So closing out this series of posts looking at differentiation in markets where technical standards have caused little technical difference between products, I’m going to look at standards bodies and technical education as a technique to create differentiation.
Preach the gospel – Educate
The first point to make is that in my experience products that have developed through the process of ratification of technical standards, first find an audience amongst the technical community. This means that there is an opportunity, albeit with a finite window of opportunity, to become the first vendor to provide education together with access to evaluation software for these early technical evaluators.
I’ve had first hand experience of this early stage marketing exercise. We fed the thirst for knowledge and the need for evaluation software (to mix metaphors) to build a loyal community of technical evaluators, developers and systems architects. We were able to craft an image for the company as the developer-friendly standards implementer, the first company to turn to when wanting to understand how the standards should be interpreted and implemented.
Obviously at some point you have to turn this rather “altruistic” approach into a business that licences software and keeping that audience with you as you do this is not easy.
“Work” the standards bodies
Another technique that can be exploited, although it needs significant “muscle” to be able to carry off, is that of leading that standards-bodies. Again I’ve had experience of working for a relatively small vendor that was represented on standards-bodies where we came up against larger vendors. These vendors were able to almost completely dictate the direction of the body through a mix of funding, bluff, bluster and threats. It was an interesting process to observe and the outcome, whilst not being everything that larger vendor wanted to achieve, was that they were able to grab territory from other vendors on the committee. If a camel is a horse designed by committee then all I can say is count the humps on the back of the standard when a large technology vendor charitably volunteers to donate 50 man years of code to “expedite” the adoption of the standard.
Time to abandon standards
Lastly, understanding at what point it is right to move on from the standards to create a “proprietary” offer is important. This may not be a public admission that your product now features proprietary capabilities alongside the standards-based functionality, but the point will come when in order to take the product forward at the pace required standards become secondary.
Using this message of “We have used standards to get ourselves to this point but now we need to implement specific technology to deliver what the market really needs” can be powerful but is a double-edged sword. Being seen to “abandon” standards in this way can have a very negative reaction. Whilst this would typically only happen once the market has reached the later stages of maturity, the benefit to the vendor that can first differentiate with proprietary features whilst externally still being perceived to embrace the philosophy of standards is significant.
So if you can be seen as more devout than the other guys, and preach the standards gospel further afield than anyone else, you can grab a position in the market that other vendors will struggle to defend.