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I'm one of those developers who thinks that marketing in general is 'scummy' and this article has done nothing to change that perception. I'm willing to acknowledge that there can exist marketing that is not scummy but it's hard for me to think of real world examples. Can someone describe for me the difference between scummy marketing and, I guess I'll call it 'ethical' marketing? I love building things that people enjoy using but I hate sales and marketing.

My take: ethical marketing is where you are trying to serve the customer. Unethical marketing is where you serve yourself at the expense of your customer.

One problem, of course, is that advertising and marketing people, being what they are, will almost always tell you they are trying to serve the customer. (And they generally believe it.) To tell the good from the bad, you will have to use your own moral compass.

The bigger one, though, is that it's an arms race. In a perfect world, nobody would push anything. You could just release your new product; those hungry for a solution would find it and become your customers. Sadly, those people right now are being aggressively manipulated by your competitors. They will never hear about your product. If you want to succeed, you will have to get your hands dirty with actual marketing.

Personally, I bridge the gap by asking myself three things:

1. Are we legitimately creating value for our customers? Would they be better off using our product?

2. Is our approach to marketing reasonably ethical, and at least no worse than the competition?

3. In the long term, are we acting in ways that will reduce the arms race, or at least make it no worse?

> building things that people enjoy

Knowing what people will enjoy is part of marketing. "Marketing" is commonly thought of as "advertising", but the full meaning includes choosing what to build - what do people need? What will help them?

Now, a favoured open source technique for doing this is to scratch your own itch... the thinking is that if it annoys you, it probably annoys lots of other people. A kind of marketing that requires a lot of faith! But is sometimes very effective.

We can go a step further, and ask now that we have solved this problem, it's not doing much good if the people who need it don't have it! How will they find out about it? This is getting pretty close to advertising... but the least-scummy way to do it is rely on word-of-mouth. This is actually how people find out about stuff in general. You can assist this process by just articulating just what it is you have, and what problem it solves, in a pithy, easy-to-remember, easy-to-pass-on phrase. You might have a little story (or joke) that helps carry it along. But the non-scummy part about this is that people problem won't pass it on if they don't think it's any good. They aren't getting paid to shill.

One interesting advertising approach is Dropbox's referral program (where you get extra storage by introducing someone to a free Dropbox account). It's hard to see this as scummy, but it's extremely effective "advertising". Even having a free version in the first place is an aspect of marketing.

Finally, consider the problems of a charity, whose only goal is to help people. What help is needed? How to get it to the people who need it? That is "marketing". And pg argues for it as a model for a startup: http://paulgraham.com/good.html

Maybe the biggest problem in forming my perception of marketing is that the good, quality marketing is the marketing least likely to get noticed consciously. The scummy marketing might not be more prevalent but it's more obvious so that's what I've been using to form my opinion.

The marketing that I commonly notice is the kind born out of much research on manipulating the thoughts, desires and behaviors of people. It's easy to find examples of this everywhere and is used by most large corporations to achieve what you describe. When thinking about the companies I respect, like Airbnb and Parse, I think of their marketing as more going out and engaging and informing their customer. Should there be a distinction between the two kinds of marketing?

I'd agree about Parse, but I'm surprised you would respect Airbnb's marketing tactics. It's well known (http://davegooden.com/2011/05/how-airbnb-became-a-billion-do...) that they did some pretty shady Craigslist spamming.

My extremely earnest, extremely honest cousin getting his doctorate in marketing would have a heart attack over this, ha.

The chestnut for a while has been that marketing consists of 4 p's:

price (how much? how many market offerings? should price go up over time [discounts for early adopters] or down over time [getting rid of excess inventory]?),

product (does anyone want this? are we building a rocketship when they need a bicycle, or vice versa? Are we following existent demand, or creating a new market [iPhone]?),

promotion (this is what 99% of people think about when they think of marketing, but it's important to note there are good things here too. Spammers live here, but so does Apple's 1984 ad), and

place (Do we even want to sell this in Alaska, given that it costs a buttload to ship our product up there? Do the Chinese have an ancestral taboo about our product? Is it so fragile that it's hard to ship reliably, and if so, how do we deal with that?).

