I’m chairing what may be the first ever marketing-oriented session at the annual Flash Memory Summit in August 2013. A lively panel of experts, editors, and analysts will be discussing product differentiation in a growth market in a session called: Differentiate or Die – Marketing Flash-Based Storage Systems. So, as part of a primer on product positioning, I thought I’d explain the concept of positioning as it relates specifically to Flash-based products.
An earlier post, Competitive Positioning of Flash-Based Products – A Primer for CEOs, CTOs and Marketers, explains that your product’s position is whatever your prospective customer thinks it is, not necessarily what you want it to be. Positioning or repositioning is your attempt to influence that opinion. The post also lists the 5+1 elements of a strong position, and gives an industry relevant example.
This post highlights how customer interests change, and therefore positioning must change, as a market matures over time. Understanding this evolution is important because the market for Flash-based products is moving to a new phase. The early customers have bought their first Flash-based products already. Those “innovators” and “early adopters” have demonstrated that there is a compelling case for Flash-based products in the enterprise.
Here are some of the use cases that gained traction:
- Software runs faster with Flash, so fewer servers and licenses need to be purchased to support a growing user base. Users are happier, IT costs and support costs are lower.
- Very fast IT systems give some organizations a competitive advantage in their market so Flash-based storage is mission critical for high frequency traders, some online retailers and even government agencies (think NSA).
- Virtual servers lower IT costs, but predictable boot-storms and unpredictable surges in demand for data access can slow the system for all users. Flash-based systems make virtualization work better.
- Flash-based systems require significantly less space and power than hard drive-based systems, substantially reducing the cost of running a data center.
- Big Data analytics and structured databases, whether real-time or batch processed, deliver information faster when run on Flash-based systems. A batch process measured in hours can re reduced to minutes or seconds.
These tangible dollars-and-cents applications, along with the falling cost of Flash-based products, bring new customers into the market. However, these follow-on customers have different expectations to their predecessors.
Time Adoption of Innovations, Redrawn from Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, New York Press, 1962
Innovators (Enthusiasts): These buyers are willing to try new ideas at some risk. They can be very knowledgeable. They like to test new ideas and may not need a complete product or solution, just access to the latest technology.
There are very few, very hard to find, buyers in this market and they rarely buy in volume. In most cases, a vendor can win the positioning game at this stage if they are perceived to be a technology leader. For example, first with eMLC Flash, first with an Infiniband interface, etc.
Early Adopters (Visionaries): These buyers adopt new products early, but carefully. They seek breakthrough advantages (e.g. High Frequency Trading on the stock market using solid state disks.) They can be respected opinion leaders. They will invest in creating their own complete solution so they may need lots of support.
There are few such customers, but when you find one, you often find more in the same industry. These customers are looking for products, so with a little bit of sales and marketing, they may find you. However, many start-ups are mislead by this market and their failure to recognize the situation sows the seeds of their demise. For more, please read: Storage start-ups: What CEOs, VPs and VCs should know about the honeymoon period.
In most cases, a vendor can win the positioning game with these visionaries if they are perceived to have the lead with a product feature that’s enables the visionaries to achieve their goals. In this case, that might mean they have the fastest product, or the lowest cost per terabyte product. But it also helps to be perceived as experts in a particular application because customers need help building a solution for their particular situation. Today, that situation often involves databases and virtualization.
For those who did not notice, TMS employed Mike Ault, a recognized Oracle Guru to help customers better deploy their SSDs with Oracle databases. TMS (Texas Memory Systems), a 30+ year veteran of the industry and former client of my firm, Marketingsage, was recently acquired by IBM. TMS was very successful in its positioning for early adopters of solid state disks.
Although these Early Adopters may not buy many units, they can be very influential on the large “Majority” market that will buy in volume.
Early Majority (Pragmatists): These buyers adopt before the average firm, but are rarely leaders. They make deliberate, more considered, decisions and they want references. They have a wait-and-see attitude and like to work with proven solutions and vendors.
This is the market phase that drives the high tech industry. Sales grow rapidly because a large number of new customers enter the market. They are buying a new type of product so new vendors do not have to dislodge an entrenched direct competitor (e.g. it’s not like asking a customer to switch their existing brand of backup software). However, these buyers do not want to experiment and they are more risk-averse than earlier buyers, so well known trusted brands often win against the new lesser known brands.
