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It’s 2020, and the B2B blockchain battle has begun. Large technology companies and new startups alike are building point solutions and platforms to earn their piece of a market IDC predicts will reach $16 billion by 2023. Over the next few years, enterprise executives and developers will be bombarded by the noise of millions of marketing dollars and a cacophony of product launches.
The Problem? Few Know How To Sell Blockchains
Despite its promise, few solution providers have figured out how to sell blockchain products. Buyers are unclear, and their titles are shifting. Positioning and value propositions are muddy. Messaging is heavily focused on product, not on customer needs. Sales cycles aren’t repeatable.
Even with years under its belt, this market is still wide open. Penetration is low, but we also can expect high turnover from those that have invested—Gartner predicts 90% of current enterprise blockchain platform implementations will require replacement by 2021. Anything could happen from here.
“This is ‘make it or break it’ time for vendors selling to the enterprise,” warns Avivah Litan, who runs Gartner’s blockchain research agenda. “To break from the pack, stop talking about cool technology. Show you have business value. Show you solve a real problem.” The value is difficult to articulate, she says. “But if it takes too long to understand, no one will buy. A lot of vendors will fail because they can’t express the value of what they provide.”
This Is Not Just A Race For Product . . . It’s A Race To Learn How To Sell
Technology doesn’t make markets—people do. While many blockchain investments today may be driven by a fear of missing out, FOMO is not a sustainable sales strategy. Long term success will depend on people making the hard decision to change the way they do business, and becoming inspired enough to invest their time, their focus, and their organization’s dollars into acting on that decision.
Products don’t have inherent value—it is what a customer can do with a product that holds meaning for them. And today, not many professionals understand what they can do with blockchains. For solution providers, developing great technology is not enough—they must learn how to demonstrate the value that can be created with it.
To Accelerate Learning, Flip Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom tells us to spin up the marketing and sales playbook as a product nears launch. Yet the blockchain space is so green, so fast-moving, so complex, and so poorly understood, this is unlikely to spur adoption. It’s easy to staff up sales teams and burn marketing budgets. It is much harder to be effective with these resources in a raw, rapidly moving market.
Savvy solution providers take an alternate approach: they use marketing acumen to help drive the learning process. First, they inject marketing resources early in the process. Secondly, they run marketing in a way that looks more like agile software development: early and continuous iterations, rapid response to change, and tight collaboration among stakeholders.
Over a decade ago, Stanford professors Mark Leslie and Charles Holloway introduced the concept of the “Sales Learning Curve”. They found that in a new market, instead of following conventional wisdom, “The firm should focus first on organizing itself so it can learn from customers and respond to them.” This phase should be governed by different expectations and processes than those used for mature categories—and “Product marketing and marketing communications should ideally be the center of learning activities.”
With an understanding that their focus is learning, marketers can quickly test, iterate, and advance their understanding of the customer, how the product is actually used, how to effectively educate, position, and communicate value, and develop strategies to overcome barriers in the sales process. As they learn, they transfer this knowledge, insights, and experience back into the rest of the organization.
Emerging Markets Call For Agile Marketers, But They Are Not Easily Found
Greenfield markets don’t come along often, so organizations typically don’t have teams with these skills and mindsets on the ready. The challenge is compounded by the fact that so few marketers understand the blockchain space. In early stage startups there may be no marketing resources at all. “The types of skills needed during this phase differ from those needed to sell more mature products”, explain Leslie and Holloway. It requires a “facility for communicating with many parts of the organization, a tolerance of ambiguity, a deep interest in the product technology, and a talent for bringing customers together with various functional teams.” In short, find “agile marketers” that are a mashup of strategist, facilitator, and communicator—resources that can serve as a bridge between the product and the evolving market, and the evolving market to early sales teams.
Where To Start? Here Are Six Questions You Must Answer
These six questions can focus marketing work to accelerate the learning curve:
1. What is our role in this market?
In this relatively greenfield market, few have shown their hand. Yet the most savvy will play offense. They’ll forecast the competitive landscape even as it is still evolving, and strategically target and align on the space they seek to eventually own. With a clear definition of the differentiated position they hope to earn—and alignment among the executive team—they have a north star to bring focus to the work of building out proof points to support a credible and authentic story.
