‘Who Would Buy This Sh*t?’

    “Once you’ve seen [the Edsel], you’ll never forget it!”
    –Ford Motor Company advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post, 1957

To succeed as a marketer, you have to sell a product or service. To sell a product or service, you have to offer value to a customer who is willing to pay.

It sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly hard.

When you’re marketing a product or service, you always have to put yourself in your potential customers’ shoes and ask, “Honestly, would I buy this?” If there’s any doubt, head back to the drawing board.

There’s a famous episode in recent business history involving the Iridium phone service. The promise of Iridium was a network of 64 satellites providing dial tone to any spot in the world, no matter how remote. The reality of Iridium was a two-pound phone that the caller had to orient toward the sky with an unobstructed sightline. If it worked, the phone calls started at $3 per minute.

Iridium was a classic example of a Big Idea that seemed so exciting that no one involved ever asked, “Will people buy the actual product?” Had Iridium conducted a survey that asked business travelers, “Would you pay $3 a minute to make calls from a two-pound mobile phone that you have to keep pointed at the northern sky while you talk?” it would have realized that it was barking up the wrong forest.

In fact, when one of Iridium’s new CEOs joined the company, his first step was to dump the product in front of the executive team and ask, “Who the hell do you think would ever buy this sh*t?!”

Indeed. And they weren’t even a dot-com!

The dot-com bubble made people believe that the idea was everything. Why bother with talking to customers when there are markets to be conquered (and initial public offerings to be sold to the gullible)? MBAs, consultants, and investment bankers specialize in this kind of top-down thinking, so they crafted extremely persuasive stories around these ideas.

Attractive young people with fancy pedigrees produced beautiful PowerPoint slides with hockey-stick charts. They filled their pitches with magic incantations and gesticulated with holy passion. The venture capitalists (VCs) saw the vision and opened up their checkbooks to these “paradigm-breaking” companies.

And do you know what? Less than 1 percent ever bothered talking to a customer first.

It’s easy to skewer with hindsight, which makes it politically incorrect, but it’s still worth doing. Would you ever buy dog food online? Designer clothes? Furniture for your home? I’ve bought all of those things, but I’d never buy them online. It just doesn’t make any sense.

But it wasn’t just the business-to-consumers (B2Cs) that lost sight of the need to sell. Take the business-to-business (B2B) exchanges. Please. How many ever bothered to talk seriously with the actual purchasing managers and salespeople whose personal relationships make that business go?

Ultimately, the blame for the dot-com disaster doesn’t lie with the VCs who funded the ideas, the bankers who took them public, or the investors who snapped up their now-worthless stock. The blame lies with so-called marketers who didn’t do their market research homework.

If you want to be a disciplined marketer, you have to do the following:

  • Talk to potential customers before you plan out your product. If you’ve already decided what to do, their feedback will be useless, so this can be hard — especially if your company lets engineering design the products. Fight for the right to involve market research from the beginning. Otherwise, you’ll be fighting to sell an unsellable product, which will naturally leave you fighting to get to the head of the welfare line.
  • Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. Ask potential customers, point blank, “Will you buy my product at this price?” Get them to schedule delivery if you can. “Yes, that looks interesting,” just ain’t good enough.
  • Keep talking — and listening. If you’ve got a new competitor, your customers will know. If your product desperately needs a facelift, your customers will know. If you are secretly plotting to defraud your customers, they will know.

Remember, to sell a product, you have to convince someone else to part with his or her hard-earned cash. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. When a company stops listening to its customers, it’s time to put the bankruptcy lawyers on speed-dial.

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