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All CIOs (or CEOs) are not the same

We’re often asked s for creative ideas that target ‘the C-suite’ – CEO, COO, CFO, CIO and so on. It’s natural because these guys are usually the ones to sign the cheques, particularly for significant purchases.

But the question implies that  these people, having reached the giddy heights, are pretty much all the same in what they do and how they think and behave. In our experience, this members of this group are likely to be as different from each other – in motivation, outlook, experience and purchasing habits – as any other so-called homogenous group (like fans of  Abba, circus performers or members of the British Cabinet). And you have to treat them differently.

I came across a useful example of the problems of treating C-level execs as a single homogenous blob  in CIO Magazine’s recent State of the CIO 2009 report. They surveyed just over 500 heads of IT and characterised CIOs as one of three types:

1. A Function Head: These CIOs are focused principally on improving IT operations and systems performance, cost control, IT crisis management and security. They see their role as striving for IT operational excellence.

2. A Transformational Leader: Like the Function Heads above, these guys are internally focussed, but see their role as one of creating change for their company by working closely with business operations and cross-functional corporate departments. Their activities are centered more on process reengineering and automation, not just delivering the basic IT services. Business process re-engineering, implementing new systems and aligning IT with corporate business goals are their main drivers.

3. A Business Strategist: These CIOs focus most of their attention on driving business strategy for competitive advantage. They actively search for opportunities to differentiate their company using IT. They think about how to develop and implement new go-to-market strategies and they try to stay very close to customers.

Group 1 and 2 seem cut from the same cloth to me, but both are clearly very different for the business strategist group. The CIO analysis reminds me of Geoffrey Moore’s famous ‘Crossing the Chasm‘ hypothesis where he divided the world up along the technology innovation lifecycle saying that technology visionaries (or in CIO’s parlance ‘business strategists’)  are technology enthusiasts looking to use technology to tilt the market in their favour and pragmatists are looking simply for  productivity improvements.

Whether there are two groups or three is moot: the point is that marketing to these two groups is very different. (It’s likely  that these types of CIOs are emblematic of the companies they’re working for – it’s unlikely a visionary CIO would work for a pragmatic company and vice versa, or at least not for very long – so the rest of the board and the line of business decision-makers are often visionaries or pragmatists too.) Even within each group there may be gradations: we’ve come across visionary CIOs who understand the nits and grits of just about every leading (and bleeding) edge technology  at a deep technical level, as well as ones who last touched code in the COBOL era, but look and sound like Harvard Business School alumni.

So what about marketing to these different groups? Many of our early stage clients are looking for  visionaries and keep tripping over pragmatists. The CIO survey said that fewer than one in five of those surveyed were business strategists. In our experience visionary leaders tend to be super-information hungry and look to rub shoulders with like minded professionals. Social media marketing should therefore be an excellent route to these people, providing you have something to say that grabs their attention. If you’re operating in an industry dominated by cost cutters and process improvers, it’s probably best not to push content offering strategic revolution. Slow and steady wins the race for these guys.

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