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Thursday, May 8, 2008

How to break into Hi-Tech marketing

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about jobs and the job market. When we started talking about industries, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to make a move into Hi-Tech without a deep understanding of the, well, technical side of the company/industry.

I've been working in the B2B software industry for since my internships back in college. I'm going to dispense some wisdom, in the hope that I can help anyone's looking to move into the Hi-Tech industry.

As an aside, let me say that if you do have a technical background in engineering, software development, or computer hardware and you are a good communicator, you'd be welcome in the ranks of marketing. I know you might have to overcome deep-seated aversions to our field but there is significant value in the insight you can provide.

Now then, if you're already in marketing, let me provide some advice.

First, the most important area of expertise for a marketer is understanding their audience and market. While you may not become an expert in the guts of your company's product, you can become well-versed in who needs it and how to reach them. I would argue that this is marketing's unique value proposition. While the sales team and management are going also understand what markets the company should be selling into, marketing brings the "how" and executes it.

Second, solid communication skills are critical. One line that I've seen included in many postings for jobs in Hi-Tech is "Must be able to clearly communicate complex ideas to non-technical audiences." While many time you will be marketing to people in the IT department, you'll also be responsible for providing resources to the business people. This includes the ability to translate the features of your product into benefits that are attractive to them.

Which brings me to my third point, a point that must by necessity contradict itself. You must position your company and products ahead of your competition while at the same time staying grounded in the reality of your products limitations. This is a balancing act often required by the reality that your content will be seen by audiences with opposing perspectives (see the IT and business point above). The business people want to be told what the best product (often seeking third-party advice) and the technical people want to know what your product can do so they can make their own decision.

Let me share an example from my current position. I've had the opportunity to write the thought-leadership articles for our company newsletter. After I research my topics, I'll go speak with one of our software engineers or sales engineer. Many times when I ask about how our products fit into the big picture, I find out that I'm looking at the picture with rose-colored glasses. That viewed from the perspective of what our products can do, we do it the best. But, if you shift that perspective to what people actually need to do, we can adequately fulfill their needs but aren't going to bring about the Rapture. While challenging, the skill of balancing these two perspectives is immensely useful in tech marketing.

Finally, if you are serious about working at a tech company, spend time getting to learn a little (at least) about the actual technology beyond purpose and features. Get your hands on it, test it out, have someone run through a demo for you. Putting in that effort has the benefit of making you more knowledgeable and, hopefully, breaking down some of the barriers between marketing and development. (And if you work at a company without those barriers, consider yourself very lucky.)

So there you have it. Some advice from someone on the inside. Please let me know if it's useful to you. And, for any other tech marketers, please feel free to impart some more wisdom.


Tim (@Twalk) Walker said...

Good post! I would add one thing that applies differently depending upon how far along people are in their careers. Here it is: in many departments of (bigger) high-tech companies, different positions require very different levels of technology expertise. So you might walk in the door as a recent marketing grad and be able to operate the nuts and bolts of e-mail campaigns, for example, without having any kind of specialized technical knowledge about the company's products.

There are steps up the ladder from there that get increasingly technical -- but many of them will get technical in ways that have little to do with the products themselves. E.g. you might develop technical expertise in SEO or site metrics or CRM tracking.

Short version: especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, there are *plenty* of good jobs in marketing (and sales, customer support, etc.) that do call for a grasp of the job function and a good work ethic, but that *don't* require great technology expertise. Once you get in the door, *then* you can start to build that expertise.