This is Chris Parks back in with a post on new technology adoption and opinion leadership for the Technology Marketing Center.
I would love to paint a picture of how we strolled through the chore of identifying a targeted segment early on and intuitively made a runaway, breakthrough product with a genius marketing campaign tied to a clear and apparent segmentation.
But then I would be lying.
So maybe this is a lesson on how to get a breakthrough product to the attention of jaded and miss-informed customers deluged by a thickly competitive market all too happy to continue spreading miss-information. Or maybe it is a lesson on how to fully engage and empower your early adopters to spread the word. Most likely it is both.
In many industries, identifying early adopters is at least somewhat straightforward. In guitar amplification, this simply is not true. Its very nature tends to lend itself to discord and dis-organization. Finding anything that resembles a cohesive segment is in and of itself a challenge. To make matters worse, our technology is generally regarded as unacceptable among the opinion leaders of the market. (More on this later.) This recipe as you can imagine lends itself to much hard work and effort with precious little return.
So ponder this for a moment: How do you segment guitar players? Perhaps into Acoustic and Electric guitar players? Jazz players and Blues players? Metal vs. Country players? All of the above? None of the above? It turns out that there is no obvious segmentation that gives clarity to how to approach the market. The unfortunate reality is that most people tend to orbit around a given product or brand or both. This of course makes it fairly impossible to find a target segment we can address as a group. Worse yet, it puts the most opinionated people in the same bucket with people who might be early adopters as they can understand the value and appreciate your product attributes. Worse yet, you really can't address them as a group. They won't allow you to.
For us, our best attempts to identify good segments and establish a channel of communication ended in frustration. But this isn't a sad story of how we failed to do so. It is a story of how we ultimately found a "hidden" target of early adopters that wasn't at first readily apparent. This is also a little bit of a story of why it is important to have a focused team willing and empowered to go the distance. (At least long enough to take their licks and learn the all too important lessons of the market.)
One thing we learned is that our product although, better in many respects than the competitive product on paper, was actively resisted by potential customers because the opinion leaders had been well trained to believe that only tube technology could be "good enough" for their needs. Secondarily, the small size and unusual coloring of the product that might be an advantage for many consumer products (smaller size, weight, unique appearance) missed a core whole product table stakes attribute for many potential customers. (Namely that one of the most important things about a guitar amp is that it has to make the guitarist look "cool.") Another thing we learned is that there was a "craze" around effects pedals. In the course of the short span between 2008 and today, dozens of successful companies appeared making boutique guitar effects pedals.
So what to do with this knowledge? Well, we learned quickly that when competing in a market that considers it's own used equipment its primary competition because of the heavy saturation that you should immediately take a look at alternate product categories where you can clearly win. Don't try to take the competition head on in a saturated consumer market. You can't win unless you are much, much less expensive.
So that is exactly what we did. Our combo amp business was suffering from assault on multiple levels. They were small, they looked "different" than the current offerings, and the technology was in question by the recognized "experts" in the field. So we realized that given effects pedal "craze" that many guitarists have a strong financial and emotional investment in their "effects boards." Why not build an amp small enough, and light enough to fit on their pedal boards, but so powerful it is literally awe inspiring. In doing so, we can effectively feed off of the craze and establish a beach-head in a category that is essentially empty of competition but adjacent to our combo business. The things that made our combo amps incredible shined even brighter in this application. By creating the Tone Block 200, we side-stepped the whole issue of appearance, and got right to making guitarists look cool with something easily measurable and identifiable as a real advance. I mean, come on, a 200 watt amp right on your pedal board? With "CAUTION STRIPES" on it? Chalk one up on the "found the early adopter" board.
Perhaps more importantly, the Tone Block 200 allowed our customers the chance to experience what we are doing in a way that did not require them to change large portions of their equipment. It was a small, non invasive product that delivered more power and less weight in the rigs they already owned. This is important because changing many variables at once might expose things about the new product that they don't necessarily like right off. With the Tone Block there is an immediate, clear, quantifiable, and noticeable improvement with the equipment the customers already own. That, and they get to amaze their friends by pointing at the hazard stripes and saying, "That's my amp right there!"
Finally we found the early adopters. The segment we were after. But it wasn't the one we were targeting from the beginning. Suddenly there were hundreds and even thousands of them talking on forums, and sharing the product with friends. Clearly we had a hit, but more importantly we had the support of the real early adopters. So we built a product guide that shows off all the product lines and tells more of our story. We included 3 copies with every amplifier we sent. What we were doing in essence is "arming" our early adopters with the right answers to the inevitable questions. (Is that a tube amp? How does it sound so good? What is Quilter?)
So maybe this begs the question... How has it gone with sales of the other product? Our combos are in a state of back order and I am writing this about a month or two late after a wildly successful show. The Tone Block's credibility has extended to our other products. We are busy as busy can be. The future looks bright.
Lesson in all of this? If you have unclear segmentation and no clear way to communicate to the segment in a thickly competitive market space, be sure to look at the "craze" going on. What are people excited about? You might just find an adjacent product/category opportunity that you have overlooked that not only will garner you faster acceptance and penetration, but also build the necessary credibility to generate a greater impact. Turns out, it may cost less and have a greater for market potential too.
Oh... and be sure to update your products from time to time with the lessons learned. With the launch of the re-vamped MicroPro Mach 2, we cannot keep them in stock to save our lives. A nice problem to have.