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Communication map

Many tech companies have found that it is not enough to have impressive products and services–they have also got to know how to talk about them.

Even with killer technology and talented programmers, many tech companies have found that it’s not enough to have impressive products and services — they’ve also got to know how to talk about them.

Public relations firm Shea Hedges, based in McLean, Va., specializes in teaching technologists the finer points of communication, which garners new customers as a result. Co-founder and principal Kristi Hedges chatted about what it takes to get noticed, and how she helps small companies talk in a way that gets people listening.

What kind of clients do you have?

100 percent of our clients are technology companies. They’re in a range of industries and fields, though, so we have clients that are in software, IT, telecom and even some in biotech. Basically, we help any company that touches technology in what they do.

What got you interested in helping technology firms specifically?

I’ve been in technology since the mid-1990s, and I think it’s a fascinating field. I don’t know of another that has as much change and innovation, and it’s great to keep up with everything that’s going on. It’s also rewarding to help companies to communicate that innovation in a way that gets through to people.

What are the difficulties that tech companies face, compared to other types of companies?

At a typical technology company, they begin with great technology, and that gets them to a certain point. But if they can’t explain it, they’re going to tap out their resources. It’s a very common situation to have a tech company CEO who knows how to develop a great new software product talking to a potential client who’s a CFO and only giving information on interoperability and features. A CFO doesn’t want to know that stuff, he wants to hear about how much money it can save his company. So there’s a disconnect.

But don’t all companies, not just tech firms, have a need to get their message out?

Certainly, all companies need to communicate what they do. But with tech in particular, there are a couple factors that make communication challenging. One is that technology moves so quickly that if you don’t get to market fast, you risk being eclipsed. Time is always of the essence.

Another challenge is making sure that there’s marketing and business development in place. At technology companies, they tend to have technologists on staff, which makes sense. But even if you’re the best technologist in the world, and you’ve come out of MIT, it doesn’t mean you know basic marketing and how to communicate with a buyer. When a technologist ascends to the rank of CEO, sometimes that important component is left out.

What does Shea Hedges advise companies to do in situations like that?

We recommend a variety of strategies. First, we do a competitive analysis so companies can see what their competitors are doing and where they rank in the marketplace. Then, we put together a messaging strategy to communicate that position in effective ways.

That takes the form of working with analyst firms like Forrester or Gartner to get listed in their reports better, and working through media relations to get them talking to journalists. We also make sure that they have a presence at conferences. If their main competitor has a booth at a certain conference, it’s imperative that they have a booth there as well. Most small businesses can’t afford to do a lot of this kind of thing, so it helps to be focused and concentrate energy where it counts.

Did you notice any change in the way technology companies were doing things like this during the recent economic malaise?

It was interesting after the market hit that crater, because the messages that were used before then were completely different, and became out of date. But some companies still used them, and didn’t understand why they weren’t working.

What kind of messages were those?

In the worst part of the market, companies would talk about how they had the most cutting-edge product. But in that crater, the most important thing to a customer was to have the most stable product. So, even if the product was stable, it wasn’t being promoted that way, and consequently the companies using that older message weren’t communicating effectively.

What type of messages are dominant now?

Stability is still key, but companies are starting to lean in the wind a little more. They’re looking for best-of-breed technology, and willing to take more risks. They’re also willing to spend more. Another big message is security. Customers want products that have some sort of demonstrated track record with security.

Looking ahead, where do you see technology companies focusing in the future?

I think we’re seeing an increasing effort around investor relations issues. Certainly, the marketplace has gone through a variety of regulatory efforts in the past few years, and the landscape has changed. The IPO market seems to open and close, and being a public company in these times isn’t what it used to be. That means there’ll be more of a need for investor relations, especially to communicate both good and bad news.

Also, we’re seeing tech companies selling into the federal government, or interested in investigating that market. That, in particular, is very tricky because there are a lot of nuances. It’s not like selling to commercial clients, where you find a prospect, approach them and then sell to them. With government contracts, you have to know who the appropriate folks are, and navigate a competitive landscape with subcontractors who might be bidding against you on one job and acting as your partner on the next.

In general, I think technology companies are just going to realize how important it is to communicate effectively, about more than their products. They’ll need to work on their message if they want to succeed.

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