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Beware of falling for the hype machine

With more companies resorting to hyperbole to sell products, Billy MacInnes warns of the necessity to see past exaggeration and look at the true effectiveness of products and technology

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It’s no accident that Gartner, one of the biggest market research companies covering the IT industry, has developed something called “the hype cycle”. Whatever you may think of the accuracy of the cycle as Gartner portrays it, the fact it exists says a lot about the nature of the industry we operate in. 

What does hype represent? To me, it’s an exaggerated promise of something amazing – spectacular, even. It represents the successful promotion of a feeling of excitement about a new technology or product that’s due to be released at some point in the future.

Excitement is a great way to sell the potential of technology, but it doesn’t often survive the first contact with reality – or rather, the level of excitement or enthusiasm generated by the hype often fails to be matched by the product or technology when it arrives.

So there’s a balance to be struck in managing the hype, between making it exciting enough for people to be engaged and interested in the technology, and ensuring the promotion is not so hyperbolic that customers will be crushingly disappointed when they start to use the product.

In any case, whatever the hype and excitement, technology has to be able to perform the functions and tasks that make it worthwhile for a business or individual to use it effectively. There’s a big difference between promoting technology so that people think they want to use it, and producing technology – be it software, hardware or a service – that they can actually use.

To adopt a sporting analogy, it’s like the hype that’s generated when a football club is in the process of buying a star player. Everyone becomes so swept up in the excitement of the club signalling its ambition and intent in purchasing a marquee signing that they lose track of how that player will make the club better. In too many instances, the player ends up failing to match the expectations generated by the hype.

To take the analogy further, when the player joins the club, it swiftly becomes apparent that he doesn’t fit the style of play and getting the best out of the player requires a change of formation which, in turn, means other players suffer because that formation doesn’t get the best out of them.

To repeat myself, there’s often a conflict between why someone thinks they want the technology and what they can really use it for. It’s the difference between the excitement you feel about something and its effectiveness when you get it.

The problem is that it can be hard to sell something based on its effectiveness; or rather, it can be hard to sell the potential of something based on that. People want to feel more than that it will just be effective, or at least the industry wants them to feel more than that.

Does this matter? If a product or technology is over-hyped, it won’t survive because it won’t do the job people expect it to do and they’ll dump it. But if there’s no sense of anticipation about it, no-one will be enthused to buy it either, even if the technology is very useful and effective.

There’s no harm in promotion, so long as it’s not hyperbolic and overblown. One of the dictionary definitions for hype is “to market or promote (a product) using exaggerated or intensive publicity”. It’s probably worth noting that opinion over the derivation of the word ‘hype’ is split between those who believe it comes from “an injection of narcotics by hypodermic needle” and others who think its roots are in “hyperbole”.

It goes without saying that neither of those derivations should fill the person on the receiving end of hype with great confidence over the claims being made for a particular technology – no matter how exciting it sounds.

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