The full discipline of marketing actually involves some pretty darn cool stuff, that I guarantee would appeal to your developer mind. One that I'm partial to are shape grammars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shape_grammar), where brands try to figure out what about a design (of say Apple, or a Harley Davidson) screams "$BRAND" to a customer.

Did you think this article was scummy? Probably not, it provided some real value and insight. And guess what, it was a piece of content marketing for his new book. I was pleasantly surprised at the end with his CTA (call-to-action).

Marketing is just finding a way to communicate your value proposition to your target market. Yes, there are plenty of scummy ways out there -- but some awesome real-world examples come from our favorite tech startups like 37signals (e.g. their books) and Atlassian (e.g. their git tutorials).

That's the great thing about the inbound/content marketing movement these days -- you are typically not paying people to read it, so you first and have to step back and think, "what can I write about that would grab the genuine interest of people I want to reach?"

Just some thoughts from a product marketing manager at a startup in NYC.

In all honesty, I starting reading the article because I was lured in by the title (even though it's a bit link baity). Why are these people not normal, and why am I one of them?

Then I started reading, realized it was about developers marketing. I have never really considered marketing my strong suit so I continued reading.

When he started talking about his book, I felt as though I had been tricked, and I got a little mad. To me, it cheapened the article, and made me feel as if the author didn't really care about informing people, but rather was just looking to promote his book. At that instant I knew he had posted this link on Hacker News not to be informative, but to prey on developers with weak marketing skills, and get them to pay for his book. I normally wouldn't comment on something like this, but since you said so anyway, I would say this is an unethical advertisement because it pretends to be an article, but it actually was an advertisement. If he had said right out, "I have written a book on marketing for developers, here is a sample, and if you are interested you can purchase it here", then I might have been more inclined to purchase it (of course the book isn't even finished yet, so there would be no way to buy it anyway even if I was interested, but that's a separate issue I won't get into here.) Rather, instead the article left a bad taste in my mouth and reinforced my opinion of marketing as something scummy I wouldn't want to get involved with.

At that instant I knew he had posted this link on Hacker News not to be informative, but to prey on developers with weak marketing skills, and get them to pay for his book.

OK, the fact that you would use a term like "prey on" in this context tells me that we probably have radically different worldviews, so there may be no point to this exchange, but...

I would say this is an unethical advertisement because it pretends to be an article, but it actually was an advertisement

There's no particular reason a piece of content can't be intended to be both legitimately informative, AND serve to drive awareness of something your selling. In this case, ask yourself this: If you took away the last paragraph or two of the article, would the rest of it still have been informative? Would you have gotten value from it? If so, how is it not an informative article, just because of the blurb tacked onto the end, sharing information about the author's book? Especially when the book is relevant to the audience who would likely discover that article?

OK, I get that a lot of developers just have a sort of general aversion to "all things commercial". Hell, I used to be that way to some extent, but yet I always found marketing fascinating, and now that I run a startup, I find marketing essential, so maybe my views have shifted a bit. Anyway, I understand - to a point - that a lot of us find that commercial interests take away from some notion of essential "purity" or whatever when it comes to technical content. But to call this kind of content marketing "unethical" is a bit extreme, IMO.

If it has value on its own without the paragraphs about buying his book, surely it would have just as much value if the author moved the final paragraphs to the front, and clearly identified it as an advertisement for his book. The fact that he did not do that indicates that he thought less people would read it if they knew it was an advertisement right from the start. So then the author thought he would have to trick people if he wanted to get them to read the advertisement, so he sneaked it in at the end. This intent to deceive is what I am calling unethical. Now, sure this could be an effective technique, but the kind of deceit and trickery usually involved in such marketing leaves me with a bad taste.

