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Moonshots fail to launch When Google reorganized into Alphabet, they gave Google X, their famed research lab a new goal: to translate some of their projects into products. As time passes, none of these fabled “moonshots” seem to be moving to market. Rumors abound in the tech press that Google X is directionless and unfocused. Partly, this is by design. Google X united researchers, scientists and engineers and encouraged them to “do their thing.” A loosely defined mission does not lend itself to focused results. But the problem suggests a blind spot of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They expected the researchers at Google X to be like them – brilliant inventors focused on developing hyper-useful technologies. People like that start their own companies, not work in a research lab. Slowly, Alphabet has been introducing mainstream business executives on some of the more-promising Google X technologies. They need more people who are capable of understanding technology in all its complexity and understanding markets in all their complexity. That is a Venn diagram without a lot of overlap. Application to Marketing: While our work isn't nearly as complex and theoretical as Google X projects, marketers have a similar problem translating between technology and markets. Engineers like to focus on engineering problems, but few of them are concerned about practical applications. Marketers like to focus on marketing problems, but few of them understand the technology. This gap in skills and inclinations is slowly being filled by a new generation of consultants, frequently experts in something called “Digital Transformation.” If your team does not have some of the bilingual individuals, it might be time to look for one. Next Steps: Get a group of marketers and engineers together for unstructured conversations on new products. Everyone will complain that you’re wasting their time beforehand and everyone will take credit for the great ideas afterwards. Read More Building on the blockchain As a piece of technology, Bitcoin is amazing. It started as a theoretical paper, then the technology went live and it has remained essentially unchanged ever since. Whether the mythical Satoshi is an actual individual or a group working together, this is a rare instance of genius working in isolation. Partly to allow Bitcoin to function so well, the code was heavily restricted. It did what it did, but the inventor(s) restrained it from being able to do any more. Ethereum, on the other hand was introduced as a public blockchain technology that could be built upon. It’s almost like “blockchain as a service.” Anyone interested in applying the blockchain in a new area should look to Ethereum to supply the underlying technology. Application to Marketing: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about small scale applications of blockchain technology to marketing and I currently don’t see any opportunities. On a macro scale, the blockchain could solve marketing’s attribution and return-on-investment problems. Consumers do not trust companies to keep their data and browsing habits private. (Nor should they.) Cookies are a limited solution and cross-device technologies are approximations at best. There is no shared trust in the market. The blockchain can confirm transactions in a trust-free environment. Viewing an ad is a transaction. Purchasing products online is obviously a transaction. The blockchain could stitch together all of these transactions and more into a coherent tapestry of data. Next Steps: Unless you work for Google, there’s not much you can do about this. But check out Ethereum. Read More Beacons to nowhere Beacons always had a whiff of Minority Report about them. Imagine walking into a store and having your past purchases and preferences immediately transmitted to sales staff. Retailers imagined the possibilities. But consumers were overwhelmingly creeped out. Retail anonymity is valuable to consumers when sales staff are trained to use false familiarity to get you to spend more. Beacons in retail settings depend on consumer willingness to download an app and allow beacons to push notifications to their phones. I cannot imagine anything more unbearable. Much like Google Glass, another failed consumer technology, beacon boosters are promoting beacons for the enterprise. After all, employees cannot opt out of beacons in their workplace and there are minor conveniences in having the workplace recognize employees without passwords or retinal scans. These conveniences are probably greater in a massive shipping warehouse or server farm than they are in a traditional office environment. Application to Marketing: If there is one thing I wish marketers understood about beacons, it’s this: users need to opt-in. They need to download an app. And they need to allow the app to talk to beacons. That’s two opportunities for your consumers to realize this isn’t something they really want, regardless of what rewards you are offering. It is far, far better to allow consumers to make use of existing location-aware technologies like Swarm, than to expect people to download a proprietary app so you can sell them more stuff. Get real. Next Steps: Check out Swarm. Foursquare seems to have overcome some of their initial stumbles. Read More Technology for a tech-phobic generation Writing in Recode this week, Mark Lowenstein bemoans the absence of technology built specifically for the baby boom generation. It does seem curious that technology companies have chosen en masse to ignore the second largest generational cohort in favor of millennials (the largest.) But, once you read the article you begin to understand why the tech boom for the baby boom is unlikely to happen. First, Lowenstein points out that baby boomers like to be able to contact an actual person for support. But technologies that demand large scale customer support are avoided by technology investors because they don’t scale. More customers mean more overhead, not more profit. Second, Lowenstein points out that baby boomers need the technology to be very intuitive and simply work out of the box. But new technology does not work out of the box. It requires several cycles of iteration before it is truly seamless. So Lowenstein’s argument could be translated as “why don’t technology companies build more technology for difficult and costly customers who don’t understand technology?” That’s a question that answers itself. Application to Marketing: Lowenstein points out that iPhones and Fitbits are popular with baby boomers. But baby boomers are unlikely to use the full feature-set of either product. As marketers, we do need to provide baby boomers with websites and apps that they will enjoy using, but those websites and apps should provide less opportunity for customization and fewer features than the products we build for millennials. Building technology for baby boomers is actually quite simple: take your normal product and remove any functionality that requires the experience of a digital native. We’re not talking about duplicating existing technologies with new features, we’re talking about subtracting features from existing technologies. Next Steps: User testing with baby boomers is an important step. But it should have the goal of establishing which features to eliminate, not which features to redesign. Read More

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