Putting Platforms on a Pedestal

In the sunset of his career Luciano Pavarotti did something he had never done before: He released an album of pop songs. And despite being one of the greatest living tenors–a man with legions of fans the entire world over–that record didn't sell very well.

Here's the thing: it wasn't a terrible record. Granted, it wasn't Lady Gaga or Tony Bennett, but it wasn't garbage, either. The fat guy could carry a tune. In the hands of an artist we'd never heard of before, it would have been an intriguing debut. So why didn’t it move units? Precisely because it was something ol’ Luciano had never done before.

The adoring public knew Pavarotti as an opera singer, perhaps the best, so they weren't interested in him dabbling in other genres. When you're very good at one thing, it can be quite difficult for you to interest your customers in a new and separate offering.

When was the last time you checked in on Facebook Places, the social media giant’s geolocation service? When was the last time you posted a comment on Ping? You know, Ping? The social network built into Apple’s iTunes? Or checked the weather by using your cable television’s widgets menu? For the vast majority of you, the answer is "never."

We use foursquare for geolocation and we use Facebook for social networking, but swich that around and the equation doesn’t make sense to us. The roles are played as cast. Once somethings function has been established, it’s hard to alter the perception in consumers' minds that THAT’S WHAT IT DOES–even if it’s an added functionality.

And yet we also live in a world of profound ADHD, omnipresent multitasking, and 100k+ app stores. So what gives? I believe there is a dichotomy in the consumer mind that separates things they purchase into two catagories: products and platforms.

Products do one thing. We try to buy the best products we can, and when a market leader emerges, we celebrate it. A taco, for example, is a product.

Platforms, on the other hand, serve a number of applications, and provide us an interface for gathering and using those applications. Platforms tend to not have as much longevity as a product, but they can make much bigger market booms. A taco truck is a platform.

Occasionally, a product can transition into a platform. Google has made the transformation from a simple search engine into a rich platform of applications and product offerings.

Facebook, on the other hand, has had mixed success. Zygna made a fortune by leveraging Facebook as a social gaming platform, but for every Zygna there are countless failed enterprises that never found their footing.

Only a few years ago the very idea of comparing Google and Facebook as competitors would have been ridiculous. Lately, though, these brands (and others aspiring to their level) are seeking to transmogrify themselves into platform-based business models. It is a route fraught with peril.

Frequently, trying to move into the platform space just dilutes your brand. There's nothing wrong with simply being a product. Products do just fine. Look at the Flip camcorder, the iPod, or Wikipedia; all are hugely popular products. They do one thing, and they do it exceedingly well.

Simultaneous Discovery on the OP-ED Page

What do pyramids, noodles, and calculus all have in common?

If you guessed that they are three beautiful and remarkable ancient technologies* that continue to have vast relevance in our society then I’m very pleased to have such a thoughtful and interesting person reading this blog. Sadly, that’s not the connection I’m looking for.

Pyramids, noodles, and calculus are three things that all came into this world by way of simultaneous discovery. That is, they were invented by a number of cultures and peoples completely separate of each other at about the same time.

Simultaneous discovery doesn’t happen exclusively in the concrete worlds of science and engineering; occasionally it manifests in the creative fields. A stunning example of this phenomenon was presented recently in the Op-Ed sections of three prominent national publications.

The death of Osama bin Laden is one of the biggest news stories of the year (in a year of very big news stories). As it was a rather polarizing event, it's only natural that opinion editors would dedicate some major real estate to the subject. Let’s take a look at some of the illustrations that were selected to appear in these journals:

Obviously there’s a strong similarity in these images. They're all really the same idea, just presented in slightly different ways: "erasing" bin Laden, be it with thinner or a hunk of pink rubber.

While the James Victore** piece was published first, I don’t suspect for a second that the other two images are copycats. Given the topical nature of the subject and the short production time that goes into making editorial art, I seriously doubt either Messrs Wright or Eksioglu had the chance to even see the Times piece before they submitted to their publishers.

This is just one of those fascinating moments of an idea being significant in its time; a moment of simultaneous discovery.

*Yeah, I'm going to count noodles as a “technology”; want to make something of it?

**Full disclosure: James Victore was sort of my mentor in college, although I don’t think that relationship colors my view of this work.

Social Sworcery

“To the mountain folk of The Caucasus he was known as ‘Logfella’ & he seemed cool.”

That’s not the way most video games would choose to introduce you to a main character, but then, SuperBrothers’ Sword & Sworcery EP isn’t most video games, and there's a very specific reason they chose that particular language. First, though, here's a quick explanation of what we’re going to be talking about:

SuperBrothers’ Sword & Sworcery EP is a 2-D adventure game (like The Legend of Zelda, or The Secret of Monkey Island), served to you on the iOS platform with gorgeous, brilliantly stylized 8bit-esque visuals, and a soundtrack so lovely it’s worth buying/listening to even if you have no intention of ever playing the game. Oh yeah, and the game is super-fun, and the interface is wonderfully intuitive. Essentially, the whole thing looks, and feels, and sounds quite like a dream coming out of my iPad.

