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"It's the Simplicity, Stupid" and Other Lessons from the Flip Camera

Last week, Cisco decided to shutter its Flip Video camera division, pulling the plug on one of the remarkable success stories in product innovation of the last decade. It's hard to believe, but it was just five years ago that the modest and affordable Flip Video arrived to disrupt the entire category of video camcorders. Now, the Flip has been disrupted in turn.

Both the Flip's rise and its fall were driven by the power of simplicity. Understanding simplicity can yield lessons for marketers to apply in their own products, services, and communications, no matter what industry they are in.

When the Flip arrived back in 2006, the few customers who were already shooting digital video largely derided this new camcorder for its lack of features and its low resolution. Why would anyone buy a video recorder whose image was not much better than what you could shoot with a digital camera? But the radical value of the Flip was its simplicity. Small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, the Flip featured one-push recording and a flip-out USB key on the side. All you had to do was push to record, push to stop, then plug the USB key into the side of your computer, and . . . voila! The footage was automatically uploaded to your YouTube account and the world. The simplicity of that gesture, repeated on other devices since, has transformed the way people around the world communicate.

Meanwhile, by 2006, YouTube had already made online video incredibly popular by making it simple. Lowering the bar on image quality and focusing instead on ease of use, there were no more worries about codecs, compression rates, and incompatible player formats.

Simplicity of user interface also was key to Apple's launch of the iPhone. The first iPhone leapt past other smartphones on the market by providing a vastly easier user interface for the web and computing. (Does anyone remember the byzantine interface of Windows Mobile? Or trying to email a photo taken on a Blackberry Storm?)

Today, the Flip, and its pocket camcorder brethren from Sony and Kodak, are falling prey to these very same smartphones. Now that every smartphone on the market comes with an HD video recording capability, and even the ability to share wirelessly to the web (and skip the Flip's "stick-USB-in-your-computer" step), who needs a dedicated device for cheap video? Sure, a small percent of users will point to the slight advantages in lenses or other features. But for almost all customers, there's no question. Keeping one device in your pocket is simpler than keeping two. The Flip just couldn't argue with that logic.

A few lessons, then, about simplicIty and its power for disruption:

It's the Simplicity, Stupid Everyone talks about the beauty of Apple's design, from the glowing operating system, to the brushed steel, to the colorful casings. But if Steve Jobs's products were lustrous, gorgeous, and complex, no one would buy them.

Simplicity Beats Features While early reviewers of the iPad carped about all the features it lacked (cameras, flash video, USB ports, a slide out keypad), customers loved how easy it is to use. The iPad makes lightweight computing simpler than any product in history; that's why it's the one product I recommend to every person I meet over 75 years old. If you find yourself arguing for your product because it has more features, you know you've lost.

Simplicity Beats Quality Audiophiles have bemoaned the poor fidelity of MP3 recordings, but that didn't slow down their radical disruption of the music industry. In our digital age, media "quality" is not king. Customers want media that is: accessible (to enjoy whenever and wherever), the right program, personalized, shareable, and (for a generation of mash-ups) malleable. "Image quality" and "fidelity" are secondary. I'm sure most of us would drop our cable subscriptions, if we could watch HBO and live sports on our tablets, phones, and laptops, even though they lack the awesome definition of the giant HD slabs in our living rooms.

Simplicity Drives Mass Adoption A century ago, Eastman Kodak's simple and inexpensive Brownie box camera turned millions of amateurs into first-time photographers after its launch in 1900. In the same way, the simplicity of both the Flip Video and YouTube drove a huge shift in consumer behavior, turning millions of users into videographers for the first time. Today, anyone with a phone can become a media channel, a journalist, or a global witness to events in their home country.

Simpler + Cheaper + Good Enough = A Winner! The killer value proposition in today's economy is a product or service with a clear customer benefit, a simpler experience than competitors, and a competitive price point. This is why cheap mobile phones are taking over the developing world, from Africa to rural India. It's also why the iPad is killing the competition, whose tablets offer more features, but with a more complex interface and a higher price tag.

In their digital lives, consumers want anything that provides better access to their digital experiences â€" whether it's on-demand banking via phones, or cloud-based computing for their small b2b business. Simplicity is one of the keys to creating great access for customers.

What other examples have you seen of great, simple experiences winning over customers?


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David Rogers examines the five core behaviors of networked customers in his newest book, The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age. He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa. Find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/david_rogers
image courtesy of flickr user, Sean Davis