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March 16, 2014

Whatever Happened To The Big Technology PR Launch?

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs introduces the iPad 2 on stage during an Apple event in San FranciscoSome former colleagues in tech PR and I were talking recently about the “good old days” when nearly every tech launch included a splashy press conference. Maybe it wasn’t as theatrical as Steve Jobs taking the stage at MacWorld, but it was entertainment, complete with a dramatic unveil, executive presentations, and striking models who would help demo some kind of sexy new hardware.

Today, not so much. Oh, there are still the big, newsmaking CES press conferences and presentations, but even for those, media attend in assembly-line fashion, live blog the product specs, and move on to the next session. Few are standouts. Some of the most exciting launches at this year’s CES were either leaked in advance or launched through influencer outreach.

In my book, that’s a good thing. Lavish press conferences – and the pressure to fill seats with journalists, regardless of quality or commitment to the story – have always struck me as a lazy strategy. But launches have evolved, and there are learnings for PR professionals and communicators.

So, what’s different?

Media have changed, for one. They don’t rush as readily to a hotel room or auditorium to cover every new iteration of a smartphone or Fitbit. There are fewer working journalists to cover this kind of thing, and product reviews are produced by a handful of writers whose work is syndicated. The PR strategy for a new technology product needs to cater to journalists’ needs and most of all, show relevance.

Software trumps hardware. The more exciting innovations tend to be those that are less tangible and visual, which can make a dramatic unveil tricky. Google Glass notwithstanding, most of the attention is on newer technologies with a high cool factor or disruption potential but no actual manufactured product. As Yiren Lu points out in a fascinating New York Times piece about the gulf between the Silicon Valley old guard and the startup culture, legacy CE and enterprise companies are less interesting than the guy who might be the next Uber.

For PR and communications practitioners, it means the strategy needs to be developed earlier and it has to work smarter to create exposure among influencers like analysts and early adopters, not just traditional journalists.

Innovation isn’t what it used to be. Sometimes it seems there are fewer groundbreaking product launches because there are fewer groundbreaking products. Remember the iPad launch? That’s right, four years is a long time. Not every new product warrants a press conference or the hyperbolic claims that match, and that means it’s up to us to set client expectations accordingly.

Startup culture rules. Some “old-guard” companies like Apple and Google still command attention and can pack a press room, but today’s media track funders and founders. Early-stage companies, or those who simulate the startup culture, are more likely to win attention for a disruptive app or platform that is based on an idea or a new way of communicating rather than a device or gadget.

Follow the money. When it comes to early-stage businesses, funding is credibility. And some of the money behind those startups is smart enough to know that these companies don’t need six-figure press events to win attention. The unveiling of the product or service isn’t the end of the PR program, it’s the beginning, of course.

Then, the real work begins.

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