When MTV began in the early 80s its edgy counter culture appeal helped build its foundation. When YouTube took off and became a household word, it too benefited heavily from its alternative, under-produced content (which was arguably similar in form to what MTV aired decades earlier). Across the board in media and entertainment, from websites like MySpace to Indie Music production back to Facebook online, appealing to the fringe, to a smaller group, focusing on a niche of “hip and cool” has often helped push companies forward.
That narrow focus is doubly beneficial. It helps keep a company off the radar of bigger competitors and it helps them build a loyal, dedicated fan base from which to expand. But as companies grow in appeal and audience, they all face one of the most difficult challenges in marketing: bridging the gap between counter-culture edge (and niche market focus) to mainstream popularity and an expanding sphere of influence.
Take Facebook, a company built initially around giving college students a means of interacting. Just as its name says, it was an online version of the visual yearbooks given to students entering college. Take MySpace, a social network started for music fans and smaller scale musicians to discover each other and interact. Both sites have grown far beyond their original scope; expanding to wider audiences and a broader focus. Facebook isn’t just about college students anymore, it’s recently been opened to anyone. MySpace: it’s no longer about just the music.
How do these companies and others stay ahead? How do they keep from eventually being supplanted and replaced by the next new thing? The size of their user base notwithstanding, and likewise advantages of being market leaders, there isn’t a lot in the way to keep competitors from offering similar services. There are few barriers to prevent commoditizing the marketplace.
(Arguably that commoditizing is why Grouper redefined itself as Crackle yesterday. The reality is, there is a vast pool of "Social Networks" and video sharing sites. There are so many, it hard to keep track of. They’re so prolific, there even are companies that have even been started to create tools to let anyone from individuals (Ning) ot enterprises (Five Across) create networks of their own. )
So the question is: How do the YouTube’s, the MySpace’s, any media company finding widespread appeal for its services and content keep from losing what they’ve built? Is size, or first-to-market advantage really enough? I think, no. Not if there is no barrier to keep away the clones. So with competition so fierce, is business harmed when a company fills its web pages with ads at the expense of navigation? I think, yes. Similarly, open the doors to third party developers (as Facebook has done recently) and you risk becoming just like everyone else. You sacrifice what made you original, what built your audience in the first place, and instead become more and more interchangeable.
Consider a comment left recently on a GigaOm article about the prospects of a Facebook IPO. A reader replied “The main reason I chose FB [Facebook] over Hi 5 (too many teenagers) and MySpace (too many crap bands, shitty layouts and poseurs) was its simple elegance. It’s clean look and ease of use.” But a Facebook open to widgets, third party tools? That’s risking becoming just like MySpace, not clean and easy, the very reason this user chose them over the competition. So the question is again: How do the YouTubes, the MySpace’s, any media company finding widespread appeal for its services and content keep from losing what they’ve built?
To my eyes, the answer is one thing and one thing only – the user experience. You can’t sacrifice it. As the cliché goes, the customer is always right….and if you want to keep them coming back, you have to listen to what they want and give it to them. Peter Drucker, the famed management consultant, once put it like this: "The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself. "
Today, if your customer becomes merely a dollar sign, your web platform merely a billboard, you’ll lose ground. You have to offer the best experience you’re able, and continue to do so. Don’t believe it – look at Apple – they owe success in no small part to making user experiences better. The design mantra “form follows function” is in their corporate blood. They make things easier and their fans have become zealously devoted as a result. (Stylish presentation and good PR doesn’t hurt either). Pixar is another great example. Every movie they’ve done has been a hit and that flawless record owes to management principles which have focused on not losing sight of their audience, not harming their experience (whether it be with low quality sequels or otherwise).
In new-media there’s no face to face interaction with the customer and consequently is an easy trap to depersonalize the relationship, to lose sight of it. That makes marketing in a new media-world a big challenge. An ill conceived or insufficiently considered move can be costly. Consider the blogger’s who got caught in an uproar over advertising in June. A misunderstanding over being a part of a promotion brought accusations against integrity and lot of negative press even when there was apparently no foul. Similarly, consider what happened with Sony and a fake fan website they created in 2006; or a hoax rift promoted by Sci Fi Channel and director M. Night Shyamalan in 2004 to promote a television premier. In both cases, marketers went too far, and they paid for it with negative PR. They lost touch with their customer relationships and they paid.
Recent developments in the gaming industry also provide an excellent illustration of similar issues. Hardware makers are churning out newer and more powerful consoles every few years. Game developers are constantly in a crunch to upgrade old titles or create new ones that take advantage of the new capabilities. Now a game can cost $30m to make and market but increasingly, as was called out recently by Electronic Arts’ CEO, those games are getting harder and harder to play and less innovative. They’re like bigger motors in the same car. In gaming now, overall market sizing statistics are growing enormously but many game publishers are somewhat stalled financially.
The gaming industry has, so far, been principally focused on selling to a niche – to hardcore gamers, to technology-centric fans. They’ve marketed bigger and better systems; sold the strengths of technology like car dealers hyping horsepower to speed freaks. But now as the mainstream is jumping in, platforms are converging with major media. Kids and geeks aren’t the heart of the marketplace anymore, just a part of a bigger pool. In comes Nintendo, listening to the calls of “too complex” and “too repetitive” and they bring the market the DS, and the Wii; platforms that are selling phenomenally (even with fewer available titles). Nintendo built an affordable console focused on ease of use and the user experience and they’re taking it to the bank. They can’t supply the Wii fast enough.
On the flip side, there’s Sony, which, in contrast, hasn’t (by choice or accident) listened to the call for “easier” and “different.” They’ve instead sold with an ear listening backward toward the demands of the earlier marketplace. Sony chose to hype horsepower, CPU cycles over ease of use and that has, at least for now, tarnished their gaming division and put it into the red. Unquestionably, their graphics are impressive (as is their technology), and that may give the console a long life in the market, but ease of use? Joy of the experience? Not sure those are there. Video games are about fun not technology lust. In gaming, the user experience isn’t about the power of the technology but how it plays and sometimes it feels like a Phd. in gaming is needed to play some of these games. I can only speak for myself, but if I wanted a console I’d go buy a Wii, not a Playstation. (In Sony’ defense, there’s plenty of market opportunity to focus on the hardcore gaming niche and maybe that’s what Sony wants to do, is doing, but they’re missing out on great opportunity in doing so.)
Regardless of whether it’s gaming, websites, music or media, the marketing point remains the same. Whether it’s Sony, or Facebook, MySpace or Apple, the common ground is the certainty of the user-experience. Continuity. Consistency and Quality. Those are the product designer’s holy trinity for user experience. The market proves it again and again. When companies put the user-experience first (Apple, Nintendo, early Facebook) they do well. When they lose sight of it, when they don’t listen to their customers, the ones who gave their business its life in the first place, they lose ground.
In the “new media” world there’s a finer line between failure and success than ever before. Media businesses can be started for little money. Barriers to entry are small. Executing a well devised corporate plan is essential. In the new media-world User Experience is king. It’s your face to the market. It’s the digital equivalent of “the customer is always right.”