The Social Media Net

I kind of like the phrase “the social media net.” I doubt that I actually coined it, but I can’t think of exactly where I may have first heard it. Regardless, a net is one of the things that comes to mind when I think of social media marketing – a “fishing” net, not an “Inter” net.

As I’ve said many times before (I do understand that I may not have said it to you, but I have said it a lot to somebody) bad marketing is bad. Unfortunately, I see a lot of bad marketing, especially where social media is concerned. That is understandable. Social media is relatively new, and it changes so rapidly that it’s not easy gain a solid understanding of it before it changes again.

The single biggest mistake I see regarding social media, is in thinking that social media is an end in itself; not really understanding its value and what it can and will do for your company.

First, it’s important to understand that every company has a storefront, either physically or metaphorically. These days, many companies have more than one storefront. If customers come in to your building, that building is a store front of yours. If you have a website and that website is how people buy things from you, that website is a storefront. If people call you to buy, the phone is your store front. Whatever method customers use to buy from you is a storefront.

If you’re a non-profit, and you solicit donations or volunteers, whatever method people use to donate or sign up to volunteer is a storefront for you. Whatever your organization is, think of what it does with the outside world, and how it makes those interactions. That will be your storefront(s).

As a marketing person, your job is to find the right people – those that need what you have to offer and can afford it – and bring them to your storefront. That’s when sales takes over and helps the customer decide if your product is the right one.

That last paragraph contains the critical piece of information that many people miss when using social media in their business. I see a lot of marketeers working really hard to get people to their social media site, which is okay if you follow through and get them to your storefront. They don’t follow through.

They don’t take all of those people on their social media sites and then move them to a storefront. It might be really fun to have a million people visiting your Facebook page or YouTube videos, but it doesn’t help your business if they don’t end up at some place where they can buy from you..

Getting people to Facebook as an end can work for Coca Cola and Taco Bell, because their storefronts are all over the place. You don’t have that luxury. You don’t have your product on the shelf of every grocery store, convenience store and fast food place. If you do, you probably aren’t the engineer entrepreneur that I’m writing this for, so you can stop reading, run to Taco Bell and have a taco and a soda.

Your primary objective needs to be to collect people that are out on social media, and get them to your storefront – most likely that is your website. Think of the social media sites as nets and your website is your fishing boat. (see, I did get back to the metaphor) You’re dragging those nets and pulling the fish into your boat.

A strategy to get people to your Facebook page or Twitter feed is an awesome thing to do. But you also need a strategy for getting them from Facebook and Twitter to your website. If you forget that second part, you’re wasting a lot of time and opportunity.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your “follow me” social media links on your website. Doing that helps to bring them back you your storefront after they’ve come and gone. Just remember that’s secondary.

People spend a lot of time on social media. Your marketing objective is to find the people that need what you have and get them to your storefront. They are out there. Cast your net. Use social media to filter out the ones that don’t need what you have and filter in the people that do need what you have. Then get them to your storefront.

Signal to noise ratio

Signal to noise ratio is a pretty important factor in the world of electronics design, especially in Rf and analog design. Strangely enough, it’s also a critical part of marketing.

In many parts of the engineering community, the term “Marketing” essentially has a similar definition as the term “deception.” Point of fact, that is not the definition of the term. But a low signal to noise ratio can make it seem so. Fundamentally, marketing is about getting factual information to people who need it to make an informed decision. Deception is bad marketing.

Just as designing a noisy amp is a lot easier than designing a clean, low noise amp; noisy, unclear and even deceptive marketing is a lot easier than is good marketing. That’s why you see so much bad marketing. It’s easy. But we’re not here for “easy.” We’re here for accurate and important.

Creating high signal to noise ratio marketing doesn’t involve grounding and filters. Well, maybe it does. Just a different type of grounding and filtering. Keep yourself emotionally grounded and filter out what’s not important. It requires an understanding of what is important to your potential customers and the ability to differentiate between that and what’s important to you. If those are the same thing, you are luck, but they’re rarely exactly the same thing.

Hopefully, there is some overlap. If not, you’re likely trying to sell the wrong thing to the wrong people and that’s never a good thing. What you need to look for is overlap, and you need to understand your customers in order to find that overlap.

That may very well be one of the most difficult concepts for an entrepreneur to fully grasp: just because it’s important to you, doesn’t make it important to anyone else.

