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Folks with engineering in their blood often find marketing to be well, shall we say, distasteful. Whether they explicitly say it or not, engineering-minded people often think that marketing people contribute less to an organization and may even hamper their efforts to produce good work and products that sell.
Why is this trope so pervasive? Why do engineers disrespect marketers in the first place? Having been a software developer for over 25 years and a marketer for over 10, I’d like to offer my insights.
Marketing people can’t understand what engineers do
Engineers take many months to build complex products, a process that requires a lot of specialized knowledge. Coming from this vantage point, it’s easy to think that someone trying to market a highly technical product (who isn’t technical themselves) either doesn’t understand your product or can’t understand it. Maybe you think that by the time you finish explaining it, you could write all the marketing copy yourself. (Read our blog about SMEs for reasons why this is difficult to do this.)
The barrier to understanding is a lack of appropriate context and experience. If a person hasn’t programmed before, it might be hard to explain why there are several layers of abstraction that completely obscure a problem and its solution. You might need to go into a terrific amount of detail to explain; this can be overwhelming to digest and requires a huge amount of patience for the explainer.
Rest assured however, there is no concept that’s so devilishly difficult that a marketing person can’t understand it. Especially if this isn’t their first technology rodeo. If a concept can’t be understood right off the bat, that’s perfectly reasonable, especially if it’s a newer innovation; everyone has to pick up new concepts at some point.
If you’re an engineer explaining to non-engineers, try not to use programmer jargon, break the technology down into high-level chunks, and use analogies liberally. (Remember that you might not pick up on a conversation consisting of exclusively marketing jargon either.) If worse comes to worst, enlist help from your documentation person or technical writing team who is used to explaining hard concepts to neophytes.
Marketing people are dumb
A related corollary is that marketing people really just aren’t as smart as engineers. If this sounds like your train of thought, you may have developed that opinion from marketing decisions that seemed idiotic to you like cancelling an excellently designed product, trying to market something that’s a real dog, or wasting money on flashy demos that customers don’t use. You might start to wonder why your company even employs marketing people, amirite?
So, here’s the thing. I’m not going to defend all marketing decisions, because honestly some are moronic. When I worked at HP, our marketing folks paid a consultant five figures to come up with a name for our newest palmtop. When they finally revealed to the engineering team the result, “Monad,” we were all quiet for at least 30 seconds. Then someone piped up with, “Doesn’t that sound a bit like gonad”? We ended up scrapping the consultant’s suggestion and going with the HP 100LX, a name that fit with our conservative management and existing product branding, but is arguably much less memorable. Which would have been better for product sales? We’ll never know.
It’s dangerous to assume that all marketing decisions you don’t agree with are always wrong – they may be made with information you’re unaware of. For the cancelled product, maybe it’s because research says existing customers won’t buy it and it’ll take too much capital to develop awareness for a new audience. Maybe the product that should be end-of-lifed in engineering’s opinion – yet still is being sold – is because you can’t afford to cede market share to your competition. So, you need to bridge the gap until a new release is designed and built, and marketing has done the cost analysis to show additional support costs are worth it.
By all means go ahead and question marketing decisions, but at least give your marketing team the benefit of the doubt that they’re making these decisions based on data, knowledge, and rationale.
Marketing is mostly lies and spin
Marketing is all about convincing potential customers to buy your product. But we’ve all had purchases that sounded far better in print than they were in real life because, for whatever reason, marketers oversold their product.
I love old classic-era standup arcade games, and I recently came across the promotional text for a 1981 knock-off arcade game called Wiz that said:
“If you’re looking for ‘ghosts and goblins’ and other weird characters, you won’t find a hotter, more exciting game than the Wiz. With hundreds of surprizes [sic], twists and turns, this game has the staying power of Mr. Do, the excitement of Pacman, the speed of Pole Position, and player appeal of Galaga. A fascinating, multi-faceted game, the Wiz offers unlimited levels of action that will intrigue players of all ages for hours. It’s the nearest thing to a cult game you can get. So for this year’s hottest game, call today. After all, the way this game makes money it’s sheer magic. Call your Magic distributor today.”
If you don’t recognize the games Wiz is compared to, they were very hot properties at the time, the cream of the arcade crop. You might be figuring out where this is going, but Wiz sucked really badly. It failed miserably in the market and was perceived by reviewers and players alike as leagues worse than every game the promotional copy referenced. That marketing pitch completely over-promised and under-delivered, misleading its audience just to make a sale.
