This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
Google’s Project Glass is a huge idea – an Internet-in-your-eyeglasses concept that transforms the role of computing in everyday life. Through bringing real-time information and connectivity to our immediate surroundings, these glasses may be the sort of major disruptive innovation that occurs far too infrequently, and that comes even less often from big-name corporations. What a shame, then, that it is being set up to fail.
Google Glasses can superimpose a map on your everyday surroundings. They can call up information about people, products, and places you see. They can allow you to video conference as you walk. These are gee-whiz technologies, and they may be commercially available as early as 2014. Yet the concept is trying to break all the rules of how revolutionary ideas get popularly adopted. It is wonderful to break technological and business model rules, but businesses trying to deviate from well-established patterns of market adoption usually end up much bloodied and poorer for the effort.
I’ve been bloodied that way in my career. As the founder of one of the first mobile marketing companies, Saverfone, I created a business a dozen years ago that allowed people to find special offers at retail stores near them. The business case was compelling for retailers, consumers, and mobile networks, yet adoption was glacial. The first big use of mobile marketing? Texting in votes for the UK’s equivalent of American Idol.
After fulminating a while at the injustice of such a stupid-simple idea becoming wildly successful, I researched dozens of case studies about marketplace adoption. Some findings:
1. Focus on one example – In the mobile marketing industry, we loved to preach about all the wonderful things the technology could accomplish. You could receive ads texted to you from coffee shops you passed, compare prices of offline and online goods, bid on auctions, give ringtones as gifts, and much else. To the average consumer, this was baffling. Their phone did calls and texts, and that was about it. Picturing how it could transform into a portal to the world required a leap into scarcely imaginable scenarios, threatening a consumer’s confidence and comfort. Push your employees out of their comfort zone, but not your consumers. Instead, focus on a single message – a single “use case” of how a new concept can be deployed – and show why this will be compellingly easy.
2. Concentrate on a widely-shared problem – Saverfone had a well-defined target consumer, modeled on my wife. The consumer loved impulse shopping, and she saw a good deal in an intriguing category (read: shoes) as ample justification for making an unplanned purchase. Having a tight consumer target makes a lot of sense as an industry takes off, but broad adoption will often first occur where it solves a widespread problem. Texting your vote was not a critical issue for anyone, but having to phone in a vote was cumbersome for everyone. Because so many people could immediately see the appeal of the idea, the press picked up the concept and amplified the message. It became a broadly understood and referenced example of how cellphones could make life just a bit easier. Impulsive shoe-shopping didn’t pass that test.
3. Address low risk situations – If your vote never made it through to the contest organizers, it wasn’t the end of the world. If you were texting in a bank transfer, and a neighbor was able to hack your account, you’d care quite a bit. New behaviors take root in environments where failure is not catastrophic. Consider robotically-assisted surgery. Initially, the makers of the first surgical robots focused on heart surgery, where robots theoretically offered big advantages such as automatically adjusting instrument position in synchrony with heart beats. The machines flopped. Then the company focused on prostate gland removal, an important but usually not life-and-death realm that allowed for more experimentation. They built a multi-billion dollar business on that basis, and only later started branching into other types of surgeries. Prostate was a “foothold market” that enabled the company to educate customers and learn more about their needs, all while it planned for bigger things.
4. Cater to incremental adoption – Google Glasses are binary; either you’re wearing them, or you’re not. Revolutionary ideas are seldom adopted in binary fashion. Even Lenin’s revolution, arguably the biggest ever, occurred in stages. Consumers were not ready to browse for local deals before they used their devices for local mapping. Surgeons were not going to use a robot on their most demanding cases before giving it a spin with something more basic. People need an on-ramp – a way to get accustomed to a new idea and to understand how adopting it more wholeheartedly will give them big benefits. On-ramps typically leverage pre-existing behaviors. For Google Glasses, those are few and far-between.
People do want revolutionary ideas, but not all at once, and not in ways that usurp well-worn habits. By all means, dream big. But start by selling small.