Visionary CEOs often romanticize their products as solutions that will change the world. Unfortunately, most consumers are rarely in the market for a world-changing solution.
More often, consumers are shopping for a utility that serves a simple desire or need, and they will respond to marketing messages that speak to these desires or needs.
This dissonance creates a lot of friction between marketers and their CEOs.
Last month, the head of a venture capital firm applauded the technology industry for keeping the world afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic — he went as far as to say that tech “saved the world.”
Tech didn’t save the world… not on purpose, at least. We should be careful to not let this skew our understanding of what it actually takes to market and sell products.
Andreessen Horowitz is a bedrock Silicon Valley VC firm that held early investments in many of the tech products that we use every day. Co-Founder Marc Andreessen is a swashbuckling tech veteran and physical caricature of someone that grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa — credited to both his giant, cone-shaped head and an overall presence that stands grander than his actual frame would suggest.
He is known as a brash, farsighted thinker. His partner, Ben Horowitz, once described what it’s like to work with Andreessen in a NYT article:
“If you say to Marc, ‘Don’t bite somebody’s f***ing head off!,’ that would be wrong,” Horowitz said.
“Because a lot of his value, when you’re making giant decisions for huge amounts of money, is saying, ‘Why aren’t you f***ing considering this and this and this?’
Steve Jobs famously challenged the world to Think Different. Marc Andreessen never needed such advice.
Andreessen is lauded for the occasional essays that he publishes on the A16Z blog. Many consider these pronouncements to be a state of the tech union.
Most famously, he published “Why Software is Eating The World” in 2011, where he predicted the impact that companies like Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google would have on their respective industries.
This piece was a laughing stock for non-tech media. At the time, Amazon Prime had just 5M customers worldwide. A single share of Amazon’s stock was priced at $185, Apple: $10, Netflix: $26; Google: $250.
Today, Amazon Prime has 200M customers, and their stock trades around $3,500/share; Apple at $135, Netflix above $500, Google around $2,500.
It’s crazy to think that this was 10 years ago — it feels like yesterday. Blockbuster was already out of business…
I bought my first iPhone in 2011. Only 35% of U.S. adults owned a smartphone at the time, compared to 85% today. Dumb phone users could still be functioning members of society.
I didn’t send a work-related email through an iPhone until 2015.
I made my first Amazon purchase in 2013: a book titled Nonprofit Marketing Best Practices. Between 2013 and 2015, I made 27 purchases on Amazon — 24 were books. (The others included an iPhone charger, an iPhone case, and replacement hubcaps for my weathered Mitsubishi Gallant).
I’m afraid to look, but I probably made 27 purchases on Amazon last month. None of them were books.
In 2011, Netflix’s core business was still shipping DVDs. House of Cards, their first exclusive streaming hit, was released in 2013. This coincided with the birth of the term “binge-watching.” None of us had yet heard the term “cord-cutting.”
Today, Google processes more than twice as many daily searches as it did in 2011. More than 60% of searches now take place on a mobile device. (I couldn’t find mobile usage stats from 2011. I imagine it’s fractional.)
In 2011, Google’s Search Engine Results Page looked like this:
Nobody saw any of this coming. Nobody, except people like Marc Andreessen.
There are only a few people on the planet that see the world through the same lens as Andreessen. Whether you agree or disagree with his thought process and proclamations about the future, you still need to respect the fact that he thinks differently than you do.
On April 18th, 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Andreessen published “It’s Time To Build.” The piece expressed disgust at Western society’s response to the pandemic and our inability to produce things like masks and PPE equipment:
As I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America! ... Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard!
“It’s Time To Build” is a call to arms; an expose on how those in power — business leaders, politicians — have chosen the easy route. He claims that we don’t have futuristic cities and reformed education systems because these oligarchs have had no incentive to build the utopian society that [the tech industry] has dreamed of.
I concluded my book, Join or Die, with an ode to “It’s Time To Build,” reflecting on AdVenture Media’s attempt to, well, build.
As a business leader, it forced me to reflect on our contribution, if any, to the greater good.
As a marketer, though, I wondered: do our customers actually care if we’ve contributed to the greater good?
Even if the answer to the latter question is no (it almost always is), it does not negate the moral responsibility to still seek to leave a positive impact on the world. The distinction between these two questions is important and often overlooked.
Here’s what I’ve learned: CEOs and business leaders need to have a long-term vision. Ideally, this vision includes building something that benefits the greater good. However, in the short term, you must still focus your marketing efforts on serving your immediate customers.
Only then will you be able to survive long enough to turn your vision into a reality.