Marketing today would never go down the route of Wiz-like claims. First of all, the discipline has evolved (as everything has). Second, in the age of the Internet with its ability to instantly share every consumer’s frustration and/or disappointment, marketers know that even slightly exaggerated product claims can do far more damage to sales and brand reputations than just telling a less-than-glowing truth.
That said, there are a couple common ways marketers may still choose to use a bit of spin. We might not always tell the whole truth when it means revealing product flaws – that is, we try not to throw engineers under the bus. We may use this little sin of omission because we don’t want to turn customers away before there’s any engagement.
The other way we use spin is to discuss beta or roadmap features as if they’re complete. Marketing vaporware can be one of the most inflammatory things that marketers can do to engineering staff, and it’s probably responsible for more engineer ire than anything else. Engineers feel that promises are being made on their behalf and they’re on the line to deliver without having had any input into the process. In marketing speak, this is called overhanging the market and it’s a delicate balancing act. When it’s done, it’s done carefully with the intent of building up anticipated demand for a product, or to help focus product management efforts by understanding where customer’s interests really lie. It’s never done thoughtlessly to jerk around engineering staff.
Marketing is too fluffy
When engineers complain about marketing, they very often use the adjective “fluffy.” In other words, meaningless, no details, and no substance.
As marketers, hearing our profession called “fluffy” can be hard to take. But here’s what engineers often miss: marketers need to oversimplify details because the complexity that’s inherent to technical products gets in the way of storytelling and can obscure product benefits. Even when the audience is technical.
The elimination of details is what makes marketing prose sound insubstantial from an engineering point-of-view. Let’s look at it from the other angle: how many products have been sold based on the user’s manual? Not a lot. Marketing copy doesn’t need to do the job of a manual; its goal is to engage and interest the audience enough that they’ll start on the journey to buying the product.
Having crafted a great number of market-facing messages with technical staff present, I know this hard fact: engineers have a hard time not telling the truth, the complete truth, and nothing but the truth. The engineering compulsion to “correct” a simplified marketing message by inserting facts and disclaimers can turn a simple benefit into a message that’s convoluted, complex, and difficult to understand. And certainly not very sexy.
Let’s take an example of a fictitious GPS chip. Here’s a very specific feature described in highly technical language that you might find in a data sheet or technical manual:
- The GPS module outputs a pulse-per-second on pin 43 (PPS_IN) within +/- 20 ns of atomic time. Pin 40 (ACTIVE_LOCK) will be high when this signal is valid.
- Note: If the module has not had more than 4 satellites above the zenith for at least 30 consecutive seconds, pin 40 (ACTIVE_LOCK) will be low and the output on pin 43 (PPS_IN) will float.
This describes the behavior well enough to wire it up and write software to handle failure cases and contingencies. But while this language is good for building a schematic, it’s absolutely terrible for selling the product. You don’t want all of this detail, not to mention details that seem like product shortcomings. You might plant doubt whether people should buy it or not, even if the product offers extremely competitive performance.
An engineer’s translation of these features for a sales presentation might look something like this:
- Dedicated pulse-per-second output, accurate to +/- 20 ns
- Dedicated valid signal indicates satellite lock
It’s shorter, but is it better? It doesn’t really say why those features mater, and it still provides detail that’s not relevant until significantly later in the purchasing process. What about a marketing version?
- Our new GPS chip uses a dedicated time signal, delivering the extreme accuracy that’s ideal for applications that require industrial-grade precision such as astronomical instruments and surveillance equipment.
What?! This is even longer than the engineering version. We don’t say how accurate it is. Nope – that’s reserved for the data sheet. We don’t say it’s a pulse-per-second. Why? We don’t need those specifics at this stage of product investigation. We don’t say anything about loss of satellite lock because this is an implementation detail that isn’t important enough to share.
However, one thing we do mention is the two top markets our theoretical company sells to, allowing our target buyers to easily recognize the applicability of our product to their work. We also mention the benefit –extreme accuracy – without dipping down into the “speeds and feeds” of the data sheet.
Marketing copy for technical products says what the feature is in simply digestible language, but more importantly why the reader should care. It’s “fluffy” because it has a different goal – don’t distract the reader with excess detail if it’s not needed, and express product features in terms of the benefit it offers to the potential buyer. Ideally the level of detail should match the reader’s point in the sales funnel, having broader language at the top (attracting attention) and more specifics at the bottom (closing the sale).
Engineers should appreciate that if anything, marketing speak is highly efficient – marketing words have a purpose, and they’ll be cut away if not.
Engineers understand engineers and therefore know technology marketing better than marketers do
Here’s another one that is painful to marketing folks. Engineers like to tell marketers how to do their jobs. This is because the end user of a highly technical product is likely another engineer. As a result, whenever a marketer doesn’t understand some technobabble from an engineer, the latter is likely to say, “Don’t worry about it; our audience will understand”.
