TechCrunch's latest conference, Disrupt, is live streaming from San Francisco this week. A battery of new, hopeful companies are launching there, hoping to solve problems. But the companies I saw yesterday were not solving the many real problems we see around us: the scarcity of resources, the decline of public education, the high unemployment rate, the potential collapse of democracies, the inability of supposedly educated human beings to participate in civil discourse.
Instead, they were trying—with great ingenuity and advanced technology—to solve manufactured problems: how to provide more rewards for consumers using Foursquare, (Gifi) how to track my behavior on Web sites I visit (One True Fan), These companies want brands to be able to reach me when I am in the super market and tell me about specials on shelves I might not want to visit, to buy things I may not want or need.
What's the technology they're using? Game mechanics. Game mechanics are the biggest thing since sliced bread in Web application development. Every brand is looking for a game to sponsor or advertise with, where the consumer can win some sort of points, badges, or awards for trying or buying their products.
As an early adopter of technology, and even more as an empowered social customer, I was offended by yesterday's launches.
I am being manipulated. Do entrepreneurs really think all I want to do is play a game? Do brands think all I want to do is be gamed?
Or is this a sign of our weakened economy, in which consumers have to be coerced and motivated to consume?
Engineers and developers, if you are going to start a company based on complex motivational theories and advanced technologies, why not use your talents for a higher purpose? It doesn't change the world to help me find more things to buy, or to get a few cents off my purchases, or to leave a Starbucks card for a friend in a bathroom (Gifi).
Whatever happened to the classic definition of marketing: "The wide range of activities involved in making sure that you're continuing to meet the needs of your customers and are getting appropriate value in return."
That definition seems to have morphed into this one, from Wikipedia: Marketing is the process by which companies create customer interest in goods or services." Wikipedia has flipped the definition on its head, with unfortunate consequences.
And consumers, who have lived with the flipped definition for long enough, and are now hoarding cash as a result of having been interested in more goods and services than they needed and can afford.
When you are stating a technology company, or any type of company for that matter, it's a good idea to ask yourself the question "am I after the consumer, or the customer?" The customer already has a need. He's out there, looking for something that can solve his problem.
The consumer doesn't have a need unless you tell him he does. And then his need may be real (my public school is not educating my children anymore) or manufactured (if I check in on Foursquare I might get six cents off my favorite breakfast cereal brand).
Manufactured needs are not dependable. They go away in downturns. They vanish when the fad is over. Real needs are steady, always there, and can provide the basis for sustainable businesses.
If you're going to study game mechanics, and launch companies based on what you've found, at least apply those mechanics to health care cost control, education, or saving the planet, not to small niches of heightened consumerism.