Circa 1985 there was a nascent software marketing strategy called shareware. It was a “try before you buy” concept and there was serious debate over how much nagging of the user should occur once the evaluation period had expired to encourage the purchase and registration of the product. In 1987 the Association of Shareware Professionals was formed with the following mission in mind:
to strengthen the future of shareware (user-supported software) as an alternative to commercial software. Its members, all of whom subscribe to a code of ethics, are committed to the concept of shareware as a method of marketing.
—The Association of Shareware Professionals Website
The association is alive and well, you can visit them at www.asp-shareware.org.
I imagine that many software providers still make a good buck using shareware as their principal marketing strategy, however, you don’t hear the term much anymore since nowadays almost all software distributed via the Net has evaluation (eval) copies available for download. Software vendors that do not provide eval copies are usually out of business in short order. There is also a fair amount of entry-level free software available whose goal is to allow the user to own a fully functional, though limited, product (e.g. standard editions versus enterprise editions). The hope is that the user will find a need to migrate to a paid edition.
Eval copies are a way to experience both the product and the brand. Only if you’re impressed by what you see are you likely to take the necessary steps that will lead to a purchase. Many vendors force you to fill out information forms before allowing you to download, and some will even follow-up with an email or a phone call, imagine that. We take all this for granted now, but back in the 80’s this was brand new territory.
As necessary as this practice is in the software space, most software marketing is still woefully behind what is currently possible. Product data sheets, white papers, presentations and the like are clearly more than what old economy companies tend to provide, but since almost everyone in software provides these extras, there is very little differentiation. Multi-media has a role to play here, but it has been lagging for all of the reasons previously discussed.
The try before you buy concept is applicable to all soft goods that can be distributed electronically via the Net. I rarely buy a book online without reading material from the excerpt and checking out the reviews. This is all expected and appropriate behavior for soft goods but what about products made of atoms? Good question. The answer is that these products are in dire need of effective multi-media micro-worlds if the provider wants to stand out from the crowd (name one that doesn’t). If it is impossible for the consumer to physically experience the product you have to do the next best thing. Create a simulated world where they can experience both the product and the brand, virtually.