Theresa May’s description of a squeezed middle of Britons who are “just about managing” may have been a passing aside that seems to have dropped by the wayside, but it made me think. A similar problem affects technology businesses. Everyone loves the innovation, excitement and (often) wide-eyed naivety that drives a start-up, while having respect for those organisations that have grown to lead their industry or niche. Consequently there are clear ways of marketing both these types of business – essentially you either focus on the hopefulness of youth or the solidity and strength on old age. After all, no-one got fired for buying IBM.
Where does this leave the squeezed middle – companies that are still growing, but not at the hyper-powered speed of a start-up, and are not yet big enough to be the safe choice that old-timers provide? These organisations are affected by a number of challenges:
1.Differentiating themselves in the market
With competition increasing, how can they remain relevant to existing clients while fighting off rivals from above and below?
2.Attracting and retaining staff
In incredibly competitive markets, the squeezed middle lacks the name recognition and safe salaries of older businesses, while not offering the potential rewards of getting equity in the next Facebook provided by start-ups.
3.Choosing where to expand
After building a base in a single country or segment, companies need to look at their next steps. But with limited resources they have to choose wisely and invest enough to drive success, without risking their overall survival.
4.Keeping the excitement going
Five years on from being a start-up, teams can become tired and see the world from jaded eyes. How can you keep people motivated, particularly when that IPO or acquisition seem further away than ever?
5.Attracting continued attention
Start-ups can manufacture news, while established players have a pipeline of new products, partners and customers to publicise. For companies in the middle, finding new things to talk about can be hard – journalists and social media flock to the next big thing, rather than celebrating incremental progress.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of organisations in the squeezed middle and there are a number of ways of marketing yourself that can differentiate your from larger and smaller competitors:
1. Be known for something
Don’t try and take on established players by talking about the speed or even cost of your product – even today, many buyers are reassured by the expense of buying from a big company, while start-ups will be more than happy to make wild claims/offer below market pricing to build their business. Focus on the business issues your potential customers suffer from, and become known as the answer to their problem. This might mean looking at just a part of what your product does, but if the niche is big enough you can dominate it. The same applies to marketing – don’t try and out-compete the big boys through a playbook of hundreds of messages or campaigns. Cover a few, but do it well and keep repeating it to hammer it home, so that you are known as an expert in at least one thing.
2. Focus on the customer
It is an obvious point, but to get where they are, middle aged companies have had to sign customers. And often these companies are passionate about the benefits that their products have delivered to their operations, making them the best possible evangelist for the business. Nurture them, treat them well and involve them in strategic planning (through things such as customer days and customer advisory boards), so that they remain onside and are happy to be involved in your marketing.
3. Build the right culture
Retaining staff – and attracting new blood – is crucial to growing your middle aged business, but it is about continuity rather than revolution. Set out to build the culture that will make the most of your advantages, such as international reach, but include the flexibility and inclusiveness that big companies don’t have. Show that every member of staff can contribute and make a difference – without the imminent threat of closure that underfunded start-ups face.
4. Keep doing it, all the time
It can be tempting for middle aged/midsize businesses to try a lot of different things, searching for a silver bullet that turns them into a star overnight. Unfortunately, marketing doesn’t work like that. What is needed is constant, consistent, campaigns that hammer home a message day after day, month after month. Do the basic things right and don’t be downhearted if things aren’t an immediate hit, but build over time. Obviously look at measuring results and improving what you do, but keep on keeping on. It may sound like an uninteresting approach, but it doesn’t have to be – it is just a question of avoiding the flightiness of a start-up or the random changes that big businesses can often make in an effort to be trendy.
In competitive sectors, middle aged tech companies can easily get an inferiority complex – to succeed in their marketing they therefore need to make the most of their advantages, apply hard work, and focus their efforts if they want to thrive.