Thom’s Buzz Wave Theory


Since the late 80’s I’ve been well aware of something that happens in the description of new tech products and technology: journalistic and public reaction follows something of a wave (note: I sometimes call it a sine wave but it's really a decaying and variable wave). If the “proper” reaction would be that flat black line in the illustration, initial reaction will go higher than that line if an item is perceived to be needed/useful and/or the marketing was good, or it might go lower than the expected line if the perception is that the product isn’t needed/useful and/or the marketing was bad. We’ve seen examples of both in the camera market.

How far from the proper reaction line you are at given time is determined by a lot of things.

Companies want their new products to be perceived as “hot” (in the green part of the wave) because this juices initial sales and kicks off the word-of-mouth echo. Companies also want the buzz to stay on the positive side of the line forever, but that rarely happens.

What typically happens is that the product is initially over-hyped to its reality, but opinions eventually push the buzz trend downward, going below the proper reaction line and becoming negative compared to the reality of the product. How fast that happens depends upon a few things: (1) how good the product really is; (2) how long it is before the bulk of those talking about it have actually gotten a chance to try/use the product; (3) whether the buzz was about things that turn out to be actually useful; and (4) whether there are downsides to the product that were ignored in the early buzz. Early reviews and First Looks from influencers can distort just how positive or negative the initial buzz about a product is. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to name names about how that happened with the Nikon Z’s initial mirrorless autofocus commentary.

The important thing about using waves as a metaphor is that customer perception/reaction rarely is fixed. People overreact to marketing and promotion of “new", then they get over disappointed when it doesn’t meet their enhanced expectations. Eventually, enough people actually use the product and pass on their considered thoughts that the overly negative response tempers and we head back towards positive descriptions. 

Over time, the cycles tend to get longer, but the strength of these views gets smaller. Eventually the overall perception typically ends up just above or below the proper reaction line. Thus, the initial over/under cycles are really important to the success of a product. High positive buzz early on starts a product off right, high negative buzz early on can doom a product. 

Cameras today are four-year products in terms of sales cycles. A few last longer than that (eight years is really, really good), a few don’t last that long (two years is problematic because it implies no replacement product sales overlap). 

So let’s talk about some cameras. The Nikon D800 had a really high initial response that was a bit bipolar. While some of us were really interested in the product, there was an awful lot of “why do I need 36mp?” and “it’s not a D700 replacement" response at the announcement. I judged the initial reaction as somewhat negative. That turned into a highly positive reaction when first samples got into people’s hands and people discovered just how good that camera was, then got distorted into a bad negative cycle of response when the left-side AF problems surfaced. Eventually the cycle flipped back to positive as cameras got fixed and people really used them. The D800 buzz wave was slightly down at announce, highly up as people really figured out what that camera was, moderately down as shipping delays and focus issues surfaced, but eventually ended up in a positive region. 

The Sony A1 initial buzz has been highly positive. Just as the EVF-shutdown-in-strong-light and IS-slow-to-respond complaints started to scale up, Sony issued a firmware update addressing those issues. Good for Sony. They’re doing everything they can to extend the over-positive buzz on that camera and keep things from eroding down to the negative. Canon’s upcoming R3 and Nikon’s upcoming Z9 have the potential to damp the Sony buzz temporarily if those products really deliver on some new things. So Sony marketing has its work cut out for them in trying to extend the positive cycle and keep its strength up. 

Recently we’ve seen more and more bipolar response to camera introductions, though. The Sony A7C (and upcoming ZV-E10 or whatever the APS-C version is called) comes to mind. For a vlogger, yes I can see why they were excited. For the more traditional camera user the complaint was “where’s the A7 Mark IV?” This points to a tricky problem for the camera marketing departments to navigate: not every camera is for every user. 

Which brings me to the Nikon Zfc. This is definitely not the camera for every user, because there’s a very different-but-same model sitting right next to it (Z50). Nikon marketing is clearly aware of this, as they’ve been totally quiet about the Z50 while constantly emphasizing the “casual user” nature of the Zfc (with a small nod towards vlogging). 

The problem is that Nikon isn’t managing the buzz from the bulk of their user base, which is trending negative. I keep seeing the following: “why did Nikon waste engineering and resources on this when X hasn’t been done?” If you’re going to introduce a product for a more niche customer you have to placate your non-niche customers at the same time or else they can start to drive the buzz downwards on you (that's one reason why Nikon used to announce an FX lens at the same time as a DX body, or vice versa). That’s exactly what’s happening with the Zfc. The danger is that if the Zfc gets into users hands and they discover that the retro dials really aren’t used all that often (not in Auto ISO, not in P or A modes, etc.), the initial retro buzz dies and the overall buzz goes negative because of the non-niche users. This happened with the Df, and I believe it might happen again with the Zfc. 

Had Nikon dropped a couple of well-considered firmware updates for their main cameras alongside the Zfc, Nikon could have controlled the bipolar buzz that’s happening with the Zfc. In fact, a Z50 firmware update that applied the things that aren't changed with hardware in the Zfc would have eased fears a lot.

At the moment, the buzz for the Zfc is clearly on the positive side, but without a lot of strength. When cameras get into user hands we’ll get another wave of buzz, and I don’t know which way that will go. However, I note that the first big review in China (Xitek) dings the Zfc for lack of lenses (buzz, buzz ;~). 

With more and more cameras being bought over the Internet—and fewer brick and mortar dealers to visit to see things firsthand—my Buzz Wave Theory is becoming more and more important. What a camera maker really wants now is positive buzz off announcement that drives a big initial wave of buying, and those buyers to push another wave of buying when they start saying they’re happy with the camera they bought (I should note in passing that this is being gamed on the Internet with “paid” user reviews). 

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