Market Watch - High-Tech

Ideas For Selling To Cutting-Edge Technology Firms

High TechThis month, one of the world's biggest technology research firms will send out 5,000 leather coasters to CIOs worldwide. Yes, the leather coasters with a four-color imprint will impress, but what will really blow minds will be the link listed on the coaster's customized cover. Anyone who points an iPhone camera at the cover will see vivid, superimposed imagery.

It's the next level up from QR codes, says Mary Mena, a sales rep for Geiger (asi/202900), based in Wayland, MA, who helped the tech firm come up with the product idea.

The technology, offered through a platform called Aurasma, is considered the latest breakthrough in augmented reality. Aurasma-powered promotions are gaining traction worldwide – in tourism guides, children's magazines and certainly in movie-related campaigns. For example, as part of the buildup for the film The Amazing Spiderman, the technology helped products, like T-shirts, leap to life.

"The thing we like best about technology companies is that from a product standpoint, it's probably the most rapidly changing, high-growth industry that there is," says Dale Limes, senior vice president of sales for Halo Branded Solutions (asi/356000), based in Sterling, IL.

Therein lies the challenge for distributors. To sell to tech firms, only the latest and greatest ideas will close the deal. Last year, the same tech research firm that Mena teamed up with wanted nothing but QR codes plastered on its ad specialty items. This year, "to them QR codes are so done," she says.

Originality is Key
The bottom line? Unless the pen you're selling has rocket boosters, can launch into space and take measurements of the surrounding atmosphere, technology firms will likely yawn at any writing instrument you show them. Hyperbole? Maybe, but most in-the-know distributors wouldn't be caught dead presenting a pen, coffee mug or any other standard ad specialty item to an industry working on the cutting edge and looking for products that will promote their brand in the same manner.

So what can distributors do to stay competitive in the high-tech sector selling game? At Halo, Limes says reps attend various tech trade shows throughout the year and read technology trade publications to remain current on trends. "Because they're changing so quickly," Limes says, "we try to get a quarterly or six-month review of what's upcoming and then get marketing ideas prepared for them."

What Halo has learned through those regular reviews is similar to what other distributors are starting to understand. Namely, you've got to keep product ideas updated. "I always need to reinvent the wheel" when it comes to showing products to technology clients, says Gail Goldstein, a Massachusetts-based distributor affiliated with Geiger. "They like to see the newest, coolest things out there all the time."

Technology firms rarely reorder the same product. "Since they're technology leaders, they want to be identified and their brand to be identified in terms of being more innovative," Goldstein says. Being so demanding about product ideas can mean "it's harder to meet their needs," she admits. But it also means they're more likely to jump on an order when they see a product that really excites them.

Present Well & Prosper
The way products are presented can make a difference as well. Presentations don't have to be space-age ordeals that involve holographic trickery, but technology firms do tend to expect a level of sophistication that speaks to their industry's advancements. For distributors that can be a time-saver, since Webinars, e-mail PowerPoints or other tech-savvy presentations are often acceptable substitutes for the traditional face-to-face meetings.

That's important, since distributors who gain time through e-meetings will likely need it to find the right product for clients who demand innovation. Technology companies, distributors say, have no problem rejecting multiple ideas until they find the right item. And, even though you might spend a month looking for the perfect picture frame on which to place a QR code, don't expect a reorder, since technology companies rarely want to repeat a product they've used in the past.

Fortunately for distributors, all of that hard work searching for products often means a higher pay day – and better margins. Because tech firms are willing to pay top dollar for products that better represent their brand, they're often more open to bigger promotional product budgets. "I have one client that, if you show them a $50 or a $90 briefcase, they'll go with the $90 briefcase every time," Goldstein says, because they perceive the higher-priced briefcase as having more brand equity. "If they're going to put their name on it, it has to be synonymous with a quality item," she says.

Tailoring Campaigns
In general, distributors agree that technology firms aren't interested in distributors who are simply pushing product ideas. "Even within the tech sector you have specialized technology companies that only sell to the education market or the financial market, especially on the software side," Limes says. "To go in product-minded absolutely doesn't work. You've got to go in knowing their business" and how promotional products can further their specific business goals. "You have to go in with knowledge of their niche," he adds. "If you don't understand that niche, then you're not going to get anywhere."

That kind of thinking also translates to specific promotional opportunities that might require distributors to concoct marketing ideas for a particular event. For one giant software company, Ronald Kaplan, owner of Bravo KB Inc. (asi/470565), a Kaeser & Blair-affiliated dealership in West Palm Beach, FL, developed an original promotion using low-tech items.

For a convention in Dallas, this international software firm wanted a product to make a big impression with attendees, but in a way that reflected the local marketplace. So, Kaplan suggested they set up a root beer stand on the trade show floor where they could give away cowboy hats and mugs full of root beer to booth visitors who spent time talking to the company about its latest products.

"Depending on the clientele that our high-tech customers are going after, we select different products," Kaplan says, "and some of them are very expensive." Others, like the cowboy hats and mugs, which the firm ordered 500 of, run a little lower – $13 for the hats and about $3 for the mugs.

Still, high-tech companies seem more likely to open their wallets than other firms, distributors think, and startups, in particular, are surprisingly willing to spend more for promotional items than established tech giants. Maybe that's because "startups are working with someone else's money," says Marlene Wachtell, owner of Facilitations Limited (asi/202900). Either way, she adds, startups and other technology firms offer a wealth of sales opportunity for distributors who know how to market to them effectively.