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How Disruptive Tech Has Turned Communications On Its Head

The shift from product PR to people-based storytelling

Introduction: in the world of tech, change is the only constant

The introduction of technology to media has caused an evolution that has changed the face of business-to-business (B2B) communications. The fragmentation of earned media, growth of social media, prominence of branded / owned content and commercial pressures of shifting, shrinking advertising revenues have all forced that evolution, and sparked innovation.

Yet the enterprise technology sector has remained curiously immune to much of that change over the past decade. While smaller and more pressured to engage and monetise readership, technology-focused earned media is still central to how technology brands reach business buyers, influencers and specifiers.

We are now finally starting to see this huge shift in tech PR – and rapidly so. Yet it’s not so much an evolution in the media landscape that has prompted this, but instead the business operations of technology companies.

Many would argue that the phrase B2B tech is no longer relevant. Tech purchasing influence is now increasingly direct-to-department, rather than business-to-business.

Gone are the days when the IT team selects products and services on behalf of the organisation and act as the gatekeeper. Now buying decisions are in the hands of departments, with each team focused on support and maintenance for their specific function. This has led to a power shift within organisations, with the role of the CTO expanding inordinately.

Welcome to the age of BYOT – Bring Your Own Tech. It means a radical rethink of how tech brands communicate to engage hearts and minds, not just extoll the virtues of technology.

It has been coming. Smart communications teams have already begun to tackle it by spreading their wings across the communications mix, and beyond into marketing. Understanding what to do and how best to build value is complex though. How times have changed.

57%

of senior decision-makers in UK SMEs believe that technology innovation is the main driving change in the technology purchasing cycle.

3 Monkeys Zeno survey of 502 UK senior decision- makers in SMEs (aged 18+), conducted by Opinium Research, April 2018

From inconvenience to enabler

To understand how far workplace technology has come, let us transport you back to the 1980s.

“The first word processor that I used at the Financial Times in the late 1980s was a grotty machine with a sticky keyboard and dark green screen,” former FT columnist Lucy Kellaway once revealed in a 2013 interview.

A decade later, this newfangled thing called the internet was introduced. And still the technology we use at work every day lagged behind.

“I remember that in the early 90s I was the only person in the office with an email address. A lot of companies didn’t really get technology back then.”

Rhymer Rigby, author and business journalist who writes for the Financial Times

Since then, it’s not overselling it to say the role of the IT manager has evolved, propelling them into the position of one of the most important and powerful people in the business.

But as the CTO role has become more complex than ever, are employees now taking back the power? And how is this changing how businesses both big and small buy their tech?

To understand just how things have changed over the internet years, we consulted the tech leaders of business’ best and brightest for this report in partnership with leading UK news publication The Memo – now owned by Forbes.

These CIOs and CTOs are responsible for choosing the tech used by hundreds or thousands of employees, running systems that work across continents, while keeping everything working at scale.

They shared their insights into their changing roles and decision-making process, and where they think their job will be taken in the future.

And we conclude by providing recommendations on what this means for today’s brands and communications professionals.

1 in 5

senior decision-makers in UK SMEs (21%) say that their businesses seek employee/staff recommendations when looking to invest in new technology.

3 Monkeys Zeno survey of 502 UK senior decision- makers in SMEs (aged 18+), conducted by Opinium Research, April 2018

A power shift

In the past, workplace technology was practically an autocracy. It was all down to one person – the IT manager – who decided which laptop, mobile phone, software, and more, were best for all.

It wasn’t necessarily the CIO’s fault that they held all the power. As Jonathan Lister, CTO of pensions startup PensionBee, explained: “In the old days it used to be a top down process because people did not have the knowledge of, or interest in, technology.”

Today, in 2018, the process has been turned upside- down.

Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with the internet always present in their lives. They know their tech and what they want, and they’re not afraid to speak up about it. A PWC survey found almost eight in 10 millennials said access to technology they like to use made them more effective at work.

“Millennials, as well as Xennials, have spearheaded the demand for improved work tech”

Emily Dickinson, Director at Opinium Research

“But this demand is driven not simply by the need to improve efficiency, but to reframe working behaviours and patterns.,” said Emily from Opinium.

“In our recent Changemaker report that surveyed 2,000 culturally and politically engaged early adopters aged 18-45 across 10 markets, technology was seen as fundamental to creating solutions to age-old issues such as mothers returning to work and improving the wellness of employees by reducing stress levels,” said Dickinson.

“The cult of ‘busyness’ is no longer aspirational. Instead, we’re seeing a movement away from the ‘always-on’ culture of the 2000s, to a lifestyle in which ‘always-on’ actually promotes down-time by allowing individuals to use technology to choose exactly how and when they engage,” added Dickinson.

