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Computing Thoughts
Old vs. New Marketing
by Bruce Eckel
April 23, 2007
Old: Seller pays. New: Buyer pays.


I'm not really sure what marketing means. Neither is the Wikipedia: "Marketing is one of the terms in academia that does not have one commonly agreed upon definition. Even after a better part of a century the debate continues. In a nutshell it consists of the social and managerial processes by which products, services and value are exchanged in order to fulfill individual's or group's needs and wants."

However, I think I know what marketing does: presents the customer with things they might want.

Currently, customers spend a lot of time sorting through conflicting information to try to figure out what they want. In the past, these sources of information have been restricted to something tolerably small by things like the cost of printing presses and the weight of paper. And if information flow became too great, those costs became a throttle. Without enough readers, your newspaper or magazine becomes too expensive to publish. This automatically narrowed the selection to a manageable number of publications, for some definition of "manageable."

Now, we think nothing of using our publishing machine -- the Web -- to publish to two people. There's an exponential explosion of information (for some definition of "information") on the web, with no throttle.

Sorting through the conflicting information has always been hard, but at least we've had limited conflicting information, so we could pretend that it was a workable system even if we did get fooled a lot (and because this worked, a lot of marketing, or at least advertising, became "fooling people into using a product that we know in our hearts to be inferior").

Now that we have unlimited conflicting information, we can no longer pretend that the system works, because we definitely don't have unlimited time to absorb all this information.

And the process has always been suboptimal, because every time you make a mistake in choosing a product, it costs you time and money -- even if the product itself costs no money. If you need to get something done, which of these costs less: the open-source product that's free, or the product that costs a little but that your friends have used and told you that it works well? I have learned that it costs a lot to explore all the different available products, compared to having someone make the choices for you.

The MacBook has been an example of this for me. Instead of getting a box full of parts and a hammer, the Macbook arrived ready to go. In general, the choices had all been made for me by someone who did a pretty good job. After only owning it for a few days I had decided that instead of taking two notebooks to Russia, I'd just take the MacBook, and I wasn't sorry. (I'll write more about OSes in a separate article). It was worth paying to have someone trusted make those decisions for me.

Unfortunately, trusted sources can come and go, and they often have conflicting interests. Magazines and book publishers can start out as trusted sources, and then something happens -- usually it comes down to pressures from shareholders who are only interested in quarterly profits -- and that trust gets sold for short term gains. I got fooled a couple of times over the years into buying the "best" product as pitched by PC Magazine, until I finally came to the conclusion that the "best" was whoever bought the biggest ads that month. Consumer Reports takes no ads (and is a nonprofit organization, thus avoiding the shareholder problem) because they know that advertising would ultimately compromise their integrity.

There's my own situation since I've been consulting with Adobe to help people learn about Flex. Long before this consulting arrangement, I looked at a lot of different solutions to the user-interface problem (with or without the Web), and eventually came to my own conclusion that Flex looks like it could solve most or all of my problems. But I avoided it until the essential tools became free -- not because I wasn't willing to pay for them but because I find it hard to convince people who just want to experiment with a product to shell out a lot on faith. I've had very good success with Flex and I intend to use it more. So I honestly believe in it, and I would not have started consulting with Adobe's Flex group otherwise. In general, though, I'm trying to teach you how to come to your own conclusion, because the best marketing is useful information.

For the JavaPosse Roundup, O'Reilly Publishing sent swag in a box marked "chocolate" and I was Less Than Amused to discover that it contained instead T-shirts and a bunch of little books called "Tim O'Reilly in a Nutshell" (the leftovers ended up in Russia as gifts). Much of this article was inspired by some of the essays in that book. Here's an especially insightful paragraph (p. 88):

It was at this time that we stumbled on an incredibly powerful approach to marketing. We had recently hired Brian Erwin, the former director of activism for the Sierra Club, to head our PR efforts. Brian helped us to realize that we shouldn't be promoting our products. He showed us how much more powerful it was to talk about the technologies themselves, the possibilities that they might unleash, or the threats to the future that we might encounter. He reminded us that in marketing, as well as in product development, the best way to have an impact was to be useful.

Don't promote. Be useful.

Your problem as a customer isn't just sifting through information and choosing a product. There is already too much information, so you must figure out who your trusted sources are, and your task becomes sifting through trusted sources. As information explodes, we need multiple levels of trusted sources, to the point where we are sifting through sources who sift through sources. Companies require CIOs and technical staff to perform analyses and make buying decisions.

