Provocation-Based Marketing in Action

“Rather than resign themselves to hearing the standard ‘Sorry, we have no budget for that,’ some vendors—even some very young start-ups—have found a way to reach their customers’ resource owners and motivate them to allocate the necessary funds. Using what we call provocation-based selling, they persuade customers that the solutions they bring to the table are not just nice but essential.”

That’s a quote from In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers, an article written by Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin, and Geoffrey Moore, and published in the Harvard Business Review in March, 2009.

The article – I only read it for the first time a few days ago – reminded me of an exercise/experience I had in early 2017, although I think it’s more accurate to describe my own experience as provocation-based marketing.

A little over a year ago (if memory serves), one of Sandvine’s most important (e.g., large, strategic, high-growth) customers asked us to give a presentation on the future of telecommunications, specifically as that future relates to folks in the communications service provider business (e.g., mobile data providers, Internet providers, etc.).

The person asking us for the presentation was our champion in the account, and he wanted to use the material to increase our visibility and influence.

The person asking us for the presentation was our champion in the account, and he wanted to use the material to increase our visibility and influence. That is, he was already bought into what we were doing and saw the value, but wanted to unlock and open doors throughout the wider customer organization. It was also his hope that his own team and our channel partners would be able to deliver the general messages, to grow awareness even wider through and higher up the organization – all the way to the C-suite.

Here’s what the HBR article has to say: “Generally, we find that vendors who have successfully met customer needs in the past already know more than they suspect. In the process of selling and supporting their offerings, they have interacted with other companies in the industry, and they naturally bring a different perspective to issues the client has viewed only from within.”

That described us pretty accurately: we had plenty of material on our technologies, on our roadmap, and on other subjects – and we were by far the thought leaders in our field, so we had plenty to say – but we’d never needed to formalize a deck that focused specifically on looking a few years out.

We also weren’t scared to tell our customers hard truths, especially when we were working with a champion.

…all of which set up a pretty fun activity.

My manager (Cassio) and I chatted for a few minutes and decided on a fairly simple approach:

  • We’d identify a handful of trends in the industry that we anticipated would play out over the next five-ish years
  • We’d analyze those trends to determine what challenges they’d pose to our customers
  • We’d explain at a fairly high-level how Sandvine was poised to solve the problems that were coming a few years down the road

Here’s another snipped from the HBR article that almost perfectly captures our approach: “To begin a provocation-based sale, you must do three things well: identify a problem that will resonate with a line executive in the target organization; develop a provocative point of view about that problem (one that links, naturally, to what your company has to offer); and lodge that provocation with a decision maker who can take the implied action.”

Identify problems? Check.

Develop a provocative point of view that links to what we have to offer? Check. Although, I’d say that our point wasn’t to provoke, but to genuinely educate – but the truth is often sufficiently provocative.

Lodge that provocation with a decision maker? Check. Thanks to our champion, we were responding to an actual request, rather than forcing it upon people unsolicited; plus, our ideas were assured to be seen by many throughout the organization.

We had a couple of days before we had to present in the late evening (remotely, because the customer was in a time-zone about a half day ahead of us). For the first day, Cassio and I just independently mulled things over in the back of our minds, then we met up briefly to compare lists.

We discussed and very quickly settled on eight major trends/forces:

Force Manifestation
  • More devices, faster speeds, and cloud-based
  • New standards, new elements
  • Everything is automatic
  • Virtualization, APIs, dynamic scale, etc.
  • Vast majority of traffic is encrypted
  • Very little can be directly ‘read’ off the wire
Cyber Threats
  • Networks are a battleground as attack vectors and scale increase
  • Old defenses no longer work
Internet of Things (IoT)
  • More devices, more types of devices
  • Vastly different usage profiles
Over-the-Top (OTT) Dominance
  • OTT is the Internet
  • Power is concentrated (e.g., Google, Facebook, Netflix)
New Competition
  • WiFi, Satellite, LoRaWAN
  • Fixed and mobile and/or substitution
  • The end of subscriber lock-in
  • Multiple simultaneous identities by endpoint

