It didn’t take long for critics to go after Apple’s recent product event at Steve Jobs Theater. However, the backlash had a dramatically different tone this time around. Instead of focusing on the new products unveiled on stage, much of the criticism was aimed at the event itself.
The New York Times ran an opinion piece calling for the end of Apple keynotes and claiming there is no longer a place for such “pageants” in today’s polarizing world. Others took to Twitter to say how Apple’s dessert offerings suggested the company is tone deaf or to complain about members of the audience becoming too emotional while hearing Apple Watch users tell stories of how the device saved their lives.
While Apple cynicism isn’t new, the preceding opinions represent a new kind of outrage. Apple keynotes remain some of the most valuable marketing events in today’s media landscape. In addition, keynotes provide a number of intangibles that it would be difficult for Apple to communicate any other way. It is in Apple’s best interest to continue hosting keynotes and product events, especially as the company moves into the wearables era.
In an opinion piece titled, “The Last Apple Keynote (Let’s Hope),” Charlie Warzel wrote:
“But what started as a Steve Jobs TED talk has become a parody — a decadent pageant of Palo Alto executives, clothed in their finest Dad Casual, reading ad copy as lead-ins for vaguely sexual jump-cut videos of brushed aluminum under nightclub lighting. The events are exhausting love letters to consumerism complete with rounds of applause from the laptop-lit faces of the tech blogging audience when executives mention that you (yes you!) can hold the future in your hands for just $24.95 per month or $599 with trade-in.
The entire event is at odds with our current moment — one in which inequality, economic precarity and populist frustration have infiltrated our politics and reshaped our relationships with once-adored tech companies. But it’s not just the tech backlash. When the world feels increasingly volatile and fragile, it feels a little obscene to gather to worship a $1,000 phone. Serving journalists pastries topped with gold leaf doesn’t do much to help either.”
My initial reaction to Warzel’s article was that it must have been some kind of manufactured outrage piece since the “pageant” he describes didn't come close to describing an actual Apple keynote. The media doesn’t “worship” Apple at these events. The rounds of applause aren’t coming from the media / press.
The following screenshot from inside Steve Jobs Theater during the recent Apple event does a good job of showing who attends Apple keynotes at Steve Jobs Theater. Contrary to what some may think, the media and press, denoted by the laptops in use, make up 55% to 60% of the audience. The rest of the crowd is comprised of Apple employees, guests, and VIPs.
Apple’s decision to serve refreshments, which did include delicious desserts, isn’t obscene. Instead, it’s a courtesy extended to guests who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to eat anything. Many tech writers and reviewers spend up to six hours on Apple event days doing their jobs (shooting videos, taking photographs, getting hands-on time with the products, filing reports by strict deadlines).
After reading Warzel’s piece a few times, the only logical takeaway was that the Apple keynote was a victim of a deeper discontent that he holds towards Apple. Warzel sounded uncomfortable with the idea of Apple having the audacity to sell approachable luxury in a world that is apparently turning against tech companies.
Not surprisingly, Warzel failed to recognize any reason why Apple keynotes still matter and are of immense value in today’s media landscape.
Apple derives three primary benefits from its keynotes:
Earned Media. Apple keynotes command days of media coverage during an era when the news cycle is measured in hours. No other company is able to grab the kind of attention that Apple earns. When taking into account previews published ahead of Apple events and the various reviews in the days that follow, it is conceivable that Apple receives hundreds of millions of dollars of free press from a single keynote.
Theater and Design. Apple events are productions built and designed to provide an experience to those in attendance. This is one reason why Steve Jobs Theater is so important to Apple. The event venue ends up telling guests a little bit about the people who built the products announced on stage. The typical Apple keynote audience will include representatives from various Apple partners, industry leaders, and special guests.
Employee Morale Boost. No one wants the product that they have spent two or more years working on to be unveiled to the world in a press release. Instead, to have that new idea unveiled on stage at an event watched by a few million people provides an amount of satisfaction and accomplishment that goes a long way given the sacrifice that went into making that product a reality.
Any one of those items by themselves would be reason enough for Apple to continue putting on keynotes. With all three factors on display at most keynotes, there is no valid or logical reason for Apple to stop hosting these events. Holding keynotes is a smart and rational business decision for Apple.
The Apple keynote isn’t a static entity. What used to be smaller affairs targeting technology writers and gadget reviewers have evolved into global events bringing together people from different continents and diverse backgrounds.
Although it is now difficult to believe, Apple keynotes weren’t even live-streamed as recently as a few years ago. Instead, event live blogs were the only way to find out what Apple was even announcing. Meanwhile, the recent event at Steve Jobs Theater was live-streamed on YouTube for the first time and reportedly had three million viewers.
The now iconic iPod unveiling at Apple’s Town Hall auditorium back in 2001 doesn’t look anything like the modern day Apple keynote.
Apple events used to be targeted toward tech writers and gadget reviewers who would publish the all-important “yes” or “no” decision as to whether or not a new Apple product was worthy of purchase. Walt Mossberg, the dean of gadget reviewers, symbolized this era. Things are dramatically different today. No single reviewer or publication holds enough influence to make or break a new Apple product.
The Apple keynote presentation itself has changed dramatically as well. Fifteen years ago, Apple keynotes consisted primarily of Steve Jobs going through slide after slide with a few demoes here and there. In January 2007, during the iPhone unveiling, Steve Jobs was on stage by himself for 88% of the 103-minute presentation. Much of his focus was spent on making the case for why a certain new Apple product should exist. Apple had a user base that was a fraction of its current size. Steve ended up selling more than just the product announced on stage. Steve was selling Apple.
