How to avoid being caught out by unknown software needs

It’s the unknown unknowns that get you every time! Learn how to identify unknown software needs, and then evaluate the urgency and importance of satisfying them.

While internal growth can drive companies to make major software purchases, another driver is external growth. Internal growth refers to a company growing organically through new customers, by mergers, acquisitions and so on. External growth refers to a company operating in a growing environment or a growing market, and is occasionally described with the phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Marketing technology is one such example of a growing environment, and it is spectacularly illustrated by Scott Brinker and his annual Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic. In 2011 he listed about 150 marketing technology companies on a single page in graphical format. Scott has updated this graphic annually, and in 2017 it contained 5381 products from 4891 companies. For several years there was an astounding 100% annual growth, although in 2017 it had tapered off somewhat.

Marketing problems many people didn’t know existed a few years ago now have several vendors offering competing solutions. Companies operating with more traditional marketing models are faced with competitors using marketing technology to overtake them. External growth in the marketing technology field is driving software purchases as companies want to avoid being overtaken by their competition.

Using marketing technology as an example of a growing environment, we take a look at how needs awareness, urgency, and importance drives these software purchases.


Finding unknown needs

Internal growth is evident to a company, but external growth can take them by surprise. Here a company might have a software need and not even be aware of it. There are several ways to discover these unknown needs:

  • Competition: Examine your company’s position in the market compared to competitors. Have you been losing market share over the last year or two? Or, more subtle, have competitors been growing faster than you have? In either case, discovering why this is happening can expose a software need.
  • Planned performance: Compare your company’s performance against plans for the past year or two. Has performance been on target, or is there a significant gap between plans and reality? And if plans were too optimistic, what are the reasons?
  • History: Compare the current performance of your company with recent history. Has growth started to level off, and if so why? Is your market approaching saturation, or is your company being overtaken by competitors making better use of marketing technology?
  • Diagnostics: For example, when surveyed, what do your sales team think of your company’s thought leadership versus what do your customers think? If this diagnostic reveals a big gap, there is an unknown need waiting to be exposed.
  • Software feature examination: For any given set of potential marketing technology products, look at the features of those products. Do any of those features cause you to have an “Aha!” moment, where something you had not given much thought to suddenly jumps into focus?

The rising tide of marketing technology gives companies unparalleled tools to solve marketing problems. Any company not constantly trying to expose unknown needs, be they with marketing technology or other major types of software, risks being overtaken by their competition. The longer those needs remain undiscovered, the more opportunity competitors have.


Needs caused by internal growth

We looked at unknown software needs caused by external growth and used marketing software as an example, but these same concepts also apply to needs caused by internal growth. For example, suppose a company outgrows existing ERP software but doesn’t replace it. To get over functional gaps with that existing software, they end up with a collection of add-on products and innumerable spreadsheets that are updated every month.

Although the company knows their reporting is inadequate, they don’t appreciate the urgency and importance of the problem. They don’t appreciate the real cost of not having timely information on which to base business decisions. Under these circumstances, growth can peak and then flatten or fall. The company thinks the problem is market saturation or competition, but the real problem is poor decision making caused by inadequate reporting.

Discovering these needs is the perfect segue into examining the urgency and importance of problems caused by growth.


Urgency and importance

Once a company has identified a software need, the question becomes one of resolving the problem and satisfying that need: how urgent is it, how important is it, how should it be prioritized? The way to answer these questions is by examining consequences and implications.

  • Extrapolate trends and look at what is likely to happen if a need is not satisfied soon. Will the problem get worse? If it is left for 6 to 12 months, will it be too late to recover? Although it is not marketing technology per se, an excellent example of this is Netflix versus Blockbuster. (Disclaimer: I worked for Netflix in 2004). Blockbuster was unable to see where technology was taking their market. When trends became obvious to all, it was too late for them to recover. They went from a market cap of about $5 billion in 2004 to filing for bankruptcy in 2010.
  • Any investment in marketing technology will have a rate of return. Will that return grow or shrink with time? For example, if competitors start using the technology and eroding the advantage it brings, the return will shrink with time. To maximize the return, the software should be bought and implemented as soon as possible.
  • Look at companies similar to yours in comparable situations, even if the technology in question is different. For example, have companies who avoided new marketing technology seen their market share slip? Is this an opportunity to seize a marketing advantage? If they are using an obsolete ERP system, has it reduced their growth?
  • Look at your history. In the past, have you suffered a disadvantage for “arriving late at the party”? This could suggest your team is not appreciating the urgency of new software decisions.

While a software need could be urgent but not important, or important but not urgent, the highest priorities are those needs that are both urgent and important.

Erik Nelson, an IT veteran, once said to me that all complicated prioritization schemes eventually come down to just two questions: Are you going to do it? If so, in what order should things be done?



Without constant checking, a company may be unaware of software needs driven by growth in technology, growth in external markets, or their own growth. There may be a lot more urgency than realized, but by the time the problem is reflected in annual results those companies are well behind the curve and playing catch-up.


This article was originally published on on April 25, 2016, and last updated in this blog on June 20, 2017.