FOCUS: HI-TECH PR - Keeping one step ahead of new technologies. PR people in the hi-tech industry must know how to strike a balance between promoting the latest gadgetry without making customers feel that their recent purchase is already old hat. Ed Shelt

One of the biggest challenges for PR people working in the hi-tech arena is the phenomenon of ’the next big thing.’ Communications and entertainment technology develops at a staggering rate, with some products having a shelf-life of just weeks. The question is the extent to which it’s possible for manufacturers to promote a new development while still maintaining sales and confidence in existing kit.

One of the biggest challenges for PR people working in the hi-tech

arena is the phenomenon of ’the next big thing.’ Communications and

entertainment technology develops at a staggering rate, with some

products having a shelf-life of just weeks. The question is the extent

to which it’s possible for manufacturers to promote a new development

while still maintaining sales and confidence in existing kit.



DVD technology, for example, is undeniably stealing a march on the video

cassette. But how can consumer perception be managed effectively, so

those who have invested in a new video recorder don’t feel short-changed

when they see the same manufacturer promoting new technology and

effectively telling them their new purchase is redundant?



The speed at which new products change from being the newest and the

best to being out of vogue can also be a problem. How can a product such

as a new computer game be promoted effectively, when it is shrouded in

mystery because of competition until it arrives, and then becomes old

hat so quickly?



Sam Harvey is creative director at Abbey Road recording studios, where

she introduces clients to new technologies. ’If a product is over-hyped

the resultant disappointment can lead to bad press,’ she says. After

all, who remembers the Sinclair C5, the Laserdisk and the 3DO games

platform?



Harvey points out that a basic communication difficulty is that even in

the professional environment, managing expectations of hi-tech products

can be a ’nightmare’.



Another difficulty is judging how to explain technical details to an

audience of differing abilities and knowledge.



’One of the hardest things is choosing how much to tell someone. You do

not want to be patronising, but you do not want to confuse them either,’

she says.



According to Chris Lewis, chief executive of Lewis PR, classic marketing

theory does not really work for hi-tech products that have such short

life-cycles that they are just fads. ’For fads, the traditional media

are not fast enough -you need to use all the paraphenalia of web-based

PR and marketing, such as news groups and web monitoring services. And

you need to be international immediately,’ he says.



Lewis adds that with emerging technologies, one of the key areas to get

the message to is the on-line community.



’With brand new systems, such as MP3, on-line groups are the main areas

of discussion, and companies’ reputations can be made or broken in a

chat room. This has some important implications for PR companies:

’Firstly, executives must become faster and more dialled in to immediate

access media. Secondly, the net is where this media is growing. Stories

can now break in chat rooms and user group sites in a matter of

hours.



’In order to create a true brand presence on the internet, agencies need

to be monitoring the whole spectrum of information services and

contributing to chat rooms. Although this may not seem as high-profile

as a full spread in a glossy magazine, its effect on the consumer could

be enormous.’



The short lifecycle of a computer game also makes the timing of a PR

campaign crucial. Pete Deverey, account director at MacLaurin

Powerhouse, which does the PR for software titles which run on Sega

Dreamcast, says: ’Before a game is released interest is built up in the

specialist media, starting about five to six months before. More

information and images are gradually released, and interviews with the

developers are set up.



’The problem with games is that the release date sometimes changes at

the last minute which makes things very hard to plan. You really need

the reviews to be published the month it is out, but this is hard as you

are working on long lead times with some magazines,’ he says.



According to Martin Forrest, a director of Cubitt Consulting, another

way to support these types of products is to concentrate on the brand,

and emphasise the evolving nature of the technology.



’Managing products with a short life-cycle is difficult. You have to

keep pushing the core brand and make sure that it maintains its core

values, but still focus on the change. The product has to be positioned

as evolving in relation to its core brand values,’ he says.



Agencies in the hi-tech sector agree that new technology does not have

to present a threat to older kit, since consumers differ in the way they

respond to these types of products. Consumers are either early adopters,

early mainstream majority, or mainstream majority and these groups need

to be targeted separately.



Sue Rizzello, business group director at Edelman PR says: ’There is an

adoption curve for new technologies with the early consumers taking the

risk, and others being more conservative. This creates an opportunity to

market at different levels to different audiences. Some companies manage

to keep a number of product lines moving at the same time - they are

basically the same product, but they are targeted at different

audiences.’



The early adopters are typically male and aged between 24 and 35. They

are reached through the pages of the hi-tech consumer press and the

men’s press. Hyping up the product to this audience is generally about

news, maybe using a celebrity launch.



Katie Kemp, president of August.One Communications, says the early

adopters are a relatively easy target. Maintaining the interest for the

later mass market is harder, she says, and requires more creativity.



Lewis breaks the potential target market down even more simply. ’In

terms of marketing new products against old, it is the nature of

technology to be constantly improving, and most consumers are aware of

this. There are generally two types of buyers in this area - the fad

buyers and the cautious buyers. Fad buyers will usually snap up the

latest products, regardless of it having yet to be proven in the

marketplace, and will always strive to get brand new gadgets, even if

this means that it replaces an existing product.



’On the other hand, cautious buyers will wait until there has been

enough mainstream acceptance, particularly among manufacturers, before

they make a purchase. This was the case with CDs, and although the

format has only really been popular for ten years, it is so widely used

now that consumers will only buy products to complement, not replace

it.’