In contrast, last week’s Apple keynote had nine different presenters, Apple employees who worked on the product being unveiled. Tim Cook, in what has become his usual role of a master of ceremonies, was on stage for approximately 14% of the time.
A few years ago, the Apple keynote was thought to be on its last legs. Thanks to the rise of social media, Apple events were expected to have trouble remaining relevant in the news cycle for longer than a few hours. In addition, it wasn’t entirely clear how Apple would handle critical product unveilings, demos, and “one more things” that had been handled by Steve.
As it turned out, the Apple keynote went on to not just maintain its influence, but to actually gain value in today’s media landscape.
Apple bet big on video.
Apple keynotes now include a heavy reliance on video for handling many segments of the traditional presentation. Everything from showing off products for the first time to going over the product’s sales pitch is handled by video. It helps that these videos are very well done.
While Apple’s initial move to video was viewed as a way to handle the presentation role that had been given to Steve, the increased usage of videos began to serve other purposes. Videos shown during Apple events now go on to be watched and passed around on social media. In 2007, the iPhone unveiling consisted of six short videos, most of which were just clips of TV shows and movies, representing 2% of stage time. At last week’s Apple event at Steve Jobs Theater, 11 videos were shown, representing nearly 22% of stage time. Three of those videos, some of which went on to be included in ad campaigns, have a collective 55M views on YouTube.
Apple extended this bet on video to include 120-second comical recaps of its keynotes. The videos have been receiving rave reviews after each event. Such recap videos were unimaginable just a few years ago as they would have been looked at as Apple essentially telling people not to bother watching the full presentation. As it turned out, the recap videos have become a great way for Apple to bring the keynotes to life. Recap videos receive four to five times the number of views as the full keynotes. Relatively speaking, few people go back to rewatch a 100-minute Apple keynote. However, people do go back and watch a two-minute recap video of that 100-minute Apple keynote.
Apple is in a league of its own when it comes to product unveilings. Amazon’s strategy of shipping duds and failures in an attempt to find something that people will like doesn’t support large-scale product keynotes and events.
Google has tried to get into the hardware event mindset, but the company just doesn’t seem interested in following Apple down the big keynote path. Microsoft and Samsung try to emulate Apple keynotes with both companies going heavy on the theatrical side of things. At the end of the day, keynotes from these companies just aren’t able to generate and sustain the level of buzz and interest that Apple creates.
There are two areas in which Apple can improve the keynote.
Onstage demoes need to be rethought.
Aim for greater secrecy.
Giving previous stage time to game or app demoes is increasingly questionable. This isn’t meant to say that we have moved past demoes altogether and Apple should simply fill the time with more videos. There is a role for demoes to play if showing something in the flesh can prove a point more effectively than a simple video can - not an easy thing to accomplish given how good Apple’s marketing videos have become. However, a balance is needed between the tangible demo and video.
It’s been a while since there has been a memorable demo at an Apple keynote. One example that jumps out at me is from 20 years ago when Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP marketing, jumped off a 20-foot ledge.
Another example is the Steve Jobs’ hula hoop demo. In both cases, the demoes were a clever way of highlighting the “freedom” associated with Wi-Fi on an iBook.
One reason the preceding demos worked so well was that they were performed in front of a massive audience of developers. Even today, Apple’s WWDC keynotes have a different vibe than events at Steve Jobs Theater given the 5,000 developers in the audience.
With on stage demos come risks, and it is understandable that Apple would want to de-risk its keynotes as much as possible. Two years ago, a minor mishap with a Face ID demo ended up being one of the most talked about items from Apple’s event with some going so far as to say the demo failure meant the feature wasn’t ready for prime time. Such a demo failure probably wouldn’t have been made into as big of a deal ten years earlier.
Well-done demos can give keynotes a certain amount of soul. During Apple’s Services event this past March, the “demo” involving Hollywood celebrities played out well from the perspective of being in the audience. Apple had a message that it wanted to push forward - it had the ability to grab the biggest names in Hollywood for Apple TV+, and the “demo” effectively reflected that message.
As we move further into the wearables era, Apple demoes involving smart glasses could prove to be a great way of unveiling new ideas and concepts to the world. The recent string of AR demoes at Apple keynotes have left much to be desired as people simply run around empty tables or desks with iPads in hand.
The other area that can always be improved upon is secrecy. There is something about seeing or learning about a product for the first time when it is announced on stage. Google’s decision to soft unveil the Pixel 4 removes much of the oxygen from its upcoming Pixel hardware event. While it’s not easy for Apple to maintain secrecy around unannounced products, the company has seen more success on the secrecy front recently. Last week, Apple was able to surprise the world by positioning an always-on display as a key feature of the Apple Watch Series 5. The feature didn’t leak beforehand.
Apple keynotes end up reminding me a lot of Apple retail stores. The success found with each item ultimately depends on the product being sold. If Apple doesn’t have compelling products that people are interested in, the keynotes used to demonstrate such products will fall flat.
While some may hold cynicism towards a trillion dollar company unveiling $1,400 Apple Watches and $1,100 iPhones in an underground theater that cost more than $100M to build, such a stance ignores the impact Apple products are having on people’s lives. Apple keynotes end up being a way for the people building these tools to tell the world why such products should exist and how they can be used to improve the lives of a billion people. There is still a role for the Apple keynote to play in today’s always-changing world.
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