What you need to look for is overlap between what you do and what your customer needs to know to make an informed decision. That overlap is the key. It’s not about what you want to say. It’s not about telling someone what they want to hear. It’s about the overlap of what’s accurate from you and helpful to them. If it doesn’t help a potential customer understand how it will help them or isn’t accurate, it’s not good marketing.

What Is A Brand? Really?

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a brand is: “a category of products that are all made by a particular company and all have a particular name.”

That’s true, but that definition’s simplicity harkens back to the days of identifying cattle on the open range. Use in the business world of today has evolved to encompass a far more complex set of meanings. Today “brand” covers so much more than just a pattern burned into thick skin.

Brand, as commonly used in the business world, is the internal imagery and emotion evoked in someone’s mind when they hear a name or see a logo. It’s more than just an identifying mark, it is the identity, the personality, and the definition.

Going back to the Old West metaphor, think about a couple of range hands spotting someone else’s cattle. They see the mark branded into the animals. If they’ve met or heard about the owner, they will have an emotional reaction.

If the cattle belong to Hank, across yonder dry creek, and Hank’s a mean son of a gun that won’t take nothin’ from nobody, the reaction upon seeing the mark might be one of fear. On the other hand, if they belong to the kind and open Miller family, down by the big oak tree – the one with the crooked trunk – the reaction might be warmth and memories of fresh Apple pie and good conversation. That’s the brand: “Hank” = fear at the point of a gun. “Miller” = good times and good food. The mark isn’t the brand. It just represents the brand.

Most companies aspire to have a positive brand, but regardless of aspiration, it is behavior that determines what the outside world thinks of a company. And that’s the given brand: what people outside the company think.

The “given” brand is more important than the aspirational brand. It’s what counts. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what you think; if you don’t act to inspire the brand you want, you won’t have it.

What this means is brand is not just something used in the marketing department. Even if the company doesn’t consider or put effort into the brand, it will still have a brand. Everything you do; everything that anyone sees; it all goes into the brand that outsiders assign to you.

How do you get the brand you want?

Building and nurturing a brand comes from your behavior. That’s why most small companies have a brand that is very much a reflection of the personality of the proprietor. A person usually acts in a small business as they are in person.

It gets more complex when employees are involved. Unless all of the employees share the same personality traits, the company brand will devolve from that of the owner. It will become a conglomerate of the most prominent personality traits of all employees.

A sales rep that’s perpetually grumpy, and vocal about their grumpiness, can cause the company to be given “grumpy” as a brand attribute. A half dozen polite, but quiet sales reps may not be able to cancel out one loud and grumpy rep.

A strong, positive, marketing campaign can start to create the image of a helpful company, but it can only start the process. The company, through its behavior, will outweigh anything that’s in print. That weight can be either positive or negative, based on behavior.

What to Write

Marketing should be easy. It should be just about the easiest thing you can do. Marketing is just getting the word out. Right? That can’t be too difficult.

Yes, marketing is just getting the word out. The big challenge, though, comes in deciding which words to get out. In the marketing world, we call this “messaging”, and like so many things in Marketing, it’s really more dependent on who will be reading it than who is writing it.

In marketing, what you want to say is less important than what a customer cares about. That doesn’t mean say what the customer wants to hear, regardless of truth. That’s bad marketing.

No, it means pull out the parts of the real story that a customer will care about, and toss the rest aside for now. No matter how important a fact is to you, if it’s not important to your audience, it’s simply not relevant. If it won’t help them make an intelligent purchasing decision, it’s not important right now. It will just get in the way.

It is possible to find examples that contradict this advice, but they generally involve significant amounts of money. One of the best goes back to the “Intel inside” advertising campaign. Before Intel started that campaign, few people outside of the tech world knew what a CPU is, what the difference is between CPUs, nor did they really care. Intel spent enough money to make people care. You don’t have that kind of money.

Picking words for marketing is actually quite closely related to product design. Product design is about learning what’s important to the person using your product. Messaging is about learning what elements of what your product does are important to the people buying your product; what aspects of you or your product will make a customer comfortable and confident enough to buy it.

As an engineer, you know that a muffler belt won’t work without a good solid polysided freem modulator. You know that your freem modulator is more polysided than any other on the market. It seems quite logical that a customer would need to know that. Right?

Some will. Some won’t. Understanding which camp your customers fall into can be the difference between growing your business, and looking for a job working for someone else.

