Blockchain Technology: Hype … or Hope?

Recently I read a column in MediaPost by contributing writer Ted McConnell (The Block Chain [sic] Gang, 3/8/18) that seemed pretty wide of the mark in terms of some of its (negative) pronouncements about blockchain technology.

Not being an expert on the subject, I shared the column with my brother, Nelson Nones, who is a blockchain technology specialist, to get his “read” on the article’s POV.

Nelson cited four key areas where he disagreed with the positions of the column’s author – particularly in the fallacy of conflating blockchain technology – the system of keeping records which are impossible to falsify – with cryptocurrencies (systems for trading assets).

But the bigger aspect, Nelson pointed out, is that the MediaPost column reflects a general degree of negativity that has crept into the press recently about blockchain technology and its potential for solving business security challenges.  He noted that blockchain technology is in the midst of going through the various stages of Gartner’s well-known “hype cycle” – a model that charts the maturity, adoption and social application of emerging technologies.

Interested in learning more about this larger issue, I asked Nelson to expand on this aspect. Presented below is what he reported back to me.  His perspectives are interesting enough, I think, to share with others in the world of business.

Hyperbole All Over Again?

Most folks in the technology world – and many business professionals outside of it – are familiar with the “hype cycle.” It’s a branded, graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and social application of technologies from Gartner, Inc., a leading IT research outfit.

According to Gartner, the hype cycle progresses through five phases, starting with the Technology Trigger:

“A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.”

Next comes the Peak of Inflated Expectations, which implies that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. But Gartner is a bit less sanguine:

“Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; most don’t.”

There follows a precipitous plunge into the Trough of Disillusionment.  Gartner says:

“Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investment continues only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.”

If the hype cycle is to be believed, the Trough of Disillusionment cannot be avoided; but from a technology provider’s perspective it seems a dreadful place to be.

With nowhere to go but up, emerging technologies begin to climb the Slope of Enlightenment. Gartner explains:

“More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.”

Finally, we ascend to the Plateau of Productivity. Gartner portrays a state of “nirvana” in which:

“Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off. If the technology has more than a niche market, then it will continue to grow.”

Gartner publishes dozens of these “hype cycles,” refreshing them every July or August. They mark the progression of specific technologies along the curve – as well as predicting the number of years to mainstream adoption.

Below is an infographic I’ve created which plots Gartner’s view for cloud computing overlaid by a plot of global public cloud computing revenues during that time, as reported by Forrester Research, another prominent industry observer.

Cloud Computing Hype Cycle

This infographic provides several interesting insights. For starters, cloud computing first appeared on Gartner’s radar in 2008. In hindsight that seems a little late — especially considering that Salesforce.com launched its first product all the way back in 2000. Amazon Web Services (AWS) first launched in 2002 and re-launched in 2006.

Perhaps Gartner was paying more attention to Microsoft, which announced Azure in 2008 but didn’t release it until 2010. Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and Salesforce are the top four providers today, holding ~57% of the public cloud computing market between them.

Cloud computing hit the peak of Gartner’s hype cycle just one year later, in 2009, but it lingered at or near the Peak of Inflated Expectations for three full years. All the while, Gartner was predicting mainstream adoption within 2 to 5 years. Indeed, they have made the same prediction for ten years in a row (although I would argue that cloud computing has already gained mainstream market adoption).

It also turns out that the Trough of Disillusionment isn’t quite the valley of despair that Gartner would have us believe. In fact, global public cloud revenues grew from $26 billion during 2011 to $114 billion during 2016 — roughly half the 64% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) during the Peak of Inflated Expectations, but a respectable 35% CAGR nonetheless.

Indeed, there’s no evidence here of waning market interest – nor did an industry shakeout occur. With the exception of IBM, the leading producers in 2008 remain the leading producers today.

All in all, it seems the hype curve significantly lagged the revenue curve during the plunge into the Trough of Disillusionment.

