Since the new administration walked into the White House and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed through Congress, selling to the government suddenly got very sexy.
But understanding the ins and outs of how to register as a government contractor and then making sense of how the government buys is only one part of the equation of actually getting your products and services in front of Uncle Sam and making a sale.
All too often, one of the most overlooked areas of doing business with the government is knowing how to successfully market to the government.
Put quite simply – marketing to the government is different (and I mean marketing in the sense of the strategies and tactics you employ to place your product or service in the hands of potential customers). When the government buys, it buys differently than the commercial sector; the language it speaks is different; its motivations for buying are different.
Many businesses turn to specialist agencies and seasoned government marketing professionals to help them win their share of government business – not a luxury many small business owners can afford.
So to achieve success as you venture into business with the government, the savvy government marketer must adjust conventional marketing strategies and outreach tactics to meet the conventions of this very lucrative marketplace.
Here are some basic tips to get you started in understanding how to market to the government:
1) Understand who your Customers Are
In government, there are three customers to whom you should target your marketing efforts.
a) Procurers – Including contracting officers or others who can select the procurement methods and conduct the procurement. They have enormous influence on the buying process, but are also steered by “influencers” – to whom they are often “gatekeepers”.
b) Influencers – These are program managers and high level decision makers who generate the requirement for a product or service.
c) End Users – This group is very influential in getting the most qualified contractor involved in a bid or onto a relevant contract.
Although each of these will be interested in different facets of your offering, they all want to know the benefits of ordering from you, your pricing model, and the procurement vehicles or contracts that you hold. Read more about how to target these three groups in How to Market to the Federal Government – published by the General Services Administration (GSA).
2) Write a Government Marketing Plan – Don’t Tag Government onto your Commercial Plan
The government buying cycle is very predictable, and spending is heavily skewed toward the fourth quarter of the fiscal year (Sept 30 is the last day of the federal fiscal year, for state and local government it is the end of May or June). This gives marketers the opportunity to plan a strategic campaign six or even 12 months in advance.
The first quarter should be focused on awareness raising and relationship building – fine tune your marketing message both in print and on the Web and develop ways to evangelize that message. Events and webinars are a great way of doing this. Trade shows can be expensive for a small business, so focus on smaller agency-sponsored table tops and seminars. If you have relationships within a particular agency, consider hosting an intimate “brown bag” lunch and learn meeting on-site to demonstrate your latest offering and its benefits.
The second and third quarter of the government fiscal year is when you should really focus in on drumming up lead generation campaigns (use multiple integrated tactics to ensure maximum outreach). The last quarter is often focused on last minute offers and awareness campaigns to help your company secure its share of “busy season” buying as agencies rush to use their remaining budget dollars.
And don’t forget month-to-month outreach activities such as newsletters and social media (blogging, etc.) to keep your company brand in front of your government customers and prospects.
3) “Governmentize” your Message
Many companies make the mistake of putting their commercial messaging and marketing collateral in front of government agencies and hoping it will resonate. It won’t!
The government has entirely different pain points, requirements and objectives (or missions) than a commercial buyer. Take time to understand agency mandates, goals and challenges, re-work your message to address these and pick your words carefully. Consider the following when you craft your messaging:
- What are an agency’s particular challenges and needs? Restate these in your collateral.
- What does your product or service help the government accomplish?
- Has anyone else in government benefited from your offering? Explain more.
- Why should the government buy from you? List your contract vehicles and small business status or certification on every piece of collateral and Web site.
- What does your company do to make it easy for government to buy from you? Stress your contracting expertise, and say up-front if your business includes ex-government employees.
- Are you speaking the government’s language? Proof your messaging for government speak: Check for commercial phrases and terminology such as “…increase your profits…” or “…your company can…” and replace with more government attuned phrases such as “…meet your agency’s mandates…” or “…address constituent needs more efficiently…”.
4) Ensure your Message gets Delivered
One of the more interesting challenges of marketing to the government is actually getting your message through – particularly when it comes to direct mail (yes, direct mail still works in government when used as part of an integrated campaign). For example agency mail shops won’t deliver what they consider to be bulk mailings.
There are ways around this. For example you can stagger your mailings so that it doesn’t all get delivered at once, or use a first class live stamp as opposed to metered pre-sorted postage. Another tactic that works well is to mail a three dimensional direct mail piece – include a cheap giveaway, mailed in a padded envelope. The added bulk can “disguise” the direct marketing intent of the mailing. Read *Mark Amtower’s Ten Quick Tips for Successful Government Mailings for more helpful tips.
5) Understand Government Ethics – Use a Call to Action that Government can Accept
One of the very first things you’ll need to learn about government marketing is that commercial call to actions such as “Sign up for XYZ and enter for a chance to win a TV” are an absolute no go. Government employees are under strict ethical rules and are not allowed to accept gratuities or giveaways valued at more than $20 (provided that the market value of multiple gifts to the same official does not exceed $50 in a calendar year). Some may even decline all giveaways. There are exceptions – government employees can receive educational materials as part of a campaign giveaway (e.g. a flash drive loaded with white papers) as well as nominally-valued gratuities or “tchotchkes” such as desktop trinkets.
Read more about Illegal Gifts and Gratuities in this quick read from the National Defense Industrial Association.
6) Leverage Case Studies
Government buyers are very keen to hear how their peers in the public sector have benefited from your solution, so case studies should be an essential part of your sales toolkit. Remember to get agency permission and don’t always count on being able to use real names and scenarios (particularly with the DoD). Use quotes from the case study on your Web site and other marketing materials. Even build the case study into a “show and tell'” event or webinar.
- Government Contracting Guide for Small Business (Business.gov)
- Doing Business with the Federal Government: Tips for Securing Your Share During Changing Times
- Onvia.com Government Marketing Articles – Articles on government marketing and government contracting in general from Onvia.com
- Fedmarketing.com: The Federal Marketplace – Useful articles and events for anyone interested in doing business with the federal government.
- Five Tips for Finding Federal Contracting Opportunities (Allbusiness.com)
- Finding Work in Your Own Back Yard: Doing Business with State and Local Government (Allbusiness.com)
- SBA to Host 200 Events to Help Women, Veteran and Minority-owned Businesses Get Access to Information on Government Contracting Opportunities (SBA Press Release)