Digital-First Marketing Needs a Human Touch

Digital marketing for technology companies is fundamentally different than marketing for the non-technical industry. Although it sounds like a simple distinction, if we unpack it, we discover surprising insights.

A few months ago, I had some conversations at the digital marketing SoDA conference that opened my eyes to the differences between digital and traditional marketing ecosystems. I’ve been living in the tech industry so long, that a new perspective from outside the fishbowl was clarifying.

“As a digital marketer, what is the biggest challenge you face working with your clients?”

This seemed like an innocuous question when our workshop leader asked, but the answers I heard were surprising. Except for me, the unanimous answer was: We focus tremendous time and effort convincing clients to believe in digital-first marketing. Then we have to ensure that the digital-first approach is accepted and operationally integrated into the marketing organization.

What’s Different?

Traditional, mature companies like Coca Cola, Citibank, McKesson and Chevron completely understand how to communicate human feeling and value. Their digital agencies’ biggest challenge is working with mature, inertial marketing teams to create a ‘digital-first’ view of how their markets find and consume their products. For most agencies, the greater challenge is shifting their clients to digital-first, with all the platforms, operational structures and processes to make it work. For these clients, creating emotional, value-tuned marketing is a lot easier than making the switch to digital-first.

But here’s the thing: That’s not the problem in our corner of the tech industry. We’re part of a small, but rapidly growing group of agencies who work mostly with technology companies like Adobe, Microsoft, Amazon, NVIDIA and many others in the B2B space. These companies were born with digital DNA. They grok the web and communicate online with integrated platforms. The challenge for these incredibly successful tech companies isn’t “digital-first” but “human-first.”

Where have we seen this before?

Anyone who’s been in the tech industry since the 80s and 90s remembers the weird way the industry marketed computers. It was all speeds and feeds, “by the numbers!”

800MHz! 1.2GHz! 16MG of RAM, 50MG hard drive, and on and on…

Apple was among the first to realize these numbers weren’t helpful to anyone but geeks. If you want the masses to love and yearn for your creations, you have to communicate in a human way, fostering emotional expression and connections.

This quickly became the new model for marketing technology to consumers. Speeds and feeds moved down to where they belonged — on the spec sheet — and were replaced with joy, exploration, wonder and peace-of-mind.

Broadening and Fragmenting

Until recently, this focus on “human-first” marketing hasn’t mattered as much for B2B technology companies. Why? For the last 30 years, the audience for B2B tech companies was the same audience as those early PC era — IT folks who know and love technical specifications.

But now, our clients’ B2B customer base is changing. Rapidly. It’s both broadening and fragmenting. The current wave of B2B technology customers aren’t just in IT anymore. They include business executives who run HR teams, product lines or lines-of-business, as well as marketing groups focused on “growth hacking.”

How these markets evolved is for another story (stay tuned!), but the short version is that it’s been created by utility cloud platforms. Now smaller groups within organizations can launch new IT initiatives without upfront CapEx or IT support. What this means, and it’s a big deal, is that IT solutions aren’t necessarily running through the IT staff anymore.

For digital-first B2B marketers, we need to embrace the new reality that our audience is both expanding and changing. The days of spec sheet techno-jargon are fading as the buyers of their products and services become less and less technically sophisticated and IT dependent.

So while most digital agencies have to persuade their clients to integrate digital-first solutions, we should be encouraging our digital-first technology clients to embrace their new audience — regular professionals getting jobs done as efficiently and effectively as possible. We all need to work with tech industry clients to help them understand that the spec sheet is losing its grip and that “human-centered” marketing will deliver the market perceptions clients want, with the market position their shareholders demand.


By Joshua Shane, VP of Strategy, Viewstream, Inc.