Monday, October 20, 2008

Observations: Sharp-Eyed Hard-Copy Marketers Help the Aging

Sharp-Eyed Hard-Copy Marketers Help the Aging

Month in and month out, the Observer’s editorial staff regularly cranks out 40-plus pages covering the steady stream of news from our industry. This includes myriad new imaging and printing products and services, along with the triumphs and travails of the companies that comprise “the business.”

Then our readers do their best to digest all of it to keep up with the state of the industry, with the goal of “staying competitive.” Keeping this in mind, for the last three years, I’ve used my monthly “Observations” column to explore less-obvious developments and trends that might be otherwise overlooked. I try to acknowledge and appreciate the role of history, looking back to how we arrived where we are today, and I like to look ahead, scan the horizon, and pick out what might seem now like a mere blip on the radar but that could someday have consequences for our world.

I also have a soft spot for passing along great marketing stories. For some this may bring to mind P.T. Barnum, but for me, it means a great application of marketing principles, where a customer need is identified and understood, and then a business is developed around satisfying that need in a unique or superior way. When all that comes together, the clever people behind it all are likely, though not guaranteed, to be rewarded in the marketplace.

Because of recent personal experience, I can relate to one of these examples that, although not specifically in the hard copy arena, is related to technology and communications. You may be familiar with the “Jitterbug” mobile phone that features a handset with very large keys and easy-to-read symbols, a bright display featuring simple messages spelled out in large characters, a sensitive microphone and extra-loud speaker, and a certain size and heft that theoretically makes it more difficult to misplace, at least compared to many of today’s mobile phones.

The Jitterbug phone service features user-friendly over-the-phone setup and support, provided by courteous English-as-a-first-language agents, and functions like populating the address book can be done voice-to-voice. The Jitterbug even has a comforting dial tone indicating it’s on and ready to use.

For our family, the experience of staying a little closer to distant, elderly relatives has improved dramatically. The Jitterbug’s combination of small things has added up to a big difference, eclipsing what had been years of frustration with conventional mobile phones and even land-line-based cordless models. It is not the cheapest telephone alternative, at least in our area, but it is by far the most valuable we have found.

The emotional need to share things visually is certainly just as real as that for voice communication, and this need helps bind family groups together. Pictures, notes, and clippings are important to the simple but critical concept of “keeping in touch.” And many of us have converted from a mostly snail-mail approach to e-mail and social networking that are so pervasive today.

But what about those who have not made this switch? For every PC-loving elder who has made the transition either with assistance from a younger-generation family member or on their own, there are those who have struggled and given up, or who never had the opportunity.

So is there a hard copy equivalent of the Jitterbug success story? Of course, or at least developing ones. There are at least two companies, CaringFamily and Presto, that have made tremendous strides in putting together a hard copy hardware- and software-based solution that satisfies at least some of the previously unmet communications needs of families with elders living remotely.

Think about the difficulty of using e-mail for anyone who is uninitiated: booting up the PC, getting on the Internet, logging into the e-mail program, and remembering user names and passwords. Then there is the confusion of reading, let alone sending, saving, and printing. Both CaringFamily and Presto, recognizing these difficulties, have set out to make the “inbox” a real physical inbox that is actually the output tray of a simplified but otherwise ordinary inkjet MFP. At its launch two years ago, Presto’s founder told a frustrating tale of setting up his own mother on e-mail, and used his experience as the inspiration to start the firm.

CaringFamily is a Louisville, CO-based company that has been pursuing the “communicating family” market since its inception in 2003. Paul Davoust, the company’s CEO, says, “The largest untapped market in the world for technology is that of the elderly population. Why has the tech industry as a whole been so poor at addressing it?” He reasons that the remedy is to start with understanding the problems through research and developing core competencies in product usability. Davoust believes that the oft-used phrase “product usability” is generally a misnomer. “Product usability is a common phrase in the industry but is typically at the margin, not built-in from the starting point like it needs to be.”

While Caring Family and Presto are on to some great discoveries and approaches in satisfying real unmet user needs, challenges remain. The world has yet to beat the proverbial “path to their door,” at least a well-worn one, in either case. In my November “Observations” column, I will take a closer look at each company and their similarities and differences. Marketing lessons to be learned include the critical importance of combining the features and benefits of products and services and how the “Four P’s” all come to play. There is even an “enterprise versus consumer” angle that might sound familiar to many of us!

Designing and delivering a hard-copy delivery system is a worthy business goal, in addition to being a meaningful way to improve people’s quality of life. Recall the famous recruiting line from Apple’s Steve Jobs to then-Pepsi CEO John Scully, “Don’t you want to do more with your life than selling sugar water to kids?” In the case of helping families communicate, it is more than just a scheme to get users to use more ink.

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