The point is, there isn't a binary distinction between "it's an advertisement" and "it's informative content". It's a legitimately informative and interesting article, whether or not he mentions his book. So what difference does it make if he mentions the book at the beginning, or the end, or not at all?

And putting that stuff at the bottom has nothing to do with being tricky, or sneaky, or unethical. It just makes more sense to mention the book after the author has demonstrated some credibility through the content in the earlier part of the article.

The message, whether informative, promotional, or both, ultimately needs to reach its audience. On both counts, this article failed to reach tbirdz and likely many others.

It wouldn't have been too much trouble to bring those skeptics back to the conversation by adding a short disclaimer closer to the beginning of the article. So why not do it? If the article is going to be both informative and promotional, some will want that expectation to be set right from the beginning. And if the informative bits can stand on their own merit, there's no risk to the promotional side in adding the early disclaimer. (IMO, it's not an unreasonable request, and not without precedent.)

Maybe I'm just too cynical a person but I thought his CTA was awkward and couldn't help thinking about how giving his readers 'homework' was a great marketing technique to automatically place him in a mentor position in the minds of his readers, helping his readers justify buying his book.

But I get your point. This wasn't a scummy piece of marketing and I found it through a very neutral channel.

Hey, original author here.

I appreciate your perspective. Which CTA, specifically did you find awkward?

(As a side-note: I've had other posts with similar traffic and same landing URL. This one outperformed them by quite a bit. The launch list itself grew 2x)

It was the homework assignment. You might not have intended it this way but I saw it as you asserting yourself as a credible teacher before earning it.

I did enjoy your article and have given you my email in hopes that I gain some valuable insight. I have always been very skeptical about sales and marketing but have tried to be open to its value. My wife has a more neutral view and can sometimes soften my stance on it.

Cool, thanks. I appreciate your honesty.

Here's an example of good marketing:


The software is so good, he just has to make one post on a forum and people are queuing up to throw money at him. All he has to do is sit there and answer questions.

A sample quote from a user: "Bought it without demoing, Due to Sean's great support/dedication."

Note the length of the thread. Also have a look at the diagram on the last page. There is a lot people here could learn from smalltime audio software/hardware developers, who are quietly running scores of successful "lifestyle" businesses, away from the bright lights of the SAAS industry.

Here's another example of a product announcement thread on that forum from a popular indie developer: http://www.gearslutz.com/board/product-alerts-older-than-2-m...

But yeah, if you're looking for an example of good marketing from a big company, good luck I guess.

You cannot not market something. Even a lack of marketing is a form of marketing ("Customers perceive marketing as being scummy! Let's not market!"). The fact is, customers make decisions based on perceptions rather than on reality. The goal of marketing should be to make sure those perceptions match reality. Marketing becomes "scummy" when it creates perceptions that are out of line with reality. Marketing becomes ineffective when it creates perceptions that are worse than reality or it creates no perceptions at all. The sweet spot is when you have a marketing message that is in line with reality and presents your product's strengths well.

This article:

1. Create a short article repeating common sense that everyone should know. 2. JOIN MY MAILING LIST!

The problem with that kind of articles: it works.

I love building things that people enjoy using but I hate sales and marketing.

If you think that, you probably don't understand what "marketing" actually is. Marketing is really just everything you do to communicate with your customers, to find out what they need, and communicate to them that you have a solution for them. There's nothing inherently "scummy" about marketing.

Let's say you talk to your barber about scheduling software. That's marketing. Let's say you write some scheduling software and put it up on GitHub. That's marketing. Let's say you go further and post a "Show HN: My Rad New Barbershop Scheduling Package". That's marketing.

Or maybe you go to the National Barber's Association Annual Convention and rent space for a both, and setup a PC (or iPad or whatever) to demo software, and as people walk by you talk to them about their problems and your solution. Again, that's marketing. Or maybe you buy some Google Adwords for your software. Marketing.

