What Did Users Do Before Your Software Came Along?

Here’s a simple question, often asked when designing software but more useful when you’re designing your marketing and sales pitch:

How are people doing this today without you?

Sounds obvious; I want to take it a step further, like this:

Ignoring most of your potential market, how are expert, power-users doing this today, without your software?

Here’s how this gets your marketing and software design off the ground.

Example and pattern

Photoshop is a great illustration of a product designed to this extreme. (A pun! So clever. What’s the HTML5 tag for sarcasm?) Photoshop was originally targeted at serious photographers — not people with point-and-click cameras and shake-to-develop film but the people with buckets of chemicals and blacked-out windows. (They’re either developing their own film or they’re serial killers. Or both.)

The photographer’s darkroom is crammed with specialised tools and nomenclature such as “burning” (whitening a portion of the image through intentional overexposure) and “dodging” (darkening a portion of the image by overexposing the negative). Photographers know what those things are; everyone else is in the dark. (Ohh more puns! When will it end?)

So if Photoshop were trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, they’d have tools like “Lighten” and “Darken.” But no, the original toolbar had “Dodge” and “Burn” and the icons for those was a piece of paper on the end of a stick, because that’s what you use in the darkroom. For a regular Joe Putzface like me, that makes Photoshop inscrutible. But it’s great for targeting those expert power users because they took what those users already did in an expensive darkroom and clearly transposed it to a computer.

But how does it move from the power-users to the rest of the market?

Here’s the outline of how this strategy unfolds:

  1. Start by targeting your potential power-users who are already neck-deep in your problem domain and ask: How are they doing this today?
  2. Build your product specifically for them, even if that means confusing and abusing everyone else.
  3. If your product really is good, they’ll give you money and tell other power-users (birds of a feather already forum and Twitter together).
  4. Also you can probably charge a lot, because niche tools are expensive.
  5. Over time, expand your offering to appeal to a wider audience. (e.g. a “Lite” version because “Light” apparently sounds too expensive?)
  6. Your power users are the mavens to whom non-power users look for advice, so they become your sales force.
  7. World domination! Or maybe just Free Pizza Fridays. Still!

I’d like to make the argument that this should be your marketing and sales strategy, regardless of whether you also accept it as your product strategy.

Launching Doggie Cards

Let’s make this concrete with a brand-new, modern startup.

I was talking to a woman who is trying to sell hand-made animal-themed greeting cards. (Hey, at least she’s focussed!) She has the talent but didn’t know where to find customers who would buy such a thing, especially since the cards are expensive.

So I used this technique and asked: “Who already sends animal-themed greeting cards?”

Pet owners probably do this occasionally, but not often, and “pet owners” is too large a group, too expensive to market to, at least at first. Hallmark is a tough competitor too, and Walgreens and CVS are difficult channels to enter.

What about veterinarians? Like many service-oriented vendors, they send holiday greeting cards and “time for a checkup” reminders, and they almost have to be animal-themed. But why would they spend more on a hand-made card?

That’s easy to answer if you’ve decided to nail this “perfect customer.” Here’s the pitch:

  1. You already spend money on holiday greeting cards to stay in your customers’ minds, but so do a dozen other companies. You’re lost in the shuffle.
  2. Imagine if your greeting cards were so obviously special, interesting, heartfelt, and funny, that your customers really noticed and perhaps even eagerly anticipated your cards? How much more attention would you get?
  3. Better still, you’ll end up on the fridge and a talking point at holiday parties, which means new potential customers!
  4. That’s exactly what we do — everyone appreciates the effort and specialness of a hand-made greeting card, and as you can see from these samples they’re exceptional.
  5. It’s only a little more expensive than Hallmark but 10 times more effective.
  6. Why not try a sample: Buy 10 cards (postage included!) for $99 and send to your best customers just to thank them and see what happens. Or send to 10 customers who haven’t visited in a while.

Are vets the biggest market for these cards? Maybe, maybe not, but this gets the ball rolling. Pet owners who like the cards will look on the back to see how to order some of their own, and suddenly you have a viral marketing campaign that cost you lots of initial legwork calling vets but not a lot of money.

Working the pain in B2B

Let’s do another example, this time in technical business software sales instead of fuzzy consumer sales.

At Smart Bear we make a tool that enables software developers to easily review changes before they’re shipped, just like an editor reviews a writer’s work before it’s published.

We were designing our first full-page magazine ad and we needed an eye-catcher at the top. To get there we again employed this technique: “What do developers do today for peer code review?”

For the vast majority, the answer is: “They don’t do code review!” Which means selling the tool is more evangelism than anything else, which is bad news. Years later we were successful in evangelizing the concept of peer review, but that took writing a book, 15 talks and conferences a year, and hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars. That’s fine someday, but that’s no place to start!

So we went back to the minority who were already reviewing their code, either because of regulation, contractual obligation, or because it happens to be something the CTO believes in. In these cases by far the most common type of review was this thing called a Fagan Inspection which has annoying components like four separate meetings and requiring you print out code. (Really! Because it’s so much easier to poke around code on 8.5 x 11 glossy than in an IDE!)

So combating meetings and print-outs was our hook (at top of this real full-page colour ad in Dr. Dobbs magazine):

A smart bear ad

Photo: A Smart Bear

Over the years we morphed away from this slogan as our addressable market increased and we became adept at selling people who hadn’t heard of a Fagan Inspection.

In fact I witnessed another interesting and unexpected effect. As general awareness of code review grew, new tools and processes appeared which gave developers better alternatives to the Fagan Inspection. So if we asked the question again, “What do developers do today for code review,” the answer shifted to other techniques. Our marketing and sales pitch shifted right along with it.

So evolving your marketing pitch isn’t only about slowly expanding the scope of your potential customer space but also reacting to changes in the market you’re already addressing.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander

A counter-argument to this idea of focussing on the potential customer with the greatest existing pain is that you might focus your marketing so tightly that your market is unnecessarily limited. You might even turn off potential customers being esoteric to excess.

Most of the time I’ve found the exact the opposite to be true: The marketing message that thrills the “perfect customer” works well on everyone else. That was certainly the case with the Smart Bear ad.

After all, even if you don’t do code review, you still probably hate things like meetings and paperwork. We found a lot of people said “Yeah, I tried code review a few times but it was awful.” In this case you’re marketing against anticipated pain instead of experienced pain, but the message is equally valid.

If you can’t hit the T-ball why are you trying out for the majors?

It’s tempting to launch your startup with the widest marketing messages addressing the largest segment of the market. After all, you don’t know exactly what message, product, and customer profile will end up being best, so you can’t close any doors. Better to try lots of things and test, test, test!

But a wide net catches few fish. Wide nets contain generic statements which thrill no one.

I say if you can’t identify and sell someone who is already experiencing the pain you address and already paying money to do something about it — your perfect customer — how in the world do you expect to sell anyone else?

If you can’t convince them your product is better, maybe your product isn’t better.

What’s your perfect customer like, and how could you market directly to them? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments.

Want to work with me on a startup? Details here.

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