Atomic Object launched a new website back in November. While I believe the end result is very good, the time and effort it required surprised me. In the process I think I figured out why it is difficult to market companies like Atomic, and why it’s often done poorly.
I’ve come up with a HierArchy of Relative Difficulty (HARD). Where your company exists on the HARD scale determines how much time, money and expertise you’ll need to effectively market, or conversely, how likely you are to be marketing your company poorly.
No slight on the widget makers of the world, but their marketing challenge is pretty straightforward. The picture below illustrates the situation. Companies that make a concrete product have a straightforward marketing challenge. Describing the product isn’t difficult. It has known features, materials, quality, costs, and benefits of use. The marketing can be directed to the person who will both buy and use the product.
A service is inherently more abstract than a product. Service companies therefore have a tougher job in telling their story. The features and benefits of their service are less concrete. Pricing may be more complicated, and the relationship with the customer is more intimate and less transactional. Quality is more subjective. There are no materials.
When your company offers a service that you sell to your customers to create something another group of people actually use, you’ve taken a big step up in HARD.
Innovation service firms like Atomic are in this category. What we sell—our expertise and ability to create software products—is inherently abstract. The multi-party nature of what we do raises a lot of big questions:
- Which story you should be telling: the end user’s, the client’s, or your own? (All of them, I believe.)
- How do potential clients search for your service: by what they want, or by the practices and process that creates what they want? (Both, we find.)
- How do you describe what your service will cost? (Depends.)
- Can your service be marketed in isolation from the people who provide it? (We don’t believe so.)
- Do your clients care as much as you do about your super awesome, highly refined, carefully crafted practices and process? (Probably not.)
Why vs How and What
All of these factors complicate your marketing strategy and messaging. I believe they also explain why so many innovation service companies end up telling the story of “What” and “How”, but not “Why”.
As an example of this, consider Atomic Object. Our “What” is easy to describe:
We design and develop custom software products.
And all of us who are successful with an innovation services firm can describe in gory detail “How” we go about doing this:
Ethnographic research and contextual inquiry
Decomposition and buffered estimation
etc, etc, etc.
When you’re faced with crafting a message, organizing it into an information architecture, and creating a fresh new visual and interaction design, this all gets real—and really complicated. Thinking it through in order to ultimately wrestle our marketing monster down to a new website caused us to crystalize our company’s “Why”:
To pursue success for our clients — or die trying.
Communicating that mission statement in our new website took us to a very different end result than if we’d gone down the “what/how” road.
HARDest of all
The pinnacle of my HARD marketing scale is a challenge that a few of Atomic’s clients have posed. In a few cases, we’ve sold our software product development expertise to our client to create a framework for their clients to offer a service to their users. This is a complicated story to tell, and therefore a very difficult service to market.
HARD but useful
For innovation services firms, knowing about the HARD scale does not unfortunately make the marketing challenge any easier to resolve. But it might be helpful to figure out what to expect, and why these projects can be so difficult.
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