When marketing to people you think you know, don’t be blinded by your own POV

I was lucky enough to experience totality during the recent full solar eclipse. Despite my knowledge, I could understand why someone might think it was OK to look right at the eclipse as it approached totality. The risk was deceptive — it seemed as clear as day (or rather, dark as night) that I could trust my senses to look straight up.

Good thing I had external data to contradict my sensory assumptions! But as I was thinking about it on the way home, I realized this experience reminded me in a way of something I’ve often noticed about marketing technology to developers (or to anyone, really). Let me take a step back and explain what I mean about the risk of confusing our own experience with the facts.

For every mythologized outsized success in Silicon Valley, there are many more also-rans and outright failures — even some spectacular bombs. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Risk and reward are central to the culture of innovation to which so many of us aspire.

But when risk-taking is confused with self-delusion, the odds of success go way down. And there’s no clearer form of this dangerous myopia than substituting our own point of view for that of our customers. That’s especially easy to do when our customers seem a lot like ourselves — as when we’re selling to other software developers.

Just consider a few notorious examples of self-sabotage in tech marketing.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Do you remember Iridium? In the late 1990s, Motorola pumped $5 billion into launching 66 satellites meant to deliver global wireless service to every corner of the planet. A seemingly elegant, macro-engineered solution to the challenge of global communications.

It quickly turned into one of the biggest tech fails of the last 20 years. Not just because its $3,000 handsets wouldn’t work inside some buildings or moving cars, but because cheaper, more prosaically engineered competitors — cellular phone networks — were busy growing international coverage while Motorola was putting Iridium in place.

By the time it was ready to go, Iridium only had utility for off-the-grid survivalists, oil rig operators, mineral exploration teams and the like. In other words, users who were nowhere near a cellular network, which by definition excluded 99.9 percent of the product’s potential customer base.

Iridium went bankrupt and was sold for pennies on the dollar to new managers who repositioned it to serve those exact types…

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