The structure of a manufacturer’s business does impact marketing and communications. This occurs for a number of reasons. It can enhance and support the organisation’s message in unique and positive ways. In other cases the influence may not be as supportive, and may even appear downright confusing. The dynamics involved in this relationship are interesting.
How often have you looked at an organisation and its product messages and ‘got it’ right away? How many times have you scratched your head while being aware of the products, but the communications did not seem to be aligned? Are you in the ‘I get it’ camp or the ‘what’s going on here” camp?
Within our industry we might identify five types of structure relationships to marketing / communication groups.
The With-the-Program Group: Within this group are those manufacturer’s who take a wide view and understand their technologies, products and they attempt to understand their users. They want to help them and are often very good at capacity building. They understand the purpose of marketing and they understand why good communication is important. They produce information about their products actively, and not only distribute it, but they actively promote it. Their organisational structure looks similar to the way it operates. The ‘message’ is clear, unified and ‘outsiders’ understand what the inside is doing and how it operates. That also means ‘outsiders’ know who to call when they have a question and often feel they have a ‘relationship’ with the organisation. There is a sense of security and dependability with these companies.
The Triangle in a Box Group: This group has a structure that appears hard to follow. The product portfolio is not clear and the marketing and communications seem a bit hard to follow. It is more difficult to understand who to call with a question. There is sometimes a sense that the left and right hands of the organisation are not quite together. The job titles of the people performing the marketing and communication functions seem confusing – and these people have not been properly empowered to make decisions. This group structure has its own understanding of organisation (thus a triangle in a box), but to ‘outsiders’ – they are left to scratch their heads figuring things out and how the organisation works. This group understands marketing and communications roles, but the message is diffuse – weakened.
The Great Product In the Shade Group: This group can appear in small or large organisations. Some of the products are even well known, but there is no insight about marketing or communications. This group forces people with questions to speak with ‘insider’ knowledge or terminology thus creating a cold surface for engaging interest. Sometimes the product names change in this group, confusing both insiders and outsiders, causing the whole marketing and communication dialogue to breakdown. Not that a change cannot be done, only that one must explain it if it is. This group does not seem to care to do that, or assumes everyone will understand – but they don’t. People who buy products in this group tend to be annoyed and frustrated. They have a hard time getting them to operate and keeping them going, which is unfortuante, because the products are often very good. Marketing and communication is not an issue for this group, their products – apparently – sell themselves.This group has the most upside potential – only if.
The Good Stuff and Running Into Trees Group: This group is often the startups. On a bad day they become the Great Product in the Shade Group. With some wisdom…maybe some luck… they move through the Triangle Group to the With-the-Program Group quickly. There are usually a lot of bright folks in this group who really do not like marketing and communications – not in a bad way, only because they see no reason for them. This group later hires a marketing or comunications person, only to have such staff, but does not support them to achieve what they think they can and to contribute their expertise and knowledge. Within this group you will find lots of potential customer’s running around the outside on the edge, but none of whom can find the door to enter and buy a product or get they help they need.
The Silent Type Group: You cannot even find this organisation. They are more than viral, they are actively structured in such a way that their structure is not visible and their products are almost hidden. No – it’s not because they are secret agents. It is because they are structured to development all the time and nothing else. Like groundhogs coming out in spring, they flip out a product or service once in a while, then retreat into the darkness and fog. There is no marketing or communication, in fact, there appears to not even be an organisation. Yet, it is there… somewhere.
Understanding role and task
It is important to understand that products are created within business plans. Strategies are devised for their creation and executed. Different people within a company will have different roles. My experience has been that most marketing and communications are either done by designated professionals with the task to pursue these responsibilities, or they are handled by outside agencies or representatives.
Everyone has the freedom to deliver whatever message they wish. Some are better at it than others. That is not necessarily for budget reasons alone. I’ve observed that the best delivery of a message comes from organisations with structures that understand themselves – then work to help others understand it on the terms they need. This is different than taking the inside message out and setting it on a stand and saying, “here we are”. It is important to help people to understand products and services, and not just technology wise – but how they can be used for their needs. There are cases where products change so often that customers get fatigued with trying to understand what is going on.
While I would like to say editors understand consumers best, that is not the case. At least I don’t think so. Manufacturers ought to understand their own customers best, and be in a position to market and communicate to them. After all, they will know the technical details better than anyone else, and some of the applications. From an editorial viewpoint though, one does not have to look far to see the five groups above from both editorial content and communications content.
Manufacturer’s must return a profit. That is point one. Effective structures in the geospatial industry today must recognise location and geography transend divisions and other internal structures. In this way their message, as delivered through marketing and comunications is coherent, integrated and understandable. It also means that outsiders know how to get to the inside – to deal with people. Marketing and communications are the conduit to make that happen.
It can be quite confusing to many on the outside (consumer’s and businesses), when they also see changing strategies. It is one thing to make a company dynamic, but keep in mind that others have their own strategic goals and fund them and operate them based on their own cycles. A marketing message or communication that continually changes the outsiders strategy is equivalent to no strategy – more like riding a bucking horse.
