Thursday, 6 December 2012

Quit whining, Instagram are a business

The response to the news that Instagram have changed their integration with Twitter has me puzzled... really puzzled. I'm not puzzled as to why Instagram chose to do so, as they see it, they want more control of the data and user experience for themselves. I'm also not puzzled that Twitter have done similar things in the past, for example to LinkedIn. No, what really puzzles me has been the response from the tech community... the community normally so enamoured with the idea of being an entrepreneur and making a truckload of cash (and possibly saving the world in the process).

From articles like this though, they've forgotten that they're dealing with business and assume they're dealing with charities instead. As I see it there's a lack of understanding about how businesses make money, or more fundamentally that businesses need to make money at all. Let's not forget, neither Instagram nor Twitter charge users for the services they supply - of course these companies derive economic benefit from access to customers' data, but it's not quite the same - so no one can claim to have been "screwed" out of anything. Instagram are acting in what they see as their best interests. If a business decides it's in their best interest to close off or change aspects of their service, they're entitled to do so. The flip side to this is that customers are entitled to act in their best interests - if they're unhappy with the business they can stop using it or switch to a competitor. If you don't want to stop using it, then stop complaining about something you get for free.

Part of the argument (the "breaking the spirit of Web 2.0" part) is that these businesses may build their systems on the back of open platforms. As Instagram has admitted, at the start they didn't have a presence and frictionless integration with Twitter made sense - in marketing we do this all the time to help build awareness, it's called "sampling". But these things can't last if the company wants to make money as they must. The same thing can be said of everything Facebook has been doing since it started.

So this is the part that has me genuinely puzzled. The tech community is suffused with entrepreneurship and lauds entrepreneurs. It tracks their rises and falls, it worships the most successful of them, and it advocates for them to anyone who will listen. Yet, from the evidence on display over the last day or so, the tech community has forgotten the most basic precept of businesses is to make money, and that business/customer relationship is a two way street.

Personally I think Instagram are making a mistake, but then again, that's their choice. As a customer I have a choice in this too. I won't be exercising that at this point. But if people feel strongly enough about it, they should stop whining and exercise that choice for themselves.

>>> Update: What on earth were Instagram thinking? They've properly screwed their users now. Appropriating user data is one thing, but unilaterally claiming ownership is on a completely different level! Photography like any intellectual property has economic value (I'm guessing they know this bit). This doesn't just mildly annoy users, it's theft. It's like iTunes unilaterally deciding that all the content on iTunes is now owned by Apple.

Worse still, Instagram turned a what could have been a really useful revenue stream - sale of user content from a potential win (if the rights were shared with users) to a massive own goal.

User data is pretty abstract, you wouldn't expect much of a backlash, this is something a bit different.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

In defence of skeuomorphic design

(Author's note: I am not a designer, and don't pretend to be. However I am a believer in customer focus, so the opinions expressed here reflect this fact.)

Scott Forstall has been pushed out of Apple, and the wagons have circled behind him.

That's pretty rough for the man responsible for iOS - the operating system beloved of (nearly all) Apple acolytes. However with the passing of Steve Jobs, Forstall always was on borrowed time. His management style and ambition to build a power base were probably the main reasons behind his departure, but there's one group of people who will celebrate his departure with unrestrained joy - design purists. Scott Forstall was (gasp) a devotee of skeuomorphic design; on screen use wooden and leather textures, elaborately turning pages, files that get "shredded", all Forstall. He wasn't the only one to carry a torch for these real world touches though, Jobs was as well. Hence as long as Jobs was in power, Forstall's approach held sway. However with Jony Ive assuming responsibility for the design of iOS we can expect a different approach. The question is whether this is such a good idea, my belief from a customer perspective is that it isn't.

Skeuomorphism has been a part of Apple's design approach since the very first Macintosh in the 1980s... indeed use of the GUI was entirely based in the principles of skeuomorphism. Since that time, this approach has retained a vital place in Apple design for a number of reasons. Firstly, as mentioned Jobs was a fan of this approach and with good reason; more than almost any CEO in living memory, he was highly clued into his consumers. Apple products consistently push the boundaries of product capability and design, yet they are able do so whilst remaining intuitive and human. That they are able to achieve this balance is in large part due to the use of skeuomorphic design, which grounds Apple's radically different approaches to hardware in a world that is familiar to its users.