When a client needs to raise awareness of the new products coming along

while still generating income from existing product lines, this can mean

two teams within an agency working in parallel. One team will be working

on early adopters with the new product, while the other will stay

on-message with the existing product for the mass market.



Rizzello says: ’There is a lot of energy that goes into creating

marketing strategies that do not cannibalise the existing market. The

timing of PR in this regard has to be very careful. A lot of energy also

goes into managing upgrades so that people are not scared into waiting

too long before they buy - this might cause an enormous gap in cash

flow.’



When a serious, long-term development in technology is underway, there

are often several manufacturers and representatives from other relevant

industries involved, which presents communications challenges of its

own.



This was the case with the DVD committee, which developed the new

Digital Versatile Disk standard for storing digital information (see

panel).



Rizzello says: ’It was a classic example of two industries - electronics

and content (films and music) with completely different cultures and

attitudes coming together with a marketing agenda. Here the PR agency

often plays the role of diplomat and arbitrator.’



Rizzello had a similar experience running a business-to-business

campaign for Blue Tooth, the wireless connectivity solution (pictured

below) which will start appearing on products such as mobile phones and

laptops later this year. The system is a chip implanted inside products

which enable users to connect up using radio waves, giving a much

greater range than is possible with existing technology. It will mean,

for instance, that five people with laptops at a meeting can create an

ad hoc network without wires.



Blue Tooth was launched by five manufacturers in the hi-tech and

communications sectors - IBM, Intel, Nokia, Ericsson, and Toshiba. The

business launch to get the rest of the industry on board was

simultaneous in London, Japan, and San Francisco. Edelman was aiming to

get adoption of Blue Tooth from the technology industry, and 450

companies said they would adopt it.



’The message has to be really coherent with everyone behind it if it is

to work. If there had been any wavering or watering down of the message

through compromise we would not have succeeded in getting the industry

behind the product,’ says Rizzello.



Clive Riches, northern European sales manager at Memorex Products

Europe, which makes and sells DVD players and disks, is familiar with

the question of how to keep people buying despite the evolving nature of

the technology.



’If people sat on the fence all the time they would never buy any

product. It is the same for every other consumer product, from cars

down. With IT, I think that people are especially aware of the issue,

but they realise that although the product will soon become dated it

will still do the job.



’PCs, for instance, have a shelf-life of about three months because new

chips keep coming along - you can never have the latest product for very

long, but the one you have will do the job for about five years,’ he

says.



In the fast moving hi-tech world it is often very hard for the consumer

to keep up with these all changes.



One executive says anonymously: ’Look at the dynamics of journalism in

this area. Journalists love writing about the latest technology, but

they do not always put it into context by saying that there are better

products coming along that are just around the corner. The question is

whether companies take advantage of this deliberately.’



Grace Fodor, a director at Fodor Wyllie, believes the rapid nature of

the market has had an impact on what PR in this sector means: ’I think

the PR role has changed from promoting the technological breakthrough

and innovation, to helping consumers become ’smarter’ and better

equipped in making purchasing decisions,’ she says.



’It is more about getting consumers to think about the application of

new tech-nology, how it fits into their lives and the benefits that it

will bring against the investment required.’





CO-OPERATION WAS KEY TO DVD DEVELOPMENT



DVD stands for digital versatile disk. It is a digital storage device

that can be used for any medium - audio-visual, audio, or data. A DVD

disk looks just like a CD but slightly thicker and stores much more

information as it is multi-layered. The exact amount of information DVD

disks hold is not yet standard, but those on the market currently hold

around five gigabytes.



The capacity of DVD gives the format a number of advantages. A whole

film can be stored on it and picture clarity is far superior to a VHS

cassette. DVDs are also more manageable than video cassettes as

rewinding and forwarding a film is no longer required. DVD-ROM, for

computer software, is also being developed.



DVD Audio, a new music platform, is also on the cards, although DVD is

mainly being pushed as a vehicle to replace video cassettes. Already

there are 250,000 DVD players in the UK, and with costs now below pounds

200 there is the expectation that this will grow quickly. Most people

use it to view films and last year the market in DVD disks was about

five per cent of the VHS tape market.



’The spread of the technology is growing six times faster than CD and

VHS did at the same stage in its development,’ says David King,

marketing consultant at the UK DVD Committee, which puts the DVD message

across.



DVD has a headstart over similar new technologies in that, since its

development in the early-1990s, it has been a cross-industry effort.

Internationally, a DVD Forum handled the setting of standards so that

all manufacturer’s players and disks were interchangeable. The UK DVD

Committee handles promotion on behalf of the whole industry. Its 23

members comprise manufacturers such as Toshiba and Sony as well as

software producers including Universal and Warner Brothers.



Developing DVD by committee has slowed it down, but has also ensured

there have been no ’Betamax versus VHS’-type battles. The committee

works hand-in-hand with the members’ in-house teams to generate

awareness and to promote sampling of the new technology.



’Once you have experienced how good it is, you are converted’, says

King, ’It is like the first time you heard a CD after vinyl.’



Last year was the first full year of activity for the DVD Committee,

such as distributing of a free sample disk on magazines and through

electrical retailers. In an associated promotion, free software was

given to those with the disk that bought a player. This accounted for 20

per cent of player sales last August.



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