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Geek marketing should be like a good lover


To the typical geek, marketing your wares ranks only slightly higher than selling your soul. It's unethical, compromising, inauthentic. Not Real. One advantage this view offers is an easy way out--we can always claim moral superiority if nobody buys/reads/uses our stuff. After all, we didn't "sell out" to be popular.

I used to live that view. But today I believe it's based on logic you could drive a FedEx truck through. And if we don't get past our marketing aversion, we may have no business whining about our lack of success. This isn't about trying to push something we know is wrong for users--this is about feeling comfortable (and even skilled) at helping people discover and explore the things we believe in.

The real issue is about how you define "authentic", "honest", "real", and "selling out." That's where the marketing-as-good-lover model comes in. A good lover is NOT afraid of finding out what his (or her) partner wants. A good lover does NOT view it as "selling out" if he does things simply because it's what the other person wants. A good lover does NOT believe it's a compromise to try to be more popular, if being popular means making things more stimulating, exciting, sexy, enticing, compelling, appealing, and attractive. A good lover respects that our perception matters. A good lover respects and trusts us. A good lover takes a shower and puts on a clean shirt.

In other words, maybe we should stop assuming that marketing means lying, and start treating our customers/users as people we value and care about enough to make their life a bit more enjoyable. Even if that means little more than sexing up the packaging! Life is short, and a good lover appreciates that a little extra attention to non-essential yet sensual pleasures is being caring, not inauthentic.

So, that's the real test of authenticity: do you genuinely care about the quality of your users' time and experience? Then there's nothing wrong with increasing your chances of "getting laid" (and by "getting laid", I mean, "having users find your efforts delightful").


Geeks hate being marketed to
Truth: Geeks hate being insulted. If geeks hated being marketed to, the tech conferences wouldn't be teeming with iPods and Macs.

Geeks hate being treated as though they're too stupid to recognize when you're lying, so don't bullshit. But if you go out of your way to make something sexy, there's no reason you should be afraid to flaunt it. It's not hype if it's true.

Geeks are logical and rational, and don't care about superficial "sexiness". They care only about the specs
Truth: There's no such thing as a "logical and rational" human, geek or otherwise. Need proof? Throw a centerfold of Miss July in front of a geek (male OR female) and an MRI will show their brain lit up like a fireworks show. We are all human, and caring about the way something looks and feels does not mean we're superficial--it means we're human. We don't need to exploit sex to recognize that a certain amount of sexiness is both pleasurable and natural.

If the product is high quality, the packaging shouldn't matter.
Truth: For many of us, the packaging is part of the experience. Just because you're going to be naked soon doesn't mean the shirt you're wearing right NOW doesn't matter. After all, undressing you is part of the fun. Trying to be attractive to your partner does NOT mean selling out.

Sometimes, in fact, it can make all the difference. My dentist goes out of her way to make the office feel like a spa. We aren't called "patients", we're called "guests". There is no medical window in the waiting area; there is wine and espresso. The rooms where they do the work are indistinguishable from a salon. All those extras make NO difference to the technical quality of their procedures, but they sure make me enjoy it more (or at least hate and fear it less).

Seduction is evil
Truth: Seduction without a genuine concern for the seducee probably is evil, but seduction-as-part-of-a-fun-experience is one of life's great pleasures. Humans are tuned for seduction and curiosity. Of COURSE seduction can be used for evil, but so can pillows and cornflakes.

Characteristics of a good lover/marketer


Be desirable
Be appealing
Be creative
Be brave
Be thoughtful
Be attractive (but don't worry about fitting some classic definition of perfection)
Be kind and caring
Be stimulating
Be exciting
Be entertaining
Be encouraging
Be enticing
Be experimental
Be flexible and adaptable
Be playful
Be unique


Be dull
Be rude
Be sloppy
Be selfish/self-centered
Be arrogant
Be abrupt/impatient
Be boring (or bored!)
Be overly formal and dignified
Be exactly like everyone else
Be judgemental
Be depressing
Be rigid inflexible

Why does a lover go out of his way to do things for us? (besides the obvious--that he's hoping for a repeat)

Because it's rewarding. Full stop.

