Monday, July 25, 2011

Field of memes.

I’m not usually one to whip out my curriculum vitae, but this is a special circumstance. Given that someone has decided there should be a ‘digital divide’, I feel compelled to clarify which side of the damned thing I’m on so that the following screed isn’t unduly dismissed. I get the web. I do. Here I am getting the web in 1994, before there was even a Netscape (apparently, the fact that consumers were going to be able to talk back to marketers was going to be a pretty big deal. Oh, and I think we gave up on the word “interactive” too soon). I’ve advised lots of startups in the space, including very big ones like a bank and an online travel retailer and the only online grocer who achieved an operating income during giddy Web 1.0. And small ones, even as we speak, little companies with great ideas and founders with that unblinking, glistening stare that only pre-VC entrepreneurs have. I’ve even been an investor, once placing a tidy sum behind a bulletproof plan that disputed the following truth, and losing every penny of it. I’m not some aggrieved creature of the mass media age, grumping about the new economy and the devil music those kids are listening to. I’m a dude, and, here’s my truth:

Most internet-enabled, technology-driven products are ridiculously over-developed and criminally under-marketed.

What triggered this eruption was watching people trying to cope with Google+, the answer to a problem most mainstream social media users didn’t know they had. This specific example may prove unfair in the end – only a fool dismisses Google - but there are a million more where it came from. Fantastically useful web-enabled services and apps nobody has ever heard of, brilliant utilities buried layers deep in ones that thought they knew, features so difficult to explain that their creators rarely try. Nor does the problem live only online. I could argue that benighted RiM would have done well to spend a little less time impressing engineers with its nuanced improvements over the iPad and a little more of it trying to create desire. This techno-centric faith that more is better and better will win perforce has dug a deep moat around the future. On one side of it are the novelty-addicted nerds trying endlessly to impress themselves, and on the other is the rest of the world who have no idea what they’re missing. Or are tired of feeling disempowered by it.

A developer is not a marketer. Differentiation only matters within a known frame of reference. You have to have prospects before you can have customers. Search only sells when people know what they’re looking for. Viruses run their course and then flame out. Marketing still needs scale to make money. And people will always, always, always learn when they are fascinated and never when they’re forced.

As Luddite as it may seem, I’m coming to believe that the most progressive thing the tech world could do right now is innovate a little less and market a little more. It really is time that we invited regular people to join the fun. I’d certainly settle for less awesomeness if it meant that more people were going get some. Just because we build the future doesn’t mean anybody’s going to come, but if we can get enough of them to come, you might be amazed at what they’d help us build.

Photo used with the kind permission of Dennis Crowley (@dens)


Laurence said...

I've always been a bit intrigued by the approach in which tech-makers toss a product to market then let customers figure out for themselves exactly what the hell it's good for. It's a bit antithetical to the idea of a USP. I suppose it's just an extension of the throw-it-to-market-and-figure-out-how-to-make money-with-it-later approach.

So, dude, I agree with your notion. It's like some of these shops took the Cluetrain Manifesto a little too seriously and then just gave up. Bringing a product to market in a meaningful way is probably just as important as conceiving the product in the first place.

BrandCowboy said...

So true. Honestly, as a professional marketer, I can't imagine why anyone would invest in product capability that most consumers won't know is there... and therefore won't value. No shareholder would stand for it if we were talking about, say, dishwashers. It's just bad business. I think dev should be thought of properly as a capital expense, not as fungible with marketing.

But there's a more sinister face to this, I think, and that's the exclusion of the consumer. It isn't just that I don't understand what you've built for me, Mr. Tech Marketer, it's that you also never ask me what I need. There's a bit of a fascist streak in a lot of technology marketing that I don't think serves it well, and that in the long run is going to discourage accountability to the marketplace.

Thanks for the comment!