But even beyond all those praises, Sword & Sworcery has a really clever trick up its sleeve; one that puts it right in our media/marketing/engagement crosshairs. When you examine any element (be it part of the landscape, a character, an object, or even an event) during the game, an activity that becomes a pretty common occurrence as you play, a short bit of descriptive text pops up offering you an explanation of what you’ve chosen to take a closer look at.

So far, that seems pretty normal for a game of this sort, right? Here’s where it get’s really smart: Each of these little descriptions is an expertly worded tweet--a little nugget of story that will look smashing in your Twitter stream. Conveniently, each time these tweet-worthy explanations pop up you are (unobtrusively) given the option to tweet this message to your followers.

And here’s why that’s really so smart:
First of all, it’s a seamlessly integrated feature. It doesn’t pull you from the game, and it doesn’t take you out of the app; it just posts it, and adds a few relevant hashtags like #lore or #sworcery. So you can keep on playing without really thinking about it.

Secondly, it lets your friends and followers know you’re playing this game, gives them a sample of its flavor, and hopefully interests them in the game’s story. These people are already following your feed, so they have some frontloaded investment in your opinion. With very little effort, Sword & Sworcery has tapped directly into an influence network. Good job, guys, that’s the kind of thing that social media teams, PR wizards, and marketing agencies struggle ceaselessly to do.

Lastly--and this one’s truly fascinating--it provides the game’s producers with real-time feedback on who’s playing the game, what kind of progress they’ve made, and which elements they found most interesting or engaging. All you have to do is search any one of the game’s hashtags to see what users are up to.

Certainly, not everyone that plays the game elects to tweet the things they discovered throughout, and I imagine only the most pedantic of users tweet EVERYTHING they find. But that filtration process is important to the analytics. It creates real, usable data on which game content connects with players. Also, by comparing the number of people that tweeted any game message with the number of game purchases made, you can see what percentage of players are using your product and how far into it those players are getting. Look at their timestamps, and you can determine peak hours of play. Turn your eye to geotargeting data, and you know where your players live and play.

These are the kinds of game analytics that are usually only available to HUGE budget online games. SuperBrothers has managed to glean that same information from Twitter without ever having to pay for servers, proprietary analysis software, or hosting and transmission costs. All they had to do was play smart.

The Terrible Trouble with Talking to Tacos

Taco Bell has a reputation for quality, or perhaps more accurately the complete and utter lack there of. But that’s fine. Taco Bell fills a market space that no one else really occupies: The super-cheap, super-fast taco.

No sane person who eats at a Taco Bell has any illusions that they’re doing something healthy (drive through diet menu notwithstanding). I have a friend who pseudo-affectionately refers to their product as “people dogfood.” It’s bad for us, and it’s delicious, and once in a while it’s a fine treat.

But what do you do when even the low expectations of a Taco Bell meal aren’t met? What do you do when you get a couple of seriously soggy tacos? Like, somehow-dunked-in-mystery-liqued-and-then-wrapped-in-paper-bad. We’re talking about totally inedible tacos. Full stop. If you’re a friend of mine who also happens to be a social media engagement specialist you post about the experience on Taco Bell’s facebook wall.

Companies (like Taco Bell) pay people (like my friend) an awful lot of money to monitor their social media channels for things like this. The idea being that if a customer has a negative experience with your product, you reach out to them, offer them an apology and perhaps a reparation (coupon, return info, etc.) and try to turn that experience around. Correcting a mistake –and admitting when you screw up– goes a long way towards retaining the loyalty of your customers.

Instead of any of that, the Bell’s people simply deleted the “offending” comment.

Avoiding behavior of this sort is like social media 101 (1, 2, 3). By engaging with your customers you can mitigate their disappointment, and control the conversation. By ignoring them out-of-hand you only engender further frustration, often inspiring people to vocalize this frustration in places where you don’t have any controls on the conversation. In this case my friend broadcast her terrible taco time to all of her facebook and twitter followers, and now you’re reading a blog post about it. That’s a way bigger impact than a comment on the companies wall, wouldn’t you say?

Social media is about conversations and personal engagement. That’s obvious when you’re tagging grandma in your birthday photos, but it can be less so when you’re dealing with a multi-national corporation’s social presence. The rules though, are the EXACT SAME. Be nice, not rude. Be confident, cool, and hospitable, not arrogant, dismissive, or passive aggressive.
You wouldn’t treat your grandma like a jerk, so why would you treat your customers that way?