OnePlus, Inviting Social Success

OnePlus Two

The smartphone industry is easily one of the most competitive in the modern market, if not, the most. Apple and Samsung continue to dominate with huge marketing budgets and ever increasing customer loyalty. Factor in concepts like Apple’s leasing programme and it’s now more difficult than ever for the little guy to make it. The most public examples are HTC, who have now stopped posting financial projections, and BlackBerry, a platform with a smaller user-base than Samsung Tizen.

One small manufacturer looking to shift this paradigm and carve out its place in the marketplace, is OnePlus, a Chinese manufacturer based on a team from Oppo. OnePlus have taken the approach of low-price, high feature, aiming at the savvy mid-range consumer.With almost no budget, they have deployed guerrilla tactics to grow a fanbase of early adopters and savvy consumers, not unlike Apple in the buzz they generate, even if at a smaller scale.

OnePlus clearly understand that going toe-to-toe with Apple and Samsung in a marketing war is futile, as many have tried and failed to reach the mass market (HTC for example, whose ads seem content to bounce between weird and bizarre). So OnePlus haven’t bothered. Through social media and an approach to sales which defies standard practice, OnePlus have managed to make headlines across the web. Coupled with a buying system that favours a select percentage, the short supply and high demand has gotten people talking with their famous ‘Invite-only’ approach.

What’s most interesting about OnePlus’s social media campaigns is that they’re entirely organic and driven towards invites; relying on user-generated content and stirring up demand to drive awareness among like-minded people. Example social campaigns have gone from destroying your own phone on YouTube in order to obtain a OnePlusOne invite, to their current campaign of a reflective Instagram-selfie for the OnePlusX.

OnePlus have a huge benefit to play with: they’re brand new. Less than two years old, they’re a company which can afford to take a few calculated risks. With no marketing budget, and no real profit for a company still in it’s early stages, their approach is much more engaging, much more fun and has a specific focus; get people to want an invite.

The biggest challenge for OnePlus, is that it might not be a drop in the ocean forever. Currently, they’re doing all the right things. Their stall at the Dublin Web Summit had people lining up for invites, even though they weren’t quite sure what exactly the phone was, or who OnePlus were. The invite-only list added to the intrigue and people started sharing their OnePlus selfies. It’s a clever strategy to generate awareness, and it’s paying off.

Unfortunately, when you’re no longer a drop in the ocean, Samsung and Apple begin to pay attention, shareholders begin to look for profit (which currently OnePlus reinvests into its devices) and you need to change your marketing approach. Mass market devices can’t be sold via invite-only and online shopping for smartphones is still relatively uncommon globally.

OnePlus is beginning to think about this and how they can keep up newsworthy and engaging campaigns, which create ‘Fear of Missing out’. There are signs of a shift, albeit a slow one. OnePlus is now opening its online store for general sale for one hour per week. It might not sound like much, but it’s a step towards mass purchase that the company needs to consider.

The strategy behind their approach towards moving into the mainstream is fairly clear; as the company grows, all content should encourage invites and create exclusivity. All the while, they can perfect their next generation of phones, which move closer to the real mid-range of the mass handset market. At what point the strategy moves from upstart to traditional will be the real test for OnePlus.

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OnePlus2 and OnePlusX, should you settle?

This year at the Dublin Web Summit, OnePlus were out on display showing off their two latest handsets, the OnePlus2 and the OnePlusX. Both phones are fantastic, to hold in the hand and play around with; they’re responsive and lovely. While the OnePlus2 looks almost identical to the OnePlus1 (which is no bad thing), the OnePlusX is unmistakably something different. It’s a lot slicker, a lot more sheen and a lot more premium.

Both phones are not only nice to hold, but in a year when handsets have gotten bigger, it’s refreshing to hold something which you can hold and type on with one hand. However, it’s not what these phones have which is of interest to me (the spec sheet gives most mid-high range handsets a good run), it’s what they don’t have.

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2016 will undoubtedly be about two things; Mobile Payment and USB type-C. Both are in their infancy now, currently only a few select countries support Apple Pay, and Android Pay is US only. USB-C is even more rare, with only the Google Nexus range supporting this. It’s surprising then that neither OnePlus support NFC, or fingerprint sensors. Only the OnePlus2 supports USB-C, the X has dropped this.

While this is not a huge problem at the moment, it will become one. It’s unusual for new flagship releases to fall in any way behind for a young company hoping to make its stake in a competitive industry, particularly when it’s target audience is heavily geared towards savvy consumers, and tech enthusiasts.