Tech teams are more open to hearing suggestions from employees and getting their feedback before purchasing. And employees are more adept at using technology than ever, and want a say in which technology they use.

“In the process of selecting the technology, will have a conversation with the people who are going to be using it and what they want to do with it,” said Lister.

Cancer Research UK’s head of procurement, Vikas Veja, echoed this perspective. He explained: “Nowadays, the way we introduce technology, we are more inclusive of the end users and the user experience, because that is what will drive our return on investment.”

Though employees voices now have a place, one element that hasn’t changed is that the tech team will still do the necessary due diligence. They’ll consult market experts such as Gartner, analyse the security of the products and vendors, and road test them before they give the go-ahead.

The changing role of the CTO

The shift in power has undoubtedly affected the role of the CTO, CIO and the IT manager.

In a matter of a few short years, their role has expanded inordinately. Two decades ago they used to be in charge of fixing the photocopier or purchasing the latest version of Windows for everyone’s PC. Now, if your IT manager is away from the office for a day or more and something goes wrong, there are people willing to call the emergency services to get back online.

It eases the strain on the CTO if employees are directly engaged with technology and can suggest and choose their own tools.

“There is just one of me, and so many of everyone else. Over time, I’m able to allow people to look for a solution to their own specific problems”

Jonathan Lister, CTO of PensionBee

“For example, everyone in our internal marketing team has a GitHub account [an online tool for tracking versions of software and ongoing development]. That empowers them to work with our website without the IT team being involved,” added Lister.

And once small decisions are out of the CTO’s hair, they can focus on the bigger picture of making sure your IT system is secure and fully-functioning.

“The CTO’s primary responsibility is about driving the company’s technology needs and requirements: to have a strategic view of where technology is going,” said Steve Newson, technology director at mobile-only Starling Bank.

“The selection of suppliers, the purchase of goods and services, is no longer determined by one man in a suit,” said Dickinson. “Instead, multiple and diverse influencers impact the decision-making process. Individuals who have differing priorities, conflicting value assessments and opposing views. Individuals who absorb information at different rates and prefer to be communicated with, by brands and organisations, in different ways.”

“Nowadays, consumer products are better. There is more innovation: the iPhone, Dropbox, WhatsApp. These were all products you used at home before people suggested they would be great for business.”

Rhymer Rigby
Author and business journalist who writes for the Financial Times

If it’s broken, employees fix it

All the companies we consulted with for this report had adapted to the new balance of employees having their say and being heard on technology purchasing decisions.

Startups, such as PensionBee and Starling Bank, are expected to be collaborative. But even in the public sector, which some usually associate with outdated computers and low budgets, Vikas Veja reassured that that’s not the case. At Cancer Research UK, the team is open to hearing new ideas from everybody on their technology.

Unfortunately, not all businesses are doing the same. There are still thousands of workplaces where the technology isn’t up to scratch or the IT manager may be deaf to employees’ ideas.

In previous years, the solution was BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Typically, many employees discovered this for the first time when they realised their BlackBerry work phones weren’t made for mobile internet, and they brought in their shiny new iPhones instead.

And the trend extended beyond hardware and into software.

“Collaboration tools have come to play a critical role in daily operations.”

Mark Settle, CIO of identity and mobility management service Okta

So, what did people do if they saw their friends had Slack in their office and they didn’t? They introduced their teams to it anyway. The makers of software tools like these quickly recognised that employees could become their best advocates and early adopters, and made it as easy as possible for them to sneak these tools into their workflow, without the IT managers even realising.

“People are a lot more used to having apps or computers in their personal life, and they compare their experiences as a consumer to those in the workplace,” said Lister of PensionBee.

“People are a lot more used to having apps or computers, and they compare their experiences as a consumer to those in the workplace.”

Jonathan Lister, CTO of PensionBee

How do people find these things in the first place? Consumer technology is excelling in adapting to our needs, while professional IT is lagging.

EY’s BYOD report notes that consumer mobile technology turns over every two to three years, whereas PCs would traditionally last double that.

“Nowadays, consumer products are better. There is more innovation: the iPhone, Dropbox, WhatsApp. These were all products you used at home before people suggested they would be great for business,” said Rigby.

“Just as B2B marketing is increasingly adopting B2C practices, employee participation in the selection of goods and services – both directly, and through shadow IT is creating a cross-pollination of ideas and expectations,” said Dickinson. “Employees demand the same user experience they experience as a customer; if they can log onto their current account with a thumbprint, why do they need to access their files via a 16-character password via a VPN?”

“People are a lot more used to having apps or computers, and they compare their experiences as a consumer to those in the workplace.”

Jonathan Lister, CTO of PensionBee

How do people find these things in the first place? Consumer technology is excelling in adapting to our needs, while professional IT is lagging.

