David v. Goliath: Specifications and Standards

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The underdog applies a little friendly guerrilla marketing.

I just put the finishing touches on a press release announcing one of our firm’s clients throwing its hat into the ring as a supporter of the federal government’s Virtual USA program. Writing the release was fraught with memories of one of my other involvements in getting a client’s technology into a government-mandated specification and global standard.

Those memories include traipsing all over the world from one spec meeting to another. Being up most of the night not because of jet lag, but putting the final touches on a specification document, updating a PowerPoint presentation, or lobbying spec leaders in a hotel bar.

The specification subject matter focused on global standards for passenger use of laptops on commercial aircraft. Virtual USA has similar implications, as a program that will standardize agency emergency response databases at all levels, from the local police and fire departments up to the FEMA and Department of Homeland Security level. Both specifications address issues of safety…ways to prevent an exploding laptop battery at 30,000 feet being analogous to emergency first responders having access to national databases via GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping software.

Another analog is that both clients are comparatively small fish, and both have IP and products that are world-class solutions to their respective safety issues. The commercial aviation client was holding what I thought were rather strong credentials, such as endorsements from Intel, Microsoft, IBM, and Mitsubishi.

My first lesson learned: The client having the best solution will invariably be the underdog in any spec/standard. One cold, hard reality the current client faces is that the 800-pound gorillas have all the clout, irrespective of the quality of their offerings.

Another lesson is that the federal agency personnel running the meetings are not technology conversant. Therefore, there will be no consideration in the meetings of which is the best technology. Also, the folks in front of the meeting room are not decision makers. The decision makers are ensconced far away, in invisible and inaccessible offices. I hope that our client is prepared for experiences such as flying to a spec meeting in Singapore, then sitting in a meeting room for hours, only to be told that there isn’t sufficient time to present before adjournment.

I accompanied my aviation client on these globe-hopping meeting junkets for a year and a half. During that time I booked my client into speaking engagements at mobile-computing conferences. At one, I morphed the session into a panel discussion that included key aviation experts. I also corralled the key FAA decision maker…you know, that guy who never attended any spec meetings, but who held the trump card of testing and certifying the pending standards-designated product.

Almost overnight, the tables turned positive for the client. The firm put together a two-day “town hall” meeting sponsored by the client company. That FAA guy was the guest speaker, and we invited every airline in the world (as end-users of the standards-approved products). By the date of the event came around, I was a BFF with the FAA certification guy. I know we were BFFs because he called me one day to ask why his attempts at heating up a laptop battery on his outdoor grill in a rainstorm was not causing an explosion! Subtle messages I implanted in him came out in the town hall event, and the client came away with airline-customer requests for evaluation product.

A parallel PR campaign of publishing feature articles in both targeted mobile-computing and commercial aviation publications was ongoing since day one. The client was featured in at least one aviation publication each month, so the airline customers became well educated and product-benefits-aware.

After the town hall event, we switched strategies and implemented a “Crush Your Competitor” campaign. The coup de grace took place in the Memphis spec meeting, at which the real decision makers were to review, discuss, and vote on making the spec final. The official specification document this group was to approve did include my client’s product, but only as an optional choice. Not good enough. The final vote had to table the motion to approve. We wanted the spec sent back to committee, so that more of the client’s product could be properly included in the pending standard.

We brought in a team of MarkeTech personnel that worked around the clock in 8-10 hour shifts. Every member of the voting panel was engaged by our people. Each member was educated with a product demonstration. Our people were everywhere in the facility. Within two days, we had fully educated every voting member, and each one spent time socially bonding with the client. The one image I have is of two MarkeTech staff kneeling at the base of a closed door committee session at 7:30 A.M., shoving documents under the door behind which the voting committee was discussing the pending specification.

The vote was just before lunch, with the morning session being a public open-mic Q&A. Every one of our firm’s staff had an assigned question that dovetailed with our crush-the-competitor strategy. I held my breath during the voting session. It came down as a unanimous vote to neither approve or disapprove the draft specification. Instead, the decision was to send it back to committee, which is just what we wanted.

Months later, with no committee meetings scheduled to totally rewrite the draft specification, the competitor folded. My firm’s client had the entire aviation industry all to itself!

Isn’t guerrilla marketing fun!

At another time, maybe I’ll write about our firm’s computer-industry specs/standards activities with another client. Yes, the campaign in which I got nominated for president of the Mobile Advisory Council (MAC) while at the one and only meeting I ever attended!

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