Hype Cycles: Marketers as Coaches, Sherpas, and Therapists

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Hype Cycle Diagram

In the ongoing debate of the value of “traditional publishers” in today’s digital landscape, certain activities in which publishers are engaged — very, very valuable activities — often seem to be overlooked. While the debate centers on the shift to “low cost” digital products (and the resulting move away from physical distribution and account-leverage for merchandising and maximizing physical sales and efficiency via scale), “quieter” activities such as providing advances and applying editorial expertise get swept under the rug. This oversimplification of what is happening finds me incredulous and puzzled. But, that’s just me. (And several others I know.)

This oversimplified view extends to the marketing efforts of publishers — and that’s what I’ll focus on here. Efficacy, ROI, and attribution seek to define the value of marketing efforts (and those of publicity and sales departments, as well). Having been a line marketer as well as a strategic marketer looking at scale, I have a perspective on some of the additional value marketers add above and beyond just growing sales efficiently. Not to say that is not important but there’s simply more to it than that — much more.

I recently came across something called the Hype Cycle, a means of describing technological disruption, adoption, and application. The theory has its roots in the prescient work of economist Carlota Perez and what she referred to as Techno-Economic Paradigm shifts. Basically, and to vastly oversimplify and miss half the point of her work, she sought to describe what happens when a new technology enters the marketplace and, really, the zeitgeist. The Hype Cycle curve is most prominently applied today by Gartner, the technology research and consultancy juggernaut. And they apply Hype Cycles to nearly everything.

I love the framework and wish to apply it to book marketing to get at some of the overlooked work of marketers — and to propose an addition to the cycle. Here’s my prose breakdown of the cycle:

  • Technology Trigger: A new technology launches. Say, Twitter.
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations: As the new tech gains users, publicity, success stories, capital, and more the potential inherent in it — and how paradigm-shifting it will be — begins to be blown out of proportion. “Twitter changes everything.”
  • Trough of Disillusionment: Ha! What a wonderful turn of phrase. As with any false “high,” there is a drop-off. Sudden and often deep. What were we thinking? Not only is this no Panacea, it is so much less than we thought. “Twitter is a useless waste of time.”
  • Slope of Enlightenment: The “Hmmm, maybe there is something here after all” moment. Accompanied with the clear-eyed view that it may not be the case that the technology is fundamentally life-changing but that there is in fact value there. Achievable value, no less. “Maybe this Twitter thing can work for me.”
  • Plateau of Productivity: Adopting the technology and applying it to one’s goals in light of the now-realistic expectations. “Twitter is helping me (now that I know what to do with it and don’t expect the world of it).”

Here’s the drop: every marketer (and publicist) has to manage authors, agents, editors, sales forces, accounts, etc., etc. through these cycles. In addition to developing marketing plans that take advantage of every new opportunity of value and  executing on those plans, they have to convince everyone that what they are doing is wise and coach them through the Hype Cycle. No small feat at all, that.

In my experience as a marketer, there is an additional, currently missing piece of the cycle. Namely, fear. Here’s how I would describe it:

  • Fear: In this context, the notion that the new technology is so huge, complex, and will have such a profound effect on business that it must mean trouble. Do I embrace it? Will I be a lemming? Even if I’m not a lemming, I’ll need to really change how I do things. Will I have time to learn it? To use it? What if I’m no good at it? “Twitter is hard. I don’t want to do it. Do I?”

I see three places on the curve where fear can, and often does, creep in:

Hype Cycle Diagram with Fear

  • “Early Fear”: Basically, as a technology takes off, there are certainly great expectations. But I’ve also seen fear at this point. This was true in, say, the early days of eCommerce. It was great. But…where would it lead? Amazon is the object lesson here for everyone from suppliers (publishers) to consumers (anyone who has turned all of their purchasing data over to Amazon). We’ll stick with Twitter and I’ll get personal: as it was entering the consciousness of everyone (myself included), I was at first dismissive but also worried. How would this apply? If it did, what would it mean? Should I care? I’m a technology-forward marketer. I can only imagine how this might have a hit an author who may be less tech-forward. Not all authors, but many. I would suspect there’d be some background unease at least.
  • “Mid-Point Fear”: As the trough approaches, one has either adopted the technology or not. If one has, this is the moment of feeling afraid that one has wasted time or is continuing to do so instead of doing something else that is “really important.” This is the “oh no” kind of fear and can result in everything from quietly stopping the activity to being angry at having “bought into it all.” I’ve experienced this repeatedly and I suspect other marketers and authors have, as well.
  • “Learning Curve Fear”: As the more realistic view of the technology gradually (or suddenly) seeps in, the fear that one has fallen behind or abandoned something truly valuable sinks in. If I were an author in 2013 and I’m just launching a Twitter profile, I’d be thinking, Man am I behind or what? But, also, I might not be good at this. Or, I have a lot to learn. Or, I’m still not sure this is worth it? And so on…

