Often derided as chicanery, marketing actually represents a vitally important tool for HR tech providers.
By John Sumser
Have you ever had the feeling that you can’t tell one chunk of technology from the next? Do you get the feeling that you’re swimming in a sea of vanilla pudding with no hope of finding the edge of the bowl? Have you noticed that once you discover something engaging, everyone adopts the language?
You are not alone.
HR tech offerings are hopelessly undifferentiated. The source of this problem lies with a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of marketing in the design process. Marketing is underfunded and undervalued, in both the design and delivery of HR software.
It’s gotten worse in the Internet era. Led by giants such as Google and Yahoo, the marketing discipline has been transformed from a communications-centric practice to an operation focused on transactions. The more that keyword-driven advertising dominates the landscape, the more Pavlovian the process becomes.
It probably seems counterintuitive to argue that marketing isn’t being given proper attention. The conventional wisdom among consumers, particularly in our industry, is that vendors are mostly crooks. The heart of the dysfunction lies in the marketing department where all of the lies are cooked up.
That is exactly how an underfunded and undervalued marketing operation feels.
A quick look at the best companies in technology demonstrates the power of having marketing excellence embedded in a product. Apple’s relentless rise to become the most valuable tech player (in the stock market) is built on the integration of marketing and design. The elusive magic of the Apple “user experience” is part smart technology design and part smart marketing.
Marketing (outside of the stuff performed to make your knee jerk rhythmically) has three major functions: listening, dreaming, and story telling. By surveying the market, a company can understand what and how much of something is needed. By imagining what the customer wants, they can be inspirational. By developing compelling narratives, they can guide the evolution of vision.
Most tech companies overlook the power derived from understanding the market and communicating with it. They think that the problem is that they haven’t yelled loudly or often enough. If a competitor is gaining traction with his language, the best bet is to coopt it.
The issue is amplified in our industry by two sides of the same coin:
1. Buzzword Inflation Is Viral, While Innovation Grows Organically (See?)
It is much easier to adopt a way of speaking than it is to develop a technological solution. This is the source of the massive buzzword inflation (me-too marketing) that we face in marketplace dialogue. Talent management, SaaS, performance management, talent pools, sourcing, learning, learning management, analytics, workforce planning, and other pieces of the HR lexicon are easily incorporated into an advertising brochure or web site. Once a way of talking or thinking about an industry problem becomes accepted, all suppliers adopt it, regardless of whether or not they can deliver.
It is harder to build working tools that actualize buzzword promise. Viral marketing, the holy grail of contemporary business development, produces frosting. Long-term, reference-able customers want cake. The tendency to fight a buzzword battle, driven by inadequate marketing investment, causes vendors to miss the real value of their core offering. It doesn’t get communicated and is lost in the battle for first impressions.
2. Real Differentiation Requires Sustained Imagination
HR technology is focused on the automation of administrivia. These productivity improvements reduce the need for staffing in the HR department while increasing the customer’s opportunity for strategic innovation. Unfortunately, automation focuses on the past, on standardizing proven approaches. While HR tech facilitates strategic movement, it rarely provides it.
Visionary toolsets—such as supply chain management style workforce planning or business results-oriented HR analytics—are hard things to think about. This is the job of the vendor marketing department; creating future possibilities for customers focused on benchmarking (staying level with the past; following the leader). In other settings, marketing drives design. In HR tech, the engineers and the status quo accomplish the function.
As long as HR remains a tactical function focused on the job of “keeping the trains running,” vendor innovation is unnecessary. If we want our technology solutions to provide real competitive advantage, they will have to become sources of innovation. The key to this is the expansion of vendor marketing budgets.
John Sumser is a technology consultant, trade show producer, and webmaster of HRExaminer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.