Let's say your thing really blows up and you're making money hand over fist and you buy an ad during next year's Super Bowl. That's marketing. Now maybe you find sales are dropping off, and you don't know why, so you create a SurveyMonkey survey asking about Barbershop issues, and email it to all of your existing customers. That's marketing. But maybe that doesn't generate enough responses, so you Tweet the link along with hashtag #barbershops and buy a couple of Facebook ads, and maybe share the link on LinkedIn. That's all marketing.

Running a few focus groups to solicit customer feedback? Marketing. Replying to blog posts related to your topic? Marketing. Blogging about your topic? Marketing.

There's just so much to marketing, and nothing about any of it requires unethical behavior or typical "used car salesman" stuff.

"Marketing" is also strategy... segmenting your market for example, by, say, geography and demographics: deciding "We're only targeting barbershops in the Southeast USA, in cities with at least 40,000 people". And that decision was probably based on market research, which is also part of marketing.


That's just one side of marketing. A large part of marketing is in understanding how to manipulate the thoughts, desires and behaviors of people. If Coca-Cola was focused on finding out what their customers needed they would be out of business. If their marketing consisted of honestly informing the public of what their product is, their market share would be a fraction of the size it is now.

I agree, marketing doesn't require unethical behavior. But marketing in an unethical way is required for many (most?) large business to grow.

I would consider what super-huge companies like Coca-Cola and GM do, to be outliers. Most companies aren't Coke or GM or whatever. Sure, some companies do unethical things, and I'll agree that things like "neuro-marketing" leave some interesting questions open. But I don't have any problem with marketing in the general sense.

I've always considered marketing by super-huge companies to be the majority of marketing. When you consider the number of brands owned by Yum!, GM, InBev, and the ones in the financial industry, that's a ton of marketing efforts done in an unethical way. I haven't seen numbers so my assumptions might be way off. Maybe it's different if you're considering the dollars spent vs the actual number of marketing pieces.

But it's not just super-huge companies. Listen to conservative talk radio and it's not long before you hear local ads using fear mongering, anger inciting, self loathing or inadequacy inducing marketing to sell whatever version of local or small time (when compared to super-huge conglomerates) snake oil they have.

Is this advertising? Is advertising separate from sales and marketing and is where most of the evil is introduced? If so it still doesn't give Yum! and the financial industry a pass for what they sell and how they sell it.

I was in that camp, but then I was honest with myself and realized that I just did/do not want to talk to people and face a rejection.

Ultimately, if I were to be helpful to others, I would ask them what they want and figure out a way to help them (sales & marketing if you will). For how can I truly build useful products, when I don't actually talk to the people that use them?

Even if you want to give fruits of your labour for free for others to enjoy, you need to market them, because there is a stack of software already doing the same thing for the same cost.

My dad was a salesman, and a really good one. He absolutely maintained that it was both counter-productive and morally wrong to sell people things that they didn't actually need or want.

On the other hand, if you have a product you believe in, that is high-quality, and that improves the lives of the customers who could really use it, he felt it was morally wrong NOT to sell it to them.


As a guy that values earnestness and frankness (perhaps to a fault), I generally agree with you about marketing. However, marketing is simply coordinated public communication.

That is to say that marketing happens naturally when someone places a classified ad or discusses their project with friends and strangers casually.

Taking out a series of ads saying a new product launched and describing its features is surely ethical. Taking out ads lying about the qualities of your product (or omitting important side effects) is unethical. Quietly hiring journalists to write "stories" on you product and its features is likewise dishonest.

so I'd say ethical marketing is honest and forthright. Being considerate about intrusions doesn't hurt either, though being annoying isn't always the same as being unethical.

Then again, I'm not a marketing guy, so maybe I'm missing something.

Original author here - this is really well said.

> "Being considerate about intrusions doesn't hurt either, though being annoying isn't always the same as being unethical."

