Monday, August 13, 2012

Advertising and Software Sales

Book review of Advertising in America - The First 200 Years by Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple (published 1990 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers).

"Advertising in America" chronicles two centuries of American print advertising. The book contains histories of major American industries, their companies, and their products. There are 566 full-color ads reproduced in the book, along with some insightful commentary about how advertising worked - and didn't work - over the decades.

Changing attitudes over time

It's amazing how advertising has changed over the years. The book shows a 1926 ad from The Prudential Insurance Company. A handful of kids are milling about a sturdy stone and iron wall. A plaque on the wall reads "Orphan Asylum". One of the little kids says to his mother, "They said father didn't keep his Life Insurance paid up!" Can you imagine the backlash from a tasteless insurance company ad like this today?

The beginning of branding and positioning

Branding started in the late 1800s. Before that time, consumers bought generic goods from general stores. It was in the late 1800s when Henry J. Heinz put 57 different foods into jars, Dr. Kellogg put a brand name on his cereals, and Borden's put an eagle on their condensed milk. Campbell's Soup arrived in 1869. Levi Strauss' overalls made their debut in 1873. Ivory soap, Eagle Pencils, Goodyear Rubber Galoshes, and Chase & Sanborn Coffee became instant brand successes because they were the only brands available.

Positioning in advertising came into play around 1900. Before that, there were general interest magazines and newspapers. The launch of women's, farm, religious, and sports magazines came at the turn of the century. And for the first time, ads were targeted at specific audiences.

Selling hard-to-understand products

There's a chapter in the book called "the Hard Ones - How Do You Sell A...?". It explains how advertisers went about popularizing three newly introduced products and services that weren't understood, weren't welcomed, and weren't appreciated: The Kodak camera, the Gillette Safety Razor, and airline travel. It's true - few people could understand why somebody might actually want to pay a company to fly them through the air, from city to city.

There are a lot of insights in this chapter that can help software developers who are wrestling with introducing an innovative new application, or marketing a product that doesn't fit neatly into an existing, accepted software category.

Today, it's difficult to introduce an application that doesn't fit into existing categories. That's because download sites and magazine editors have created cubbyholes for software, and they have educated the public about how to locate the right software. In earlier decades, entrepreneurs had little structure to work with. It's interesting to see how last century's businesses coped with the introduction of new products, and to apply their lessons to today's software launches.

Does your website look dated?

One of the most fascinating chapters is called "The Face of Advertising." The authors make two observations that relate to today's software marketing:

  • "...if you take this book, break it open at any page at random, you can guess the date of the ad you're looking at usually within a single decade".
  • "...if you look at a thousand ads in your favorite magazine, 999 will look like all the rest, but the one-thousandth is presented in a way that no one else has ever tried before (to be immediately copied...)".

If these two sentences are addressed to the public at large, then I believe that they're both incorrect. I believe that advertising professionals and marketing professionals might see the "sameness" of the majority of print ads. And they might see the decade-by-decade trends in advertising typefaces, layout, and illustration. But the average consumer doesn't take the time to evaluate this.

Similarly, I don't believe that the average prospect who visits your website has a clue whether your web layout is yesterday's style or tomorrow's. Your prospects can tell if your website is primitive. But they truly don't care if your breakout boxes have square or rounded corners. Software developers know that tables with square corners are the default style, and that it takes extra effort to create rounded borders. But the average consumer simply notes that your web style is different, and not necessarily better.

Based upon the forum conversations that I read, developers spend far too much time thinking about the layout and artwork on their websites, and far, far too little time working on the wording. To make things worse, today's emphasis on search engine results has led many developers to minimize the importance of creating an appealing sales message, and to maximize the placement of keywords and key phrases so that the search engines will rank their sites highly.

Advertising and microISVs

There are many lessons in this book that developers can apply in their task of creating effective sales presentations on web sites and in PAD files. "Advertising in America" is a good reminder that it's not enough to write web copy that gives good search engine results. People buy software. The sales presentation on your website has to motivate prospects to become customers. It's been that way for two hundred years.

When I bought this book, I thought I was purchasing a coffee table book. Flipping through the oversized pages, you'll find a seven-page spread that shows Coca-Cola's ads from 1892 to the present. There's a Campbells Soup ad from 1916, a Chiclets ad from 1906, a Black & Decker ad from 1925, and a Bon Ami ad from 1909. There's something strangely familiar about the Kellogg's Corn Flakes ad from 1914, and the Michelin Tires ad from 1917.

With software companies coming and going at lightning speed, there's something refreshing about seeing brands that have moved with the times, and strengthened over the decades. Software developers will find a lot of content in this nearly-300 page book. You won't find handy checklists or sage advice. You'll have to work hard to dig out the information that will help you with your website sales copy and your PAD file descriptions.

I think studying this book will prove to be a good use of your time. You'll be able to see successful companies' ads, think about why they were effective, and develop similar product pages and PAD file descriptions for your software.

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