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How Apple gets it all wrong, and still is on top

Apple does none of the things that pundits always say you should do to succeed in the Internet economy.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Apple To Pull Out Of Macworld Next Year
CEO Steve Jobs and Apple don't care what their "community" of customers think. They just keep rolling out what the people want — even before the people know it.David Paul Morris / Getty Images
/ Source: The Big Money

Apple is without a doubt the consummate innovator of the new media era, turning the music business and then the mobile phone business upside down, and now setting its sights squarely on the TV, publishing, and video game businesses. (Oh, and it has a nice computer business going, too.)

And yet Apple does none of the things that pundits always say you should do to succeed in the Internet economy.

Apple doesn’t blog; it doesn’t Tweet; it does little on Facebook; it doesn’t engage with its customer base. It doesn’t ask the “community” for feedback or rapidly iterate based on any such feedback or even respond to criticism.

It doesn’t give anything away for free, thank you very much — in fact, the company charges premium prices for just about everything. Its customer service is perfunctory. It engages in terribly consumer-unfriendly practices like making you buy a whole new device when the battery dies.

And marketing? I don’t know the numbers, but it’s hard to think of any technology-related business that spends more money on that most retro of media, the glossy magazine ad. It pours tens of millions into television advertising, and buys up the most expensive billboards in big cities. Sure, Apple buys online ads too, but mostly display ads. For the most part, Apple advertising is old media all the way.

This anomaly could be written off as simply the Apple exception: So much about the company is unlikely in the extreme that it may not be a good example of anything.

But I’d argue that Apple’s firm rejection of so many contemporary Internet business nostrums holds some important lessons for entrepreneurs.

First, it’s the product, stupid! Apple’s success is based on building fantastic products. People like fantastic products, even if the company isn’t interested in your opinion about them. In fact, Apple shows that if you’ve really got the goods (or services), taking a haughty approach to your customers can actually increase your appeal.

Second, brand marketing still matters — a lot. Why do teenagers prefer the iPod over countless, far cheaper imitators? Well, it’s a great product. But the terrific advertisements — on television, on billboards, and in magazines — surely have something to do with it, too. When I saw the new iPod Touch ads recently, I wanted to just reach out and grab one. And I don’t even play video games.

People don’t buy an iPod because a Google AdWords link was hawking a good deal. They buy one because their teenager wants to be cool, like the dancing figures in those ads. The lesson here is not from the Internet era, but from the Mad Men era.

Third, engaging with your customers via the real-time Web is not, in fact, mandatory. A recent post on the influential TechCrunch blog criticizes Apple for “doing it wrong” when it comes to new media, but it’s hard to understand what that means. Business success has objective measures, and Apple is enjoying enormous success. If Apple is doing it wrong, I’d like my business to be doing it wrong, too.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pay attention to immensely important developments like the rise of Facebook and Twitter. And I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t advertise online and engage with your customers via the social Web.

But neither should you assume that just because there is a new way to do something it’s essential to run out and do it that way. In a small business especially, life is all about opportunity costs. You constantly have to make decisions about what’s critical, what’s nice to have, and what’s a luxury that you can pay attention to if you have the time and money.

It’s easy for those decisions to be influenced by what the zeitgeist of the moment says you should be doing. But the lesson from Apple would be, if in doubt, focus on the product. Or, as in the venerable saying, build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door — whether or not you’re on Facebook.