Tech news is dominated by new products, not customer needs. Customers need balance

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko March 14, 2018
What passes as tech news has devolved to little more than product spec releases. That's no use to the informed buyer. Here's why.

frustrated buyer
Those who write or actively consume technology media are keenly aware that the ‘news’ is dominated by product releases and corporate announcements. It seems natural since the word 'news' is the plural of ‘new’ and derives from the Latin for ‘new things.’ So, what is newsworthy is what those creating new tech-related things decide to announce. However, we’re so immersed in the technology milieu that, like Plato’s cave dwellers, it’s hard to see a reality beyond the news cycle. Indeed, I didn’t internalize our collective news myopia until a tech colleague’s Tweet raised a great question (emphasis added).

Did you ever notice that press articles covering enterprise tech are mostly about what vendors offer and very rarely about what customers want but don't get? Why? And how does it impact the perception of what is real and what's just an opinion?

I’m unclear whether this was a rhetorical question since the author, a Red Hat GM and former Gartner analyst has plenty of experience with the tech news cycle. However I provided the glib, and obvious reply,

Simple: PR feeds the news cycle.

On reflection, the issue deserves a more thoughtful response on why the voice of customers is less frequently heard and why the most successful companies do solicit and incorporate customer feedback, even though it’s seldom publicized.

The problem of product journalism

The preponderance of product reporting isn’t new, nor are the critiques. Tom Foremski, an astute observer of tech media and Silicon Valley culture, has repeatedly decried the myopia of tech reporting for at least five years. In one of his earliest blogs on the topic, Foremski nails a problem that, if anything has only gotten worse (emphasis added),

Tech journalism has become tedious product journalism where printing the spec sheets for mass produced consumer products is celebrated as a great story and where there appears to be little understanding of bigger picture stories about how our digital technologies are transforming our industries, cities, and our societies, at a pace and scale that's never been seen in our history.

It's easy to understand the appeal and seeming necessity of announcement-driven reporting. One look at a PR news wire shows there are at least a thousand releases each weekday just about business technology. The steady flow provides ample material that can be easily reconstituted into clickable news blurbs.

While Foremski rightly blames companies for press releases that are often little more than product spec sheets, he also notes that the changing (at the time, but now a fait accompli) economics of the news business necessitates a steady stream of short articles with catchy, suitably ambiguous headlines guaranteed to garner page views.

In another blog, he rightly notes that the annual CES gadget extravaganza epitomizes the problem: an oversaturated event in which the coverage has devolved into a cesspool of spec sheets, product photos and first impressions. Foremski also references a scathing blog by Dave Winer that similarly decries the herd behavior rampant in tech journalism in which Winer writes,

The biggest most obvious truth is that most of them are lazy and report the same story everyone else does. They wait for the press release. How can you tell? Just watch the river (of news). It's amazing how a story "breaks" across all the different tech pubs at the same time. There are only a handful of publications that do real reporting. Most of what we get are repurposed press releases.

Note that each of these critiques is at least three years old, but almost nothing has changed. Sites like diginomica have arisen to provide analysis and customer context, peppered with stories about the application of technology by walking, talking customers, but we’re still the exception.

One reason is that such stories take time for research and reflection, meaning it's 'old news' by the time you publish. Readers with shorter and shorter attention spans are unlikely to take a second look, which is devastating to an ad-supported business where money follows eyeballs and eyeballs are attracted to shiny new objects. (Ed's note: thankfully that's not the case for diginomica as we have a very different model.)

The profit motive, not novelty drives business: both buyers and sellers

Implicit in the Twitter question is the premise that vendors aren't supplying products with the features customers want and that ultimately don't solve pressing problems. There are plenty of examples of this in consumer technology such as the thousands of almost indistinguishable gadgets at CES whose sole purpose seems to throw technology against the wall to see what sticks.

In contrast, business buyers tend to be more rational, ostensibly basing decisions on ROI analysis, strategic fit, vendor responsiveness and other factors that can be objectively documented and compared. Thus, business customers are less likely to be enamored with what's new and more concerned with how something (new or old) works within the context of its broader technology environment and can be used to solve problems or improve results.

That's not to say customers are immune from the buzzword bingo promulgated first by attention (and dollar)hungry anal-ysts, keen to pimp the latest hotness, nor the lazy media attention that surely follows. But then the diginomica team have yet to hear a CXO pitch up at an event asking: "Heh - sell me some AI/blockchain (name your favorite tech buzzword du jour here.)" It just doesn't happen.

Hence, the need for articles providing background, analysis, use cases and case studies, not spec sheets.

I'd argue that the best vendors do something similar internally to ensure that they continue to meet their customers' needs and don't get blindsided by competitors, with AWS being a prime example. I have been critical of AWS for a proliferation of often overlapping or niche services that have led to such a complicated portfolio that it's hard to know which to use in a particular case. However, the company has good reasons for each addition, which given Amazon’s analytics-driven strategy, are backed by solid data.

Like its parent, AWS is in tune with its customers' wants and needs better than most and as CEO Andy Jassy emphasized at re:Invent 2017, at this stage of the cloud's evolution, customers don't want to compromise. Customers expect, and shouldn't have to settle for less than everything, meaning that AWS had good, quantifiable reasons for each of the 1,300 new and updated services it announced.

Thus, one could argue that reporting on new AWS features did reflect "what customers want" and "what is real", i.e. that customers are anxiously waiting to implement. Indeed, whether it’s Disney or Boeing (just look at how many times the word “customer” appears in this quarterly report), there’s a strong argument that the best companies are those most in touch with and responsive to their customers’ needs.

My take

The best, most successful vendors offer solutions that primarily reflect what customers want.

However, the trick for those in dynamic, technology-centric industries is ensuring that they address both current and future needs.

Since predicting the future is intrinsically imperfect, the second part is where there can be real and perceived disconnects between customers and vendors. Indeed, sometimes customers don't realize that there is a technological solution for a problem, which forces vendors into pulling a hat-trick of invention, education and adaptation.

One way of creating tighter bonds between customer requirements and vendor products is through active customer advocacy marketing that both provides valuable product intelligence and builds customer loyalty.

Unfortunately for readers, the findings and outcomes of such efforts are of sufficient commercial value that many vendors and their customers are loath to share details. Such secrecy also perpetuates the information gap that fuels suspicions that vendors aren't developing products people actually want to buy.

There's no pat solution to this paradox, although it is unfortunate that more customers fail to recognize that when they are leading the charge in technology that works, others will find it almost impossible to keep up. That's because those customers are almost always focused on where the puck will be, not where it's at today. Therefore, there is little real commercial advantage in staying silent.

In the meantime, vendors should see the marketing and competitive benefits of sharing customer research, case studies and roadmaps with folks like ourselves. That takes time to both study and contextualize them for a broader audience. But the results are almost always stellar. That's why we strive for at least one customer based story each day.

What do you think? Has tech news become a feature/function spec sheet swamp? How can we do better?