IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle, in a blog post on Apple's strengths and weaknesses, mentions marketing as a strength and public relations as a potential weakness. I've written about Apple's secrecy, a tactic that's seemingly worked for the company for years (Enderle says as much in his post) but may be wearing thin with customers and potential customers who want to "engage" with companies instead of just buying stuff from them.
It's all part of the growing power of the consumer, one of the topics I discussed in my interview with John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte's Center for the Edge and author of several books including "The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion." He told me:
I think increasingly the competitive intensity isn't coming from other competitors, it's coming from customers who are getting a lot more information about options and becoming much more sophisticated in their choices. They have much more freedom to move from one vendor to another. In the tech space, that's been accentuated by the development of standards over time, which facilitate movement.
Where are customers getting all of this information? A lot of it is coming from social channels like Twitter and Facebook, channels that Apple has largely shunned, as Renay San Miguel points out on TechNews World.
San Miguel contrasts Apple's practically non-existent interaction with customers to the hugely accessible approach shown by formerly stodgy brand Old Spice, which earned lots of love from fans and media alike by having Isaiah Mustafa, the hunky star of its commercials, respond to fan communications on social channels like Twitter via a series of clever YouTube videos. Apple in contrast, is getting slammed on social channels for its weak response to concerns over an apparently widespread problem with dropped calls on its iPhone 4.
Apple is responding the way it always does, by stonewalling and trying to shut down fan discontent. In fact, the company seems to have adopted the anti-social persona of its mercurial CEO, Steve Jobs, who apparently doesn't want to be bothered by fans at Apple events and from many accounts treats employees poorly as well. While ignoring customers and treating them with thinly veiled scorn has inexplicably worked for Apple thus far, it won't continue to fly as more and more folks use social channels.
Apple's use of social channels, primarily fan blogs, has been an exercise in cynicism and dishonesty, as Enderle wrote in the post I linked to in my opening paragraph:
It uses its advertising dollars to target and support its advocacy sites, some of which appear to operate as part of Apple's marketing machine while seeming independent. This last appears brilliantly done. Only occasionally, like with the Think Secret shut down and the PC World resignation, do you get a sense of the behind-the-scenes power plays Apple appears to regularly implement to ensure it is portrayed positively.
That kind of heavy-handed corporate behavior isn't welcome on social channels. It's not clear how long Apple will be able to continue to use such tactics, but I'm betting it won't be for long. As Computerworld reports, 70 percent of respondents to a Yankee Group survey said they're looking for information and communication on social networks, More stats from the survey: Nearly 60 percent of respondents said company outreach through social media would make them more loyal to that company. Fifty percent of respondents said they use social media at least once a day.
If Jobs hasn't seen these numbers, maybe someone should show them to him. Could Apple be coming around? San Miguel notes that Apple's top iOS executive, Scott Forstall, has created a Twitter account. He's attracted 29,500 followers, though he has yet to issue his first tweet. If that's not proof that Apple fans want to engage with the company on social channels, I don't know what is. As San Miguel writes:
Apple has a fan base that needs reassurance that the company isn't turning into Microsoft from the 1990s; smart use of new media can help with that goal.