Appearing closer to your prospects, even if you’re far away

For those handling roles in marketing or business development across multiple geographies, getting close to your prospects is always a challenge. This has become more acute because of the pandemic due to travel restrictions and reduction of physical conferences and events. In my role at 99x, my goal is to build our brand as a “trusted product engineering partner” in Scandinavia and drive business growth. In this article, I will share what has helped me in that journey, identify some of the challenges faced when marketing to a different geography, and the approaches I’ve taken to address the same.

What has helped

Having a registered office in your target geography is a big plus to initiate activities. Even if technically it has only one employee, it adds credibility when speaking to potential prospects or partners. What really worked for 99x was having access to Dag Honningsvag, our Chairman, who was available to fill in the local context when pitching to new prospects who have little to no understanding about Sri Lanka.

The second area I tapped into to build credibility was the relationships with our existing customers. I used LinkedIn as a tool to build my network among both customers and prospects. This enabled me to build and expand my first-level contacts in Europe, reaching around 150 in a short time. I also subscribed to the LinkedIn Premium service for a few months and used its “direct messaging” feature to engage with prospects once I had sufficient context to discuss our offerings.

The third was capitalising on the high-trust culture present in the Scandinavian region. I’ve been amazed that no vendor I contacted in Scandinavia insisted on any advance payments regardless of the type of job or cost. Whether it’s full-page print advertisements, paid research, or large print jobs, the order was taken and fulfilled on trust. This made it very easy to make progress when co-ordinating a marketing programme remotely. Although 99x had been active in the European market for many years and had a reputation within the tech community, the vendors we were engaging with were mostly new. As a best practice, I did make it a point to call each of the vendors directly and build a relationship as well. 

While you may not have these specific advantages in place, see what resources you can tap into to appear relevant and familiar in the target geography. At a minimum, you can use an existing customer in that geography to establish that legitimacy. I’ve also found that if you articulate your requirement clearly, your customer or local contact can easily forward it and introduce you to someone who can help.

What were the challenges?

The pandemic has brought new challenges to almost every job role, and the marketing and business development functions were no exception. The opportunities to network and meet prospects at physical trade events or conferences has reduced. The ability to travel onsite for business development has ceased and therefore, physical meetings are not possible given the restrictions.

In parallel, there is increasing competition. I’m sure there are hundreds (if not thousands) of others just like me who have taken similar approaches as mentioned in this very article to engage their prospects. As one of our customer’s chief executive officer (CEO) mentioned, he gets messages every day from offshore IT service providers requesting appointments with tempting offers to “try and buy”.

The other challenge we faced was in terms of local language and translations. While English is well understood in most business settings, the local language is the preferred language of communication for published media. For example, in Norway, newspaper articles and advertisements would predominantly be in Norwegian, and we needed to address this.

Approaches to overcome challenges 

We initiated a relationship with a Norwegian public relations (PR) agency to address this gap in terms of language competency and to translate our existing content. The PR agency provided articles, social media captions, and translations of our case studies in the Norwegian language. We realised this was an essential investment to differentiate and present ourselves as being closer to our prospects. As a result, we were able to publish a series of articles in the local paper Finansavisen (a business daily) and to use our customer success stories across multiple channels. 

We also identified partners to be our local representatives for a range of support services. These included areas such as advertising, market research, cold calling and lead generation, and printing and distribution. By establishing long-term relationships, we were able to be more efficient and avoid the “who we are, and what we do” conversations needed each time you deal with a new partner.

Another project that worked well for us was to engage a European consulting firm to conduct a market assessment. This involved identifying companies that qualified as our prospects based on a set of criteria. Following the success of this first engagement, we also engaged with this partner in an appointment-setting exercise over two months. While it is possible to call remotely and engage, an “unknown foreign number” does trigger a red flag for most people. Either the calls are not answered, or you experience a more guarded response.

I also got support from our customers to amplify selected messages on social media. Whether it was when we launched our new brand or announced a joint webinar with a client, I requested our customers to share these posts among their networks. While a few of these relationships were built when they visited Sri Lanka in early 2020 before the pandemic took hold, most were built online – one conversation at a time. 

Results and outcomes

Let me conclude by sharing some of the outcomes. By translating our customer success stories, we were able to add 12 new articles to our website blog. We then collated these articles to publish our book “Celebrating impactful digital products” in Norwegian. We also ran social media campaigns with captions and posts in Norwegian targeting our prospects. We used the account-based marketing (ABM) feature available on LinkedIn to target advertisements to our prospect list. While this was more costly than regular Google ads, it met our requirements better as a business-to-business (B2B) service provider. We are currently in the process of translating our entire website to Norwegian. Again, it was a significant investment but not something we wanted to outsource as a freelance assignment, given the nature of the content. The collective impact of these activities has made us more visible to our prospects, evidenced by clear improvements in our reach and engagement statistics.

(The writer is the Chief Marketing and Corporate Affairs Officer at 99x and spearheads marketing activities while supporting business development and customer success initiatives. He is an accomplished practitioner with over 25 years of experience in the tech industry with complementary roles in program management and corporate consulting. Before joining 99x, he was the Executive Director of SLASSCOM. His industry experience includes banking and financial services and global IT services with Virtusa, Societe Generale [SOCGEN)], Nations Trust Bank, and Union Bank of Colombo)