If the minimum acceptable working polisidedness is 10, and yours is 20, should you focus on the fact that yours is 20, while your competitors is 17? If that’s what the majority of your customers care about, then, yes.

However, it’s entirely possible that your customers just care that polisideness is greater than 10, and beyond that, they care about something else. Given that, you may find that you over built, and would have been better off with 15 polished polisides instead of 17 or 20 unpolished polisides.

That’s what messaging is about; the cross over of what your product does and what’s important to your customers. Find that and you will know what to write when trying to sell your product.

The Crowdfunding Pricing Paradox

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 6

I’ve haunted the working world for quite a while and have found that more often than not, common business workings are over complicated. I doubt that it’s intentional in most cases; some of the tasks and concepts we business folks deal with just don’t make a lot of sense from the surface viewpoint, even if they do under the hood.

Crowdfunding hasn’t helped much to relieve the lack of clarity. It’s made the inside of the process more accessible, but hasn’t made it any more clear. From what I see, that’s why a fairly large number of seemingly good crowdfunded projects either fail to get funded, or “succeed”, but don’t turn into a viable business.

Not long ago, I decided to take a closer look, and paired up with a friend to run a Kickstarter campaign. We did it twice for the same product. The first time failed, only reaching about 30% of the funding goal. The second succeeded, bringing in nearly twice the funding goal. What I discovered is that a crowdfunded business is not terribly different from any other business. The funding rules, and the order of things, or course differ, but the “business” is still just a business.

Profitability models work different at different volumes

Our first attempt with the Kickstarter garnered more dollars: $4,224, from 78 backers vs. $3,867 from 98 backers in the second attempt. But, the first one was overpriced and over ambitious. We had set a funding goal of $14,000. The second time, we lowered prices and lowered the goal to $2,000.

I’ll use a rounded example to illustrate why the $3,867 wasn’t as much a payout as it might seem. The numbers are from a hypothetical example, but are more than accurate enough for the illustration. We’ll be looking at a small electronic device.

At a targeted sales number of 100 units, the total cost of parts and packaging is $15.00 each. You can hand build the 100 over a few weekends, so you call that a zero manufacturing cost. Shipping costs you $3.00, and you include it in the selling price. Similar products sell for $25.00, so that’s what you set the price at. The crowdfunding goal is $2,500. A successful campaign brings in $2500, less $1500 in parts, less $300 postage, giving you $700.00 profit after all is said and done. Except, the funding website will take 10% of your $2,500, leaving you with $450.00.

If you over fund with 200 backers, receiving $5,000, you’ll still be in decent shape. Jumping from quantity 100 to 200 probably isn’t enough of of an increase in volume to get more than a tiny reduction in parts cost, and shipping will still be $3.00. It may be a stretch, but you can still hand build the 200 units, maybe with the help of a friend or two. $5,000 funding, less 10% fees, less $3,000 in parts, less $600 in shipping equals $900. You took your helper friend out for pizza and beer after, for $50.00. The $850.00 left starts to feel like real money.

In another scenario, your device ends up really popular and sells 1,000, for a funding amount of $25,000; less 10% fees, or $22,500. Parts costs drop in half. Shipping does not. You see that nice “profit” number, $12,000, and get excited. But… You don’t have enough friends (or tolerance among friends) to hand build 1,000 units. It’s simply not practical.

Scaling up doesn’t always make it less expensive

In the US, you can find a manufacturer that will assemble the boards for $10.00 each. To avoid handling $7,500 worth of parts, you have the manufacturer purchase them, for an added 10% markup. Your $12,000 drops by $750 for the parts markup, and $10,000 for the manufacturing cost, leaving $1,250. Your buddy helps to tape boxes, place address labels, and carry boxes to the post office, so you still pay $50.00 for pizza and beer. 1,000 boxes is a lot, so it’s going to cost you $100 for two dinners of pizza and beer.

The $1,150 is nothing to shake a stick at, but really? You sold ten times what you expected, and didn’t quite make two and a half times the cash profit?

Still, it was a successful Kickstarter. It was wildly popular, so you’ve got a viable business. Right? Well, with $1,150, you can’t even buy enough parts to build your original 100 target, let alone enough to get good volume discounts. And without the Kickstarter hype, you’ll have to pay to market the product. If you build 25 at a time, the parts cost goes up to $20.00, shipping still costs $3.00. You don’t have to pay to have it built, or any of those fees off the top, so you earn $2.00 for each one of those 25 that you sell.

