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There is often a huge disconnect between the way MSPs see their business and how they market their business. This disparity creates a problem, because it leads to massive gaps between what the business is supposed to be, what it claims to be, and what consumers are experiencing.
We’ve worked with enough IT companies over the last seven years or so to know that there is a very good chance this disconnect is affecting your MSP.
But listen…I want to clarify right up front that if the following hits really close to home, it’s not your fault. Most of the MSP marketing experts out there actually encourage MSPs to make this mistake, and many agencies work it right into their playbooks.
We’re going to fix that today.
I’m not only going to explain this marketing mistake and where it came from, I’m going to show you how to remedy it very quickly so it no longer hinders your marketing efforts, confuses your audience, and robs you of opportunities.
But first, let’s address the elephant in the room: If this is such a big mistake, why am I the only one talking about it?
If you know me, you know I have no qualms about sharing my background in marketing and how obsessed I’ve been with studying it for the past two decades. Even still, it took me almost a decade in the IT channel to realize the nature of this mistake in such a way that I can put it into words and clearly explain how to remedy it. Such is the nature of some of the biggest misconceptions that we run into as business owners and as marketeers – they’re so ingrained into the collective consciousness, we don’t even realize they exist.
In short, I live and breathe this stuff, and it only now occurred to me. It’s really no wonder that everyone isn’t talking about it…yet.
So, the disconnect revealed itself to me a few days ago while I was listening to a podcast by a fairly prominent channel expert. He was running through a short list of MSP lead generation and marketing concepts — and I was nodding my head to each of them until he said something along the lines of:
“Make sure you put your face on every piece of marketing material you have. Emails, flyers, sales letters should all have a nice, up-to-date picture of you on them. Consumers are being bombarded with sales pitches and most MSPs have names that they’ll never remember and every MSP looks and sounds alike. So by putting your face on all of your marketing material, you’re giving them something to remember.”
It’s actually a little hard for me to explain just how bad this line of reasoning is, and the reason it’s difficult to explain is because it’s not entirely wrong. It’s more of a situation akin to telling someone with a gaping bullet wound to apply pressure to slow the bleeding. Yes, it’s better than shoving your finger into the wound and wiggling it around, but it’s not really solving the stated problem. While they’ve identified an issue and suggested a remediation step, that step falls short on saving your life for more than a few extra minutes.
In this case, the stated problem is clear and correct:
“…most MSPs have names that they’ll never remember and every MSP looks and sounds alike.”
Every MSP has to deal with the homogeneity of their industry. There are piles of IT companies that look alike, sound alike, and perform alike. This is why the IT channel is so commoditized and consumers negotiate with MSPs like they’re arranging to have their toilets cleaned or their break room vending machines filled with candy.
Commoditization and price wars create a buyer’s market where you lose much of your leverage. The sheer level of consumer apathy that many MSPs experience at the negotiating table stems from the thinking that “if this IT company doesn’t play ball and drop their prices, we have nothing to lose. There’s five more just like them within ten miles of us.”
So what about the expert’s advice on addressing this problem? Sticking your face on everything?
It’s simply not correct. Yes, your face might be easier to remember than “Business Technology Solutions, LLC”, but does that really matter? Maybe as much as applying pressure to a blood-gushing open wound.
But that’s okay, because it’s not the only option you have.
There are already better solutions to this challenge of commoditization and market saturation. We don’t need to make up new ones. We just have to understand the context of your industry and realize which solutions make sense and which ones don’t.
Obviously, the issue here is that “put your face on everything” is not the solution that works for the MSP.
“Put your face on everything” works in industries where the person is the product. Think real estate agents and attorneys. In these cases, almost 100% of what they’re selling is contained in the expertise, experience, and skills of the individual. You work with them. They drive you around to look at houses. They represent you in court.
These examples are proof of the reasoning because “put your face on everything” works so well for real estate agents and attorneys that they all do it, pretty much 100% of the time. In fact, I searched for evidence of any better strategy for a real estate agent — even emergent methods or outlier theories — and I couldn’t find it.
