player. No matter how much your spokespeople subsequently claim that they have better, more sophisticated technology – the influencers (media and analysts) that eventually cover your technology will forever consider the market from the perspective of the companies that they have already spoken to. And they will consider your company to be a late entrant.
What you need to do now
Essentially, the Innovation Trigger stage is about establishing your technology and business and starting the marketing ramp-up. For this phase, you can split the marketing responsibilities into two parts, pre-launch and launch.
Develop clear use cases. People need guidance. You need to lead a horse to water and spell out what could be better with your technology. Build a picture for them. The use cases are vital before you can even start a tactical sales and marketing plan.
Develop your market positioning. Positioning is carving out a place in people’s minds for what you do. Try to be something specific, rather than everything, so people can understand what you are. Bear in mind the other players in the market and create a unique position.
Develop your messaging. This is distinct to positioning. This means finding the words that explain your benefits clearly. You can experiment here and see what hits home with respected third parties.
Build your website. People may not be ready to buy from you yet, but you still need a professional web presence. Spend a little money here and hire good-quality designers and copy-writers. Look like the professional company you want to be.
Attend events. Depending on the evolution of your market, there may or may not be dedicated events. But bear in mind that if you’ve missed what has quickly become THE event for your emerging sector, you won’t even be considered a player by the hardcore attendees.
Cultivate relationships with a few key analysts. Analysts can make connections and open doors as well as provide early written support of your concept (in the shape of report inclusions), before journalists even think it’s cool.
Develop your launch story. It could be a product launch, platform launch, a proof-of-concept, a major customer win. You need a professional technology PR person or agency on board at this point.
Develop a pipeline of news. The single hit of a launch can quickly be forgotten. Think ahead to everything interesting that can and should be shared with the market to help you become that company that you hear about everywhere.
Establish an analyst relations program. Building on the initial relationships you’ve established, build on it, provide updates and show your momentum and progress. And find the new analysts that have started to cover your sector.
Build content, lots of it. The race for attention, which can make or break your company has already started. If your current team are not talented writers, then get support. And make sure your content is optimized for search.
Build your social profiles. Create interesting content and share it. Build the reach of your social content by finding and following the people that are talking about your technology sector – and influencing the thinking about the development of the market. Find your voice, start providing good content, then start engaging (or talking to, as we used to say) the influencers, whoever they may be. Digital channels are effectively becoming the new word-of-mouth network, so get involved.
Win some awards. It helps. And if you have technology that people will consider to be innovative or, even better, cool, then you have a good chance of getting some awards under your belt. They can provide much-needed, trust-inducing third-party endorsement while the business catches up to its potential.
Growth hack. Third-parties saying nice things about you is great. But remember that you’re still in “first gear”, the gear that has to work hardest to gain traction. Read the many articles devoted to growth-hacking and remember, in particular, build your email marketing list.
Peak of Inflated Expectations
The second phase of the Cycle is the Peak of Inflated Expectations. According to Gartner, “Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.”
There is no doubt about it. Everyone thinks your sector is cool now. This presents as many opportunities as challenges. More than likely, people will finally listen to what you have to say and think that whatever you have developed is cool.
But, and it’s a big but… Your sector has likely become pretty crowded. There may be a technology giant or three muscling in and taking the attention. There may be new and well-funded start-ups that are suddenly incredibly hot. Even the people who aren’t really in your sector are talking about it, muddying the waters for you and making your innovations less visible.
It’s an exciting time, but it’s also terrifying. You can publicly pretend that Google or IBM getting involved is positive because it “validates your market”. But secretly, you’re worried.
What you need to do now
Get real with your news announcements. You’ve got some tough competition, so your news needs to be hard news. Think funding announcements, tech giant partnerships, major customer wins, milestones and landmarks.
Build relationships with media and analysts. By this time, you hopefully have productive and friendly relationships with the key influencers. Keep it going, be friendly, be helpful, be responsive and most of all, be interesting. And you can score some incredible articles in mainstream media during this phase.
Consider your positioning. If your market has changed under your feet, you might need to reinvent yourself. If you’re realistically going to face a losing battle against massive competition, you might need to create a new sub-category for yourself, where you can be a leader.
Win the content war. Consider the buying cycle and what content you need to pull through new customers at every point. See what your rivals are doing well and do it better than them. With B2B, think blog articles, whitepapers, webinars, infographics, video.
Dominate search. If people are now actively searching for what you have, then be there when they’re looking. Beyond Google, also consider alternative “search engines” like YouTube, Twitter and Amazon.
Make your CEO famous. Your sector has become a story and stories are played out with characters. Find speaking slots for your CEO, get them commenting on news stories, get byline articles by them placed. Make them part of the story.
Look the part. You need to look great now. Not just professional, but great. People are interested in your sector and they’ll form an impression of your worthiness in a second based on your website, your Twitter account, your LinkedIn profile, your event presence, everything. Professional design and content creation is paramount.
And if you’re rich, advertise. Nothing drowns out the competition like a pervasive, expensive media spend.
Trough of Disillusionment
Next you enter the Trough of Disillusionment. It is here that the Cycle begins to decline due to flaws and failed implementations. And as Gartner explains, it is when “Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.”
Awwww, man! It seems like just yesterday that you were so hot. Right now, you’re not getting the attention you once had, and sometimes you’re getting attention that you’d rather not have. It can feel pretty rough.
