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'Crossing the Chasm' or why don't people buy your revolutionary product

It's an unfortunate thing that Geoffrey Moore is not so much read these days, particularly here in France. Moore has written essential things about marketing new technologies that are as true today as they were ten years ago. In particular, in his book "Crossing the Chasm", Moore discusses why most companies fail at marketing disruptive technologies. If your job is to market new technologies, it's a very bad idea not to read the book.

In the book, Moore makes the following observation: when a company introduces a revolutionary product, it usually enjoys an initial success with sales with a few key clients, but just when all signs suggest that take off is imminent, sales stall and the product eventually fails on the market. The same story happened, and continues to happen, to countless startups with brilliant products. Why is it so hard to sell revolutionary products?

To answer this question, Moore looks at the well-known technology life cycle. According to the underlying theory, your revolutionary product is first bought by the techno-enthusiasts. These are the guys who buy any new technology, whatever it is, because their passion is to get their hand at unproven technologies. There are not many of them, they have no budget, and indeed they think they should get the stuff for free, but they prove invaluable in testing the technology and providing feedback. But nobody listens to them, so once you've sold the product to the few who are likely to, you're back to square one. The next in the list are the strategic (or early) adopters. Those have an entirely different motivation: they buy innovative technologies because they want to gain a competitive advantage. They were the first buyers of SAP, and they bought the first PCs when corporations thought they were just toys.  It is with these guys that you will close the first sales, and start the first pilot projects during which you will improve the product. They are your first source of revenue, your first reference, but their projects are never-ending and you can find yourself completely trapped with a totally specific product if you don't learn how to say no at one point, unless you want to become a service company.

Again, the strategic adopters are not many, and there lies the problem leading to the growth stall. You will sign big projects, but never ever think that this is kick-starting growth. There are only so many of them... After a few projects, the source dries up, and you are again back to square one.

The real money lies with the next group: the mainstream buyer. This is an entirely different lot. They only buy completely mature products that present zero risk for the company. A typical mainstream buyer is the IT manager of an insurance company. He couldn't care less about innovative technologies and cool stuff. Any new stuff is by definition a headache, and a potential source of problems, not to mention costs.

A common assumption is that you can convince the mainstream buyer with your successes with strategic buyers. Moore's luminous insight is that nothing could be further from the truth: between the strategic adopter and the mainstream buyer, there is nothing. No continuity, hence the notion of chasm. After a few successes with lonely strategic buyers, you have to cross the chasm to reach the mainstream buyer. For him, the strategic buyer is not really a valid reference. In fact, the mainstream buyer buys on only one criterion: the reference. He only buys from the leader of the market, because he doesn't want to take any risk, which means that as long as there is no leader on the market, as is often the case on emerging markets, he will not buy.
He forms his opinion by reading the professional press -as conservative as it can be- , by talking to peers in other companies. If John has chosen Product X and is happy, then I can consider buying X, rather than Y which nobody knows. The result: as long as you are not the leader, you won't sell anything to the mainstream buyer, which means 95% of the market is out of reach. This is of course a catch-22: because, by definition, as long as you don't sell to them, you won't become the leader.

This explains what happens to the usual start-up. When the new product is introduced, it triggers excitement among the techno-enthusiasts. This is the cool stuff of the moment. Blogs and bulletins boards talk about the product. After a big effort, the sales force lands a few big contracts with strategic adopters., usually some R&D managers. First revenues, first references. That's usually when number crunchers start plotting a straight line of revenue growth, and eagerly send it to anxious investors. Big mistake. Because after selling to the few strategic buyers around, there's nothing much to sell, and certainly not to the mainstream who are horrified by this new stuff that threatens their existing view of the world.

To move on to the next step, you need to convince them. Usually, they are business unit heads, a very different population from R&D managers. The kind that ask for you last three annual reports (but we've only been around for 9 montsh!!!), how many people you have in the quality department, and if you're able to have a dedicated 24/7 support line for their Tokyo office. Of course, you've none of this, so the buyer is put off. You're just to much risk for him. How many real deployments do you have, and I'm not talking pilot projects here? None, Sir, you would be the first! Ah, being the first, the absolute no-go for a mainstream buyer... He'll just wait until you're the leader of the market, because then there will be no risk.

So what is the solution? Very simple: become the leader, and come back to him. How to do that? Simple, and brilliant answer from Moore: reduce your market until it is no more than a micro-niche, because it's always easier to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.

Once your market is reduced, which means that you have carefully micro-segmented it and selected the best segment, you can target similar clients, members of the same group. For instance, the retail banks in the northwestern part of the US, or the Rap music fans in New-York. If you target similar clients, a successful sale to one client can be leveraged to sell to the next one, whereas a sale to a bank will be useless as a reference to sell to a car manufacturer. So the golden rule is: focus, focus, focus. The counter-intuitive approach consists, therefore, when the going gets tough after the initial successes, not in running all over the place trying to sell to anybody, but rather to sit down and select just one segment, and put all efforts to conquer it.

The segment will of course be chosen based on what has already been sold, by determining which sale to a strategic buyer can be leveraged to sell to a mainstream buyer - that can happen. Once this is done, approaching the next mainstream buyer ill be a bit easier. With this approach, the micro-segment can be conquered. The strategy consists then in choosing the next segment to conquer the same way, such that the first segment can be used as a reference. After a few iterations, the micro-segment gradually coalesce into a real segment… of which you are the leader.

In summary, Crossing the Chasm is a very insightful analysis of radical innovation marketing, which identifies the difficulties, explain the causes and suggest very effective solutions. No wonder the book is a best seller, and a bible of high-tech marketing.

Posted by Philippe Silberzahn on January 21, 2005 at 08:49 AM in Book reviews | Permalink


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