[Bonus link: John Dodds has a great little piece on Geek Marketing 101 you should check out]

Posted by Kathy on August 20, 2006 | Permalink


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When I hear the term 'marketing', the first thing that comes to my mind is 'Manipulation'. If just presenting or packaging the best of you, in an exiciting and engaging format to your lover, is what you mean marketing, then I agree with you.

But in the real world what we found is quite different. Not many lovers are honest. Neither the marketing firms. They make up stuff just to impress. They manipulate information. Not many tell lies. But they certainly hide the truth that makes a lot of difference if they tell it. It may work in the world of marketing for the businesses. But in love, hiding the truth is as serious and manipulative as telling lies.

How many believe that the sales man/woman you met today did not manipulate on any count? What does it mean when Philipp Morris says that they really care about the health of customers, when the product they sell affects not only who consume it but everybody around it.

Posted by: Murali | Aug 20, 2006 8:09:08 PM

Something that is very easy to get confused is that marketing is not equivilent to sales.
Most of the attributes that people loath and talk about in the same breath as marketing are in fact nothing to do with marketing - and everything to do with sales.

Murali's comment can serve as an example:
"How many believe that the sales man/woman you met today did not manipulate on any count?"

That's the point - you didn't meet the marketers today. You met the salespeople today. By the time you get to meet with a person, the marketing is long done.

Not being the quickest draw around, it has taken me quite a while to realise some of the practicalities of a previous post here "You ARE a marketer. Deal with it."

One in particular is that there _should_ be a degree of marketing that goes into the design of our products.
Any time that you write a piece of software that the user interacts with in any way, you're part of the marketing team.
How is your user going to use this? Is this feature in keeping with the audience that we are designing this product for? What other features should we be including that make the (targetted) end users' lives easier?

Without that kind of analysis you're more likely to end up with an undirected product - and less likely to generate the passion that we're trying to muster.

Posted by: omni | Aug 20, 2006 9:33:16 PM

Manipulation only occurs if the chosen persuasive element is not a true characteristic of the subject matter. Go back to Aristotle if you want a logic fix on that.

Thank you Kathy for posting this. It's still likely a lost cause, but certainly more of this crowd will listen to you than me.

Posted by: Brian Clark | Aug 20, 2006 9:42:49 PM

Manipulation from both sides. Hands-full for both lovers. hopefully it was good for both of you.


Posted by: middlewoman | Aug 20, 2006 10:06:51 PM

"But in the real world what we found is quite different. Not many lovers are honest. Neither the marketing firms. They make up stuff just to impress. They manipulate information."

That is an incredibly apt analogy, and I'm so glad you've shared it. That's why I feel so out of place sometimes...

Posted by: Rabbit | Aug 21, 2006 12:15:18 AM

Great Article!

P.S.:You actually said to a women "you're too shallow to deserve me"?

Posted by: JPS | Aug 21, 2006 12:20:56 AM

Geek plus delta Social Passion = Geek, Sub Geek and Super Geek.

For most Geeks Social Passion( or the ability/willingness to engage with users without intimidating them with tech talk) equals zero.
For Some too Techie Geeks( I'm being oxymoron) they have this aversion making the delta negative.

And there are really rare breed of Super Geeks that are comfortable with the marketing( as in conversation: As markets are indeed conversations)

If a Geek takes an attitude that 'let my output speak for itself' that is wonderful. That with total listening will be the ultimate buddhahood of Geekdom.

Thanks Kathy for bringing this up as attitude thingy.

Posted by: Idea, Execution, Profit! | Aug 21, 2006 12:25:07 AM

Again with the Stormhoek :-)
I definitely believe it is time to visit South Africa.

Stormhoek is just one of the many tasty treats we have to offer.

Posted by: Murray | Aug 21, 2006 12:32:04 AM

There is a good and bad side in everything. Nothing wrong with making an experience enjoyable, senses are real as thought, but using one's stereotypes, or subconscious fears or dreams to get him to bed or to buy sth is immoral if you really don't care to address those issues.