I'd also say that anytime you put out any type of communication out into the world, you're going to have some people who don't like it.

The key is to reach people where they're at, and try to be helpful. Being tactful (and culturally relevant / appropriate) is important - but it can also lead to paralysis. If you're too concerned about how you're going to be received, you'll never put anything out there (or you'll water it down so it's boring).

>I'm one of those developers who thinks that marketing in general is 'scummy' and this article has done nothing to change that perception. I'm willing to acknowledge that there can exist marketing that is not scummy but it's hard for me to think of real world examples.

If you cannot understand it as it is already, you'll only understand it when you stop being merely a paid developer and become a developer that needs to sell the software he writes.

"If you build it they will come" does not hold. The best product can fail (and often has) because people have not known about it, or it was not presented to them in an appropriate way. That's what marketing does.

Marketing is anything you do to help people find and use that awesome product you're building. It doesn't do anyone any good if they don't know that it exists.

> I love building things that people enjoy using but I hate sales and marketing.

What do you do to get paid?

I'm building a community around the cruising industry. It was recently sold to a holding company who is now throwing some decent money behind marketing efforts. I stayed on and am strictly on the technical side. From what I've seen so far I wouldn't consider the marketing behind what we're doing as scummy.

I'm sorry, but I find this attitude really bizarre. You seem to confuse marketing with advertising, and even then it still feels bizarre. How are people meant to discover products, or solutions to their problems?

This never used to bother me either, but there are certain things that once you've seen, you can't unsee.

Smiling people is one of them. If your marketing site has pictures of smiling people on it, I am immediately turned off. Look at the billboard on your local subway system. Ads for dentists, graduate degrees, Trident gum, upcoming plays. 9 out of 10 of them have a stock photo of a smiling person, presumably unable to contain their enjoyment of $PRODUCT.

In very rare cases, say, for a Meetup group, or a bike tour, will I see pictures of smiling people that are actually organic. That's fine. It's when they use stock photos that it insults my intelligence and makes me feel like "marketers lying to take my money". The photos aren't even of people paid to pretend to enjoy the product, they're just sub-licensed from Getty. What it tells me is they're more concerned with sales driven by emotion than making a substantive first impression.

To test this, I just thought of the most boring thing I could think of: enterprise resource planning. The first marketing result on Google is this, complete with smiling person:


The best salespeople in the world make you walk away thinking you got a great deal, that you got the upper hand. When I see these blatant plays for emotion, I walk away disgusted.

In my Technical Blogging book I wrote the following on marketing:

-- Correct a Self-Sabotaging Mindset --

Marketing is bullshit. Marketing is evil. Marketing is everything that’s wrong with this world. Marketing is the root of all evil. Marketers should be shot. I have heard all these statements—and plenty more like them.

If you agree with any of them, you are not alone in your dislike of marketing. I’ve found that technical people, particularly programmers, tend to have a strong hatred for marketing.

Antimarketing stances stem partly from bad experiences with manipulative marketers and partly from a misunderstanding of what marketing actually is.

Wikipedia defines marketing in this way:

"Marketing is the process used to determine what products or services may be of interest to customers and what strategy to use in sales, communications, and business development."

At its core, marketing is about connecting people to solutions. For example, some people may have an interest in buying an environmentally friendly car.

Good marketing involves identifying this segment of the population, then devising a strategy to let that portion of the population know about the existence of your brand-new hybrid car and its benefits (in a style and manner that will appeal to them).

Though the ultimate goal is to sell a car, marketing isn’t about convincing people who are not interested in your product to buy it. It’s about exposing the right product to the right audience. Done correctly and in an ethical manner, it’s possible to promote without deceiving, manipulating, or forcing people to spend their hard-earned money on goods they don’t want or need.

It’s important to understand that marketing is so much more than just advertising. Marketing encompasses countless aspects of your product, including what you name it before it even exists.

