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How to succeed at marketing the iPad

Marketing experts weigh in on how to explain the sometimes puzzling proposition of Apple's latest device.

Apple iPad marketing
The iPad hasn't been received as warmly as past Apple products. Selling it will mean playing up the benefits of the big screen and access to digital media. James Martin/CNET

Steve Jobs insists on calling the iPad "magical" and "revolutionary," but it's a device whose purpose has mystified many so far.

So how will Apple explain the touch-screen e-reader/Web tablet that's being described, and in some cases derided, as "an iPod Touch on steroids," albeit one that will cost between $499 and $829? Experts who've made their careers teaching and working in high-tech marketing say it will come down to the very basics of marketing: Focus on how a product will make the proud new owner of this device happier, better-looking, and more satisfied with life, not a boring laundry list of technical specifications.

The trouble some (ok, a lot of) people are having with deciding whether they want or need an iPad stems from something that's bigger than Apple itself.

Apple iPhone Macbook
How will Apple convince people they need a device that falls between a smartphone and a laptop? Tom Krazit/CNET

"This is one of these products that bumps up against the most important issue in new technology: compatibility," according to Rashi Glazer, tech marketing expert at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "Is it compatible with what people currently do...will people be willing to change their behavior?"

For Apple to convince people to buy this, they'll have to hope consumers will embrace things that might be outside their comfort zone. Will they be willing to type on a full-size virtual keyboard? And will they be satisfied buying their books (and magazines and newspapers) in electronic form? Or, more importantly, spend money on something that essentially combines the capability of devices they probably already possess?

There will be some who will hand over their credit card automatically, because they love all things Apple, and because, well, they can probably afford it. But fan boys and girls aren't enough. The tough part will be getting more than the early adopters, says Glazer. That audience "fuels certain levels of initial sales. But then you have to say, 'What is the real benefit of this product'" for everyone else?

Push the big screen
That will depend on who they want to sell to. It seemed clear from the get-go that the iPad is technology intended for people who aren't afraid of, but aren't all that comfortable with technology (hello, baby boomers). It doesn't have the makings of a status symbol on campus or in metropolitan cafes--it's sleek and certainly well-designed, but not small enough. So embrace the idea of big. Selling the iPad as a mobile Internet device with a significantly bigger screen than an iPhone or iPod Touch, or any other smartphone for that matter, would pull in a whole crop of new customers--who, as a bonus, can probably afford it.

It's a large enough screen for reading for people whose eyesight may be fading, for those whose fingers are just too big to pick out those tiny virtual keys on a smartphone. In other words, why not embrace the scaled up iPod Touch? "To some extent, all the good things about the iPod will transfer over to this device," said David Schweidel, marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Business. "Also, the iPod Touch is a gaming device now, instead of playing on a small screen, they could say, 'Here's a much larger screen with a more powerful processor.'"

Content will be king
Just as with the iPhone, what you can get on the iPad is going to be a deciding factor for buyers. While the extent to which magazines and newspapers are going to be a major focus of the iPad, we do know Apple is pushing books (via its shiny new iBooks app), video games, and at least one major newspaper. "All of it will hinge on content," Schweidel predicts. "Like the iPhone, one of the big differentiators is...all the applications that are available. The App Store is what set the iPhone apart from other devices. The iPad is going to hinge on what other content (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) get created" for it.

In that way, Apple has done itself and its developers a good service by making it seem that scaling up one's iPhone apps into iPad apps will be relatively easy. We won't know exactly how easy it is or isn't until more people take the iPad SDK for a spin.

But the more book publishers, more magazine publishers, more newspapers, the more video game creators, and textbook companies Apple can pull on board, the more attractive the iPad will become as a one-stop shop for media.

Sell it as a Kindle on steroids
Ira Kalb, former CEO of a microcomputer company and longtime high-tech marketer, says Apple's best prospects are to compare the iPad to the something people are already familiar with, but promise to improve on that experience. "I think Apple will basically say, 'You can buy a Kindle, and you're getting a black-and-white book reader, but we're giving you a lot more.'"

It comes back to avoiding major change. It's easier to compare a device to something we already know, especially if it's a new category. Otherwise people tend to shy away from a product that we have to adapt to. So describing a device as "revolutionary" isn't necessarily the best way to win new converts, according to Glazer.

"(F)or something that is really revolutionary that cuts both ways," he said. "That means it changes the way I live my life. Most people don't want to change the way they live their life overnight."

So play up the familiar: It's about the size of an e-book reader, something that most people, even if they don't own one already, have seen and heard a lot about in the last two years. But Apple should push the idea that it will do much more than that. It has a color screen, access to iTunes and the App Store, access to the Web, and 3G Internet connection if you want. All of those are major bonuses for someone in the market for a nice e-reader.

And if that tactic sounds familiar, it's because that's what Apple did with the iPhone, back when pundits were convinced nobody would pay $499 for a cell phone.

"People would not have paid that much for a phone if it were just a phone," said Kalb. "It's not just a phone: it's a camera, it's a music player," it's a Web browser. But besides that, Apple also sold the idea of how much more convenient it was to buy one iPhone rather than carry a cell phone, an iPod, and a laptop around at all times to achieve the same combination of functions.

So which audience will Apple go for first? According to Kalb, they'll preach to the choir first. "Apple marketing tends to focus on the low-hanging fruit, people who already believe in the Apple religion. They get those people to buy products first, then market by word of mouth."

But more valuable in the long run will be those who are don't have an iPod or an iPhone or a Kindle already, to whom watching videos or reading an e-book on a device that's not a laptop would be novel and useful. That's especially important when it comes to establishing a new product category. And since Apple is arguably first to this new touch-screen Web tablet market, they have to create loyalty to their version of this new device type before the others, inevitably, come along, says Glazer. "How much of a window of opportunity will Apple have before competitors come out with a product?"