According to DSG International - owner of Dixons and PC World - consumers are struggling to understand overly complicated messages around hi-tech products. In response, the firm has invested £50m in an advisory service called Tech Guys. With plans to hire more than 2,000 staff, its remit is to better communicate to consumers how new, emerging or existing technology works.
DSG's concerns about consumers' lack of understanding are backed up by a plethora of recent studies. In July, research by Ofcom's independent consumer panel found that technological advances were ‘baffling' Joe Public. In the poll, a third of people were unaware of the imminent TV switchover from analogue to digital. Meanwhile, 66 per cent ‘did not know, are misinformed about or could not explain' 3G mobile phone technology.
The Ofcom report concluded that many people ‘have become confused, or are bombarded with, information that turns them off [the idea of] experimenting with technology'.
This statement is an indictment of both the makers of technology and those who communicate their products. So, are technology PROs to blame? Or is consumer confusion caused by the way media report on new technology?
Stuart Jackson, head of media relations at Orange, admits that technology PR has a tendency to concentrate on the product itself rather than its applications. ‘There is confusion and fear about buying into new services. I think it's fair to say that many UK consumers are still confused about the benefits that technology can bring them,' he says.
Orange's solution is TRY - a ‘test before you buy' service. Jackson explains: ‘We saw that customers were being fed technology information from numerous other sources. We wanted to give them an easy way of understanding exactly the benefits of Orange services. TRY allows customers to trial a service they're interested in, but unsure of, for a period of time without charge.'
The phone sector is clearly alert to the tech comms problem. ‘The technology itself is not important,' says BT senior PR manager Suzy Christopher. ‘We have learned that when launching a product we have to communicate the benefits that the new service will deliver - whether for the customers' private life, their professional life or
for their business.'
Speaking plain English
Christopher says her team strives to use simple descriptions of services in BT press releases. For example, when a researcher in the firm's technology office devised an ‘intelligent algorithm' - something extremely technical that would not immediately spring to mind as a national news story - the PR team linked it to the World Cup.
‘By showing that the algorithm had "watched" the England vs Sweden game and could detect the exciting parts of the match to make an automatic highlights programme, we got a great piece in The Independent,' says Christopher.
Other PR practitioners have also realised that selling technology to the public needs to involve more than just a list of product specifications.
Nelson Bostock Communications counts Freeview, Toshiba, Canon, the Digital Radio Development Board and mobile phone maker HTC among its clients. ‘We consider ourselves to be as much in the entertainment business as we are in the consumer technology business,' says Nelson Bostock managing director Martin Bostock. ‘We're selling the sizzle, not the sausage.
Simply to categorise "tech" clients as being only of interest to the tech fraternity is lazy PR, and we'd soon lose our clients if we did that.'
But according to Bostock, journalists must share some of the blame for consumer confusion. ‘The problem is that journalists, not just PROs, are also keen on putting things in neat boxes. Whenever words such as "technology" and "gadget" are used, certain psychological barriers go up that can be difficult to overcome in the communications process.'
Bostock says that when his agency helped to launch digital music download service Napster in the UK, it tailored the story to different TV programmes, magazines and newspapers. The team wrote several versions of the release to put the story in the right context for each audience group - from the tech-savvy to the general consumer.
Bostock says many agencies take a too simplistic approach to media relations when trying to sell-in consumer tech stories, using the same pitch for national newspapers and gadget press.
‘While we were pitching Napster's music catalogue, pricing structures and player compatibilities to titles such as Stuff, NME and Music Week, we pitched the concept of the "death of the record store" to the Daily Mail and the consumer affairs editor at ITV News,' he explains. ‘Was the launch of Napster really a threat to physical retail outlets? Of course not, but it contextualised the story for those groups and allowed us to gain exposure in mass-market media that might have rejected our announcement as a pure technology story.
‘In the end, the Napster launch story was covered in every national newspaper and on every terrestrial broadcast channel - but in totally different ways each time.'
Those who can make technology more accessible can tap into new markets. In a bid to broaden coverage for software client Adobe, agency Firefly successfully targeted women's magazines. Journalists from the glossies were taken to the Royal Academy of Arts and shown how to create images using Adobe's Photoshop. The key to grabbing the interest of the titles, says Firefly head of consumer Brandon Stockwell, was to emphasise what normal people could do with the product, rather than focusing on the features of the software itself.
But although the way in which media treat tech stories has evolved - with the subject moving from specialist pages to more mainstream outlets - women's media remain a hurdle for some. Waggener Edstrom director Caroline Randle says women's press are the last ‘bastion of resistance, more likely to ask "does it come in pink?" than "how will it help my readers?". That said, the emergence of websites such as ShinyShiny and T3 offshoot GadgetCandy shows that a female spin can be put on consumer tech products.
Interestingly, product marketers are often out of touch when it comes to identifying the information sources that influence consumer purchases.
Weber Shandwick recently commissioned KRC Research to poll 2,500 individuals and marketers. In the survey, marcoms managers said traditional media - such as print and TV ads - were the primary sources consulted by consumers before a purchase.