… Which brings us to blockchain technology. Just last month (February 2018), Gartner Analyst John Lovelock stated, “We are in the first phase of blockchain use, what I call the ‘irrational exuberance’ phase.”  The chart below illustrates shows how Gartner sees the “lay of the land” currently:

Blockchain Hype Cycle

This suggests that blockchain is at the Peak of Inflated Expectations, though it appeared ready to jump off a cliff into the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s 2017 report for emerging technologies. (It wasn’t anywhere on Gartner’s radar before 2016.)

Notably, cryptocurrencies first appeared in 2014, just past the peak of the cycle, even though the first Bitcoin network was established in 2009. Blockchain is the distributed ledger which underpins cryptocurrencies and was invented at the same time.

It’s also interesting that Gartner doesn’t foresee mainstream adoption of blockchain for another 5 to 10 years. Lovelock reiterated that point in February, reporting that “Gartner does not expect large returns on blockchain until 2025.”

All the same, blockchain seems to be progressing through the curve at three times the pace of cloud computing. If cloud computing’s history is any guide, blockchain provider revenues are poised to outperform the hype curve and multiply into some truly serious money during the next five years.

It’s reasonable to think that blockchain has been passing through a phase of “irrational exuberance” lately, but it’s equally reasonable to believe that industry experts are overly cautious and a bit late to the table.

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So that’s one specialist’s view.  What are your thoughts on where we are with blockchain technology? Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Are wearable devices wearing out their welcome?

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So-called “wearable” interactive devices – products like Fitbit and Apple Watch – aren’t exactly new. In some cases, they’ve been in the market in a pretty big way for several years now.  Plenty of them are being produced and are readily available from popular retailers.

And plenty of consumers have tried them, too. Forrester Research has found that about one in five U.S. consumers (~21%) used some form of wearable product in 2015.

That sounds pretty decent … until you discover that in similar consumer research conducted this year, the percentage of consumers who use wearables has actually declined to ~14%.

The findings are part of Forrester’s annual State of Consumers & Technology Benchmark research. The research involves online surveys of a large group of ~60,000 U.S. adults age 18 and over, as well as an additional 6,000 Canadian respondents.

Not surprisingly, the demographic group most likely to be users of wearables are Gen Y’ers – people ages 28 to 36 years old. Within this group, about three-fourths report that they have ever used a wearable device … but only ~28% report that they are using one or more this year.

Forrester’s research found the same trend in Gen Z (respondents between 18 and 27 years old), where ~26% have used wearable devices in the past, but only ~15% are doing so currently.

The question is … does this mean that wearables are merely a passing fad? Or is it more a situation where the wearable technology isn’t delivering on consumer expectations?

The Forrester research points to the latter explanation. Gina Fleming, leader of Forrester’s marketing data science work team, put it this way:

“Younger consumers tend to have the highest expectations for technology and for companies. They tried these devices, and oftentimes it didn’t meet their expectations in their current use case.  Young consumers tend to be early adopters, but are also fast to move on if they’re not satisfied.”

One interesting finding of the survey is that among the older cohorts – respondents over the age of 36 – their usage has increased in the past year rather than decreased as was found with younger respondents.

Among the respondents who currently use at least one wearable device, there are no real surprises in which ones are the most popular, with Fitbit and Apple Watch heading the list:

  • Fitbit: Used by ~40% of all current wearable device users
  • Apple Watch: ~32%
  • Samsung Galaxy Gear: ~27%
  • Microsoft Band: ~21%
  • Sony SmartBand: ~19%
  • Pebble Smart Watch: ~17%

Looking to the future, although marketers of wearable devices might be happy to see positive trends among older consumers, the usage levels in broad terms tend to be significantly lower than with younger consumers.

It’s within that younger group where the high degree of “churn” appears to offer the biggest opportunities – as well as risks – for wearable device purveyors.

What about your own personal experiences with wearables? Have you found yourself using wearable devices less today than a year ago?  And if so, why?

Social media and marketing: Is the honeymoon over?

social mediaIt’s no secret that companies large and small have been putting significant energy into social media marketing and networking in recent years.