The second reason is related to the first, many designers reject skeuomorphism as they feel that today's digital natives would not understand the referential touches - how many 16 year olds would even recognise a cassette tape let alone reel to reel? But this argument misses a crucial point - given the price-points of most Apple products, the earliest adopters are often those who can afford to buy their products are most likely to either need or appreciate the links with the past... that sort of disposable income usually comes with age. As a side note, design is recycled and new generations often copy fashions of those who came before (even Ives himself is heavily influenced by the work of earlier designers).

The final reason to retain skeuomorphic elements is unexpectedly one sometimes neglected by designers, the relationship of the design with its audience. The move to simplicity is laudable, and Ives' ability to consistently hit the mark in product design reflects his customer focus. However the push to completely remove skeuomorphic design entirely risks falling into the category of designers getting too carried away with their art, forgetting that normal people must WANT to interact with their creations - both hardware and software. The best analogy I can think of here is Brutalist architecture... lauded by architects for its simplicity and modernity, whilst loathed by those forced to live with it. In their rush to simplify, the Brutalists neglected the humanity of their audience, simplicity became starkness, and modernity became alienating. Whether they're digital natives or not, people need these links with the products they see around them everyday. I doesn't need to be excessive, but it must feel organic.

It will be interesting to see where Ives takes the next iteration of iOS, will he look towards a slow phasing out of skeuomorphic elements or will he go for a radical redesign? If he wants an example of the latter, he might want to see what happens with Windows 8... Microsoft's latest release seeks to make a clean break with the past, shedding skeuomorphism entirely. In doing so they're taking a big gamble, especially given their  market ubiquity. Their rationale for doing so is certainly clear as mobile devices become the way of the future. However, whether it succeeds in the short term or not will come down to the ability of normal people to accept change. Whether Microsoft succeed will have a major effect on their market position; whether Apple believes Microsoft have succeeded will no doubt be reflected in iOS7.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Determinism, Chaos Theory and Klout

Firstly, let me clarify, I'm not a mathematician or a physicist, I'm a marketer who has a side interest in science (closet geek). The following post derives from my belief (yes, belief, I can't actually quantify this) that a certain element of hubris has taken hold in the tech community, driven by the genuine incredibleness that is Big Data.
A couple of centuries or so ago, following the development of Newtonian physics, humans got it into their heads that it should be possible, given the right grasp of the variables, to predict the future using mathematics. The Enlightenment brought with it the entrenchment of scientific Determinism, a belief that took a couple more centuries to shake (thank you Chaos Theory).
Looking at it in hindsight, we know was an act of hubris, but at the time it seemed so possible, science was learning ever more about the world around us and it seemed to be so predictable... if you could work out the orbits of the planets and predict eclipses, why not the weather given the right computing horsepower? Unfortunately. It never quite worked out that way - there were just too many variables for some things and the Uncertainty Principle derived out of the other area of physics - Quantum Mechanics - confirmed that for us.
Today with the growth of Big Data we seem to have developed a modern version of this hubris - the belief that if we have the right algorithm we can measure things like social influence. This seems to be driven primary by marketing folks such as myself who want to figure out ever more so our marketing dollars are used with maximum efficiency - if we can identify key influencers they can do our job via word of mouth. And on the surface it all seems so... possible! We'd like to think that from all this data we can somehow develop a complete picture, to know everything about who is who, and how they influence others through the analysis of data. But it is my belief that this is just not possible, there are too many variables. Sure we can get a general picture of things (as we can with the weather and other complex systems), but as we add more data, things become ever more variable. Witness the problems of Klout... the more detailed their algorithm becomes, the more errors it throws up (I tweeted once about the EU and I became an influencer on "Europe" - seriously).
At its heart, the basic problem behind these efforts is the premise itself - you cannot measure social media influence solely through data collected through online interaction, as you miss the far more important side of things which is real world influence. If I look through my (rather thin) collection of Twitter followers and those I follow, most of those people are ones I have met or heard about through offline contact... in fact I mentally up-weight their influence based our real world interactions. I'm fairly certain I'm not the only person who does this, it's instinctive. So many important, yet difficult to measure 'human' aspects come into play - not the least elements of human instinct. How on earth can you measure that?
Naturally this will upset marketers who are seeking to identify social media influencers. As a marketer myself I can see why you do it, but I feel compelled to inform those from my industry who try, that in many ways they're kidding themselves and relying on a number in place of a degree of instinct (a very important aspect of good marketing) as well as courage (in my books even more important, taking calculated risks is what leads to the best campaigns). It will also upset those who's Klout score or number of Twitter followers is a source of pride. I'm sorry to say it, but there are just some things that can't be defined by a single number.

