Apple has it. Google has it. Microsoft fails at it. Yahoo! sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t. What I am talking about is buzz and coolness.
It seems every time Apple or Google introduces a new product, the buzz is high. For example, Apple recently introduced a $350 speaker and, while the reaction was more tepid than it has been for other Apple products, no one seem to point that the emperor was looking very very naked. Yet, Microsoft keeps throwing out new products and few people seem to be very interested (no matter how Scoble tries to browbeat us into thinking of Microsoft as cool).
Similarly, today, Google introduced a finance section that mimicked much of what yahoo! finance has been doing for years. It has a couple of nice AJAX-based features but, all and all, it’s not enough of an improvement to be considered like something that could potentially dominate the tech news cycle. And yet, every major tech pub or mainstream publication has covered the release.
Trying to divine the source of coolness
What Google and Apple seem to have understood is that there are ways to make oneself look cool. I’m going to try to lay out some of the things I’ve seen (and I hope that others will chime in in the comments):
First, let the rumors float or give the appearance that you don’t want rumors spreading. Google Finance has long been a rumored product (as is Google payment, for example) but no word ever came out of the company about their intentions. In fact, Google is relatively stingy in terms of providing advance information about their products. They have learned to let the rumors run wild, leaving their competitors tearing their hair out trying to divine what Google will do next.
Apple takes a different approach to this. In the past, the company has been relatively ruthless in its attempts to shut leaks down. However, it seems that, when leaks are presenting compelling products and the company doesn’t really have anything to announce, Apple is happy to let the rumor mill run wild. So, before the release of the iSpeaker, uh, iPod Hi-Fi, Apple did not crack down on rumors about a new video iPod.
The two approaches speak to two different traits: one is to be extremely secretive about your action and the other is to let rumors go wild as long as they paint a picture of your company that is far cheerier than its reality.
The one feature
When selling technology, there are two publics to serve: the early adopters, and the general public. The early adopters are a fickle bunch but they can have some influence on the general public. So giving the early adopters one feature that they will like is an important feature of creating good buzz. Similarly, when dealing with the general public, emphasize the one feature that makes your product different. It doesn’t have to be something that is actually innovative (many companies were making MP3 players years before the iPod; many companies have offered services (other than search) which did what Google did in categories like mail, web hosting, classified, news, etc..) but it has to be presented as such. The early adopters may groan but they are eventually drowned out by the masses.
Thus, Apple did not release a featureless MP3 players without a screen, they released the “Shuffle” which allowed people to get a little more randomness out of their music collection. Or Apple didn’t release a $350 speaker, they release a Hi-Fi system that will work with an iPod (iPod sold separately). Similarly, Google did not release a Geocities rethread, they released pages, a cool online web editor and page hosting service. They did not release a me-too version of finance: look at the cool graphs they have.
I may sound a little cynical in that last paragraph but I believe it is this kind of cynicism that infuses the marketing of cool products. They may not be the top technology in the market but they are different. And emphasizing that they are different gives a chance to the users to feel like they, too, are different.
Cool by association
The next item on the list, in terms of generating buzz is to create an appearance of exclusivity from the get-go. Thus Apple does not complain too much when the police report rise in theft of iPod, due to the high visibility of the white headphones (see, our product is so popular, people steal it). Similarly, Google did not offer a free web-mail service for all, you had to receive an invitation.
By creating a certain level of exclusivity or belonging to a certain tribe, Apple and Google have managed to go beyond the product. They’ve created an aura of cool in being associated with them. When a new product comes out, you have to check it out or you will be out of the loop. The trend folds on itself, ensuring that future product launches benefit from the buzz of previous product launches. Over times, the duds are forgotten, and the companies are seen as innovative.
One of the other things to consider, when creating some level of buzz is the fizz and whiz of look and feel. Apple is known for designing beautiful computers (in the mainstream PC world, only Sony puts as much thought into how their computers look). The energy they put into the design allows them to bypass some of the technology issues that other vendors would encounter.
Similarly, Google has become an expert at using AJAx for their interfaces. As a result, new products generally look more polished than the competition. In the case of Finance application, it was interesting to see comments by people in the financial space on the performance of the product in terms of delays giving stock quote prices, etc.. However, few users would drill in and discover that stock prices were about 20-25 behind, or that
What value does buzz have?
At the end of the day, though, much remains to be seen about the value of such buzz. While Apple generates a lot of buzz about its computers, it still only retains between 5 and 10 percent of the market. Similarly, while Google has generated much buzz for all its new products, its bread and butter is still revenue from advertising on the search engine. So the question that still needs to be considered is whether buzz has value beyond the introduction of a new product and what that value translates to in terms of real dollars.