Marketing to CIOs: Practical Advice for B2B Tech Marketers

Ken Gaebler headshot

Our Walker Sands marketing agency has helped many companies that are trying to “crack the CIO code” – folks who want to figure out how to get an audience with CIOs and engage with them effectively.

We’ve learned a few things about marketing to CIOs along the way, and we thought we’d share some observations on the topic.

What CIOs Want from Marketers, Whether They Know It or Not

When thinking about how to market effectively to CIOs, it is critical to understand the psychology of the CIO.

Don’t start by thinking about what you sell. That typically gets you on the path to feature-function selling.

Self-centered selling is a nonstarter when marketing to CIOs. Instead, put yourself in their shoes and become one with the psychology of the CIO. That’s step one.

So, What Makes CIOs Tick? What Drives Them?

We can take it as a given that ambition and talent are prerequisites for the CIO job.

With ambition and talent top of mind, the psychology of the CIO effectively boils down to this core thought: “More than anything in the world, I want to be regarded as being a successful CIO.”

Is this a breakthrough observation on the subject of marketing to CIOs? Perhaps not. You might counterargue that we could say the same thing of any senior-level position, as in “I want to be regarded as being a successful CEO” or “I want to be regarded as being a successful CMO.”

But, bear with me on this.

CIOs Are Different from Other Senior Executives

The CIO is arguably under way more pressure than the CEO, CMO and other senior executives.

Indeed, a study by Booz Allen notes that a variety of factors “make it difficult for the CIO to perform effectively, leading to a tenure shorter than those of other C-suite executives.”

In other words, more than other senior executives, a CIO is likely to be worried about losing their job. And, as such, their “More than anything in the world, I want to be regarded as being a successful CIO” belief has a corollary: “More than anything in the world, I do not want to be regarded as a failure.”

So We Marketers Must Help CIOs Succeed and Ensure That They Don’t Fail

Clearly, as B2B tech marketers, we can get an audience with a CIO if and only if we are viewed as being instrumental in helping them to succeed — and, correspondingly, in helping them to avoid failure.

Our marketing materials and our sales enablement assets must be empathetic to the psychology of the CIO. It’s not about our success in closing the deal. It’s about helping the CIO to succeed. If you can do that, you’ll get the meeting and you’ll likely get the contract.

Accenture is one company that gets this. Here’s an Adwords digital marketing ad that comes up if you search for anything related to CIOs (as many CIOs might do):

This campaign targets new CIOs, and it effectively says “Hey, new CIO. You’re at risk of losing your job. Failure is not an option. Here’s how to succeed.”

Brilliant. What new CIO wouldn’t be interested in learning how to be a good CIO? And what tech marketer wouldn’t want to be the first vendor to form a deep, supportive and mentoring relationship with a CIO who may ultimately be responsible for vast sums of IT expenditures over a period of decades?

Accenture Did Your Market Research for You

By the way, we can assume that Accenture launched this CIO marketing program based on market research.

That’s good news. It means you don’t have to do your own research on CIO’s needs because Accenture has already paid for that (actually, if you have budget and haven’t done it already, I highly recommend you have us help you with CIO buyer personas).

You just need to think about how your marketing can objectively advise CIOs on how they can succeed.

It’s Easier (and Less Expensive) Than You Might Think

Depending on who you are, you may not have Accenture’s deep pockets when it comes to marketing.

But Walker Sands has done similar projects for other clients who are trying to reach CIOs, and it’s really not all that expensive.

In one instance, we had substantial success creating a CIO-focused microsite for a client that sold to Asia-Pacific CIOs.

Piloting a program in Australia that involved combining good online content for CIOs with “CIO summit” events, we were able to cultivate CIO relationships that the company had not previously had access to and they closed significant amounts of new business as a result.

The key was to include content about how CIOs can do their jobs better as well as a broad range of business-oriented technology topics that did not focus exclusively or intensely on our client’s offerings.

Understanding What Drives CIO Success

If the macro goal is to help CIOs succeed, then we need to dig into the micro-level causes of CIO success and failure, right? — and we must mine each micro-event for marketing gold.

An interesting study by James Moffat Spitze and Judith J. Lee, of the University of California’s Haas School of Business, looked at what CIOs should focus on if they want to be successful and had these six recommendations for CIOs.