In most cases, a vendor can win the positioning game with these pragmatists if they are perceived to have the best product that’s safe to purchase.
Late Majority (Conservatives): These buyers are keeping up, but not leading. They prefer simple solutions and look to the established standard. They can be resistant to change and are more risk averse.
In most cases, a vendor can win the positioning game with these conservatives if their product is perceived to be an industry standard, plug-and-play, 100% compatible option with a great warranty that’s on sale from their favorite vendor.
Laggards (Skeptics): These buyers avoid change and very risk averse. They may only purchase when there is no other choice. They buy like the Conservatives do, but only when they are forced to (remember all those UNIX gurus who wanted no part of a GUI?).
Although the real market is not likely to be a nice symmetrical bell curve, and it is hard to know exactly where the market is at, there are indications that we’ve reached the “tipping-point” and the enterprise market is entering the Early Majority phase. In this phase, a large number of new customers enter the market. Of course, as demand grows so does supply and competition.
In July 2013 there were 75+ vendors trying to capitalize on Flash-based products for enterprise customers. This list includes some newborn vendors (not yet shipping) and some undead vendors (they look dead, but still might bite.) In general, I excluded those selling only hard disk drive form-factor SSDs (e.g Seagate) and Flash chips (e.g. Toshiba, Samsung), but I included PCIe SSD vendors if they claimed to have a product for enterprise servers. Here’s the list:
Aberdeen, Amax, Arkologic, Astute Networks, Assurance, Avere Systems, BiTMICRO, BridgeSTOR, Cachebox, Cisco, Condusiv, Coraid, DataDirect Networks (DDN), DataON, DDRdrive, Dell, Dot Hill, Echostreams Innovative Solutions, EMC, Enmotus, Fastor, Foremay, Fusion-io, GreenBytes, Hitachi Data Systems, HP, Huawei Symantec, IBM Systems and Technology Group, IceWEB, Infinio, Imation, Intel, iXsystems, JetStor (AC&NC), JBOD, JDV Solutions, Kaminario, Kove, LSI, Marvell, Micron, NetApp, Nimble Storage, Nimbus Data Systems, OCZ, Oracle, Panzura, PernixData, Pivot3, Proximal Data, Pure Storage, QLogic, Qsan, Radian Memory Systems, Reduxio, Renice Technology, Runcore SSD, SanDisk, Scalable Informatics, SeaChange, Skyera, SolidFire, Soligen, Starboard Storage, sTec, StorageQuest, Super Talent, System Fabric Works, Tegile Systems, Tintri, VeloBit, Violin Memory, Virident Systems, WhipTail, and X-IO.
If we wait, most will be gone by the end of the decade. A handful will be gone because they will have won the positioning game with the global players and been acquired so the bigger firm can compete in this market. Unfortunately, most of today’s vendors will just be casualties who could not differentiate themselves in a way that attracted enough customers, or who could not defend their position from competitors claiming the same benefits at a lower cost.
What is the time-frame for success or failure with Flash-based products sold to enterprise customers?
The answer differs depending on whether you are a major global player or a start-up hoping to be acquired. If the history of the IT industry is a guide, I would say that the global players like EMC, IBM, HP, Dell, and NetApp are just getting started and will play for the next 10+ years. They already have the sales channels, promotion budgets, and customer base in place. They are trusted brands adding a new line of products to complement all the others.
However, if the start-ups and JBOF (just a bunch of Flash) vendors are not hearing alarm bells, they are not listening. The strategic acquisitions, where the large players buy smaller firms for their technology (not customer base), are in full swing and there can’t be more than a small handful of healthy buy-outs left to go in this round. To survive with iterative technology innovations (rather than major breakthroughs) the smaller firms need to get their sales and marketing right within 12 to 24 months (4 to 8 quarters, if they are lucky) — at the time of writing in July 2013, that means they win or lose somewhere between 2H14 to 1H15. In most cases “losing” results in a change of senior management and a zombie company hoping for a reboot before having to sell the IP assets at a loss.
