Contrary to popular belief, the better the product is, the harder it usually is to sell. The best products tend to be the innovative, breakthrough products – and the marketplace rarely beats a path to their door.
Why? Because innovative, breakthrough, high-tech products make most people uncomfortable.
That’s why they are called discontinuous or disruptive innovations.
There are invariably problems with:
- communicating the benefits,
- getting people to believe the claims,
- getting people to do things a new way,
- satisfying the vested interests,
- overcoming natural inertia,
- overcoming people’s discomfort with initial trial,
- supporting their initial learning curve,
- helping them “sell” their colleagues, etc.
New products increase people’s uncertainty, make them uncomfortable and increase their feelings of insecurity.
That’s why marketers seriously overestimate market share and underestimate the time that it will take to get there.
One VERY successful Marketing VP once advised, “Give them a number and give them a date. But never, ever in the same document.”
Yet, it is possible to dramatically reduce the time it takes for new products to be adopted. This is especially true for technical, high-tech, innovative, breakthrough products, where the decisions tend to be more deliberative and less impulsive than many consumer packaged goods decisions.
(For verbal convenience, I’ll call these high-tech products, but I’m including here technical, medical, business-to-business, marketing automation, agricultural, chemical, financial and similar products and services.) The following product acceleration methods do not apply as well to consumer packaged goods, particularly those that involve personal taste and depend heavily on product image.
But if you’re selling “high-tech products,” I sincerely believe that the ideas that you are about to read can make the difference between failure and wild, run-away success.
The key to accelerating product adoption
You’re trying to get your product adopted in the marketplace, fast. Obviously, that means that you are trying to get people to evaluate, choose, try, buy, implement and use your product. This means that you are trying to influence their decision process. The decision process is central to product acceptance and product success, yet it is almost totally neglected.
When you reduce the time it takes for customers to decide on your product and make it significantly less than your competition, you will dominate your marketplace.
You shorten the decision time by making your product the easier one to decide on. It thus often becomes the best choice, because it saves the customer’s decision time. It therefore accrues customers faster, building market share faster, beating the competition.
This is the best kept secret in marketing. You won’t find it in the marketing literature, and the marketers who know about it use it as a closely guarded competitive edge. It explains virtually every marketing success and failure in the last 20 years.
In case you missed it, let me repeat as succinctly as I know how: Make your product the easiest one to decide on. This does wonders for your career and your net worth.
High-tech is different from marketing consumer packaged goods
Marketing high-tech products is profoundly different from mass marketing consumer packaged-goods products. Yet many marketers of high-tech products attempt to use the same mass-marketing methods as they use for low-tech consumer products. It doesn’t work.
Without going into an extensive analysis of the differences, let me remind you of some of them so we can put aside consumer packaged-goods mass-marketing thinking.
In mass marketing, there is a great emphasis on product image, glitz, hype and attention-getting antics. Successful high-tech marketers avoid glitz; their attention is turned toward content which promises to further their customer’s goals.
There are more people involved, particularly in technical decisions. The marketer who helps coordinate communication and gives each of the different kinds of decision maker exactly what they need will be the winner.
More importantly, consumer mass marketing takes a farming (or mining) rather than a manufacturing approach: A farmer sows a massive amount of seeds. Only a small percentage germinate. He is working on small percentages, because seeds are relatively cheap, and throwing in twice as many doesn’t cost anything more in labor, so putting in way more than you need is the best way to cope with uncertainties. In other words, farming can tolerate extreme inefficiencies. Same with mining: massive tons of ore sifted into grains of precious metal or gems.
A manufacturer, on the other hand, can’t afford to have most of his products break down during assembly, or not work at the end of assembly. His costs of materials and labor are relatively high, so quality control is the best way of coping with uncertainties. In other words, his process must be efficient. And customer dissatisfaction with breakdowns are intolerable.
What does this have to do with marketing? Mass marketing can afford to work inefficiently, on small percentages. That’s why it’s mass marketing: it reaches out into mass media to find tiny amounts numbers of responders. In this world, 1-2% response to a mailing or TV commercial can be astronomical and extremely profitable. Small percentages of coupon redemptions can double sales.