EY’s BYOD report notes that consumer mobile technology turns over every two to three years, whereas PCs would traditionally last double that.

“Nowadays, consumer products are better. There is more innovation: the iPhone, Dropbox, WhatsApp. These were all products you used at home before people suggested they would be great for business,” said Rigby.

“Just as B2B marketing is increasingly adopting B2C practices, employee participation in the selection of goods and services – both directly, and through shadow IT is creating a cross-pollination of ideas and expectations,” said Dickinson. “Employees demand the same user experience they experience as a customer; if they can log onto their current account with a thumbprint, why do they need to access their files via a 16-character password via a VPN?”

The rise of shadow IT

According to one of the CTOs we spoke to, shadow IT is the buzzword of most information security conferences.

What is it? It’s the technology which sneaks into your company without the seal of approval from an IT manager.

At Cancer Research UK, Vikas Veja told us the project management tool Trello made its way into the company through this route.

“Now there are a lot of applications that people use on their mobile phones in their personal life, they can quickly make their way into a corporate environment. Teams can start using them and they don’t need any support from IT.”

Vikas Veja, head of procurement, Cancer Research UK

The same is happening in the medical sector: NHS staff are getting fed up of using pagers, a technology originally introduced in the 1960s.

Instead, they’re turning to messenger apps and WhatsApp (however insecure they may be) to circumvent their sector’s slow adoption of tech. And the Slack-like Forward has been developed to create a faster messaging system with the right security.

The popularity of introducing these add-on productivity tools is because they’re openly available on the internet, Lister told us.

“Being delivered through a web browser helps. A lot of company laptops are locked down, but if something runs through a web browser, then an employee can often use them without involving the IT team,” he said.

And looking into the crystal ball, Settle foresees that “machine learning will continue to automate many back-office processes”.
As for the next consumer technology which will infiltrate our work lives?

Lister is betting his money on virtual assistants: Siri, Cortana, and Alexa. The modern open plan office as we know it, might be about to get a lot more conversational.

“The C-suite’s attitude to tech is the same as everyone else’s attitude to tech: they should be able to use any device, whenever they want, wherever they are to do whatever they need to do.”

Mark Settle
CIO Okta

What next for the CTO?

The role of the decision maker in technology has been in flux for the past few years and continues to be.

One thing that Veja, is sure of is that employees will continue to have more influence in the technology they use at work.

“Ultimately, they are the users of it and you’re always going to be dependent on users. The future is definitely one where collaboration is key and at the centre of making the right decisions,” added Newson.

What hasn’t changed the CTO’s role is their purpose.

“Historically IT was a support function to the organisation. Today the CTO is now becoming much more front and centre.”

Steve Newson, Starling Bank

“There are strategic decisions that need to be made by a CTO. The role is fast becoming more senior within company decision-making,” he added.

What hasn’t changed in the CTO’s role is their purpose.

As Settle said: “The C-suite’s attitude to tech is the same as everyone else’s attitude to tech: they should be able to use any device, whenever they want, wherever they are to do whatever they need to do.

“It’s a pretty high-performance bar but let’s face it – that’s what everyone expects of their IT.”

What does this all mean for today’s communications professionals?

The boundaries have blurred

Technology and innovation have become part of the very fabric of our lives as consumers, business workers, entrepreneurs, parents and so on. Every brand now wants to be an innovation leader in their space, which is driven by technology advances.

While the conventional IT department still has responsibility for specifying, buying and running some of the core infrastructure and services, that needs to align with how everyone in the organisation wants to work.

Influence has dissipated because there’s a vast swathe of technology services that people across the business now use without even consulting IT people. According to our recent research with Opinium, one in five senior decision-makers in UK SMEs (21%) say that their businesses seek employee/staff recommendations when looking to invest in new technology.

This has fundamental implications for the way technology brands communicate and engage with their audiences, and for media covering technology in myriad of different ways. BYOD is dead – there’s no dividing line between our/ their technology anymore, because people actually care about their tech now, and have a voice on what they use and how.

What this means for today’s brands is that understanding what really makes people tick at a human level matters more than their job title. It has opened up opportunities for brands, whether they’re traditional tech players or not, to tell their stories to a much wider audience.

Today, people outside the confines of the IT department hold enormous sway over purchasing decisions. This means brands must work hard to mine stories that explain the human impact of their technology, connecting with readers on an emotional as well as rational level. With product PR all but dead, being culturally-relevant is key.

And with technology having a massive impact on the way news is reported, brands need to think about content and stories that work across more channels than before. As publications experiment with new formats, so too should brands to ensure their storytelling has impact across many different forms of media.

The business purchasing cycle is shrinking

Influence and persuasion for business technology purchases used to be driven by fundamental business or legislative change, but also by the payment terms and life cycles of the products.

