So, you want to sell to the federal government?
Good. Every year, Uncle Sam and his army of acquisition specialists have money to spend to achieve the critical missions of the federal government. In 2014, the most recent data available, the federal government spent nearly half a trillion dollars on contractors.
But there’s still another question left.
Who are you selling to? And I don’t mean which agency or which department. I mean, who?
Every contract issued by the government has a signature on it, an actual person who has selected your company to provide a product or service. Behind the signature are a small group of influencers. So, of that half-trillion dollar enterprise, your opportunity probably has been shaped by fewer people than are on an NFL roster.
So we ask again, who are you marketing to? Are you marketing to The Government or are you marketing to those who matter?
Why Personas Matter
Federal contracting is its own subspecies of marketing. We don’t have the intense feedback cycles or as many point-of-sale validations.
At Bluetext, we’ve helped dozens of clients reach the right government customers with carefully designed strategy backed by creative that makes an impact. It’s not always the same as business-to-business marketing or business-to-consumer, but one area that never changes is persona creation.
The government is not a single entity. It comprises agencies and departments, which in turn comprise directorates and activities and program management offices and thousands of personnel who play a role in acquiring products and services on behalf of the government.
How you reach them all won’t be the same. The avenues available to market to a program manager in the access-controlled world of the Intelligence Community, for example, won’t be the same as those available to reaching a director at the National Institutes of Health. Their missions aren’t the same, their needs aren’t the same, and their pain points aren’t the same.
Even within your target opportunity, your approach must vary.
Unlike traditional commercial services marketing, where you may aim for a thousand buyers of a million dollar contract, in federal marketing you’re more frequently aiming for one sale of one 100 million contract influenced by a dozen people. Not only does the persona exercise of understanding who your buyer is matter in fed tech, it matters even more.
Government Personas, in Four Broad Strokes
Directors and Deputy Directors and High Ranking Government Executives
This is typically the big ideas crowd. They’re usually looking for what’s next. Their interest is less day-to-day and more focused on how to better achieve their agency’s mission. Major changes begin at this level, whether it’s a product like a weapon systems or the federal cloud-first mandate, which has reshaped federal IT since its issuance by the then Chief Technology Officer of the United States. In the Intelligence Community, the largest IT transformation in its history began as a plan issued from the Director of National Intelligence.
Be bold and be visionary. If you want to radically change the government’s mindset, this is where you enter the bloodstream. Personnel in these positions aren’t always technically savvy and often have a more generalist approach to their departments, but they’re always eager to find the next great idea. They’re intensely focused on mission achievement, so help them understand how your solutions helps them better achieve the department’s goals.
Contracting Officers & Program Managers
What is a contract for your company is a career decision for contracting officers (COs) and program managers. On most acquisitions, the PM and the CO (or KO, as it’s often abbreviated, particularly in defense) are the most important decision maker. The program manager will be responsible for oversight of all the requirements in the proposal and of its execution once underway. The CO/KO can later modify the contract to add scope.
While PMs and COs appreciate the big idea, they are also intensely interested in the nuts and bolts and your capability to deliver. Every contract is an act of trust between these two positions and your company. These are experienced government personnel with whom you’ll want to build a long-term brand relationship. Depending on the size of the contract, they may not be subject matter experts in all technologies involved, but will likely understand enough to separate contractor-speak from actual capability.
For competitive bids, acquisition is done through an evaluation board which helps advise the source selection authority on its choice. Acquisition influencers are often subject matter experts and will be interested in the details. While their interest is in the proposal before them, your marketing should include this group as well. Are there third-party validations you can include to bolster your technical credibility, such as CMMI appraisal or AWS or Microsoft organizational certifications? Is your accounting system approved by a government auditor? Can you demonstrate applied expertise in your area of work, through white papers and blog posts? The big idea is great, but this is the group that will pop your marketing balloon if your big idea is all hype and no substance.
The role of a federal contractor is never simply IT for IT’s sake or product for product’s sake. It’s about empowering the end-user to achieve agency mission. And while the end-user, be it a help desk technician, a service member or a scientist, won’t sign a contract, their opinion of your product or service, particularly once it’s in use, will heavily influence whether it continues to be in use. Prior to acquisition, a groundswell of support could be cause for a pilot program. Market to the end-user’s pain points, rather than a technology-first view.
Every contract is different and Bluetext has helped dozens of clients craft specific marketing strategies by agency and by opportunity.
But like all marketing, it doesn’t just start with the what, it starts with the who!