OPINION: Marketing ploy challenges traditional role of industry

Patrick Woodward explains how giving away software increases the chances of getting publicity for a computer product launch without the cost of agency work

Patrick Woodward explains how giving away software increases the chances

of getting publicity for a computer product launch without the cost of

agency work

Ever heard of Doom, the biggest selling PC game ever? Or Netscape -

created by a 22 year old and floated for dollars 2 billion last year?

If these don’t ring bells with Campaign readers it’s not surprising;

they didn’t have any advertising budgets to speak of.

They’re not the only ones.You could also see this launch strategy at

work with Windows ’95. As one of the biggest product launches ever,

you’d have expected it to have a conventional advertising element. But,

as in other software launches, thousands of copies were given away.

Millions more were sold for peanuts.

Software is usually given away in what is called ‘beta test’ form. It

goes to software and hardware developers, journalists, and anyone who’s

anyone in the computer world.

Potential critics, flattered at being asked their opinion, are

transformed into unpaid workers. They find bugs, develop features and

act as a production resource, solving problems that would sink a

conventional launch on day one.

Just as important, they are also opinion formers, the people Hollywood

targets. There is a name for them: avids, the kind of people who see

every new film or hear every new album and who are, for a wide circle of

friends and acquaintances, a real live critic, the person they get the

priceless word of mouth from.

Software-makers take the process further than film-makers. Not only do

they get their market working on final development and selling for them,

they also create a huge user base. So when the expensive version II is

launched, as with Doom, there are millions of loyal customers ready to


It’s easy to imagine a programme of marketing based on the beta test

phase for any kind of product. It feels like a timely idea because it

takes today’s elevation of the customer to the next level.

Companies don’t even have to do anything different from what they’re

already doing. They just have to do it in public, activating development

processes as part of the communication.

So testing and research become, instead of a secret process before a

media launch (which has to be big and expensive because it’s addressed

to a public that doesn’t know where you’re coming from), a main plank in

the launch.

It could telescope timescales, reduce both investment and risk and, even

more worryingly, produce the kind of advertising money can’t buy - word

of mouth. Worst of all, it would be virtually free.

That’s why it’s hard to imagine beta marketing getting a warm reception

from agencies. Where’s the big launch? Where’s the big lunch? Where, in

fact, is the process agencies have worked through for so long? The one

that guarantees more than 90 per cent of product launches end in

failure. (The figure comes from Offensive Marketing by Hugh Davidson, a

rattling good read).

Never mind, even if more clients start doing beta marketing, it’s only

really for new products and ideas, isn’t it?

Advertising as we know it will still be there in the future doing what

it does best. Not telling, but selling. Keeping big brands big and the

famous famous.

Levi’s, for instance. It will always be on the telly. Even if it’s not

terrestrial. Or Procter and Gamble. Once it gets over the idea of

cutting its prices, it will be back in force. Or Pepsi. It will be

spending tens of millions every year telling people it has changed the

colour of the can, won’t it?

Yes, wherever there’s a product that’s been around for years, one which

only needs the old magic and the right production values to remind

people how much they love it, there will always be people in agencies

ready to rush into the budget. Sorry, rush into the breach.

Patrick Woodward is a partner at Alchemy Communication

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