TRY BEFORE YOU BUY: SOFTWARE SELLS ITSELF

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Two youngsters in baseball caps are sprawled on the floor as their joystick-nimble hands navigate through a multimedia adventure game. Beside the tykes is an elaborate interactive contraption that allows their parents to learn what multimedia is about. The demonstration madness continues even as the customers leave the store. On their way out, they can buy working models of Lotus products to try in the quiet of their homes.

That's right-consumers are so eager to get hands-on experience with a software product before they buy it these days, they'll even pay for a test drive.

"Consumers are not particularly interested in seeing a demo. And they're not particularly interested in seeing a video," said Grant Schneider, director of marketing communications for Lotus Development Corp. "But they are willing to pay for a working model."

To be precise, Lotus expects consumers to pay $14.95 for the sample spin. That's what the Cambridge, Mass., software marketer is charging for working models of its Smart Suite group of office products.

"A demo is interesting, but it takes time to use and doesn't give them an opportunity to use the product," Mr. Schneider said. "A working model gives you experience."

And high tech marketers are eager to provide consumers with experience.

Floppy disk demonstrations-a technique that has gone from cutting edge to commonplace in nanoseconds-are still thriving. The reason for this is simple: Try-it-yourself marketing works.

The Federal National Mortgage Association was besieged with requests after it ran ads in business magazines allowing institutional investors to try its $100,000 real estate investment software. The offer was so successful that Fannie Mae is developing a Japanese version.

Like Lotus, car companies found consumers would willingly plunk down Ford Motor Co. with help from SoftAd Group, Sausalito, Calif., and Chrysler Corp., with help from Inmar Group, San Antonio, created demonstrations that allow consumers to "test drive" vehicles on a computer screen.

As well as floppies, marketers are focusing on CD-ROM. Compact Disk-Read Only Memory is a product that looks like an audio compact disc, but it has enormous storage capacity for high-quality video and sound.

Warbler Group, a Hartsdale, N.Y., interactive media consultancy, has just prepared a CD-ROM demo for a new database product that even includes a voice telling users what key to punch in. The irony: The demo has more bells and whistles than the actual product it's touting. The database doesn't provide audio.

Of course, these days every high tech marketer wants to appear current.

Companies are stumbling over one another to make CD-ROM catalogs that allow users to sample and buy software right off the disk.

In November, Multiple Zones International in Seattle laid claim to offering the first CD-ROM disk catalog. Instant CD Access provides "locked" versions of software products along with working demonstration versions. Consumers can try a program and then call an 800-number and buy the code to unlock it.

Although Multiple Zones claims to be the first, it's hardly the only catalog. Comdex/Fall '93 was virtually a showcase for CD-ROM demos. But for all the hubbub, most experts think CD-ROM demo disks have little future. From a marketing standpoint, they certainly have flaws. For one thing, a number of the programs on any disk are probably not the latest versions.

"I think on-line system technology will jump over CD-ROM," said Patrick Yanahan, president of USA Chicago, a marketing communications company for the high tech industry. "On-line systems will allow customers to try the latest version of a software, order it and download."

That's already happening. At the International Control Engineering Show in Chicago in March, a company that makes factory automation equipment planned to unveil a system for letting clients view products on-line. Currently, Grayhill Control Products, La Grange, Ill., uses its information system-called Graynet-for customer and technical support.

"We will evolve that into a marketing tool in the next six to 12 months," said company VP-Control Brian Hill.

Hands-on marketing doesn't mean a company can neglect the personal touch. Lotus' program for Smart Suite doesn't stop at selling working models. The company will also hold live demonstrations in 20 stores nationwide starting in May and run an aggressive series of ads from Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, in major business magazines.

As technology becomes more complex-and users more sophisticated-the desire for live presentations showcasing products is on the rise. For the past three years, Hewlett-Packard Co. has offered miniature product fairs about its scanning technology with companies that make complementary products. Fair attendance has at least doubled every year, said Sara Wilson, public relations manager for Hewlett-Packard's Greeley, Colo.-based scanner division.

"Interactive seminars with real-life human beings are important for new technology," Ms. Wilson said. "Scanners are not as far along in the mainstream business office as other technology." Hewlett-Packard plans to increase its schedule of live demonstrations in computer superstores this year.

Lotus is going one step further: The company is looking into presenting live demos at airports, a perfect spot to find business people who want something to do while waiting for a flight.

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