That’s good news for the firms who have/get their marketing act together now, because in 2 years time they will be on more solid footing with fewer competitors in a large market. In this case, marketing means:
Opening new sales channels. A reseller (incl. OEMs and service providers) is only going to sell one or two brands. With 3 to 6 months to sign, and 3 to 6 months to sell, you can see why the time to act is now. Resellers mitigate end-users’ risk (very important in the Majority market) because they already have a trusted relationship with their end-user customers. They also supply complementary products and expertise so the end-user gets a complete solution. For the vendor, they deliver quick access into new market segments without the high capital costs of doing it themselves.
Build a large prospect list. Email marketing allows you to consistently and frequently promote to named prospects, often prior to their brand-selection decision. It’s relatively low cost and effective. However, it only works when your contacts have subscribed (self-identified and shown an interest in what you have to say). Buying or renting a 3rd-party list won’t do it effectively enough so investment in lead generation is important.
Not everyone who shows an interest in learning (e.g. a subscriber downloading a white paper) is ready or able to buy a system costing tens-of-thousands of dollars (or more) so only a small percentage of your marketing-qualified leads will become sales-qualified in any given quarter. Therefore, you need to (properly) nurture that list. The response rate will be a bell curve from “hot” (buy quickly) to “cold” leads (don’t buy), but 6+ months average would not be unusual. As a result, you need to front-load your lead generation efforts to build that list sooner rather than later.
It takes months and quarters to get a lead gen. machine humming so if you wait to add the talent (employees or agencies, like Marketingsage) or wait for an inexperienced team/agency to experiment with tactics you will likely run out of time — your revenue won’t equal your capital burn rate so you’ll get weaker and weaker with each passing quarter as competitors become the hard-to-dislodge incumbent suppliers to both resellers and end-users.
Build your brand. A typical buyer will only consider 2 or 3 products, not 5 or 60+. If they do not know who you are or what you stand for (i.e. your perceived position as the fastest, best VDI solution, lowest cost, etc.) you will not be considered at all. It’s easy for EMC, HP, Dell, etc. to be recognized and considered, but not so for the other 50+ players. Even if they make it to the small consideration set, the recognized brands are 50% more likely to be selected because familiarity and trust often go hand-in-hand. Branding and positioning are closely related.
1. The market is evolving. The new buyers of Flash-based products are more risk-averse. To win the positioning game you need to convince a high volume of potential customers that you have the best product that’s safe to purchase for their particular needs.
In this market, “safe” does not just mean a reliable product. It’s is not just about MLC vs eMLC vs SLC technology or redundant components. A safe purchase is also about proven interoperability (e.g. certifications), ease of integration (e.g. same brand as server), warranties, references (e.g. customer case studies), endorsements (e.g. awards), familiar brands names (e.g. firms they read about in the press, see at events and hear about regularly) and trusted suppliers (e.g. vendors they have experience with).
2. Marketing is more important now. If technology innovation remains iterative (not ground breaking) and quickly matched by competitors, sales channel development and marketing promotions will separate the winners from losers.
3. Time is short. If you are not one of the big global vendors, your time frame for success is very limited (I’m predicting 2H14 to 1H15) for most. In this case, success might mean getting acquired or becoming profitable before the initial capital runs out. Of course, profits come from customers. The early winners have the advantage of revenue, references and incumbency.
About this Series on Positioning and The Flash Memory Summit
Join me and a lively panel of experts, editors, and analysts at what may be the first ever marketing-oriented session for CEOs, CTOs, and marketers at the annual Flash Memory Summit in August 2013. We will be discussing product differentiation in a growth market in a session called: Differentiate or Die – Marketing Flash-Based Storage Systems on Wednesday, August 14, 9:50-10:50 am. This is an Open Session so you can register for free up until 8/11/13.
You can follow this blog by signing up in the left sidebar. You can find related posts like these by clicking the Flash Memory Summit 2013 category:
- Flash Memory Summit 2013 Session: Differentiate or Die – Marketing Flash-Based Storage Systems
- The Positioning Game: 75+ Vendors Promoting an Enterprise Solution that Uses Flash Memory
- Competitive Positioning of Flash-Based Products – A Primer for CEOs, CTOs and Marketers
- Positioning and Hype for Flash-based Products – A Primer for CEOs, CTOs and Marketers
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About the Author
David X. Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management, and enterprise software products. He can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join his network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).