Platforms shouldn’t just build technology – they should build relationships

Unlike software, platforms are an abstract. And they are far more complex.

We have wrapped our heads around the most pressing marketing task in technology today - but what comes next?

With software-as-a-service due to be worth $112.8bn by 2019, according to IDC,vendors have learned to sell their SaaS with skill. But the emergence of platforms-as-a-service (PaaS) poses a much bigger challenge - and knowing your customer will be key. 

By now, the SaaS marketing playbook is quite well defined. By and large, software is purpose-built to solve specific problems - Salesforce addresses CRM, Gmail addresses email - making it easier to convert potential customers.

When prospects are looking for a product to do a certain job, they search it out, sign up for a free account and enter your sales funnel, at which point you have many opportunities to convert them.

The beauty of marketing a SaaS is, by and large, the customer falls into only one bucket, self-defined by the feature set of the product itself. This makes it easy for salespeople to communicate the value proposition, presenting the same deck to prospect after prospect. It’s straightforward.

But PaaS changes all these rules.

Changing the rules

What is a platform? It’s an ecosystem on which software and other tools can be run, more like Windows than Microsoft Word. It is a fundamental, underlying building block on which a multitude of services can be built and deployed.

Case in point - Twilio, a cloud-based platform for sending and receiving phone calls and text messages, is open-ended; it can help you manage telephony, but it can also facilitate messaging for Uber.

In other words, unlike software, platforms are an abstract. And they are far more complex - that is certainly true in engineering terms, but it also poses a significant challenge to marketing them.

How do you put together a sales and marketing strategy when your product can take on any form on any day of the week, and when your customer is any of infinite possibilities?

The answer is building a stronger, deeper and more knowledgeable relationship with your prospects and customers.

As a PaaS marketer, you will often be selling to companies that are still only scoping out their own service offering. When the end product is still evolving in this way, it pays to be flexible, and to be in regular contact with your targets in the manner of a helpful guide, not a mercenary salesperson.

When you are marketing a PaaS, you don’t tend to have the luxury of working up one canned presentational deck that can be whipped out for a dozen future pitches. Every customer and every use case is different. 

Instead, platform executives need to thoroughly research and understand their unique targets, take time to empathise with their challenges and goals, identify any current tools they are using and develop a picture of what the future looks like.

Unlike SaaS, a top consideration for platform customers will be integration with integration with other platforms and tools. So PaaS operators must take the time to recognise prospects’ existing technology stack, and be prepared to field further questions and requests.

The value of relationships

In other words, marketing a platform is more like a conversation than a monologue. And this conversation must take place at all stages along the buying funnel.

Beforehand, regular contact with prospects, coupled with intense, client-specific research, is the way to feel confident about sales discussions. During those discussions, it is important to get customers to express the KPIs on which you will be held to account.

With an out-of-the-box software product focused on a specific problem, it is always easier to define and demonstrate a few key metrics. But platform operators, by virtue of the rich and potentially neverending possibilities they offer, can often find themselves pushed to do more and more, even after contracts are signed.

That can be a bottomless pit for PaaS operators. So it is vital that, despite un-ending opportunity, deliverables are scoped out and agreed upfront. This is why relationships are vital to the entire process.

But the value of relationships can also be seen post-sale, when prospects have become customers. You see, once a platform is in place, it is hard to displace - at least, if it gives existing customers enough additional reasons to stay plugged in.

For example, when I managed product marketing at Cisco, the company was already selling routers, switches, etc to the network buyer. But Cisco’s broad platform footprint benefitted us beyond that. When a potential competitor came in with a discounted firewall offer,, the customer didn’t displace us as Cisco offered more complementary services that the client needed. So now the discussion moved way beyond price - it pivoted to value.

In other words, having multiple platform product lines makes your customer stick to you like glue, because no-one wants to go through the pain of a break-up when they can keep it in the family.

Similarly, platform-as-a-service’s distinct marketing requirements may be unique, but I like to think of them as the core essence of all marketing, when done right.

At school, we are all taught that knowing your customer is the foundation of business. But, somewhere along the way, we all get so ingrained with living and breathing the individual products we offer.

We all know many startups fail because they didn’t explore or find product-market fit. But platform marketing teaches us that there is absolutely no substitute for striking that fit - and that, in a world of unlimited possibilities, it can only be found be relating with your customer.

Almitra Karnik, Head of Marketing & Global Growth, CleverTap
Image Credit: SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock