Today I ordered a gold laptop. This is what I learned about marketing from the experience.
I agonised greatly over my decision. I looked at specs and I went and had a play. I read reviews and then agonised some more. Then two very astute women each gave me a piece of helpful advice:
'Get what is right for you now' and 'how it makes you feel matters - it'll help you do better work'.
In light of these words, I realised it wasn't processing speed or port holes that would tip the balance. It was what I envisioned each would allow me to do.
I want to write more and write better; I want to be more versatile and efficient; I want to be the Matrix version of myself.
Technology came second to how each made me feel. The gold one made me feel confident, fabulous and full of opportunity. The other made me feel functional, stylish and comfortable.
Today I ordered a gold laptop.
Technology is too cold
Either you completely relate to that story or think I'm totally barmy. It likely depends on what kind of technology you use, and the sales and marketing methods those brands use. All too often technology is sold as a cold, hard tool. A box that does things.
This has changed in recent years, led by Apple of course, but still, far too often, people don't feel very much at all about the technology they buy because they don't understand why technology would make them feel anything at all.
Technology doesn't evoke emotion. What technology allows people to do, however, does. That's why the secret to selling technology is not to talk about technology.
The gold-standard of marketing
People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole. - Theodore Levitt
This (much-quoted) Harvard Business School professor wasn't wrong, but he didn't quite finish the thought. People don't just want the hole for the sake of the hole. They want it to hang that poster they got from the Van Gough museum in Amsterdam. What the drill helps them achieve isn't the hole; it's the improvement of their home and the evocation of memory.
Of course, you're unlikely to see a drill advert with the strap line: 'power your way through to memories' or 'drilling you a better home'. That's ridiculous. But understanding not only what people want to do with your product, but also why, is the trick to identifying the story that will sell.
And this is an especially important point when you are marketing technology.
Not the same old story
"Here's what our product can do" and "Here's what you can do with our product" sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.— Jason Fried (@jasonfried) November 13, 2013
- Benefits sell; features don't
- Benefits build stories, which customers can relate to
- People like stories because we're wired to see our lives as a narrative
But the story that benefits build is usually too closely tied to the product itself, and not what it allows a person to do. Like the drill and the hole, that's too short-sighted. You have to think about what the benefits of your product enable people to do and why they want to do it.
Selling technology: what are we talking about here?
Lets get a bit more concrete with a real-world example. Let's look at Google. Their ad was named the top ad of 2011 by Time Magazine.
No mention of megabytes, speeds or feeds. No 'you can now embed YouTube videos direct into an email'. Just a dad being able to do what a dad couldn't very easily do before. And feeling like a better father for it.
The dad can document his daughter's life for both himself and for her in a way he couldn't do before. It doesn't matter that technology is enabling it.
Of course, the technology is there, but it's not talked about.
Don't sell what we can already do
Beware though. Consumers aren't just big saps, willing to accept any old emotional tale with technology in the shot and tinkly piano in the background. The story you tell with technology has to add something to a person's life. It has to let them do something that they want to do and, crucially, that they couldn't do before.
Facebook failed at this when it launched its TV adverts in 2015. Sam Richards put it best in the Guardian when he said:
...its first-ever series of TV ads seeks to remind us what friendship used to mean in those days before Facebook came along and turned everyone’s social life into a big online pissing contest...“They make us heroes in their stories, so we let their likes become our likes,” squeaks the equally twee voiceover, as if explaining the concept of friendship to a psychopathic alien (or indeed someone who’s spent too long on social media).
Thanks Facebook, but friendship happens perfectly well without you.
The secret to selling technology is to help people be a bit better than human
'People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves,' says Buffer's friends, User Onboarding. Marketing is an imaginative proposal of what we could be if we lived up to our ambitions for ourself.
We've talked a lot about consumer technology that's perhaps easier to sell that story around. But this idea of selling better versions of people is equally applicable to global de-dupe backup or EV SSL certificates. (This kind of technology product is our stock-in-trade at Articulate.)
You absolutely shouldn't be talking about the technology of these products: even if customers know enough to understand it, it won't make them feel like better versions of themselves.
But just talking about more efficient backup or secure websites isn't going to get anyone feeling anything about those products either.
More reliable backup that's cheaper and faster, and lets you restore your bosses email in the blink of an eye? Now that's something that's going to get you thinking. It'll make you look good to your boss and help you deliver a bit of that magic your colleagues expect IT to provide.
And building a better reputation with customers while smashing your sales targets with increased conversion rates? That's going to feel pretty good. Not to mention fighting the bad guys that are looking to prey on your customers through phishing sites and other nefarious means; that practically makes you an online selling superhero.
Keep it real
So you've surveyed and researched and talked to customers. You've thought about how your technology product helps them be a better version of themselves and why they want that enhancement. You're ready to tell that story.
Run it through what Brain Clark of Copyblogger calls the 'forehead slap test'. Ask yourself, have you ever woken up, slapped yourself on the head and said 'Man I need to....[insert your amazing idea here]' or 'Man I really wish I could...[insert human enhancing story here]'.
Be sure you don't end up like Facebook, selling what we can already do, or worse, inventing a hyped up benefit that no one actually wants or needs.
For example, selling information technology services
OK, so you're a managed service provider and you want to sell Office 365 to local finance businesses. What do you tell them about? Well, you might want to talk about all the latest, shiniest features of Excel or the joyous effect of the last Outlook update on your calendar design. But, none of this actually speaks to the potential buyer's needs.
Instead, you might want to say how having the capacity for multiple people to edit an Excel document in the browser at the same time provides opportunity for remote collaboration. Or, the benefits of Microsoft Teams and SharePoint for quick-fire communication, project management and resource sharing.
Remember: don't talk about technology and features, just let them be the support in your story. The protagonist is the customer, technology is the best friend that helps them get the job, win the girl (or boy!) and maybe even save the day.
(Hat tip to Marvel Studios for the images)
[This content was updated in February 2020]
See also: sales and marketing
Related service: Sales