Kodak Throws Down the Social Media Gauntlet

Over the past few months I’ve been analyzing social media marketing data produced by our alter-ego/partner . One of the industries SocialRep tracks is consumer electronics, which includes endless sub-sectors where pitched battles for the hearts and minds of consumers play out every day. Many companies in this industry have become savvy about social media–few industries attract more online dialog than electronic gadgets–but the tactics companies use to integrate social media with traditional marketing programs varies widely.

One of the more interesting battles has been playing out in the pocket video market, where the Flip made a splash three years ago introducing a tiny video cam with no tape, just memory, and they dominated the competitive share of voice in online dialog for that sector ever since. What made this remarkable was that Flip’s maker, PureDigital, was an upstart, and they caught the industry heavy-weights flat-footed. Sony, JVC, RCA and other household brands were slow to respond until the brush fire started by PureDigital became a serious sector of the video market.

If it looked like the Flip came out of nowhere, in a way it did. PureDigital had been making cheap disposable video cameras for sale in CVS Pharmacy, and they anticipated market demand for a reusable version–a cheap video camera that would slip in your pocket. At the time, interest in YouTube was exploding, but the big handycam players were still focused on big and expensive cameras–at least, big and expensive compared to the Flip pocket cam. The tradeoff with pocket cams, of course, is quality; a tiny camera forces lots of compromises. But if you’re creating short video for sharing online, you can afford a drop in quality that no one will notice on the Web. And the opportunity to capture candid moments they’d never haul out a standard video camera to film caught the imagination of web-savvy consumers.

In time, competitors joined the fray. Creative Labs, the prolific engineers that produced the Sound Blaster and essentially invented MP3 players, outdid the Flip with a smaller camera called the Vado that went head-to-head on features and quality. Kodak appeared with their own version, the zi6, and took an interesting niche approach by creating a ruggedized version targeting the travel market. Sony came out with the Webbie, and Samsung and RCA weighed in as well.


So now you have the typical consumer electronics market dynamic: a number of players, each kicking and scratching for a foothold based on features and price. With each successive release of an updated model–which seems to be at a pace averaging two releases per company, per year–the competitors up the ante in one way or another. One company comes out with an 8GB camera, another comes out with a higher quality lens. In this way, the market slowly ratchets forward, with each competitor leveraging an incremental advance on features, quality or price. It’s a Kabuki dance that plays out the same away all across the industry. That is, until now.

If you carefully track the social media conversations about pocket video cameras, you eventually wind up with a comprehensive list of all the features people care about. Not everyone cares about the same features–some want better audio features, some want better editing software, some want higher video resolution–and the wish extends down to special features that vary among the different categories of users and their intended applications for the camera. As each new release of a product comes to market, you can track which features get checked off with a cheer, or with a groan when one contingent’s favored feature doesn’t get upgraded. This is one of the great promises of social media–listening to consumers to plan and build better products.

It turns out, Kodak was listening as well. Kodak’s CMO, Jeff Hayzlett, has been both celebrated and bashed for his approach to marketing, which includes a heavy dose of social media. Kodak is all over Facebook and Twitter–they’re just winding up a contest on Twitter to rename their newest camera–and they’re doing all the things social media gurus say a savvy company should. But when they announced the release of their newest camera, they demonstrated that they really had been listening. Instead of making an incremental advance on one or two features to move an inch ahead of the competition, Kodak cleaned up the entire list of every feature consumers had mentioned online on their wish lists. In one go. And it was uncanny. As I went back through the SocialRep data looking at the features consumers had discussed over the past 6 months, it was obvious Kodak had created the same list, and used it as a product roadmap for the Kodak zi8.

So this will be an interesting case study.

The zi8 was announced a few weeks ago, and the response to the announcement among the gadget analysts was almost apoplectic. Everyone cheered. When the advance models went out to reviewers, you could see the dialog shift ever so slightly. “Sure, it’s 1080p resolution, but how much difference does that really make? Tough crowd, but of course, reviewers need something to complain about. The real question will be how consumers respond when the camera rolls out next month–no word on Amazon pre sales yet–and what that says about social media as a marketing tool.