At a basic level, if you’re not the kind to compare spec sheets for phones; if you’re in a region with Android Pay, you won’t be able to use your new OnePlus to pay for things. You also won’t be able to utilise fingerprint support, which more and more apps are beginning to integrate.

As to why these were omitted, the official reason boils down to price. With a limited user-base, and an extremely competitive price point of €399, it’s a question of whether you want the new high-end flagship, or you want something that doesn’t break the bank, but still has good specs. Speaking with their staff at Web Summit, in Dublin, their customers also just didn’t really use NFC, and didn’t really see the point in fingerprint sensors. It’s a fair reason on which basis to exclude it, NFC does have limited uses outside of payments at the moment, the same goes for Fingerprint sensors.

What I found interesting was the reason the USB-C was excluded from the X. It seems to come down to bulk, the Type-C connector is a little bigger than the traditional micro-USB, which again seems a fair enough point. While it means the X won’t support faster charging, the 2525mAh battery should charge just fine the old-fashioned way. Arguably this is the thing people will least miss from the spec-sheet. Cables take a long time to become obsolete and Micro-USB will be around for a while. The focus from OnePlus was very much to keep the X looking as sophisticated as possible – it’s something they’ve achieved very well, the X is a very good looking phone.

Price can often be a lazy explanation, so too can ‘bulk’ or wanting to keep aesthetics. You don’t have to look too far to see a competitor delivering on price and specs in one bundle, even if it misses out a little on aesthetics; Nexus 5X. Certainly the US price is extremely competitive and it’s able to integrate a very good fingerprint reader in there also. Apart from that, it’s not a terrible looking phone – but it’s certainly not as premium looking as the OnePl

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usX.

Holding both handsets, it can be hard to believe they’re as cheap as they are. Well built and very premium looking, the screen, camera are all very sharp. They’re responsive and while not quite high-end, they’re definitely punching above the mid/low-end weight. Of the two, the X definitely had the edge for me. It was slicker, lighter and snappier than the 2, it also appeared to have a sharper screen and more responsive camera. The hardware is really great, sturdy and you could almost forget it’s as cheap as it is especially with that battery, which is strong.

The one thing that confuses me is the omissions. Granted price is a factor, but NFC is a fairly cheap technology, also the people had spoken, they don’t want USB-C, they don’t need NFC or fingerprint sensors, for now. While you certainly can’t argue the price, it could be seen as a cynical way to get people buying their 2017 model. Fit the moment though, if you want a cheap phone to replace next year, you could do a lot worse.

Product Placement and Paywalls, beating the AdBlockers.

Ad-blocking has by far become one of the most talked about things for online publishers in recent months. Apple now allowing adblocking, combined with a host of services and add-ons for browsers which supported this previously have led to an explosion in the number of people using the service to view content without distraction.

Statistics vary, but a recent poll by the YouTube star PewDiePie has shown that at least 40% of his audience have admitted to using some kind of ad-blocking tool when browsing the web. Figures for other sites could be much higher. The problem lies, primarily in a lack of understanding many average internet users have of website revenue.  Free services need to generate income from somewhere, to deliver quality reporting, quality content. Something reliable which can’t be gotten from social, or blogs.

This is particularly harmful to newspaper outlets, who have seen a sharp decline in offline sales, combined with a drop in revenue from online ad impressions. As an industry newspapers have had to be increasingly resourceful in their efforts to hold onto online revenue, from sponsored articles, to product placement and even the much maligned paywall, a route The Sun have recently scrapped.

However, adblocking doesn’t just affect large companies, who may, or may not be able to afford the hit (generally speaking, they can’t). It also affects smaller organisations and individuals who are now becoming the new age celebrity. Small news sites now find it increasingly difficult to start out. Separately, YouTube celebrities now have to rely increasingly on product endorsement.

While the YouTube celebrity could be easily dismissed as a fad, their figures say otherwise. Many YouTube stars have video reach both greater, and more qualified than most traditional TV channels could ever dream of. Many have made this a career choice, with YouTube matching this by establishing their own studios. However, all of these millions of views boil down to very little when ads can’t be served to viewers, the content can’t be produced and the service that supplies them can’t exist.

This is where Subscription services, such as the new YouTube Red enter. Red attempts to answer the fundamental issue of declining ad revenue with a subscription based model, not unlike Netflix; monthly charges for your favourite content produced to a high degree of quality.

For any subscription service, the question is always asked just how it can survive. The world we live in, consumers expect to be able to consume high quality content without having to pay and without having to see ads, but seeing no correlation between this and declining quality. Most would dismiss subscriptions as pointless for most content, given the Internet’s open nature.