The HBR article advises that you, “Subject any issue you consider to three sets of questions:”

  1. Would it meet the CEO’s “keeps me up at night” threshold? That is, does this problem seriously jeopardize the organization’s ability to compete?
  2. Is it being ignored, neglected, or ineffectively addressed by existing processes, systems, or services?
  3. Are you a credible source of advice on the issue? Is your organization’s track record better than your competitors’ when it comes to helping others in the customer’s industry solve related problems? Or, if your company is a start-up, do you have employees with prior experience doing this?

Looking back on it now, I’m happy to say that the answer for us then was “yes” to all three.

Next, rather than simply identifying a bunch of problems, we wanted to bring our expertise to the fore by interpreting/analyzing the issues and explaining the major implications for our customers.

To make the story a bit simpler, we also looked to see which trends/forces naturally grouped together, whether from technology, problems caused, or types of solution. Through a combination of luck and craftiness, we found that the forces paired up nicely, resulting in four high-level implications:

Forces Take-Aways for CSPs
5G + NFV & SDN Networks of 2020+ are agile and modular

  • Dynamic, virtualized, API-driven
  • DevOps models become commonplace
Encryption + Cyber Threats Networks of 2020+ are smarter

  • Use advanced traffic classification techniques
  • Actively defend and disguise themselves to deceive attackers
IoT + OTT Business models evolve towards cooperation

  • IoT ecosystem includes device and solution vendors
  • Application and content providers continue to grow in importance
New Competition + eSIM Differentiation is critical

  • Micro-targeting of specific demographics
  • True personalization
  • Best quality of experience wins
  • Rich digital engagement

And really, the two slides graphically depicting what I’ve shown in those tables are the most important part of the presentation. If presented effectively – and Cassio did present it very effectively – we’d show the customer that we were trusted authorities on the future of their industry. In HBR’s terms, we would’ve provoked them into paying attention.

In Escape Velocity (which is where I learned of the HBR article), Moore says that,

“Note, in particular, that positioning messages in general are not about you or your products. [Target market initiative] messages are all about being in service to solving a very tough problem. It is the problem, first and foremost, that binds you to the customer, and the more you have focused your communication in dialogues about the problem – as opposed to your solution – the more powerful your position will be.”

The middle part of the deck devoted a single slide to each of the four ‘take-aways’, relating Sandvine’s capabilities to each (but in a general, non-salesy way).

To close, we showed how Sandvine’s investment and organizational priorities meant that we weren’t just a vendor who could solve problems today, but we could be counted on to solve problems in the future.

In Escape Velocity, Moore advises us to, “Publish the vision and the road map. This is how you declare core. The vision is not about you, it is about the new trajectory for the category, the one that will delight customers, attract partners, and inspire employees. The roadmap, on the other hand, is about you.”

The deck that Cassio and I built satisfies the vision component, without venturing too far into roadmap. Where we did talk about Sandvine, it was in the specific context of a visionary view of the future, rather than the other way around (i.e., we didn’t go “Here’s our stuff! Oh, and it’s related to this trend.”). And we didn’t get into specific roadmap deliverables, only general investment priorities that showed our commitment to the reality of the vision.

The end result was, in my opinion at least, a pretty damn tight deck, which Cassio and I called “Vision 2020+: Solutions for the Networks of Tomorrow”.

It went on to become a standard piece of Sandvine’s marketing material: Cassio and I used it at customer events, partner training, during new hire onboarding, in webinars, and as part of introductory sales engagements.


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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One comment on “Provocation-Based Marketing in Action
  1. […] personalized and relevant to your target audience. Help them learn and discover new approaches, challenge their assumptions, but above all, lend a hand in their discovery […]

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