Is Your IT Organization a Marketing One?

min read

Key Takeaways

  • IT may fear the "M" word, but embracing marketing can help make the IT department more approachable and understanding of its customers' needs.
  • Highlighting progress and the steps IT is taking can help customers understand the effort being undertaken on their behalf.
  • As IT professionals work with customers on selecting, installing, or maintaining systems, they should be watching for customers' pain points.
  • Providing a service catalog will enable the IT department to assist customers who are looking for help but don't know where to turn.

What images come to mind when you hear the word "Disney"? Do you think of Mickey Mouse, theme parks, or movies? What about the word "McDonalds"? If you have kids you probably think of Happy Meals or Big Macs. What comes to your customers' minds when they speak about your IT department? Do images of helpfulness and customer service come up, or are they more likely to think about the poor service they have received?

An article in Advertising Age1 estimated that worldwide spending for advertising in 2011 was $464.3 billion dollars. That is up 3.5 percent from 2010 spending, and the number is expected to grow for 2012. Open the latest edition of any higher education IT trade publication and you will see multiple companies marketing their services to your counterparts and to your customers. Unless your IT organization is working to market itself, it could be losing ground to untested competition even as it continues to improve its services and offerings.

Highlights of IT Marketing

Internal IT departments are not natural marketing organizations. Marketing is not IT's purpose, and many of the staff would prefer to hunker down in their cube farms all day writing code or working out bugs in the latest application the institution wants deployed. Getting the word out about IT's products and services often comes in second or third behind fighting the daily fires and keeping all of the applications running to support the university's mission. In small organizations it is especially hard to find time for marketing because the IT team already wears multiple hats.

In a February 2006 article in CIO magazine, Meridith Levinson looked at mattress maker Simmons Bedding and the transformation of its IT department. Simmons CIO Wade Vann worked to take his IT department from a culture of "no" to one that partnered with the company. The article acknowledges IT's fear of the "M" word but explains how embracing marketing can help make the IT department more approachable and understanding of its customers' needs. In the end the IT department at Simmons moved from a culture in which people avoided IT to one in which the organization became a partner even when customers knew that the systems were not the most up to date.

IT marketing does not have to be extravagant. Its purpose is to make sure the organization understands what services are being provided or offered. Often IT is seen as a cost center for the institution. Worse yet, some campuses see IT as a black hole that gets a large part of the institutional budget with little to no visible sign of anything being provided in return. The switches and gears required to establish a network are usually behind locked doors in darkened cool rooms where few non-IT staff ever venture. As long as users' computers work so that they can do their jobs, check e-mail, and surf the web, what more is there for IT to do?

Awareness May Be Lacking

These days just about every part of an institution's operation includes an IT component. Modern environmental systems require IT to connect them to the web for remote monitoring and repair, for example. Many institutions are moving to voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems managed by IT departments. Network resources for VoIP systems require constant monitoring to ensure that calls can be completed and users can stay connected without needing to know how their calls are routed or what technology is in place.

Some campus departments know more about IT than others. The registrar's office is keenly aware of IT's role in maintaining the student information system, and its staff knows what will happen if the system goes down or has problems. Unfortunately, others on campus do not understand the complexity of the IT systems, nor do they have an interest in learning. They might see IT as a roadblock to addressing their pressing needs or implementing a desired new system, even while they are unclear about that system's capabilities or whether it is compatible with existing campus systems.

Marketing Is Not Just for Major Projects

Many IT organizations will think of marketing when they are working to implement a major new system or are about to make a major change to the infrastructure. Then the project team passes the word along to students, faculty, and staff. Such a marketing message will generally focus on the customer's WIIFM (What's In It For Me) and not on IT as a service provider.

Teams on smaller projects might issue a simple e-mail to users if there is going to be a service disruption. This is usually a basic outage notice with little information except for identifying what will be unavailable and for how long. Typically this message goes out a few days prior to the service impact to comply with the institution's change management process.

What's missing in the project messages and the change management notices is a common thread — a brand — that would tie the organization together. The solution might be as simple as including an IT department tagline or logo. Messages coming from IT should be easily and clearly identified. Many organizations have a website with IT theming that provides useful information, along with ways for users to give and receive additional information.

Every IT Team Member Is a Marketer . . .

