Industry Trends

To be or not to be (advertising)

I promised our Twitter-feed readers that I was going to have this post up by Monday at the latest. So now I get to start my post on advertising apologizing for a bit of false-advertising! This post is late because I have a cynic’s eye and know when something sounds like a big pile of marketing spin. I re-wrote it a few times, but sometimes reality sounds like spin. All I can say is that I pride myself on being a straight shooter and I promise you that everything here is true.

That was then…

ServInt didn’t advertise at all from 2001 to 2008. We didn’t do any marketing, period. No banner ads, no tradeshows, no flyers, nothing. Unless you count having a website and business cards, we maintained no marketing budget. I would often speak with ad reps soliciting our business. The conversation would go something like this:

Them: “Where do you advertise?”
Me: “Nowhere.”
Them: “What do you mean nowhere? How do you get your clients?”
Me: “Our reputation, and from the strength of customer referrals. We’re growing as fast as we want to be growing on that alone.”
Them: “That’s crazy! What do you mean, ‘as fast as you want to be growing’? We could send you a lot more business.”
Me: “I’m sure you could, but we have our goals and we’re meeting them. Thanks!”
Them: “Are you sure there isn’t somebody else there I could speak with? I am sure you are misinformed.”

Very few people understood. Most people thought I was making excuses, and that I just didn’t want to advertise with them and I was giving them the brushoff.

We weren’t advertising because we believed in two important things:

  1. Investing in service and support would bring the customers. The word would spread.
  2. Services-based companies who went after and achieved HUGE growth ended up sucking.
    Quickly.
    And many who got HUGE then failed, or at least lost their identity and purpose.
    Quickly.

Remember that ServInt has been hosting for over 14 years! We learned a lot of lessons from the dot-com crash. Before that, we were spending TONS on advertising. ServInt had double-decker booths at tradeshows, and even ads in the D.C. Metro system! When the bottom fell out of the industry and everybody’s wallet went empty, the advertising went away. Times were tight and we realized that it wasn’t our advertising that was going to save ServInt – it was our dedicated customers who loved our service and support team, and wanted to keep spreading the word.

ServInt survived and even thrived without advertising, and our dedicated customers evangelized our company and helped us grow. So everything we did next was completely focused on them. That meant investing in product, not hype. That also meant growing according to a set of internal metrics that made sure our clients’ support needs and our facilities, infrastructure and network kept up. It meant growing using available funds, and not taking on debt or selling off parts of the company and losing control. ServInt could have gotten HUGE, but we saw too many companies in our space get HUGE and immediately start to suck. So we avoided HUGE, and got big slowly instead.

This is now…

In April of 2009 we started advertising again – just a bit. I wanted to post here and explain the reason for it. We still believe that the best way to grow is to invest in service and support, and we still believe that unrestrained growth is the quickest death-knell for a company in our industry. So why now?

As expected, it all goes back to the state of the current world economy – but not in the way you might think.

I noticed early this year that some of our top ‘old school’ referrers hadn’t been around lately – they weren’t posting in our forums or about us in others. I noticed that there had been very little chatter about ServInt on popular hosting blogs like WebHostingTalk.com. I contacted a few old customers and asked them what they were up to, and I got a similar answer almost every time.

In this economy, it’s tougher all around. People need to focus more on what’s broken, and can’t waste time on what’s not. I heard from quite a few people that they just can’t focus their attention on their hosting – and go post on hosting chat boards or contribute in our forums – because they have real problems to deal with in other areas of their lives. Many of our biggest cheerleaders are guys who posted regularly on message boards before finding ServInt, asking questions and posting problems. After moving to ServInt things started getting easier but they were in the habit of posting, so they’d post about us – which we loved! But now those individuals have turned to dealing with other areas in their lives – ones where they still have problems and questions. They have gotten out of the habit of posting. To some extent, that means we’ve been accomplishing our goals, so we can’t be too upset about it.

(NOTE: We know many clients ARE still spreading the word about us, and our affiliate program is as active as ever. This is appreciated! This anecdote isn’t about everybody – just about the specific group of top referrers I spoke with, which illuminated a trend to watch in this economy.)

Beyond that, there is one more reason. ServInt laid a lot of groundwork in 2008 to be able to scale up a bit quicker than normal in 2009. It takes a lot of work to grow while making sure that every step along the way you are staying true to your corporate goals. Ours is to offer a support team that helps every customer prosper on an infrastructure that leads the industry. Right now we’re able to provide that to new customers, so spreading the message with a bit of advertising can’t hurt.

We’re still not advertising MUCH – just trying out some things in a few places (like WebHostingTalk.com for instance). But I am confident that it’s the right time to do it. Perhaps we can help out a lot more customers who can then go on to worry about other parts of their lives and relax about their hosting. What we WON’T do is return to the days of double-decker tradeshow booth. That is ServInt’s distant past, not it’s future. The future continues to be focusing on offering top-notch infrastructure and the best support in the business, hoping that happy clients will help spread the word.

Also part of that future – a little advertising!

Photo by Boris Lechaftois

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