Posted by: Harry | Aug 21, 2006 1:48:04 AM

There are some great points made here, but the analogy begins to fall apart when you realize that it's not just about getting in the sack - it's about getting in the sack and getting paid for it. No matter what the open-source advocates say, no one ever made a living without selling something.

If we intend to make a living with money collected from our users, we're not lovers as much as we're prostitutes.

Perhaps this blog entry revised as "geek marketing should be like a good hooker." I would love for someone to convince me otherwise.

Posted by: jthurman | Aug 21, 2006 2:03:01 AM

This is a good comparison, Kathy. With marketing, as with seduction, I can't be doing with clumsiness/gauchness/triteness. The vendor/lover must be confident, but must NOT take my acquiescence for granted. He must NOT trot out hackneyed lines and, above all, must NOT lie to me.

Posted by: karyn_romeis | Aug 21, 2006 2:05:50 AM

This article itself is an example of what I don't like about mainstream marketing. When you start using sexual metaphors to sell your idea, two things happen:

1. I get instinctively suspicious about your idea.
(e.g.: If the car's so good, why do you need swimsuit models to sell it?)

2. You do a disservice to sex.
You'll notice that if you use truffle oil to hide rank meat, it's the truffles that get degraded. Soon, every time you taste truffles you wonder what they're being used to hide.

I actually agree with your idea, just not with its presentation.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 21, 2006 4:56:59 AM

I've spent the summer doing water aerobics. Not high tech, but here's my marketing analogy anyway. Part of the exercise in water aerobics usually involves noodles, those foamy tubes that float. These were made for kids to use to play in the water, just one of them will hold up a 200 pound human. Now enter water aerobics, where people, not kids, are using the noodles for resistance in the water to do bicep and tricep strengthening. At some point you tie the noodle in a knot. This increases the resistance, makes pushing it up and down in the water much more difficult, but it will not stay tied in a knot. You waste a lot of time trying to keep the thing knotted. The noodle manufacturers don't seem to have checked on the user experience in the real world. If they sold noodles that were permanently knotted in addition to the straight ones, they could double sales. If they sold noodles shaped like big barbells or big footballs with a good handgrip area, they could triple sales. They never bothered to find out what the people floundering around in the water wanted and needed their noodle to do. If there were knots or barbells available, people would not have to be seduced into buying. People would buy them naturally and without encouragement because they could plainly see the value of having them. Good design. Good user experience.

Posted by: Virginia | Aug 21, 2006 6:59:45 AM

Good packaging just failed to reach my Geek Marketing 101 but I value it highly - it should invite touch and be easy to get into. This is a rarity amongst high-tech products especially small computer peripherals where the need to protect the product is over-emphasised.

As for your good lover/marketer analogy, I think you'll find that we marketers generally charge by the day.

Posted by: John Dodds | Aug 21, 2006 9:16:54 AM

"Then there's nothing wrong with increasing your chances of "getting laid" (and by "getting laid", I mean, "having users find your efforts delightful")."

- LOVE IT! 8-D


Posted by: dru | Aug 21, 2006 11:38:44 AM

Just wanted to point out that depending on context, the Bad Marketing example is actually good marketing.

Posted by: Jason Yip | Aug 21, 2006 4:02:40 PM

Jason: so true! But it gets so recursive it makes my head hurt ; )

Virginia (and others): Yes, I definitely consider design and development of the product to be inseperable from marketing... for most of us, the product itself IS our marketing (that, and the surrounding context whether it's training or community, etc.)

jthurmand: "Perhaps this blog entry revised as "geek marketing should be like a good hooker." I would love for someone to convince me otherwise."

