How technology companies like Apple and Bose drive the hype cycle
In the follow-up to the launch of the new Apple Watch – priced from $350 to $17,000 – I’ve been thinking a lot about hype. I’m not talking about the empty kind of hype that’s all flash and no substance, which is often more fraud than marketing. I mean the kind of hype that gigantic tech companies – such as Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google – spend money on to create interest in new products and services. It’s also the hype that small and indie companies find creative ways to generate through social media, word-of-mouth and that revolutionary method: just creating a great product people want.
But hype is not only in the hands of chief executives, marketers, inventors and the media. It’s also controlled by the way we as buyers of phones and other gadgets adopt or reject new technologies.
All the hype in the world couldn’t save Google Glass, the connected eyewear, from being mocked and ultimately falling out of favour among the digital elite. Hype can be manufactured with money but mainstream acceptance of a hot new technology involves more give and take.
To understand how hype emerges out of the tech industry, it helps to have some long-term perspective. The past 20 years, from around the time people began to notice the emergence of the internet to now, has been a fascinating time to follow the spikes of consumer tech.
Larry Chase is a New Yorker who has a long-running web digest newsletter for marketers. It’s called, appropriately, Web Digest For Marketers. The newsletter dates back to before the rise of the internet, Chase says. “I was an advertising copywriter on Madison Avenue in the ’90s. When we started, there was no information. Now there’s too much, so we say, ‘Here’s what you ought to know’.”
In the more than 20 years that Chase has been following the tech industry, tracking wave upon wave of hype, promise and busts, he’s seen countless new tech and media offerings cannibalise old generations. Chase says he sees the most successful companies at generating hype, such as Apple, being better that their competitors at telling stories and creating experiences for customers.
“Apple sells you stuff you didn’t know you need,” Chase says. “The hot thing now is content marketing. You make it experiential.”
Chase likens the Apple experience to a recent shopping exchange he had at a Bose store. Bose, he says, has sucked him in from an initial Bluetooth earpiece to a whole line of products not just with marketing hype, but by creating an ecosystem he wants to be a part of.
“Every time I go there to buy one thing, I look at another thing,” he says. “When I’m on my way to buy product A, I tell myself a story of why I want to buy product B. The product is the marketing, the entire user experience,” including hands-off but accessible customer support.
“I said to the guy [at the store], ‘It’s diabolical’. The user experience is absolutely consistent, from online to face-to-face. It’s addictive stuff,” Chase says.
When customers like Chase rave about experiences like that to friends, family and even reporters, it’s a kind of hype that tech companies can’t buy directly. But they can smooth the path by delivering polished products and customer service.
The part that becomes more difficult is gauging whether the world is ready for a particular type of new technology, something that either doesn’t exist in the mainstream or hasn’t been successful in previous attempts.
When Apple introduced the iPad five years ago, there was no real market for tablet computers that weren’t sold as bulky tools for certain workplaces. Currently, virtual reality hardware is making a comeback after about nearly two decades of flops and false starts.
Twenty years ago, Jackie Fenn created a way to track and understand these waves of excitement, resistance, disillusionment and, in time, acceptance that goes along with new technology adoption.
Fenn, a vice-president and fellow at the research firm Gartner, in 1995 created the Hype Cycle Methodology. “It was really an observation we were seeing with technology,” Fenn says. “We’d see a lot of enthusiasm and over-expectation – and then a trough of disillusionment when people realise that these things are harder than we thought they’d be.
“There’s a backlash until somebody gets it right, often Apple, and then mass adoption,” Fenn says. She calls that mainstream acceptance “the plateau of productivity”. Typically, the whole cycle is triggered by a new innovation in, say, engineering or software, that makes something new possible.
The hype cycle has proved durable. It weathered the accelerated late-’90s/early-2000s dot-com boom and bust and has been reliable through the rise of mobile technology, social media and, now, the cycle we’re in with wearable technology, such as fitness trackers and the Apple Watch.
Fenn says digital music rode the hype cycle, becoming mainstream only after a backlash against piracy and the creation of legitimate places to download music cheaply, such as Apple’s iTunes Store. Apple has had a knack for playing the long game and releasing products only after other competitors have tried and failed.
Gartner tracks about 2000 different technologies on about 100 hype cycles, each with about 30 to 40 items, a snapshot of where things stand that’s usually released in the summer. The hype cycles also indicate how long the plateau of productivity will take to arrive; for 2014, “wearable user interfaces” were listed as hitting the “peak of inflated expectations” with mainstream adoption about five to 10 years away.
Hype and expectations are fluid and can depend on the way tech companies execute and market their goods, but the tech adoption part has a much more organic face. “From the adopter side, it’s not really about the technology,” Fenn says. “It’s about human reaction to anything new.”
The hype cycle can be applied to almost any project (“Oh no, this is hard. I’ve hit the trough of disillusionment!”) and even personal relationships.
Apple’s challenge with its watch will be to prove that smartwatches, which have generated lots of curiosity but not much must-have acceptance, are the right gadget at the right moment. Or maybe it’s ahead of its time.
“The question becomes, when we’ve seen a history of wearable technologies not really quite making it, is this something that is a major peak (of expectations), followed by a trough? Is this something that still has a backlash coming?” Fenn asks.
“That,” she says, “can be a very hard call to make.”
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald