Friday, November 17, 2006

Sometimes You Need to Ignore Your Most Passionate Customers

Every marketers wants passionate customers - people so in love with your product that they will tell all their friends about it, set up fan sites, post to their blog about it, and generally become your most dedicated product evangelist for no personal reward other than the happiness of talking about something they love.

And sometimes, you need to ignore them.

One of the big tech news stories this week has been the release of Microsoft's Zune music player, Redmond's bid to take a bite out of Apple's dominant iPod. Like any Supernerd vs the Black Turtleneck smackdown, it's led the true believers to start slugging it out all over the web.

This Mac News piece, " How Zune Will Try to Take Down the iPod," is interesting because it highlights the dangers of listening to your true believers too much.

Writer John Martellaro writes about the Zune introduction in terms of Microsoft's plans for the entertainment market - which is smart - but ultimately criticizes Microsoft for business savvy - which is strange:

The Zune gives Microsoft a ticket to:

  • Negotiate with record labels and Indies;
  • Negotiate with Hollywood studio execs;
  • Give away (where legal) Zunes to build corporate good will;
  • Poison Apple's dealings with other clients and partners; and
  • Develop product placement and visibility on TV.

In other words, the Zune gives Microsoft a product platform with which to attack the iPod on business grounds. You see, Apple has always been good at vision and creating products that inspire. Apple, in the past, hasn't been so good at hard-nosed business deals, losing degrees of freedom, and certain kinds of business partnerships that are typical in the corporate world. Microsoft is very, very good at these kinds of things. The result is that, in time, Microsoft will be able to exert the kind of business leverage that has always been distasteful to Apple.

Isn't that fascinating? We like Apple because they don't like to sully themselves with... you know... business.

I'm a nonpartisan in this religious war. I've owned many Apple products over the years (and still do, including an iPod). I've also owned lots of Windows PCs and Microsoft software. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. There are, of course, two great myths of the Apple crowd:

Our stuff just works! Well, the products are beautiful and often innovative but... I wish I'd recorded my hours of phone conversations with AppleCare about the Airport base station that always vanishes off of the radar of any Mac five minutes after it's configured. Nobody ever solved that one. Or the ones about my lovely flat-panel iMac, the crankiest computer I've ever owned, with its penchant for randomly resetting the monitor brightness to minimum when you start it, or for the Finder to partially crash about once every two days forcing a hard restart....

My point isn't that Apple's bad, it's that computers are extremely complex systems and they all screw up.

This article comes from the bigger myth: Microsoft is evil and Apple is good! No, they're both corporations who want to make money. Apple's no worse than most, but given their mediocre record on environmental issues (they could learn from Dell about recycling their stuff), their current program to sue anyone who uses the word "pod," and that sort of stuff, it's amazing to me that people can forget that they are a moneymaking enterprise that will do well by making smart business decisions. Like the ones Microsoft seems to be making.

And as a business partner, Microsoft is very good. In another life I was simultaneously a partner of Microsoft and IBM, and the difference was shocking. Microsoft made it really easy for us to use their technology and resell their products. IBM made us crawl through broken glass, even when our numbers were great. (This was a few years ago, and hopefully things are different now.)

Over the years Apple has had an unfortunate habit of drinking their own Kool-Aid, which has led them to their current tiny market share in the PC world. Hopefully they're smarter than that these days.

But if anyone in Cupertino is patting themselves on the back about the dedication of their most dedicated customers (who, honestly, tend to creep out lots of other potential customers - if I buy this Mac, am I going to become one of those irritatingly smug Apple people?), they ought to stop.

Those customers will buy Apple products even if they cost twice as much as the competition and are packaged in razor wire. It's everybody else they need to worry about.

If you've got those kinds of dedicated customers, too, congratulations: you've done something amazing. Just don't be so in love with them that you forget the rest of the market.

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