This would all be merely interesting except that, for book marketers, managing themselves and their stakeholders through the Hype Cycle — now with increasing frequency — is a major aspect of successful publishing. At various points, marketers (and publicists) act as coaches, therapists, sherpas, thought leaders, dissenters, trainers, and so on, making decisions and proffering advice and support as best as they can using what information they have.

This is profound and very difficult. Book marketers should be applauded for how well they do given the number and nature of their stakeholders (he types, not wishing to offend any of those stakeholders). Hype Cycles, the fear they entail, and book marketers’ often successful navigation of choppy tech waters needs to enter the public discourse. I would particularly like to see the megaphone pundit-authors like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, and Tim Ferris admit that this is real and, for most books and authors, a major undertaking. It’s nice to be a digital native with a massive platform and tertiary revenue streams. But most authors are not. Publishers add value — massive value — in not only managing their constituents through these cycles but, more often than not, making the most of the Plateau of Productivity.

I’m very curious to hear what you all think.

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  1. says

    Thanks. That was illuminating, and maps to both personal experience and observable market experience.

    Would add to Fear two other horsemen of technology-driven change: uncertainty and doubt, or FUD as all three are known in tech circles. Believe all three are implicit in the Fear effect as you’ve described it. In years past, FUD was wielded consciously, most famously by Microsoft, who at the peak of their market power could kill a new company’s prospects by announcing vaporware in the same space.

    Of the three, uncertainty is the toughest, because it’s real until it’s not. One can overcome fear, but not uncertainty. Which makes the point of commitment a defining act, whether for a large company, or an author just now realizing a Twitter following is more than a nice-to-have. And early metrics can be helpful but are more often unavailable or useless. Dealing with uncertainty is where instinct, luck, and a willingness to get a toe or more into the water early enough can make all the difference.

    • says

      Thank you, Ron, for the read and great comments. I’d never heard FUD but it’s exactly what I too have observed/experienced and, as you say, what I was contemplating in terms of fear. I like how you break out uncertainty as being the toughest one — especially your observation that it is real until such time as it isn’t. Spot on.

      I’m definitely of the opinion that the willingness to get the toe in the water coupled with the patience to not overreact to early indicators is the optimal approach. Easier said than done, of course. But that’s the goal. To try to be in the right spot at the right time to the best of one’s ability, without compromising one’s focus on current realities that truly matter.

      Thanks again. Great stuff.

  2. Andrew Malkin says

    I agree with Ron’s assertion about the other mental states be it for a publisher or for an author. I immediately thought of enhanced eBooks as I was on too many panels around that theme whether it was with Vook or service provider Aptara or big 6 house, Hachette. That said, when I hear sub models come up, agents or publishers immediately come up with the obstacles or concerns rather than an optimistic view. They prefer to find the problems in a given business model (or see the extra work to clear rights or make the multimedia for enhanced etc).
    All that aside, as I read this I thought more about the publishers that don’t push through their fear and get on the other side of it by participating actively (rather than toe in the water or “test’) to the “Plateau of Productivity”. Mind you they have been burned by distribution platforms that never provided meaningful (or incremental) revenue and more than a few have paid a ton for a title app that never enjoy sales or downloads…Call me cynical but it also reminds me of when I sold Knopf’s list to booksellers. They always remembered their home runs from their lens (ex: Memoirs of a Geisha breakout that required me to drop innumerable ARCs to them and force them to read it!) and always forget their misses or missteps. Or sometimes blame another party. Only human… I just think too many give up while down in the “Trough of Disillusionment”. Hope I am incorrect at least in the days to come.

    • says

      Thanks, Andrew. Wonderful observations, all. It’s always interesting to me how no matter the size of an organization success or “failure” always boils down to very human attributes. I think there i a tendency for a lot of people (certainly for me) to believe that “business” is somehow more “cut and dry” than the “rest of life.” Time and again we see that business has everything to do with people. And people are, as you indicate, just human — subject to over-optimism, fear, doubt, mental paralysis in the face of too much information, lack of focus, unclear goals, subtle pressures to behave irrationally, etc., etc.

