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