Marketing is not a Post-Processing Step

In many small ISVs, including SourceGear, the founder has a technical background with little or no marketing experience.  This kind of company tends to become very programmer-centric.  We coders think of ourselves as the center of the universe.  Everything else is secondary to the code.  The code is king.  The code is the only thing we actually sell.  If we had to get rid of everything else, the code would be enough.  If we are honest enough to admit it, even true developers have these evil thoughts from time to time.  That's okay.  Most lies have a tiny grain of truth buried inside anyway.  :-) 

Our code-centric perspective makes it is easier to believe the common misconception that marketing begins when coding ends.  Good marketing just doesn't work this way.  Marketing is not a post-processing step.

Like many other things, marketing is somewhat like an iceberg.  The part sticking out of the water is highly visible.  It's easy to not realize that much of the iceberg is hidden from our view.  When we see great beer commercials on TV during the Super Bowl, we think that's marketing.  And it is. 

But there is more.  You really should start thinking about marketing as soon as you start thinking about requirements, architecture or design.  To understand why, bear with me for a few minutes of marketing mumbo-jumbo as we talk about "positioning".

Positioning

The basic idea of positioning is that your product occupies a place in the mind of the people in your target market.  You are defined by their perceptions of you. 

Let's try to explain this by using an example:  Windows XP has a position which I would describe like this:

The most popular operating system for desktop PCs

The first thing to notice is that when you describe a position, the first word is usually "the", a definite article.  Only one product can occupy a given position in the mind of the market. 

Describing a position has three important parts:

  • First, describing a position almost always includes a superlative of some kind.  In this case, the superlative is "most popular", but I could have said "number one".  Often people can remember only the first and best thing in a category.  Being number 6 in your market segment is probably not a position at all.

  • Second, a position will describe what label the market places on your product.  In this case, the label is "operating system", which fits just fine.  If there is no label which fits your product, you have a big problem.  If the market cannot compare your product to something else, then you don't have a position.

  • Third, the position will have qualifiers which define exactly what group of people have this perspective of a product.  In our example, the market segment is "for desktop PCs".  This position doesn't say anything about operating systems for enterprise servers or mobile phones.

Another view of positioning is to ask in which market segment you want to be known as number one.  You want to be known as the best of your breed, even if you need several qualifiers to constrain the scope of your claim.  Don't think about being fifth place in a large market.  Instead, be number one in a smaller market.  Apple's Macintosh is a distant number two in desktop computer platforms, but they are number one among graphic designers.

Radio stations understand positioning very well.  Obviously most small ISVs do not buy radio advertising time, but if you did, you would discover that every radio station claims to be number one in their local market.  :-)  One of them is the number one station for males 45 and up.  Another station is number one with secretaries who listen at work.  Another is the top radio station for classic rock.

"Some of these rules can be bent.  Others can be broken."

I can already hear somebody saying, "But I can't be number one in any market.  Isn't it okay to position my product as number two?"  Yes, sort of.

Marketing isn't like coding.  Programmers tend to see everything in black and white terms.  After all, a bit is either 1 or 0.  But marketing can involve a lot of grey areas.  The so-called "rules of marketing" can often be altered if you have enough creativity and cash.

Yes, strictly speaking, it is possible to have a position as number two.  Avis did it very well with their slogan "We're number two -- we try harder".  Most people know that Pepsi is the #2 cola.

Similarly, a product can occasionally succeed even though the market doesn't know how to label it.  When Hypercard first came out, everybody kept telling me how cool it was, even though nobody could actually tell me what it was.

But small ISVs probably don't have the marketing budget necessary to create groundbreaking campaigns which rewrite conventional wisdom.  Stick with the fundamentals.

What position do we have right now?

For established products and companies, there is often a difference between the position you want and the position you already have.  Many press releases start out with something like "XYZ Corporation, the leading provider of blah blah blah, ...".  Press releases and corporate websites often communicate the position that somebody wants, not necessarily the position they actually have.

If you already have a position, the first thing to do is understand it.  Whether you like it or not, this is your starting point.  In some cases your current position will make it much more difficult to get the position you want.  If you start proclaiming your new position, the market will get confused and resist, because their perceptions of you are already set:

  • I once saw a successful mid-sized accounting firm try to expand into strategic consulting.  The market resisted their attempt to change positions, saying things like "You're an accountant.  I don't understand why you would want to offer strategic advice?"

  • Here in the midwest we've got a chain of video rental stores called Family Video.  I get the impression they are reasonably successful.  But for some reason they are now trying to become an ISP.  I don't see how this is going to work out.

