Apple basks in iPhone buzz

For months, the Apple gadget has been the talk of the town. How much of that is Apple's own doing, and how much is the fans?

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read
As iPhone Week dawns, one thing is clear: marketing is a lot easier--and cheaper--if you let other people do it for you.

Some day business students will look back at the first half of 2007 to learn about Apple's best marketing campaign ever, and maybe one of the best ever in American business. The iPhone will finally arrive on Friday after six months of up-to-the-second coverage from even local television types who think the EDGE network is the channel next to VH1.

What did Apple do to mount that campaign? Not much. It simply introduced the iPhone in January with one of CEO Steve Jobs' patented dog-and-pony shows, bought ad space during the Academy Awards to say "hello," and only within the last few weeks started a broader ad campaign.

Say what you want about Apple, its products, its leader, and its fans, but the company has figured out how to appeal to consumers like no other company in technology--and with a smaller marketing budget than companies like Intel, Microsoft or Hewlett-Packard. Apple has perfected the art of buzz during the Internet's second act, Web 2.0.

"They simply do a masterful job of capturing the imagination of just about everyone," wrote Jim Lattin, a professor of marketing at Stanford University's graduate business school, in an e-mail interview.

Traditional ways of reaching potential customers are changing rapidly, as any newspaper employee will tell you. Some companies have plunged headlong into a new media frenzy, setting up shop inside virtual worlds such as Second Life or trying to create "grassroots" viral video campaigns.

"It's easy to get the tech enthusiasts to line up but the mass market consumer, that's another story."
--Michael Gartenberg, Jupiter Research analyst

But a passionate, almost evangelical base of supporters makes any marketing campaign easier. Apple's reliance on a horde of loyal fans thirsty for information is the catalyst for its marketing.

Usually, Apple likes to announce its products and start the marketing effort very close to the actual date those products are available, if not the same day, said Ross Rubin, an analyst with The NPD Group. That wasn't an option this time around, since the Federal Communications Commission posts information on its Web site about phones that it approves for sale, denying Apple the opportunity to control the way people first learned about the iPhone, he said.

Instead, Apple launched the product with a minimum of information, and since January loyalists have flooded Apple-oriented blogs such as AppleInsider, The Unofficial Apple Weblog or MacRumors.com, searching for any scrap of information related to Apple and the iPhone.

Gadget blogs such as Engadget and Gizmodo stoke the fire further with their acerbic takes on the Apple universe. Engadget actually caused a brief plunge in Apple's stock in May when it reported, and then retracted, a story that Apple was planning to delay the iPhone until October.

That was a sure sign that any information related to Apple, and especially the iPhone, is being scrutinized by fanboys and Wall Street investors like perhaps no other product launch. Larger Web sites and media outlets see intense demand for iPhone-related traffic heading to other sites, and are compelled to follow suit.

Apple is launching the iPhone at a time when content aggregation sites like Digg, Techmeme, and even Google News can put a potential customer before hundreds, if not thousands, of possibly interesting stories about the product. All Apple has to do is trickle out information every now and then, as it has done in the weeks leading up to Friday's launch, and watch the frenzy take hold.

Traditional marketing isn't dead yet, however. Apple has been running several television commercials of late on major broadcast and cable networks showing off the user interface of the iPhone, and influential reviewers for dead-tree repackaging outlets such as The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and The New York Times' David Pogue are likely to devote their Thursday columns to the iPhone.

A two-phase approach
That's because there are two phases to Apple's marketing. It has to satisfy its loyal audience that loves Apple's design aesthetic with ads showing off those capabilities. But to really "revolutionize" the mobile phone industry it also has to win over the broader market, those folks who may own an iPod but are still using an inexpensive phone that came along with their carrier contract because they aren't e-mail addicts dependent on a BlackBerry or Treo.

Apple isn't going after the current smart phone market of business users. It's focusing on regular people who probably don't own a smart phone by emphasizing that the iPhone is a music player, a pocket-size Internet access device, and a phone--with e-mail as just another add-in, Rubin said.

Those people aren't likely to be wowed by speeds and feeds, which Apple has judiciously avoided including in its marketing messages in favor of slick videos that highlight the way an iPhone user checks voice mail, watches videos or browses the Internet.

"It's easy to get the tech enthusiasts to line up, but the mass market consumer, that's another story," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg wrote on his blog last week. The last time he could recall consumers--not gamers revved up over new consoles--but regular people lined up for a technology launch, was Microsoft's launch of Windows 95 more than a decade ago.

But Apple appears to have succeeded in attracting the interest of those folks, as lines are forecast to appear at Apple stores around the country. Competitors and those in other industries are attempting to figure out exactly how Apple managed to accomplish that, but in Rubin's mind, it's very simple: when people want what you're selling, it's easier to sell it to them.

"For years, before the announcement of the iPhone, there had been a tremendous amount of speculation and expressed interest from Apple's customer base for a phone by the company," he said.

Now Apple has to make sure that buzz doesn't backfire once people get their hands on the device, and a full accounting of its capabilities and limitations can be complied. After all, some very successful marketing campaigns haven't translated into successful products. A separate set of business students could one day be studying how to manage consumer expectations for a first-generation product if the iPhone fails to deliver.