Will Kodak displace the Flip in competitive share of voice? (A “forensic” analysis of Flip’s marketing tactics and how Kodak’s tactics compare is an entirely different topic, but one I’ve been tracking as well for a social media case study.) There are so many angles to look at now that there’s a clear case of a company leveraging social media to tune product development. Clearly, the market has been recalibrated for pocket video cameras–every player will now have to approach parity with Kodak in features sooner rather than later. But will that kind of development acceleration across the market help Kodak? It will certainly shift the focus of development to a new set of features next year, which could give Kodak an edge as they look ahead while all their competitors focus on playing catch-up. But do they have a vision for where to take the market now that consumer’s baseline ideals have been answered?

Needless to say, I’ll be continuing to watch this play out, and watching more of the data as the story unfolds. I’m hoping maybe I can draw my friends Jonathan Knowles and Victor Cook into the discussion to parse some of the competitive market share data.

Disclosure: SocialRep is a MotiveLab partner, and provides social media intelligence software to Creative Labs.
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  1. Been enjoying your revived posts Chris. Looks like your off-the-grid time got you some Zen insight points.

    As an employee of the big company across the street from Kodak, this certainly interests me. One thing that I wonder about though, is that social media may allow unwary companies become too customer-driven. When you say things like “cleaned up the entire list” it worries me as an engineer. Perhaps this case was the weird exception, but in general, the design tradeoffs in engineering, not to mention plain old design conceptual integrity and aesthetics, will rarely let a good product be totally driven by customer expectation.

    The challenge for companies will be to take the voice of the customer and add that high concept design insight that pulls enough together in a beautiful way to move the needle of expectations to the next level.

    And yeah, you’re right. A sure sign that your strategy is working is that your best customers start grumbling about the next generation of features 🙂

  2. Hi Venkat! Thanks for the kind words–that’s high praise coming from someone as thoughtful and prolific as you are. 🙂

    You’ve invoked one of the classic dichotomies of corporate strategy–what the ivory tower marketing geeks talk about as the difference between Market Leading and Market Following strategies. Market followers don’t innovate, they just follow customer demand. Market Leaders innovate and show customers what’s possible. Apple is a clear market leader, with a gift for showing us more than we imagine–but how many Apples are there in the world? Not many. It’s much safer, and much easier to be a market follower and try to scrape profits out of efficiently meeting customer demands, and I have no doubt that many companies will use social media for exactly that purpose–ie: they’re not as interested in connecting with their customers as they are squeezing an efficient profit out of a target segment. But I think social media provides an opportunity for more companies to be innovators, simply by participating more meaningfully in the communities that sustain them. If you understand the real needs of the community because your a participant, and not a detached observer looking at “profiles” and “needs” through the microscope of focus groups, I think you have a much better shot at anticipating innovation opportunities beyond the stated wish lists of your customers. But then, I’m an optimist. 🙂

  3. Well, in the innovation ivory tower, the distinction is between “sustaining” and “disruptive” rather than “leading” and “following.”

    The key to doing that actually has less to do with social media and more to do with selective listening. Do you listen to your most demanding core customers or to your peripheral customers who are hacking and improvising new uses for your stuff? Disruption theory argues that you should listen/watch at the periphery, not the core, for leadership opportunities, because the core is a rat race.

    I’d be interested in your take on my recent piece on innovation vs. marketing views of the world.

  4. That’s why I need to have more conversations with you. You remind me of the time I was researching goal theory many years ago. I found 6 or 7 areas of academic discipline that were all in some way plumbing the depths of how intentions are formed into actions–including everything from human psychology to artificial intelligence. Each had developed their own taxonomy and were pursuing their own paths of inquiry, with no apparent awareness of the cross-over and duplication of research with other disciplines. Every once in a while I’d run across someone like Martin Ford, who had prairie-dogged above the isolated cubicles and looked out across the landscape of research to pull some threads together, but for the most part, people are content to labor in their own domain.

    My only counter argument to disruption theory is that everyone in business wants to be the innovator because the remarkable success stories are always about innovators. It’s a much more interesting story, and much more highly rewarded, than just making a solid product that people want. But that rat race at the core is still a huge business opportunity, if you take the time to get it right. In that sense, I think it’s as much about listening as it is about having a masterful response to what you hear–whether you’re listening at the periphery in order to innovate, or whether you’re listening at the core in order to sustain. I’ll have an update on that with regard to Kodak today.

    I’ll respond to your innovation vs. marketing post on your site.

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