One of my first jobs out of business school was at a company called BusinessObjects.
I joined the team as a consultant. In reality, “consulting” meant I was on the road every single week, showing up at the airport on Monday morning and coming back Thursday or Friday night, and spending every day working directly with customers at their offices, solving business challenges. Big data was just beginning to become a thing, and my job was to help customers figure out how to get more visibility, better analytics, and more meaningful insights from the data they were collecting.
A few years later, in 2007, BusinessObjects was acquired by SAP for $6.8 billion.
After the acquisition, I transitioned into a new role and had a request come across my desk one day. SAP’s sales team was having a hard time getting their heads around what these new tools actually did, and more importantly, how to position them in the market, talk about them, and ultimately sell them to customers.
“We’re looking for some people that have actually implemented these technologies so we can build a proper story and sales strategy,” they said to me. In just a few months, I became responsible for helping drive the product and solution marketing strategy for a big growth area of one of the largest tech companies in the world.
But as much as I welcomed the challenge, I was aware that my background wasn’t in marketing.
My background is in technology.
Before I came to the United States, I completed my bachelor’s degree in India where I studied information technology and engineering. I grew up fascinated by the world of computers, information technology, and the dot-com boom. As a teenager stepping into young adulthood, I saw how technology was going to impact and create a whole new economy, and I wanted to be part of it—not just from a career perspective, but also from an interest perspective.
By the time SAP acquired BusinessObjects, I was fluent in the technologies the company was selling. I knew the products, understood how they worked, what they were capable of, how they could be customized, and all the different ways customers used them on a day-to-day basis. I honestly didn’t think of myself as a marketer, because whenever I would explain to people how these tools worked, I didn’t feel like I was framing it in some sort of cool or clever way. I was just explaining how it worked, and how to arrive at the solution.
Turns out, deep expertise is the big secret to great marketing.
For the past 11 years, I have played a wide variety of marketing roles within SAP—including chief of staff to the global chief marketing officer. I’ve observed the deployment of hundreds of millions of dollars of budget, coordinated large groups of talented employees, helped manage the brand’s presence in over 160 countries, and led end-to-end marketing strategy and initiatives.
Each of these experiences has shown me that “deep expertise” plays two very important roles in the success of a company’s marketing.
First, it is nearly impossible to “sell” something you cannot realistically use yourself, even if it’s on a fairly rudimentary level. Too often, people that work on the actual technologies are kept separate from the people responsible for marketing and selling those products and technologies. The domains are almost always seen as entirely separate—when in reality, they need to work very closely with each other in order for the marketers and salespeople to effectively communicate the more nuanced value propositions of the company’s products.
Second, every marketer should have a basic understanding of how technology impacts their role today—because the two are intertwined. Back in the 1960s and “Mad Men” days, marketing and advertising were dependent on focus groups and a bunch of creative individuals sitting around a table, smoking cigarettes, coming up with the next big idea. Today, computers do a lot of the work. We use technology to test which images resonate better with different target audiences. We use technology to optimize our impression, engagement, and conversion costs. We even use big data to decide which messages to show which audience members on which channel at very specific times of day. And if you aren’t using data to figure out what sort of creative you should use to sell your products and services, then you are absolutely using technology and data to drive demand.
This is why expert marketers, especially within large companies, aren’t just responsible for building brand awareness or driving growth. They’re responsible for educating and enabling both their employees and their customers on how to talk about and verbalize the benefits of the technologies they’re using—which can only happen if they, themselves, have a fundamental understanding of what it is they are evangelizing.
The luxury of being naturally creative but technologically illiterate is gone.
Regardless of what industry you are in, your primary responsibility as a marketer is to look at technology, evaluate it, see if it makes sense to incorporate into the company’s customer journey, and then deploy it.
Deep expertise, then, is what allows you to have a strong, trustworthy understanding of which technologies your target customers need, and which feature sets will be most applicable to their individual circumstances. Additionally, deep expertise helps you gauge which technologies you and your team can leverage internally in order to be more precise in how you communicate those benefits to your target customers.