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Summary:

The crowded consumer Internet has made it difficult for startups and services to get attention from the people who really matter: the end users. The question is: How do you get that much-needed attention? Not with VC dollars. Instead it is something less tangible.

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Sitting on the very bumpy flight back from New York to San Francisco, I finally had a chance to catch up on all the hullaballoo around the newly launched Color app. With the stunning amount of cash the company raised from white-shoe venture firm Sequoia Capital and the big-name founding team, not to mention the help of a VP of communications and marketing amongst its ranks, team Color got everybody’s attention.

But it was for all the wrong reasons. I say that because the only attention any app needs is from the end users. After reading Jason Kincaid’s write-up, I downloaded the location- and socially-aware photo-sharing app, but found it as barren as the endless sands of the Sahara. Some say that will change in time as more people show up on the service.

But lost in this back and forth is a bigger problem encompassing the entire web and mobile ecosystem. The Color app faces the same challenge as many of today’s mobile apps: How can it earn a user’s attention in a world that is increasingly crowded with options? In fact, you can extend that argument to any consumer service: new appliances, new devices and media entities new and old.

These services are like the flickering, flashing and constantly changing billboards that plaster the buildings around Times Square: It’s almost impossible to focus on any one of them. Some are bigger, some are brighter, but most are completely forgettable. That, unfortunately, holds true for today’s web and mobile services.

Many entrepreneurs and their backers don’t quite give the proper weight to “attention.” If a new startup can carve out time in our Facebook- and Twitter-dominated, CityVille-playing, Lady Gaga-listening, Rebecca-Black-video-sharing day, then it should really be the one to watch.

Instagr.am is one of those apps that managed to figure out a way to squeeze itself into our busy lives. It has several million users now, and only a few thousand of them are what would be described as technology insiders. Similarly, Beluga (acquired by Facebook), Spotify, Evernote and Instapaper have found a way to draw attention (and thus usage) from its users.

Do they need to displace something from our daily web/mobile app die? I don’t know. I do know that I have not opened PicPlz for nearly a month, despite the service sending me repeated email notifications. Compared to Skype, Nimbuzz gets more of my attention because it allows me to send instant messages to my colleagues via Google Talk. As a result, I end up using its call-out service more often than Skype to place long-distance calls.

Looking at all of these examples, I see two clear reasons why these services have my attention:

  • Happiness (alternately, enchantment)
  • Utility (alternately, solving a problem)

I am currently reading two books that address these issues. Typically, these aren’t the kind of business books I read; I like books that are about explicit learning. Nevertheless, these books were from two guys who are extraordinarily nice and thus worth a read.

Guy Kawasaki, a former Apple evangelist turned self-evangelist has a new book out, Enchantment. When you take away the marketing babble, what Kawasaki is saying is that as long as you delight your customers, they are going to reward you with their attention, and hence their dollars.

Guy learned that lesson from Apple. Most of us think Apple is in the business of making hardware. Nope; Kia and Dodge are in the business of hardware. Apple is in the business of happiness. It’s the first and foremost emotion associated with an Apple product. The rest of the business is just the formality of handing over your credit card to the annoyingly smug guy at the Apple store.

This also applies to Bose audio systems. As an audiophile, I cringe at the very idea of Bose speakers. My brother-in-law hears a simple way to find audio bliss. The world, fortunately for Bose, is full of people like my brother-in-law.

One of the reasons Instagr.am works is because it has that “happiness” attached to it. When I see my friend’s baby boy, it brings me joy. I see Mathew Ingram at an ice hockey game, and it warms my heart to see him enjoying time with his family. I reward Instagr.am with my attention because it makes me happy. That is its utility.

This is the emotion at the heart of Gary Vaynerchuck’s idea of The Thank You Economy, in which the companies that provide the most value to their customers win. It’s a quaint notion, as old as the first bazaar, but somehow it got lost in postindustrial over-commercialization.

When I use Marco Arment‘s Instapaper, I quietly thank him, pretty much every single time. Why? Because he solved a problem for me and made my life more manageable. As a result, I gladly upgraded to the paid version of the app. And when I’m not saving or reading articles using Instapaper, I’m telling everyone I can tell: Try it. That’s what the “thank you economy” really is: me doing marketing for a product I have only an emotional or utilitarian connection to.

I look at all these great tablets coming to market. They are feature-laden, power-packed, and have bundles of computing oomph. And yet, they will all struggle because the makers are all looking through the wrong end of the telescope. My friend Pip Coburn emailed me, pointing out that people with iPads are the ultimate commercial for the device. The more people who have them, the more people want them. “People will trust other people who do not carry an agenda to build revenues and manipulate you,” Pip wrote. Bing!

Don’t believe me? Put all the things that are part of your daily routine into these two buckets — happiness and utility — and you will see it for yourself that in the end those two are the driving forces behind a successful app, service, device or media property.

So when it comes to services like Path, PicPlz and now Color, I’m not a hater. It’s actually worse. I don’t really care. Why? Because these apps lack the empathy that drives constant interaction. You can’t buy empathy with a $100 million valuation or $41 million in the bank. And you certainly can’t ensure happiness with a resume and an executive team.

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  1. George Tills Friday, March 25, 2011

    Ha! Pretty sobering. Can’t I just like something because it’s cool? This idea came to me on facebook http://kck.st/hPs3XQ
    . it may have been because someone was intentionally trying to sell me on it but, I still like it. And if it brings me a taste of joy, doesn’t that contribute to my overall happiness?

  2. When you say “Bing”, are you happily advertising the search engine?
    :D

    1. Haha! Funny since I rarely use it ;-)

    2. Andrew Macdonald harish Friday, March 25, 2011

      lol. good one!

