Tech marketing: listen, ignore, research

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If it's marketed to you, be confident you don't need it. If you nevertheless want it, know that with a little research you'll find a comparable thing that's both better and cheaper, but isn't being marketed to you.

Here's a secret that many engineers and technologists don't get: marketing works. To me, it's a sad realisation.

A non-intuitive truth: if something - particularly in the case of technologies/software services - is marketed to you, you can be confident that you do not need it.

Marketing is used to either

  1. differentiate one producer of a particular product from competitors in a broader category, or
  2. manufacture a need in the market for a new product category (this is often the case for new software cloud services).

(Disclaimer - I'm not talking about "awareness marketing", like that done by governments for public safety, or other similarly non-commercial purposes)

If, however, you quite like the look of the thing that's being marketed to you (even though you know you don't need it, you still want it), you can be quite sure that the thing being marketed to you is almost certainly neither the best quality, nor most cost-effective option in that class of things.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the people doing the marketing have to recoup the cost of their marketing - that will increase the price of their product but not necessarily of competing un-marketed products. The other reason is that, particularly in the technology world, products are almost always created by either an engineering-led or a marketing-led company.

Examples of marketing-led companies include Microsoft and Apple. They are marketing companies, who happen to market technology. There are thousands of engineering-led companies you've never heard of, who produce far better software and hardware. Many of those are even made available pro bono! Incidentally, that's why, as an engineer, I am totally committed to Free and Open Source Software...

Engineering and marketing are like chalk and cheese - people specialising in these two areas very seldom (certainly in my experience) get along... or even respect one another's art. You almost never see a company that excels at balancing both. I think this is because the engineers I know are truthful to a fault - they're all about working with the world as it is - understanding it (by studying evidence), and generally working to make it better. Coincidentally, as I write this, I'm listening to a wide-ranging radio interview with a scientist who I think exemplifies all these qualities I'm describing...

Marketers, on the other hand, are trying to make the world believe whatever story they're telling. To put it mildly, they are economical with the truth, and unapologetically so. Marketing is all about "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative". It is implicitly about misleading people.

Engineers tend to focus on getting things right, "correctness" rather than profitability. They assume (rightly or not) that by making something that performs its function beautifully, profit will be a pleasant side-effect. But profit is not their motivation. Their entire purpose is to change the way other people see their world. Sadly, the world is littered with brilliant engineering projects (and even more less brilliant) that died in obscurity - nobody even knew they existed.

Marketers tend not to admire that approach. Similarly, marketers tend to find engineers a bit fuddy-duddy, unrealistic, and overly idealistic.

Marketing-led companies tend to be great at creating massive awareness about new products, and even entire new product categories. It costs them a lot of money. (When I ran my bespoke software dev company, I felt obliged to advise starry-eyed would-be entrepreneurs (although it pained me to do it) to ensure they had at least as much budgeted for marketing their software as they had for writing it...) However, usually the "new" products or product categories were first developed by engineers. Engineers generally view marketers with suspicion, and think of them as charlatans.

Engineering-led companies tend to suffer from the conceit that by building a better product, the market will be able to recognise their superiority and will actively try to buy their stuff. That's because that's how engineers think. This approach is (sadly) often disastrous in business terms. Engineer-led companies often lose out to marketing-led companies especially in new product segments that the market doesn't understand.

So, recognising this, what does a savvy person do? If you see technology marketed to you... know that you don't need it. Don't get swept up into "the narrative". If you still find the narrative compelling don't buy the thing that's marketed to you. Be sceptical! Take the initiative and do some research for yourself. You'll almost certainly find a functionally equivalent product, developed by an engineering-led company, that is both lower cost (because the engineering-led company doesn't have to fund marketing!) and higher quality.

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