April 25, 2010

Steve Jobs: Apple's One Man Social Media Machine

In a time when the company's core business has grown to record highs, with its iPhone business, flanked by Mac sales, iTunes store revenue, software and peripherals all contributing to Apple's strongest position of all time, the company has practically opted out of the trendy move most of its peers have embraced - social media. There are no official Apple blogs, and with the exception of its iTunes Music property, there is little to see from Apple on Twitter and Facebook.

This has not impacted the company negatively, as it gets plenty of press from the Mac faithful and increasingly curious mainstream media, but in the last few months, a surprising trend has emerged - as the company's cofounder and CEO, Steve Jobs, has taken on a much more active role in responding to customers one to one from his personal e-mail account, reducing the barriers needed for end users to engage with one of the most influential people in the world. In effect, Jobs' usually quick one-liner e-mails are providing the same results many have championed with social media - access to customers, rapid response times, and providing a human face to a business.

Steve's attention to detail, and most would argue, control, over Apple's efforts is legendary. While Apple's media events have recently seen an increased number of executives speaking on behalf of the company, it is still Steve who starts things off, wraps things up, and orchestrates the process in between. Rank and file Apple employees, like those who would manage the company's social media properties, if they were active, are not blessed with the option to speak on behalf of the company, and those who make even the most minor of mistakes are at risk for termination.

Thus, there is a vacuum for official Apple news between company press releases and events. As the company has gained a higher profile with its iPad introduction, regular iPhone upgrades, and constant introductions at the iTunes store, users and developers with questions are increasingly turning to ask Steve directly about company plans, policies or even to send off notes of frustration. And he's answering. Not all of them, no doubt, and not often with significant length, but one doesn't need 1,000 words from Steve when 10 or 50 will suffice. These nuggets seem to be a big shift from Cupertino, historically tight-lipped and non-responsive to rumors or other inquiries, and it will be very interesting to see if this move is a fad, which fades quickly, or if Steve can scale as it becomes more widely known that you can reach him by simply lobbing an e-mail.

While this one man social media experiment exists, you can see Steve responding:There are many more, but the pace is rapidly increasing, especially now that Jobs has his iPad at home. Maybe it's the environment he wanted to fire off one-line e-mails to customers, or just him getting more smooth as he ages, but it's become a highly effective press channel that doesn't need Mossberg and Goldman and others to interpret what he says as he can go directly to those who care - and I don't know of any similar high profile tech CEOs who are making themselves as accessible as Steve is in this way. Is Eric Schmidt responding to e-mail? Is Mark Zuckerberg? Ev Williams (@ev) occasionally posts replies on Twitter, but not to the types of questions Steve is fielding. I just hope Steve has found his comfort zone, and that this can be something that continues, so we don't see Apple as an impenetrable silo, but one that talks back, even if it's still through one unique individual.