Enterprise Software Can Be “Sexy,” Too – If You Know How to Frame It

Apple announces its new phone and people describe it as “sexy.” Motorola releases its Moto 360 watch and it’s embraced as “eye candy.” If recent trends in hardware and UI design are any indication, then it’s clear that our perception of technology is heavily influenced by looks.

In efforts to create a more visual approach, most consumer technologies — like the iPhone and Motorola’s Moto 360 — have heavily focused on the aesthetics and design of their new products.

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Enterprise software, on the other hand, has tended to lag far behind. With its nondescript grid-based interfaces, complex charts, and text field inputs, companies have struggled — and mostly failed — in trying to sell their software through visuals. If you run a quick Google image search for any enterprise software cornerstone, like “CRM, “ERP,” or “CMS,” you’re confronted with flowcharts, wordclouds, and complex diagrams that don’t depict the software so much as vaguely outline what it does.

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Look familiar?

It’s easy to justify this lack of visual focus. Realistically, any high-ranking IT decision-maker will not be relying on images to decide on whether or not they’ll invest in a multi-million dollar IT project.

But that’s starting to change as the trend of “consumerization” continues to take hold of enterprise technology. More and more, business software users are expecting clean interfaces and clever design to match what they use on their smartphones and tablets. Competence in these areas is no longer an added bonus, but a crucial attribute. If this competence doesn’t come across in your marketing, then you’re already at a disadvantage.

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But there’s something else at play here besides consumerization. Consider the primary purpose of a product image: To show off that product’s benefits. It’s extremely difficult to show off the benefits of enterprise software using visuals. Not just because the software itself is somewhat nondescript, but also because enterprise software is so modular. A backend running on the same platform could look wildly different depending on the client’s selected modules and functions. On top of this, the visual language of enterprise software isn’t always clear. Someone who has used Act! in the past might have no idea what they’re looking at if you were to show them a screenshot of Goldmine, even though both are CRM systems.

This is why product images in the enterprise space have remained so vague and conceptual. Instead of trying to offer an up-close view of the vanilla interface, companies feel more comfortable providing overarching conceptual ideas of how the software works. Hence the wordclouds and flowcharts and diagrams.

So how do we approach this issue? How can we show off our software’s benefits if screenshots and diagrams aren’t working?

There are a few places to look for inspiration, but we’ll start with Hook & Loop, the “in-house creative think tank” of enterprise software behemoth Infor. Hook & Loop’s site is much more visually striking than Infor’s main site. It’s responsive, it features artistically composed photos of wireframes and whiteboard drawings, and it offers up a minute-long hype video just to showcase Hook & Loop’s design and development savvy.

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Per their mission statement to “create experiences people love,” Hook & Loop’s entire focus is based on the big, flashy ideas that lay at the foundation of quality enterprise software. Sure, they’ve got high-res photos of clean UI elements, but the imagery really shines when it’s not focused on the product itself. While every IT professional wants their platform to come feature-packed, Hook & Loop wagers that two priorities take precedent over that desire: functionality and usability. To showcase that, they offer up entire slideshows to showcase the collaboration and effort behind the software design process. Instead of evangelizing the product itself, they highlight their team’s savvy and talent.

This focus on ideas over raw features is a key trend in enterprise software marketing.

Another enterprise software company that has found success in pitching ideas over features is Salesforce. While their site is certainly vibrant from a visual standpoint, featuring concrete imagery of products and clean design, Salesforce’s real strength is in their messaging. While most other sites might request you reach out to them at an arbitrary 1-800 number, SalesForce plasters 1-800-NO-SOFTWARE at the top of their homepage.

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Salesforce goes to great lengths to downplay “software” and all the baggage that comes with that term. By presenting themselves first and foremost as a cloud-based service, they remove the pressure of having to maintain a bulky software platform. This, again, is a big idea, and it’s constantly pushed out as one of Salesforce’s main selling points.

“We own NO SOFTWARE,” Salesforce chief executive (CEO) Benioff has said, “not because we are the only one doing it but because we were the first to think it was important to customers.”

If you want to differentiate your enterprise software from a visual standpoint, then take a stance on what you think matters to your customers and base your imagery around those concepts. Whether it involves a sizzle reel of your teams at work to demonstrate collaboration, photographs of wireframes and sketches to depict creativity, or a giant NO SOFTWARE-like emblem to pique your audience’s interest, there are an increasing number of ways to convey your software’s appeal through visual language.

So let’s ditch the vague iconography and flowcharts, and start showing off what really matters. What makes your services valuable? What makes them unique? By answering these questions, you can tap into your most attractive offerings, and communicate them visually in a way that’s clear, that’s accurate, and that will draw the most customers.

Homepage image via Shutterstock.

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