Markets without Marketing

Next Tuesday at OSCON in Portland, I'll be giving a 3.5 hour tutorial titled Open Source Clue Training: How to Market to People Who Hate Marketing.

As I prepare for that, I thought I'd share some of the curriculum I've come up with. I'm looking for constructive feedback, suggestions and Stories From the Real World that might be useful to the tutorial. Here we go...

I. The Matrix is a metaphor for marketing

In his post about the movie Brazil, Nicholas Petreley says some very kind things about my upcoming (October) Linux For Suits column, calling it "a must-read for anyone who cares about free software and free speech". Without giving too much away, here's the case it makes:

  • Just as "The matrix" was a virtual world manufactured by machines to occupy the minds of humans whose only real purpose was to serve as living batteries, silo'd markets do the same for the minds of real humans in the real world.
  • We -- even many of us in the free software and open source worlds -- tend to think "free market" means "your choice of silo", and that it is both natural and okay for whole markets to be controlled by just a few vendors, each of which attract and hold customers in closed habitats maintained by customer relationship management (CRM) systems that have more in common with zookeepers' manuals than with anything a free human being would call a "relationship".
  • This is why far too much of what we call "marketing" is about capturing and holding customers, rather than "finding and satisfying customer needs" or other ideals taught in marketing classes.

We need to start seeing, and understanding, markets as free and open places where, as Neo so correctly put it, "The problem is choice". Nothing wroing with closed habitats. But they shouldn't be the only choices.

II. As Markets become truly free, we don't have much, if any, need for marketing.

In technology businesses (which are what we're talking about here -- this is for OSCON, after all -- though much of what we're learning is relevant to other categories as well), marketing currently serves three purposes. I'll quote a Linux-savvy techie with vast experience both inside and outside the vendorsphere:

What marketing does:

1. decide what to make

2. infrastructure to support transferring info from people who make stuff to people who are trying to decide whether to buy it.

3. bullshitting

Any more?

In a world of highly networked markets -- with more and more public information about everything, where everybody is in a position to publish information about anything, or to ask questions about anything and get them answered by anybody in a position to know those answers -- people who make stuff need to relate directly with the people who use that stuff. We don't need a separate corporate organ to "relate" indirectly between engineers and customers or users.

Yes, there is a need for customer support, and for tech support. Engineers shouldn't be bothered with every support call that comes through. But isolating engineers behind a bureaucratic wall, and preventing them from relating to customers and users also has a price.

Look up "Dell support" or "exploding laptop" on Google and you'll find lots of wild and free info about how the company's products and services suck. From inside Dell we heard little, until the company started doing a blog recently. Letting engineers talk will make a huge difference, I guarantee it. (Here's Dell's linux blog, by the way.)

Put simply, bullshitting doesn't work well with techies anymore. "We can fact-check your ass", Ken Layne famously said. Good example: The Cheater's Guide to Network Testing.

On the supply side, compare Ubuntu Launchpad to what the same writer above calls "any big dumbass marketing document".

III. Advertising is going to die. PR is already dead.

Advertising has a problem. It's not efficient. Yes, you can buy results-only advertising, but the waste-to-results ratio runs in the same range as lotteries. And yes, Google has revolutionized advertising by 1) making results affordable to nearly everybody, and 2) moving the waste to where it's best tolerated, which is by servers pumping out stuff most people don't mind ignoring. But it's still waste. The day will come when something new will connect demand and supply directly and efficiently. (Maybe Google will do that too... who knows?). Then advertising as we know it will be a goner. I've been predicting this for a generation, by the way, so I'm not holding my breath. But trust me. It will happen.

I know a lot of terrific PR people who are doing great work at moving their business from the Age of Spin to the Age of Full Exposure. I wish them luck in their mission. But when it's complete the result won't bear any resemblance to PR as we've known it.

IV. The operative word is Relate.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto our first thesis was Markets are Conversations. But we wrote that seven years ago. Today the better phrase might be Markets are Relationships. Those relationships have to be direct, and human.. On both the vendor and the customer side. Yes, this will be chaotic. Much falling apart will happen before something that works comes together. But it's better to get ahead of this curve than behind it.

There are new skills to develop here. We can't tell customers to read the bug lists and check the man pages.

