Even a chimp can write code

Friday, September 29, 2006

Letting your users do your bidding

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. User-submitted content (user-generated content, to some) has its value, but is not the stuff that brands are made of.

NPR's business news show Marketplace, reports on Frito-Lay's and Chevrolet's plans on involving amateurs - like you and me - in the making of their Super Bowl commercials. Now this in itself isn't that remarkable; its been done before. But these companies hope to virally spread this ad campaign via YouTube, MySpace etc. Ostensibly this buys the commercials an extended shelf life online, which can be very expensive to achieve in traditional media.

But I think this is a recipe for disaster: you're driving the Chevy down a cliff with a bag of chips. A brand is built from an accumulation of experiences with a product or service. Advertising and design have great impact on the brand's image. Merely the user experience isn't enough: advertisers have long sought to appeal to you at an emotional or psychological level. When done right, this increases the brand's perceived value in the user's mind. This is why you covet your favorite brand over the dozens like it in the same aisle at the grocery store.

If you forgo editorial control over the brand's image, you risk losing the brand's equity - the value built up over time. For instance, what prevents someone from creating a parody of the product and posting it to YouTube as if to ride the competition wave. After all, you don't need to be Frito-Lay's official nominee in order to get eyeballs on YouTube. Chevy seems to have learned from its folly from last year's contest, which created numerous ads that criticized its SUVs for being gas guzzlers and contributing to global warming. This year they're asking for written ideas only and their professional branding guys will make the ads. Not being able to see and vote on others' submissions, well, is not really user-submitted content. Aww, does that break your product's buzzword compliance?

Why not just take the boring route of making good, entertaining ads that sell your message and then post them online with a liberal license on copying and reusing?

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

What's in a name?

This past week it was announced that "Atlas", the cross-browser, cross-platform, web development technology will be have a few new official names as part of it's release:

  1. Microsoft AJAX Library: the client-side "Atlas" javascript library
  2. ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX Extensions: the server-side functionality
  3. ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit: formerly the "Atlas" Control Toolkit

When I first heard this, I almost cried out "Why? Why? Why?". I thought Atlas was a cool name. Easy to pronounce, memorize and recall, and not offensive either. It was totally in the vein of "SmallTalk" and "Java". No, this was "Avalon" revisited!

Just as I sometimes jump headlong to conclusions, I am also capable of calm calculation. And I proceeded to do just that. I may be oversimplifying the problem, but I will say that the mechanics behind choosing a good product name are different for consumer products than for platforms and frameworks. You are not going to sell a technology to astute developers and decision makers based merely on its name. "Atlas" by itself wasn't very informative.  But the terms "ASP.NET" and "AJAX" are more widely known, and tagging them along gives the audience clarity on what "Atlas" actually is. Although, one could argue there's one too many buzzword in there (and herein my bias against the term "AJAX" rears it's ugly head again!).

A name may be used be to inform the product's audience about it's function. For example, the "No Child Left Behind Act". However, this isn't a necessary condition for a name, and may sometimes even backfire on you as aforementioned piece of legislation allegedly has. On the other hand, using sterile, non sequitur names have proven to be very successful for some people. Take for example Toyota Camry. To a potential customer, the name does not hold any special sway. It does not highlight the virtues of the car or even how Toyota engineering places this car high among the most popular in the world. I doubt the car would be any less or more successful had it been given a different name.  [Ref: my post on bad car names]

A cool name does not a cool product make. Prefixing an i to an everyday word does not automatically get you a fanatical following. You need to back it up with functionality and make it relevant to your audience. "Atlas" has seen over 250,000 downloads this year. That is a big deal for beta software. The number of people who downloaded this software mistaking it for content on Greek legends is likely statistically insignificant.

I won't lose sleep over developers running away in droves just because the new names are a tad, well, boring. Developers and decision makers care about breadth and depth of functionality, quality of APIs, extensibility, ease of use, performance and sundry other things. With Microsoft AJAX Library, ASP.NET AJAX Extensions and ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit, that remains unchanged despite the million more syllables added to the name.

But there are downsides too. There can be no advantage in making a name a mouthful for people to utter. The phrase spreading the word now no longer applies. People will soon seek acronyms and abbreviated forms to refer to the name. Case in point: WPF. And that just negates your branding efforts; plus your argument of making the name meaningful no longer holds. 

I'm sitting on the fence on this one. 

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