That’s not enough money to build a website or do any advertizing. Fortunately, there’s Tindie, a web market place designed for post-crowdfunding products like yours. They have a very reasonable fee structure, only charging 5%. That’s $1.25, leaving you with $0.75 profit per board.

If you look for an offshore manufacturer, you might be able to drop the build cost to $5.00. That immediately adds $5,000 to your bottom line. You will, however need to have the manufacturers build a small pilot run to makes sure it will be built correctly, for around $500.00. You can add nearly a month to the fulfillment time for this.

Provided it all works out, you’ll want to up the quantity by 20 – 30% to make sure you get enough working boards. 80% would not be an unheard of yield at the cheap offshore manufacturers. An extra 25% would run you $3,125. You’ll also need to 100% test the boards, or develop a test program at the manufacturer, taking more time and money. Build, test, and shipping will add another month. Now you’re up to about $2,500, with two extra months to the delivery time. Don’t forget the 30% that will go to taxes. You’re left with $1,700.00. Nice money, but probably not so much when you add up the time involved.

These numbers are not close enough to copy, but are close enough to use as a case study illustrating that it can be pretty easy to build a product with crowdfunding. Turning the product into a business is a different story. It is possible to build a business out of a crowdfunding campaign. It’s just not much easier than it is to build a business without it.

I’ll follow this up another day with some thoughts on getting closer to a viable business after the campaign.

Stage 3 Marketing

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 5

As an engineer entering the land of entrepreneurship, you know (over simplification warning) design can be split into two philosophies: hack & patch, or engineer it. I suspect that all but lazy people would prefer the “engineer it” method over “hack & patch.” Unfortunately, we aren’t’ always given enough time or resources to do it right, which leads to the common expression: “Never time to do it right, but always time to do it over.”

A similar concept applies in marketing; except that if you do a rush job on a brochure, no one gets electrocuted. Much less is at stake, and sometimes the “hack & patch”, or “rush job” is more appropriate. With marketing, you can still get by with a rush job if that’s all the time you have. You just have to do it properly. In fact, early on in your entrepreneurship journey, you’re usually better off putting the majority of effort into getting your product right, and only the minimum effective into marketing. Shoot for the minimum effective point in your marketing and put the rest of your resources into the product.

Minimum effective marketing does not equal “ugly” (although, it might very well be). It means, even though you’d love great graphic design, what you need, is simply a clear, accurate message. The message is always the most important part of marketing, and it can stand on its own. A design without the message, however, can not.

Keep in mind that if you’re a well-funded company, you’ll have people to do the marketing for you. That’s not what I’m talking about. This is for the shoestring engineer trying to get a business going. As the entrepreneur, you have three stages of marketing to concern yourself with.

Stage zero marketing

A count typically starts at zero in the digital world, but stage zero marketing is no marketing at all. Don’t go here. You have to do some or no one will know about your product.

Stage one marketing

This is the most common starting place for a new small venture. It can be done wrong, or it can be done right. Please do it right. Done right, it’s clear and concise. It’s easy to read and understand.

In the print world, stage one materials are simple typed information on a page. In the digital world, stage one is a template-based website, simple posts on Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn, and a few photos or illustrations. The photos aren’t overly cluttered. It’s all simple, inexpensive, easy to produce, and gets the message across. Form isn’t or primary importance. Your only criteria on the form is that it can’t be so poor that it gets in the way of function. If stage one is all you’ve got the time for, go for it. No need to be clever. Just be clear, and don’t try to push too much.

What you want to say isn’t important. What is important is what your potential customers need to know in order to make an informed decision. This is not the time to be in love with yourself. Think about what would be important to a customer and focus on communicating that.

Stage two marketing

You’re a little further along and want to present a better image, so you invest in some layout, either in house, or contracted. Stage two materials are still fairly simple and very clear. Efforts toward making it nice just enhance the message. Form does help, to the extent that it makes the message more readable and more approachable. Polish is there to enhance, not clutter.

On the web, you’ve got a decent layout, with information divided up into bite size pieces, and well organized. The imagery fits what you are trying to do, and can be related to by your customers. You’ll be more active in the appropriate social media and will be building a following.

Stage three marketing

This is where you decide to say: “We’ve arrived!” You’ve got funding, or have hit a revenue threshold, and want to show the world that you’re somebody. You’ve created a world beater and it needs to be dressed like one. It’s time for the BMW and the Armani suit. You’ve earned the splash and flash and anyone who says otherwise just doesn’t get it.

