Underdeveloped Product Marketing (not Poorly-Executed PR) Is Why Google Glass Failed

It wasn't a bad product. Nor was itan issue of badly-executed PR. It was the wrong go-to-market strategy that broke Google Glass.

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Table of Contents

Even though a number of observers have suggested that Glass’s failure was a case of a product that came out too soon, it actually boils down to this: Google Glass failed because its go-to-market strategy was misaligned with the early stages of its product category.

This was unforuntate, because Google Glass is a visionary concept, and it could have unfolded differently. Indeed, if the leadership behind the launch invested more in fleshing out the foundational product marketing, Glass’s trajectory might have taken a different course.

Let’s dive in:

Google Glass’s team did not validate its market before planning the launch

Sergey Brin and Diane von Furstenberg

This shows up in the internal debate about Google Glass’s core use cases:

From Nick Bilton’s piece about Glass in the New York Times: 

An impassioned split was forming between [Google] X engineers about the most basic functions of Google Glass. One faction argued that it should be worn all day, like a “fashionable device,” while others thought it should be worn only for specific utilitarian functions.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Google Glass fashionistas were off target.

Google Glass was a breakthrough concept, but it involves wearing a camera on your face, saying things like “OK, Google,” out loud, and walking around like it’s cool to do those things in public.

But, of course, it’s not cool. In fact, wearing Google Glass out in the world makes everyone else uncomfortable.

Yes it’s easy to say from the clear view of hindsight, but how could Google Glass’s team have pre-empted this mistake?

If they wanted to resolve the debate about Google Glass’s use cases without resorting to gut feelings and or ego-driven sentiments, Google Glass’s debating factions should have tested their assumptions in the real world before planning their huge, flashy launch and releasing that incredible demo video.

Had Google they gotten out of the bubble and invested in customer development before building a go-to-market strategy and walking down the path to a expensive, glamorous launch, they might have learned some useful facts.

For one, the idea that the early version of Google Glass was something you could wear and look cool in public would have proved itself untenable.

Sure, Diane von Furstenberg and others in the couture world may have embraced the notion: but they, too, are visionary-inclined folks who live in a different universe than most human beings.

But the world just wasn’t ready to have techies walking the streets with sci-fi-looking devices with cameras on their faces. It was even less ready to have these techies going into bars and restaurants and even public restrooms able to take a picture with an awkward “OK, Google” or a far-from-subtle touch of the camera.

Was the banning of Google Glass in dining and drinking establishments and the rise of the term “Glasshole” really so surprising?


But all of these realities could have been tested if Google X’s team had gone into the world early on and talked to more everyday people about their product.

Choosing techies as early adopters

Scoble wearing Glass

The concept of “early adopters” seems to have become synonymous with “highly-connected technologists,” aka: the technorati that roam the well-off streets of Silicon Valley’s towns and cities (and some areas in New York).

This narrow definition is misleading: the early adopters for a new technology don’t have to be the same people that spend time on Techmeme, Hacker News, and the backchannels of Slack.

Instead of assuming they are the ideal customers for a breakthrough new tech product, it can be useful dedicate meaningful brainpower and legwork to figuring out who, exactly, your best early adopters will be.

Here’s a generally-useful heuristic: Your best early adopters will be the people who need the early versions of your product yesterday, and who will rapidly start getting benefit from it right now.

For these people, it’s ok if your product has some kinks and quirks out of the gate, as long as its current form is delivering benefits that outweigh the pains of dealing with your early work.

Let’s bring this back to Google Glass.

From Bilton’s piece:

To reinforce that Glass was a work in progress, Google decided not to sell the first version in retail stores, but instead limit it to Glass Explorers, a select group of geeks and journalists who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being an early adopter.

OK, Google, this encapsulates exactly what I mean: A “select group of geeks and journalists,” paying $1,500 for the privilege of testing a work-in-progress suggests to me that someone in charge didn’t invest enough in the product marketing: specifically, the foundational narratives.

Sure, elite geeks and tech journalists may leap at the opportunity to get their hands on a new cool-sounding piece of tech. The challenge is putting this tech on their faces only pays dividends if the tech consistently delivers meaningful, consistent benefits to them.

Of course, if those benefits aren’t there, this exact same audience will tell everyone who will listen that your product sucks. Because this is what tech lovers tech journalists do: They tell everyone what they think about new technologies, all of the time.

The mistake Sergey Brin and Google X’s team made was believing that geeks and tech journalists would be the right early adopters for Google Glass, given where the product was in its development.

This is not to say that Google Glass was too early, full-stop.

It is to say that going straight after the consumer market through geeks, fashion mavens, and tech journalists was a wild idea that would have been invalidated through just a bit of research.

Had the faction arguing that Google Glass was a utilitarian product done more upfront legwork, they may have discovered that Glass–even in its early, half-baked form–offered meaningful utility to some specific portion of the market. If they’d done that research, they could have made a much stronger case to Brin and the Google X fashionistas.

