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First Impressions Count

Color [Detail]

As the old saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Launched amid much fanfare late last week 1, 2, 3, Color is, apparently, “a miraculous application,” and one of the first of many, new life-changing applications for the ‘Post-PC World’ in which we now live. It’s also guilty of a not insubstantial degree of hyperbole, leading to a product launch that was ill-handled, at best, and - as Mike Rundle astutely puts it - has blown it, at worst.

There’s no doubt that the team behind the company is hugely talented - comprising Bill Nguyen, formerly CEO of Lala (bought by Apple in late 2009); Peter Pham, who previously founded BillShrink; and DJ Patil, who was previously LinkedIn’s Chief Scientist – and Color might, just might, be a groundbreaking new application. If there’s one thing we can learn from the Color launch fandango, however, it’s that it’s critical to get the message right before you swiftly pull back the curtains on your skunkworks project and loudly proclaim, “Ta da!”

Color’s press page promises, “a miraculous, free application,” however, its grandiose copywriting and obscure home page proved no substitute for a good, old-fashioned simple story. The result? A world of confusion and, far from the hoped for result, thought leaders that - for the most part - were left wholly unconvinced.

If the early adopters don’t get it…

When the thought leaders - the innovators and the early adopters - don’t get it, you have a problem on your hands.

As Seth Godin points out in his excellent book Purple Cow, the best way to get a product to mass market is to be remarkable and spark conversations or, to coin a phrase we’ve been using with our students, become ‘talkaboutable’.

When a product is talkaboutable, it spreads, becoming what Godin calls an ideavirus. Conversations spread, the word gets around, and if all goes according to plan, you have a hit on your hands. In today’s world of social and conversational media the word spreads faster than ever before thanks to the FOAFOAF (friend of a friend of a friend) phenomenon, powered by Twitter, amongst other tools.

However, if the message isn’t clear, that message can quickly become one you’d prefer not to spread. Innovators and early adopters wield huge amounts of influence and, as such, should be cultivated and handled with great care. If you don’t get the message right for this market, you’ve already lost half the battle.

One such influencer is Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. A positive nod from Mr Gruber can turn a product or idea into an overnight success, equally a negative nod can have the opposite effect. Writing on the day of Color’s launch, in Color: Breathlessly Overhyped Piece of Crap, Gruber summarised his first impressions of the app as follows:

Color is a new location-based social photo-sharing app for the iPhone and Android. Or something. I installed it and couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, and even if I could figure out the app, I can’t see why I’d ever want to use such a service.

Days later, reflecting on an interview - in which Color CEO, Bill Nguyen, tried to exercise some hasty, post-launch damage limitation - Gruber (now having seen the light) stated:

So it’s a data mining trojan horse. Well, that changes everything. Who wouldn’t love that? And it’s a good thing personal photos have no “personally identifiable information” – you know, other than images of you, your friends, and your family.

Oh dear. Not quite the response one imagines Color’s founders were looking for and, sadly for them, Gruber was far from a lone voice. When it all goes hopelessly wrong, however, the one place you can counter these kinds of responses - over and above undertaking the endless media round Nguyen subsequently embarked upon - is at home, or to put it more precisely, your home page.

It All Starts at Home

In our increasingly connected culture, everything inevitably returns to the web. Confused? Check the company’s web site, surely that’s where the answers lie?

Sadly, not so in Color’s case. Despite the ongoing criticism of the app and the confusion that surrounds it, the company’s web site remains just as it was the day it launched. Vague and, one imagines, intentionally obscure; it’s a case study in how not to write clear and unambiguous copy. Witness the following:

Think fast!

Find someone. Take pictures together. Party. Play date. Lunch? … Just look around.

This copy is far too clever for it’s own good and, in the wake of an endless stream of questions and confusion, leads the typically confused user nowhere. “Just look around.” At what, precisely?

Worse, the web site leads nowhere, other than an equally confusing press page that surely wins the prize for most excessive claims. It’s home to the ‘Post-PC World’ claim (of which Steve Jobs would doubtless be proud 4).

The bottom line? It doesn’t matter how great you think your app is, it’s what people think that counts. Witness the slew of one star reviews the app has garnered at the App Store.

Five Star Criticism

The result of Color’s poorly managed product launch is not just criticism, but - now - outright satire. Nestled amongst the one star reviews, is a solitary, beautifully crafted five star review, titled ‘Join the Adventure!’ that has garnered links from all over the web, including: Boing Boing, Mr Gruber, and a host of others.

The copy, by the mysteriously named ‘Ghostmouth’, is brilliant and perfectly parodies the confusing nature of the app that many have criticised:

Color is a ground-breaking new entry in the new genre of MMPRLMG (Massive Multi-Player Real-Live Marketing Games).

Imagine yourself emerging from the dense forest of the App Store(™). In a clearing ahead you see a shiny new icon, a multicolor wheel. Its name is ‘Color’. In the distance you hear the marketing dogs yelping buzz. “Social!” “Find someone!” “Party!” Your press Install, and your adventure begins!

The ensuing copy, which has clearly been carefully crafted, encapsulates the Color conundrum perfectly and reflects the many comments made by reviewers upon launching the app and being confusingly confronted with what 37signals describe as The Blank Slate.

As Mike Rundle puts it, “The app has a terrible first run experience and [it’s] getting decimated in the App Store with one star reviews.” Ouch.

The $41 Million Question

Will Color succeed? Who knows. The bottom line? When you’ve secured $41 Million in venture capital investment, your first responsibility is to tell a compelling product story: lead on the product, not the funding round. It’s perhaps the fact that the majority of the stories about Color’s launch led on the latter that led to so much confusion.

$41 Million is no guarantee of success; a good idea, wrapped up in a beautifully designed package and told via a compelling - and easy to understand - story is.

Rather than do the rounds of tech and finance blogs, Color would do better to focus on the fundamentals. Before you launch, put some thought into it. Test. Test. Test. Then test some more. Make sure your launch story focuses on the product, not the finance.

As Mike Rundle puts it, “Human attention is a scarce commodity in this flashy, New Thing Comes Out Every Day™ world we live in.” You only get one chance to make a first impression, let’s hope Color’s second impression improves.

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