Targeted, niche and one-to-one marketing – the kind that are necessary for breakthrough marketing – cannot afford to “play the percentages.” It must be efficient.
Consumer mass marketing is more fault-tolerant than high-tech marketing.
In a world where sales calls cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, where there may be only a few thousand people who will initially buy the product, or where once a customer buys from your competitor he is virtually locked in (a word processor, for instance), you can’t afford to squander leads, fail to convert triers, or alienate customers. This is a more tight-knit world in which losing one lead, prospect, trier, trainee or new adopter can cost you hundreds of customers through negative word of mouth. Every marketing element must do its job or the whole chain breaks at its weakest link.
That’s why Microsoft has more people on the phone aiding customers than it has programmers!
You have to lower the decision investment
This brings us to the most important point: the investment in effort and time of the decision process is low for most consumer products, especially “packaged goods” products. For the most part, the information is easy to understand, the products are easy to try, and the risks are low.
For instance, if you are selling shampoo, it’s easy to get people to try your product: You can give them a free sample, or have them buy a trial size. How far wrong can they go? Of course, the other side of that is that there is little customer loyalty, and shampoos tend to be among the most switched consumer products.
The decision investment is higher with consumer decisions such as a car or a house. Considerably more time is spent, the information is much more confusing, and the risks are much higher.
For innovative products, the decision investment is even higher: Often, the whole product category is new. People have to learn about much more, in an unfamiliar area. They don’t understand or know how to evaluate the significance of much of the information. Often, many people with conflicting interests are involved in the decision.
So, there is much more to go wrong in a situation where everything has to go right!
Marketing high-tech, innovative and/or breakthrough products demands that every element of the marketing program (ads, sales calls, informational material, web sites, demos, customer services, etc.) all work together well, in a cohesive system synchronized with the customer decision process, or you will lose the customer. The first few customers, the innovators, are willing to – and may even enjoy – working through confusing, poorly sequenced materials. But the next tier, the early adopters, won’t.
High-tech, business decision makers want to get the job done. They don’t want to shop or browse. They are usually engaging in a purposeful search and have little patience for irrelevancies. They want to make fast decisions, even though they may look like they are “taking their time.” What they are actually doing is taking the time necessary to clarify a confusing situation and reduce their risks. But for every activity, they have many, many more that are awaiting action. The marketer who saves them decision time by giving them what they need, when they need it, from the sources they need it from, in the right sequence, will usually win their business.
How to reduce decision time
Now we’re ready to look at how to accelerate the product adoption cycle. Simply put, the key is to expedite the customer decision cycle:
- Identify the key group of decision makers: their mind sets, functions and criteria.
- Identify and define their natural decision paths.
- Identify the things that slow the process.
- Find new routes and strategies to speed up each step of the decisions.
- Synchronize your marketing strategy and executions to match these more expedient paths.
- Implement the strategies.
- Monitor, measure and make mid-course corrections.
Let me go into a little more detail:
As I stated above, if you are trying to accelerate the acceptance of your product in the marketplace, you are trying to influence people to make favorable decisions, faster. It’s all about influencing the decision process.
So, forget everything you learned in marketing school and find out everything about the decision process of your customers.
1. Identify the key decision makers: their mind sets, functions and criteria.
Find out the titles and functions of the people who make the decisions, what their roles are, where they are “coming from” and what criteria they are using.
2. Identify and define their natural decision paths
Use decision research to identify the natural routes and paths that people will take in making decisions about your products. In other words, what steps will they take when left to their own devices? Here is only a partial list of some of the things you need to research.
- What gets them interested?
- What gets them involved in the decision process, now, instead of waiting?
- How do they get their information?
- What information are they looking for, what do they consider most relevant?
- As they gather this information, by what criteria will they judge it?
- What will they accept as proof?
- What kind of risk reduction, trial and reassurance do they want?
- As they try, how will they determine success?