Doubt I can convince you if this was your take on my post--and because it's more about a mindset than any specific thing. This blog is called "creating passionate useres", and that cannot be faked. Nobody becomes passionate about something they were conned/seduced into buying but that had no long-term value for the user. We are talking about people developing a true "passion" for whatever it is they do with our product/service, etc. and that can ONLY happen if we are in it for the long-term relationship. A one night stand will never lead to long-term passion, so the "hooker" model does not apply within the context of THIS blog and OUR approach to product design, development, user experience, and ultimately, yes, marketing.

I of course knew the "m" word would come up -- it's not a big stretch to see this as a form of manipulation, and indeed it could be depending on the context. But one person's "manipulation" is another person's "being thoughtful." True, with "marketing" there is often an exchange of money, but if you offer me something of value, I'm grateful. I don't resent having to pay (in money, time, attention, trade, whatever) for things which have brought me so much pleasure, whether it's my horse, my iPod, or a fabulous concert.

Anyway, I never for a moment thought that this post would go over well for most people--it's certainly a topic that offends a lot of sensibilities (two topics, actually--both marketing AND sex), but it's an orientation that works for me. YMMV ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 21, 2006 4:33:49 PM

Daniel: I'm not sure if I agree, but only because I'm not sure exactly what you're thinking here. You said, "When you start using sexual metaphors to sell your idea, two things happen..." but the rest of your comment sounds more like you mean using sex *litterally* to sell something, rather than as a metaphor.
If that's the case, I agree. Using SEX to sell (as in, here's a picture of the half-naked woman, with the implication that this is what you'll have if only you buy this product...) is at the least uncreative, lame, and becoming less and less effective as we become more and more aware of THAT manipulation. We know it's just bulls***

But... using sex as a metaphor is something I view differently. Because now we're talking about the idea of SEXY, rather than sex. The iPod is sexy. I've seen a sexy toaster. Engineers have been known to call an especially slick solution to a problem, "sexy". Sexiness--as an idea/metaphor--including all the attributes I listed in the DO list, is (in my opinion) a Good Thing. Using sex literally makes sense only if, well, your product IS about sex.

So, my approach is not that marketing should BE sex or should USE sex, but rather that "geek" marketing should be like a good lover, with all the attributes that some (clearly not all) of us appreciate.

Regardless, I think you made some valid points.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 21, 2006 9:19:17 PM

I worked for a tool company that was so locked into its own megaGeek worldview that they started saying things like "If they can't understand the interface they're too dumb to use our product." I soon gave up trying to improve the user interface.

Company lasted only a few months after that. Their customers switched to a tool that incorporated outstanding user experience.

Posted by: Jessica Weissman | Aug 22, 2006 8:53:13 AM

Wow! This whole post (except the sexual innuendo -- there's enough of that already in some classrooms, I hear), could be well said to teachers as well.

I hear this all the time. "Kids should just learn the way we did, we were bored and we learned anyway."

Well, kids today are being marketed to in a thousand ways and education is just another thing that competes for their time.

I'm using web cams and animated faces to allow my students to vodcast privately, they can podcast, they can wiki, they can blog. It is exciting and harnesses their love of technology and social Internet interaction to teach computer science.

I have some counterparts who look down their nose at me because they accuse me of "bribing" my students. I accuse those who allow their students to drool on the desk while they talk on in a monotone voice of being bad teachers.

I think your lists go very well with teachers. Great post!

Posted by: Vicki Davis | Aug 22, 2006 10:17:03 PM

Kathy, I get your point (about using sex as a metaphor rather than literally). It makes sense logically, but I'm not totally sure the male brain is capable of making such a subtle distinction (or is it just my brain?).

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 28, 2006 8:54:30 AM

Of COURSE seduction can be used for evil,
but so can pillows and cornflakes.

I can figure out pillows, but cornflakes? The mind boggles - can someone enlighten me?

Posted by: Peter | Sep 23, 2006 3:15:35 AM

Have been helping geeks market their products for years. Everything in this article is spot on. Love this subject. Just wrote about it (The dark side of marketing: Where do you stand?)

The truth is, customers are just people, and people have needs. Meet their needs, and they'll buy.

Posted by: Kristin Zhivago | Mar 17, 2007 2:41:41 PM

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