This information explosion makes something we already know even more obvious: word-of-mouth is the most powerful tool. When you need to buy something, your first hope is that one of your friends has done the research and can tell you what to buy. One of the reasons I like going to Costco is that they've typically found the best product, and they only sell that, so I don't have to "shop." If my friends or Costco have done the research, I have very little buying hesitation.

Of course, traditional marketing and advertising looks at this and says "how can we game word-of-mouth? How can we trick people into giving our product good word of mouth?" And this is totally understandable -- it's what we do as tool-using humans; go around and see how our tools can be applied. In this case, however, the system backfires quickly on a bad product. If the goal is to get people to try something and tell their friends how wonderful it is, people will quickly "out" a bad product. "My Crocs are so comfortable" or "my Harley makes me feel really great" fizzles out very fast if they don't. Word-of-mouth only works with products that people love (at the JavaPosse Roundup I was practically browbeaten into buying the Macbook, for example).

Traditional marketing approaches are the wrong tool to generate good word-of-mouth in the age of the information explosion. In fact, this is a place where we need a Web-2.0-style inversion of control. The new marketers will be working for the buyers, not the sellers.

Right now, every time I want to buy something I feel like I'm starting from zero. I've stumbled across some things that help. For example, Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools has been a great resource for products in general. And for software, I've found myself relying on The 46 Best-ever Freeware Utilities site. I find that the fact that they are free utilities makes it easier to trust that site, and I'm much more likely to try a free utility based on that recommendation than to even try to wade into the mire of payware products, even though I'll happily pay for something if I know it will solve my problem. It just costs me too much to try to wade through all the ads and reviews that result from payware products. The free products exist on a level playing field, so I'm more likely to trust that recommendations are about the quality of the product rather than exchange of money.

We need people we can trust that will filter through the explosion of information and help us know what to get. Our friends have only so much time. Traditional marketers represent the sellers. We need someone like a personal buyer, who is in our corner with our best interests at heart. And this entity is extremely valuable. Think of how much time you would save if you could know with a much greater certainty that you could buy or otherwise get something and it would solve your problem. Think of how much money you would save if you knew the probability was much higher that you wouldn't have to buy and experiment with a bunch of things in order to get the desired result. And think of how many roadblocks could be removed from moving forward on your projects or your life if there was some reliable system that could tell you "this tool will probably solve your problem."

I would happily pay money for such a service. In fact, I have, because I've hired administrative assistants to take care of certain types of problems. I have a lawyer and a CPA who have domain-specific knowledge and can solve those kinds of problems for me. I have worked with others who have time and talents different from mine. Of course, I have to manage all those relationships, and we are trying to move towards "services" on the Web. OK, then I'd like such a service that can find me, for example, an electronic quick-lock for my bicycle (like the remote lock for your car), and give me a list of the best ones to buy. Or the best wireless router for my needs. I would not only be thrilled to be able to pay for such a service, I would almost certainly buy more stuff. Of course, I must be able to trust that service; that's the whole point.

I can envision a business model for such a service. The system could tell you how much the search will cost (this might be an initial search, with more involved research estimable after the initial search), and if it's something the system hasn't done before, or it's only been able to sell a few times, the price would be higher. So you pay a lot the first time the research is done or if only a few people have bought it, but as more and more people buy it you get reimbursed, so that everyone ends up paying the same price at any point. This would also allow you to indicate you're willing to pay for the research, but not full price, and wait for others to join you until you have enough buyers to bring the price down enough. Basically, it's a new kind of information development where the interested consumers are either investing to get the information developed, or buying the information at market value once it's been developed. It's basically taking the middleman out of the process and allowing the interested buyers to contract directly with the information developers.

This might be a way for experts to sell their services, and justify their expertise whether it was gained in an amateur or professional way, in the same way that experts appear on Wikipedia, where the impassioned amatuer can often be more informative than many professionals. I don't know how such experts would be discovered other than through a customer ranking service, but that's also in the spirit of the web of participation.

All I know is that, if I knew it was more reliable than the mass of unfiltered data on the Web, there's information I would happily pay for, and that would make me more likely to buy. That sounds like marketing, but it would be marketing for me rather than marketing to me.

(This and other topics will be discussed in person at the upcoming conference Learning in the Age of the Internet, to be held June 18-20 in Crested Butte, Colorado).

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2007 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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