When it comes to the interactions between humans, fortunately, the old aphorism holds true; not all that can be measured matters, and not all that matters can be measured.

Personally I think things are better that way.

Friday, 14 September 2012

iPhone 5 - Smart, fast, elegant, well-made... and obsolete

<Firstly I realise this blog is about marketing for apps, but given the iPhone's influence on the app world I figure the release of the iPhone 5 warrants a blog post. Secondly, this is not a description of the product itself... I am neither interesting, interested or important enough to have managed to get my hands on one!>

So the waves of hype have crashed upon the shores of California and carried with them a new iPhone - number 5 as it turns out. As the hype recedes it's been interesting to see what they have left behind. First impressions of pictures online show a smaller slimmer and lighter phone, which we're told is lighter and more powerful as well. Smaller, slimmer, lighter, faster... sounds like lyrics from a Daft Punk song. In any case, for a phone that's a pretty compelling sales pitch, but will it work for the 5? Along with the release there's been some interesting aspects of the Apple narrative that are worth addressing, this narrative seems to be summed up in a general feeling from a portion of Apple's fanbase of disappointment, a sort of "Really? Is that it?" It's worth taking a look at this in more detail.

Don't believe your hype
First and foremost this feeling of disappointment is a natural product of the prerelease hype, combined with the actions of the fanbase. The interrelationship between Apple and its fanbase has an odd dynamic... as if the earth was in fact orbiting the Moon. The Moon, a silent enigmatic object being orbited by the frenetic, chaotic vibrant earth. So it is with silent enigmatic Apple and it's frenetic fanbase, this is how things have always been. We all know the routine by now; in the months leading up to an iPhone release we see mounting rumours, and apparent leaks, fans create their own versions of what they imagine, but when the time comes the reality is different to what anyone really expected. The look is different and the features are different. This time though, the leaks had largely nailed down the look and most of the features, and inevitably the fan based was disappointed... they got pretty much what they expected. It's not supposed to happen like that with Apple!!

Apple v Samsung - a Pyrrhic Victory 
The second narrative behind the release was the recent Samsung vs Apple court case. I'm not going to go into details here or add much opinion beyond my belief that jury trails in patent cases are absurd and that this case was a double edged sword for Apple. Yes they cemented their reputation as an innovator (like they didn't already have that), but the enormous publicity surrounding the case also drew public attention to the fact that Samsung do indeed make phones, and they're pretty damn successful at flogging them. Admittedly their first attempts where not much more than a knock off of the first iPhone, as the court case made clear. But they needed to get to market quickly and it's a heck of a lot easier when you copy to start with and then do your own thing subsequently.

We also learned much about the Apple design aesthetic (as we did about Samsung's willingness to be "flexible" with theirs), and importance of design in products. But this has created an interesting problem for Apple - on the one hand they are seen in the public mind as innovators, on the other they've very clearly established the importance of their design language. The consequences of this friction is nor apparent in the reaction to the iPhone 5 which looks very similar to the iPhone 4, yet fans were expecting something... different. In the fans mind they want radical change, not this incremental stuff. They want their cake and eat it, and with that Apple has given itself a bit of a headache. Added to this, whilst Samsung's design department clearly took a holiday when Samsung responded to the original iPhone, they have just as clearly been working hard with subsequent models. Few could say now that Samsung copies Apple now, and efforts by Apple to have current Samsung models removed from shelves look like acts of a desperate monopolist.

