As I sit here writing this, the best and the brightest ofthe cable-technology community have descended -- or, should I say, ascended -- into themountains of Colorado.
The occasion is not some ski boondoggle, but rather, thewinter CableLabs (Cable Television Laboratories Inc.) conference, during which thetechnical heads-of-state are brainstorming about such key issues as DOCSIS (Data OverCable Service Interface Specification) modems, OpenCable and digital standards.
Not too long ago, you could swing a dead cow for hours atCableLabs and not hit a marketer. But as Jakob Dylan's dad sang 30 years ago,"The times, they are a changin'." Now, if only peripherally, marketers arestarting to have a say in the development of technology.
As a CTAM (Cable and Telecommunications Association forMarketing) board member, I was part of the process by which the industry's marketingconscience adopted its new strategic plan. Central to this three-year plan is the goal ofgetting marketers seats at the table of technology. You see, cable is one of the fewindustries in which products are developed with little or no input from marketers.
I remember reading an interview about a year ago withRainbow Media Holdings Inc.'s Josh Sapan in the CTAMQuarterly Journal,in which he talked about the differences between this industry and others in developingnew products. He gave the example of the home-appliance industry, saying that at somepoint, the marketers came to the research-and-development folks and said, "You knowwhat people want? They want to be able to get ice and cold water out of the refrigeratorwithout having to open the door."
The R&D guys simply said, "We'll get back toyou." The next thing you know, people all over the country were getting cold drinkswithout having to waste time, effort or energy.
What the technologists in that industry did was create aproduct -- or at least a design wrinkle -- that was based on three things: a demand in themarketplace, an established consumer behavior and solid research confirming both thedemand and the behavior.
BEFORE THE HORSE
As much as I hate to say it, in our industry, we often takethe "Fire ... aim ... ready" approach. It isn't that we don't developsome exciting, innovative products and services, because we do -- heck, we reinventedtelevision. But more often than not, we seem to develop products first, then worry abouthow to market them later.
And, lest we forget, we reinvented television at a timewhen the stakes were a lot less critical than they are now. If we fell flat on our faceback then, it wouldn't have made a ripple of difference in the status quo.
Now, it's different. The entire world is watching.It's 1999, and we have billions of dollars and thousands of jobs hanging in thebalance. Cable isn't the underdog anymore: We're the big, bad giant, and thereare small, hungry companies everywhere, with rocks and slings in hand, just itching totake a shot at us. Whether they're from Silicon Valley or Midtown Manhattan, fromsunny L.A. or rainy Seattle, they want a big piece of what we built with our blood, sweatand tears.
In addition, the capital required for full digitaldeployment, including rebuilds and hardware, is staggering. We can't just create newproducts on spec and hope that they catch fire with consumers: We must be certain thatthese products have a built-in demand.
It is critical that just as our most innovative programmersstudied the marketplace and created video content that people feel passionate about, ourtechnologists must create products and services that generate passion. Our goal must be toget beyond developing deliverables that merely intrigue consumers and to develop ones thatthey truly want.
Consumers may be intrigued by digital cable and high-speeddata, but that's not what they want. Frankly, they could care less about thosetechnologies. What they want are the benefits that those technologies bring them. Whatthey really, truly want is what they've always wanted: better entertainment; clearer,more facile communication; and service providers that they can rely on. It's notrocket science.
The danger lies in believing that this is all thatconsumers want, and believing that every one of them wants the same thing.
This is where the marketers come in. In any industry,marketers are the people who are paid to keep a finger on the pulse of consumers and tohelp interpret the messages that they're sending to companies. Cable's marketershave always been in a position to perform that role: It's just that they'verarely been asked to do so.
My guess is that in the days ahead, the concept of"the consumer" will simply fall by the wayside. There will be no such thing as a"typical consumer," or even a typical group of consumers. There will be tens ofmillions of households and hundreds of millions of consumers. What those consumers willwant to buy -- and what they will demand that we provide them -- will be products andservices that speak to their own specific needs.
New products, digital and otherwise, must be adaptable toindividual needs and desires. The cookie-cutter approach to product development and theshotgun approach to marketing -- which, in the past, have been the norm -- must bereplaced by market-driven, creative deployment of new technology and a series ofsophisticated, highly targeted marketing strategies.
If the marketers had been allowed to carry the message ofthe consumer back to the industry's boardrooms in the early 1980s, I promise you thatcable converters would have been more user-friendly, remote-control units easier to holdand the concept of pay-per-view wearing a completely different name.
As I said earlier, things are indeed changing. Themarketers are making inroads. Not only has CTAM adopted a new three-year strategic planwith the marriage of marketing and technology as a primary tenet, but Richard Green,CableLabs' president and CEO, has joined the organization's board of directors.His presence will offer CTAM unique insight into all facets of technology, while providingCableLabs with a more direct line to the consumer.
In addition, David Large, a longtime industry veteran onthe engineering side of the business, has joined CTAM as a technical consultant. Largeprovides the organization with an in-house "gut check," and his presence willallow the CTAM staff to stay abreast of burning technical issues and late-breakingdevelopments.
Lastly, for the second year in a row, Seth Morrison,CTAM's vice president of marketing, attended the CableLabs Conference in an attemptto learn what he could while strengthening the ties between two of the industry'smost essential organizations.
As hundreds of people convene this week in New Orleans forthe annual CTAM Digital & PPV Conference, it is important that we continue to focus onthe development and deployment of new products and services. It is also important thattechnologists keep in mind the role that marketers should play in that developmentprocess. And it is essential that the industry's marketers continue to carry thewater for the most essential element of the equation: the consumer.
It is only when all three of those groups come together onthe same page that the industry will be able to guarantee continued growth in the monthsand years ahead.
Donna Young, executive director of marketing for InterMediaPartners, is the chairperson of the CTAM Digital & Pay Per View Conference, slated forthis Wednesday through Friday (March 3 through 5) in New Orleans.