Think Useful, Not Cool

So the recording industry looks like it’s finally getting its way… Napster is more or less shut down, and file sharing is effectively dead, right?

Wrong!

If your early Napster experience has turned you into an MP3 junkie, you’re probably well aware that trading music doesn’t end with the demise of Napster. While the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has decided to make an example out of Napster (something made easier by Napster’s centralized architecture and high profile), millions of those in the know have shrugged their collective shoulders and moved on to greener pastures.

Gnutella’s decentralized open-source system has seen a huge influx of users, as have the hundreds of OpenNap servers (accessible with Napigator); most recently, the new KaZaA system has seen levels of activity that rival Napster’s early days. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing ain’t even close to being over.

Understandably, the popularity of these systems has made the tech industry perk up its pointy little ears. P2P networking is being touted as The Next Big Thing, another Technology That’s Going to Change Everything. Of course, nobody’s really figured out how, but with all those users, it’s gotta be good, right?

Not necessarily. And understanding why can teach us all a major lesson about the impact of technology in business and marketing.

What most of the people touting the virtues of P2P technology fail to understand is that people don’t use Napster (or similar products) because they think it’s cool technology; they use file sharing technology because they like free stuff.

A stunning revelation, right? It seems pretty obvious when you think about it. But with the ever-dwindling cadre of pundits searching for the technology that’s going to save us all, the story gets lost in an ever-increasing haze of technobabble. But it’s not a new story; from the beginning, the industry has usually focused on the technology first and people second… and that’s a problem.

When it comes to our customers, we need to realize that the vast majority of people use technology not for what it is, but for what it does. The problem has been that most of us who write about technology tend to be early adopters. Early adopters tend to first like technology for what it is, figuring that we’ll find a use for it later. Unfortunately, as the lessons of the past year and a half have taught us, most consumers aren’t early adopters. They’re regular folks who are looking for solutions for their problems and aren’t necessarily impressed just because something’s new and different. Unlike the early adopters, most people are more interested in technology for what it does, not just because it’s new. They want useful, not cool.

The field of dot-bombs is littered with business models that placed technology before people. From e-commerce concepts designed by engineers who never actually used the systems to multimedia technologies that made impressive demos (but took long, precious minutes to download) to cumbersome communications media that looked good on paper but failed to deliver their promises, the fact is that technology designed to impress technophiles ultimately fails unless regular folks have a reason to use it.

Today, when concepts of return on investment (ROI) and profit are no longer “nice to haves” as they were in a world flooded by venture capital, we as marketers and designers have to be extra vigilant when vetting new technology to use or recommend. Rather than be dazzled by technological bells and whistles, we need to focus on what a technology can do and how it solves the problems of our customers. We need to look at the essence of what a technology does for people rather than at its cool factor or coding virtuosity.

Consider customer relationship management (CRM). Although we all now understand that it’s important to gather information about our customers and then use that information to provide products and services they need, most CRM companies are still focusing on the technical abilities of their products rather than what they can achieve in terms of getting and retaining customers. In fact, a recent Jupiter report on understanding customer loyalty points out that it’s not getting the information about customers that’s the trick — it’s actually making some sense out of the information that’s vital to keeping customers.

Wireless is another great example of technology hype that doesn’t meet with many user expectations. At one time (about a year ago), wireless data was seen as the next wave of the Web, promising to revolutionize how we market and sell to customers. But adoption has been slow, and, it turns out, people may not really even want to buy things on their cell phones or have coupons magically appear on their personal digital assistant (PDA) screens. Why? Because for many people, the killer app of wireless is voice, communicating with other people. Data? Nah… Why not just pick up the phone and call?

The industry abounds with other examples of us needing to consider what people are using a technology for rather than the technology itself when deciding whether to use it. Rich media is impressive but becomes effective only when it provides value that balances out its many difficulties. Instant messaging is being used by millions not because it’s a stunning example of technology but because it allows us to do something that’s not possible any other way.

When it comes down to deciding whether to use new technologies in your business, in your marketing efforts, or on your Web site, you need to ask yourself one simple question: What’s this going to be used for? In effect, the essence of any successful technology isn’t the technology itself, it’s the way that it fits into the lives of the people who are going to be using it. Think useful, not cool.

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