What do you get when you mix a former CIO, the co-founder of two technology companies, and a blogger?
You get Arun O. Gupta, one of India’s most celebrated technology leaders.
Arun’s driven the IT departments at Cipla; Shoppers Stop (a large Indian retail chain), and K Raheja Corp (among India’s leading real estate developers), winning multiple national-level IT leadership awards along the way.
He runs a blog called Oh I See (which is CIO in reverse).
You also get a marketer’s dream. Having worn all those different hats, Arun has rare insight into the sort of technology marketing we need today.
You’ve had a long and storied career as the chief information officer at some of India’s biggest and most forward-looking companies. You’ve also received a number of IT awards. In those years, you must have met a lot of technology marketing executives. What’s the difference between the good and the not-so-good ones?
The biggest differentiator between the two groups is the level of ‘connect’—without wanting to sell.
Let me elaborate. Most interactions with IT vendors are transactional. “If there is a need, we have a solution.” That’s the typical approach.
They (marketing folk) ask about new projects, and
based on that they make a pitch. Some stretch their solutions to fit my need—even when they know there isn’t a fit.
As a result, those conversations were not fruitful—for either of us.
But there were a few—and I repeat, a few—who will come around just to have a chat. They just wanted to spend time and understand what’s happening in my life. Or they wanted to talk about a new solution. Importantly, these were not sales discussions, they only wanted to keep me in the know of a new solution.
These were casual conversations. Sometimes, insightful conversations. Sometimes, they brought a research scientist with them. They were educating me. That’s all. There were no upfront expectations of a sale. And that new knowledge combined with my visibility, helped me figure new possibilities.
To be fair, from a marketers’ perspective, it’s hard to ask a CIO for non-transactional meetings. There’s a fear that they are wasting your time and that they will be rejected. Your thoughts?
It really depends on the type of conversation they want to have with me. If they’re looking for a casual conversation, over coffee, I’d probably agree, depending, of course, on the time I have, on that specific day.
I used to set aside a couple of hours a week to have casual conversations like these, or meet cold callers. I’d meet cold callers because, first, I sympathize with them. They are just trying to make a living, after all. And second, because sometimes you get really good ideas from small companies (that’s where many cold callers normally came from).
You are a rare mix: As an entrepreneur, you understand the needs of a business. You also run your own blog, Oh I See, and therefore understand IT content. And as a former business-oriented CIO, you understand the CIO’s mind. What advice to you have for B2B technology marketers?
A lot of marketers use statistics and a lot of technology jargon. Because I’m more a business person than a techie, I’d maybe read something like that once or twice from a marketer. Then based on my experience on the type of content I get from a specific marketer, I’d probably not read another.
Most the time, the blogs marketers publish are centred around self-promotion. After once or twice, I start ignoring these.
If they talk about a customer case study or an unusual use-case, I’d probably still read.
Also, they have gotten pretty ‘innovative’ with the way they use headlines. Their headlines say one thing, but you get something totally different with the story. They need to realize that people quickly see through that. You can’t fool everyone, all the time.
My advice is: Keep it simple, keep it crisp and give me one message that I’ll remember.
If you try to push five messages in one conversation, I won’t remember any of them. If you look at the way I write my blogs, every blog has only one message. And that’s it. Because when you have a single message, it stays.
I haven’t seen too many people who can make IT content easy to read. It doesn’t have to be that way. I was working recently with a very specialised product company, who asked me to help them write a case study. I re-worked their case study. Then they sent it to Gartner to have it validated. And Garter said they couldn’t improve on it.
All I did was connect it back to the audience. What others are trying to do is to publish as many facts as they can in a brochure or case study.
And another thing, if a case study is targeted at a non-IT CXO, don’t talk technology. Who cares about technology? CEOs see technical words and say, “send this to IT.” And, just like that, you’ve lost your audience.
Marketing departments at technology companies need to understand CIOs and IT departments. Using that as a benchmark for success, do you think technology marketing departments have done a better job over the last 20 years?
I’d say a few select people have been able to do it. Otherwise, it’s kind of remained pathetic.
Content marketers spend a lot of time thinking of enterprise IT buying cycles and the type of content best suited for each stage of the buying cycle. Can you shed any light on enterprise IT buying cycles?
First, buying cycles differ from company to company. Every company’s process and governance is different. So you can’t apply one brush across.
That said, there are some broad steps that many companies follow including evaluation, fit-analysis, negotiation, and finally purchase. Different people have different compulsions that drive their behaviour. Somebody is driven by price, another by quality, some are driven by big (brand) vendors, other believe only in Open Source. So buying cycles aren’t really generic.
What needs to change in technology sales and marketing?
There’s a self-created challenge in the IT industry: Everyone knows that at month-end, quarter-end, or year-end, you will get better discounts. So, CIOs, too, play the same game.
In the CPG industry, this tactic used to make sense. Pushing product into the market at the month-end made some sense because that’s when customers got their salaries and made bulk, monthly purchases.
Today, the advent of e-commerce has broken that. No longer do you and I make monthly purchases. We do replacement shopping or impulse buying.
The same logic applies to IT buying. An enterprise’s IT needs don’t suddenly rise at the end of the month, quarter or year. But because that’s when discounts are pushed, IT purchasing decisions align to the trend to get the best financial benefit.
How do you break this cycle? If IT sales and marketers stop offering these ‘unreasonable’ discounts, slowly the market will correct itself. This will remove the artificial pressure on everyone (marketers and businesses). And everyone will buy for the right reasons.
You are unique in another way: You are among a small minority who has been both a CIO and has sold to CIOs. Since you have been on both sides of the fence, do you have any advice to marketers?
My simple advice is: Don’t sell, help your customers buy. To elaborate: Understand your customer’s context before you even think of what you want to sell to them. The moment you want to do a sale, you get pushback.
Imagine yourself walking into a store and a salesperson walks up to you and asks if they can help you. What’s your reaction? “Leave me alone” right?
This what I try to do: I have conversations. I’ve had many in the last two years and the starting point’s always been: Let’s have a chat and let me tell about what I’m doing. Advise me if what I’m doing is right. I keep going back to people to validate if what I’m doing is right, asking if there are other use cases I haven’t thought of. There’s no question of buying anything.
Maybe they will never buy my solution, and I’m okay with that. But that conversation is important.
Last question, about how many marketing mailers do you remember getting a month?
I used to get about 50-60 emails every day. This included invites to webinars, marketing material, calls for seminars, etc. A joke I used to have is that I didn’t need to ever cook dinner because I could eat out every day (at technology events).
Apart from these emails, there’s the subscribed content: Content I’ve explicitly registered for. I get about 25-30 of these emails a day. This includes your CIO.in, CIO.com and TechTarget. I read most of them because they keep me in touch with what’s happening in the world.
But there’s just too much of this (content). Even after I unsubscribe, some of it comes back. So then I mark it as spam. I’m certain my spam folder gets another 25-30 messages a day.
I sure that CIOs who are in the limelight, would get twice as much as I do.
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