However, consumers gave strikingly different answers - with family and friends (35 per cent), sales advisers (25 per cent) and company websites (17 per cent) the top information sources.
The real influencers
WS Technology MD Michelle McGlocklin says this reliance on family and friends makes it important to identify ‘conversation catalysts' - those people whose advice is trusted - and reach out to them.
But Harvard PR board director Ben Maynard adds that there are groups for whom technological terms will always be ‘gibberish'. One way to ensure the use of commonly understood language, he says, is to quiz clients on the real benefits of their technological advances. For instance, when Harvard client Mio developed a new handheld sat-nav product, the PR team highlighted a previously uncommunicated benefit: easy access to local services.
DSG's Tech Guys will likely be kept busy as consumers look to make sense of technology. Perhaps their existence is proof that many promoters of consumer technology need to rethink their communications strategies.
TECH CONFUSION: DIGITAL SWITCH-OVER
The story: Starting in 2008 and ending in 2012, TV services in the UK will go completely digital, with change phased in by TV region. Digital switchover will see the UK's analogue broadcast signal switched off. Any set that is not converted to digital at switchover will no longer receive TV programmes.
Nature of confusion: A third of the UK public are unaware of the switchover. Some are also confused about the switchover and arrival of high-definition TV.
PR strategy: Digital UK, an organisation backed by broadcasters, is in charge of communicating the change, working with agency Fishburn Hedges on PR. Digital Day roadshows are travelling the country - for example, visiting Plymouth and Exeter this month - to provide practical advice on switchover and expert demonstrations of digital TV to local people. ‘There are 60 million TV sets in the UK and the majority are already digital,' says Digital UK head of media relations Jon Steel. ‘But this is a confusing area for some people and this is a campaign where you can't take anything for granted.'
Steel says that the face-to-face events held so far have been a huge success, particularly in attracting older
consumers who, as a group, are less likely to have already gone digital. Ofcom/Digital UK tracking research found that during May and June this year, 54 per cent of adults recognised the ‘digital tick' logo.
The survey also revealed switchover awareness is highest, at 82 per cent (against a 66 per cent national average), in the Border region - the first TV region for switchover - showing that the regional targeting of comms is working.
Understanding & Solutions principal consultant, Graeme Packman: ‘A lot of people still don't understand that switchover is happening and what they need to do about it. There is some anecdotal evidence that people are getting confused between the switchover campaign logo and HD Ready logos.
But in an international context, the British approach is a best in class campaign. It may not be perfect but, as far as I'm aware, it's better than campaigns elsewhere, and it helps that we have the big retailers behind us.'
New Media Markets editorial director, Chris Wynn: ‘I think Digital UK has to be applauded for the way it has embarked on its communications campaign for what's clearly a monumental task. It realises the importance of a ground-level approach: rallying charities and community groups that have day-to-day links with people who are going to need the most help to make the switch to digital. Switching off the country's analogue television is politically a huge gamble.
From what I've seen so far - in both above- and below-the-line marketing - I think Digital UK has put together a very smart communications programme. They know what levers to pull with different groups of consumers and their segmentation will only become more sophisticated as switchover draws near. And it will have to be, because consumers are inevitably confused by the wide range of digital TV options - there will be a lot of hand-holding, especially with vulnerable groups.'
TECH CONFUSION: BLU-RAY Vs HD DVD
The story: Impending arrival of next-generation DVD players.
Nature of confusion: Products not yet in stores: uncertainty over which standard will last (this calls to mind the battle for acceptance between VHS and Betamax in the early days of VCRs); and not everyone is aware that a HD TV set is required for the players to work.
PR strategy: Far from clear. Rival formats are still building alliances and some manufacturers and content providers have a foot in both camps. Nelson Bostock Communications, which works for hardware manufacturer Toshiba, has sought to demonstrate the value of upgrading to next-generation DVD players, rather than focusing on the format fight. ‘Everyone is comfortable with DVD - in fact, the majority of consumers don't see it as a technology product at all,' says agency managing director Martin Bostock. ‘As the natural successor to DVD, we're pitching HD DVD in the same way to the mass market. It's just as important to us that Ideal Home understand it as Stuff.'
For consumers worried about their DVD collections becoming obsolete, there's no need for concern just yet.
Most major consumer electronics companies have already demonstrated products that can read and write CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. In fact, high-definition players should make existing DVD collections perform better.
‘The important thing for manufacturers will be to explain the benefits simply and avoid confusing potential customers with technical jargon,' says Text 100 managing director, UK & Ireland, Nick Giles. ‘The next few months will see big competition, with players for both formats due to go on sale in Europe before Christmas.'
Understanding & Solutions business director, Content & Services, Alison Casey: ‘It's all going to come down to the cost of the hardware, the titles out there and how the retailers handle it. The PS3, when it finally arrives, will have a built-in Blu-ray drive and that will be a massive boost for Blu-ray, especially if the PS3 comes bundled with a Blu-ray movie.'
Digital Home editor, Dean Evans: ‘The battle hasn't affected us in the UK and, when the first players do make it to retail later this year, they'll be premium-priced home entertainment products. I don't think consumer confusion is the issue. Most movie studios will bite the bullet and release movies three ways.'