Now the buyer journey ebbs and flows in different ways, fragmented by the rise of social media, a shift to cloud-based subscription models and people simply caring more about technology. Consider today’s minimum average sales cycle of three to six months for software – that’s down from 12-18 months from a few years ago.

Our latest research with Opinium revealed that more than two in five senior decision-makers in UK SMEs (43%) believe the technology purchasing cycle has become shorter in length over the last few years, while 38% think it has become more fragmented.

Tech purchasing influence is now direct-to-department and often within a quarter, so up to four times faster than in the past.

Even though social and digital has significantly decreased the B2B buyer journey, it’s still longer than that of a consumer, and there’s a constant appetite for relevant information to aid the decision-making process.

Business decision makers get as far as two-thirds through the journey before they reach out to a vendor, and that’s if the vendor meets the minimum technical requirements.

This means being data-driven in communications planning has become paramount, ensuring your brand can drive relevance at all touchpoints in the journey. There’s now a wealth of tools to help brands understand what content their target audiences require, their desired platform/ format and the most opportune time to reach them.

“As the knowledge gap between digital natives and those who have witnessed the digital evolution is shrinking, brands and businesses need to ensure that their messaging is consistent across all their touchpoints, and that they can convey the same core messages in different ways to different audiences,” added Dickinson.

Influencer marketing is an important part of the comms mix

Reaching business decision makers is difficult; they’re sophisticated, well-educated and extremely sceptical about marketing. The way to overcome this scepticism and capture attention? Influencing their decisions through trusted third parties.

Decision makers trust people like themselves and seek third party validation. Google is a starting point, but they get their data from forums, whitepapers, eBooks, blog posts, analyst reports, tech review sites, but most importantly, their peers.

Influencers in the business world aren’t celebrities. They are consultants. Technologists. Engineers. Developers. Entrepreneurs.

When they talk, others listen. When they create content, it gets shared. When they express their point of view about a topic, it’s documented and respected. Influencer content resonates with their readers, and the influencers are referenced by others when the topic is relevant.

And because influencers are in fact, influential, their content will appear on the first page of Google. Guaranteed.

Our latest Opinium research1 found that the opinions of online influencers now hold the same weight as industry analysts. When looking to invest in new technology, senior decision makers go to industry analysts (19%) and online influencers (19%) for information and insights.

Influencer marketing can even help remove the guesswork from formulating a media strategy. Once you have identified the right influencers, you can track specific patterns. For example, where they are publishing their own content and what they are reading and then sharing. This intelligence is critical.

If the trend is showing that influencers are reading Wired more than Forbes, you may consider prioritising your media approach differently. Or, if you notice they’re reading a media publication or blog that you aren’t familiar with, you may decide to build a relationship with the writer.

Source: 3 Monkeys Zeno survey of 502 UK senior decision-makers in SMEs (aged 18+), conducted by Opinium Research, April 2018

45%

of marketers are experimenting with influencer marketing programmes. An even higher percentage claim that their influencer marketing programmes are strategic

Influencer 2.0: The Future of Influencer Marketing

Summary

Technology evolution has disrupted the way technology is marketed and purchased. Editorial hasn’t escaped this, to the point that few brands can now rely on conventional B2B media relations alone, and the impact on people rather than product features hold sway.

The procurement process has fragmented, spending power has dissipated and buying influence is moving direct-to-department, rather than business-to-business.

This means a radical rethink of how tech brands communicate is needed, in order to engage hearts and minds, not just extoll the virtues of technology.

Brands need to take a more expansive approach to their comms, beyond just media relations. Influencer marketing holds greater value, while brands must leverage data to better understand what people are reading and why, and – more importantly – how they’re reacting to it.

Above all, it’s about understanding what really makes people tick and telling stories that explain the human impact of technology in a way that’s relevant to them. And understanding what makes a technology story today for each outlet, in what is a very different media landscape.

Contributors

Rhymer Rigby, author and business journalist

Mark Settle, Okta

Jonathan Lister, PensionBee

Vikas Veja, Cancer Research UK

Steve Newson, Starling Bank

Emily Dickinson, Opinium Research

Why talk to us?

At 3 Monkeys Zeno we’re all about people-first technology storytelling.

People are now front and centre of technology and innovation.

Not hardware. Not software. Not services. People.

Businesses are having to evolve rapidly to meet people’s shifting needs and address rapid technological innovation. Those brands are either a disruptive force, or are themselves being disrupted. And ever-evolving media is having to respond to a core human need for truth and relevance in how technology stories are told.

We help brands maximise their opportunity to gain greater command through communications amidst all of this flux. This is all grounded in a sharp understanding of real people – enterprise buyers, decision-swayers, consumers, users, partners and influencers.