The strongest positioning will not treat blockchain offerings in isolation, but as support of the overall corporate position. And the best corporate stories weave it all together in simple elegance that can be reliably and consistently repeated (but not so simplified they remove nuance). An agile marketer can help the organization connect all these dots—from product to market landscape to corporate messaging to end buyer— even as the dots move, iterating, honing, and aligning teams along the way.
2. Who is our buyer now? Who will it be in the future? And how must their mindset shift to become willing to buy?
The titles and departments of the person evaluating a blockchain solution two years from now will be more diverse than the people spending time on blockchains today. Many organizations run blockchain work out of innovation groups, but over time, the technology will bring value across the lines of business. As blockchains become more integral to the organization as a whole, and as applications evolve to serve diverse functional areas, there will be different kinds of professionals getting involved in buying decisions. Today, many of these professionals have no idea what blockchains could do for them or why they should care. Agile marketers can be essential to identify and understand the mindsets of future buyers, discover shifts in buying behavior as it happens, spot emerging signals of “blockchain readiness”, educate new segments of decision-makers and decision-influencers, and evolve value propositions and sales tools to resonate with new categories of buyers.
3. What value do we bring our buyer?
This basic question can be one of the hardest to answer. It requires boiling a lot of complex technology down to the essence of how a product makes a difference in a specific person’s ability to do their job and meet their business goals. Intuitively, product organizations tend to speak from the point of view of the technology. But prospects want solution providers to speak from their point of view, in their language, and without making them work to connect the dots between product and impact. Agile marketers who are given time to develop a deep understanding of buyers can bridge this gap by representing their mindset and translating messaging into their lexicon—even as the buyer and their needs shift.
4. How is our point of view on the future unique?
In today’s accelerated environment, executives face a continual battle to understand how new technology relates to their job and their business, which innovations deserve their attention, and when. This effect is especially profound in the blockchain space, which has been plagued by the myths and the hangover of an overactive hype cycle—all of which have left future buyers with a range of emotions. The uncertainty means executives—who face overwhelming pressure to stay ahead of change—are exposed. Even before product is ready, this vulnerable moment gives solution providers an opportunity to deliver value to future customers. Agile marketers can help their organization articulate its point of view on the future, and use that position to focus thought leadership and education content that primes the market—before sales is deployed. The best campaigns build relationships with future customers early by helping them to not only visualize how the technology could improve their business and ability to do their jobs, but speaks to them in their own language.
5. How do we align and equip our entire organization to tell our story consistently, even as it evolves?
When an organization’s own understanding of its value proposition is continually evolving, executives and other customer-facing teams struggle to tell a consistent story. Even small startup teams can easily become misaligned. Agile marketers establish a process for pushing the product story and its fit with the corporate story back in alignment across the organization. An essential part of this work is a partnership with customer-facing teams, in which insights and information flow in both directions. Agile marketers equip executives and product, sales, and service teams with a library of continually improving pitch decks, collateral, and tools to help them consistently tell the story—and constantly pull new customer feedback and insights into these materials.
6. What are we learning about successfully implementing blockchain projects?
Because blockchains are an ecosystem technology, they come with an uncharted set of management challenges that can slow down the sales process. Who do we pull in from our ecosystem to work with us—and when? How should an initiative be governed? What is the best funding model? What use cases should we tackle first? How do we measure success? Clear best practices have not yet emerged—but solution providers have a unique vantage point at the front lines. Agile marketers can establish a business process that acts as a “learning machine”, continually mining their own organization for newly-discovered insights and synthesizing these into digestible thought leadership with pass-along value. This not only gives them an opportunity to help prospects navigate through these challenges, but could be used as fuel to demonstrate leadership in the space.
Agile Marketing As Corporate Nervous System
This work boosts a solution providers’ ability to detect, communicate, and respond to changes in the environment as they occur—serving the organization not unlike the way our nervous systems serve us. Obviously, the longer it takes an organization to traverse the sales learning curve, the greater the revenue gap. By accelerating the curve, an organization can close this revenue gap more quickly.
But this corporate nervous system accomplishes something more. In the rapidly shifting blockchain space, customer-centric, rapid iteration keeps a company both alert and responsive to micro-shifts in the market—signals that are easily missed but can herald the beginning of true momentum. And it’s only with this awareness that solution providers will know when it’s time to take all that they’ve learned, light the afterburners, and go dominate their piece of the market.