Mark Henricks 27 Mar 2019 // 3:26AM GMT
When introducing groundbreaking technology, communicators may struggle to highlight possibilities while also managing expectations. Targeting messages somewhere between over-hyped, under-delivered vaporware and ahead-of-their-time solutions in search of a problem, communicators must strive to connect what consumers hear with the reality they can expect from innovative products and services.
One of the most challenging examples of this will play out as technologists address the needs of the aging Baby Boomers, says Shelley Risk, senior vice president and general manager of The Bulleit Group. “We’ve realized as an agency that because there is this oncoming silver tsunami megatrend, this is really a space that we should be taking a closer look at how people communicate about innovation,” Risk says.
Even Boomers comfortable with 21st Century phenomena such as social media and ride-sharing may be unsettled by some of what Risk foresees. From robotic caregivers and injections that destroy “zombie cells” causing osteoarthritis to slim-profiled adult incontinency products and daily anti-aging pills, she anticipates Boomer-targeted products and services that will have communicators digging deep to find effective messages.
It’s essential work, in Risk’s view. “There’s a lot of education that still needs to be done for the general public because a lot of this has only existed in science fiction novels to date,” she notes. “Think of Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' and re-animating life — that’s what’s in people’s minds.”
“We’re really seeing for the first time in our history that longevity research is reaching a point where it’s being taken seriously,” Risk continues. “It’s no longer part of a science fiction novel.” But making consumers take it seriously, without expecting more than it can deliver, is a different matter, she adds.
Her touchstones in this work consist of emphasizing benefits to the consumer over futuristic-sounding features, and simultaneously dialing back unrealistic expectations. For instance, she says, “the goal with longevity research is not to make folks live 150 to 200 years old. It’s to improve healthy lifespans and to prevent some of the diseases associated with aging.”
AI In Financial Information
The financial industry may not be tech-shy, but its members are famously skeptical. That’s why Chaim Haas, Bloomberg’s head of innovation communication emphasizes transparency as well as benefits when talking about the company’s artificial intelligence-driven information products.
“We use a lot of machine learning and natural language processing to understand the information that’s coming through,” Haas explains. This may include automating tasks, such as automating the writing of news stories about a company's earnings, previously exclusively handled by human reporters.
“How do you convince somebody that the decisions the machine is making are good decisions?” Haas asks. “We talk a lot about transparency when it comes to machine learning algorithms and understanding why the machine made the decision it did.”
Transparency pushes back against distrust of artificial intelligence seeded by science fiction, Haas says. “Somebody thinks of AI and they think of Skynet in the Terminator movies or HAL in 2001,” he notes. One clarification that helps is explaining that Bloomberg’s AI systems are human-assisted, not truly self-thinking machines.
A lot of this has only existed in science fiction novels to date
Haas also recommends giving influencers first-hand experience with technology. When automotive reporters actually go for rides in self-driving cars, he notes, it beats any number of briefings. “Part of it is making the introduction of that technology available as widely as possible so people can experience it, thereby overcoming the fear and uncertainty about the technology,” he says.
General Technology Markets
Focusing on user benefits of new technology is vital, agrees Paige Young, vice president of communications at Zendesk. But to do that well, communicators must architect intentional narratives that engage the right audience with the right information at the right time, she says.
“A big part of this is understanding the target audience at a deep level,” Young says. “All customers are not the same and by understanding the unique profile, behaviors and habits of the various groups within the target audience, communications and marketing professionals can be incredibly targeted with their messages.”
While endorsing transparency, Young adds that communicators should prepare for unintentional transparency. “It's also worth noting that it's hard to keep new consumer tech under wraps and we've all watched new products get leaked early and then companies are often caught on their back foot, reacting to a leak and then trying to reset expectations or frame the narrative after,” she says. “It pays to develop an integrated and proactive strategy first.”
Finally, Young warns against vaporware as an unintended byproduct of transparency. “While many consumers appreciate being brought along a journey prior to launch, companies can quickly lose their interest if the technology is not delivered on-time or with the full range of capabilities initially promised,” she says.
Realism and Courage
Toughness is another useful trait for a communicator tasked with introducing new technology, says Erin Gleason, vice president of communications for the tech-focused Founders Fund venture capital organization. “Communicators can make the mistake of ignoring thorny issues rather than tackling them head on,” she warns. “If you can't answer the tough questions about your company, you leave the media to speculate and the resulting coverage is likely to be far less favorable.”
When crafting messages, choose realistic and concrete language, Gleason advises. “Avoid trite phrases like ‘changing the world’ and ‘disrupting the industry’ and speak specifically about how your product will help people,” she urges.
But don’t worry about whether your message will affect whether a product is perceived as ahead of its time. Instead, pick good products. “As a communicator, your job will be much easier if you're pitching a product that addresses a real proven need or pain point rather than an interesting idea in search of a market,” Gleason says. “Truly valuable technologies don't fail because of timing.”
The Biggest Challenge
If you want to watch how tech-phobic consumers are about truly unimaginable technologies, Risk recommends again that communicators should keep an eye on the emerging market for senior-focused innovations. “This has been an ignored space,” she says. “It’s not as sexy to talk about incontinence or age-related diseases as ride-sharing or the gig economy, but it’s far more important.”
And there’s more than just the aging Boomer market at stake, as large, affluent and underserved a market as that may be. “The technologies being worked for in this space are going to have an impact for the people who are using ride-sharing and the gig economy when they get older,” Risk reminds.
Companies can lose their interest if technology is not delivered on-time or with the full range of capabilities
Even today, younger generations like Millennials can be immediately affected by senior-targeted technologies. “Caregivers are also a part of this market,” Risk notes. “We need to be talking to people who are a bit younger and looking after their parents as well.”
These veteran technology communicators’ specifications for transparency, market insight, translating benefits, preparing for tough questions and coping with leaks makes getting customers enthused about new technology without over-selling it sound like a 21st Century version of the venerable Whac-a-mole arcade game.
But Risk says a lot of the difficulty can be eased simply by making sure the people bearing the message are themselves deeply familiar with the technology and comfortable with what they’re delivering to society. “As communicators,” she says, “our job is to be ahead of these trends and communicate in such a way that it seems approachable, accessible and not scary to the average person.”
This article is part of a series exploring the topic of innovation in partnership with the Bulleit Group. You can read more from the series here.