Originally published on LinkedIn, republished here with the author’s permission:

What is “outside of the box thinking”?

I have been in too many meetings where an executive will say something like “Our marketing is stale. We need some outside-the-box thinking.” Often this is the result of seeing or reading about success B2B or B2C marketing in a book or business magazine, or in one instance I can think of, a CEO sitting next to a business author on a cross-country flight and learning about tools that the Feds have yet to adopt. It could also be the result of seeing a disruptive campaign from a competitor, and your exec is the one who is “disrupted”.

They are looking for something that makes a big splash, something that brings lots of attention to the company. Most marketers know that a big splash, being disruptive, is not a requirement for creating a program that drives leads into your funnel, or a campaign that creates mindshare among those you need to influence.

Largely GovCon is not designed for outside-the-box thinking. Contractors do not make the procurement rules, define agency missions, or assign government personnel to specific roles, like PM or KO. We are often in a reactive mode with pre-defined venues.

Further, feds are institutionally slow adopters of new ideas and technologies. Very few want to bleed on the cutting edge and use tools that are not tested elsewhere. Feds were notoriously slow in adopting both email (1990s) and social networking (2000s).

Feds in positions of authority also seem largely immune to disruption.

So what’s a GovCon marketer to do?

Creativity does not have to be disruptive. Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate enough to sit in many market planning and brainstorming sessions to help determine a new marketing path.

Sometimes a great idea in GovCon marketing is brought on by an off-hand remark, understanding one small nuance, then taking apart the box and constructing a new one. Research on your buyer/influencer audience also helps.

For example, many people are looking at the growth of OTA (other transaction authority) as “thinking outside the box”. It isn’t. It is taking existing rules, albeit esoteric procurement rules, and leveraging them. OTA is not found in the FAR. It is authorized through the NDAA, starting in 1994. For many government program managers, OTA can make life easier because once awarded, they cannot be protested.

Here are a few marketing programs I have observed or participated in. None are brain surgery, and I will let you decide if they required “thinking outside the box”.

Deconstructing The Box

Back in the 1990s when direct mail was still big, Bob Gosselin of STG Marketing devised a mail package for his client, Lotus, the only significant competitor to Microsoft and Office. The package that evolved was brilliant in its simplicity: it had the Lotus Suite (word processing, spreadsheet, etc) contract information, a government order form, and a step-by-step process on how to place your order.

The common assumption was that government employees knew how to place orders. That assumption was wrong.  

While this was a novel approach, is it out of the box? Lotus and STG had taken three parts of the box (the procurement process, their contract and their product) and put the box back together in a unique way- and it paid significant dividends.

It was a brilliant program in its simplicity.

An Off-hand Remark

Also in the early-mid 1990s, I was contacted by the Postal Benefit Plan, an insurance provider for government employees. I was called because I was a leading expert on direct marketing to the government.

The response to their mail package was abysmal and they wanted to know why. I explained that I did not get involved in what I perceived to be the consumer side of government.

They told me they’d pay my normal fee in advance if I would just look at the package. I told them I was going away for the weekend with my wife and if they could FedEx the package with the check, I would look at it over the weekend.

I got the FedEx in time for our weekend getaway. At that time my wife was a career Fed at EPA, so when we got on the road I asked her to open the FedEx and look at the package. She opened the FedEx, looked at the Postal Benefit Plan envelope, and said “No.”

“What do you mean no? These guys are paying me a lot of money to look at this.”

The upper left corner of the envelope said: “Postal Benefit Plan: Insurance Information Enclosed.”

“I don’t need to look at it. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, it’s for Postal employees.”

Non-postal feds were not even opening the envelope! I was ecstatic. When I got back Monday I faxed (remember faxes?) a one-pager: Do NOT put your name on the envelope. Use the acronym “PBP – (and say) Open to All Federal Employees.”

Momentary insight from a non-postal Federal employee led to a very successful campaign for PBP. Though PBP got acquired, the slogan is still used today, 25 years later.

Targeting By Necessity

ABM, account or agency-based marketing, seems to be all the rage. It seemingly migrated from B2B to B2G as a marketing concept a few years back, probably after someone wrote a book.

In reality, ABM has been with GovCon for decades, sometimes by necessity, like when you win a spot on a MAC contract that only one agency can buy from. Your marketing is to compete for mindshare and task order business.

ABM is also a great strategy for small contractors seeking to enter GovCon, to focus on one or two agencies to gain a foothold.

Sometimes ABM is driven by budgetary constraints. In the mid-1990s there were three significant PC marketers that were largely driven by direct sales, not the channel: Dell, Gateway, and Micron PC (MPC).

At that point Dell had emerged the leader, followed by Gateway, then MPC. The late, great Harry B. Heisler, formerly of GTSI, was leading MPCs public sector business and he knew he couldn’t compete directly with either Dell or Gateway as they had huge budgets, and Harry didn’t.

