When tech talks to soccer moms

No matter how sophisticated a tech product may be, some of the most desirable members of its audience don't care how it works; their only concern is how well it works.

No matter how sophisticated a tech product may be, some of the most desirable members of its audience don't care how it works; their only concern is how well it works.

The Nikon Coolpix L1 compact digital camera has 6.2 megapixels, a five-times optical zoom lens, and 15 scene modes with four scene assists.

Try to impress new mothers with that.

"They didn't care about aperture... they cared about, 'How can it help me get better pictures?'" says Kurt Genden, SVP of the consumer lifestyle group at Nikon's PR agency, MWW Group.

While Nikon enjoyed a stellar reputation among photography professionals, that proved to be a handicap as much as a benefit. Nikon had to fight a brand image of being the pricey equipment of the pros. "The perception among the consumer market [had been] that Nikon was too expensive or too much camera," Genden explains. "People said, 'It's too advanced for me.'"

Admits Lisa Baxt, senior communications manager for Nikon and the lead on Nikon's turnaround efforts, "When I came on board to reposition the consumer perception of Nikon, we were known for our pro cameras [and being] too expensive, too hard to use." But Nikon has a line of cheaper cameras for general consumers, with simpler features.

So the team at Nikon - which included Baxt; Anna Marie Bakker, director of communications; communications specialist Jayme Fiumara; and communications supervisor Andrew Rubenstein - along with MWW Group, had the task of taking a technology product and translating product benefits to consumers, particularly the core target of entry-level buyers in the female and family markets. With the knowledge that mothers take 70% of family photos, a highlight of the subsequent three-year campaign was aimed at new parents: a "Pride and Joy" baby photo contest, for which Nikon partnered with Good Morning America. The contest received 3,700 entries, more than double its goal.

"We took some of the fear out of photography," says Genden. "[Consumers] were concerned they didn't [understand] all the apertures, settings." But the team stuck with the main message that what really mattered about the technology was that it allowed the user to create great images.

"[The campaigns] have been very effective," Baxt says. In fact, last holiday season, the Nikon Coolpix L1 was the top-selling digital camera in its price range at Best Buy.

While all the consumer work was going on, however, Baxt's team was careful not to completely ignore the high-end tech side. To divide and conquer between the tech and consumer output, Baxt says, "we have a communications department that is basically [made up of] generalists. But on the product market side, we have various specialists... we have really been able to talk about the great technology."

Converging disciplines

As consumers become more comfortable with technology, the PR business is changing how it presents tech products. Tech and consumer PR frequently converge.

Casey Sheldon, president of Weber Shandwick's global tech practice, agrees. "You can't do tech PR in isolation anymore," she says. "There is always a component of consumer lifestyle, or entertainment, that appeals to the other side of the brain."

Microsoft understood that last year when it launched a global campaign called "Start Something" for Windows XP. Weber Shandwick's challenge was to generate awareness and excitement about how Windows programs can help average people pursue their passions.

There was a heavy consumer focus in the campaign, and Weber Shandwick tapped a broader PR team beyond the tech-focused Microsoft experts, including seasoned consumer experts with experience developing campaigns for Campbell's Soup, Willy Wonka Candy Factory, and Coca-Cola.

Weber Shandwick helped Microsoft develop a national "Start Something Amazing" awards program, in which five Windows users won the chance to meet Bill Gates and receive $5,000 in the latest Windows technology, among other prizes.

Mutual understanding

But consumer and tech PR can only work together well when they understand each other's worlds.

Consumer PR experts have to understand that the tech side is very systematic and focused on numbers, not "squishy things," says Alyson Griffin, Hewlett Packard's imaging and printing group communications director. The journalists covering technology tend to have a methodical approach to writing about products, often using charts and numerical scores to rate them.

On the other hand, to work better in the consumer world, tech PR specialists need to think about the product or brand as a total experience. HP, for example, explained in its consumer campaign that the battery life of a new HP laptop was long enough to play The Lord of the Rings.

When HP unveiled its new line of PCs this spring, it had a two-tiered approach, with one format highlighting the computers' tech advances, and another consumer push that appeared in such publications as Lucky, Cosmopolitan, and TeenVogue, says Elizabeth Gillan, HP's director of worldwide personal systems group external communications.

She says the job of converting a tech campaign to a consumer campaign comes down to "the digital lifestyle is here, but how do you make it special? It's a whole different conversation; it's not, 'It has 200 gigabytes.'"

Sharing knowledge with new audiences

What consumer specialists need to know about tech PR

The tech PR side is orderly and focused on numbers

Tech journalists rate items with numerical categories

Tech journalists not only have deep, specialist knowledge, they often have biases

Tech products can require a lot of preparation prelaunch and may not be perfect in their first incarnation

What tech specialists need to know about consumer PR

There are many audiences and avenues. Look beyond Wall St. Journal tech reviews

With tech items, the biggest influencers are often younger members of the family

The general consumer isn't so concerned about an item's high-end technology. Instead of touting a digital camera's optical zoom, laud how its tools improve photo quality

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