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July 2013 Analyst Relations Newsletter

 

Enhancing Your Analyst Relations Program With a Public Relations Firm:
Benefits and Best Practices 

Joshua Reynolds
CEO, Blanc & Otus
 

As social media continues to transform the business landscape, many vendors are turning to public relations (PR) agencies to augment the Analyst Relations team and build stronger relationships with industry analysts. To answer some of the more common questions around leveraging PR firms, we spoke with former Gartner analyst Joshua Reynolds, CEO at Blanc & Otus, a sister company to Hill + Knowlton Strategies. Josh founded the Analyst Relations practice at H+K 10 years ago, making it the first PR agency to offer a fully dedicated AR agency team, complete with analyst subscriptions and access to analyst inquiry. 

In this first of a two-part series, Josh talks about the primary drivers and benefits of engaging a PR agency for AR; the best ways for AR to collaborate with a social media strategist; and how the AR professional should approach professional development for greatest success. 
           
Josh, thanks for being here. Let’s start with a fairly straightforward question: From your perspective, what are some of the key drivers for an AR organization to leverage a PR agency?

Great question. I’ll start by saying that traditionally, most AR teams have taken an “outbound,” one-way approach to AR. They’d seek help with pitching analysts — from taking a briefing, scheduling the briefing, producing something for the executive to use before the briefing, to tracking all the interactions, which were mostly briefings. In that context, a PR agency served primarily as the “arms and legs” for getting your message out to analysts. 

That approach worked to a certain degree, but it overlooked a strategic opportunity in every analyst discussion — listening.

An agency can hear what an analyst is saying when the vendor is not in the room. Given that analysts are continually talking to vendors, customers, partners and competitors, there's a lot to be learned by listening. 

Have AR teams caught on to that “listening” approach? And if so, how are PR agencies responding to this shift?

Over time, both sides have evolved. Today, the most progressive use of an agency by an AR team is to use analyst inquiries and insights as a way to listen to what the analysts are saying, and unify messaging strategies across sales, marketing, PR, strategic partnerships, and even investor relations. 

To be effective in this approach, an agency has to invest in research subscriptions and analyst access. This enables them to run inquiries, ask the analysts what they're hearing in the market, and where they think a vendor does or doesn’t belong. Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them unlocks the value of any AR engagement. Most AR professionals have caught on to this. The challenge is to convince the executive team.

What’s the catalyzing event that causes a tech company leader to recognize that the inbound mindset is as important as the outbound message?

There are two possible catalysts. The first is when an executive gets direct feedback that their tech company won or lost a deal based on what the analysts were saying. An industry analyst is one of the top two most influential factors in closing a deal. The first time a customer tells an executive that the analysts influenced the outcome of a deal, that’s usually a turning point.

A second catalyst is B2B social media. 2012 was the year that B2B social media in the technology sector hit the mainstream, and it is now tied with analysts for first place in level of influence. Word of mouth became as much a driver of deals as advertising, and actually outpaced traditional media. Executives are realizing that what they say about themselves matters less than what others say about them — so they need to learn as much as possible about what others are saying.

This a great segue into another trend in high-tech marketing organizations — the emergence of social media strategists. Would you say most organizations are using social media strategists for their outbound messaging, or taking the inbound approach? 

I’d say it’s a combination of the two. In 2010, the No. 1 new position being hired for among the 100 tech firms we surveyed was social media strategist. At that point, there was an enormous gap between what the CMO thought and what the new social media strategist thought the job description was.

At first, there was a strong product focus: “Can I get folks talking about the product?” Then it was, “Can I get them talking about the business issue?” In B2B tech, it wasn’t until 2012 that most social media strategists finally got their hands around metrics that mattered and got on the same page with the CMO. At the end of the day, it’s what people are saying about your organization and your vision that will really impact deal flow. 

How should an AR professional collaborate with the social media strategist? 

The best way is to agree upon the two or three questions that they want analysts to promulgate in the industry and social media to amplify and popularize, so that the vendor and the analysts together can own and generate discussion around the questions that matter most. 

We call these “viral questions.” These are the questions that analysts and vendors both wish their clients or customers would ask about — issues that an analyst could help a client resolve, or strategic initiatives that a vendor could help an end user tackle. Usually there are overlaps between what analysts and vendors think these viral questions should be.

Can you give an example of a vendor that used viral questions to its advantage?

A very specific example would be cloud computing. Cloud computing was originally sold largely as a cost-saving mechanism. So the discussion was driven mainly by cost. But there were other questions we should have asked earlier on, and the vendors that are leading in the cloud space today were the first ones to ask those questions: How do I secure cloud? How do I make it flexible? How do I approach hybrid? 

Our 2012 Technology Decision-Makers Study revealed that the best way to get tech decision makers to generate word of mouth for vendors online is a) to ask them a great question that makes them look smart when they answer it, and b) let them speak about a strategic topic of the day.  And as in the cloud example, these viral questions are the perfect way to generate social media. 

What do you see as some of the best ways for AR to leverage analyst thought leadership in social media?

Analyst opinion doesn’t just shape a purchase decision; analyst perception also shapes the business priorities that create that purchase list in the first place — before the company even thinks about which vendors to invite or which technologies to consider. This was another finding of our 2012 study.

It’s key for AR professionals to know the positions of the analysts they work with and collaborate with the social media strategist to give them ideas on how to connect to the thought leadership. A vendor can best position itself as a trusted advisor to clients when it has identified the analysts that are asking the most provocative questions. 

The social media manager, the product manager, corporate marketing and AR professionals should ask each other, “Why is our company necessary? What is the business priority we speak to? Which analysts are talking about that business priority and exploring all the ways to tackle it?” And then they need to leverage the thought leadership of those analysts.

That makes a lot of sense. Josh, one more question: How should today’s AR professionals approach their own professional development relative to understanding relevant business issues? 

AR professionals have to know how to speak to lots of different audiences. And so, with regard to development, I would say, become “multilingual.”

You have to be able to speak all the different dialects of your industry. The AR professional in their inbound function is getting insights that are useful to so many different departments — investor relations, the CFO, sales and marketing, branding and digital marketing, field communications, partner communications, media relations. You have to be able to take one core market insight and translate it into something that’s not just understandable, but also immediately actionable by all those folks. 

The AR professionals who succeed at this thrive. They say, “Here's the insight and, by the way, here’s something you could do with it.”

That's where the technology is today. Look at big data. The most valuable piece of technology in the IT market today is the analytics that define what you should do from that enormous mountain of big data. 

Likewise, the AR professionals at the top of their game today serve the exact same function. They are the humanized form of analytics in a world where we’re all drowning in big analyst data. 

AR professionals who would like to advance in their careers to head of strategy or product marketing or CMO or the president of a business line need to learn the skills of consensus building, of consultative listening and of actually becoming that trusted advisor. 

That’s great insight, Josh. To summarize the perspectives that you’ve shared, the value of leveraging a PR agency is layered. It’s the ability to coach AR on finding those overlapping messages with analysts; it’s showing them how to work closely with the social media strategist; and helping them to become fluent in different dialects of the business. 

Exactly right.

In Part 2 of this interview, Josh will share insights on how to deal with the challenge of executive maturity, and explains key questions to ask a PR agency to determine if it’s suitable for your company.