The fog of (marketing) war is lifted
The final narrative is I believe the most interesting and consequential one for Apple - the maturity of the smartphone market. When the iPhone 4 came out Apple was still the biggest player in the smartphone market, at least in terms of perception. The change from the curved iPhone 3 to the sharp edges of the 4 gave some feeling of advancement, but really Apple had done what they usually do - take the best of what is out there, make it more user friendly and put it into a well made product (aerial issues aside). This was enough to satisfy the majority of the market - to the majority of consumers, Apple was still the leader other brands weren't up to scratch and the iPhone was the best phone... of course. This of course was very much wrong, faster development cycles put makers like Samsung and HTC ahead of the Apple by the time the 4 came out, but reality and consumer perception are often mutually exclusive.

This time the iPhone 5 faces a very different market. In the intervening years other manufacturers have been busy, in the last 12 months makers like HTC (with the HTC One) and Samsung (Galaxy series) have taken a bigger market share and with it a much greater share of consumer perception - they also look, feel and work great. Whereas previous iPhones were (wrongly) assumed to be best on the market, consumers are now willing to look around the market before making a decision on a new phone. What consumers see now is a thriving smartphone market, with great devices, interesting differences in platforms with the addition of Microsoft's Metro, manufacturers adding customised software like HTC Sense and an ever growing list of useful features. Coming into this market, with this level of customer awareness, Apple did what it always does - take a range of excellent (though reasonably common) features, and package them into an elegant, well-made and user-friendly smartphone.

Sadly the market has caught up to and passed Apple in recent years... worse for Apple, the majority of consumers now know it.

Would I buy one though?
Despite all I've just said, I quite like the iPhone 5... it's first one I've thought I could actually own. I look at the smartphone market now and I see Apple assuming a position similar to the one it has in the computer market. As the market continues to grow and fragment, Apple should focus on what it does best, making excellent products that people will use. I like the sales pitch - smaller, slipper, lighter, faster. But mostly I suspect it's the contrarian in me. To me in recent years the iPhone was too popular to be cool... the iPhone was the default choice of an uncritical market. But the iPhone 5 finds itself in a world which it no longer controls... and I like an underdog!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Is Sergey Brin the new Steve Jobs?

This post may focus on hardware, but the implications for anyone designing a product are pretty abundant. If you can design a product with appeal that overcomes reason, you'll always do better than one with better features:

Remember when we all used to salivate at the thought of the next Apple convention? What did Steve have up his sleeve? What amazing piece of kit would he reveal that would have us all ignoring Apple's rather large price premium and just slap down our cash to have a slice of that amazing Apple cool? Year after year, product after product they seemed to do it - iPod (multiple versions); iPhone (fewer versions); Macbook Air; iPad... the list was amazing and made even Mac-sceptics like me feel the urge to just get me one.

There wasn't much secret to it, in true Apple style it was simple, they just made fantastic products that worked in perfect harmony with each other backed up by a beautiful OS. The trick is that it's really hard to do well. Google (with Android) for all of its dominance was far too fragmented to match Apple in that compelling human way. Its OEMs were far too focused on that bane of the OEM - features. Bigger screen this, faster processor that, brighter, more colourful etc etc etc. People bought these things certainly, but deep down really they just wanted an Apple because their devices worked better.

But something has changed... at least that's how it seems for me. Less than a year or so on from the untimely loss of Steve Jobs, Apple has continued to release fabulous products - Jobs made certain there was a few years worth in the pipeline - but something is different. As I see it, they've taken to marketing them in a really misguided way. Apple has now fallen into the features trap, it seemed to start with the "New iPad" with fab new screen but not much else to speak of, and has continued with the recent launch of the new Macbook with Retina Display. Don't get me wrong, both are excellent devices; powerful, beautiful and functional. Fanboys and tech geeks adore them and there's no shortage of evidence of sales, but it's a dangerous road that Apple has taken themselves down.

Why should this be a problem? When you play the features game you get yourself into a margin-destroying arms race, and whilst Apple is king right now, this advantage can be very quickly chipped away by hungry and capable competitors like Samsung who have already taken top place in Mobile sales, have blitzed iPhone in terms of performance, and can't be far away in terms of desirability. Likewise HTC are doing a reasonable job of a come back with the HTC One. Previously Apple traded on its desirability and the "lifestyle" aspects of the brand to retain dominance, but now Apple has decided to play the feature game, how long will this residual goodwill last (especially when brands like HTC roll out campaigns like this for the HTC One). I'm not saying that Apple won't see a spike in awareness and sales whenever they release a new product, this is natural. But the longer they play the feature game, the shorter those periods will last. The inevitable grind of the product cycle demands this; the market for smartphones has now caught up with Apple, it's only a matter of time before the same happens in other categories.

