Putting New Technology to the Tulsa Test

The holiday season brings joy and wonder to most places. Here in Seattle, it tends to magically transform a stunning landscape into a cold, dark, and wet nether world. But we power through in search of that perfect powder day or ridiculously gorgeous winter sunset over the Olympic Mountain range. We trade the warmth of the sun for the warmth of hearts and hearths as we reconnect with distant friends and family. To me, the holiday season also brings something critical to my work life: a reminder that we live a digital life that isn’t necessarily mainstream. At least not yet.

I admit it: I’m a gadget freak. I love technology and obsess over the latest and greatest. My gadget inventory goes something like this: Wi-Fi network, two hi-def TVs, two DVRs, an iPhone, an Xbox 360, a Wii, a PSP, multiple iPods (including Nike+), three laptops, two desktops, Apple TV, automated and remote-controlled lighting, and more. I chase this stuff because it’s one of my passions and it’s directly connected to my work.

But when it comes to media, I’m spoiled by all of these options. And I’m probably not alone. Many of you are likely in a similar position. It’s the nature of our business, right? We have to get ahead of changes in media consumption so we understand how to connect with consumers via these new media experiences. We must be prepared for the day that these things become mainstream (which, by the way, is not as far off as you might think). We tend to be early adopters and super-users of this stuff.

The rub, of course, is that we live in a digital bubble. It’s our job to use and understand this stuff. Because we all charge after it vigorously, then discuss our experiences with digital colleagues, we sometimes create this artificial impression that everyone is like us. Truth is, we don’t necessarily reflect the everyday consumer.

The holiday season has a funny way of reminding me of this fact. We tend to travel and visit family and friends we haven’t seen in a long time. We get out of our comfort zones and outside of the digital bubble. In these unfamiliar environments, everyday tasks and routines bring sharp focus on differences — sometimes subtle and other times monumental — in how groups of people interact with technology.

Two years ago, for example, we were staying with my parents in Florida. We needed to make a dinner reservation, and my mother opened up the yellow pages. My brother and I exchanged crooked smiles; seconds later, he got the restaurant’s number from a Google SMS search and I from a search on my laptop. Last year, it was group fascination with my iPhone. This year, a coworker reported via Twitter that he had just returned from a trip to Blockbuster. “Who goes to Blockbuster (or any video store for that matter) anymore?” I wondered aloud. Turns out he was with his family who hasn’t yet embraced digital downloads and doesn’t subscribe to DVD-by-mail services.

It’s incredibly easy to get wrapped up in our digital lives and to fall into the trap of believing that Joe the plumber has the same media consumption habits and access to technology that we do. I fight this battle daily, constantly reminding myself that simplicity wins and that we must get to know our audiences. It can be tempting to chase the shiny object, but we must ground our pursuits in reality.

The mobile channel is a fantastic illustration of the digital bubble. Our agency, and probably the marketing community as a whole, must over-index for iPhone usage. Walk through the halls of pretty much any one of our offices, and there is this strange clock-tower-like effect at 15 and 45 after every hour, when all the iPhones go off with their meeting reminders. Many clients also have iPhones. Add in the media hype and impressive sales figures from Apple, and it’s easy to assume that the iPhone is mainstream. It’s getting there, for sure, and it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, for the first time in 12 straight quarters, the Motorola Razr was not the best selling U.S. mobile phone in Q3 — the iPhone was.

But when you look at audience slices, the numbers get small quickly. We looked at iPhone usage among a target segment that we assumed would be heavy users and discovered less than a million. It’s so easy to jump right to the sexiest thing, the latest and greatest that we know and love inside our digital bubble. We must stop and remind ourselves that we aren’t necessarily the target audience. It doesn’t mean that mobile, for example, isn’t a viable channel. It just means that maybe a solid text program is a better first step than an iPhone app.

My colleague, Patrick Moorhead, recently brought this up during a panel on mobile marketing success stories. He called it the Tulsa Test. While the temptation is to jump right to the iPhone app or to QR codes, Bluetooth, or augmented reality, you’ve got to consider the audience. And think about the guy in Tulsa, OK, who may not have an iPhone but thinks text messaging is cool. Win him over first, then think about layering in the more advanced stuff.

We’ve all gone through campaign development cycles like this, and we regularly force ourselves to ground recommendations in audience insights. Now we’ve got a name for it.

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