When marketing to people you think you know, don’t be blinded by your own POV

I was lucky enough to experience totality during the recent full solar eclipse. Despite my knowledge, I could understand why someone might think it was OK to look right at the eclipse as it approached totality. The risk was deceptive — it seemed as clear as day (or rather, dark as night) that I could trust my senses to look straight up.

Good thing I had external data to contradict my sensory assumptions! But as I was thinking about it on the way home, I realized this experience reminded me in a way of something I’ve often noticed about marketing technology to developers (or to anyone, really). Let me take a step back and explain what I mean about the risk of confusing our own experience with the facts.

For every mythologized outsized success in Silicon Valley, there are many more also-rans and outright failures — even some spectacular bombs. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Risk and reward are central to the culture of innovation to which so many of us aspire.

But when risk-taking is confused with self-delusion, the odds of success go way down. And there’s no clearer form of this dangerous myopia than substituting our own point of view for that of our customers. That’s especially easy to do when our customers seem a lot like ourselves — as when we’re selling to other software developers.

Just consider a few notorious examples of self-sabotage in tech marketing.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Do you remember Iridium? In the late 1990s, Motorola pumped $5 billion into launching 66 satellites meant to deliver global wireless service to every corner of the planet. A seemingly elegant, macro-engineered solution to the challenge of global communications.

It quickly turned into one of the biggest tech fails of the last 20 years. Not just because its $3,000 handsets wouldn’t work inside some buildings or moving cars, but because cheaper, more prosaically engineered competitors — cellular phone networks — were busy growing international coverage while Motorola was putting Iridium in place.

By the time it was ready to go, Iridium only had utility for off-the-grid survivalists, oil rig operators, mineral exploration teams and the like. In other words, users who were nowhere near a cellular network, which by definition excluded 99.9 percent of the product’s potential customer base.

Iridium went bankrupt and was sold for pennies on the dollar to new managers who repositioned it to serve those exact types of users: the market Motorola should have been focused on from the beginning.

The lesson? Don’t confuse your own perspective on what the market needs with what the market really wants. Motorola’s very smart engineers thought people wanted mobile telephone service over 100 percent of the planet, and they came up with a brilliant solution.

But 99.9 percent of the consumer market simply wanted affordable mobile service that could reach the majority of the people they needed to talk to — most of whom were within easy sight of a cell tower, not off the grid in the Himalayas or the middle of the ocean.

The risk of universalizing our own experience

It’s a natural assumption for a marketer trying to reach developers that consulting with our own internal developers is a good proof point for ideas about our products and go-to-market messages. And it’s true — it’s a fine starting point for spitballing ideas.

That, though, is only one step in the process. No matter how much of a slam-dunk any product or marketing idea may seem to be, it’s important to remember that our own developers are not our customers. They’re too familiar with the problem space, they’re already emotionally invested in the product you’re building, and they may just be a quirky bunch. In other words, they have biases just like you.

Instead, do hard research with real prospective users to balance all that internal enthusiasm.

An inward focus can ignore a real market need while leading you down a dead-end alley. There are way too many Iridiums in tech history where the allure of an idea didn’t align with the realities of the market.

Always bear in mind that there are plenty of ways we can blinker ourselves to the reality of what’s going to succeed in the real world.

Confusing customer needs with your own white whale

Back during Steve Jobs’ exile from Apple in the 1990s, the company focused on trying to beat the Wintel competition at its own game. Most notoriously, that included trying to mimic the Microsoft business model and licensing Mac clones. But it extended to the developer marketing front as well, as Apple exerted major effort building and advocating its own technologies, like OpenDoc, that sought to answer Microsoft’s dominant OLE (Object Linking and Embedding).

None of these ideas moved the needle for Apple — because it had become fixated on beating Microsoft rather than understanding the company’s core value proposition to its customers.

Jobs’ push to refocus the company on its user experience and to discard an entire portfolio of “interesting” developer technologies — while seeking détente with Microsoft — might well be his key contribution to the company’s ultimate turnaround.

The innovator’s dilemma is a form of narcissism

It’s easy to assume that success with early adopters is scalable in the wider market. And it’s even easier to let our conceptions of what led to that success become a straitjacket. This strategic challenge — “the innovator’s dilemma” — is a classic lesson for business school students. And it’s at least in part rooted in thinking our customers see value in the same way we do.

Case in point? It’s a classic: Sun Microsystems. Sun was a hardware-first company, where its software offerings, like Java and Solaris, were meant to be “wrapped in metal” — Sun Micro hardware. Until the advent of the cloud, they’d had a long and profitable run.

But by failing to see past their entrenched mentality about selling servers and hardware first, Sun lost out on any chance to launch a standalone software business when their own innovations had given them a perfect opening. While Sun became hidebound to its own notions of its value, its core developer customers moved on to new approaches that made them more productive.

Java may live on as a vestigial foundation for the cloud, but Sun itself dropped 80 percent of its value in just one year and was snatched up at fire sale prices by Oracle.

Getting out of a bubble

Even my company, SparkPost, has had to confront this natural tendency to assume our experience is generalizable to our market’s needs. We’re pretty progressive with our own use of technology, and our developers do some pretty amazing stuff building features that leverage state-of-the-art development frameworks.

Along the way, our team developed its own point of view on app development. But when we’re assigning marketing resources to reaching potential customers, we’ve come to understand that the developer community is a pretty diverse place.

Take Microsoft’s .NET stack. It’s enormously popular among a diverse group of developers and IT shops. When an opportunity arose for SparkPost to participate in a .NET conference, we paused for a moment. After all, our own developers didn’t use much .NET; would it be a good fit for us?

But we realized that many of our customers did. And the response we drew from being part of that event validated the notion that our customers’ point of view was the essential one. .NET is a framework used by developers in thousands of mainstream enterprises. Our service works beautifully well for developers in the .NET environment. Why wouldn’t we show our support for them?

Empathy for customer needs is the true north

No surprise: The solution to any of these pitfalls circles back to nurturing empathy for your audience. By having a richer understanding of what drives them, you’ll know how to serve them the right way.

Having a strong vision for your business is important. But don’t confuse vision with meeting customers’ actual needs. As we’ve seen from some of these case studies, internal biases about technology — or anything else — can get in the way of understanding what your customers themselves understand clearly.