Last month, Andreessen emerged from his editorial cave with “Technology Saves The World.” He expected American lockdowns to last as long as five years, but is crediting technology as the savior that brought us out early:
Last April, I issued a call to our technology industry that it was time to build — and I am so proud of how we delivered. Please join me in an enthusiastic — virtual! — round of applause for all of the amazing workers in our spectacular technology industry who made all this possible.
The experience of COVID has made crystal clear both how important our technology is to human flourishing, and how well we can deliver. Technology helped save the world.
He cites vaccines as the cornerstone example — Moderna created their mRNA vaccine within just two days of receiving the genetic code for COVID-19 by email — but his primary argument is that technology’s positive impact on society over the last year extends far beyond the development of vaccines.
Among his examples:
On June 21st, Ben Thompson of Stratechery published a response titled “Pandemic Progress” in which he attempted to provide a more practical perspective. He mentions the examples above but notes that:
This leads to the cynical argument: all of the pieces for these success stories were built before the pandemic hit — that’s why the U.S. was able to navigate the pandemic as well as it did.
He suggests that tech’s ability to “save the world’’ was more of an opportunistic convenience than it ever was an intentional act — a convenience that certainly benefited tech companies and the VC firms that back them.
We should therefore not put Zoom, Teledoc, or Shopify on a pedestal just yet. They didn’t save the world because they wanted to help build a utopian society: they did so because there was a competitive advantage, fueled by a societal lockdown, that provided a massive opportunity to generate profits.
Here’s a screenshot of Zoom’s homepage from March 1st, 2020, right before the pandemic hit (via web.archive.org):
…It’s the most boring hero section I’ve ever seen!
Zoom was not founded on the idea of democratizing communications or spearheading the remote-work revolution. Zoom Founder Eric Yuan spent 10 years working at Cisco — the then-leader in the video-conferencing space—and felt that their video conferencing product sucked. He went off on his own to build a better product himself.
From a marketing standpoint, I’d argue that this hero section isn’t all that bad. It highlights Zoom’s standing within the Gartner Magic Quadrant — a third-party ranking system that is the gold standard of B2B software rankings.
What’s more, their headline is straightforward and to the point (although they shouldn’t be using the word Zoom to describe their product, I digress).
Yuan didn’t think that Zoom would change the world. The hero section of Zoom’s website — the most valuable real estate behind your marketing and branding efforts — proves that.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this was Yuan’s master plan all along, but he resisted the urge to shout it from the rooftops because he knew it would fall on deaf ears. If that’s the case, then hats’ off to him.
But one day, he woke up and realized that such an opportunity fell into his lap.
By April 1st, Zoom’s homepage was changed to look like this:
Challenging times. In this together. That’s save the world stuff. The kinds of things that CEOs love to say on earnings calls.
It’s also bad marketing. If you had never heard of Zoom but were in the market for a video conferencing solution, what would your reaction be? This looks like the landing page for an internet provider; not a video-conferencing service.
Compare this to Shopify, another golden goose of the pandemic. Their hero section on March 1st, 2020 looked like this:
I love Shopify but I hate this headline. It’s lazy.
During the summer of 2020, they adjusted it to fit the needs of their modern audience:
Much better. The homepage has changed a bit over the last year, but it keeps the customer — and their needs — as the focal point of the messaging.
As of this writing, Zoom’s homepage has returned to highlighting their place in the Gartner Magic Quadrant, a sign that they’ve floated back to reality. The Magic Quadrant is boring, but I know from experience that it’s an effective marketing tool.
Throughout the pandemic, both of these firms were useful lifelines for small businesses and corporations alike. They deserve a pat on the back, but their leadership should remain focused on the only common variable that will continue to determine success with or without a pandemic: the customer.
Do we require something as awful and dramatic as a global pandemic to serve as a catalyst for progress? I hope not.
From Ben Thompson’s “Pandemic Progress:”
Take privacy, as an example: Apple’s iOS 14 changes, which are great for Apple’s business, have done far more to change the advertising industry than Europe’s GDPR, which only entrenched the biggest players.
It’s the same thing with climate change: Tesla has driven a wholesale shift in the automotive industry first-and-foremost by being cool, while solar prices have plummeted far faster than expectations; both are poised to succeed not by telling customers what they can’t do, but by making it more attractive to do what is better for the environment.
The short-term, dramatic impact from Apple and Tesla’s respective strategies were coincided with, but not at all related to the pandemic.
Thompson’s conclusion really stuck with me:
This for me is one of the biggest lessons from the last year: solutions that give customers what they want, from cooler cars to the ability to work from anywhere, are the way out of intractable problems, particularly if we want to remain true to Western values of self-determination and individual choice.
