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
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
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
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.
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.
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.