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? 

Scientists not prospects

If you've never worked on 'the dark side' — selling technical products and services — you may not think much about marketing. If you work for an energy company, and especially if you're a 'decision maker' (wait, don't we all make decisions?), you may not realize that it's all aimed at you. Every ad, every sponsored beer, every trade show booth and its cute bunnies. The marketers are the explorers, and you are the prospect.

My question is: are you OK with their exploration methods?

The cost of advertising

Marketing futurists have been saying for ages that interruption advertising is dead. Uncurated, highest-bidder, information-free ads, 'inserted' (that's what they call it) into otherwise interesting and useful 'content' do not work. Or at least, people can't agree on whether they work or not. And that means they don't. 

The price of print advertising does not reflect this, however. Quite the opposite. Here's what a year of premium full-page ads will cost you in three leading publications: 

Still not bad compared to Wired ($1.67 million). You start to understand why companies hire marketing people. Negotiating volume pricing and favourable placements is a big deal, think of the money you can save. What a shame ads bring nothing at all to our community. All that money — so little impact. Well, zero impact. 

Conferences are where it really gets serious. Everything has a price. Want to buy 250 gallons of filtrate, I mean 'sponsor a coffee break'? That will be $5000 but don't worry, you get a little folded card with your name on it (and some coffee stains). How about a booth in the exhibition? They are only $23 per sq ft (about $250/m2), so that big shiny booth? That'll be about $75,000. That's before you bring in carpet, drywall, theatrical lighting, displays, and an espresso machine.

No wonder one service company executive once told me: "It's not a waste of money. It's a colossal waste of money." He said they only went because people would talk if they didn't.

Welcome to the oil industry

Walking around the trade show at SEG the other week, we were not very surprised to be accosted by a troop of young women dressed in identical short, tight dresses, offering beer tickets. Where's the beer? At their booth, obviously, about half a kilometre away (Manhattan distance). Apparently the marketing department assumed that no-one in their right mind would visit their booth on the basis of their compelling products or their essential relationships with an engaged and enthusiastic user community. Come to think of it, they were probably correct.

One innovative company has invented time travel, but unfortunately only to 1975. At least, that's the easiest way to explain the shoeshine stand at Ovation's booth. You can imagine the marketing meeting: "Let's get some women in short skirts, and get them to shine people's shoes!" I expect someone said, "Wait, isn't this a technical conference for subsurface scientists, shouldn't we base our marketing strategy on delighting the industry with our unbeatable services?" — and after a moment's reflection, the raucous laughter confirming that yes, the sexy shoeshine stand was indeed an awesome idea.

Let's be clear: marketing, as practised in this industry, is a waste of money. And this latter kind of marketing — remarkable for all the wrong reasons — is an insult to our profession and our purpose. 

Are we cool with this?

Last year I asked whether we (our community of technical practitioners and scientists) are okay with burning 210 person-years of productivity at a major conference and having very little to show for it at the end. 

Today I'm asking a different question: are we okay with burning millions of dollars on glossy ads, carpeted booths, nasty coffee, and shoeshine stands? Is this an acceptable price for our attention? Is the signal:noise ratio high enough?

I am not sure where I'm going with all of this — I am still trying to figure out what I think about it all. But I know one thing: I can't stand it. I will not step into another exhibition. I am withdrawing my attention — which I suppose means that yours is now worth a tiny bit more. Or less.