The single easiest and most effective thing to do with manufacturing structures may be to develop a strategy that connects to the outside, invest in it and trust your marketing and communication people to execute it. People want to solve problems. Help them to see and understand how your product will do this. Explain technology in ways they need to understand and help them to see how their piece of work fits into other pieces or workflows. This can be hard for the last three group types to understand sometimes.
Be wary of those critical of marketing
Marketing and communications are the cornerstone of your contact with the outside world. They can expedite and create editorial opportunity and possibilities. There is a high tendency for geospatial people to act in insular ways – to talk among themselves. Successful organisations learn to trust other avenues for information dissemination and bridge building to the outside world – where potential new business exists. It is important to understand the role of marketing and communication within an organisation and be wary of those who are critical of it.
Summary: The world inside your organisation is a comfort zone and how it is structured impacts how users and customers interact with it. The world outside your organisation is your future. Marketing and communications bridge the two in an interactive and dynamic way.
It’s been interesting to see the varying vendor approaches to the geospatial marketplace, and to note distinct differences in how they package and market their products. There’s generally a constant corporate personality for a company, but the marketing messages and product approach can change considerably over time.
There have been several structural changes at companies, where divisions and product lines have been realigned, that have greatly altered how they approach the market. I’ll stick to generalities here that relate to many companies as it’s not important to get specific. Changes in approach speak to how geospatial perceptions have evolved, and of course to the competition in the marketplace.
Many geospatial vendors adhere to a platform approach, with the platform providing core functionality and a recognizable interface that is molded and updated through time. The general tasks of the software platform remain true, with tools or extensions added to tackle changing market needs.
The delivery of the software functionality has evolved over time, based on the means available for distribution. The operating systems that the software runs on have changed, but stability in that market have led to few added computer foundations beyond the standard Windows and Linux operating systems. Geospatial software platforms have jumped from workstations, to PC, to server-side enterprise systems, and thin clients delivered online. There’s continuing evolution in this space, with the emergence of “cloud computing”, and service oriented architecture (SOA) that take a web-centric approach.
The term platform has expanded to include increasingly broader definitions. It used to be centered entirely on software delivered on individual machines, but now there are database-centric platforms or Internet-centric platforms that encompass far more users in a distributed setting. There’s also the increasing importance of mobile platforms that bring specific functionalities to the field. In each instance, the core concepts of the platform remain true, but are being adapted to encompass a wider user base.
The platform provides a structure on which to build other functionalities that are tailored to specific tasks or to job-centric workflows. Instead of one standard core set of tools that all users utilize, some companies have taken the approach to tailor their software for specific users, creating software solutions instead of a platform.
The solutions approach has proven lucrative for several vendors, particularly in markets where geospatial functionality extends existing tools rather than ecompassing the core needs of a market. Geospatial-oriented companies have benefited by adding geospatial tools to new markets, and have sometimes created entirely new tool categories. This is true in such areas as emergency response, computer-aided dispatch, water management, and in electric transmission and distribution.
Increasingly, there’s an interest in adding geospatial technologies to enterprise-wide systems. This category has been deemed “location intelligence” and the tools often take more of a “dashboard” approach rather that mapmaking or geospatial analysis. There are many markets where customized solutions are appealing, particularly in businesses where a full-time GIS analyst wouldn’t make much sense.
Aligned or Not
Multi-tool vendors in the computer-aided design (CAD) space have over time aligned their geospatial tools with civil engineering applications. GIS and CAD for engineering purposes have a great deal in common, civil engineers are generally dealing with projects of larger geographies that are inherently geospatial in nature. Their projects require the intake of geospatial data in order to correctly reference themselves to broader systems, yet the tools and workflows tend to be CAD-centric based on the training and familiarity that engineers have with the CAD toolset.
While the alignment of civil engineering applications with GIS tools seems to be a natural progression, there’s still a friction between the two that will take some time and better integrated toolsets to resolve. It seems logical that a model-based approach will resolve any disconnects between GIS and CAD practitioners, and increasing ease of large-scale model building will accelerate the resolution of any conflicts.
Whether a company aligns civil engineering products with geospatial tools has broad implications for how they market and communicate benefits of their technology. It’s not possible currently to market your tools as geospatial tools and appeal to engineers or to market your tools as CAD tools and appeal to geospatial professionals. Until there’s more integration between CAD and GIS, there will be a need to appeal to both camps with different messages.
Response to Competition
There are a lot of ways to differentiate software products from the competition, and a need to continually evolve the toolsets in order to stay different. Geospatial functionality is based on visualization, databases and analysis, and all three core functionalities must continue to be aligned while evolving separately. The complexity of this three-tiered system approach raises a rather large barrier for any new entries into the space. While there have been new players in ancillary markets, there have not been any new platform players, and that’s likely to remain true given the large investments that would require.
As vendors tweak their products to appeal to their existing customer base and to new prospects, it’s an ongoing challenge to show how their products outperform their competitors. There are so many areas where geospatial software needs to perform in terms of integration with other packages, ease of use, speed and performance, analysis capabilities, map rendering tools, visualization, simulation, design, communication, mobility, etc.
The complexity of the differentiation challenge will necessitate a continuing need for creative marketing and communication approaches that may be based on the underlying structure of the business or that may drive change of the underlying structure of the business. It all comes down to the performance of the business and the evolution of the marketplace.