Be Inclusive Or Be Irrelevant

In my column in BtoB magazine this month I discuss the contrasting media relations styles of two giants of the Internet age: Google and Apple. The column focused specifically on their communications styles, but I believe the business tactics of these two starkly different but successful companies have bigger significance.

Google and Apple are diametrically opposed in many respects. Apple creates delightful experiences. Its products are proprietary, closed and self-contained, but people love using them because they not only work but seem to function the way humans expect. Apple is a technology company whose vision is rooted in human-friendly design.

Google’s vision is rooted in the potential of technology. The company produces an amazing array of products, ranging from mapping software to CAD design to medical records organizers. Google shares its ideas quite openly in public “labs” and is also prone to ending public experiments with little notice or explanation. Even its self-deprecating error messages are emblematic of the corporate culture, as if to say “So it didn’t work; we’ll make it better.”

The public-facing strategies these companies employ also couldn’t be more different. Apple holds its new product plans close to the vest and reveals them with fanfare at elaborate press conferences that generate months of media speculation. The company may only hold a couple of press conferences a year, but you can be sure they’re memorable.

Apple not only doesn’t use social media, it has actively litigated against bloggers who have revealed sensitive information. The strategy works well for Apple because its rabid base of fans is more than happy to indulge in speculative frenzy and drive awareness that no amount of advertising could buy.

In contrast, Google rarely holds press conferences. Most of its products are announced in a low-key style via blogs. Its developers and product managers work the long tail through one-on-one interviews and frequent speaking engagements. The company uses every social media outlet it can but shuns the media spotlight.

So Which Are You?

Is your company Apple or Google? Most businesses model their public personae on the Apple example. Their plans are shrouded in secrecy, access to executives is granted only to the top media and leaks are dealt with harshly out of fear that they could compromise the goal of being first to market. The theory is that the market is hungry for information, so it’s best to withhold news until it can have the greatest impact.

That strategy works for Apple but not for most businesses. Today, customers are swimming in information and if they don’t get insight about where you’re going, they simply move to someone else. Companies that build products behind closed doors risk becoming irrelevant because no one talks about them. What’s more, they lose the advantage of involving customers in a process that can not only make their products better but form the basis for a word-of-mouth marketing force.

How about being first to market? That benefit is vastly overrated. History has demonstrated that the only advantage of being an early mover is that it gives you the opportunity to make mistakes that others learn from. Apple’s sole first-to-market experience – the Newton – was also its most notable failure. The history of technology markets in particular is littered with businesses that created innovations that others later made successful.

In a world of plentiful information, the winners are those that do the best job of talking about their innovations before they reach the market. Prospective customers want to be involved in the process, and they punish those businesses that don’t indulge them. Look at the companies that are making headlines today and you’ll find nearly all of them have adopted an open and inclusive path to the market.

The Apples of the world are few and far between. Nearly everyone would like to be an Apple, but few will ever get the chance.

6 thoughts on “Be Inclusive Or Be Irrelevant

  1. Paul,
    This line is genius: “Today, customers are swimming in information and if they don’t get insight about where you’re going, they simply move to someone else.”

    Thank you for this post.

    Jason

  2. Both Apple and Google seem to have models that work. The common thread for both is Creative Cultures. Thought their communication styles differ. This engine of creativity for Big Ideas, is what is pushing them out into untapped markets in before competition. Google Models have less of the “control” factor in them for being successful. I think in the long run this might be the victor as the internet is leveling the playing field. On the other hand as too much info abounds Apple is elegantly organizing info like our MP3s and apps into a usable tools which are very valuable. It will be interesting to watch this dichotomy that you have pointed out.

  3. I think the difference you’ve identified is not so much a difference in two tech companies, but rather a difference in two product classes. Apple products – regardless of rhetoric to the contrary – are luxury items. Google products are mainstream, accessible, and for the most part, *free*.

    When you accept that distinction, the notion of luxury good production being off-limits, versus standard good production needing to be inclusive, it makes complete sense.

    Anyway, useful post – thanks.

  4. Love the line “Prospective customers want to be involved in the process, and they punish those businesses that don’t indulge them.” Think this will be ever important in the future whether you are producing standard stuff or you are at the forefront of your market and a leader in your field.

    Thanks for a great post.

  5. Pingback: Toward a politics of empowerment | John Keane's blog

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