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Aug 22, 2005
How To

How to Market to the Government: Top 5 Challenges & Solutions

SUMMARY: Government spending is huge ($60 billion a year on IT products and services alone) and it's comfortingly steady. However, we've noticed a startling trend -- in 2005 fewer technology companies will sell directly to the government than did in 2004. Want to get your share of the pie? Whether you're a subcontractor hoping to market directly, or you're already a contractor wanting to increase your market share, here are five specific tactics you can put to good use.
"Vendors come into my office for a 20-minute meeting and expect me to care what they do. I don't want them to ask what my problems are. I want them to know what my problems are and how they're going to solve them."

That's what one government official told Eva Neumann, President ENC Marketing & Communications, a firm that helps such clients as 3Com, Cisco, Compaq, HP and IBM market to the government.

We asked Neumann to outline the biggest mistakes and successful tactics many marketers targeting the government need to know about.

Top three marketing challenges

Because the government is a huge and segmented market, with multiple audiences, marketing to it is no simple task.

Challenge #1. Target by sub-sub-department

It's not enough to say you want to market to the Department of Treasury. "There are hundreds of departments, thousands of offices under Treasury," Neumann explains. "The department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is under Treasury, and their needs are very different than the IRS. So sending an email blast to Treasury, that's not going to help your sales force if they're focusing on ATF."

Challenge #2. Multiple decision makers

"When I sell to a commercial company, in an ideal situation I can get a signature in one day," Neumann says. In the government, you may speak with one person, who then has to talk to people in several other departments such as Procurement and Finance.

Challenge #3. Different concerns than private sector

A consideration for commercial is generally ROI, but with government, different audiences have different goals, such as the PMA, FISMA, or oversight from Capitol Hill.

(The PMA is the President's Management Agenda: Bush has identified five key areas he wants to focus on. All strategic government initiatives are focused around the PMA. When marketing to federal government, it's important to understand the PMA and how your solution or product will support it.)

Plus, as data recently revealed by MarketingSherpa's IT Marketing Benchmark Guide shows, civil servants currently are more interested in quality customer service than in price for high tech products and services.

Challenge #4. Harder to track results

When you run a lead generation campaign for a government contract, it's more difficult to know where your sales are coming from. The Army purchasing office might be in Kansas but the customer might be in Maryland and the ship-to address will be the contracting offices. "You can look at overall sales, but if you're looking at one single email campaign, it's very hard to show that that specific campaign had impact."

Challenge #5. (Even) longer sales cycle

The upshot of all this? "You can't take a test campaign and see if it works, then run out the whole campaign, because it's difficult to determine if marketing to the government works when you base your judgment on one tactic or activity," Neumann says. "You either go in full force, understanding the issues, or you don't go in at all."

Five Tactics to win government accounts despite the challenges

Tactic #1. Do your research

First, look at what you're doing on the commercial side and ask how you can leverage that. Identify how your products and services align with government initiatives.

If you decide to focus on the Department of Treasury, for example, see if your focus should drill even deeper into that agency, i.e., which departments (such as ATF) within the agency could also benefit from your services. Ask not only who can use your services, but who really needs them.

Look to where the opportunities lie: are there requests for proposals out? Do you have a contact within a department? Are you already working for the Department of Treasury, which will help you reach someone within the ATF?

Tactic #2. Develop and test your message (hint: it's about them, not you)

No, you can't just reuse your marketing materials targeting the commercial-sector.

One of the biggest mistakes Neumann sees is a company coming into the market talking all about what they do and never addressing the unique problems the government is facing.

Once you've refined your message, test it as you would in the commercial sector. "When we do messaging with a client, we often take it out to an audience via focus groups," Neumann explains. There, she tests messages for believability as well as relevance. "We're not just testing to see if the message makes sense, but to see if it's the right message."

Tactic #3. Use more than one media channel

Another mistake Neumann sees is when a company puts all of its budget into one tactic. "We see people come into market and they will do an ad campaign and be in every issue of a publication," she says. "But putting forth an integrated campaign is more important than with the private sector," in part because it's more difficult to reach your target market. A single medium won't do.

Think about print, interactive, PR, outdoor, TV, radio, trade shows, direct marketing and executive events. Things to note:

a. TV commercials are relevant. Washington, DC, has a concentrated target audience, and they watch the news, they watch McNeil-Lehrer. "You'll see TV used for creating awareness about a solution before the government is even putting out an RFP for a solution," Neumann says. "So if the Department of Defense is acquiring new weapons you will see TV advertising that will communicate why Boeing or Lockheed Martin are reliable sources." They're using TV and other branding methods to ensure they maintain their reputations as a reliable source -- hence they're entrenched competitors and are consistently invited to bid on government business.

DC also has one of the worst traffic situations in the country, so radio and outdoor are other good sources for a captive audience.

b. Don't forget the push-pull of channel marketing. "That's a huge part as well," Neumann says. If you're using a reseller, consider what percentage of your budget should be put toward influencing the channel so the reseller will recommend your products to procurement and increase the government's awareness of your company.

c. Direct postal mail is increasingly difficult. One woman in the government recently told Neumann that she was upset because a piece of mail from a block away took 11 days to reach her. "Eleven days is good," Neumann says. With the variety of delivery issues -- not knowing whether various officials work onsite at an agency versus offsite or having mail halted and screened for Anthrax -- you might send an invitation to an event and it takes three weeks to get there.

Tactic #4. Be willing to hire

Does all this sound complicated? It is, Neumann agrees. Your expectations are not realistic if you're looking for immediate payback, especially if your personnel don't have experience here.

You'll want your sales force, marketing and business development people to know the market. This means they need offices within the beltway. You can't fly in a few times a year to make any discernable impact. Don't want to rent offices? Consider being a subcontractor.

Tactic #5. Prepare to spend up to five months just to get a campaign in motion

Developing your message and creating an integrated communications plan can take up to three months -- longer if you're not developing the message and communications plan simultaneously.

If you haven't yet done your research on your target market within the government, you'll have to tack on another month or two to that time.

This means if you're hoping to launch a campaign targeting the feds in early January, you should be hip-deep in planning sessions in August.

Useful links related to this article.

MarketingSherpa's IT Marketing Benchmark Guide: (Contains special section on marketing to the government)

ENC Marketing & Communications:

Federal Business Opportunities (FedBizOpps):

immixGroup, government business consultants:

See Also:

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