It’s happened for a variety of reasons – not least as a defensive strategy to keep from losing out over competitors who might be quicker to adopt social media strategies and leverage them for their business.

And yet …

Now that the businesses have a good half-decade of social media marketing under their belt, it’s pretty safe to say that social tactics aren’t very meaningful sales drivers.

That’s not just me talking.  It’s also Forrester Research, which as far back as 2011 and 2012 concluded this after analyzing the primary sales drivers for e-commerce.  Forrester found that less than 1% was driven by social media.

And in subsequent years, it’s gotten no better.

A case in point:  IBM Smarter Commerce, which tracks sales generated by 500 leading retail sites, has reported that Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter combined represent less than 0.5% of the sales generated on Black Friday in the United States.

Those dismal results aren’t to say that social media doesn’t have its benefits.  Generating “buzz” and building social influence certainly have their place and value.

But considering what some businesses have put into social media in terms of their MarComm resources, a channel that contributes less than 1% of sales revenues seems like a pretty paltry result – and very likely a negative ROI, too.

Going forward, it would seem that more companies should pursue social media marketing less out of a fear of losing out to competitors, and more based on whether it proves itself as an effective marketing tactic for them.

Consider the points listed below.  They’ve been true all along, but they’re becoming even more apparent with the passage of time:

1.  Buying “likes” isn’t worth much beyond the most basic tactical “bragging rights” aspects, because “likes” have little intrinsic value and can’t be tied directly to an increased revenue stream.

2.  A great social media presence doesn’t trump having good products and service; even dynamite social media can’t camouflage shortcomings of this kind for long.

3.  Audiences tend to “discount” the value of content that comes directly from a company.  This means publishing compelling content that clears that hurdle requires more skill and expertise than many companies have been willing to allocate to social media content creation.

Calibrating the way they look at social media is the first step companies can take to establish the correct balance between social media marketing activities and expected results.  Instead of treating social media as the connection with customers, view it as a tool to connect with customers.

It’s really just a new link in the same chain of engagement that successful companies have forged with their customers for decades.  In working with my clients, I’ve seen this scenario play out the same basic way time and again; it matters very little what type of business or markets they serve.

What about you?  Have your social media experiences been similar to this — or different?  I welcome hearing your perspectives.

A Bombshell Forrester Finding? Brands are Wasting Time and Money on Facebook and Twitter

Forrester logo

This past week, marketing research firm Forrester published a new analytical report titled “Social Relationship Strategies that Work.”

The bottom-line conclusion of this report is that brand marketers are generally wasting their time and money focusing on social platforms that don’t provide either the extensive reach or the proper context for valuable interactions with customers and prospects.

In particular, Forrester’s research has determined that Facebook and Twitter posts from top brands are reaching only about 2% of their followers.

Engagement is far worse than even that:  A miniscule 0.07% of followers are actually interacting with those posts.

Much has been made of Facebook’s recent decision to reduce free-traffic posts on newsfeeds in favor of promoted (paid) posts.  But Forrester’s figures suggest that the lack of engagement on social platforms is about far more than just the reduction in non-promoted posts.

Nate Elliott Forrester
Nate Elliott

Nate Elliott, a Forrester vice president and principal analyst, believes that brand managers need to make major changes in how they’re going about marketing in the social sphere.  He notes:

“It’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t offer the relationships that marketing leaders crave.  Yet most brands still use these sites as the centerpiece of their social efforts, thereby wasting significant financial, technological and human resources on social networks that don’t deliver value.”

With Twitter and Facebook being such spectacular duds when it comes to social platforms, what does Forrester recommend that brand marketers do instead?

One option is to develop proprietary “branded communities” where fans can hang out in zones where brands can be their own traffic cops, instead of relying on a giant social platform to do the work (or not do the work) for them.

e-mailEven better is to return to greater reliance on an old standby tactic: e-mail marketing.

