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Angry Nerds: Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes built his software empire selling t-shirts? It’s called bait-and-switch.

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Any parent who has ever driven past McDonalds with kids in the car will know the pulling power of a good bait-and-switch campaign.

Those blasted McHappy Meals usually go half-eaten, so it’s not the few moments of fat, salt and sugar that make them irresistible. It’s the movie tie-in, limited-time collectible nature of the bloody near-worthless-will-break-before-your-car-leaves-the-car-park toy included with the meal.

Believe it or not, what works for selling fast food also works for selling other things… like enterprise software products.

Mike Cannon-Brookes is a fellow mentor/investor in Startmate.com.au and a co-founder of one of the most successful Australian software companies of all time, Atlassian. When Mike recently spoke at a Sydstart event in Sydney, he said he realised some time ago that Atlassian’s most effective marketing strategy was not to sell software, but to sell very witty, cool t-shirts that developers will kill to get their hands on.

“We sell great t-shirts that you have to buy a software licence to get,” he said.

Most of the Sydstart audience thought he was joking. He was funny, sure, but he was serious. By selling t-shirts individuals want and bundling them with software corporations need, Mike has been practicing the ‘good’ kind of bait-and-switch — the kind that creates a desire so powerful for one thing, you end up buying another just to get it.

Why bait-and-switch?

Well, there’s nothing funny or exclusive about selling software that helps developers track bugs and publish internal wikis.

So getting customers passionate about Atlassian and its products would be tough — if the company restricted itself to just marketing software. But after trialling all sorts of give-aways and branded items, Mike and his team hit upon the ideal marketing medium for Atlassian: short runs of exclusive, clever and usually very funny t-shirts.

It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of clever t-shirts in developer culture. If you are a developer, you likely have a problem expressing yourself in conversation. A great t-shirt message acts as a warning signal, much like the yellow and black stripes on a poison dart frog. Except less cold and slimy. Usually.

A great developer t-shirt will include a message, graphic, or both that will leave passers-by in no doubt that they haven’t watched enough cult sci-fi movies, played enough cult XBOX games, listened to enough undiscovered bands, or compiled enough great code to really understand the person wearing the t-shirt. One of my all-time favourites had the message, “Of course you realise I could replace you with a shell script?”

You see, a shell script is… Oh, never mind.

T-shirts are also smart marketing for Atlassian because they make the fashion decision for you — wear a business shirt to work and you need to decide between stripes or plain, tie or no tie, etc. A t-shirt is a t-shirt and a developer can pull one out, tug it on and be one pair of jeans and one pair of shoes away from being ready for work. That’s how stereotypical developers roll.

Atlassian’s newest promotion, playing off the popularity of the iOS/Android game Angry Birds, is wonderful marketing. It plays off a current meme, borrowing from exactly the kind of landing page design that nearly every web business other than Atlassian uses these days. Most importantly, it stacks on the developer in-jokes that only they will truly understand (at least they’ll believe that’s the case).

What is the ‘t-shirt’ of your industry? Perhaps it’s a tie, a type of coffee or even something as seemingly crappy as a mousepad. Anthill Magazine once released a mousepad promoting a mock magazine called ‘Brown Noser’ featuring headlines like, ‘How to agree and get in shape: Start nodding. Yes, yes, yes!’.

According to Anthill’s James Tuckerman, new customers bought the magazine in flocks, just for the mousepad.

Harness a sub-culture

The key to good bait-and-switch marketing (and all subculture marketing) is to make your audience feel like you are peers in the same subculture.

Atlassian’s promotion also articulates this point beautifully. One t-shirt even, I think, takes a clever stab at Mike and his fellow co-founder Scott under “The Founder” (at least, I think it is, after all I’m not a true member of the Atlassian customer subculture). You can’t be peers with Mike and Scott unless they are brought down a couple of pegs.

Finally, this may look like a promotion for plush-toys, mousepads and even Atlassian, but it isn’t. It’s lesson and call to look beyond what you think you sell.

If I were Mike, I’d make sure I had very limited stock of any merchandise, and I’d make it clear that if you’ve missed out, there will be no reprints. You’ll just have to pay closer attention to Atlassian, act faster next time, spend less time considering the purchase decision rationally and get used to making emotional decisions about Atlassian products.

Because Mike’s clever enough to know he’s not selling software, he’s selling emotional reward… in XS, S, M, L, XL and XXL.

Alan Jones: Startup product guy, investor, copywriter. Keen dad, husband and dog walker; rain, hail or shine. Often wearing earbuds. Invariably late. Washes his own cup. http://www.doingwords.com

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