Monday, November 17, 2008

Observations: Hard Copy Communications for Families

Hard Copy Communications for Families

Last month, in my October Observations, I examined an industry business opportunity based on meeting the customer needs of an often-overlooked population, the elderly. In consumer technology, rapid innovation and ever-shortening product life cycles can be hard to keep up with, assuming we were ever caught up to begin with. Society has gone from the joke about the irritation caused by the blinking “12:00” on VCRs of the 1980s to a major generational divide in terms of how and what we use to accomplish basic communication.

CaringFamily and Presto are two firms that set out to match technology capabilities to the communications needs of the elderly and their families. And each has taken enough of a separate path, while simultaneously sharing many similarities, so that further examination provides an opportunity for some great marketing insight.

First, what is common? Both firms researched families’ unmet need to communicate beyond voice (i.e. telephony) and the unsuitability of much of today’s technology to address the problem. Sending clippings, photos, and letters via snail mail still works for many of the elderly, but it seems that the payoff of immediacy—already delivered in the home and work lives of so many via technology—could dramatically improve communication links between families, especially when distance makes face-to-face contact infrequent.

CaringFamily and Presto also both found that a modified (i.e. simplified) HP (NYSE HPQ) ink jet MFP is a cost-effective tool for exchanging tangible materials such as handwritten or typed notes, drawings, awards, photos, clippings, and recipes. A device that is relatively inexpensive, readily available, and has easy-to-replace supplies is important, especially for the elderly user. (Both firms definitely realized the network effect in play, where these hard-copy communications nodes could potentially be in the homes of several family members.)

While the terms “services” and “solutions” are often tossed around in relation to corporate printing, CaringFamily and Presto both realized that a service component was essential for their solutions. The companies needed to develop and provide fee-based services on an ongoing basis that resemble an e-mail system or fax functionality but also strived to be simpler to use and more versatile. As CaringFamily CEO Paul Davoust states, “We always knew we had to go beyond two cans and a string.”

So what are the differences between the two providers? One of the biggest is marketing, especially in terms of the “Marketing P” for “Place” or distribution. While the firms agree on the ultimate users of their product and service, CaringFamily markets to elderly living facilities and care centers, where “social directors” and other professional caregivers can see the quality-of-life benefits of these communications nodes (and of course can encourage family members to do the same in their homes). They also can recognize that such capabilities add to their centers’ attractiveness to would-be residents and their families. This is an “industrial marketing” approach where as a part of their jobs, buyers make purchasing decisions based on hard facts and analysis, often in groups or committees.

Presto went the consumer marketing route, with strong promotion (another one of the four “Marketing Ps”) via a well-covered launch at a Demo Conference and a Martha Stewart appearance. Presto’s product and service is available on Amazon.com and at other retailers.

In both cases, marketing an unfamiliar product or service is difficult. “Anything with an education component is a challenge. It has to be more than ‘Here it is’,” notes CaringFamilies’ Davoust. I did not probe either company for hard numbers, but there are enough indicators of success to keep enthusiasm going for the future.
Presto, for example, has more than 80 user comments on Amazon.com for its “HP A10 Printing Mailbox for Presto Service,” with an average rating of over 4.5 out of 5. A scan of these comments reveals some extreme Presto enthusiasts that causes me to wonder if there is a “crossing the chasm” effect at play, which happens when the almost immediate acceptance of a product or service by a core of early adopters is followed by the lack of widespread acceptance among more “main street” consumers. (By the way, a start-up company named Pluribo offers anyone the ability to “data mine” sources like Amazon’s user comments. Unfortunately, it is a developing service, and when I tried to use it in this case, I received the message, “Pluribo doesn’t currently cover this category. More coming soon.”)

Along with sticking with the game plan and building their existing businesses, what lies ahead for the two companies and their potential for branching out? Davoust’s CaringFamily is moving forward and finding traction for its solution within the science and research organizations the firm has worked with to understand the needs of those organizations’ customers and develop appropriate solutions.

Changes are brewing at Presto, too. The firm’s new CEO, Peter Radsliff, e-mailed me about pending upgrades, including “a major enhancement to the Presto service centered around a Web site that greatly enhances what a Presto account manager can do with the system. This development is aimed squarely at providing much higher value and functionality to people looking for tools to assist in communicating with their tech-shy loved ones. It adds major value to existing Presto subscribers and hopefully will convince many more people to adopt the system.”

By the way, Radsliff’s bio on the Presto Web site includes a great quote to close my column as we think about developing new products and services. “Peter focuses on developing products that have a deep connection with their users—crafting and communicating each product’s unique and compelling story.”

2 comments:

Peter Radsliff said...

Thanks, Jim, for your astute commentary. I thought your readers would like to know that the "major enhancement to the Presto service" is now "live". The new functionality provides a significant set of tools for people who are caring for a loved one from afar. They can read all about it here: http://www.tinyurl.com/prestoconnect

Cheers,

Peter Radsliff
CEO, Presto Services Inc.
www.presto.com

Michael Josefowicz said...

Great post. I have to believe that one kernel of value in MFP's is the connection between the physical to the internet and back again.

Nice place to be in. Has anyone used this new functionality in K-12 education?

Lots and lots of paper that should be stored on the web and then back again to paper. Consider a service that allows a parent to get a hard copy of Junior's latest masterpiece. Then consider the effect on Junior knowing moma is going to read what he wrote.
Then consider the effect on the classroom teacher knowing that moma is going to read what junior is being taught in her class.

No further incentives needed. Just a little real time transparency between the engaged parties.