On the heels of Merritt Group’s launch of the B2G Marketing Playbook, our very own Matt Donovan (SVP for Government at Merritt) sat down on The Government Huddle with Brian Chidester to discuss the importance of agency-specific efforts in the federal space and how—when paired with BD/marketing integration, content strategy, audience engagement, and digital marketing tactics—these account-based marketing (ABM) campaigns can increase success.
In the transcript below, Matt and Brian discuss tactical steps to begin to build your messaging platform, new digital marketing technologies in the market you can take advantage of today, and best practices in delivering strategic value to your sales leaders.
Becoming Trusted Partners
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: The stakes are just too high to risk working with companies that don’t understand the federal market dynamics, which is reflected in the way agencies procure products and services. And in this hyper-competitive environment, decision-makers are looking for partners that truly understand their unique challenges and are deeply committed to delivering the best solution. In other words, winning requires a laser-focused account-specific capture strategy. This provides both an opportunity and a challenge for marketers.
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: Absolutely. We work with technology brands, systems, integrators, consulting firms to help drive awareness, build the right messaging to position them for procurement success. As they’re selling into federal civilian agencies, the department of defense state and local pretty much across the board. We’re there to help them position their company for success with the right messages in front of the right audiences to drive business goals.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: You guys just released an eBook around the How-Tos for this type of account-based marketing to the government, but let me start with this. Why is ABM so important right now?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: ABM critical, and it’s the area that we’re having the most conversations with clients about. It means building a campaign for the unique needs of a specific prospect or a specific segment of the market. That’s what it takes to be successful in today’s competitive marketing world, where you really need a customized message across the right platforms, reaching the right audience.
This approach is even more important in the federal industry for a couple of reasons. First, you’re selling into extremely unique organizations from NASA to the IRS to DoD. These are huge organizations trying to accomplish very specific things, using taxpayer money to do so. They need to know that they’re working with a partner that understands their unique challenge, the regulatory environment of the government, the pain points that they’re dealing with. These agencies & organizations need to know that they’ve got a partner that’s going to be able to deliver on massive society-level projects.
Building the Right Message
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: You just talked about how crucial it is to be able to build that right message to the right people. How do you start with that?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: Without the messaging foundation campaign, it isn’t going to work. One of the things we counsel our clients against is the desire to immediately tell that prospect everything that’s amazing about their company and their solution. What we counsel is to start by taking a step back and thinking about that agency’s challenge and what they are trying to solve.
It also starts tactically with deep integration across business development and marketing. The earlier, the better to bring the capture and business development teams together with marketing to strategize messaging and be aligned on wind themes. Focus on questions like Who’s facing that challenge? Who do we need to reach? That’s the core of messaging. And if you build everything from that challenge and then express it across the web, advertising campaigns, direct customer communications, and what are you putting in the RFP (all with slight tweaks by channel), all will be aligned and consistent because it’s part of that foundational strategy.
Aligning BD and Marketing
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: You mentioned a couple of key stakeholders who are vital to the process but are not always part of the marketing process: sales & contracting folks. I love working with the folks in contracting to try to dissect the RFPs because the organizations are telling you exactly what they need. I think it’s great to start by reverse engineering contracts, and marketers just don’t think to go there all the time.
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: There’s historically been tension. Capture and BD teams say they get no value from marketing. And marketing teams will say they’re not being given the information and the context needed to be effective. This is why bringing the teams together as early as possible is so critical because the capture teams know the situation on the ground. They know who the players are, what they’re struggling with, how the audience consumes information, and also what makes the company different compared to competitors. That differentiation against others going after the deal is what marketers need to message with.
We’ve had amazing early integrated strategy sessions recently, especially with some of our systems integrator clients, to set that foundation and build that message. This alignment makes everything that comes after seamless and strategic.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: I want to expound on something you just said around differentiation. How do you look at key competitors and put your finger on that one thing that they cannot do and what’s going to help you win the business? We as marketers sit back and look at the core functionality or where we fit into the market for our messaging, and it’s rinse and repeat; you could throw any logo on top of that message, and it plays. But how do I find the true differentiated message that only my logo sits on top of? How are you helping companies do that?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: That’s a great point, and it might not even be in the solution itself as many solutions have the same functionality and the differences are in the gray area. So it becomes showcasing how you think about the challenge differently, how your strategy is different, how your approach is different, how your methodology is different, how your people and the talent you’re bringing to the problem are different. Sometimes we get so caught up in the actual product and solution that we forget about the bigger picture of how, when, and if a company has chosen to do the work.
