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President's Page - July 2018

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From IEEE Communications Magazine July 2018

A Blueprint for ComSoc Marketing

Khaled B. Letaief
Khaled B. Letaief
Robert S. Fish
Robert S. Fish

This month I am pleased to introduce Robert S. Fish, who will share with us his plans for enhancing our marketing activities as well as promote our diverse portofolio and offerings in order to further boost our members’ benefits as well as attract new members and retain existing ones.

Robert S. Fish is Chief Marketing Officer for the IEEE Communications Society. He has been ComSoc’s VP for Industry and Standards Activities, a Member at Large of ComSoc’s Board of Governors, and the Chair of the GLOBECOM and ICC Management and Strategy Committee. He is also President-Elect of the IEEE Standards Association and chair of the IEEE Technical Activities Committee on Standards. Rob is a faculty member in the Computer Science Department at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University.

Understanding our members’ needs as well as the needs of those who should be members but have yet to discover ComSoc is the role of ComSoc marketing. We know there are many more engineers and others in related fields who would benefit from ComSoc than there are ComSoc members. We don’t know exactly how many, but some have guessed that the number of our potential members could be as much as an order of magnitude greater than our actual current membership. How do we reach these people? If we reach them, do we have the marketing collateral that explains ourselves to them? If they are interested, do we have the products and services that meet their needs? If we have products and services that meet their needs, are we delivering them in a way that is convenient and cost-effective? Continually studying all of these questions, and trying to find good answers, defines the opportunities that ComSoc marketing needs to address.

To think about it in a very logical way, we will plan for each type of service or product ComSoc has, (marketing of …). Of course, being engineers, when we offer a product or service, we will measure users’ responses to those products and services. We need to be adaptive and willing to change our offerings to meet the specific requirements of each demographic segment to which we need to appeal (marketing to …). ComSoc members are very diverse, and accordingly our offerings must reflect that diversity. In addition, in light of the digitalization of both our content and the digital lives that many of our members lead, we will explore new channels for delivering our messages and content (marketing by …). Our website, of course, is critical, but also social media and a ComSoc app for mobile devices also will be vehicles that our intended audience uses for the delivery of content. However, we may not be able to do everything on our own. Some of our best marketing channels will be through other organizations (marketing with …), with whom cooperation, when we have common interests, can be very rewarding to both parties.

Below we discuss some specifics that ComSoc might pursue in each of these aspects of marketing.

Marketing of Technical Committees, Industry Communities, and Standards Committees:

Technical Committees, Industry Communities, and Standards Committees (TCs/ICs/SCs) should be the core of volunteer engagement in ComSoc. Currently there are only brief descriptions of each group on the ComSoc website. We need to improve these descriptions so that potential participants in these groups are enticed to find out more about them and are then convinced that joining one or more of them would be a good way to become an active volunteer. We need to help them put together marketing collateral, delivered through the website, social media, and email, that explains the core interests of each of these groups and provides a method for new people to get involved with their activities. In addition, to help project the relevance of each of these groups, each group should put together a yearly report or presentation on the latest technical developments within their scope. This would provide tremendous value to other members and help maintain and improve the image of ComSoc as a technical leader.

Marketing of Technical Education and Training:

ComSoc’s technical scope is very broad, and within our membership we have many volunteers who are world leading experts in their fields. We should invest in having these experts create technical education tutorials and webinars and then widely market these to both our members and potential members. This will both increase the visibility of ComSoc experts, which will enhance their careers, as well as bring in new members, which will help ComSoc’s financial position. ComSoc should be a one-stop shop for technically advanced, reliable information in all areas of communications and networking technology. Our portfolio of educational products should be timely and encompass both basic knowledge within our scope as well as hot topics that are receiving a lot of publicity. Often, we lose the marketing race to other, for-profit organizations, whose content is of lower quality but who are able to capture the attention of interested audiences with faster and broader marketing campaigns.