But that doesn’t surprise me because, again, it makes sense for a Realtor to market themselves as the product.
I strongly suspect that outdated thinking about the nature of the MSP is where the “put your face on everything” fallacy originated. When MSPs were mostly small, one-person shops, it might have made a little sense to compare an IT provider with a Realtor.
But compare this way of thinking to a modern IT company and you’ll see how badly it fits.
IT companies — especially large MSPs or ones that aspire to become large — have teams. They have salespeople, account managers, engineers. (If they don’t have these things, they’re either not very large or they’re hobbling their own growth.) They have solutions and tools. They have a consistency to their business relationships that is totally incomparable to real estate or law firms. The CEO, no matter how good they are at IT, is not the product.
The value you’re delivering is the product, and it’s really hard for consumers to draw a mental connection between some person’s glamour shot and concepts like “efficiency” or “security”.
Is it possible for an MSP to market themselves in such a way that the CEO is the product? Certainly. But why would you want to? You’re in a business where you don’t have to be the bottleneck, so why put yourself in that position?
Your best trajectory for growth requires you to step aside and drive growth from behind the scenes — which is what a CEO should be doing. As long as an MSP owner stays in the role of CEO/face of the company/main point of contact/salesperson, they’re a startup, not a growth enterprise. And that’s why we’ve all seen MSPs that have been in business for 20+ years and yet they struggle to grow beyond a certain plateau. They’ve chosen to run their business like a startup for decades and it holds them back.
So yes, you can put your face on everything. You can name your MSP after yourself and take the lone entrepreneur approach to growing the business, but you must understand that it will severely hinder your ability to grow because you’re choosing a path that is not suited for the nature of the IT market as it stands today.
There’s a much better approach for the IT channel that is just as proven and time-tested as “put your face on everything”, but far more suited to the type of business you’re actually in.
It’s called “brand strategy”. The idea of brand strategy is almost as old as marketing itself, and it’s an absolutely essential part of growth-focused marketing for organizations like MSPs.
(Note: The idea of putting your face on everything is technically a type of brand strategy, but it’s all about building a brand around an individual, which is the huge mistake that I’m trying to steer you away from.)
The underlying goals behind “put your face on everything” — recognition and mindshare — still apply, except that you should be putting your clearly identifiable and compelling brand on everything. A brand can grow infinitely. It’s not bottlenecked by the CEO’s schedule. It’s not reliant on having one-on-one meetings and phone calls with every single prospect. (Another consideration is that a brand is not tied to an individual, which is kind of important if you ever plan on selling your business in the future.)
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we listened to dozens of MSPs talk about how they were suddenly unable to generate new business because they weren’t able to sit down face-to-face with prospects. Most of them saw this as proof of their superhuman selling skills and charisma, but it’s not. It’s proof that lack of a brand is a huge disadvantage. You really don’t want to be in a position where your face has to be present for people to want to work with your company. And you don’t want to be in a position where you have to physically tell people why they should work with you.
That’s never a good position for a company, but the restrictions of the pandemic should have really driven that point home.
Anyway, that’s more evidence of the importance of brand strategy, but let’s get back to why a personal brand strategy is not good for an MSP.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned a disconnect. The disconnect arises when an organization promotes itself in the market as an individual.
Beyond all the reasons stated above, this is a bad idea because it’s confusing to the consumer. They are not buying you. There’s some credence to the idea that they’re buying your expertise, but in the modern IT market, that’s not a very good way to position an MSP. Does the expertise of the CEO even matter when there’s a team of underlings and a stack of software actually providing the service? What does that one person’s 30 years of experience actually do for me? (Especially when every MSP is telling me they have a passion for IT and blah-blah years of experience under their belt.)
This is why you need to build a brand around the actual value that you deliver, not the person who started the company. An MSP’s brand should be recognizable for its merit and uniqueness, not because of a besuited headshot.