Targeting Key Decision Makers
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: We talk about targeting key decision-makers. In my opinion, especially when you’re targeting the public sector, you need a top-down, bottom-up approach because there are so many different stakeholders. If they’re going to make a significant level of investment, there will be multiple stakeholders involved, and you need to have the key messaging for each of those. How do you go about figuring out who those key personas are and building messaging for each and every one of them?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: Tt goes back to that foundational capture strategy that identifies the key players, roles, where they are within the organization and their goal within the macro procurement. I’ll give you an example: We are working on a capture campaign for one of my clients right now. Agency leadership sits in DC and has some very lofty, big-picture goals around consolidation, cost savings, and streamlining. There are also a number of strategically important folks down in Huntsville who are going to be very hands-on in terms of using the technology. Those stakeholders need very different messages because they are struggling with a different challenge as this contract unfolds. How to reach those folks will be completely different based on their geographies and what they’re consuming. But it will also be different because you need to tie messaging back to where the stakeholders fit in the organization, where they fit in the procurement process, and what they’re trying to achieve as part of this. That really goes back to you understanding their needs and are messaging a solution that’s going to help them specifically.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: You talked about somebody in DC engaging with messaging differently than somebody in Huntsville, but how do you go about choosing the right platform for your messaging? Because your messaging can be good, but if it doesn’t have the right vehicle behind it, it can fall flat. How do you go about choosing some of those vendors or engaging those vendors on behalf of your customers?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: It all comes down to that target audience and who you’re trying to reach. And as covered in the playbook, many systems integrators and clients around the beltway are doing some of this. Our goal with clients is to give a more comprehensive approach that incorporates some of the new digital tactics that we see out there. The goal is engaging the right decision-makers with the right message, so we think about who they are and then where they are and where they’re spending their time and developing engagement strategies from there.
One thing that we chat with our clients about at the outset is if they need to build a channel on their own. For example, the client says they need a public sector event and blog. Those aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but we counsel the clients to look at all of these influencer organizations that already exist and have built-in audiences to leverage; AFCEA, Northern Virginia Technology Council, and even local chambers of commerce in key hubs. Decision-makers are already active and consuming content in some of these channels, so it’s a great place to start engaging. Then the question becomes how can you come up with creative ways to land educational, useful, informational content across those existing channels. They have to establish that trust and credibility and a great way to do that is through some of these established partners.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: Even before the pandemic, we were using geofencing tactics to hyper-target agencies in ABM strategies, and ever since the new normal, there’s more acceptance around digital in place of events, etc. Are there digital tactics you’ve seen that are valuable, especially now?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: People are talking about Zoom fatigue, but all the data says government buyers are consuming more content digitally, attending more virtual events, and using their personal mobile devices to consume information. We’re seeing an explosion in digital use. Absolutely pre-pandemic, we had a lot of luck with geo-fencing, but the willingness of government personnel and decision-makers to consume content across social channels is increasing too. I would call out LinkedIn specifically in terms of serving up content that targets specific agencies and roles to drive them back to your website where they can really learn and discover the value for a current challenge of theirs.
We’re seeing programmatic advertising and automation deliver real ROI because you take great targeting and add in intent data to where now I know I have the right person. I kind of know what they’re seeking out, what they’re looking for online, and what channels they’re consuming it across and getting a message or your brand visible in that way. It really takes that digital advertising to the next level, and we’ve seen fantastic ROI in terms of driving traffic back to key assets for folks to learn more.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: Help our listeners understand what you mean by programmatic advertising?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: Absolutely. Programmatic advertising uses automation to position advertising across platforms in a way that takes into account the way that user consumes information, what they’ve searched for in the past, what websites they go to. You might be able to find opportunities with a certain member of your target audience who you know is listening to something on Spotify or consuming something in a certain publication like Wired based on their past behavior. With programmatic advertising, your brand and your message appear in some of this advertising space in those spaces, which you probably wouldn’t have sought out if you were kind of buying ads in the traditional way.
Mapping Content to the Procurement Journey
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: One of the things you touched on in the ABM playbook is how to map content to a capture journey. How are you helping customers do that for the first time?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: We see it in phases and where there’s a lot of work to be done pre-RFP. Pre-RFP is about letting the market know that you’re there, you’re focused on that challenge, and you have a vision for said challenge, “The art of the possible.” Whether it’s a cloud implementation or effectively bringing augmented intelligence to a certain use case, decision-makers have to know you’re in the game.
