As an old dog in technology marketing and research, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the emergence of many new products and categories and observe the traction (or lack thereof) that the products get in the marketplace.
I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard about blockchain. I was speaking with a PR executive at the IBM booth at the Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona in 2014 as part of due diligence for the possibility of a media launch in that sector. In asking the IBM’er about what gaps she saw in the editorial landscape for the smart cities sector, she said, “You know what is really needed in the tech media marketplace? A property on this new thing called ‘blockchain.’ There’s nothing out there for technology wonks to read.”
My first inclination was to bluff it and reply: “Oh, yes, blockchain! Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen anything in that niche either!”
But common sense prevailed and I asked what most people would even today: “What the heck is a blockchain?” For some strange reason, the imagery in my mind was of something you’d use to tow a car out of a ditch.
As the PR person began to describe exactly what blockchain meant, I came to realize what I know to this day. This is one of those technologies that, despite simplification, is very difficult to describe in digestible sound bites. It reminded me of the now-famous dialogue about “the cloud” between Cameron Diaz (Annie) and Jason Segal (Jay) in the comedy “Sex Tape”:
Jay: “It went up! It went up to the cloud!”
Annie: “And you can’t get it down from the cloud?”
Jay: “Nobody understands the cloud! It’s a f***ing mystery!”
As a journalist and researcher, this communications challenge made me even more interested in how the evolving technology is being marketed.
Despite the incredible security powers of the technology, the challenges with verbalizing blockchain (even to the most technology savvy) can be described in a few ways.
Bitcoin, catch-22 and other challenges
First, blockchain carries the unfortunate baggage of an equally sketchy technology in the form of bitcoin. This mysterious faux-currency transfer platform has been stereotypically associated with transactions among drug and arms dealers, cyber ransom payments, and funding political revolutionaries.
From a communicators’ perspective, as soon as the description of blockchain technology begins with the word “bitcoin,” the listener’s mind almost immediately pauses and says, “Whoa, did he just say bitcoin?”
Blockchain explainers will try to separate the “bitcoin protocol” from the bitcoin currency that serves as its security foundation. But if CSOs in a consumer products company are explaining HQ investment in blockchain to their C-level management, they should plan some extra time to visualize what this all means as compared to discussions of cloud and interoperability platforms.
The second issue is the blockchain catch-22. After convincing your CIO or CEO that this technology is applicable to the enterprise, the next question will be whether there are use cases as it pertains to peer companies in that industry sector. Even the more mature blockchain vendors will tell you that their challenge is having a depth of case studies in enough industries at this point.
In this regard, the other challenge is that blockchain is so deeply rooted in mission-critical cybersecurity strategies, many companies do not give permission for public case studies. Even worse is that there are very few public examples of “blockchain gone wrong” — CTOs and CSOs have a difficult time estimating what the deployment challenges will be in any meaningful way.
Last, blockchain puts tremendous pressure on the vendor to serve as a trusted partner in the education, case study, evaluation and implementation process. Unlike other mainstream applications and platforms, blockchain requires serious skills inventory to determine how much internal intellectual resource investment is needed way beyond the purchase price. Most vendors realize that developing that continuum of trust throughout the process is critical. But enterprise IT buyers still have a bitter taste in their mouths about “not being loved tomorrow” after major investments. The thought of being left out on a limb with something as complex as blockchain can create high anxiety.
As evidenced by the exponential increase in media coverage on blockchain over just the past year, it appears that some of these identity problems are being addressed over the power of this platform and its application to a variety of industries. It will be interesting to see when blockchain crosses over to mainstream and we can explain it to our kids at the dinner table!