The Myth of the Product that Sells Itself

The conversation often goes like this:

Me: My ad agency works with startups to get their name, brand messaging, and marketing strategies right.
Person: That’s interesting, but don’t the really great products just sell themselves? They don’t really need marketing.


Ah, the Bigfoot of the Valley. The Self-Selling Product. An invention so brilliant, so perfect, it can survive and grow without marketing of any kind.

Everyone’s heard the stories. We’ve all seen the blurry photos and watched the shaky 8mm footage. A lucky few even claim they’ve encountered this evolutionary marvel in the wild. So with all this evidence, how is it no one’s ever managed to capture this elusive creature for study?

Because it’s not a creature.

It’s a guy in a gorilla suit.

Self-Selling Products don’t exist. If they did, you wouldn’t see 2000 TV spots a day for Coke, BMW, Visa and Allstate. The assertion that your product can succeed entirely on its own merits without the help of marketing on at least some level is at best lazy, at worst delusional, and in all cases self-defeating.

What they really mean

When people say say a product sells itself, what they really mean is lots of people become customers or users without the use of outbound marketing, e.g. paid channels like display, SEM, or Facebook, or by other discrete marketing efforts.

Instagram is the example du jour.

What they don’t account for is PR work, the blog posts that killed it on HN, the fact that the product had a great name, brand, and design to begin with, the beautiful and addictive nature of the UI, or the highly effective viral mechanics built into the product. All these things are facets of marketing.

You’re already marketing your product whether you know it or not.

Instagram did indeed have a great name and a sexy icon. They also built-in virality, i.e. simple sharing to Facebook and Twitter, that took them to market.

In reality, “selling itself” = solution for user + usability + virality + overall good experience, and typically some form of casual promotion (HN, sharing on FB, email to all your friends).

Is it possible that something with great design that’s easy to use and provides value to the user won’t necessarily need a traditional marketing plan? Yes. But as soon as the viral loop fires up or the moment you send an email to your friends or post a “Show HN” thing on Hacker News, it’s no longer selling itself. You are selling it, and when all goes well, your users begin selling it for you.

Purposeful actions have led to its growth, not magic.

The only way to be succeed?

So if your product isn’t going viral and users aren’t signing up by the thousands-per-day, if it is not indeed selling itself, should you shut it down and dive into the deadpool? Maybe. But not always.

It could be that you’ve built something great, but viral spread just ain’t happening. Or maybe you’re driving traffic to your landing page, but the copy is so messy that no one understands the benefit to them. Or perhaps your audience can’t take you seriously because your name is unclear or amateurish.

In those cases intentional actions are needed. That could mean brand work, copywriting, PR efforts, or deliberate growth hacking strategies. And you know what?

That’s okay.

Normal even.

Obviously, marketing activities will never save a bad product. As Bill Bernbach said in the 60s,

A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.

But good marketing can certainly help good products grow. And since you’re already doing some form of marketing anyway, you might as well take steps to do it effectively. And that’s how you demystify the Bigfoot the Valley: admitting that the self-selling product is a myth, and begin taking intentional actions to optimize the was various ways your product goes to market.


Still need help? I’m offering free 30-minute Google Hangout office hour sessions to take questions about startup branding and messaging. No strings attached. Get in touch if that interests you.