The media are not as interested in fueling the excitement of the sector. It seems like if they are covering it, they are talking more about the dramas and set-backs. If you’re responsible for marketing now, having moved through the Peak of Inflated Expectation, you might also be getting some internal flack as the CEO is remembering the glory days and not understanding why nothing is the same anymore. Even if your company is experiencing good growth, the role of marketing might involve a lot more fire-fighting than ever before.
What you need to do now
Don’t take your foot off the pedal. Marketing will be the source of growth, so even if things sometimes look shaky, retain the investment in marketing to get you through any bumps in the road. Slashing marketing short-term leads to death in the long-term.
Customer marketing. Your happy customers are your biggest asset and you need to use them. It’s never that easy to get endorsements, but make them really happy, show them what’s in it for them, provide incentives and it gets easier. Get the CEO or exec team involved to stop cautious sales people from shielding away from even asking their customers to help.
Analyze and optimize. Ideally, you have been analyzing and optimizing your efforts all the way along. But whether you have or not, it is more important now than it has ever been. Ten per cent improvements here, two per cent improvements here can make a world of difference.
Refine your segmentation. By now, the sector is sufficiently evolved for there to be various sub-sectors or verticals to market to. Pay close attention to this evolution, get to know them and develop targeted messaging and marketing plans.
Get ready for crises. You might need a lot more crisis management than you ever did before. Get a plan in place for whatever might go wrong and know how you will respond to whatever goes wrong. And bear in mind that a crisis can start at the speed of social, so be grown up with real-time social monitoring technology and processes.
Keep on trucking with media and analysts. There’s a reason that media and analysts are featured throughout every section. They’re always important. And when you have that big news, go hell for leather and remind the world why you’re a hot property.
And keep your content machine in full flow. High-quality content combined with a great email and social distribution will keep your lead generation in full working order.
Spend a little to make… a reasonable amount. If you need to ignite or re-ignite interest, paid and sponsored opportunities are worth considering. Your best opportunities might be Google Ads, LinkedIn ads, sponsored whitepapers or webinars. Whatever is most likely to result in the greatest quantity and quality of leads.
Make your senior execs into statesmen/women for your sector. Scrappy may have been okay in the past. But what’s needed now is a more refined edge to your executive marketing. They’re not talking down rivals, they’re approaching the sector as spokespeople for your industry and talking candidly, yet smartly about the challenges and opportunities.
The Slope of Enlightenment
Congratulations! You have moved to the upwardly phase of the Cycle – the slope of enlightenment. This according to Gartner is when “More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.”
You’ve made it through. You’re an established player in an established market. Yes, you’re not as hot as some other whipper-snappers out there. But you’ve got customers, recurring revenue, growth and respect. But if you’ve made it through, so have others.
What you need to do now
Do everything that you were doing in the Trough of Disillusionment. The same strategies and tactics apply here.
Become sensibly paranoid about your established competition. You’re one of a handful of go-to companies in this sector. Pay close attention to what they’re doing or not doing and do marketing better than them.
Pay close attention to new alternatives to you. Now you’re in an established category or technology, there will be upstarts and disruptors talking you down and presenting a cheaper way of doing what you do. Marketing needs to keep a close eye on the potential shifts in the market and alert your exec team of any significant market developments that you need to react to.
Don’t let Legal kill Marketing. Your company is probably big enough to have a legal department or counsel. It’s their job to stamp out all risk. Risk like… saying or doing anything. In a battle of influence and ego, make sure you have the authority to continue to run Marketing without constant intrusion that will make your department ineffective.
Jump on new bandwagons. As your bandwagon is only now plodding along, there might be new trends that you need to jump into to remain interesting and relevant.
The Plateau of Productivity
The final phase of the Hype Cycle is the Plateau of Productivity. This is when “Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.”
Boring! You’re yesterday’s news. Your stuff works. People are buying it and most of them like it. Why would a journalist write about you now? Where’s the drama?
What you need to do now
Keep everyone else out. Now you really have to loosen the purse-strings and spend more on marketing. You need to make it too expensive for anyone else to compete with your mindshare. So advertising needs to come in a big way. Be everywhere. Be the only company that feels safe enough to do business with.
Do everything. You now need a full soup-to-nuts marketing machine covering off every channel, every opportunity. Now you need a full complement of marketing resources. Fully-functional and productive PR, SEO, digital marketing, events, awards, advertising, design, copywriting, lead gen. Everything.
Measure everything. You can now afford to spend more to refine what’s working and what’s not. You need data-driven marketing that the CEO can visualize, love and count on.
Become the media. If journalists aren’t covering you as much, don’t worry. You can be the media. You’ve been doing it to some degree with your content marketing efforts so far, but now you can go the whole hog and create owned media.
Stay relevant and stay paranoid. Marketing needs to keep a watchful eye on what happens in the market around them. Other departments are so busy doing their jobs that they might not spot the meta-trends and threats that emerge.
Plan for your own obsolescence. In true Al Ries style, plan for your own obsolescence. The market will shift eventually and the replacement for your technology would ideally be your own technology.
It is great for any company to be considered to part of a technology that will run through a Hype Cycle. It provides the opportunity, but not a guarantee of success. Success will come through a combination of brainpower, hard work, enough money, the right marketing strategy – and a little luck.
2015 has been hailed as the golden age of technology – that’s 20 years since the inception of the Hype Cycle. This ‘golden age’ is arguably the most-competitive period in business history. It is estimated that each minute, a start-up is born. That’s why you need to be not one, or two, but four or even five steps ahead of the rivals. Be different. Grab the leadership position. Stay there.
As Woody from Toy Story would say: “Reach for the sky!”