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.

A New Online Community Just For Us

The Society for New Communications Research has been providing valuable perspective and advice on new media for over five years, but it has always done so from the precarious position of a nonprofit organization. So I was very excited to learn late last year that Redwood Collaborative, a b-to-b media company specializing in technology, has stepped in to fund some of SNCR’s programs and build on its ideas.

The first fruit of that investment is NewComm Collaborative, a knowledge-sharing community for professionals who are “passionate about learning how to harness the new communications technologies that are transforming media and business models.” The beta site just launched with hundreds of articles from contributors and the SNCR archives. I was pleased to be asked to guest-edit the category of New Media and Journalism for January. We’ve got material from Jeff Jarvis, Martin Langeveld, Mark Potts, Gina Chen and other smart journalists as well as a forum topic entitled “Is Media Devastation a Good Thing?” Click on over and sign up.

While you’re there, also sign up for the annual New Comm Forum, April 20-23 in San Mateo, CA. In my view, this is the best lineup of speakers the Forum has had in the four years I’ve been attending. I can’t wait to meet these people!

Tip of the Week: Xmarks

If you, like me, regularly use more than one computer to access the Web, you know how frustrating it can be that all browsers are local. You know the drill: You bookmark a website on your home computer and then can’t find the same site when you’re looking for it at work two days later. Or if you use the saved password function in the browser, you learn the hard way that passwords saved on one computer don’t show up on any others unless you copy them through a laborious backup and restore process.

Xmarks is for you. This simple but super-useful little plug-in for Firefox, Internet Explorer and Apple Safari synchronizes all your local bookmarks and passwords so the stuff you choose to remember on one computer will be available to you on all the others you use. In recent months, Xmarks has added other cool features like search-result commentary from its community users, but I find it enormously useful simply because the items I bookmark on the laptop in my bedroom at 7 a.m. are available in my office two hours later. Thank goodness for simple pleasures!

Are You Doing B-to-B Social Marketing? Contact Me

Eric Schwartzman and I are hard at work on the new book we’re co-authoring on the subject of business-to-business social media marketing. We’re looking for companies that are using the tools to reach business customers, channel partners and other non-consumer constituents. We want this book to be full of success stories and anecdotes, so if you have an interesting experience to share, please contact me. And don’t forget to visit the draft outline and give us your suggestions.

Just For Fun: Not Just Another State Of The Union

State of the Union addresses aren’t known for their excitement. Especially in an economy like this one. But we found a great idea to spice things up this year: a drinking game you can play as President Obama is talking tonight. Granted — it won’t get you as drunk as, say, a shot for every missed verb in a Palin speech, but even if you play by only one of the rules, you’ll still be happy enough at the end of the event tonight to say you paid attention to this historic SOTU. For extra credit, continue playing during the pundit commentary afterward.

A Mobile Game-Changer

Apple unveiled the iPhone Application List last week and boasted that it sold one million of the new 3G (third generation) devices in the product’s first weekend on the market. More important than the sales figures is the coup that Apple has pulled off: The iPhone 3G looks to be the first mobile device to make the leap from telecommunications to data. That makes it the first mobile platform to merit serious attention from marketers.The iPhone inspires a passion among its users that few technology products have ever achieved. Ask an iPhone user to tell you what he or she likes and you’ll get a 20-minute sermon, complete with demos. What strikes me is that most people tell me they use the iPhone more for data than for telephony. This is where the product is a game-changer.
The mobile Internet has been an unholy mess for several years. Each handset maker, network operator and service provider uses a slightly different technology. This pointless incompatibility has frustrated application developers so much that many have decided simply to wait out the market until consensus is reached. About the only standard anyone has been able to agree upon is Mobile Web, a hobbled subset of the World Wide Web standards that doesn’t do anything particularly well.Apple is bidding to change all that. The two big innovations in the iPhone are a usable http Web browser and sufficient local memory and storage to run applications on the device. This second feature is critical. Few people will choose to interact with their iPhone primarily through the browser, although they will browse to retrieve information. The beauty of native applications is that they can take full advantage of the iPhone’s speed and interface. When combined with a robust Internet back end, some truly interesting uses will develop.

The New Client/Server

In industry lingo, this setup is called client/server. Millions of people already take advantage of a mobile client/server architecture every day when they use their BlackBerries from Research in Motion. The BlackBerry’s e-mail interface is second to none, but an equally important usability factor is the device’s rapid performance. That’s because the BlackBerry downloads messages continually and displays them locally for rapid access. If the Blackberry’s performance was as slow as a Web e-mail program like Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, I suspect few people would bother with it.

Apple’s applications initiative is meant to give developers the means to build client/server applications on the iPhone. This can give users a fast, pleasant experience that’s optimized for the platform. Mobile Web doesn’t come close.

With an impressive list of more than 500 out-of-the-box iPhone applications and the capacity for developers to create really functional client/server programs, the iPhone stands to be the first truly mobile data device.

No cell phone maker I’ve seen has yet produced a meaningful competitor. Their origins are in voice, and most still don’t get the data thing. Apple’s early lead with mobile applications makes it the front runner in his new field.

Why you should care

Here’s the opportunity for marketers. Facebook pioneered the idea of using applications as a means to sell products, but there are so many Facebook applications right now that it’s almost impossible to break through the noise. The iPhone is currently an open field, and since people spend a lot more time away from their computers than in front of them, there’s more potential for audience engagement. The audience may be smaller, but the prospect of getting them to actually use your service is greater.

The applications that succeed on a mobile device will undoubtedly be different than those that work on a social network. Location awareness will be critical. Think in terms of what people want to do and know when they’re standing on a street corner or waiting in an airport. Give them services that help pass the time or entertain them. Better move quickly, though. I suspect the iPhone Application List won’t be a short one for very much longer.