Which brings us back to the subject... what is the opposite of the feature game? In marketing terms it's the "Benefit" game... and we've just had a Jobs-like demonstration of this from Google with their Glass. In one self-deprecating swoop, Sergey Brin and his tech guys and assorted extreme sports buddies at Google have just laid siege to Apple. Sure their Nexus tablet may not knock the iPad off, but with Glass, Google have done what iPad did, created a market, showed everyone in a real and highly compelling way the benefits of Glass (and mind-bending Hangouts are just one potential of the device) and induced the I WANT ONE factor at a level not seen since people twigged to the iPad. True it's not everyday you get to demo a product like Glass, but the principles are the same - show people how their lives can be better using the product rather than getting all fetishist about the product itself.

This won't happen overnight. Jobs did remarkable work and has build a generations-worth of product goodwill, so Apple may hold out for a long time to come, but if Google have really figured out what made Apple so desirable, then it's just a matter of time before things get really interesting.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Do tech companies (and people) misunderstand advertising?

Firstly, let me apologise for writing yet another post that mentions Facebook; I promise, this will not become a Facebook-focused blog. In my defence though, there's an awful lot happening with it as a business and much of it is incredibly interesting for new age marketers - ie. app developers. So on that note...

There's been a lot of ink (both real and virtual) expended in recent weeks analysing the current and future performance of Facebook, and putting aside its rollercoaster IPO, much of that ink has been devoted to the performance of Facebook in the advertising realm. A quick whip around the news sees stories about: declining revenues; inability to get mobile right; the loss of GM's business just prior to the IPO; and of course comparisons with business like Google who did get their advertising model right prior to IPO. Most, if not all the analysis warns that Facebook hasn't got their advertising model right and that with its weakness in mobile it's falling further behind. Firstly, this is fairly obvious, but as the actions of GM show, some marketers, some commentators, and perhaps even Facebook itself, seem to have a misunderstanding about how advertisers can make best use of Facebook's facilities - the key here is considering how users interact with Facebook.

Let's first start with those who get it right - Google and Amazon. Have a think about what is going through your head when you're using these sites; most likely you're in acquisition mode, whether for information, products or services. If it's either of the latter, advertising that promotes a specific product at a specific point in time will be helpful to you. Chances are that you'll be more receptive to the message and you might even click through and purchase. Contrast this with Facebook which is more "recreational"; in this mode you're relaxing, you're spending virtual time with your friends, connecting, playing games, etc. Any advertising that prompts you to buy there and then is either ignored or worse, is an irritant - imagine someone tapping you on the shoulder trying to sell you something whilst you're catching up with friends... not the best approach. As an advertiser your best approach in this circumstance is to brand build, allowing customers to gain a greater insight about your company and what it stands for without trying to sell something on the spot. In time they will hopefully develop a preference for your brand and products and then, next time they're using Google or Amazon they'll click and buy.

Does this then mean that Facebook is the wrong place to advertise? Not at all. What matters is what you (as an advertiser) are hoping to achieve and therefore how you advertise in that environment. GM don't seem to have figured this out - and if Facebook tried to convince GM that they operated like Google, they were probably kidding themselves as well. Fortunately for Facebook, Ford and Chrysler have figured this out and have stuck around.

So what do we take out of this? For Facebook, a couple of pieces of free advice. Firstly, Facebook should stop telling anyone (clients, users, the markets,anyone) that its advertising model is anything similar to that of Google and Amazon, clearly it isn't. With its scale, Facebook has the opportunity to be the most powerful generator of insights into the human condition this side of god. So find a way to commercialise that! Secondly, Facebook's corporate Clients currently get an incredible amount of free branding and consumer engagement via their corporate Facebook pages - actually selling that service (provided the pricing is right) would net Facebook a very handy revenue source.

