In Praise of Simplicity in Software Marketing and Demos

Perhaps I’ve been swept up by the greater trend towards minimalism.

There is of course the Tiny House movement which runs counter to decades of ever larger McMansions; rather then focusing on sheer volume, the Tiny House movement focuses on sheer utility of the space and trades volume for clever design, mobility, and lower cost (though they can often cost more per square foot).  Then there is also Matt D’Avella who has been preaching the gospel of minimalism to an audience of millions.  My wife and kids make fun of me for wearing gray t-shirts pretty much every day of the week.

In working in software in the life sciences industry, I think there is a lesson that can be translated from this movement to how we package the messaging around software that focuses on minimalism rather than the “Swiss Army” knife approach.  As is the case with Tiny Homes, focus on the core goodness of the product and how it helps users rather than sheer volume of feature checklists as is the case with McMansions.  In life sciences — and I imagine this to be true in probably just about any industry — there are often many different and esoteric business processes that are fragmented and difficult for any individual to fully grasp (and rarely does this get better when you get 10 different people into the same room).  With global clinical trials, this can often be exasperated by different regulations and rules enforced by different regulatory bodies in different parts of the world.

One issue I’ve observed over the years is that there is always a moment when we demo that invariably someone in the audience asks “so how do we actually do it today?“.  While this is often a great learning experience for us on the product side, but this is also when a demo starts to fall apart; at this moment, the audience loses their connection to the software and instead starts to doubt that this software can actually help because there is a lack of clarity about the actual process that the software is meant to address.  When you have 10 people in a room and this moment arises, you are in trouble because as good as your demo was, it’s no longer about the product and now all about the broken process.  As an outsider, you cannot even help counsel them through this moment as each company does things just a little bit differently; your experience on one project with one customer is exactly that.

“The problem is me, not you”

Indeed, when a customer team of SMEs start to question how a process actually works, they start to doubt whether what you’ve shown can actually make their lives better.  If they can’t understand their own processes, how can they evaluate the efficacy of a software solution which purports to fix the gap?  Thus starts endless rounds of internal working groups and requirements gathering that immediately deflates the excitement from the demo.  Process mapping, meetings, and maybe even a followup or two (or ten).

That’s why the best marketing pitches are ones that are packaged for simple consumption; don’t think about the details and logistics, you just know that you need this now.  Watch an ad for Weight Watchers, for example, and there’s no talk of portion control, calorie counting, and managing your food intake.  Those details ruin the illusion.

The only time when you can market towards a set of complex business requirements and processes is when the customer has already coalesced and codified those requirements.  A good example is when the industry creates a working group and perhaps creates a standard or a process map and then shop that with vendors.  This seems really obvious right?  Because they’ve already spent the time to think about and map the complexity, they can then think objectively about how a potential tool can help address the complexity.

“Keep it simple, stupid”

The way to work around this is that in any sufficiently large group of enterprise customers, the demo must stick to the age old adage of “keep it simple, stupid”.  The entire demo must be distilled down to an experience that is natural, obvious, and hyper focused so that potential customers can immediately intuit the capabilities of the software to improve their day-to-day lives.  Forget about complex processes and esoteric edge cases; focus on the core goodness of the product.

Consider the following:

Show this futuristic knife to even a stone age tribe and they will understand its purpose and how to use it because it is intuitive.

Show this rotary meat slicer to the same audience and they will scratch their head in puzzlement.

Unless an end user had an existing requirement to thinly slice meats and been exposed to such a machine previously, it is not at all obvious looking at the latter that it’s designed for a function that could also be met by the former because it is an overall extremely specialized and complex user interface for the requirement of cutting food.

Therefore, it is critical that demos focus on a simplified user experience that is refined and hyper focused as doing so grants clarity to the purpose of the tool.  Because potential customers often lack clarity and certainty of their own requirements, the demo must contribute to shining a light that shows a path forward. Don’t give the audience pause and ask if this is the right tool; focus on the core goodness and core utility of the tool.

