How Do You Market & Sell a Product That Isn't a Product?

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by: John Caddell

Call it infrastructure, a platform, an architecture. Call it middleware, whatever. A growing number of high-tech companies are creating products that are primarily enablers of other applications. Left to their own, unconnected to other pieces, they do… nothing.

One way to determine whether something fits this category is to ask for a demo. If it's not readily demoable ("We can't easily show you messages flying across an interface"), you've found one.

Why am I telling you this? Because products like these are really, really hard to market. God forbid you work for one of these companies and you are asked what your product does. Your only hope in that situation is to use the old BASF tagline: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy, we make a lot of the products you buy better."

There are two approaches as I see them. One, sell "platform products" as toolkits. If you do, remember one thing: you need to sell toolkits to builders, not to homeowners. Homeowners want a new kitchen, not the tools to build one.

This brought to mind an article in Harvard Business Review from last November, entitled "Marketing Malpractice: The Cause And The Cure," by Clayton Christensen ("The Innovator's Dilemma"), et. al. In that article, Christensen makes a very strong case for marketing at its most basic–in order for a product to be successful, it needs to be connected clearly to its use: in other words, what job does it do?

An example cited in the article is Federal Express' perfect fit with a job that needed to be done better: "the I-need-to-send-this-from-here-to-there-with-perfect-certainty-as-fast-as-possible job," as they call it.

Or, to use a term that has arisen since that time: "I need to Fedex it."

Can the "job focus" Christensen discusses extend to platform products? I think so. If you don't want to sell toolkits, and many don't, think of some jobs your platform can solve. You'll probably need to bundle in more software or services to make the platform fit the job, and you'll need several different products (but based on the same platform) to serve different jobs, but it can be done and done successfully.

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