By Janice Brown
Marketing and selling plug-ins, soft synths and virtual instruments for DAWs presents a different set of challenges to pro audio retailer/dealers than the hardware many of them have sold for years. While software customers make savvier buyers, showing up forum-fed and oftentimes post demo, the retailer’s job in selling to them is arguably more complex, having to provide such an array of hands-on demos, stay on top of frequent upgrades and new releases, and, in many cases, interpret value.
Guitar Center’s Marek Stycos names a major difficulty encountered very often in selling plug-ins: their “lack of perceived value.” The prevalence of cracked plug-ins, of course, has created an atmosphere in which not only are DAW users straight-up stealing plug-ins, but they’re also disregarding the value of one over another. Both Stycos and Dale Pro Audio’s director of computer audio system sales, Ken Patnaude, mention the mantra that “all plug-ins are not created equal,” a point that retailers have to drive home each and every day.
Patnaude notes, “Selling plug-ins requires a personal hands-on understanding. You cannot simply say that it is a ‘Pultec EQ.’ Most knowledgeable customers will ask you for clarification.” To market and sell plug-ins effectively, these retailers also have to, according to Audio One founder David Frangioni, “understand the compatibility of the software with the specific system” for the end-user, who may have questions.
Another difficulty in getting plug-ins to the public is noted by Kyle Kjensrud of Full Compass: “The product cycles of plug-ins and master application programs are so fast it makes it a tricky proposition creating balance on stocking levels, and what packages give good value to the customer.”
Retailers’ secure, multiple platform-based demo areas are a critical marketing tool, as end-users want to check out the plug-in’s performance on different systems. B&H’s Ray Nostrand describes, “Customers visiting our showroom can check out our six interactive Apple and Windows-based workstations, as well as, an Open Labs Neko 64. All of the machines are password-protected.”
Many retailers will also offer time-limited demo options from the manufacturers, if customers haven’t acquired them directly already. Gary Gand, founder of Gand Pro Audio, gives an example: “Our store has handed out Waves bundles and [Ableton] Live 14-day trials, which has worked well with Cubase.” Gand also offers in-store demos, but has experienced that “once a customer steps out the door, the dealer is doomed.”
Sweetwater sales manager David Stewart views limited-time options as effective ways to help customers understand the usefulness of the plug-ins. He adds, “The slightly tricky thing is closing the loop and ultimately making the sale. It seems like some manufacturers rely a little too much on the customer taking the initiative after the demo period runs out. A certain percentage never ‘get around to it.’ We try to follow up proactively and make it easy for them to make the purchase.”
In addition to welcoming customers in to demo plug-ins on extensive Native and DSP-based systems, Patnaude says Dale also relies on the manufacturer’s demo period. “We’ll even make special requests on the client’s behalf to extend an expired demo in the event they need more time,” Patnaude assures.
Full Compass offers a variety of free clinics showing off software to local customers, according to Kjensrud. “I’ve found that plug-in manufacturers usually have great relationships with the street reps of master application manufacturers. In other words, we could do a Digidesign clinic one month, an Ableton Live clinic the next, and still have the same plug-in specialist from a third-party company assist in the show. It is important to confirm to the customer that the plug-in works in a variety of host applications.”
With so many online demos, reviews, forums and word-of-mouth, customers sometimes just look to the retailer for advice. Even with all the demo machines set up in Guitar Centers, Stycos reveals, “Most clients will either take advice on a plug-in and purchase it, or not. Unheard.” At the same time, Stycos says customers are still “resistant to spending the money on software,” where they’ll spend it on hardware.
With so many plug-ins to choose from, it’s safe to say that DAW users may get burnt out on personally maintaining a totally up-to-date virtual world with the most popular and current virtual tools. Especially if they’re simply not used to paying for those tools at all. Gand shares, “On several occasions, we have been asked to appraise large computer recording rigs for insurance claims, and when it comes to replacements (fire or water damage, computer burn, crashes), we always suggest to the client to contact the plug-in manufacturer with their serial numbers. In every case, the customer puts his hands in his pocket, stares at the floor and says ‘Ah, well, um, I don’t have any of that stuff.’ In other words they all scammed their plug-ins for free and were trying to get a big write-off or payoff for them.”
Retailers can play an important role in communicating the value of software, and even raising its value by integrating the absolute most effective tools for a buyer’s system. Frangioni points out that “since no plug-in is used unto itself,” plug-in sales involve a much more intimate understanding of the individual’s workspace. With sales people looking at the big picture, they can consider the other gear in the chain–a point on which Frangioni maintains the dealer network’s ultimate necessity in the plug-in sales chain. “Selling direct limits the bandwidth of sales opportunities and virtually eliminates cross-selling, up-selling and application-based selling. Most end-users might call to buy one plug-in, and it might not even be the right–or best–solution for them. A manufacturer is not going to be able to see and the offer the big picture.”