- How will they inform others and try to convince them?
- How will they roll out their usage from trial to adoption?
- How will they move to full commitment?
You also need to know how the paths differ for the different kinds of people in the decision team, particularly the differences in the criteria, and what kind of proof they are looking for.
3. Identify the things that slow the process.
Now that you know what will happen without your intervention, figure out through decision research what is slowing the process. You need to identify the places they are likely to bog down along the route. You need to know the obstacles, gaps, rough spots, blind alleys, detours and the places where they are likely to get lost along the way to a final decision.
Where are people hesitating, becoming indecisive, floundering? The process is breaking down somewhere or you would have captured the entire market. Maybe there is no compelling reason to read your material. Maybe there is no compelling offer. Maybe it’s too hard to compare your product with the competition. Maybe the trial isn’t simple or risk-reduced enough. Maybe the boss is telling people to wait until next year. Maybe the learning curve is too steep. Maybe the word of mouth is going against you. There are at least 32 major bottlenecks that tend to slow down the decision process, and hundreds of minor ones that can add up to indecision.
4. Find new routes and strategies to speed up each step of the decisions.
Now that you know the natural pathways and the obstacles, you need to develop – again through decision research and persuasion design – ways of expediting the decision process for the customer.
Then, you need to identify, develop and invent ways to help them navigate: give them a map and guidance to help them find smoother roads, shortcuts and services that help them go faster, yet more safely, than their uninformed exploration would have taken them. Give them the right information, in the right order, from the right sources. Give them ways to confirm and verify the information. Reduce their risk.
Customers are uninformed, but far from stupid. Left to their own devices, they will go down all sorts of blind alleys, get distracted by irrelevancies, and believe all sorts of misinformation. As long as you are well-informed and not fooling yourself about your – and your competitions’ – products, you can identify one or more efficient decision routes that the customer would gladly take, if only they were shown the way. If you function as a guide – instead of a pushy marketer – the customer will appreciate the help and treat you as a welcome friend. They will welcome your material, attend your seminars, watch your video tapes, access your web site, and embrace your information.
But as soon as something gets out of sequence, or comes from the wrong source (certain things have to come from you, other things from independent experts), or isn’t at the right level, or doesn’t have the right tone, the person jumps over to another activity. The person changes channels, flips the page, stops reading the brochure, or jumps to another web site.
If you can think back to – or imagine – one of those rare times when you bought a complicated product quickly, you know what I’m talking about. You felt very comfortable and satisfied almost immediately. It was effortless, with no resistance. You were grateful to the person who assisted you. That’s how you can make your customers feel.
No one wants to flounder in a sea of uncertainty or drown in an ocean of information. No one wants to sail a ship down a river of uncertain depth, or fly blindly in the clouds. They want help in navigating. That’s your job, and a gratifying one it can be.
5. Synchronize your marketing strategy and executions to match these more expedient paths.
At this point, you have several strategies for the different kinds of people in your marketplace. You know the kinds of things that will capture their attention, spark their interest, inform them, help them evaluate and try, and help them roll out to full use.
Now that you have figured out the most efficient paths, you need to synchronize the elements of your marketing (ads, brochures, sales calls, web site, trials, training, customer service, etc.) to coincide with the new, more efficient decision routes you have laid out. Create the marketing elements that will lead your customers down the right decision path.
Here is where “creativity” can be your greatest ally or most destructive foe. The right kind of creativity can dramatize the right benefits for the customer, make learning the information fun and ease the uncertainties. But all too often, the side show takes over the circus. The various agencies can get caught up in their own creative ideas and try to force fit them into the strategy. A “dull” promise that will energize the customer is way better than a clever play on words that leaves the customer cold.
This is where the process is most likely to break down: after you have done the initial decision research, obstacle identification and development of new decision strategies, it’s easy to get unfocused. Here is where you need to play guardian of the customer decision process to make sure that every marketing element stays on track and complements each other. You have to ruthlessly ask: what is this marketing element trying to accomplish, is this the best way to accomplish it, what are the specific outcomes, and how will I know it is working?
