Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Stupid Isn’t: Product People Behind the Scenes

Long ago, I was a technology analyst. I tracked the technical and market development of new technologies in areas like artificial intelligence and digital video. The purpose was to forecast which technologies, companies, and products would be winners.

On a regular basis, I’d come across products where something was obviously wrong: nonsensical features, out-of-whack pricing, positioning for seemingly nonexistent audiences, and so on.

As consumers, when we see such things, we just shrug and move on. As a technology analyst, part of my job was to understand such anomalies. Were the people behind these products woefully misguided, or were they seeing something that others could not?

Over time, I met many product managers, product marketers, product evangelists, and the like. They were usually smart people who had reasons for why the seemingly wrong was right. Of course, those were judgment calls at the time; they were only right or wrong in retrospect. But most of the time, their perspectives were at least plausible, if not occasionally inspired.

This experience came to mind when I noticed Chris Anderson’s post about why the publisher Random House is not necessarily stupid. Author and prominent netizen Cory Doctorow had gone off on Random House’s Crown imprint for a limited-time free download of Scott Sigler’s Infected before its publication:

Publishers are schizophrenic and often end up acting really dumb in the service of trying to do something smart. Crown is putting Scott’s book online for free as a PDF, but they’re taking it down after only four days — presumably just in time to kill whatever momentum the downloads are generating....There’s no coherent explanation for a ticking-bomb download like this one; it’s like the hesitation marks on the wrists of a half-ass suicide.

Anderson contacted Crown and talked to Shawn Nicholls, Crown’s Online Marketing Manager, who provided a coherent explanation.

“We definitely subscribe to the believe that offering something online isn’t going to take away from sales,” says Nicholls. “The one thing I tried to do when we started this was to make a distinction between free music and free books. A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.”

But Crown also believes in the concept of artificial scarcity: “Our goal was to create some buzz. Four days of availability gives a sense of urgency and makes it more of an event,” he says. And although Crown did take the book down from its official site, Nicholls said that they wouldn’t stop people from mirroring it elsewhere for as long as they want.

Nicholls also provided numbers that suggest the promotion worked.

Reading Nicholls’ comments, I not only recalled similar conversations but was glad to see such conversations are increasingly happening in the public (blogo)sphere. To take another example, here is Glenn Keels, Dell’s Sr. Manager, Commercial Products Team, responding to critiques that Dell’s Latitude XT tablet computer is overpriced:

Probably the most important thing to note about tablet PCs is that we are talking about cutting-edge technology here.  If we just released the exact same technology as our competitors, we would be missing opportunities to drive this market to the next level - and this is an opportunity we did not want to miss.  The result is that our product does carry a slight premium to our competition (emphasis on the word “slight”).

We believe that when you take a look at like-to-like configurations AND the incremental technology (that customers have overwhelming told us they want to have), the value equation for the Latitude XT far exceeds that of competitive systems.

Keels goes on to provide a table summarizing key feature differences with competitive models from Lenovo and HP. Although product people at those companies would likely have their own representations of the playing field, I say bring them on. If the conversation can be had at this level, rather than through glossy one-sheets and other marketing shellac, consumers will be the winners.

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