  • Even Michael Dell can't seem to leave well enough alone.  Dell's position as a top-notch PC vendor is quite solid, but they recently decided to change their name from Dell Computer to just Dell, reflecting their desire to be known as a "diverse supplier of technology products and services".  This will be an uphill battle.

Another problem is companies that seem to be living in denial.  They have a solid position in the mind of the market, but they keep trying to tell us their position is something else.  Consider the following example:  What is the leading software application for editing photos?  Obviously the answer is Photoshop, right?  (I don't have any idea who number two is.)

Now, what market position does Jasc Paint Shop Pro occupy?  I think of this app as "the number one low end photo editing software".  It's a great product.  For $99, I get all the functionality that I care about.  I think most other people think of them this way too.  This is their position.

And yet, their website doesn't proclaim the position we all know them to have.  It describes Paint Shop Pro as "The Most Complete Photo and Graphics Editor".  Look again -- does that really say "Most complete"?  Surely not.  Obviously PhotoShop is the most complete, right?

Jasc's website makes me wonder.  Do they actually not understand the position their product already has?  Or do they just not like it?  Paint Shop Pro is an outstanding app, but it's chances of taking Photoshop's position are about the same as my chances of running a four-minute mile.  Why not celebrate and affirm the solid position they've already got?  Maybe they should toss that tagline and replace it with "80% of Photoshop at 20% of the price". 

What position do we want to have? 

How do you want the world to think of your product?  Identify the three parts of a position:  superlative, label, and qualifiers.

Superlative ("why choose this product")

For what attribute do you want your product to be known?  There are actually plenty of choices here besides just claiming to "the best" or "the number one".  You can choose a superlative which says something more specific.  Perhaps you want your product to be known as "the fastest" or "the easiest".  For example, Fog Creek appears to be positioning CityDesk as "the easiest content management tool".

Label ("what is this product")

The important thing here is to choose a position which actually exists in the mind of the people in your target market segment.  If you have to invent an entirely new category for your product, then you have chosen a position which doesn't really exist.  VA Software describes their product SourceForge as "the leading Development Intelligence application".  I don't think I've ever heard of that category of application before.  I can't find anybody else that describes their product with that label.  As far as I can tell, VA is trying to claim a position which doesn't actually exist.  If I had asked you to name the number one Development Intelligence application, what would you have said?

Qualifiers ("who should choose this product")

The common mistake here is to avoid using qualifiers, as if their omission will magically increase market share.  You need to get specific about who you want to reach with your product.  You can describe your market segment by budget, platform, geography, specific feature need, etc.  There are lots of qualifiers available.  Don't be afraid to use them.

Is this position already occupied?

Most of the time, if a position exists, it is occupied.  When somebody else already holds the position you want, then have two choices:

  1. Evict the competitor
  2. Find another position

Make this decisioncarefully.  It's fun and inspiring to cast a vision with Big Hairy Audacious Goals, but realism can be fun too.  For example, if you decide your desired position is to be "the number one IDE for Windows programmers", I humbly suggest you might consider finding a different position.  Even with a billion dollars of VC money you probably couldn't take this position away from Microsoft Visual Studio.

Sometimes you can win a small position by carving a small chunk out of a larger one.  You can't beat Visual Studio for the whole Windows developer market, but you might be able to beat them for a small, specialized subset of those developers.  Use more qualifiers.

What features should a product in this position have?

This question brings us back to the point of this article.  The reason marketing is not a post-processing step is that you have to design your product to fit the market position you want it to have.  If your product doesn't have the features and attributes that are expected, then you probably can't get it established in that position.

For example:  One of the other source control vendors that I respect is Perforce.  They position their product as "the fast software configuration management system".  They could not credibly succeed in this position unless their product were, er, fast.  :-)

SourceGear Vault (our version control product) is positioned to be the replacement for Visual SourceSafe.  We chose this position from the very beginning and we selected features accordingly.  People hate switching version control tools, so we designed Vault to make the transition as painless as possible.  We have a SourceSafe import tool.  We support every feature supported by SourceSafe, usually with the same terminology.  SourceSafe supports Share, so Vault supports Share.

We describe Vault as a "compelling replacement for Visual SourceSafe".  This position would be very hard to get if we had not designed and planned for it since the first day.

Bottom Line

Marketing is not just telling the world about your product.  Marketing is also deciding what product to build.  You have to design and build your product to fit the market position you want it to have.

This discussion of positioning is certainly not a complete treatment of the topic.  If you want to read more, check out Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout.  It's an excellent read and is considered one of the classics of marketing.