      All of which is to say that I couldn’t agree with you more that they key is to not give up during periods of disillusionment. Intentionally deciding to not do something (and accepting the potential of “missing out”) is fine. But just bailing because something is difficult or intimidating or doesn’t feel right just isn’t the right place to be.

      In publishing I see more people handling this better and better every day. Suspect that trend will continue. Or, I should say, I have that hope. Thanks again for the read and comments — much appreciated.

  3. Peter says

    Hey Peter, I just came here from Shatzkin’s blog, and this post speaks to something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

    It seems like there are dozens of paradigms for new technologies- the hype cycle, the “gorilla game” and “crossing the chasm” (Geoffrey Moore), the innovator’s dilemma, etc. and they all seem similar. But what about the old “dead” technologies?

    Why do candles and broadway plays just keep on truckin’ while VHS tapes and film cameras bit the dust? Is it because VHS and film relied on companion products (players and cameras) while the other disrupted techs were more self-contained, or is it just first in, last out? Are there predictable patterns of decay for a disrupted industry? And am I the only one who cares?

    • says

      Hi Peter – Thanks for coming across and for the read and comment. It’s a good one and I’ve definitely thought about and do care. I think there are many good answers and, frankly, I change my mind on certain media types all of the time! But, generally, here’s my take…

      I think it boils down to the consumer’s “use case.” Basically, how do I use/engage with this media and is this new way better- or worse-suited than the way I do currently, why, and is that important enough for me to switch given the switching “costs” (monetary, psychological/emotional, cultural, etc.)

      Personally, I break the use cases down into:

      – Ease
      Does this new thing (eg. an iPhone) make things easier for me).
      – Value
      Is it worth it? (eg. the cat of the phone, the inflexible service charges, the spotty reception in my town, the relatively small storage capacity. ON the other hands, the apps, the portability, texting,visual voicemail, syncing, etc.
      – Fidelity (objective quality of experience)
      Is the quality of experience there? In the case of music, most consumers seemed willing to trade sound quality for massive storage and portability (and the elimination of the jewel case and the $18.99 CD). Despite the swatting costs (it took me weeks to transfer my music to the digit format and I now have a library with some physical media, some digital, etc. I only use the digital)
      – Ineffable value (experiencing in a specific manner)
      Does this fit my lifestyle and values? In the case of the iPhone, it mostly does. But not for music. I have the largest capacity iPod (old school, I know) because I like to have as much of my library with me at all times. For me to listen to but also because I love to play new tracks for friends and I never know when that opportunity may arise. Then again, I can’t read on either…thus an iPad. Whole mother set of use-cases (inclusive of video)

      I would put candles and Broadway shows in the “ineffable value” category. For many folks I know, having candles in the house is a must — both for aesthetics and enjoyment. They like them. I never think about them. I keep them solely for power outages and even there I find that lanterns (battery or gas) better suit my use-case. I rarely go to Broadway shows but get the appeal. Is it live or is it Memorex. Well, sometimes people want live. I used to in my younger days but now I prefer the DVD, er, streamed version.

      And so on…

      I know from very good sources at the likes of Apple and Microsoft that when they consider new products (hardware, software, services), they matrix the use-cases (Steve Jobs seemed to just know and/or invent them; others survey and look at trends). They then build products that suit those use-cases as well as possible. I believe one reason Apple was slow to move into the eBook space was that they did not believe that the fidelity was there (despite Steve Jobs’ ill-informed remark that no one reads — half of America does!). They just didn’t have a better (or good enough) solution till they had iBooks for iPad. Bu t right away they could beat out cameras but the vast majority of consumers (self included). For the rest, SLRs or old-school film. Sometimes there;s tech in need of a use case (initial portable phones were “car phones” because an ad agency could sell them that way).

      I often say to friends about technology, “use it if it works for you. You don’t have to. if it doesn’t help you. Even if it might, you don’t have to…” I say the same to authors, publishers, and other industry folks.

      I have a lot of friends with vinyl collections. I scratch my head but then remember that it works just fine for them. In fact, better than the alternatives. For them. Once there’s no more of them, well, bye vinyl.

      Thanks again, Peter. Thought-provoking stuff.

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