  • Learn your employer’s business “inside and out.”
  • Develop your emotional intelligence. Look for creative challenges, opportunities to learn, opportunities to do a job with extraordinary quality, and opportunities to challenge the status quo.
  • Become trusting and trustworthy. Excessive empire-building and corporate politics preclude success. The ability to build effective teams is a crucial skill required of a CIO.
  • Learn from an extensive network of friends, mentors, protégés–an attribute necessary for all C-level executives, not just CIOs.
  • Develop a compelling, achievable vision, beyond your employers’ corporate boundaries.
  • Build highly effective cross-functional teams that go on to achieve extraordinary things often beyond what individual team members might have been able to do.

In these six simple recommendations, I see loads of possibilities on how a company that sells technology solutions could elevate the conversation to the CIO level. A number of marketing and sales enablement campaigns come to mind that I think would resonate with CIOs.

I’m sure it’s the case for you as well. Take some time to think it through: how could your company help a CIO to pursue these key factors that drive CIO success, and do so in a way that advances your interests, but not so transparently that is comes off as self-serving or ingenuine?

CIO Failure Avoidance: The Other Side of the Coin

In behavioral psychology, there is the concept of loss aversion.

You may already be familiar with it. The idea is that we are more fearful of loss than we are enthusiastic for gain. As an example, a person who has lost $1,000 of their own money will lose more satisfaction from that loss than they would gain if they had instead found $1,000 lying on the street. In other words, the negative event has more impact.

This is certainly the case with the CIO — and being fired is a worst-case scenario they desperately want to avoid!

Accordingly, while we covered CIO success factors above, it’s just as important for B2B tech marketers to understand why and how CIOs fail.

The Booz Allen study I mentioned earlier found that that one-third of CIOs are forced out of their jobs. Booz Allen also found that for “70 percent of our respondents, the failure of a major IT project is one of the primary reasons that the tide turns against the CIO.”

So, as a marketer, if you’re selling something that can help the CIO avoid failure on a big project, you’ll get his or her attention. In contrast, if you’re selling a tech widget that doesn’t solve the CIO’s biggest problems or challenges, you’re not going to get past his or her admin. The CIOs have much more important things to attend to — they are worried about the big IT projects that can make or break their careers.

Of course, there are other reasons CIOs get fired. For example, a study commissioned by software firm Actian found that 43% of CEOs would fire their CIO if there was a security breach from a tech investment, and former Target CIO Beth Jacob is no longer with Target after their big data breach.

That’s great material for a technology marketer who is marketing to CIOs. The conversation transitions from “I’ve got a great solution that can protect your data.” (Yawn, talk to my IT security director) to “I’m sure you’re aware that many CIOs at prestigious organizations who have not implemented the features we offer have lost their jobs after being victimized by cyberhackers that raided their corporate data.” (Nancy, hold all my meetings. I’ve got some important matters to discuss with Ken.)

You get the idea. Leverage CIO success and failure factors and cycle them into your marketing and sales enablement programs. Good results will follow.

How Marketers Can Cater to the Psychology of the CIO: Remember that CIO PR Is Important

Last but not least, let’s circle back to the psychology of the CIO. Note the phrase “I want to be regarded” in my earlier sentence: “More than anything in the world, I want to be regarded as being a successful CIO.”

CIOs know that image matters, and they understand that perception is nine-tenths of reality. The more they are recognized as being talented, the better they’ll do.

Have you heard about Oracle’s CIO of the Year Award? What part of the psychology of the CIO are they catering to? Could your organization do something similar? How can you make your CIO customer a hero?

Final Thoughts on CIO Marketing

It’s hard to know how a CIO spends their day. Lots of tech marketers ask me those questions. What publications do CIOs read? What events do they attend? Where can we find them so we can deliver our messages to them? Why do they respond to some vendors and not to others? Would they come to our event if we had a celebrity speaker? Are most of them golfers? Should we do a golfing event? Are they hanging out with the analysts at their annual events — is that where we should be?

While important, these questions put the cart before the horse.

Start with your messaging.

Start by understanding the psychology of the CIO and what they might respond to — either consciously or via some subconscious, neuromarketing-driven response.

Think about how you can start a conversation with the CIO that they will actually care about — and then, subtly without overdoing it, promote your offerings and your brand in the process.

If you’re stuck or need help, give us a call at (312) 235-6173. We’re happy to help you crack the code on marketing and selling to CIOs. It’s a primary focus here, as is B2B tech marketing in general. We love the work, and we’re very good at it.


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