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On a typical flight out of SFO, commuters are staring at their devices of choice, reading the latest from Hacker News, TechCrunch and Re/code, while vacationers opt for US Weekly or People Magazine. I’ll come clean — I read Us Weekly in search of ways to understand customers and because I like to find out “who wore it best.” I just don’t do it out in the open, so I can avoid ridicule from fellow commuters.
Silicon Valley has always waged its class wars with discretion. We have an insular view of consumers, and like to build for ourselves. But there is always a lot to learn by watching consumers in the wild and paying close attention to them, even if they are paying closer attention to what celebrities are wearing.
We could learn a lot from pop culture — more than if we only study the new class of Y Combinator startups.
Our industry doesn’t formally recognize a product or marketing concept until we name it. Then it’s worn thin in every garage and conference room in the Bay Area. “Growth hacking.” “lean startup,” and “crowdsourcing” are all the names we’ve applied to concepts that 13-year-old girls have been consuming from pop culture for decades.
Lou Pearlman, the architect of the modern boy-band phenomenon, said it will only recede “when God stops making little girls.” And since that’s not happening anytime soon, we have today’s version, One Direction, straight from the loins of New Kids on the Block, who were themselves preceded by the Monkees, or the old barbershop quartet, for that matter. Each one a finer-tuned derivative of its predecessor. One Direction is probably the most “engineered” band of all time, from birthing on reality TV to having at least one mousily approachable band member (yeah, I’m talking about you, Harry Styles).
Every hip thrust performed at every suburban mall visit is a chance to adjust the act for maximum squeals — the entertainment equivalent of clicks. By the time they become the opening act for the currently peaking act, and then finally headline their own tour, every motion has been tuned for scale. Now layer in the fact that social media acts as an accelerant, since people are much more willing to buy or evangelize a product if they feel like they helped develop and mold it. Before they start a tour, they have millions of followers, all committed to the success of the group. The game is decided at launch — we have a winner.
In practical terms, Simon Cowell probably has more applied experience in growth hacking, lean startups, and crowdsourcing than all of Silicon Valley. As long as there has been demand for pop culture, the entertainment industry has been supplying innovation with speed and maturity beyond the Valley. And it’s all right there in Us Weekly to learn from and apply to software development.
Analogs are important in industry, and they can come from surprising places. When there is demand, it gets filled rationally, even if the need served feels painfully illogical to the Silicon Valley engineer.
Start with at least one mousey band member
Just like the boy band is meticulously optimized before being released at scale, we shouldn’t develop software without applying the learning of others or observed historical patterns.
Don’t be afraid to let the cameras follow you
Stealth products used to be the rage, but putting all your marketing eggs in the launch basket only works for a select few celebrity entrepreneurs. Build up momentum and smooth the rough edges by exposing your product early and often.
Let your “followers” lead
The more engaged users are during development, the more committed they will be to buy. All of the most popular consumer apps at this time are built on the contribution of others, just like all the most popular entertainers. Embrace feedback and be willing to adjust based off it.
In the meantime, we shouldn’t be afraid to study Ryan Seacrest’s body of work, it just means we have to get over the fact that Kim Kardashian is his product, and instead recognize that her “consumers” created her, and are a coveted target segment for software. They demand direct and unvarnished engagement in the development process.
Ironically, the lines are now blurring between technology and entertainment. The same public that brought us Miley Cyrus is now making the tech leader a celebrity. The fact that we all know and covet Steve Jobs, Marissa Mayer, and Mark Zuckerberg, and that they’ve leveraged this celebrity to introduce and market products, is a clear nod to an industry that gets product promotion on a scale well beyond the typical software startup.
We should embrace pop culture, not fight it. Read what your customers read, and don’t be afraid to find inspiration from how others reach them. I’ll continue to read tech blogs, but I’m going to stop strategically placing my Us Weekly back-cover-side-up when I’m at the airport.
Dan Wernikoff leads the $1-plus billion division focused on making Intuit the global operating system for small business. Its products and services include QuickBooks, Payments and the Intuit Partner platform, and serve four million small businesses. Prior to Intuit, he held leadership positions at Charles Schwab, Bank One Corp., First Chicago and First Chicago Capital Markets. Follow him on Twitter @wernikoff.
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