Right? Anyone? Anyone?

I speak from experience; almost every startup gets to this point, and it’s easy to spot. In the print world, it comes in 8 x 10” brochures, extra thick paper, high gloss or metallic ink. On the web, it’s elaborate FLASH animation, high production value videos, and a lot of “look at me” messaging. The problem with stage three, is that the urge to stand out and be clever overrides the instinct to actually communicate.

I’ve seen numerous examples of stage three material over the years. They are all beautiful, and they all communicate virtually nothing about what is being sold and why anyone should care. Stage three is also far more expensive than it needs to be. It’s usually so expensive, that it has to be rationed out. This is the type of material that give marketing a bad name.

Stage four marketing

If you’re wise and care about sales and profit, you’ll skip over stage three and jump here, to stage four. Stage four is only a bit more elaborate than stage two. Again, form is only important to the extent that it helps the message. Stage four materials are attractive. They’re clear, and convey a message of value. Prospects and customers feel connected to what you’re selling and can easily find the information they need.

Appearance is important. That’s why cars come in more than one color, but appearance is always secondary to communication. If anything you do in marketing does not help potential customers understand you and your product, toss it.


One two three four, who are we marketing for?

Minimalist Market Segmentation

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 4

As an engineer entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard the phrase “market segmentation.” If you haven’t, you really should have, and, well… now you have. It is one of the more important components of marketing. Like many others, it can seem intentionally obscure and overly complex. If we look it up in Wikipedia, we get this:

Market segmentation is a marketing strategy which involves dividing a broad target market into subsets of consumers, businesses, or countries that have, or are perceived to have, common needs, interests, and priorities, and then designing and implementing strategies to target them. Market segmentation strategies are generally used to identify and further define the target customers, and provide supporting data for marketing plan elements such as positioning to achieve certain marketing plan objectives. Businesses may develop product differentiation startegies, or an undiffreentiated approach, invovling sepcific prudocts or prokuct lins depefgding on thi spacijic deodnd and attriribkfgstes oh ywe tdgfswet dgjkent dfkasj kdlkl ksdjgklj gj lksjg lfg zzzzz zzzzz…

Sorry. I sort of lost consciousness there at the end. It reads like whomever wrote it was more concerned about showing their “expertise” than about actually communicating.

It is all true, but as with most other marketing duties, much of the detail can be set aside when you’re just starting out. Your task, which I’m about to help with, is to figure out what you have to do now, and what you can hire some marketing geek to do for you a year or so down the road.

As an entrepreneur, you presumably have a product, or plans for a product, that meets some sort of a need. You also know that a product can’t be a successful business without customers, and that’s where segmentation comes in. To boil it all down:

  • If you want customers, you must know what they need
  • Once you know what they need, you must know where to find them
  • If you can find them, you must understand their language

Those statements are what market segmentation is all about. It’s about grouping people – grouping them based on where they are (physically or metaphorically), what they need, and how they speak. Then, you can look for the best places to find them, and the right way to speak to them.

Let’s set the scene: You have developed an automatic, Internet connected, Bluetooth enabled, Arduino compatible, rib-eye steak grilling attachment for backyard barbecues. In many ways, it’s a frivolous toy. A normal person would rather stand out in the backyard with the barbecue smoke and a beer than take the time to set up the BlueTooth and I.P. connections.

Automatic, Internet connected, Bluetooth enabled, Arduino
compatible, rib-eye steak grilling attachment for barbecues

However, this product of yours isn’t made for normal people. It’s made for gadget freak open source developers that don’t have a lot of free time. With your device, they can throw the steak on the grill, use a smart phone to light the BBQ up, and set the perfect point between raw and crispy with the app that goes with it.

Once back inside hacking their Arduino, they’ll get a periodic pop-up with steak status updates. As soon as the rib-eye is done, the Arduino IDE will halt and send the user out to pull the perfect steak off the grill. At about the same time, all of the griller’s friends, who had been monitoring the cooking progress with your iPhone or Android app, show up ready to eat. The app told them exactly when to leave their houses, based on distance, traffic, and cooking time. The group can all eat together with minimal time wasted or need for small talk. Fun party.

With that scene in mind, you need to find people that might want to buy it.

Step one: What do they need (and what don’t they need)?

What these people need is to show off their gadget freakness, and not waste time away from their open source hobby. These folks don’t care about wine pairings, what kind of salad will go best, or having people show up ahead of the meal for relaxed conversation

Step two: Where are they?