This approach is used by an engineer as a get-out-of jail card. The problem with it is it discredits what a marketer brings to the party. Maybe the marketer doesn’t understand the raw technical dump from the engineer, but conversely the engineer doesn’t fully understand what the marketer knows about positioning the product. The engineer likely hasn’t read the SWOTs and the market assessment, doesn’t know the competitive products in detail, and doesn’t fully appreciate the impact of industry trends and/or customer challenges.
More importantly perhaps, they don’t know the different personas, like who’s a decision maker and who’s an influencer. In most B2B technical sales, engineers are influencers, not decision makers, and more often than not, a marketer needs to elevate the message from what an engineer appreciates about a product to what a C-level executive needs to hear.
Marketing just adds a bit of polish
This is a belief that the design, look, or format of something is less relevant than the content. In other words, “Now that we have the product brochure text, we’ll send it over to marketing to have them pretty it up.” I will be the first to admit that I’ve been guilty of falling into this trap myself on occasion, and it’s very wrong-headed thinking.
Firstly, design and formatting matters. A lot. Maybe it wouldn’t matter if the ideal consumer was a machine or an algorithm, but if you’re like most other humans, you’re selling to another human. People respond to different stimuli, can be confused by inconsistency, can learn and understand things more easily in certain ways, and – even while reading a piece of marketing collateral – can experience a range of human emotions like excitement, temptation, annoyance, or anger.
Secondly, words matter. A lot. Sometimes we’ll get content from clients that is riddled with errors, poorly written, and/or confusing. Sometimes it lacks clarity to the point that it is hard to know what product they are actually selling. We would never just copy-edit these types of pieces, we’ll rewrite them. As the reader, if you have to work hard to ferret out the meaning from a mess like this, you’ll probably give up. You’ll also form an impression of the writer’s sloppiness and lack of professionalism, which may transfer to the product or even the company.
The way you visually structure information and the words you choose can have a tremendous impact on how material is absorbed by the reader. At Third Law, we know this and often debate the merits of how to structure a whitepaper template, which word we think connotes a clearer meaning, where we should use which fonts, how different colors mesh on a page, and exactly which images should accompany a blog. (If you still don’t believe me that design matters, here are a few examples of the differences format can make in fonts, websites, and road signs.)
Marketing is not a real discipline
If you tell an electrical engineer to guarantee his module won’t have more than 3ma leakage current, he’ll know what engineering principles and physical laws he needs to follow. If you tell a software engineer to guarantee her routine performs with O(n log n) or better, she’ll know which algorithms are appropriate and how to structure the code. Marketing isn’t quite so precise in approach or solution.
Rather than relying on formulaic principles or mathematical underpinnings, marketing is built on an understanding of human behavior and buying preferences. Unfortunately, humans are notoriously squishy. Marketing can’t deliver hard and fast rules to repeatedly produce identical results, making it less reliable than an engineer might like.
It’s good to remember that while marketing might be a softer skill than software or electrical engineering, there still is a large body of proven practice. Marketing practitioners generally follow established principles and best practices that are shown to work.
Rather than relying on formulaic principles or mathematical underpinnings, marketing is built on an understanding of human behavior and buying preferences.
If you build superior technology, you don’t need marketing
This is my absolute favourite fallacy, because the people who believe it seem to believe it fervently, even when there’s ample evidence to the contrary.
Many companies have failed because of this line of thought. The ancient VHS vs Betamax battle is one example, and another example that’s closer to home is BlackBerry, which tanked with high quality products – while Apple ate its lunch.
Don’t get me wrong; building an amazing product is a good first step. But a great product is only half the battle and it doesn’t make any guarantees. Many other things could affect its success:
- You build a product that no one wants.
- No one appreciates your product’s technical superiority.
- Your competitors, who have technically inferior products, invest a lot in marketing.
- No one is willing to pay what you want to charge.
- Your marketing efforts don’t effectively reach the right audience.
Believe me, you’ve got to combine good technology and good marketing if you want to sell lots of product.
Marketing is not a dirty word
I’ve lived on both the engineering and marketing sides of this divide (often falling into the abyss in between). To be perfectly honest, even though I’m now a full-time marketer, old habits die hard and my engineering hat might occasionally slide back on. This hat gives me superpowers: I become “smarter” than experienced marketers, allowing me to disregard proven strategies, ignore concrete metrics, and view the world through an engineering know-it-all approach to marketing. It’s good that I have Nancy there to slap me out of it.