Let customers plan your path

You know those dirt paths worn through public green spaces? The ones that mark the passage of countless people who were too lazy to stick to the sidewalk? I love those dirt paths. I can even mathematically prove they save lots of steps (thank-you Pythagoras).  To me, those saved steps and all that dead grass means somebody missed what people really want.

So why don’t city councils, urban planners, and landscape architects recognize that the dirt paths are the way people really want to go?  The short-cut takers are not lazy — at least not necessarily lazy — they just get what they want faster or more easily by taking the path. They also think that their individual footsteps are not the ones that actually kill the blades of grass.  People who walk on these paths do it on purpose. They think that it’s a better way to go. This means you probably won’t convince them to stop without policing the dirt path 24/7.  Maybe the path paving budget should be held back for the first year after a park is opened, then pave over all the dirt paths next year.

But this isn’t really about green spaces is it?

Companies plan the path people should take to become customers all the time.  It’s called product strategy and marketing.  The company has something that people would like to have in some context, for some reason, at some price, via some actions.  For the individual person to become a customer, both sides have to agree on the context, reasons, price, and actions.

Dirt paths as a metaphor for illegal downloading

This implies that taking the paved path is like paying for a CD or DVD. What comes to mind?  A whole lot of people are taking what they want, even though they really know they shouldn’t?  That’s a reasonable assessment, although I wouldn’t want to sit in judgement over what’s a bigger offence (dead grass or stolen IP).  I don’t buy the lost revenue argument completely though (pun intended) — since not every content thief would have been a customer.  The thieves only wanted the content at a price they felt like paying — in most cases $0.  Some of the content thieves would abstain completely rather than pay.  Turning the metaphor back around, if you fence-in the green space not everybody would take the paved peripheral route.  Some would drive instead, and others would just stop going to whatever wonderful place was on the other side of that field.

Company – Customer Compromise?

On one hand companies lose the non-committed people/customers by not letting them cheat, and on the other they can’t charge $0 for content or other products.  Here comes a compromise, which has oft been defined as “something that everybody can live with but nobody wants”.  Companies charge less for the same products, and people become customers more often than thieves.

How can companies charge less without reducing quality?

Maybe turn “super-stars” back into just regular “stars” so some of the input costs and overheads are lower.  This goes for athletes, musicians, CEO’s, and software geniuses.  Probably not going to happen.  Maybe the first “ultra-stars” will arrive next week and cost even more.  Here’s a more likely way — any company that can figure out how to — should do what iTunes, Basecamp, and Freshbooks and do.  Use technology to reduce costs and become demonstrably more suitable and affordable than the alternatives.  Every business is different –and many of the specific strategies required will have to be borderline genius — but the result will be more emulation of this model.

Why will people choose to be customers instead of thieves?

People will do just about anything they think they can get away with.  Especially if they want to do it.  But sometimes there’s mud on that dirt path.  Or puddles.  Or dust.  Or dog poop.  It gets on your shoes, or worse!  And sometimes people think about how ugly the swath of dead grass is.  About how each of their footsteps contributes to the eye-sore.  If only there was a diagonal paved path they would gladly take it —  A hypotenuse solution to this dilemma.

Companies like iTunes, Basecamp, and Freshbooks are the paved diagonal path for me. These are clearly not dirt paths — I’m not forced to break any by-laws by using them — and I get products and experiences I want.  I don’t get my shoes muddy when it rains, and I still get what I want.

Paving the way forward

How many more dirt paths are going to be paved in the next year?  The next three years?  Hopefully lots of real ones and metaphorical ones.