Marketing Publications:

ComSoc’s publications are of world-class quality, regularly leading in measures of impact factor and other quality metrics. Our research journals are well known and their editors are doing a splendid job in putting them together. For the most part, in the community that uses them, our research publications are known and respected. They are marketed through the IEEE Xplore platform, and this seems to be quite effective.

Marketing our magazines is a little different. Magazines are the ComSoc publication products whose content is targeted to the general membership of technical professionals and not to a highly specialized research audience. Besides subscription fees, magazines accept advertising so they can help support our Society. However, despite their high quality, they are currently not getting the advertising revenue that we had hoped for, and hence are not providing the support to the Society that would be useful. Why is this? When a magazine is marketed to advertisers, their decision on whether to include it in their ad campaign is based on a few different factors. They need to know whether the content of the magazine relates to the market to which their products and services are targeted, who and how many people will be reading the magazine, and most importantly, whether those people will be interested in purchasing the products and services that the advertisers are selling. Our marketing efforts should address all of these areas in order for us to market our magazines more effectively. We must create editorial calendars that are sufficiently in advance of publication so that advertisers can plan their marketing budgets to include ComSoc magazines; we must track awareness of advertising content to share with advertisers; and we must deliver the magazines in formats that attract the most readers. For instance, we should adopt a “digital-first” strategy, with magazines delivered to our members via a ComSoc app on a tablet or portable device. Digital advertising is increasingly what advertisers want, and for many members, an app on a phone or tablet is how they interact with content.

Marketing Research Conferences:

ComSoc does a great job marketing research conferences to our core members. However, we can always do better. Can we ascertain what percentage of the research community are ComSoc members and participating in our conferences? Can we increase our market penetration into the research community with our current conference products or do we need something else? Getting events to include a variety of membership offerings with event registration will be a key marketing feature that could help turn registrants into members. Our research conferences are often the venue at which ComSoc awards are given. We should augment our awards to include more types of awards, and then do a better job of marketing the award recipients, through various publicity channels. This would give more visibility and prestige to ComSoc members’ research activities as well as enhance the visibility of ComSoc itself.

Marketing Industry Events:

One thing that is clear is that events targeted at industry practitioners, like our “Summit” series, cannot be marketed the same way our research conferences are marketed. The critical missing link here is how to develop an audience among practitioners in a local area because many of our industry members or potential members find it difficult to get support for multi-day travel to our international conferences. Our chapters can play some role, but most practitioners are not necessarily active local ComSoc chapter participants, so outreach cannot be confined to the role that chapters can play. It should be noted that many chapters are not highly active, so in some sense, local audience development for industry events will help chapters grow, not the other way around. Creating a marketing process that can start from zero and grow a local audience with interest in our scope, even if it requires outside resources, is key. In this respect, we can learn from our commercial competitors, who employ a variety of techniques to establish interest in an event and then draw participants to it. One advantage we have is that, as a non-profit, ComSoc events can be priced significantly below that of commercial events, and hence can address a wider market.

Marketing with:

ComSoc does not exist in a vacuum of communications and networking organizations. Rather, many industry and vertical- specific organizations already exist, and have events and content relevant to our scope. ComSoc must continuously investigate cooperative agreements and activities with these organizations so we can build on each other’s strengths. Examples such as our cooperation with the Optical Society of America for the OFC event and with AFCEA for the MilCom event show the viability of this approach. Typically, in such arrangements, ComSoc is valued as a source of world-class technical information that is complementary to industry marketing, policy, and regulatory content that others provide. We must extend this idea to open a continuous dialog to assess the viability of working with such potential partners as the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), the Open Fog Consortium, the Pacific Telcom Council, and other similar organizations around the world to extend ComSoc’s reach in an economic fashion by partnering with other organizations that have similar interests and with whom our roles can be mutually beneficial. Similarly, many vertical industry segments in areas like healthcare, energy, finance, etc., have organizations or events that could serve telecom professionals in their verticals. There are opportunities to cooperate with other IEEE Societies and Councils who have events that already target some of these verticals. Talking to these entities is a great opportunity to see if ComSoc can add value to their current activities.