There were almost definitely markets that would have made ideal Google Glass Explorers. Getting initial traction with them could have provided a strong enough foundation to justify continued investment in the tech and marketing. Google X’s didn’t identify them up front.

In a well-funded startup, there might have been enough momentum and camaraderie to commit to a strong pivot. In an org of Google’s size, the product probably didn’t have much of a chance after the launch went the way it did.

Which brings us to our next lesson.

Neglecting to think through all of the benefits in precise terms

Ok, so let’s say you don’t have the resources or political leeway to get out of the Googleplex and do some real customer development before launching. What do you do?

You invest a meaningful amount of time and energy articulating the benefits of your product.

The more real-world knowledge you have about your presumed target market, the better you can articulate or invalidate those benefits, but let’s keep assuming that the kind of market research that would have revealed Google Glass to members of the public before launch was off the table.

Here’s where well-structured thought experiments informed by robust product marketing mental models can go a long way:

So you have this Google Glass. Its battery life is in the 2–3 hour range. It has a camera that people wear on their faces, and a small, low-resolution screen placed in the upper right periphery of their vision. This screen is capable of pulling and displaying data from the internet, but the early versions are still fairly limited in what they can do.

Is this something consumers will want to wear on their faces all day?

Well, battery life is a problem, and solutions to safe, high capacity tiny batteries are for the foreseeable future few and far between. That means that if consumers want to wear the device consistently, they’ll be pausing to charge it all the time.

Seems like a strike against the “all day wearable” story, but let’s move on.

What about that camera? Well, compared to the camera on a high-end smartphone (and if your product is $1,500 a pop, your buyers are all going to have high-end smartphones), your camera is not a viable substitute. So photography that people will share on social networks or use in their personal lives is probably out.

But unlike smartphones, you don’t have to pull this camera out of your pocket to snap a picture. Maybe capturing spontaneous, action-packed moments would be awesome! Yes, but what’s our answer to Go Pro’s advantage for that use case? Hmm.

Maybe it’s like what the iPhone said: the best camera is the one you have on your face all the time…and our other use cases make it worth it? Let’s come back to that.

First, let’s think about the implications of wearing a camera on your face. What does that mean for everyone else in the world?

Well, if you have a deep need for attention or a massive empathy deficit, you might care. But most people actually care if other people think they’re assholes. Do you think pointing a camera at someone throughout an entire conversation is an asshole move? Sounds like it might be.

Strike two for the benefits of “fashionable, all-day use.”

Ok, so what about that screen? Well, you know it’s rudimentary right now, but maybe having a feed of useful data only a slight glance away is super cool?

Ok, what kind of data can that screen present? Let’s not stay constrained to the first version. 3 years from now, what can we do?

Well, remember the battery life issue and the limitations of tiny computers. Maybe if we offload the compute to smartphone? To make that integration reliable, it would probably have to be a Pixel smartphone…so now our customers need to have Pixels, too, or we risk a lot of bugs from other companies hardware/software configurations creating weird effects on a computer people are wearing on their faces!

Also, again, let’s remember the general human desire not to feel like an asshole: if there’s a screen in your periphery all of the time, won’t it distract your users from their interactions with other people? And even if it doesn’t, won’t the other people involved assume as much?

Strike three.

At the end of our thought experiment, we’re left with a product that doesn’t sound all that great for the use case we’re contemplating: Google Glass, worn all day/everywhere requires multiple charging breaks, offers mediocre photography for those spontaneous moments, and makes you into an asshole in other people’s eyes.

Perhaps launching at the fashion, consumer use case does seem a little premature, after all.

But let’s keep going with the thought experiment:

OK, but we’ve got this awesome tech…who might need to capture hands-free images and have an always-on data feed a quick glance away, but only need these things for short bursts of time?

How about surgeons?

Well, right now, they have a raft of high-end machinery giving them data about the patient, but all of these tools are bulky and can easily distract from the delicate task at hand.

But what if you gave them Google Glass? What if doctors performing surgery could instantly take pictures of their work when necessary and track the vital signs of their patient in real time? What if they could do this without pausing to look away from the task or ask a nurse?

Now THAT sounds compelling.

Indeed, Google Glass for surgeons is so compelling that a startup launched to do exactly that. Even Phillips wanted in on the game. But Google did not continue investing in the Glass project to the degree necessary to make high stakes medical procedures a viable use case.

Along with surgery, there were probably a whole range of utilitarian business use cases where even the early versions of Google Glass would have shined.

Had Sergey Brin and the leadership of Google X paused and really thought through the benefits Google Glass could (or couldn’t) deliver to their target market, they might have picked a different initial market to go after.

Fractal” go-to-market frameworks, holistic founding narratives, and a set of creativity-maximizing tools

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