Last month Uber generated world-scale, earth shattering publicity by putting driverless cars on the road in downtown Pittsburgh. They don’t work. They can’t even do a right turn at a junction.
Uber passengers using these cars find themselves Uber Pooling. There’s a human driver at the front who takes the wheel every time the car’s sensors get confused and a software engineer at the back ironing out programme glitches.
But with this carefully structured launch (that currently comprises just four adapted Ford Fusions), Uber has stolen a lead on the driverless car debate. A few years from now, we’ll all be riding driverless cabs and we’ll respect Uber more because they got the ball rolling back in the day.
Jerry Seinfeld used to have a joke about “technology” actually being a word for something that doesn’t work. When tech works it gets a proper name, like a Dyson or an iPhone. The point here is that when innovative companies are inventing new innovative products, everyone’s interested in the potential: they want to know how it’s going to change their lives, not today, but tomorrow.
So many marketers forget this. They forget that great marketing is about educating before selling. They’re scared off when the product people point out early flaws or kinks in a new pilot, or when the first customers don’t respond to a new service as well as expected. When new products are launched and things go wrong the usual response is to shut down promotional launch activities until the product development guys have had a think and turned around a few fixes.
This doesn’t work in today’s world because today’s most useful products are always in perpetual beta. They’re never finished. They’re always evolving. Truly innovative products aren’t failing when they stumble, they’re getting better. Keeping quiet during the highs and lows is a mistake, because sharing the lessons you’re learning nurtures trust and starts to crystallize real needs in the customer’s mindset.
Uber’s driverless taxi might not work today, but promoting the idea is making future customers think. We’re all working out what we might need driverless taxis for, and the more we think about it, the more these needs are defined.
A few months ago, simply not having to actually drive while the car was in motion was the best benefit most of us could come up with for driverless cars. Now we’re starting to realise that if the car doesn’t need a driver, then we could send it on errands while we do something else. Driverless Uber’s could be picking the kids up from school, fetching groceries or delivering our eBay cast-offs. All of this is good for Uber. It crowd sources real expectations and it helps Uber evolve a product that meets real need.
So what has Uber done that most marketers miss?
Positioning has been critical for Uber’s driverless car launch: it’s “a pilot”, “a test”, “a pioneering experiment”. No one cares that it doesn’t work. OK, so most of us might not think that our new products or services are game changers quite on this scale, but the idea of evolving the launch of your new, innovative stuff still sticks.
Launching your new product in “public beta”, will trigger more inquisitiveness in early adopters and make things much easier if things don’t go to plan. There’s probably no point trying to trigger sales with adwords or facebook deals at this stage: that’s only going to disappoint customers when they buy. But going silent in blogs, on social and in the press means sacrificing golden opportunities to educate customers and prep them for what’s coming soon.
And let’s not forget that group of early adopters who did buy your product. A big chunk of them may be disappointed and it’s pretty unlikely that they’re just going to take the experience on the chin and keep schtum. It’s pretty important that these people get something that makes them feel, well – something other that a bit shafted?
Designing products and services that will meet our future needs is exciting because the future is unpredictable. Yet so many tech companies still fail to leverage this excitement. They try to keep pilots, trials and early user experiences secret because they fear they’ll uncover the good, the bad and the ugly. This month Uber showed us all that when you’re brave enough to be open about big, new ideas, most people will ignore the bad and the ugly.