That’s exactly what happened in the case of the pandemic: the U.S. didn’t beat the coronavirus by locking people up in their homes against their will, but by inventing new technology that let them live their lives as they wish. The ultimate governor on progress is the human condition, and catering to that reality, both in terms of what we build as well as why we build it, is a feature, not a bug.
This bears resemblance to many issues we deal with in marketing. We often have client-side CEOs or investors — brash, outspoken, farsighted thinkers — that want to change the world and envision a future where we all harmoniously join together and sing kumbaya.
But at the end of the day, no one gives a shit.
Steve Jobs didn’t found Apple to preserve consumer privacy; Elon Musk didn’t set out to build a more attractive sports car. They had visions to change the world (or in Musk’s case, to save humanity from extinction).
… but both of these companies have marketing teams that effectively bridged the gap between the founder’s vision and the reality of what consumers are willing to pay for.
Their CEOs were willing to have conversations with the marketing teams. Concessions were likely made on both sides.
Here’s what matters: great marketing caters to the human condition.
Below is a compilation of iPhone ads that ran between 2011 and 2012. Most of them feature users interacting with Siri to answer very basic questions: asking about the weather or directions, or setting reminders.
These were unique features in 2011; a competitive advantage that set iPhones apart from the competition, but this messaging wouldn’t help sell any iPhones today. The average consumer already has a simple way of doing all of those things.
But those ads were wildly successful at the time! Could you imagine if Apple’s marketing had ignored the needs of the moment, and instead chose to market their grand vision for the future?
Imagine a world where your entire life centers around your iPhone. Every feature of your home, from the lights to the temperature, is controlled through your iPhone. You order food exclusively through apps, never again having to call a restaurant and speak to another person. You don’t carry cash anymore, and you probably don’t even need a physical wallet.
…What? In 2011, this would have sounded awesome, but it would not have explained to consumers why they should go to a store today and buy an iPhone 4s.
The human condition has changed.
Plenty of tech companies never made a positive impact on the world because their marketing failed to keep them afloat long enough to realize the impact.
We can work toward a better society, but we need to recognize the true incentives that consumers have when they are making purchase decisions. That’s what you should be advertising — not your vision to change the world.
For a long time, I worked with a company called AudioEye, which provides technology for websites that makes them accessible for people with disabilities (screen reading software, etc.).
Think of it as a wheelchair ramp for an online store.
I always fought with them because I felt that our marketing messages were not in line with their customer’s desires. Their leadership team filled the website with messaging about diversity and inclusion… about how they are making the internet accessible to all!
AudioEye’s homepage circa 2015 (via web.archive.org):
They also happened to be another publicly traded tech company — backed by people that see the world through a similar lens as Marc Andreesen.
Here’s the reality: AudioEye’s customers don’t care about that kumbaya vision: they care about the fact that per the Americans with Disabilities Act, business owners can be sued for non-compliance on an inaccessible website.
That’s it. That’s the reason that they exist… At least for the foreseeable future.
At some point over the last six years, they changed their messaging to embrace the idea of “We’ll make sure you do not get sued. Sign up for our software and instantly become ADA compliant. For free!”
The original website never mentioned the legalities of ADA or WCAG compliance. The new one featured a link for Lawsuits directly in the main navigation.
Since then, their stock price has more than doubled. Go figure.
The pandemic presented a window of opportunity for certain tech companies to capitalize on a massive shift in consumer demand. This is no different from Apple taking advantage of the current sentiment around privacy, or Tesla producing cars that many think are cool.
If tomorrow, a massive change disrupted the web accessibility space, such as Google announcing that they will delist any inaccessible websites from their search ranking algorithm, then we would likely see a similar opportunity for web accessibility providers like AudioEye.
All of these companies have great products and, over the long term, can leave a lasting positive impact on the world. In 2031, we will likely look back on Zoom, Shopify, Tesla, and maybe even AudioEye, with the same sentiment that I currently feel toward Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Apple.
In 2031 we might think, “Wow! I can’t believe that in 2021 we still didn’t realize the impact that Zoom would have on the communications industry!”
But you and I can’t envision that today. We’re not Marc Andreessen.
Until that vision is realized, though, these brands will all cease to exist if their marketing messages ignore the immediate needs of their customers.
CEOs and marketers need to have this conversation. We can build, and we can save the world… but we can never ignore our customers or be blind to the real reasons that they would ever buy our products.
Patrick Gilbert is the Chief Operating Officer at AdVenture Media group and author of Join or Die: Digital Advertising in the Age of Automation, now available on Amazon. Learn more at joinordiebook.com.
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