Crossing the chasm

Crossing the chasm


When I was 15 years old, my family visited the Grand Canyon. I have vague memories of the desert; the vast expanse of nothingness; a feeling of awe and personal insignificance. But what I remember most are the squirrels.

Even rodents, it seems, have an interest in staring out over the void. Maybe they were resident squirrels, keeping an eye out for change in familiar territory. Or perhaps they were visitors, attracted by stories passed on from friends.

Either way, the behaviour is the same.  They creep to the edge of the cliff, flattening themselves against the rocks to fend off the breeze. And then they lie still, completely paralyzed, stuck halfway between being adventurous and running away.

There’s nothing worse than being stuck halfway

I recently asked a question on Twitter, looking for great examples of branded mobile applications.  What came back was a bit of a shock:  “Brands should forget about apps; my phone can view their websites just fine, thanks”.

I read it wistfully, feeling as forlorn as Henry Ford at an equestrian convention.  As brands, as marketers, as human beings capable of dreaming up big ideas that improve the lives of our customers, we have let our customers down.

When presented with the myriad capabilities provided by technology that was once relegated to the realms of science fiction now living in the pockets of our customers, we talked about QR codes. We dreamed about the day when we’d be able to send a text message from a billboard. We slapped digital lipstick on brochures and masqueraded them as apps.

We stared at the chasm and we flinched on take-off, worried that doing something too radical might upset all of the things that used to work so well. We didn’t have the guts to leap.

Luckily some of us have jumped.

A funny thing happens when you leave the ground with a sense of purpose.  You catch a gust, discover a current, and find yourself soaring.

Nike realized early on that runners weren’t using their smartphones for browsing; they were too busy running.  Their Nike+ app now allows more than 7 million users to track distance, complete goals and share their accomplishments with friends.

Disney didn’t stop after making the obvious, yet genius, My Disney Experience, an app that allows park visitors to explore virtual maps, get real-time data on wait-times and schedules for character visits.  They also built Story, allowing users build and share digital photo books, inspiring us to tell the stories of our lives, with a little help from Mickey et al.  Logically, some of those stories might even one day include an adventure through the Magic Kingdom.

Lacta, a Kraft-owned Greek chocolate brand found their futuristic inspiration in an analog tradition shared by, literally, their most passionate customers.  Messages once exchanged between lovers on candybar wrappers are now thumb-typed on the Lacta app. One click delivers the digital-sweet-nothings to a Facebook friend who must simply hold their phone camera up to a Lacta bar to display their note. Simple? Sure. Innovative? Yup. Does it sell chocolate bars? You bet it does.

At some point you have to leap

Fortunately, for thrill-seeking squirrels in Arizona, there will always be two sides to a canyon.  As they nervously peer out over the edge, they have the benefit of perpetual solid ground beneath their feet.

We’re not so lucky.  Time, they say, stops for no one.  The ground on what you once considered the safe and comfortable side of the gap is rapidly eroding.  With each passing day, your runway dissolves, costing you precious time that could be spent gathering momentum.

The leap won’t be easy, and we won’t all make it.  Some will cling to safety, even if it guarantees an inevitable fall.  But those brave enough to cross the chasm will be greeted with a sight that makes it all worthwhile: your customers are already waiting for you on the other side.

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