How to Market Confusing, Technical Products

Step 1: Give customers something specific — and amazing — to talk about.

Written by Mae Rice
Published on Aug. 14, 2020
How to Market Confusing, Technical Products

Chicago-based startup Hologram has had a rare experience in 2020: a good year. As of July, usage of the company’s product had grown just shy of 150 percent year-over-year.

What is that product, though? That’s where things get complicated. It doesn’t involve any holograms.

It does involve a global “network of networks.”

Hologram specializes in SIM cards for internet of things (IoT) devices. The cards connect the devices to the web via cellular networks, instead of via Wi-Fi.

This comes in particularly handy for “micromobility” devices — like rental scooters and bikes, which need a range of motion larger than a typical Wi-Fi network — Hologram VP of Marketing Lynette Grinter told Built In.

Hologram’s SIM cards offer devices a global range of motion. They switch seamlessly between 550 cellular networks around the world, hooking into whichever one is strongest in a given location, regardless of provider.

So, a scooter with a Hologram SIM card could easily migrate from the United States to Brazil for the winter — scooters, like birds, tend to follow warm weather — without needing software or hardware updates, Grinter said.

This technology fills a pandemic-related need for more solitary mobility options; crowded public transit poses public-health risks.

But Grinter’s job is to make it sound “dead simple” — which, by most standards, it isn’t.

She’s done this before. Grinter spent more than a decade pulling off similar messaging feats at other Chicago startups, ranging from Guaranteed Rate, which digitized the mortgage application process, to TicketsNow, a peer-to-peer ticket resale marketplace.

So how can marketers advocate for a confusing product in a clear, enticing way? We spoke with Grinter about what she’s learned so far.

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Focus Promotional Visuals on the End User

Grinter plans to focus Hologram’s promotional images and videos on “the end device” in action — so someone riding a scooter, or monitoring their fitness metrics on their watch.

It’s more about showing the activity Hologram enables, she said, than showing “this visual SIM card.”

Interestingly, Amazon has done something similar to promote its most complex, technical product: the AWS Cloud. Recent AWS ads show curious children marveling at specific products made with AWS, like Adidas shoes and Netflix — as opposed to a giant server farm, AWS’s SIM card equivalent.


Avoid Playing Telephone With Clients... 

As part of her onboarding at Hologram, Grinter spent a week working on the customer support team. This was not a week of shadowing — she responded to tickets alongside them, learning about customer pain points firsthand.

One common concern: “Even if the buyer understands what [Hologram’s product] is, they have trouble communicating it internally,” she said.

In other words, her job as a marketer isn’t just to explain the product to prospects; she has to teach them to explain it clearly to other stakeholders in their organizations.

Or, as she put it, “I need to help them champion it.” Giving Prospects Something (Specific) to Talk About...

So, how can a startup marketer encourage word of mouth that doesn’t confuse prospects, misrepresent their product’s features and generally devolve into gibberish?

The key, Grinter said, is a specific, conversation-starting feature.

When Uber arrived in Chicago, for instance, Grinter recalled that the black car option “really wowed people.” Uber amplified it too, running promotions that made it cheap or free to upgrade to black cars.

It was just one feature, but “it really increased their adoption,” she said.

Uber’s app was relatively intuitive, but a standout, black-car-esque feature is even more useful for startups with complex, abstract products.

More on Marketing ChallengesCan Good Cloud Ads Even Exist? An Investigation.


...or by Trying Account-Based Marketing

Like product-led growth (PLG), account-based marketing (ABM) can help marketers spread the word about a product within a prospect organization. But unlike PLG — which usually involves employees organically adopting a freemium, user-friendly software, like Slack — ABM works well for complex, enterprise-only products.

Essentially, ABM involves picking a key prospect organization and sending targeted, personalized outreach to its key stakeholders — via email, targeted ad campaigns and even personalized chatbot greetings on your homepage.

It’s like “fishing with spears,” Engagio co-founder Jon Miller told Built In — whereas PLG, with its emphasis on viral loops, is closer to fishing with a net.

Ideally, ABM outreach is tailored not just to the prospect organization, but to the individual’s role within it.

“When you're talking to the product engineer and CTO, [you say] ‘Here and the benefits,’” Grinter said, “but if you’re talking to the CEO, there’s a whole other set of benefits and parallels to draw.”

Even when a potential client’s ultimate buyer is a single person — the CTO, or the CEO — an ABM strategy can make sense, Grinter said. The buyer is more likely to buy if their colleagues have some enthusiasm for, or at least familiarity with, the product.


Similes Are Your Friend

In terms of copy, comparing a new, complex product to something widely understood helps prospects sink their teeth into the concept.

At Guaranteed Rate, Grinter and her team did this with the messaging about the company’s digital mortgage. They compared it to the typical mortgage application process and the “old technologies that people were using,” highlighting the ways their product cut out the hassle of faxing documents, and the security vulnerabilities of emailing personal information.

The marketing team also ran a sweepstakes that put this message front and center, tagged #OldWayBlownAway on social media. Entrants uploaded photos of outdated technology, and Guaranteed Rate covered the winner’s mortgage payments for three months.

There were hundreds of submissions — including the winning photo, of a museum-worthy electric watt-hour reader — and Grinter felt the whole contest highlighted the ways Guaranteed Rate improved on outdated technology.

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Measure the Clarity of Your Message — With Data

Grinter recommends paying attention to the “science side of marketing,” and letting data inform your strategy. In her experience, data can affect things as simple as the timing of outreach, and as complex as the product itself.

When Grinter worked at Truss, for instance — an office space leasing marketplace — the primary leasers were small- and medium-sized businesses.

“We noticed that they were actually looking for office space during their downtime,” she said. “So we were seeing more activity on the website [during] evenings and weekends.”

Truss set up personalized SMS outreach to anyone who browsed, even at odd hours; if they replied with questions, an inside sales representative answered them. Prospects responded to the texts 40 percent of the time, Grinter said — an “incredible” engagement success, in her eyes.

Qualitative data can also be helpful in complex marketing efforts, she said. When people leave your site, for instance, Grinter suggests briefly surveying them and asking why they’re leaving.

“You can basically cross-functionally build that feedback into the product,” she said. This can help marketers catch confusing wording, or counterintuitive content architecture.

“You can put up a great product that you’ve done all your research on,” she said. “But to me, finding that audience and tapping into the audience with the messaging is a key part of product-market fit.”


Sometimes, It’s All in a Name

Don’t underestimate the power of a product’s name to clarify what it does. Grinter learned this when she worked for TicketsNow, a ticket resale marketplace.

Back then, in the mid-aughts, the whole concept of peer-to-peer ticket sales still felt shady to people. It was a type of transaction typically conducted on Craigslist and ripe for scamming.

In-house research showed that people totally trusted Ticketmaster, though, Grinter said. So when Ticketmaster acquired TicketsNow in 2006, TicketsNow changed the name of its product to Ticketmaster Verified — a nod to the complex barcode validation process that supported each ticket resale — and the tweak was “game changing,” Grinter said.

The value of the company-within-a-company, and Ticketmaster Verified’s marketplace usage, both spiked.

“When I left, it was a $500-million company,” Grinter said.

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