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Calling Madison Avenue -- Marketing for IT

Savvy CIOs are using sophisticated marketing tools to get the attention of management -- and the world. Should you be tooting your own horn?

Should IT executives practice the dark arts of Madison Avenue? You've been told you need to sell IT to the business. But selling your IT department for real -- with ad campaigns, a logo and an eye to the "four Ps" of marketing? (That's product, price, place and promotion.) Come on!

"No noise is not good in companies. No news is not good," said Laurie Orlov, who heads Forrester Research Inc.'s IT management practice. "The lack of information about what the IT organization is doing contributes to a perception that the IT department isn't in fact doing anything."

Unless IT defines itself, it will continue to be defined by others, she said. IT will be seen as a cost center rather than a provider. Business units will continue to force CIOs into the kind of "regrettable projects" that only give IT more bad press. Don't speak up, and your applications will not be used, protocols will not be followed and the rollout cycles will drag on and on. "Label yourself before the business labels you," said Orlov, who recently addressed a group of IT leaders at a Forrester event in Boston.

Large IT shops, Orlov said, should consider hiring a vice president for IT marketing. And CIOs at smaller organizations should partner with the chief marketing officer or even (gasp) ask vendors for marketing help.

Who's jumped on the hype wagon? Wal-Mart's CIO Linda Dillman, for one. The IT department came up with a slogan "IT Works," and T-shirts to go with it. They have filmed videos showing Wal-Mart executives touting the benefits of a strong IT department. They plan to air an internal commercial to show companywide. Intel's IT department recruited 10 people from the company's marketing department to advertise its capabilities to Intel's 95,000 employees. John Hotze, who heads the marketing and communications Intel's technology group, said the aim was to change the work behavior of that vast workforce, so that actually took advantage of IT products.

Effective IT campaigns are also being waged outside corporate walls, directly to a company's customers. 7-Eleven's IT department, for example, has raised its profile by offering a technology scholarship and part-time job to a Dallas student who plans to major computer science. At Hilton Hotel Corp., under CIO Tim Harvey, an internal effort to build IT's credibility has morphed into a sophisticated branding campaign. Hilton technology now has its own brand name -- OnQ -- and logo, said Laurel Bailey, vice president for OnQ marketing. Her team of three people regularly pitches OnQ as a strategic advantage to business partners, such as hotel franchisees, potential hotel developers and meeting planners -- as well as guests. The full slate of activities includes an internal IT newsletter, a traveling trade show booth, a brochure and pitches to the media, from the Wall Street Journal and USA Today to trade publications.

Orlov conceded that asking IT professionals to advertise their wares and wisdom is a stretch. Polled for their views on marketing IT, technology leaders answered just as might be expected, she said. They had enough to do, it was not in their comfort zone, it sounded like selling used cars, it didn't fit with their personalities. "That's like a fish on a bicycle," said one CIO.

A Forrester survey of 257 business executives showed that IT doesn't talk a good game too often. The survey results showed that IT managers wait to be called -- and depend on e-mail to communicate, even when presenting important new initiatives. That type of dignified reserve exacts a price. The survey also found that the IT departments described by business executives as good communicators ranked higher in the survey than their more reticent peers. Orlov's take home message: "The lack of marketing hurts you, consigning you to a miserable future," she said.

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