6. Implement the strategies.
Put everything into effect. Test market, when possible. Do small mailings, take small ads, etc. and measure by the number of responses. Try alternatives, when possible. Have people go through your web site while on one of my telephone focus groups. Get feedback every way possible. Conduct simple, inexpensive tests that are indicative rather than conclusive. You will usually do more damage waiting for conclusive answers than in trying something on a limited basis that is slightly, or even very much, off base.
Keep asking people what they like and don’t like, and why. Pay more attention to your successes while trying to understand the failures. People tend to research their failures because they don’t understand why something so wonderful could have gone wrong. But they think they understand why the wonderful things were successful. You will find that things are often, even usually, successful for reasons other than the obvious.
7. Monitor, measure and make mid-course corrections.
Test, refine and make mid-course corrections to make it easier and easier for the customer to decide on your products, faster. Keep in mind the original objective: you want to make the decision so easy that it is a “no-brainer” for the customer.
The keys to making insecurity, inertia and skepticism work in your favor
Your competitors, trade publications, and other information sources are flooding the customer with information. But usually, the more information the customer gets, the more indecisive he is. The customer has a bad case of information overload compounded with analysis paralysis.
This is a wonderful opportunity for you. You can come in and reassure the customer by figuring out what is intimidating and saving the customer from it. So, for instance, America Online, Netcom’s Netcruiser, Internet-in-a-box, and similar programs make it easy to get over the intimidation of getting on the Internet. All the person has to do is put a disk in their computers and the program does the rest: it logs on, sets up an account, gives simple directions, presents buttons to push to explore, etc.
Contrast this with the three hours that it took a sophisticated computer reporter to use MCI’s Internet software to get it running and set up an account!
The broader lesson here is to go through the decision process and see where people are uncomfortable, insecure, hesitant, skeptical, etc. and eliminate every possible step in the decision process. For the steps remaining, eliminate as much effort as possible, remembering that thinking is the hardest effort of all. Your prospects either don’t have time to think much or they don’t know how to think about your product. Do their thinking for them. Arrange your materials and events so that the whole process is effortless for them.
Direct mail marketers discovered decades ago that every little action that you require of the customer can cut down the response significantly. So, licking a stamp, writing a signature, filling out a form, putting something in a reply envelope, all significantly cut response. That’s why pre-printed business reply cards were invented. That’s why all those cards fall out of your magazines: making someone rip it out cuts the likelihood of response, so you bind in some that can’t fall out for waiting rooms and the like, but most of your subscriptions will come from someone picking up the card from the floor and saying, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to subscribe. As long as it’s already in my hand…”
The principle here is that every interface cuts down the probability of a response, and every required action on that interface further cuts down response.
Most high-tech marketers make the customer work very hard, much harder than the above magazine examples. They make customers wade through arcane ads and web sites. Sometimes it’s even hard to know what they are selling. They then hit the customer with a ton of badly organized, unsequenced materials and leave it up to the customer to navigate the information. They then offer some kind of a trial (sometimes the trial is even missing!) without guiding the customer through the trial. There is no, “How to try this product most effectively.” People are not told what to look for, how to know that the trial was successful. They are not taught how to convince their colleagues and how to roll out usage. They don’t encourage satisfied customers to engage in word of mouth.
How to make your offer absolutely compelling
Make people an irresistible but believable promise, something that they are dying to have, if only it required no effort and entailed no risk. Make it obvious that the decision (including implementation) is easy and fun. Prove it, verify it, confirm it. Give people an easy, risk-free trial, keeping in mind that most of the risks are psychological (lost time, feeling foolish, fear of failure), not monetary. Make it easier for people to buy than not buy. Help people “sell” the other decision makers on their team. Help in the roll out. Make the learning curve effortless and fun. Give people opportunities to proselytize.
Let your competitors focus on getting the customer to buy their products. Instead, try focusing on helping your customer decide how to solve a problem or meet a need or satisfy a desire through the use of your product.
Remember: The product decision is much too important to leave up to your customer.
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