If this seems like “back to the future,” Forrester’s Elliott reminds us how e-mail can work quite elegantly as the centerpiece of a brand’s social marketing effort:

“Your e-mails get delivered more than 90% of the time, while your Facebook posts get delivered 2% of the time — and no one’s looking over your shoulder telling you what you can and can’t say in your e-mails.  If you have to choose between adding a subscriber to your e-mail list and gaining a new Facebook fan, go for e-mail every time.”

I can’t say that I disagree with Nate Elliott’s position.

Now it’s time to hear from the rest of you marketing professionals.  How successful have you been in building engagement on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn?  Have your efforts in social paid off as well as in your e-mail marketing initiatives?  Let us know.

Consumers complain about marketing-oriented e-mails — yet they still read them.

e-mail ambivalenceFace it, there are always going to be complaints about marketing-oriented e-mails. Just as in the “bad-old-days” of junk postal mail, consumers are conditioned to pass negative judgment on the volume of promotional-oriented e-mails that flood their inboxes.

True to form, according to a new study by global business, technology and marketing advisory firm Forrester Research, consumer attitudes about e-mail marketing are pretty negative.

Here’s what a sampling of U.S. respondents age 18 or older reported on the “minus” side of the ledger:

  • I delete most e-mail advertising without reading it: ~42% of respondents reported
  • I receive too many e-mail offers and promotions: ~39%
  • There’s nothing of interest: ~38%
  • I have unsubscribe from unsolicited lists: ~37%
  • I wonder how companies get my e-mail address: ~29%
  • It’s difficult to unsubscribe from e-lists: ~24%

There’s far less to show on the “plus” side:

  • It’s a great way to discover new products and promotions: ~24% of respondents reported
  • I read e-mails “just in case”: ~19%
  • I forward marketing e-mails to friends sometimes: ~12%
  • I purchase items advertised through e-mail: ~7%

I wasn’t surprised at all by these finds.

What’s interesting, however, is that the attitudes of consumers are actually trending a bit better than they were in previous Forrester field studies.

Specifically, respondents exhibited improved attitudes in the following areas:

  • Fewer respondents are deleting most marketing-oriented e-mail promos without reading them (~42% vs. ~44% in 2012 and ~59% in 2010).
  • Fewer respondents report that marketing e-mails offer “nothing of interest” (~38% vs. ~41% in 2012).

The percentages are also slightly better for the consumers today who consider e-mails as a good way to discover new products and promotions.  Additionally, the percentages are lower on complaints about receiving too many e-mail offers.

The bottom line on these results:  It looks as if consumers have come to terms with the pluses and minuses of e-mail marketing. As they once did with postal mail, they recognize the negative attributes as a fact of life — something that just “comes with the territory” for anyone who is online.

Click here to view summary highlights from the Forrester study, or here to purchase the full report.

Less is less? What’s happening with customer loyalty programs.

CustomersWhen it comes to customer loyalty programs, here’s a sobering statistic: Only about 15% of consumers redeem loyalty rewards.

This finding comes from a report by Forrester Research, based on results from an in-depth survey it conducted last fall of 50 member companies of Loyalty360, a major loyalty marketing association.

What Forrester found is that fewer than half of the surveyed companies’ customers are enrolled in their loyalty programs. And of those customers, only about 35% of them are actually redeeming their loyalty awards.

Hence the 15% “effective” participation rate.

At first blush, the paltry participation makes one wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to loyalty marketing.  But more than half of the companies surveyed by Forrester reported that they view their loyalty program as a strategic priority, not merely a marketing afterthought..

Clearly, there seems to be a bit of a “disconnect” between those lofty aims and the not-so-airborne reality. The question is how companies can encourage greater participation in their loyalty programs, thereby using them to improve consumer brand loyalty in addition to retaining customers over time.

Forrester offered several recommendations in its report:

1. Use advances in analytics to act on customer insights, rather than just relying on the purchase transactional history of loyalty program members. 

2. Balance the “reward mix” with personalized offers that present rewards program customers with unique experiences that are different from simply offering “more of the same.” (In many cases, offering discounts on more of the same merchandise a customer has already purchased won’t qualify as anything particularly special.) 