We'll have help from technology, specifically social software. Wikis, blogs and IM are three obvious ones. But we need more. Especially around corporate websites. We need to get marketing out of the website construction game. Company websites should provide the shortest possible routes between customers and useful information. Period. That goes for both prospective and existing customers. There should also be ample linkage outside to other sites that are useful to customers. A site that's "sticky" is busy failing.

Trade shows are an especially useful way for companies that don't normally relate in meat space to do that in meet space. Again, the purpose here is to be useful, not just to sell and push stuff. A great example of how to improve trade show booths comes from the large body of public debugging found at places like this one for Debian, after LinuxTag 2004. Favorite line: "PLEASE! If you are at the booth: DON'T SHOW VISITORS YOUR BACK! AND DON'T SHOW THEM YOUR ASS CRACK!"

Here's what I wrote about trade shows several years ago. Still applies.

Don Marti followed up with The Cheap Bastard's Guide to Technical Trade Shows. One of his best points: Marketing's job is done before the show. Leave them home and send at least two people: one big cheese (that's you) and one sales engineer who knows the products inside out, can answer questions about them, and can fix them under pressure. Marketing people might look cute in a company shirt, but why fly and house someone just to have him or her say, 'Hold on and I'll find someone who can answer that for you.'"

Bonus link.

V. There's no substitute for a good product. Or the only people who can improve it.

Vapor is worse than worthless. Yet marketing, along with other corporate habits and imperatives, often force companies to market something before they actually have it. And to suffer consequences when reality fails to agree with marketing's BS. Here's how Don puts it.

Dumb dot-com:

1. Hack

2. Market ("position", "message", all that bullshit)

3. Sell

4. Big fight because Sales tried to sell something that customers wanted and instead of what Marketing thought the product was.


1. Hack

2. Hack some more. When someone throws money at you, take it.

3. Build the social software and other information infrastructure needed to handle communicating with customers.

Two more things. One is great bug reports. The other is validation. Getting direct customer feedback on a great product is not only highly encouraging but can be used for obtaining wise venture funding.

VI. Work the Because Effect. You'll make more money that way.

I don't know why, but marketing is often the corporate organ saddled with the obligation to answer the question "How are you going to make money with that?"

Marketing often doesn't know.

Engineering often does.

Engineering knows because engineering, more often than not these days, is pickled in a world of free software and open source goodies that have enormous leverage while making very little if any money themselves.

Far more money is made because of the Net than with the Net. Or because of Linux than with Linux. No offense to Red Hat -- a fine and successful company -- but Google got bigger faster because it used open source goods, rather than sold them. Same with Amazon, Morgan Stanley, and countless other companies. The examples are everywhere now, and not just in technology. We all make more money because of our cell phones than with them.

Engineers can help management (though not necessarily marketing) by saying "Don't ask how we can make money with this technology. Ask how we can make money because of it.'

There are many more things I can list, but I'm running out of time, and I'm still on vacation, at The Beach in North Carolina. I'll be home on Sunday, in Portland on Monday and giving this tutorial on Tuesday afternoon. And I'll be grateful for any help you can give me.

(The first draft of this piece appeared in SuitWatch yesterday.)


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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You can't ignore the role

johnny23's picture

You can't ignore the role marketing has in making a business known, it is crucial in creating new brands and a business can hardly expand without it. In my opinion the marketing process is not only about increasing sales, it's about conquering new markets and customers and get your business out of anonymity, so over time anyone would recognize your business products without any necessary presentation.
John, business rating services

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IMT – CDL Ghaziabad's picture

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well done, that made them come out of the shadows

cornhead's picture

Very nice - the editor of one of the most popular Linux editorials has been playing devil's advocate, or has he?

Glad to have an article that makes people react and shows that there are plenty of keen marketers and sellers willing to grow the Linux market where it hasn't yet reached.

Now in 2009 the Linux push is getting bigger, the marketing growth is growing to push the growth of the Linux market - awareness, options and compability into existing technologies appear to be the key keen features offered. Some old, some new, some green, brown and blue.

My thought is will all Linux brands, small and large work together to push the whole Linux, with an angle on their own flavour, or will they do the dark ages fight out it alone thing and try and conquer the whole market single handed?