What MPC did have was solid beachheads in four agencies, so Harry spent everything available on those four agencies, and he grew each account by healthy double-digit growth over a two-year period.

The highly focused sales and marketing efforts were executed by a small, dedicated team, again, a fraction the size of what Dell and Gateway fielded.

Necessity drove the decision. Outside or inside the box?

Defying Gravitational Pull

Throughout the 1990s, if you were an IT vendor, you “had” to be at FOSE, the largest IT conference, and exposition for the Federal market. If you were not there, you were not a “player.”

Compaq always had a significant and entertaining presence at FOSE. When sales guru Fred Diamond was there as the Public Sector Marketing Manager, they had a putting green, a basketball quarter-court for free throws, a coffee bar where salespeople could train to be baristas, and other themes that engaged FOSE attenders. Everyone stopped by because the booth was always fun. Fred recently told me that while they attracted attention, “the problem was the percentage of ‘riff-raff’ to really qualified leads were way off base.” They spent a lot of time and a ton of money at FOSE, but they didn’t know the ROI.

When Ann-Marie Clark took Fred’s position, she sat down with Compaq government leader Gary Newgaard and they discussed the dollars spent, the people time involved, and the ROI. In her own words, “We reviewed the facts and looked at alternatives to the investment. We did support FOSE as a partner and made a more significant effort to team with our channel partners. We reserved a meeting room for sales meetings and a rest area for partners with food and drinks. Not only were we able to support FOSE partners and the sales teams with what they needed from the event, but we also saved money in the budget which was used to drive more specific messaging to the marketplace. Gary was a strong leader who knew the value of marketing. When his sales folks didn’t see the value in “booth duty”….. we needed to come up with alternatives.”

The big Compaq booth was gone but their presence was still felt.

Though they no longer had the splashy booth, they did not lose mindshare or market share.

An Esoteric Bit of Market Knowledge

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I worked with many B2B catalogers: furniture, office supplies, lab and safety equipment, computer supplies, library supplies and more. I also worked with several federal VARs, including the biggest, GTSI.

In the mid-2000s I was retained by the newly minted CDW-G (previously just CDW) to help them grow their presence in the federal arena. During my first trip to CDW HQ in Chicago, I was given a tour of the newly designed warehouse by the President of “G,” Jim Shanks.

I had been in the warehouses of several B2B catalogers and the GTSI warehouse as well. In the B2B world, product delivery was fast. It was led early by Irwin Helford of Viking Office Supplies, my preferred office supplier until they were purchased by Office Depot. Their motto: “Guaranteed 2nd-day delivery anywhere in the USA.”

As Jim gave me the tour of the CDW warehouse, we were discussing potential differentiators, especially as concerned GTSI.

The warehouse was a JIT wonder: designed for ‘just in time” delivery, with cameras taking pictures of each product of an order as it was packaged. A final shot of the package was taken before the box was sealed and put onto a UPS truck at the loading dock. The pictures showed that any damage occurring to any product would have occurred in transit, not at the warehouse.  Any product damage used to be charged to the vendor. CDW changed that, too.

It was not simply state-of-the-art: it took the warehouse to a new level. I told Jim the differentiator should be “Next day delivery when you order by 2:00 PM”- unheard of in B2G prior to this. GTSI couldn’t guarantee delivery the same week. Indeed, no government VAR at that time could. And no Fed wanted to wait a week or more for IT products.

My experience with traditional government VARs and the B2B catalogers allowed me to see this difference quickly and clearly, and CWD-G changed the game for IT products.

If anything, I took knowledge from two “boxes” where they intersected and created a Venn diagram- and a third box, but that box was clearly inside the other two. I never thought of it as thinking outside the box.

The Art & Science of GovCon Marketing

Often successful marketing is not sexy, loud, or disruptive. Some of the greatest marketing campaigns I have seen are really quiet and behind the scenes, taking market share from competitors who don’t know what you are doing or why their market share is eroding.

There are several new tools and venues for government marketing professionals. LinkedIn, for example, has become an integral part of the GovCon ecosystem. Webinars, blogs, podcasts, videos, and more are used widely. Twitter, Facebook, and other venues play a role as well. Video and podcasts have become huge. These are still relatively new for GovCon.

However traditional tools like case studies and white papers are still with us. Face-to-face networking and events will return, but we also now have the ability for virtual meetings.

Content is huge, but frankly, it has always been with us. So has publicity/PR, paid and earned media.

The real “art” of GovCon marketing is taking bits and pieces of what has worked before and shaping it to your situation. This may mean making a new “box” out of some of the old box parts, and maybe putting them in a new venue.

The “science” comes in with the new data analysis tools that help determine the ROI, and with the front-end customer research that needs to be done.

A “fresh approach” does not need to be thinking outside the box. It requires knowing how the box is constructed and how you can use the separate pieces for your program.

All that being said, when a company executive tells you to think outside the box, ask them to define the goal. And, if your executives want outside-the-box thinking, you may also require and outside the company perspective.

I’ll be waiting for your call…