For app developers, the lessons are useful - if you are developing an app that includes in-app advertising, think very carefully about how people will use your apps, when advertising will be most suitable and what sort of advertising will work most effectively. If you intend to advertise your app to potential customers using a service like Vungle, think about what your customers will be doing when they see your advertisement. What will be the most compelling way to communicate with them without annoying them? Get this right and you'll not only build your brand but you'll increase sales in the longer term.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Facebook launches its app store

It's definitely a fascinating development.

For app developers the opportunity to be hosted on a market designed to put the universe of apps out to 1/6 of the world's population is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Get it right and you stand to own the world, get it wrong and you'll be buried by everyone else with the same thought - a needle in a haystack-sized pile of needles.

Whilst customer ratings will help consumers navigate this new universe, they create a tyranny for new apps. How to be recognised, how to make you app standout before the stars start landing?

The most important thing to bear in mind is the power of this new environment, there's no need to capture all 900m users (though good luck if you can). With such a massive market, even a niche market will still contain millions of people. Think about who would most likely use your app, by rigorously specialising and simplifying your product, your customers will more easily be able to identify themselves - specialising your product becomes powerful when you can hook into a network of like-minded Facebook users. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

"Yes you do need to market your apps!" A Marketer's Manifesto for the App Business

As you may have guessed this blog covers marketing for apps. The title is derived from the first common mistake of app developers - expecting your app to "go viral" is not a marketing strategy. If your app does go viral and you make a billion dollars then good luck to you, you probably don't need to read this blog. That is unless you're a potential investor in other apps, in which case you do need to read this blog because marketing apps is going to become the biggest single challenge for app developers in the future. So just to be safe, everyone with any involvement in apps should read this blog.

Firstly let's establish something - you do need to market you apps. I'm sorry to say it but with the hundreds of thousands of apps (and growing) cluttering up the various app markets, the chances of someone stumbling across your app, and then being so enraptured that they want to tell everyone they know (and being influential enough for them to listen) is pretty remote. Angry Birds was a bit of a one off... and even then it took Rovio 6 years to become an overnight success.

Looking at this another way, let's imagine you've just invented a new shampoo. You think it's the greatest shampoo ever. Your chemists are modern day alchemists and your testing reveals that it's secret ingredients and excellent packaging design mean that it will make you a fortune. So you put it on the shelf in a big supermarket along side the big brands. And you wait, but your shampoo doesn't sell... people keep buying the big brands despite the fact they're more expensive and not as good as your work of perfumed, silk-hair-producing genius. Why? As we as consumers know, people buy things they know about from companies they've heard of. And more than that, we forget things easily, so we are repeatedly reminded about those things by those companies. As you can guess it's pretty tough selling pretty much any kind of consumer product in the physical world.

It works the same way in the market for apps... but unlike a supermarket where there's maybe a couple of dozen similar products, in the apps markets there may be thousands, maybe tens of thousands. And considering that it's relatively easy to make those apps (there seems to be an endless stream of 14 year old millionaire app developers out there), there's a constant stream of new apps out to swamp your app. So how do you stand out? And how do you retain the awareness of the app-consuming public. That's where the app world can learn something from the physical world.... ie. Marketing.

But here's the problem... it's devilishly hard to market well on a low (or no) budget - unlike normal consumer products the app world is more challenging and marketing is very much in its infancy. Those same developments that made it possible for you to make an app in your bedroom in your own time, made it possible for everyone to do the same, and if you're making apps in your bedroom, chances are you don't have a lot of money to spend on marketing. So what can you do? Note: Doing nothing and waiting for people to find your app is not an answer.

If you're reading this looking for all the answers I'm sorry to disappoint you... I don't pretend to have all the answers... it's just as new to me as anyone else. But I have a lot of experience of marketing under my belt and figure I can spot a good idea when I see one. So along with dispensing some general marketing advice that applies to shampoo and apps, I'll also keep a lookout for new ideas and start-ups who are developing ways to make marketing apps easier and cheaper. The aim of this blog is to become a storehouse of information, discussion and debate about how ordinary app developers can get their apps seen and sold. With luck over time we can put together some best practices amongst successful companies who built success on something more than blind luck... practices that can be shared with anyone who is interested. I have no idea how far this will go, but I get the feeling this could be in an interesting journey.