Honesty: A new type of tech marketing

There is that old joke -- How can you tell when a salesman is lying? His lips are moving! I still get a chuckle out of that one, even though, the vast majority of salespeople I’ve dealt with have been ethical, honest and sincere. But maybe that's because salespeople today, especially in high tech, have no reason to lie; they have the marketing department to do that for them. And all too often in high tech, marketing departments do get a little out of control.

Marketing is all about creating awareness and demand for products, whereas sales is about separating customers from their cash. I’m an engineer, but I made the transition into marketing a long time ago when I saw that salespeople often failed because they lacked good information from marketing. That information often was in the form of training, technical support and collateral material that optimized a salesperson’s use of time. Properly done, marketing is really the center of any high-tech corporation. The folks there analyze market trends, evaluate the competition, specify products and market them with flair.

All too often, though, that flair materializes as an outrageous perversion of specs. Almost every element of any high-tech product boils down to some sort of number -- so many megabits per second, so much battery life, so much size and weight. I call this the digital sell. All we have to work with in beating the competition are numbers, and the guy with the best numbers wins.

The opposite of this can be seen in most consumer marketing. This is the analog sell, in which intangibles like color and style make the difference. Buying a new car? It’s very likely that while you’ll consider safety, fuel economy and many other digital elements, it's the analog qualities that are most likely to close the deal. The same goes for audio systems (we use terms like "presence," "brilliance" and "imaging" here) and most other consumer electronics products that we buy.

Computers today have some analog qualities (primarily the styling of notebooks), but networks are entirely digital. All a network really does is move a given bit from point A to point B. In so doing, all that really matters is price (the cost to move that bit, including both capital equipment and any operational expense) and performance (how fast we can move the bit, and any time-bound constraints that the network needs to implement). We can introduce some analog value via ease-of-use, documentation, service, support and similar elements. But the price/performance ratio is the jacks-or-better to get into the game to begin with.

Since price is set by competition, the major variable that most network equipment vendors lead with is megabits per second. And, when it comes to wireless, there are megabits and megabits. For example, most “Draft n” wireless LAN products advertise speeds of 270Mbit/sec. and 300Mbit/sec. By one measure, they’re not lying, or even stretching the truth. The bits really do go over the air at those speeds. But those bits include packet overhead and other elements that result in much lower actual user throughput -- we’re lucky to get a third of those speeds. And, of course, no carrier guarantees data throughput; generalities are the order of the day. We get vague approximations, but no idea of what we might really get.

This, sadly, isn’t that different from a lot of other IT equipment we buy. Those printers really can’t print that many pages per minute, even on a good day, downhill, with a tailwind. You really can’t put 500GB on that disk, just because of the way disk space is allocated by the operating system. And so on.

I wonder, though, whether it is time to stop playing these silly little specsmanship games and tell consumers what they can really expect from a given product or service. There are even rumors floating around about the Federal Trade Commission getting involved. I personally hope it doesn’t come to that and that the industry starts to police itself. As I learned in sales school a very long time ago, the best way to create a satisfied customer is to set his or her expectations properly -- and companies that do may just find that the truth is the analog value advantage they’re looking for.

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