Do something that scares you

Last week, I asked if we — our community of practice — is comfortable with the murky zone between corporate marketing and our technical societies. Lots of discussion ensued. On reflection, I was a little unclear about exactly whom I was picking on — corporate marketers (mostly) or technical societies. Today, I thought I'd dig deeper into the corporate marketing side a little, and think about what the future might look like. We can look at societies some other time. 

What marketing used to be

Marketing used to mean nothing less prosaic than buying and selling stuff. Since the post-war consumer revolution, it has gradually expanded in scope and today covers advertising, promotion, publicity, branding, and customer management.

Unfortunately, much of what comes out of marketing departments is spin. How else could it be? The marketers only have control over their own domain, they don't design or build or even use the products. They're 'only doing their job' — positioning their products in the market, obsessing about the competition, negotiating ad space, and tweaking their brand image. Beyond the simple transmission of information — a necessary service to the world — all this effort is aimed at making their products and services look better than they actually are. 

Recognizing brokenness

Some totally real readers of this blog. Let's start with some easy things: if your marketing people can't answer questions about your products and services, they don't care enough — replace them. If they write copy that contains the words 'innovative', 'breakthrough', or 'unleash' — replace them. If you ask them for 'something new' and get back stock photos with pictures of your software pasted over them — replace them.

The problem with all this — buying more ad space, building bigger booths, getting better seats at hockey games, and so on — is... well, there are lots:

  • We've seen it all before, it's boring. Is that your message?
  • Thanks to the Matthew effect, the biggest wallet will win. Is that you?
  • It's all about you, the brand, not them, your users and customers.
  • I don't trust you. You are biased. I trust my friends and colleagues. 

Walk the walk

Like losing weight, getting fit, or writing a novel, I'm afraid there's no easy way: you have to do the hard work. Stop looking for new ways to tell everyone you're the most awesome company with the most powerful software. Just be the most awesome company. Show don't tell. Build great software and services and, more importantly, do great things with them. Competitors can copy what you do, especially if they are Petrel (they will beat you every time), but not how you do it. Instead of trying to play tennis against Roger Federer, you might do better changing the game to The Settlers of Catan, or super-solar space spag (no, that game has not been invented yet). 

Here are some ideas for your next expo. These things should scare you. If not, find something that does.

  • Bring developers to talk to people and connect them with your users.
  • Show people your development process, your bug list, and your roadmap. 
  • Hold a clinic and help your users help each other do more awesome things.
  • Brainstorm new product ideas right there on the show floor. Have a developer prototype the best one each day.
  • Broadcast your ideas in front of your competitors. They will weep with fear because they know they lack your courage and audacity. They can copy algorithms, but they can't copy awesomeness
  • Watch people using your products. Let them teach you how they want to work.
  • Hold a contest to find The Power User. Can your best user beat your best consultant?
  • An iPad draw? Seriously? You just want my email address to spam me. I have an iPad.
  • Hide your sales and marketing people for a day and see what happens.

Above all, stop copying your competitors. They suck at marketing too. 

Advice for the rest of us

I know not everyone feels as strongly as I do, and some people seem happy with the status quo. But to everyone else, I have a challenge: Demand to be delighted.

Next time you are confronted with some sales and marketing cruft, dare to ask hard questions. Have high expectations. Refuse the stuffed toy — "What has this got to do with my work?". Laugh at the lame pen, don't stuff it in your pocket. Call out the sexist nonsense. And when you find a booth that's working hard to please the people that really matter, reward them with your attention.

If you're a marketer, what would you do if there was no risk of failure? If you're a victim of marketing, what would could should a service company do to delight you?