  3. Turbulence Forecast Friday, March 25, 2011

    Sorry about the bumpy flight. I’ve considered having a Turbulence Forecast app commissioned, but given the high levels of crowding in the app store and the expense, I think I’ll stick to the web for now.

    http://www.turbulenceforecast.com/
    and for mobile
    http://m.turbulenceforecast.com/

    1. That is quite possibly the worst designed website I have seen this year. I’m an idiot for going but jeez man. Felt like I was back in 1993.

      Om’s right though. One breakout of this theory offers the vices as drivers of app use (“will it get me laid?”)

  4. You nailed it OM. As soon as consumers connect emotionally to a product/service that also turns out to be very useful, it’s instant success! This is where marketing comes into play. The problem is, most companies advertise as if we were robots. We’re human beings!!! We utlimately NEED to love the stuff we use. The architect of the Matrix would have never understood the success of the iPad for instance, since other tablets spec better.

    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

  5. A.J. Horst – 3Boost Friday, March 25, 2011

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Om. The Color guys being able to raise 40 million baffles the hell out of me. My question for Sequoia Capital is, why? Why would you give these guys 40 million? I completely understand their decision to give Facebook a few million to keep it going. It actually had fanatical users/fans, was growing at an insane rate, and it was easy to see how they could eventually monetize it.

    Successful social media platforms present a chicken and egg situation. The platforms are useless without a bunch of users, and you won’t get a bunch of users until the platform is useful. In other words, you can’t predict what will be the next big thing in social media before the service in launched.

    As for the comments on having a successful company by delighting your customers, the internet has changed the game and leveled the playing field on small vs large companies. Now that its easier for customers to vote up or down on your product or service, and easier to recommend your product or service to complete strangers; the best products or services will win out. There’s no longer a need to raise 40 million dollars to start up a company. You just have to kick ass in ways no one thought possible.

    -A.J. Horst
    President – 3Boost
    http://3boost.com

  6. I enjoyed your insightful comments.
    It appears to me that until 2 years ago most people thought about photos in the old fashioned ‘Kodak Moment’ ways and built applications like iPhotos, Picasa, … In the last one year, every application seems to believe that people want to ‘share the moment and forget’. I feel that people developing photo apps from old school thought that we collect photos that are taken very carefully and are willing to spend lots of time organizing those. And the new school thinks that photos are ephemeral. Technology has definitely brought a transformation in this area — but people are people. They want to enjoy and share the moment as well as save them for reliving, revisiting, recalling and reflecting on those later.

    One dimensional apps that only believe either in instant or in old fashioned album management will not survive in the long term.

    1. Well said Ramesh. I think there is definitely an opportunity to create a whole different kind of experience. I think we are forgetting that mobile is not just another platform and it has more personal dynamics in it.

      1. Exactly. And if you use android, I would love to share with you something. If you use iPhone, then give me 2 weeks and I would love to share something along this direction.
        Have not been happy to see such a wonderful opportunity not being utilized. Would love to explore and contribute something in this exciting space.

    2. exactly. much has been forgotten about life in the photo app race.

  7. Agreed. A good friend of mine once told me, you have to deliver a payoff in the first minute of the first session, then within the first week, then within the first month. If you can get users to experience each of those milestones, then you will have a user locked in for life (or at least a long, valuable period of time).

    That said, the whole point of betting on a team is that they have the chops and the perseverance to figure it out. If a Y-Combinator alum launched Color, people would be tripping over themselves to hail its potential. Perhaps Color’s biggest mistake was a PR one to announce their funding alongside their product launch, and the funding drew all the attention and, errr, colored the way people viewed the app. If you think about Color as a product on its own, that can evolve over 2-3 years with the runway that they have, and let’s pretend that instead, that $41m is raised over that period of time, then our expectations may be more calibrated. The reality is, the Color app today is not the product of $41m of cash spent, but yet we’re evaluating it as if it were. They have their work cut out for them for sure, and I’m not saying they will figure it out, but they have a long time to and this is just the beginning.

    1. These days you will not get too much time to experiment, it’s more hit or miss environment. You will see a lot of clones in a short span of time.
      For me, personally, the biggest disaster is when CEO is trying to explain what is the application about. If I’m unable to figure out purpose of it in the first couple of minutes on my own, game is over (for me).

    2. Mike

      I really don’t care about the Money/PR or anything. I have been in the valley too long to make that my sole point of reference.

      I still believe in only one thing and that is the only thing that matters to me, which is as you said — payoff in the first sessions and then constant incremental payoffs

  8. Guy Kawasaki Friday, March 25, 2011

    Om,

    Thanks so much for mentioning Enchantment. May you receive and cause much happiness in the world!

    Guy

    1. Thanks Guy! Great read, by the way.

  9. Dan Verhaeghe Friday, March 25, 2011

    We shared much of the same sentiments on The Thank You Economy and the relation to mobile marketing- http://mcloughlin.ca/insights/the-thank-you-economy-is-mobile-media-marketing/

  10. Stephen Smith Friday, March 25, 2011

    Om,

    Completely agree. The Chat With People Nearby space has gotten some press recently (i.e. The WSJ yesterday) including apps that just launched or are in restricted beta. However, WhosHere, has been getting the attention of users:

    – closing in on 3 million users
    – used in 150+ countries
    – 2 Billion text messages sent across our network (announced yesterday http://bit.ly/ffvsOm)
    – Average of 40 sent messages per user who logs in on any given day

    Is it working as a business? We’re profitable.

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