A separate argument exists, however. The Washington Post paywall has seen growing success for the newspaper, recently taken over by Jeff Bezos. While all content is designed for consumption across multiple devices; the strategic view from the Post is that if content is of good enough quality, with supporting content being tailored as you consume more information then it is something worth paying for.

Speaking at the Dublin Web Summit, Steven Hill of The Post took the example of a person in a specific location, who enjoys viewing video. The site will tailor content served to be more relevant to both the persons locations and their taste, so they’ll get more video. High quality reporting also engenders a strong element of trust, which can’t be gotten elsewhere.

The Washington Post certainly have the numbers to back it up. Year-on-year, desktop and mobile traffic has increased, with 78 million unique visitors and growing with mobile and desktop traffic both increasing. Interestingly, paid subscriptions, while lower than unique visitors, has been growing strongly.

Other companies, such as Spotify may use more straight-forward means to get you to jump onto subscription services, but The Washington Post to some degree have shown that content can very much, still be king.

How this will pay off in the long term, remains to be seen, and whether this will be more effective than product placement or sponsored posts is anyone’s guess. It is interesting however, to see how clever use of content, combined with a level of consumer understanding and quality content still appear to work.
Best guess would have to be that in the end, a mix of both will work. Consumers won’t want to be educated about why they need to see ads, but ads can be smarter to not be as annoying.

Machine Learning changes how we approach Digital Assistants

One of the two most interesting talks, for me of the Dublin Web Summit, have been two of the shortest. Both only lasted about 20 minutes, however both showcased the growing importance of Machine Learning and how it is being applied to change how we interact with technology and our devices.

Facebook M and Instagram’s Explore tool are two products, from the same company which are quietly looking to change how we are delivered content and how we use the web as it currently stands. Both use machine learning, combined with human intuition to develop platforms that learn and become genuinely useful to consumers as they grow and consume more information.

First, to look at Facebook M. This was announced earlier this year, and most certainly aims to take on Siri and Google Now as your go-to digital assistant. The key difference for M as it currently stands is that it doesn’t just rely on a computer supplying responses or results, these are tailored by humans who help teach the machine relevance and to better understand the query and how to respond.

The goal, is never to replace the human, but to make sure that Humans curate the machine to ensure that the personal touch remain, which can generate real usefulness for the end user. M has already been favourably reviewed, but it has been felt that Siri and certainly Google still have the edge, especially in relation to speed and utility.

Facebook believe however, that while Now and Siri are useful, they don’t provide value to you as a person. They don’t proactively engage you with reminders, or understand your behaviours or lifestyle as you ask more questions. They generally, also don’t answer intelligently. This is where Facebook looks to use Humans to add an intelligence to the information being processed and supplied.

The thinking behind this is that if you asked M to order you a Pizza, it will go an order you a pizza, rather than Now, or Siri giving you a list of Pizza delivery services. M will know the nearest one, it will have your details and it will take care of all the work, while you go about doing other things.

Facebook M goes beyond a digital assistant, it becomes a go to place for ordering, and purchasing. Facebook already has many of the world’s biggest brands and retailers seeing the benefit of advertising with them, every day. Instead of booking a flight on one app, then ordering dinner on another, before going to another to buy a travel guide, Facebook wants you to do all of this within Messenger, one app where all brands are present, which offers real utility.

Instagram take a similar approach to their explore feature, using machine learning. Extensive A/B testing using machine learning, combined with a human insight that adds common sense and intelligence to their Artificial Intelligence, have moved a feature that previously gave you images which may have been of no interest, to a section of the app which is curated by your own activity. This is something invaluable on an app as personal as Instagram.

Both of these things combined have looked at something which other services such as Siri and Now have missed. They aggregate huge amounts of data, but without much intelligence, providing information back but not much else. Facebook M looks to move the relationship beyond this to add a utility to a digital assistant as we grow to rely on them more.

The big change this helps bring is usability. More than likely, Siri and Now are not too far behind M, this will make these services really, actually useful as opposed to just handy, as they are now. Both, especially Google have brands and huge amounts of information at their disposal, already Google offers similar, but much more scattered services.

The big challenge will be how do they leave choice in the mix, people like curated content to a point, there are still some things machines, even human curated ones don’t understand. However, it’s an approach, and an insight that makes us shift our view on just how useful social networks, digital assistants and all of the data we supply actually are. Many companies have learned the hard way that walled gardens don’t pay off.

Wearables are the Next Big Brand Challenge.

