All of this simply would have taken time and a long-term marketing strategy to succeed. The Xbox One would never have won over everyone, but it would have found an audience of advocates of its own. Now, though, it’s doing exactly the same thing as the PlayStation 4 and the only point of differentiation between the two will be the software and exclusives. It’s not sustainable – it didn’t really work to anyone’s benefit this generation, and it won’t in the next either.
As a quick summary for the people that haven’t been following the Xbox One that closely; it’s a console that was originally announced as always-online, would not play second hand games and required Kinect to work.
None of that was especially popular amongst the vocal kind of people that inhabit Twitter, online discussion forums and NeoGAF. Even Marcus Beer, that bastion of media integrity, saw fit to embark on a angry campaign against the console, and brought with him all his angry teen followers. At one stage it seemed like the entire Internet had condemned the console as a horrible product, which was an impressive feat indeed since I wasn’t willing to judge something I hadn’t played.
Here’s the arguments we heard, and heard, and then heard some more: Always-online meant people in rural areas with patchy connections would have difficulty getting on with the console, and military personal outside of the US might not even get to play the console at all courtesy of the region locking the always-online came with.
The blocking of second hand games meant that people looking to save at the cash register would no longer be able to bypass the profitability of the people that made the game to knock $10 off the sticker. And the Kinect thing apparently meant that Microsoft would spy on you doing naked Dance Central XBone, to hear the people with tin foil hats talking.
What all of this meant – legitimate complaint or not – is that Microsoft found itself diving head first into a PR disaster. It didn’t help that Microsoft’s own PR was deeply confused in terms of messaging and failed to properly manage the concerns that the community had. Things only got worse when Sony got up on stage at E3, smugly pointed at Microsoft and issued a publicity blitz to the effect of “we’re not doing what they’re doing.”
As any company that focus group its products to the point where they’re Borg-like assimilations of everything that generic middle-America worships, Microsoft was not too proud to stand up and say “we’re going to give in to your every demand about a product you haven’t even used, so please buy us again.”
Amongst the mockery on those Twitter feeds and online discussion groups there are people that are again considering buying the console. PR crisis averted.
Here’s the thing though; people are also now wrongly assuming that Microsoft is marketing the Xbox One “right.” The reality is the really big companies out there in the world haven’t really clued into the fact that PR management of social networks is only one part of a marketing strategy. So wrapped up are companies like Microsoft around concepts of “Big Data Analytics” and “Social Engagement” (both genuine PR terms, go look them up), that they’re forgetting that marketing needs to be a far broader strategy than giving in to the whims of the vocal minority that care enough to complain. And here I do think Microsoft has made a marketing mistake with the Xbox One by removing everything from the console that could fairly be called unique.
One of the key things that any marketer will want in a product they have to sell is the idea that the product is different. I’m not necessarily talking about innovation here – that’s a separate topic and actually quite difficult for a marketer to sell. Rather, it’s the idea that the product that they’re selling has a fundamentally different value proposition to its rivals within its sector. In developing a product that is different, you then have a unique audience that you can reach out to that is also fundamentally different to the demographics of your competitors.
Nintendo’s Wii, for instance, was different because it was a console where the input – the controller – wasn’t that intimidating and people saw other people playing with their Wiis using normal gestures like swinging their arm to hit a virtual ball or doing Yoga exercises on a device that looks like one they find in their local gym. This was different to what the PS3 and Xbox 360 offered, and so Nintendo’s success with the Wii had nothing to do with innovation, but rather in simply reaching out to a group of people that would otherwise have had no interest in a console at all.
Similarly the iPad wasn’t the first tablet device around, but because it was the first one that came with such a high level of aesthetics and simple functionality, it appealed to people in a way that the previous bulky and inefficient tablets could not.
The Xbox One was, previously, different. As someone who works with technology for a career and was previously a enterprise technology journalist, I knew what Microsoft was working towards. Cloud technology is useful, and in the enterprise space Microsoft has been happily offering Cloud technology to happy customers for years now. Selling the same idea into the consumer market was always going to take time, but the idea should have been that over the span of a couple of years the benefits to the console would start selling themselves, as Cloud services become more and more ingrained within everyday life. What Netflix has done with movies, Twitter has done with messaging, and services like Pandora has done with music, Microsoft would have been in the prime place to do with games. It might not have been popular with a certain kind of traditional gamer, but Microsoft would have found a new audience to chase instead.
Similarly with Kinect and the used game block were two elements that would have differentiated the Xbox One from its rivals, even if it took some time to convince them of it. Kinect would have allowed people to interact directly with their consoles. Given that Microsoft has done such a good job with opening Kinect up for non-gaming applications, it would have been interesting to see what could be developed if the developer was able to assume the consumer had Kinect on. The used game block would have eventually shown itself to be a benefit to consumers when publishers, more confident in sales expectations, would start competing even more aggressively with one another.