As you move further down the procurement journey, you get more detailed. “We’ve done this before. And here’s a little bit more information on what our solution can actually deliver.” Maybe it’s a video or a demo, but the content is something that helps decision-makers see things in action or lets them touch and feel it. Your message goes from the bigger picture, educational thought leadership at the pre-RFP stage to getting into tactically how you can help, what the ROI will be, and how it will actually work during the RFP stage.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: I’m glad you used the phrase “art of the possible.” As marketers, especially in field marketing, you often get hung up on tactical initiatives, but the art of the possible is important too. The reason is that governments don’t always procure for the “now.” They are aligning to 20, 30-year technology visions, and governments want to know that their idea is supported by the companies they start with. If they look at a proposal that is “good for them now” but hasn’t shown where they really want to be in the next five, seven, ten years, then governments are going to go with somebody else. Being able to be in the moment and show horizon growth for that organization is really key in proposal content.
The only way you can do that, going back to what we were talking about, is understanding those pain points, understanding what their vision is, and where they want to be. And that all comes down to building relationships and having those conversations with key stakeholders in the right places.
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: One hundred percent right. The other thing I’ll add is that we’ve done a lot of research around content, content consumption, and what government leaders and buyers want at each stage. But the thing they want the most is education. They want to know what’s possible in the industry. The industry has really sharp people, and part of their role is helping the government understand the latest technology and how it can be applied to mission use cases.
Starting there in your content is absolutely critical when a lot of these procurements are for five to ten years and must set the agency up for success in the future. And without that vision, and without that knowledge of where they want to go, the bid will fail.
Measuring Federal ABM Campaigns
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: We’ve talked a lot about how to build up strategy, how to potentially deploy it on a number of different mediums, how you align that content, but how do you go about measuring success? And I think this is one of the challenges that marketing organizations face: How do I know if that campaign was truly successful? How do you ensure success even in mid-flight?
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: Measurement is evolving, and the beauty of the digital world is that you get real-time data and feedback based on what you put out there. Obviously, the macro metric that we’re being measured against is contract wins. But if you back up, you can see what’s resonating and what people are engaging with as you implement the campaign. If it’s a virtual event, how many attendees did you get? How long did they stay? Did they download the ebook afterward? Did they open the email? Did they click on the ad? All of it is real-time data, but the key is not to overreact.
Let the campaign sit for a little while, maybe a couple of weeks, and themes will start to emerge. At Merritt, we’re big believers in A/B testing. For non-marketers listening, that is putting two different versions of an ad or an email into the market and seeing how they perform. Once you’re getting that data back, you can double down on the resonating version. That engagement means you’re hitting on something that people are interested in consuming, and you can double down even more on that. But it’s not just one tactic for one message. It’s about how a message lives on the website, paid, or in bylined articles, op-eds, and media interviews that your spokespeople are doing out in the market. All of that has to map back to that foundational message, and then you’re measuring it in real-time and continuously improving.
Brian Chidester, The Government Huddle: One of the ways marketing can really be a true partner to your sales organization is through the measurement of success. We’ve talked about traditional marketing measurement goals (impressions, opens, and clicks), but you can also look at the total revenue around a campaign. What was my average sale price? Am I spending my time in the right area, or could I be amplifying another campaign with a larger ASP to support those AEs? Take a look at some of the life cycles around the pipeline and see where it stagnates. So how can I come up with content to help move that forward? Those are the types of strategic conversations you can be having with sales leaders, and they will love you for that.
Matt Donovan, Merritt Group: Absolutely. That’s when the friction with marketing stops. In the micro, it could be a resonating message, which marketing then filters back to sales which the BD team starts to incorporate in their sales decks and their conversations with prospects. But you’re right—at the macro, you might stumble upon a challenge or a use case that might be relevant to a tangential part of the market, a different part of the federal market that might have a higher ROI. So that measurement intel and data is super helpful.
Regardless of where your organization is in terms of awareness in the government market, there’s a path. There’s a lot of really interesting innovation around data and automation that marketing can bring to campaigns that will help us all do our jobs better. So it’s an exciting time to be in the market.
Looking for more information on how to reach federal decision-makers or to download a copy of our B2G Marketing Playbook? Learn about Merritt Group’s dedicated Government Practice, or reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat in more detail.