The average person on the street may not realise it, but everything they do is now being analysed, not just your online behaviour. The Dublin Web Summit is in full swing, and something that keeps cropping up is the growth of data directly taken from wearables and the consumer products we use, without a second thought – even your smartphone.

It’s no great surprise to anyone, that our activity is being analysed, your average person online is used to this from their web browsing. Google search ads, retargeting and Facebook ads are all now expected to be contextual to your online activity. You want to book a holiday, so after you’ve done a little research, you check out your Facebook feed to see an ad that has been generated by a price comparison site, or an airline, etc. This is something we now expect, even if we don’t always think about it.

The big change is that now, more than ever we are handing over data that goes beyond our search history. Many people now wear fitness trackers, often get to their ten thousand steps a day, people who don’t wear one will sometimes have an app that counts their steps anyway and log their activity. This information can, and will eventually be used by brands to create more specific and more targeted content with real relevance to the consumer.

To take the example of the fitness trackers, which are hugely popular. This could be a person who regularly reaches their step goal, or perhaps sleeps really poorly each night. It’s not too hard to imagine a brand-oriented platform which can take this data being generated and allow brands to promote on this. For the person who reaches their step count, it could be a healthy snack deal at a local supermarket, or for the insomniac, a local bed shop or blind fitters which could help them sleep a little more soundly.

This might seem a little Orwellian, but it’s not too far off where we are at the moment. Masses of anonymous consumer are supplied each day to brands looking to advertise. Currently, these are restricted to your search or browsing habits. While they are already very contextual, they don’t really understand you as a person, their data is limited to what you’ve chosen to share (which for most people, is quite a bit).

To put it in context, there are currently 17 billion connected devices in the world, and this is set to grow, massively with 52 billion by 2020, largely this growth will be driven by wearables as they become more mainstream. That’s a huge amount of information being pulled together.  Peggy Johnson, of Microsoft, speaking at the Web Summit said that as a company, they now view the person as the hub, with devices such as Band being built around that.

It might seem cynical at first, but to use wearables to help promote content, in a more context driven way would be more beneficial to everyone. Consumers would no longer get annoying ads which don’t really have any major benefit to their lives, and brands would no longer be able to deliver information much more effectively. The resulting content is much more bespoke and makes advertising do what it’s supposed to do; deliver insight to the consumer and to the brand.

However, with so many different kinds of contact points with a consumer, a brand should always remember that, it is at its heart a more intimate communication. Beyond a TV advert, or a Sponsored social post, adverts generated by wearables will be specific to someone’s actions and their lives, it needs a much more intimate approach than before.

This is where the challenge lies as new technologies reach the mainstream, combined with a growing expectation from people that the content they consume will grow to match it.

The Smart World only works, if everyone is a part.

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Nest, famed home automation company, recently acquired by Google are aiming not just to automate the home, but also transport. Speaking at the Dublin Web Summit Tony Fadell, Founder of Nest discussed the importance of home automation, not just being in the innovation of any particular product, but being firmly grounded in universal accessibility.

Speaking on the main stage of the summit, Fadell discussed the need for companies to constantly keep in mind, what the customer wants, and ultimately – what is best for them, rather than falling into the trap of many other companies; producing products which innovate, but which do not allow universal understanding and use.

Speaking based on years worth of learnings, gathered while working in Apple under Steve Jobs tenureship from 2001, working on the original iPod. He talked about the need for products which are accessible and usable by the average consumer, not just a niche category of technology fans and enthusiasts.

The thinking behind Nest, not too dissimilar to the iPod, is to enhance and innovate on an established idea. In this case; taking the thermostat and tackling the problem of a system which does not operate in a smart way, costing the average Irish household, up to €1,000 a year. Focusing on ensuring that customers are aware that the product is a simple, innovative and useful device, which puts them in greater control over the functionality of their own home.

Nest has managed to disrupt the home,opening the door for a greater internet of things, ensuring that data aware devices can better regulate a home, while being totally secure, building consumer trust and ultimately, allowing the householder greater control over their bills and the elements of their home which can often be easily forgotten.

With the smart home now being tackled, and smart devices now ubiquitous among the developed world, Fadell firmly believes that the next step is transport. While Google Self-driving car is the first step, the potential for smart transport doesn’t end there. Commuting and transportation form a huge part of daily life, the opportunity for greater interaction can once again free the consumer, putting more control in our hands to ensure that transportation isn’t simply a matter of getting on the bus, or train – but being able to consciously regulate what mode of transport, and how we utilise it for ourselves.
To help move the Smarter world a little further along, Nest Thermostats are now being given free to all new Electric Ireland customers, successfully planting the device in 1.5million homes.