You should not be selling a product — really

Ton Dobbe
Ton Dobbe
May 23 · 6 min read

I am currently making rapid progress with my first book about the core traits of a remarkable software business. One aspect to look at this is to drill down into the way they market and sell. What’s different, and why is that making the difference?

I mean, reflect on products or brands you admire. Products you’ve become a fan of. What you’ll recognize is that most of these products dominate a specific category. They outsell their peers, not by a factor of percentages, but typically take the more substantial part of the cake. Products you’ve become a fan of are also not sold at a discount. They come at a premium, and you’re happy to pay that premium.

So, beyond the fact, these products are good (but not necessarily the best), what sets them apart in the way they go to market? With this blog, I explore some of the secrets.

1) They sell the idea

One of the things that I’ve seen as a common red-line is their ability to draw you in, by selling an idea, not a product. Just look at vendors like Drift. They’re not selling a chatbot or a conversational marketing platform. They sell you the idea that the traditional way of marketing is over. The sell you on the idea of the ‘old way’ (before Drift) and the ‘new way’ (after Drift).

Slack does precisely the same. They don’t sell you a social collaboration tool. They make you imagine what you can accomplish together. It’s all about creating a big gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what can be.’

Take Evernote: They don’t sell you a tool to collect notes. No, instead they sell you on the idea to ‘feel organized without the effort.’ ‘So nothing falls through the cracks.’ That you will ‘remember everything important.’

Alternatively, Dropbox. They don’t sell you just another better file storage tool. They sell you on the idea of ‘Working better, safer, together.’

Also, First.io, one of my recent podcast guests sells you on the idea of ‘never losing another client.’

However, there’s more to this. By selling you the idea, not the product, these vendors can bring in a range of other instruments that work effectively.

2) They name ‘the villain’ / ‘the enemy.’

Instead of bashing their competitors they create a ‘common’ enemy.

Drift, for example, is making ‘forms’ the enemy. Forms on your website drag the process, they’re frustrating, they waste much time.

If you take a more in-depth look at Dropbox, they’re taking on the category of so-called ‘productivity tools.’ ‘These tools drain creativity, constantly ping, distract, and disrupt your team’s flow.’

X.AI goes even bolder: They attack scheduling tools with words, so nothing gets lost in translation: ‘Scheduling sucks’ (but then again we all know that, correct?)

The effect this has is that they can optimally position themselves and show their differentiation in a way that’s credible and memorable. They can stay away from the feature-function war that’s typically going on. They can 100% focus on showing the dramatic difference. Here’s where they win.

3) They sell an experience

This brings me to another aspect that’s front and center in the way remarkable business software companies communicate: They are focusing everything on the experience.

Drift is showing a diagram of the ‘before’ and ‘after.’ This works like a charm for them, as it helps them change perspectives with their prospective customers. Added to the visual they use words to further land the difference: ‘A bot qualifies leads 24/7,….and Sales reps spend time only with the best leads’.

Slack is not going into the weeds about the technicalities of their social collaboration tools. No, instead they drag you into their world by using words that visualize the effect their solution has on you: ‘It’s a place where conversations happen, decisions are made, and information is always at your fingertips. With Slack, your team is better connected.’

4) They touch upon emotions

Connected to selling the experience comes another beneficial element: Emotion. Emotion is often forgotten. We tend to make everything dry, very factual. However, remember, even the most fact hungry decision makers are people too. Decisions are often made with the heart, and that’s where emotion comes in — big time.

In all the examples above the focus is not on the facts, but the emotion. They’re naming the frustrations. They’re calling on the fears we have, or simply inspiring us with something just better.

Take another example: Salesforce.com. One of the things they successfully do is to address the natural aspiration people have to become successful. With Salesforce they’re selling you on the idea to ‘become a trailblazer.’ They smartly use that in every aspect of their go-to-market — at the highest level, all the way down to the product level.

Touching upon emotion becomes a natural aspect of your go-to-market once you take the route of selling the idea, not your product.

They talk with people, not at them

Another natural by-product of this shift from selling a product towards selling your idea is that it’s straightforward to make your messaging empathic with your target audience. In other words: You start speaking with them, rather than at them. This has a magical effect, and remarkable software firms cleverly use this to their advantage. The language they use free of BS, nothing gets lost in translation, and most of all, it’s very human.

Selling your idea, not your product almost forces you to step into the shoes of your ideal customers. Gusto has made an art of this. They’re in the payroll and HR business. Back-office software that’s not exactly the sexiest product to get to market.

They use the concept of selling the idea, not their product in a very effective way. Moreover, in doing so, they’ve become empathic with their ideal audience.

They start with the simple rallying cry: ‘It’s time to tame the chaos of payroll, benefits, and HR.’ They then use three down to earth, but compelling reasons to convince people, and make them believe:

1. Make payroll a breeze — 85% of customers say Gusto is easier to use than their previous payroll provider.

2. Get it right — 3 out of 4 customers say Gusto makes compliance easier.

3. Find your zen- 77% of customers say that Gusto takes tedious tasks off their plates.

Again, no features. Their decision-makers know what payroll is all about. They expect you have what it takes to deliver table stakes. Gusto understands this like no one else — therefore hones in on selling the idea, the experience, addressing the emotion, and talk with people, not at them.

They are building a tribe

Last but not least an effect of selling the idea, not the product, is that you attract an audience that believes. They don’t just buy into your product; they buy into your purpose — the idea you stand for. It unites like-minded people. It gives them a reason to come back for more.

Salesforce is an excellent example of a company that smartly uses this. They’re not just selling you on the idea to become a trailblazer. They’re making inviting you to a tribe of trailblazers — ‘a community of 2.3 million like-minded people, partners, and developers all brought together and driven by a common goal: blazing a trail for, and right alongside, their customers.’

This then results in yet another advantage: Your customers will start to share and tell your story. Their success will naturally reflect on you. That’s a win-win for everybody.

Share your views.

I am really eager to learn about your anecdotes on how selling the idea, not your product has helped you grow your relevance in your category.

About me

I am Ton, and I help business software CEOs reimagine what can be, to be remarkable (again). Too many software businesses fail to stand out in their category, thereby underplaying their real potential. That’s what I help them solve. I have over 27 experience in strategic product marketing, product strategy, and evangelism in the international enterprise business software space. For more info, visit http://valueinspiration.com

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.

Ton Dobbe

Written by

Ton Dobbe

I help business software CEOs reimagine what can be, to deliver remarkable impact (again)

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.