Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry, the smartphone category leader for most of the recent past seems in danger of going the way of Palm, who created the category, did. In recent weeks there has been a steady flow of negative news and commentary form the media, ranging form today’s piece on Bloomberg that said “more companies opting for rival devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone. Of 200 companies in the U.S. and U.K. surveyed, 74 percent now let their employees use devices other than BlackBerrys,” to news that various governments have raised questions about its security. On the surface it appears RIM is suffering from bad PR and government relations. My question is: Is this a marketing problem or a product problem?
It does appear that RIM has a significant PR challenge. Blackberry 6 has rolled out via a TV ad campaign but with little attention in the editorial side of the media. What attention it has got has tended to focus on this being “RIM’s last roll of the dice.” Of course RIM has also been berated for having a relatively weak product line up and for also having opted for a software application model that gave customers a few really good apps versus the thousands and thousands open to iPhone and Android users. It would thus appear to be a perfect storm. A weak product line up, a software strategy error and less than effective PR. In other words it’s not just a marketing problem.
Can marketing save RIM? I for one believe the BlackBerry brand could still do well. The iPhone, though beautiful, isn’t without its flaws: dropped calls, touch screen keyboard that can lead to horrendous typos, AT&T coverage in markets like San Francisco, the list goes on. The iPhone is also becoming a target for people who like to exploit security holes. I was recently told of a major investment bank that wanted to trial the iPhone for staff. To make it secure they had to disable the camera, iPod functionality and the ability to download apps. In other words it became a phone and email device. Given these are actually two of its weaker functions (see list of weaknesses above) that should make the BlackBerry a very good alternative. This is where marketing needs to step in and hammer the iPhone for all it’s worth. For people who like to email or text message the BlackBerry s still the best device going. But they need to do more than that. RIM needs to get aggressive and invest in a real content and applications model that people see as a real alternative to iTunes. This could easily be done via a comprehensive agreement with Amazon (who also has an interest in unseating Apple). Now of course we hear that RIM is readying an iPad rival. This makes it a rival to Amazon also given the Kindle. Bad, bad idea in my mind. I think there is far more to be gained by having Amazon on its side than having them as a rival. Amazon, after all, offers the only real alternative to Apple’s content strategy.
I could go on and on about how RIM needs to ‘re-win’ the smartphone battle and how this requires them to win over both consumers AND the IT community. It’s achievable with some well executed PR provided they also look at their content/application strategy AND roll out a product line that rethinks their current look. RIM is where the American carmakers were when the Japanese arrived. They were focused on the wrong things and just couldn’t see how tastes had changed. It’s going to be a tough battle for RIM but as of today they have the resources to win if they are willing to take some bold steps and admit some of their mistakes.
Google today announced they are going to offer free voice calling for users of gMail. Some media outlets have said this poses a significant threat to Skype. I’ll confess that was my immediate thought but on reflection I think the news may actually be far worse for carriers such as AT&T. What Google has done is validate that the concept of free/almost free calling using the Internet is the way forward. To use their service you need a gMail account. If you already have an email account from say Yahoo! or Hotmail, then you can of course open a gMail account or simply use Skype… Given the way Skype works, I can’t see people necessarily switching to using the Google service. What I can see is some people who still use land lines giving the Google service a try. I can also see that having competing services from Skype and Google will really a) improve these products and b) force traditional carriers to look at their pricing. In other words, the people who will likely feel the most pain are the AT&Ts of this world who will inevitably end up having to make drastic cuts to their rates.
Across America it’s back to school time. Families are getting used to packing lunches, the joys of nightly homework and arranging after school activities. It’s also a time when work calendars fill up as people return from vacations, supposedly refreshed. Of course in America they don’t take the long vacations that are common in countries such as France and Sweden. Instead they stretch to ten days, or two weeks if they are feeling particularly brave. Either way, Americans are now ready to do battle with the economy while their kids do battle with mathematics and English. In the world of communications and marketing in general, the summer is a quiet period where only a real crisis will garner much attention. The Fall on the other hand is a period where news floods out as businesses launch products and make acquisitions. The flood of news does of course make it harder to get people’s attention. You are, after all, competing with others for your fifteen seconds of fame (the Internet equivalent of Warhol’s prediction). So does this make sense? I appreciate it is difficult to get things done over the summer when so many people are away and the argument goes that: what’s the point of announcing things when nobody is around to read about it? I’d argue that in the age of social and online media, the summer is no longer a dead time for getting attention. It is merely a dead time for people seeking it. While I was away I checked on the news, industry and otherwise, everyday on my iPhone and I’m not that unusual. With today’s technology people hear about the news whether they are at work on a south pacific island. So it makes me wonder whether companies should rethink summer media madness and use the fact that attention is easier to get to their advantage. Perhaps, therefore, it’s time for us communications folk to go back to school…
We all know that Twitter is great at getting the word out. Celebrities use it to announce new roles, marital breakups etc. Corporations alert people to pending announcements and editorial coverage that puts them in a good light. But the chatty nature of Twitter makes it less suitable to crisis management and more suited to crisis generation. Or does it? We all know that when a crisis breaks, people start tweeting like mad and in no time, thanks to the power of Twitter, the world knows about it. Against this hailstorm it’s hard for people to fight back and ‘get the truth out’. Interestingly having looked at recent crises that have been in the media lately (eg BP), it’s clear that Twitter is rarely, if at all, used to counter a crisis. Conventional crisis management is all about getting control of the message and perhaps many view Twitter as an environment where you can’t necessarily control the message. I’d argue that Twitter offers a great way to get your message across and that it is no less ‘controlled’ than any other vehicle. If anything it offers you the chance to create an authentic, timely mouthpiece for the company. It also offers a way to get important information out quickly. This gives Twitter the advantage of enabling you to show those affected that you are acting responsibly by sharing information they may find beneficial in real time. Of course one of the real disadvantages Twitter has is that most Fortune 500 board members don’t use it and probably never will. It therefore takes a huge leap of faith for them to accept using it as a tool to manage a crisis they are at the heart of. I hope as communications professionals we don’t let that prevent us from giving them the right counsel. IMHO Twitter isn’t just for the good news, it’s also for those times when you really wish your phone would stop ringing.