Originally Published: Monday, 6 September 1999 Author: Ed Matthews
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux and Traditional Marketing in the Internet Age


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In this week's U.S. News & World Report magazine, an advertisement for Dell computers shows a white male in a dark suit, late 50s, peering toward us over a laptop. Next to him, we read what are presumably his thoughts, "We didn't want a vendor, we wanted a one-to-one relationship." The ad goes on to tell us that Dell's direct sales business strategy "isn't a shortcut; it's a philosophy of creating value for every customer."

As a Linux user, are you sold? Are you even interested?

Further down page two of the ad we find a list of the actual products and services Dell is selling, but it's buried in a column of text. A quick glance is supposde to leave the reader only with a projection of trust and confidence

Before I continue with a little analysis of sales and marketing, I want to note that this sales message is not unique to Dell. These days everyone from my banker to my auto mechanic wants to have a relationship with me, instead of just offering courteous, efficient service. This week, this ad jumped out at me and prompted the following questions, to which I will offer answers and explanation.

Will traditional selling work with Linux? Yes, because in traditional sales cycles, true users are not consulted enough. Companies continue to sell their wares using buzzwords and handshakes because it works. Despite the growing influence of Cluetrain-type thinking, executives far from the IS departments their companies now run on continue to make purchasing decisions about products they don't fully understand. Because they don't fully understand the technology, they rely somewhat on the content from requests for proposals (RFPs), but more on the impressions salespersons and vendor executives give them. They don't, as a rule, ask the sales team to demonstrate how the software works in various environments, when applied to specific tasks. So, when IBM and Compaq start pitching servers to Fortune 500 and 100 companies, they will use what has worked in the past, visions of stability, support, and relationships.

Will open source and the Web change the nature of selling when it comes to Linux? Not until the decision makers change the process. What kind of research does she perform before purchasing? How web savvy is he? Again, to borrow from Cluetrain, does she regularly use the web to *converse* with others who have purchased from the same vendor? The amount of knowledge exchanged online is greater for Linux than for most products sold today, but is mostly exchanged among technical users. When the executive level customer joins the discussion, she'll cut through "dynamic value propositions" and "business to business" market speak to get some facts about what a Linux server really has to offer. Until purchasers join the discussion, either online or by including their IS staff, marketing Linux will occur the same way as for most other products.

Will the technical Linux community continue to support companies that sell using a kind of buzzword babble? This is an interesting question because, if buzzword babble gets Linux in the door, and the IS deparment wants it, where's the problem? It becomes an issue of reliability and integrity. When multiple companies are selling the same product, they have to find some type of differentiator. If, in the process of defining their strengths, they maintain integrity, they'll maintain community support. By integrity, I mean are their customers pleased with the results they're receiving from their Linux purchase? When you chat with an IS person from one of the vendor-company's clients, are their reports positive? Does the company give back to the Linux code base? Do they maintain standards?

When vendors misstep, you can be sure the netizens will speak. Likewise, when a vendor can be trusted, that will become widely known, too. Because of this, traditional sales methods and language will gradually work only with customers who use traditional means of gathering information. Those who don't buy and sell using the product information from the web will find themselves in a smaller and smaller group. As the web equipped customer becomes the norm, plain spoken language and performance history, not promises, will set apart the Linux leaders.

Comments? Email the author of this piece.





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