In the last century, three (3) things have changed the way we consume today:

  1. Henry Ford introduction of mass industrial production with all its successive improvements;
  2. Mass Marketing introduction by advertising agencies and creative gurus (if you follow the TV serial “Mad Men”, Don Draper is a good example);
  3. The fact that people started buying things FOR THE FIRST TIME (before, people bought things just because his/her father, grandfather, grand-grandfather bougth the same, as today does one third of the world or 2 billion people).

In this great post and in its related video, Seth Godin explains this new magic of the XXI century marketing.

On buying something for the first time

There are only three kinds of sales:

  • Buying a refill, another unit of a service or product you’ve already purchased before
  • Switching to a new model/brand/style
  • Buying something for the first time

Here’s an overlooked truth: until quite recently, buying something for the first time was a very rare and almost revolutionary act. In fact, more than a billion people on Earth don’t do this as a matter of course. The standard is to only purchase the seeds, fuel or shelter that your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did. That’s the way it’s always been.

Take a minute to think about what it means for someone in poverty (which until recently was almost everyone) to buy something for the first time. The combination of risk and initiative can be paralyzing. One of the little-known transitions of the industrial revolution was the notion that companies and individuals could set out to discover and buy stuff that they didn’t know about until just recently.

You see a box or a store window or a product on the web and you start imagining how cool it would be to open the box, own the product, use it, engage with it and benefit from it. A product you’ve never purchased before. That’s new behavior. Until a hundred years ago, that sort of imagining was rare indeed, just about anywhere in the world.

If you are trying to grow your coaching practice or b2b saas business or widget shop, understand that you are almost certainly pushing against a significant barrier: most people hesitate before buying something for the first time. If you’re trying to develop trade in the underprivileged world, understand that teaching people to buy anything for the first time is a revolutionary concept.

Campbell’s soup is almost never bought for the first time. It is a replacement purchase. No one switches to Campbell’s either. They buy it because their mom did.

The first iPhone, on the other hand, was a first time product for just about everyone who bought it… most of the people on line that first day were buying their first smartphone. Worth noting that a few years later, many millions have made the switch–we don’t make first-time purchases lightly.

And most of what gets sold to us each day at work or at home are switching products. «Ours is just like the one you already use, but cheaper/better/faster/cooler.»

The potent mix of fear of loss, desire for gain and curiousity fuel the appeal of buying for the first time. But it’s magic, it’s not science, and it doesn’t often happen on schedule.

Here’s a six-minute video presentation I did on this for the Acumen Fund. Sorry about the video glitch near the beginning–part of the magic of being on stage is that I wasn’t even aware of being projected upon…