Friday, June 11, 2004

Sell Ideas by Leveraging Self-Image

by Asim Jalis

These are some thoughts on how to sell ideas. These ideas are more generally useful than they might initially appear. SELLING PRODUCTS IS SELLING IDEAS Most sales situations are not in fact about selling products, but rather about selling ideas and perceptions. When I am in a job interview I am really selling a perception about myself rather than the product (me). If I can create the right perception the product sells itself. REAGAN SOLD IDEAS Reagan was really an entrepreneur of ideas. He took ideas originated by other people and marketed them in a way that made them attractive to a lot of people. In the course of this process he cast himself as the purveyor of these ideas and rose into prominence as the ideas rose. Ideas and cognition are intangible and so their power is easier to ignore or underestimate. SELLING IDEAS LIKE PRODUCTS Selling ideas requires the same kind of thinking as selling products. The consumer of your idea must benefit in some way from identifying with this idea. People buy ideas because they identify with them. This happens to some extent with products also. But with ideas it is all about identification. This is something that engineers forget. For example, if I am trying to sell XP in my group I have to answer the question: how does identifying with XP benefit or harm each person. If it harms people they will not adopt it regardless of how persuaded they might be at a philosophical level that XP is a good thing. LEVERAGE EXISTING IDEAS AND IDENTITY The next point is an important one. It's obvious when it is stated but surprisingly underappreciated. Just as the most effective businesses leverage what is already there, the most successful ideas must build up on what people already believe in. People choose products not so just because they are convinced the product is better but also because of what it says about them. The reason GMail accounts are selling on eBay while Yahoo accounts are not is because having a GMail account says that you are technically savvy and part of the in-crowd. Having a Yahoo account says no such thing. Lycos is offering 1 GB mail accounts comparable to Google's but no one is buying. It's not even all about signalling to other people; a lot of it is about how people see themselves. I would never buy a sports car because I just see myself as someone who considers having a flashy car important. I would feel self-conscious and awkward if I won such a car in a lottery. The same principles apply in marketing ideas. People buy ideas that build up on what they already believe in, and help reaffirm their beliefs in the things that are the most positive about themselves. People like to feel good about themselves. They like feeling special. Welfare reform appeals to people not because it reflects the value of being greedy or selfish, but because it reflects the values of self-reliance and hard work, which people identify with. People already believe in the Protestant Work Ethic. The idea of cutting welfare builds on that pre-existing idea. If it was presented as a new idea in conflict with people's pre-existing ideas about themselves it would not become as popular. SELLING XP The wrong way to sell XP would be say that we must do everything differently now. This suggests that what people were doing before was wrong. It questions people's identity as knowledgeable effective technologists. It does not effectuate, or build up on what people already believe. Instead it tries to tear it down. The right way to sell XP would be to emphasize that XP is the opposite of waterfall, not of what the team is currently doing, which could be termed iterative. XP takes the ideas of iterative development a little further. The team should adopt XP because they are innovative and forward-thinking technologists. They must adopt it before their competition does because they always stay ahead of the curve. The idea is to appeal to their own highest self-image. SUMMARY To summarize then, a lot of selling assumes that we must appeal to people's self-interest. Instead appeal to their self-image. This is also a kind of self-interest, but it is more. First, it is cheaper. You are giving away ideas rather than artifacts. Second, at the root of all selling including the selling of products is the selling of ideas; so to sell a product you must first sell an idea, and ideas appeal to self-image more directly than to self-interest.