Every member of an organization's IT team should represent the brand and the marketing message. Marketing is a role not only for those at the help desk or technicians in the field, but also for back-end systems and support members such as programmers and system administrators. Everyone in the IT department needs to make sure that they understand the brand message and see that the message is reflected in communication with customers.

Documents and e-mails shared with customers should be seen as an opportunity for the IT department to share its achievements. Success stories are usually key documents for customers and ones they are eager to read. Highlighting progress and the steps IT is taking can help customers understand the effort being undertaken on their behalf.

To be most effective, marketing must be authentic. IT must ensure that credibility is at the foundation of their marketing message. It takes a team effort to build organizational credibility, but too often it takes only one failure to damage it. Even if the news is not what the customer wants to hear, IT must provide honest information. One problem in too many organizations is that they — that we — are hesitant to share bad news. We hope that if we ignore the issue it will go away or otherwise work itself out. As many of us have learned, difficult news shared early is much easier to deliver. The mature marketing organization can take unpleasant news and work with the customer to help develop an outcome that is at least acceptable to all.

. . . and Every IT Team Member Is a Listening Post

To be effective, IT must offer a product that customers want. Identifying that want is often a challenge. Different departments may want the same functionality but have different ideas about what products should be implemented. If IT chooses to implement one product over another, it risks the perception of showing favoritism. This is a key reason requirements are important, and requirements can come from various sources.

IT is not an island in the university environment. Many of the systems and processes used daily have an IT component. As IT professionals work with customers on selecting, installing, or maintaining these systems, they should be watching for customers' pain points. Being able to respond to customers' difficulties should be a top priority, but IT often knows nothing about these difficulties until a crisis occurs. Listening for these issues and then tracking them with management can help IT become the hero by anticipating a need and determining a response before a problem becomes critical.

Institution-wide awareness is also a key for listening, as similar ideas may come through different channels. One department needed a tool for tracking loaner equipment. The department chair had tried for years to find an asset-tracking tool that could help with inventory and the loaner process. Only after the IT team started listening did they hear of a similar need from several other departments. The IT team was able to get all of the interested parties together to look at a tool that could meet 90 percent of each department's requirements. This enabled the participants to unite and present a stronger case for budget funds than they could have made individually.

Institutions increasingly look to IT governance structures as a means for building a "listening culture" that will enable IT to better serve an entire campus. In conjunction with IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) adoption, a well-defined, well-implemented IT governance structure can provide a much more robust mechanism for making IT decisions. Although the Service Strategy concept as defined by ITIL can be initially unsettling, especially to IT professionals, shifting decision rights about new IT services to a group representing the wider campus will also shift the responsibility to fund, staff, and resource these services. Even within the ITIL framework there is room for an intentional approach to marketing IT that can benefit the institution.

Service Catalog as a Marketing Tool

The service catalog concept from ITIL is relatively new for higher education IT. In its basic format a service catalog is a listing of products and services available from IT; it shows who can order and specifies any service level agreement associated with the purchase. In a fully automated environment the service can be a web-based shopping cart that lets customers purchase a product or service and gather additional information such as user instructions.

With a listing of products and services available — even if only the most commonly requested products and services — IT can provide a great marketing service to the institution. The catalog will enable the IT department to assist customers who are looking for help but don't know where to turn. By showing customers where to get information about what they need and enabling them to place an order, IT will improve its marketing message. Of course, for IT to maintain its credibility, the order must be filled to the customer's satisfaction.

Marketing Works for IT

If IT doesn't market its own brand, the organization will continue to be seen as a black hole for precious institutional resources. The IT team at all levels must be able to interact with and tell IT's story effectively to the rest of the campus community. Failure to do so will foster a negative campus attitude and make it harder for IT to earn respect and support.

Certainly IT should focus on customer needs, and the only way to gain an understanding of the customer is by listening. Every member of the IT team should be watching for leads from the customers they interact with. This means being able to understand the needs, determining whether IT can meet them, and looking for solutions that will work with the campus infrastructure. IT can also listen more broadly to customers across the institution's diverse population to identify like needs that can be brought together to make a better business case.

Marketing starts with strong leadership and must be practiced throughout the IT organization. Marketing is not restricted to tasks in the change management process. Instead it must be made a part of the culture and given time and resources to spread the IT message throughout the institution. What is your path toward making your IT department a brand name on campus?

  1. "Recap," Advertising Age 82, no. 45, p. 23 (2011), EBSCO host.