A couple of thoughts came to me the other night as I prepared for my league’s annual fantasy football draft. On my home office desk, left to right, were arrayed my MacBook Pro (running my draft software), my iPhone 3G (connected to the con call bridge), my trusty iMac (connected to the league web site) and my iPad (ready for alternate research and chat). The first thought was that I take this fantasy thing too seriously. The second was that I have become an Apple FanBoy. As for why, the first answer is easier. I am a very competitive guy, I love football, and let’s just say the prizes are good. On top of that, I became commissioner of our league a couple of years back, and have to mete out frontier justice and constantly herd the cats. All in all, it is fun, a good distraction and almost as therapeutic as cooking. Pondering the Apple question took a bit more time.

My Apple history goes back to MacDraw on SE/30’s, verbal commands (not so good) on the Quadra 840av, and an early PowerBook. My young consulting firm even bartered for Apple equipment with a client in the early 90’s. For a variety of reasons, the market brought us (and me) back to the world of Windows. Apple fought its way back, first with the iPod, then with the iMac and iPhone. It wasn’t too tough to make the laptop switch a few years back, and the iPad purchase was reflexive. Given all that, it has not been all peaches and cream with Apple. My MacBook has crashed badly twice. Fortunately, we have our own Genuis Bar at RDM, so I never had to make the 60 mile trek to an Apple Store to (maybe) get an answer. The iPad shipped with extremely unreliable wifi capability, something I lamented in tweets and emails at the time. The iPhone 3G has not taken well to the latest software upgrades, and a cynic would say that it was a nefarious plot to get FanBoys (and of course, FanGals) to buy the new iPhone 4. You know, the one that drops calls when you hold it… like a phone.

The plot worked, I ordered mine in late August. I got a email saying it had been shipped (earlier than expected) on the evening of my football draft. I was delighted. Clearly, an omen for a successful draft. All was forgiven. What was learned?

To gain loyalty in a highly competitive and rapidly advancing industry, it appears that there are a few things required:

  • Build a great product
  • Continuously advance each product
  • Take ownership of your mistakes: fix them
  • Make your customers experts… and advocates
  • Give them a good reason to switch… to a new product or model
  • Create expectations, and exceed them more often than you fall short of them

Apple has executed on all of these requirements with varying degrees of success. The product museum is littered with well-intentioned but not terrific innovations, such as the Apple III, Lisa, Quadra, and the painfully early Newton.

The list of winners that show off Apple’s penchant for design and function is far longer. They killed the MP3 player market by introducing the iPod. They jumped the smartphone curve with iPhone. They blazed the tablet trail with iPad. They make products that people just want. They relentlessly upgrade, improve and advance each core product. Sometimes the improvements are in design, but more often in function. I wish upgrading iPhone software was easier, but it is what it is, and it eventually upgrades. They quietly fixed the iPad wifi issue with software. It isn’t perfect at this point, but it sure is better. They frankly botched the iPhone 4 antenna debacle. They took too long to admit what was an obvious design flaw and take ownership of the fix. But they did it. I probably would have focused on the solution (the bumpers) before publicly sacking the guy who owned the product internally, but then again, I don’t run Apple. The Apple expert base is almost as pervasive as the fan base. The hardcore types are into jailbreaking and extending function beyond what Apple sees fit to make available. But these experts are the best advocates for the products, and they influence their less technical friends. It is classic and free marketing. Apple’s ability to keep advancing products and having customers trade up is amazing. Ask yourself why the iPod still sells. It is because they keep making it smaller, cooler and cheaper. They know you probably have an iPhone, which is effectively also an iPod, but somehow they manage to make you (not me) want an iPod. Or to buy one for someone else as a gift. Finally, exceeding expectations on a regular basis gives you the currency to survive the instances where you fall short. Shipping my iPhone two weeks early made me happy, and took the edge off the extra dollars that I spent. Now, instead of cursing the slowness of my 3G, I look forward to Thursday when the 4 arrives.

How long Apple can continue to innovate and delight remains to be seen, but the lessons of its success are there to be learned. We try hard to apply those principles at our company. As a larger entity, our industry can apply them as well. We can foster innovation, advance education, own our mistakes, and exceed expectations. We can balance the healthy cynicism that seems to surface often with an equally healthy sense of exploration and inquiry. Things are going to start moving much faster in the coming months and years. New adopters will be far more savvy than early adopters were. Expectations will be higher than ever. We need to make both the early adopters and the new adopters advocates for our industry. People will be watching. Business as usual will not cut it. It will be interesting to see how things shake out as we all recreate and re-imagine DOOH.

For those of you wondering, the draft went well.