Attention vs. the chasm

I’ve heard from people who have theorized that Tesla’s window-breaking launch of the super-brutal pickup truck was either an intentional fail (look at all the publicity they got!) or a success (look at all the pre-orders they got!). The thinking goes that all attention is good attention, and that in our ever-faster, attention-starved marketplace, all that matters is clicks.

One way they’re thinking about it: Attention is the new innovation. I don’t agree.

A decade ago, innovation was the way to earn action from the early adopters. Innovation got you into Wired, innovation gave your fans something to talk about, innovation satisfied people in search of the new.

But marketers in search of widespread impact learned an important lesson: Innovation is fun, but innovation isn’t the answer to the challenge of reaching a larger audience.

Moore’s Crossing the Chasm helped marketers see that while innovation was the tool to reach the small group of early adopters and opinion leaders, it was insufficient to reach the masses. Because the masses don’t want something that’s new, they want something that works, something that others are using, something that actually solves their productivity and community problems.

Therefore, to move to a bigger market, tech companies need the network effect and they need patience. Tim Cook created the profitable engine that is Apple by abandoning nerds like me and focusing on making a low-innovation luxury product instead.

Amazon innovates in some areas, but their online shopping (and AWS) are insanely boring, stable and focused on reaching more people.

[Note! There’s no requirement to seek a mass audience. It’s a choice. That’s why most of us are better off serving the smallest viable audience, not jumping through the cycles necessary to cross the chasm.]

The lesson is simple:

Early adopters are thrilled by the new. They seek innovation.

Everyone else is wary of failure. They seek trust.

Back to Tesla. They’ve spent billions trying to move from a weird nerd vehicle for geeks to a mainstream car audience. And it’s working. The Model 3 is reaching people who didn’t even consider the original Roadster. This type of customer (which means most people, perhaps 80% of any market) is asking questions about reliability and wondering what they’ll tell their friends and spouse if they buy one. (If this sounds familiar, the very same thing happened with the Mac from 1984 until 1998… almost fifteen years of slowly moving to ‘normal’.)

Can I trust this brand? Can I trust this product to keep its promises? Can I trust my social circle to applaud my choice?

If Tesla was trying to continue along this proven route, the right move would be to make a pickup truck (which is, surprisingly to some, the bestselling single car model in the US) that would have done to the Ford F150 what the Model 3 does to a mid-market Mercedes. Innovative, but not too. Better, in all the ways that the mass market cares about. New, of course it’s new, but new and trustworthy.

The first customers would have been innovators (that’s always who the first customers are) but they would have had a story they could easily tell to their friends and family. The story of, “I’m smart and bold and connected and this is obviously a better choice.”

But instead, in this new age in which attention is a substitute for useful innovation, they burned that trust by seeking attention instead.

The thing is, innovation has long-term benefits for all of us. The craven search for attention at all costs does not.

Musicians have figured this out–every new song has to push the envelope, has to somehow make things better and be new enough to matter–but at the same time, they can’t burn the trust of audience they’ve earned to date. The Who can smash guitars and Dylan can mumble, but Kenny G can’t do either.

When everyone is a marketer and when everyone has a platform and when everyone can burn trust to seek attention, this is a useful lesson for each of us. Because in the short run, while attention can feel like a proxy for innovation, when it comes to actual commitments, most customers choose trust instead of commotion.