If you still feel that marketing is mostly evil, I encourage you to reflect on the forms of marketing you already do, perhaps without even realizing that they’re marketing. Ever applied for a new job? Or dated someone? While you probably didn’t misrepresent yourself with your future employer or partner by blatantly lying, you still wore nice clothes and tried to showcase your favorable traits. In doing so you were marketing yourself.

In blogging, the aim of your marketing is to reach as many people who are potentially interested in your content as possible. As we’ll see in future chapters, you may also have related additional goals, such as promoting yourself professionally, marketing yours and other people’s products, and so on.

Like all tools, marketing can be used for good or in unethical, obnoxious ways. In this book, I advocate only white-hat marketing techniques that will get your content in front of the people who need to see it. So if you are the stereotypical antimarketing developer, please approach the rest of the chapter with an open mind. I promise that you won’t have to sell your soul.

no offense...but you couldn't even reply to him without marketing your book? this also occurred in the OP, where you get to the bottom of his post and it's revealed that the whole thing was supposed to get you interested in his book. this is why i fucking hate marketing. nothing is genuine, everything has an ulterior motive. it destroys peoples' authenticity and trustworthiness.

Really? He answered his parents' question by providing some content from his book that was very relevant to it. He then says that if you're still interested in knowing more, you could buy/get his book. Would you have wanted him to give it for free? Would you rather have he didn't inform him that a book existed that focused on this problem?....

This is a real-world example of the pervasiveness of scummy marketing causing even ethical marketing to be met with groans.

well, this is the point. his intentions are thrown into question. was he simply being helpful, giving advice, and mentioning the title of the book if the parent wanted to get more information? or was he craftily building trust with a helpful comment, enticing the parent into buying his book? who's to say?

real gifts are given unconditionally, with no expectation of anything in return. if you can simply give advice with no marketing, plugging, or bullshit, it shows your intentions are pure. you expect nothing and simply want to better someone else's life. when you market to me, i have to assume that you are using me to make money.

people have to eat out here, but there is an appropriate time and place for marketing your services and products. when you blur the line between who you are as a businessman and who you are as a person, you are severely tarnishing your character imo. (not that the comment was even that bad, but i'm talking about marketing in general)

was he craftily building trust with a helpful comment, enticing the parent into buying his book? who's to say?

There's nothing wrong with charging for goods and services. If someone needs something, and I provide it, it's totally ethical to get some money for that. It's still 100% possible to use good judgement and "simply want to better someone else's life" without throwing your morals to the wind.

People can make businesses out of things they are really passionate about, and things that other people really need. It's not necessary to have any line between "you" and "businessperson you". If you want to be a good businessperson, you must first be a good human being.

> was he simply being helpful, giving advice, and mentioning > the title of the book if the parent wanted to get more > information? or was he craftily building trust with a > helpful comment, enticing the parent into buying his book? > who's to say?

If the comment was helpful, as you say it was, then who gives a shit?

Such is life my friend. Developing a sense of authenticity and trustworthiness is what separates good marketing from bad marketing. Being opportunistic is bad marketing. But contrast the above post with someone like patio11. We all know him, we respect him (at least I do). If anyone ever needed appointment reminder software or bingo cards, well I know where I'm sending them. That is good marketing. Patrick doesn't end his posts on HN with a sales pitch. He offers quality content, is authentic and genuine....but at the same time, the work he does in the community here is a form of "marketing".

It isn't a sales pitch. I read it as such myself, but it looks like it's just a verbatim excerpt - ".. in this book .. " can be taken as both a pitch, and a section from an introductory chapter in the book. An unfortunate coincidence.

Just to confirm, this is indeed a verbatim excerpt: http://i.imgur.com/tLICDgj.png

How do you figure it's not genuine? It's on-topic and exactly answers the question.

"If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would said a faster horse" - Henry Ford

Sometimes it is hard to know what you want and marketing can help you figure it out.

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