By Trevor Pott
Obfuscation is a longstanding tradition in marketing. While outright lies are generally avoided by reputable organizations today, half-truths and careful omission of facts are still considered normal. In the world of tech marketing, at least, a default approach of obfuscation to marketing can be catastrophic.
The internet exists. People can and do engage in research. Nerds are particularly good at it. For those who lack research skills, we’re entering an era in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) digital assistants are good enough to detect a marketing team’s obfuscation.
If Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri get to the point that they can debunk a claim, or at least add context to one, how long before someone writes a browser plugin for the same thing in real time for every page we view?
Even if you have no moral or ethical objection to obfuscation in marketing there are practical realities that make it a bad practice.
In the technology industry, more than any other, there is little room for error. Leave a gap in the market, a dozens of startups will arise to fill it. Alienate a customer base and competitors will pivot to vacuum them up. Every mistake is recorded on the internet forever. Every upset customer has multiple platforms from which to preach their discontent. Trust is the single most precious asset any vendor can have, and once lost it is nearly impossible to regain.
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” –Commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln
Mistakes come not only in making the wrong bet with regards to technology development or through support gaffes. Competitors will capitalize on every marketing error, especially where expectations are set too high.
In an industry as obsessed with agility as tech, one need not prove that a competitor’s claims are false or misleading in order to win. The ability to inject Fear, Uncertainty, or Doubt (FUD) into the equation is enough to decimate a competitor’s sales. The practice is so common it even has its own Wikipedia page.
All’s not lost. This being tech, reusing good ideas is commonplace. The nerds who make the products marketers are trying to market have some ideas worth considering.
Modern development practices incorporate at their core the inevitability of failure. Bugs will find their way into any application, no matter how thoroughly tested, and denying this introduces barriers to finding and remediating these bugs.
This is not to say that attempting to prevent bugs is futile or somehow not worthwhile. Quality assurance is still important in successful application development because it helps to reduce the number of bugs that make it to the customer. Reducing the number of bugs that make it to the customer reduces the support burden of fixing bugs in the field, making everyone happy.
Similarly, extensive needs testing and user acceptance testing are beneficial. Empirical data from time-honored practices like A/B testing, beta programs, and scalability stressing can prevent development paths that lead to non-optimal outcomes in the first place. All of these activities have parallels in modern marketing.
What’s not at the core of most marketing programs today is the acceptance and admission of failure. Modern application developers want to fail fast so that bugs can be found early, before they cascade into something catastrophic. Developers do post-mortems on failures so that they can learn from them. They publish these post mortems so that customers can see that the cause of the error is understood and that steps are being taken to prevent them from recurring. Most important through all of this is the goal of preserving trust.
Preserving Trust in Marketing
In marketing, steps required to preserve trust can sometimes be obvious. For example: apologizing for something that caused an identifiable group to be offended or correcting some bit of technical information.
Unfortunately, what’s required to preserve trust in marketing is often far subtler. Most missteps are not as obvious. Telling customers what you’re good at isn’t enough. You also have to acknowledge where competitors have stolen a march on you.
The company willing to say “these are situations in which we can meet your needs and these are situations in which we can’t” saves the customer time and money. They also position the company as one that believes in the quality and applicability of their product and are willing to stand by it, warts and all.
When there are 50 entrants in a market all vying for the same slice of the pie, why should or would customers listen to those companies that promise the moon on a stick for $24.99? Everyone knows they won’t be able to deliver.
The company that acknowledges their limitations, lays out a plan to address them, and demonstrates a history of delivering is the one that will not only earn the sale, but long term customer loyalty. For most vendors, this is all that’s needed. The product they make solves a real world problem and those customers experiencing those very real pain points will likely buy that product if they are made aware of its existence.
When marketing products into a problem space that can fill up instantly with a seemingly unlimited number of competitors, credibility is a differentiator. Credibility derives from honesty and the ability to communicate complex technical topics truthfully. Credibility is the thin veneer preventing the erosion of trust.
Education, not obfuscation, is what buys the sales team a seat at the table. This is the importance of brutal honesty in marketing, and it’s why properly crafted content marketing works.
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Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is cofounder of eGeek Consulting Ltd. and splits his time between systems administration, consulting and technology writing. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley start-ups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.