PASS Summit 2014 Day 2 Keynote: A Masterclass In Cloud Databases, And Also A Masterclass In Tech Marketing

The PASS Summit keynote today was given by Dr Rimma Nehme, a colleague of PASS favourite Dr David DeWitt, who gave a great talk on cloud databases. A recording of the keynote will I’m sure be posted somewhere to view if you weren’t able to watch it live – it was an excellent presentation, I learned a lot and I recommend you watch it. However, the technical content of today’s presentation is not what I want to talk about here.

Sitting on the blogger’s table yesterday and today, I realised something about tech marketing in general and the challenges that Microsoft faces in marketing its cloud-first, BI-heavy strategy to its existing SQL Server customers. Let’s imagine you knew nothing about SQL Server, Microsoft, PASS and so on. If you looked at the reactions on Twitter (which I think are representative of the reactions of the SQL Server community as a whole) to yesterday’s keynote and today’s keynote, you would have seen a big difference. Yesterday there was a mixture of supportive comments and the snarking/complaining/moaning that has become common in PASS keynotes. Now it’s hard to put your own opinions on Microsoft’s strategy and how MVPs should behave on Twitter to one side, but if you can then you have to admit that the negative reactions represent a gigantic marketing failure. Some people, a lot of people, are unhappy with the message that Microsoft is putting across. Part of me wants people not to be unhappy – and I’m sure lots of people at Microsoft are equally frustrated – because I can see the logic behind Microsoft’s decisions, but wanting people to change their minds is not the same thing as persuading people to change their minds.

In contrast, the reaction on Twitter to Dr Nehme’s talk today was overwhelmingly positive. The same people who were unhappy yesterday were respectful and attentive today. There was a standing ovation at the end. But what was the topic? The cloud! Isn’t the cloud the root of all evil? Why were the reactions so different? Well, you say, this was technical education, not marketing. It was indeed technical education, but let me be clear: today’s keynote was just as much a marketing presentation as yesterday’s keynote. The difference is that it was highly effective marketing for the cloud, rather than a ham-fisted attempt to ram the cloud down people’s throats. Truly effective marketing is not obvious as marketing; truly effective marketing of this kind is something that the intended audience actively enjoys (and I’m not saying this is done as some kind of cynical deception – today’s audiences are too aware for anything insincere to succeed). Today’s keynote did more for the perception of Microsoft’s cloud strategy in its target audience than anything else I have seen recently. The other confusing aspect of this is that the ineffective marketing here is the work– I assume – of marketing professionals – whereas the effective marketing has been done by someone who is clearly One Of Us (although she mentioned at the beginning of her presentation, I think, that she had an MBA as well as a laundry list of other impressive qualifications) and not a marketing professional.

So what can we, and more importantly Microsoft, learn from this? It’s that if you want to do effective marketing to a technical audience you have to talk tech to them. Speak to them as equals in a language they understand, and provide strong technical reasons to back up what you’re saying. Traditional marketing that relies on theatre and pizzazz and that has no substance is actually counter-productive and damaging. The good news is that Microsoft does have a lot of people who instinctively understand this. I have always felt that Buck Woody is a true technical marketing genius, quite apart from his many other accomplishments. Donald Farmer is too, and that’s why so many people saw his leaving Microsoft as a significant blow for Microsoft BI. I’m not arguing that Microsoft fire its marketing department and let the techies handle marketing itself because that’s clearly never going to happen, I doubt the techies would want to do that job full-time, and let’s face it the techies would be equally inept at marketing but in different ways. What needs to happen is that the marketing professionals at Microsoft understand that their current, very traditional strategy is failing and that it should be replaced with an entirely new approach. The evidence from PASS is that the content itself is not the problem, it’s the way it is being presented.

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