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Research-as-a-recipe for marketing planning

Based on the latest research among our VB Community of IT and business professionals into the challenges faced by SMBs today, we explore how such insights can help inform and support more effective marketing.

Planning season is upon us. As quarter 3 ticks over to quarter 4, for many marketers it’s around this time that they start reflecting on the current year and looking ahead to the next.

After a rather turbulent year in tech, planning becomes ever-more pressing – at the centre of which should always be one thing: the customer.

There are various tried and trusted ways of getting customer insight – from speaking to existing clients to conducting representative wider studies of your target market. One important – and sometimes overlooked – point is that such methods work well together. It doesn’t have to be a this or that, qual vs. quant, either/or, decision. Instead, (and perhaps I’ve watched too many episodes of The Bear recently) think of different ways of collecting customer insight as like individual ingredients in a recipe – in isolation they might be interesting enough, but bring them together in one pot and it leaves you with something altogether richer in flavour or insight.

This month, we turned to our VB Community of IT and business professionals – and specifically those in the SMB segment – to gather their thoughts and opinions when it comes to a foundational insight for any effective marketing plan: the challenges and pain points they need help with. We put to them a single, simple open-ended (i.e. no answer options) question designed to provide a picture of the various items on their agenda:

In your own words, please can you describe the biggest challenges your organisation is currently facing?

Digging into the qualitative results from our 79 respondents gives us illuminating insights into what they’re facing and allows the identification of themes, trends and potential areas to explore further. The bricks from which an effective plan can be built.

Data scientists and graphic designers look away now…

Let me be clear: I’m a marketer, not a data analyst – and yes, I made a word cloud.

Bespoke, high quality qualitative analysis from any reputable research provider will of course use far more advanced and robust techniques for analysing qualitative data but I’ll leave that to the experts (of which we have many, I should add). As a quick plug, keep an eye out for lots of qualitative expert advice and best practice tips coming soon from the VB team.

OK back to it – from our word cloud, we can already see key themes emerging – the pain points and jobs-to-be-done of the chosen target, in this case SMB IT and business professionals.

Let’s explore some of those themes in a little more detail – throwing in some direct quotes from respondents to help us better understand each one.

Five core themes of challenge faced by SMBs

#1 Recruiting and retaining talent

“You can spend all the money in the world on fancy solutions but ultimately you are at the mercy of the weakest link. With the move to cloud technologies and still needing to maintain legacy on prem systems, it’s getting increasingly hard to find staff who can join the dots.”

“Our organisation is regrowing following large scale redundancies during covid. Infrastructure projects need to catch up 2.5 years of delayed investment, with an immature work force, at the same time as a rapid return to pre-pandemic custom. This is challenging!”

Chief among the challenges for our respondents – and unsurprisingly given the trend of tech layoffs this year – were staffing challenges. Finding (and then retaining) the right skills to deliver what their customers are asking for and making a competitive proposition to potential recruits were highlighted by many as top of mind. With plans ramping up in the years after the major disruption of COVID-19, resourcing was seen as a key issue holding many back from achieving what they want to. For tech vendors there’s an opportunity here to offer solutions that help with that burden.

#2 Technology and industry change

“Organizations had to digitally transform to keep up with fast tech change – modernizing systems, using analytics, and adopting AI and IoT.”

“Avoiding “trendy” but ultimately bad technological changes such as AI, crypto, JavaScript frameworks, and the like, and helping clients to understand why these bandwagons are bad to jump on.”

“With our rapid expansion from acquisitions, our major concern is levelling up the IT infrastructure of each division of the company to a similar standard of technology.”

Technology influences almost every facet of life around us and the tech sector in particular is above all others in facing a constant pattern of change. For SMBs this can be hard to navigate, as our respondents told us. Making sure the right technology decisions are made, ensuring that IT systems are agile enough to adapt and keeping up on trends were all outlined as hurdles. Technology vendors have a role to play here in educating their audience and being a beacon of knowledge, lighting up a path for SMBs to follow.

#3 Cybersecurity risks

“Ensuring data security and privacy in a world where data breaches are increasingly common.”

“We are one company in a bigger group, and we are trying to consolidate across the group in terms of approach and solutions. Main focuses for my company at the moment are move to serverless [and] cybersecurity […].”

The high number of mentions of cybersecurity challenges are of no surprise – and they were often combined in conversation with the previously mentioned resourcing challenges. Many of our SMB respondents spoke of getting the right cyber skills in place to assist with their legacy and cloud plans, against a backdrop of rising and ever advancing cyberthreats.

#4 Team challenges

“Within IT it’s the sheer volume of project work for the resources available […] For the business as a whole it’s about growing our business year on year against a backdrop of rising costs, competitor activity and consumer trends in our sector.”

“Siloed thinking and a lack of process. The product Engineering teams appear to have far too much influence/power and are not delivering.”

“Understaffing, whilst still being required to take on more and more work. Therefore, there being a shortfall of maintenance of legacy servers and applications which we should be upgrading, migrating, or decommissioning.”

From the increasing volume of work to challenges with siloes and cross-functional collaboration, our respondents outlined several internal issues that were holding their organisation back. In recent years, these challenges have been further complicated by the rise of hybrid working that many now operate. While as tech marketers, we wouldn’t necessarily think we could help directly with seemingly internal issues like these – there’s huge value in knowing such context which will undoubtedly impact other areas.

#5 Business strategy and direction

“Agreeing on the right growth strategy and attracting the right new business. A secondary challenge is how we structure ourselves internally to deliver new services effectively.”

“The global economy faces uncertainty from inflation, supply chains, and COVID-19, making long-term planning difficult.”

“Finding the right balance between innovation/new products and cleaning up technical debt. The more sales minded teams always want something new and shiny; but the tech teams want to spend time updating old code.”

Likely a consequence of all the other challenges faced, large numbers of our respondents highlighted the strategic challenges they’re encountering. Macroeconomic factors were a major influence here – making things like forecasting and strategic decisions more difficult. Many also noted the constant push and pull of innovating vs. operating for their organisation, with the need for R&D a source of pressure.

But wait there’s more…

The beauty of open-ended questions and qualitative research in general is the range of insights you get. While quantitative research offers unique value as a robust, representative snapshot of a population, with qual you’re not limited by pre-defined answer lists – allowing often unknown or less-explored insights to be found. In addition to the above, our respondents also highlighted challenges across economic, regulatory, commercial, CX, sustainability, and budgetary areas.

Now at this point in this article I’ve got one eye on the word count and the other on that cup of tea getting cold on your desk, so for now I’ll summarise the gist of those: Increasing market share and generating new business. Delivering a personalised and seamless cross-channel experience. Shifting customer expectations. Reducing carbon footprint. Making business models more sustainable.

Just a few challenges then…!

Think about your ingredients

In this quite simple example, we’ve seen the wealth of insights we can get from just one question – and findings like this are a great launch pad for further research, giving ideas to dig deeper into, conclusions to validate or hypotheses to test.

For our sample target audience in this instance of IT and business pros at SMBs, the findings provide an expanse of information about the challenges they face and what they need tech vendors to support them with. Vendors who harness insights such as these stand a far better chance of creating compelling and relevant communications for their target customers than those that don’t.

Avoid bland, taste-free tactics – use research in your recipe for marketing success.