Marketing to:

An active marketing research program is a key element in discovering the needs of professionals within ComSoc’s scope. Marketing research is done, for the most part, through the use of surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews. For instance, there has been speculation that there is a trend in ComSoc membership of a decreasing proportion of ComSoc’s membership coming from industry or being involved in doing development. In Table 1, which is created from a number of email surveys that IEEE has done for ComSoc over the years, we see statistics that support this view.

  2011 2014 2015
Research 46%   60%
Development 36%   30%
Academia 33% 42% 47%
Industry 45% 36% 27%

Table 1. Percent of ComSoc members categorizing their primary activities as research or development and their employment as academia or industry.

If we want to reverse this trend, we need to base our actions on concrete data. This practitioner demographic segment is only one of several in ComSoc for which we need more understanding of what services or products they want and the value they place on them in order to provide enough value to retain and grow membership and participation. In general, we need planning for products and services for each demographic to which Comsoc wants to appeal while taking into account regional geographic differences in our member’s needs.

Some examples of specific demographic segments are:

  • Students
  • Young professionals
  • Retired
  • Practicing engineers
  • Researchers
  • Teaching Faculty
  • Self-employed/consultants
  • Entrepreneurs

We need to regularly gather data on membership needs, desires, and willingness to pay by using surveys and focus groups targeted at:

Current membership: Our approximately 25,000 ComSoc members.

Potential membership: For instance, the many thousands who have signed up for free membership in IEEE Technical Communities that are within our scope are clearly targets for marketing efforts. Communities that have formed around themes like Software Defined Networks, Internet of Things, and Fifth Generation and Beyond Communications should be approached to see if they can be persuaded to engage more deeply with ComSoc.

Former/lapsed membership: Obviously, some number of the people who were once ComSoc members might be amenable to re-joining if we were able to create a marketing message that appealed to them. A clear understanding of what each demographic mentioned above values would be of significant help here.

Corporate membership: There has been some success in the past in addressing high-level individuals in companies and having them purchase some bundle of goods and services from ComSoc, including membership, education, and advertising. We need to refine a marketing message for these individuals, perhaps through individual outreach, and create the marketing collateral that would support broader use of this potentially large marketing channel.

Marketing by:

In the end, content and marketing messages need to be delivered through some marketing channel. ComSoc has traditionally relied on using a lot of email to do this, so much so that some members have complained about the volume of email coming from ComSoc. In addition, starting from May 25, 2018, IEEE has taken measures so that all communications coming from IEEE Societies and Councils is compliant with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This involves people needing to provide consent in some form for the use of identifying information.

Going forward, ComSoc marketing needs to both diversify the channels it uses and maintain compliance with the GDPR regime. We will need to generate new email lists and also take advantage of other, newer social media channels. ComSoc currently has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin. A strategy for when and how much social media should be used, as well as understanding its effectiveness, is an important part of a ComSoc marketing strategy.

Of course, the ComSoc website is a key element in delivering both ComSoc content as well as our marketing messages. The ComSoc website has many demands put on it. It needs to be responsive to the needs of each member demographic, to the active volunteers who create so much value for ComSoc, and to potential members and humanity-at-large who we want to turn to ComSoc for reliable and technically sophisticated information. The website needs to be customizable for members’ needs, and able to be delivered on a variety of devices, including mobile phones and tablets. From a marketing perspective, we need to regularize the website’s content refreshment process, so that new information is regularly delivered and our members and users are made aware of it.

Finally, I think the time has come to create a ComSoc app for mobile platforms that is ComSoc-branded and over which ComSoc can maintain complete editorial control. Mobile apps seem to be increasingly popular for the delivery of content, and ComSoc should be in a position to deliver and market our content in this format.

Marketing Take-away:

To maintain and grow our Society, we need to think a bit about how to best formulate and deliver our products and services. We need to think strategically about the “of’s,” “to’s, ” “with’s,” and “by’s” of marketing. ComSoc marketing is the place to do this, and if done well, we can look forward to ComSoc’s continued relevance and prosperity.