You can’t bullshit sizzle

Roy Chitwood’s famed marketing theory generally breaks down buying behavior based on a handful of intrinsic motivators.

It is generally accepted that there are six buying motives even when a customer seeks a good or a service; we can translate these to technology buying decisions:

  1. Desire for Financial Gain – the product being sold provides some way to make or save money.  This is a difficult angle because literally every email an executive decision maker gets in their inbox purports to save time and money; how will your messaging get through?
  2. Fear of Financial Loss – without the product, there is a risk for financial loss.
  3. Comfort and Convenience – the product reduces the effort required to complete some task.
  4. Security and Protection (or Avoidance of Pain) – the product allows the buyer to avoid pain or potential pain.
  5. Pride and Prestige – the product confers the buyer some level of prestige or recognition; for example. For example, a company, team, or individual may gain prestige for purchasing a product or successfully rolling out a system.
  6. Satisfaction of Emotion (Desire) – the product has a certain desirability or elegance that is beyond simple utility. For example, the difference between a $1000 iPhone and a $200 Android phone.

In general, buyers rarely make a decision based on solely a single dimension. A car buyer who purchases a Tesla may do so in support of their Satisfaction of Emotion to express their eco-conscious world view and Comfort and Convenience as electric vehicles require less service and maintenance compared to ICE vehicles.

For small companies, it is a challenge to market a product along dimensions 1-5.  The reason seems obvious to me: every vendor purports to save time, money, and effort (Desire for Financial Gain, Comfort and Convenience).  Every vendor says their product will protect you from auditors and regulatory agencies (Fear of Financial Loss, Security and Protection) with compliant records keeping and auditing.  Big vendors can bring Pride and Prestige with their millions invested in marketing their brand and their knowledge as well as their armies of SMEs.

That really only leaves the sizzle — Satisfaction of Emotion.  Either you have it or you don’t and it’s that simple; you can’t bullshit sizzle.  With this dimension, there is no claim that can be made; it simply comes down to a show and tell.  This is where small vendors and small companies can shine: focus on the bits that sizzle, the bits that no matter what Big Vendor says, they simply cannot match your sizzle.

Part of the sizzle is a hyper focus on the core utility of the application and what its meant do to.  Think about it: why do you use Gmail?  It is just so good at what it’s doing.  Why do you use Google and not Bing?  Because it’s simple and really, really good.  Everyone in the audience can relate and connect when the product is just so good at addressing the core use cases.  “Can it help us with this other process?”  It doesn’t matter because a good product demo serves the same purpose as the “architect” works in Inception.


We are all familiar with Christopher Nolan’s Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio leads a team of psychological mercenaries to plant a seed into a billionaire heir’s mind.

But there is one scene and one line that sticks out to me and it’s when DiCaprio is introducing Ellen Page’s character, who is brought on as the new “architect”, to the dream world.

“Remember, you are the dreamer.  You build this world.  I am the subject, my mind populates it.”

In Inception, the role of the architect is to create the world into which the subject will project their own reality.  The best demos and marketing pitches operate in the same way: the more crisp, minimal, and focused the demo is, the easier it is for the potential customer to project their own ideas onto the product.

DiCaprio continues and lets Page’s Ariadne know that she shouldn’t be too conspicuous because his subconscious is always trying to protect his mind; the manifestations are always seeking the outsider and will escalate conflict once an external presence is detected.  I think this is the same when it comes to software and demos where a vendor treads into the realm of complex processes because at that point, the vendor is that outside presence that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t know how the process actually works, that doesn’t help the narrative.

The more complex the requirements, the more detailed the process that you show, the more the customer’s sub-conscious realizes that there might be a disconnect and the more friction there is.

Rather than a demo which focuses on complex requirements, craft a demo which focuses aspects of the software that are easily relatable and allow the customer team to see an immediate benefit; it almost doesn’t matter if your software can meet this one edge case requirement at that point because the demo is so good, they will find a way to make the process work with the software.

You may also like...