Building an MSP’s Brand Around a Person
Now I’m going to discuss the other side of this argument because everything is possible in marketing. You just have to know what you’re doing.
In fact, the REMIX Marketing methodology has built-in provisions for personal branding. REMIX is as much an exploratory process as it is a creative one — you have to mine high-quality raw materials before you can build anything. As such, we cover the idea of building a personal brand in parallel to the business’ overall brand during our workshops and on an ongoing basis with our clients. The business’ brand is essential, but it doesn’t preclude one from cultivating a personal brand as well.
I will restate that this is not the best approach on its own. There are natural limitations that will come along with taking this road, but if you’re comfortable with limiting your own growth and keeping that sort of “entrepreneur startup” status forever, here are some tips for doing it right.
Firstly, we treat personal branding very similarly to business branding in terms of objectives and “must-haves”. A personal brand should convey direct value to your audience, showcase some uniqueness to help with qualifying and resonating with that audience, and differentiate you from the thousands of other people trying to brand themselves as IT experts.
One way to do this is through specialization — a good option in many branding endeavors. You can stand out from all of the noise by being something more focused than just “an IT expert”. Identify something within the realm of IT that you excel at or that you’re particularly passionate about. If it’s a niche that few others are talking about, that can give you a huge advantage (as long as the addressable audience is large enough.)
You’ll also want to shift some of your focus away from your headshot and toward the ideas and thoughts in your head. Your picture is only the most recognizable part of your brand after you earn recognition. Until then, you need to stand out and gain mindshare through your contributions to the subject matter.
This is why it’s absolutely necessary for someone who is cultivating a personal brand to produce exceptional content. You really can’t escape this, because until you have something worthwhile to say you’re just another face.
I’ve been writing for a long, long time, so the natural channel for my content has always been articles and books. I can tell you that I gained more recognition in the IT channel in the months after releasing REMIX Marketing than I had in the previous six years, largely because the ideas in it are new to the channel– and sometimes downright contradictory to what everyone else is saying. You can’t develop your status as a “thought leader” if you just repeat what everyone already knows. (Fundamentally, that’s not leadership.) Don’t round up a bunch of blog posts written by other people and rewrite them into an ebook and expect to be considered innovative or authoritative.
Bear in mind that you don’t have to write a book, although we usually help our clients do this because it’s so useful. You can start a podcast or create a YouTube channel, as long as you remember that you really need to cultivate a unique voice and perspective, otherwise you’re going to waste a lot of time just blending in with everyone else.
Thought leadership takes time and real dedication to bringing something new to your industry. This is why so many MSPs who think they’re building a personal brand are actually just spinning their wheels. They pay someone else to write unoriginal content and put their name on it. They produce videos talking about mundane topics like how to use Office 365 — often making things worse when these are really low quality videos. They speak at an event or get on a webinar and bore everyone to tears.
It might sound harsh, but these are not things you can get away with if you’re planning on building a brand around yourself. We live in an age where the aspiring entrepreneur-influencer is a dime a dozen. Anyone who says “just put yourself out there” without a solid strategy behind doing so is a knucklehead. You have to be special. You have to be engaging. There’s a good chance you will have to go against the grain from time to time. And you will have to find a specialized niche.
This is why we talk about entry points so often with our clients. Think of an entry point as a strategic decision about your audience, image, content, or communication that is designed to penetrate through all of the godawful marketing noise in the world so that you are actually seen and heard.
In a competitive market, your business absolutely needs well-planned entry points, otherwise your outreach goes right into the “ugh, more of this same lame sales pitch” pile.
And individuals need a way to cut through all of the noise just as much as businesses do.
These concepts are all covered in detail in REMIX Marketing. It’s a quick read, and I guarantee it will change the way you look at MSP marketing for the better. This is no rehash of old tips and tricks, but a step-by-step walkthrough of how a 20-year marketing veteran thinks about, builds, and executes brand strategies. Call me biased, but I think it could be the most valuable free book you ever read in regards to marketing, so you should definitely go check it out.