Even a superhero has a side-kick - Is there a lesson for all Linux distibutors there?


this is crazy

water damage restoration's picture

first off, they are (or should be) a team, the marketer uses scientific tricks for marketing using known triggers, sales uses the same thing, creative uses the same tatics. They may be slightly different, kind of like super specialized, but they all use the same principles. And that is just plain out fact.

Information ?

Anonymous's picture

"Company websites should provide the shortest possible routes between customers and useful information."

What exactly is Information? I see this thrown around all the time. For example Google has Data Centers and suddenly out of there comes Information. Or they claim they organize Information inside. BS.

In other words as long as you don't give or use well defined terms all of this is just marketing speak to me. We don't process information in our computers we process _data_. You (the reader) process information, by putting data into context. As long as our systems do not have context, the above quote is pretty much impossible to archive. Only after I can share the context I'm working in with the system which is supposed to help me, will we be able to provide useful information. Everything else is a guessing game.

Sorry Doc, but you're wrong.

Mack Collier's picture

"As Markets become truly free, we don't have much, if any, need for marketing."

Ever seen a woman spend all day at a shopping mall and come home empty-handed, and completely satisfied with how she spent her day?

Doc might not need marketing, but the markets need and WANT marketing.

Marketing and Sales are separate?

LostFlier's picture

As someone who owned and ran a small business-- how in the world can you separate sales from marketing? What in the world is sales except for the successful execution of marketing? As many books as I've read on the subject I never really thought of them as separate functions in organizations (not worked in a place with more than 15 people)!

As a matter of fact, if anything sales should be over marketing. The sales guys tell the marketing guys what their current customers repsond to and the marketing guy designs the commercials and ads around those things.

Mktg v Creative

Anonymous's picture

Now you're confusing marketing with creative. Marketers are the least creative people on the planet, and are often failed designers.


Greece Travel's picture

Not all failed designers become marketers.
Some stay as even more failed designers.

Now you're confusing

Anonymous's picture

Now you're confusing marketing with creative. Marketers are the least creative people on the planet, and are often failed designers.

Marketing is a strategic function

Anonymous's picture

I think you miss the point of marketing if you think sales is more important than marketing. Marketing is STRATEGIC, they determine what the market wants (understand the needs of MANY cusotmers) and which markets might want this particular product or service. Sales is just tactics, they sell what marketing determines what should be the product to the specific markets (verticals) that a product appeals to. In a small business, you usually only have a few products to sell so the marketing function is usually done by the owner (after all she / he is the one closest to the market) and sales is done, well, by the sales folks who develop a close relationship with thier particular customer.

Both Sales and Marketing can be strategic...

Anonymous's picture

In real terms they are the flip side of the same coin. Marketing tries to focus on convincing people to "buy" a product, when Sales focuses on the best way to "sell" the product to people. When they are in synch, you will have a very successful revenue generating business.

Exactly, in other words you

Anonymous's picture

Exactly, in other words you should not invest more cash in one then the other, doing so will make your business plan lopsided.

Sales IS Marketing

Lost Flier's picture

I didn't say sales was more important than marketing...basically I said as far as I could tell MARKETING WAS SALES and vice versa.

I said--"As someone who owned and ran a small business-- how in the world can you separate sales from marketing? What in the world is sales except for the successful execution of marketing?"

I love marketing because I love selling what I have to offer. Marketing to me is "what is going to make people buy from me." in some less competitive businesses marketing would be, "What is going to convince them to buy my product.")

You said "Sales is just tactics." That is what I am saying-- the sales teams should be directing the marketing team. Sales is closest to the market. Sales comes in and says to marketing...."our biggest customer really likes A, B, and C about our product.... why don't you design a campaign around the features that our current customers value."

Marketing guys should also be "under" the Tech Support or Product Support people... "no no no, don't mention that feature- people hate it."

Honestly, I think EVERY position in a company is SALES first. Of course it is all about collaboration. As I like to say, the bottom line is the bottom line.

What am I still missing?

What I'm afraid of and need to understand

LostFlierBoy's picture

Doc Searls says-- "We need to start seeing, and understanding, markets as free and open places where, as Neo so correctly put it, "The problem is choice". Nothing wroing with closed habitats. But they shouldn't be the only choices."

