Markets without Marketing

by Doc Searls

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.)