3. Break out from the traditional e-mail/web portal/call center communication vehicles to embrace more social media channels featuring two-way interaction. (Surprisingly, only about half of Forrester’s survey respondents reported that social media is an important part of their loyalty programs’ methods of communication.)

Speaking personally, I’m not particularly surprised at the relatively low engagement levels reported in this study. Many companies and brands have reached out to me over the years with offers to join loyalty programs, using various incentives – often purchase discounts or sign-on points as an incentive for joining.

apathyFor me, it’s a matter of “time” and “mindshare” as to which of these programs qualify for my participation. If a brand isn’t that important to me in terms of how I live my daily life, it – and its loyalty program – isn’t ever going to be big on my radar screen.

I suspect there are quite a few other consumers like me. But if you have different take, leave a comment and share your perspective with other readers.

 

Amazon continues to push the envelope … while pushing books right off the table.

Amazon Kindle continues to push the envelope in book publishingIt’s hard to deny that the growth and success of Amazon has had a huge impact on the book industry. The liquidation of Borders Books is just the latest evidence of that.

But other market moves by Amazon demonstrate that the company has set its sights on far more than just owning the traditional retail book and recorded music segments. The introduction of the Kindle e-reader and release of subsequent newer, cheaper models proves that Amazon seeks to dominate the “information” space no matter what form it takes.

Two recent developments show how this is continuing to happen. First, the company announced that it is launching a new public-library feature that gives the Kindle the same library-borrowing abilities as competing e-reader devices like the Nook offer.

Public libraries have taken notice of the announcement, because Kindle so dominates the e-reader market. According to Forrester Research, an estimated 7.5 million Kindles are being used in America; that’s about two-thirds of all e-readers in the country.

Already, large public library systems such as those in Chicago and New York offer free digital-book lending. A trip to the library is not needed. Instead, patrons simply use their library card ID numbers to download books from the library’s website.

As with conventional “paper and glue” books (I love that new term!), there are “lending periods” for e-books usually ranging 2-3 weeks. Libraries purchase the e-books from publishers as they do bound books, and only one borrower can check out an e-title at a time.

How are Amazon’s latest e-lending developments affecting book publishers? For one thing, e-books never wear out, which means publishers (and authors) can’t benefit from reorders of popular titles due to book wear. Partially for this reason, several major publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Macmillan don’t sell their digital works to libraries … yet.

Adam Rothberg, senior vice president and director of corporate communications at Simon & Schuster, commented, “We value libraries for their work of encouraging literacy and the habit of reading, but we haven’t yet found a business model we’re comfortable with.”

Another publisher, HarperCollins, decided to set a checkout limit for each title of 26 times, after which a library would need to repurchase the book in order to continue lending it out.

Not surprisingly, that policy has been greeted with hoots and catcalls by the library industry.

Regardless of the selling policies under consideration, one wonders how much longer the major publishers can continue to hold out, as the entry of market-dominant Kindle should significantly raise consumer demand for library e-titles.

And in another move that is sure to shake up another segment of the book world – educational textbooks – Amazon announced several weeks ago that it has opened up a “textbook store” for the Kindle platform. That store is already offering thousands of textbook titles for rental, with many more in the offing.

Here’s how it works: Amazon will allow buyers to acquire textbooks at a deep-discount off of the standard print pricing. The charge will be based on the amount of time the student plans to hold the book – with a minimum rental period of 30 days (which can be extended, if desired).

And to further sweeten the pot, borrowers will be able to access any “notes” and “highlights” they’ve made to their texts even after they’ve “returned” the textbooks.

I’ve blogged before about the college textbook publishing segment — a niche some see as an unholy alliance between book publishers and college bookstores that more resembles a “racket” than a fair business model.

Charging ridiculously high textbook prices along with releasing suspiciously frequent “updated” new editions that change perhaps 2% or less of a book’s content have been all too common.

Moves by Amazon – along with similar programs introduced by smaller providers like Chegg, Inkling and Kno – may finally usher in an end to the indefensibly high prices of textbooks that have long been the bane of students (and their parents). And no one is mourning that.