In an information age, there are secrets and then there are secrets.
The Apple iPhone, the dreamy device for the cult of Mac fans everywhere, represents the former. Due to its meticulously planned, glacial rollout, images of the soon-to-be ubiquitous phone methodically clubbed the senses of every media consumer for months. Nevermind that the actual phone was under pre-launch lockdown (available only to a few senior-level executives at exclusive partner AT&T) and only four journalists were allowed to preview the device before it went on sale. Consumers trusted Apple's track record and queued up hours before the phone went on sale to purchase one (or two) without ever trying it.
Cloverfield, the code name for Lost creator JJ Abrams' new movie, is an example of the latter. Save for a brief "heads up" on comingsoon.net, the first real public outreach around the movie, which hits theatres in January 2008, took place through a special Transformers preview two weeks ago. Moviegoers returned to their homes, blogs, and social networks to trumpet the trailer's brilliance. It's important to note that teasers like the Cloverfield one usually run much further in advance.
Both unveils, interestingly enough, feature a traditional marcomms approach that is a bit passé in an open-source world. Thanks to social media and a DIY populace, all products have willing (and free) beta testers who can serve as early adopters, bug fixers, crisis managers, and advocates before mainstream launch.
In some respects, Apple and Abrams took huge risks in their dramatic unveils. But their recent track records have granted them the ability to dictate terms. However, I would stress that today's environment favors marketing that takes a more open approach.
Companies have been using focus groups for decades to help better design and market products. But while that procedure usually included non-disclosure agreements and locked boardrooms, today's focus groups take place in the open, where marcomms pros chase down comments in chat rooms, blogs, and message boards. The focus group, it seems, never stops.
And that can be a very frightening proposition. The last truly buzzed-about movie before Cloverfield, Snakes on a Plane, had its storyline trickle out to blogs before it even finished shooting. Snakes followed a more "today" route of creation and promotion - actually reshooting certain scenes to camp it up more for the crowd. It fared poorly.
Microsoft's Vista, while in developer beta, also suffered scars of criticism.
But even Nintendo's Wii, which had daily sellouts and a launch that product manufacturers could only dream of, gave some consumers the opportunity to test out the product before the official unveil. Buzz from early adopters likely fed Wii fever.
If you work for Steve Jobs or JJ Abrams, allow them to market on their terms. For the rest of us, however, it's best to enlist consumers early and often.