Not in the backyard poking at a steak on the grill… I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what websites they visit, what magazines they read (yes. Some people still do read paper things), and what movements they support.

The ideal customer is a gadget freak – especially into connected gadgets, an open source hardware enthusiast, likes to barbecue meat, and is probably a bit of an introvert. You’ll likely find them reading Wired, Gizmodo, Hackaday, Makezine, and others of that ilk. They probably go to Maker Faire and other maker and open source meetups.

Step three: How do they talk?

They’re open source gadget freaks, so it will be okay to use terms that show up in the technology world. They know what an Arduino is, so you don’t have to explain it. They know what an I.P. address is, so you don’t have to explain that either. Still, don’t assume they have the same knowledge you have in your head about your product. It’s quite likely that they don’t know cooking terms like “caramelized”, “seared”, or “rest.” If you use words that your customers might not know, define them, or substitute terms they will know.

Now what?

Go to those websites and magazines and read. See how stories are written and how advertisements are put together. Compare good ones to bad ones. When you’re ready, these are the places you’ll put ads and/or work to get stories published. This is also where you learn about the words people use to describe gadgets, which will help if you advertise with Google Adwords (or other pay per click advertising).

Don’t bother to try and demo your device at the county fare. Your customers won’t be there. Sign up for a booth at Maker Faire. Get one outside so you can demonstrate and give out samples. Be clever, and see if you can connect with the Maker Faire app. Have your device let meat eaters know when to show up at your booth (and non-meat eaters know when to stay away). Go to meetups and show it off. Put your story up on Hackaday.

Segmentation tells you where to go to tell the world (your world), and how to tell the world about your great invention. The process can be a lot more complex, but you can leave the subtleties for later.

Secret Dialects of Marketing

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 3

Much of marketing can be summed up with the word “communication.” It’s communicating about a product or service, about wants and needs, or the past and the future. Good marketeers take this to heart and work hard to understand their market. But, it’s more than just understanding the market; it’s understanding all aspects of their language.

I often talk about the language, or dialect, that people use. When I do, I’m not talking about English English vs. USA English. I’m talking about the difference between hearing and speaking; or between reading and writing. And I’m talking about that within the same person. Knowing the difference is often the deciding factor between winning or losing this game.

Speaking of games, in baseball, right handed players catch the ball with their left hand and throw with their right. Lefties do the opposite. Except me. Baseball was always difficult for me because I both catch and throw with my right hand. It slows things down considerably when you catch the ball in your right hand, take it out of your glove with the left, drop your mit, hand the ball back to your right hand, throw it with your right hand, and then pick your mit up off the ground.

In the same vein, a lot of people speak and listen in different dialects. Like the baseball, information comes in one way, and goes out another. If you don’t plan your communication with that in mind, your conversation may go over about as well as I would as a shortstop in game seven of the world series. The thing is, most people don’t realize that they do this. It’s a perfectly normal, but often not recognized aspect of human communication.

Is it “form over function”
or “function over form”?

Case in point, electrical engineers. Material written by a typical engineer is detailed, accurate, comprehensive, and often barely readable by anyone but the author. A common phrase heard in the technical world is that the content is what’s important, not the spelling or grammar. An interesting contradiction is that engineers are often the quickest, harshest, and most pedantic of the “grammar police” that toss flame around in the social media world when someone chooses the wrong member of the set “there, their, or they’re.”

I maintain that both statements: “it’s form over function” and, the counterpoint: “it’s function over form” are incorrect. The correct maxim is: “form can’t get in the way of function.”

Form works with engineers. It works with everybody. Good advertising works with engineers. Where marketeers run into trouble is when they consider form to be too important, and they obscure the message. The reverse, putting too much weight on function, and not enough on form will be just as ineffective.

Engineers getting into marketing, either as an entrepreneur, for their own startup, or as one moving from a technical job into one that requires a lot of writing, need to pay special attention to this phenomena. You can’t write for yourself.

Anyone, not just people in the same technical field, should be able to read good writing. They may not understand all of the technical details, but they should be able to comfortably read and feel a sense of organization. Order, structure, and simplicity are important, regardless of the intended audience. My recommendation is that you have someone, with a lot less knowledge of your subject than you have, read your material. If they can get through it, you’re at least on the right track.

An Engineer Entrepreneur’s First Brand Lesson

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 2

If you’re an engineer starting a business, do you need to worry about the business’s brand?