I have a fear of "Viral" or "ooze" or "community" or whatever marketing...

My fear is that someone with online influence discovers my product or service and does not like it. In "traditional" marketing the worst that happens is that your marketing is ignored(ads, news releases, trade show booth, etc.) and people may talk about what they don't like about you among friends.

In the environment of the web if a blogger does not like what you offer they can chew you to pieces, sometimes without fact or communication, and influence thousands of people who influence thousands of others. They say that what you have to offer is not worth the money, time or effort. The posts and links and follow ups stay around for a long time making it very difficult to overcome what a blogger or two has done to what may be a great thing.

It's this fear that I am trying to overcome by understanding how the online community operates and works. As a 31 year old I should understand this but I don't. How does one navigate the "no SPAM" culture online and still effectively build a relationship about their business?

Jealousy and piousness and arrogance and ignorance are still present in people online just as they are in the classroom, sanctuary, and town square. In other words, people online could work or talk against someone just because they don't like them. Of course so can a newspaper editor, "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

I am learning all I can about marketing and really appreciate the concepts and am learning and evolving because I keep reading.

Who hates marketing?

Sid Steward's picture

Some feedback for you, fwiw. In a session titled: How to Market to People Who Hate Marketing, I would also want to know why I should market to people who hate marketing. Who are these people? How many are there?
This comes from a guy hatching a social platform for people who hate lock-in (hint: it's a cooperative). I grew discouraged when I started to suspect that most people don't mind lock-in. I feel that Tim O'Reilly's open data notions suffer the same problem.
Cheers- Sid

The Because Effect

Steve Purkiss's picture

You hit the nail on the head when you said:

Engineers can help management (though not necessarily marketing) by saying "Don't ask how we can make money with this technology. Ask how we can make money because of it."

In my particular experience, having spoken to over a thousand small business owners and entrepreneurs in research for my open workspace project, I have found this to be the case. When I ask people if they would be interested in a place where they could go have a meeting, meet like-minded business people, check their mail, browse the web, maybe record a podcast or videoblog, etc. they all love the idea and say it's a great concept.

Great ideas often need capital and unfortunately, every single investor I have spoken to adds to this and goes on to worry about the technology and whether people will use it or not, then kindly sends us on our merry way, which is a little annoying as it's because of the technology that the concept works, I'm not selling the technology, but what you could be doing with it (and a bit of real estate).

Still, the longer they ignore us the more we keep getting offered by the community at large though as there is a clear and obvious need, so we're getting there - slowly but surely!

Thanks for the great article and good luck with your presentation on Tuesday, wish I could be there to experience it.

I'm drinking all the Koolaid here...

Darren's picture

Though I feel that marketing and development are becoming one and the same thing. Your snarky Linux techie makes a good point about #1: "decide what to make". Most engineers, in my experience, don't know what to make. Neither do most marketers. However, a small, smart subset of both groups do, and they need to get together.

My friend, client and former boss Joe has a start-up, and he recently wrote ten tips on commercial software development. Here's #10:

"Its a marketing function: Commercial software development is about supplying a customer’s unmet needs and/or desires. Its not about J2EE, Spring, Web-Services, Python, C#, Design patterns etc. etc. That is software engineering which is a sub-discipline of commercial development."

Also, there's a corollary to your point here, which I'm sure you're aware of: engineers must become better communicators. Just as there's a somewhat-truthful stereotype that marketing types look cute in company t-shirts, there's a somewhat-truthful stereotype that developers are socially inept and smelly.

Here in the blogosphere, we get to see the tip of the engineer iceberg--we get the articulate, the socially literate and extroverted. I agree that "people who make stuff need to relate directly with the people who use that stuff", but there's a communications gap there that needs to be filled.

Not filled with spin or marketingese, but with cogent communication from the people who make the stuff. Unfortunately, today, plenty of the people who make the stuff aren't particularly strong on that skill set.

All introvert/extrovert stereotypes aside, here's an intersting local issue. I live and work in Vancouver, and a sizable portion of the developer population are first generation Canadians. It's a fact that for a lot of them, their English isn't fantastic. We'd require some pretty patient customers if we expected every local 'stuff-maker' to communicate with the 'stuff users'.