In a word: yes.

You don’t need to make a big project out of it at the start. It can be as simple as a collection of notes. But simple or complex, you really need to start right away. Doing so will make things much easier down the road. The nice thing is that you can get started quite small. You don’t even have to call it a plan. At this point, it can just be a vision. (If the word “vision” seems too buzzwordy, then just call it “a bunch of ideas”)

What is it?

A brand has a lot in common with a person’s personality and reputation. It’s close enough that you can think in those terms. And, think, you should. Think about what you would like people (customers, employees, friends, family, etc.) to think and feel when they hear your company’s name.

What personality do you want your company to have?

  • Are you mean and gruff?
  • Are you nice?
    • Quiet?
    • Loud?
    • Helpful?
    • Athletic?
    • Sedentary?
    • Reliable to a fault?
    • Usually reliable?

Will you strive to be perfect, just okay, or a bit better than “good enough”? Do you want people to see you as having the best technology, or the best price? Go on with questions like that. Write down your questions, and write down your answers. You can carry a small note pad and pen around, but I suggest that you use a memo application on your phone. You’ll always have it with you, and it’s quick and easy to use.

When you walk into a grocery store, look at the signs. Do they strike you as inviting, or cold? When you get new tires for your car, watch how you’re treated. When you order parts online, consider how easy or difficult the web site is to use. Will any of that, or something similar, apply to your business? If so, jot down a quick note about it. Make a note any time you see or think of anything that triggers thoughts of what you want your business to be like.

You’ll collect all of these notes and clean them up a bit. These will become your brand attributes. They are the seed of a brand for your company.

Once you have this seed, you’ll use it to guide business decisions – all of them. For example; if financially fugal is one of your chose attributes, you won’t go out and rent a big office with mahogany paneling. If you want to be seen as leading edge in the media world, you might buy Mac laptops instead of clunky desktop Windows PCs.

Every thing you do and say, all of the time; it is all part of your brand.

A few example notes:

  • Am I cheap or expensive? Neither – I just want people to feel like they got a bit more than their money’s worth.
  • What about flashy? A little, but only where relevant. I don’t want fancy boxes, but I want them to look befitting of new technology.
  • I’m selling to engineers in banks, so casual suits if I’m in the front office, but no suits when I’m not.
  • Do I want people to envy my lifestyle? No, I want them to see me as a crazy workaholic.
  • What about getting in touch with me? I don’t think phone support is necessary for all of my customers, but I think email should be answered within an hour.
  • Am I “big industry”? No. I’m nimble and “new economy.” I should get a small office in a recently gentrified part of town, instead of in a mid-city office building.

Keep going. It can be as simple as that. You can get more formal and organized with it later.


What is Marketing in the world of Engineers?

Marketing for non-marketeers, lesson 1

Good marketing requires a black-box of arcane knowledge and magic spells – or does it? No, despite what many marketing folks would like you to believe, it does not. While marketing can seem mysterious, it really comes down to a few key tactics. Even in today’s hurricane of ever changing social media, the fundamentals still apply, and the challenge can be boiled down to manageable chunks.

The start-up engineer entrepreneur has a few more challenges than an established business has. First, the language and lingo commonly associated with marketing are so different than what is spoken in the engineering lab. Second, as an early stage start-up entrepreneur, you typically don’t have the money required for a solid marketing campaign.


At the most basic level, marketing is the process of describing what you do, to people who need what you do. To describe it, you need to translate from your language into their language. You also need to concern yourself with the presentation of that information. That doesn’t mean form takes precedence over function. What it means is that both form and function are important, and form cannot get in the way of function. It’s common to hear that spelling and punctuation don’t matter in the technology world; just the message matters. But, one only need spend a few minutes online to see how fast your audience can get distracted by “there” vs. “they’re.” Once that happens, you are no longer communicating. Your message is lost.

You need to find those people who need what you do or have. You need to find them, understand them, and go where they are. What do your customers read? Where do they read it? Do they talk amongst themselves about the sort of thing you do? Do they make the buying decision, or just give recommendations. A good example if this challenge is the example of children’s products. The child doesn’t buy it. The parent does. The child recommends it (sometimes quite loudly), so who do you need to market to? In the business world, this pairing is often an engineer and a purchasing agent with an approved vendor list. Engineers and purchasing agents speak a different language; have vastly different interests, and read different web sites Which do you need to sell to?