Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The great Bluetooth headset marketing machine

It seems that more and more products are being marketed with fluff and image rather than design and substance.  This is an incorrect assessment, of course - the reality is that most products have always been marketed this way.  It's just annoying me personally more and more every year.

I need a Bluetooth headset to replace my aging Cardo Scala 500.  I liked the Scala so much I bought a couple of old-stock units from eBay, but they failed to perform as well, and somehow the Scala does not work as well with my new Xperia X10i.

You'd think that picking up a good headset would be like picking up a decent case - just go out and find it.  Unfortunately, handset accessories are major breadwinner products with little to no substance behind them.  While a case can be judged solely on appearance, and inexpensive enough to take a chance, headsets are not.

So the frustration begins.  I agree with Mark Knowels when he said - nearly 3 years ago - that even reading the marketing nonsense associated with these products is enough to make you vomit.  But the real blame lies at the feet of the so-called 'reviewers' on the net.

In order to fill up their 'column space', reviewers dedicate enormous amounts of prose towards extolling the claimed virtues of the new product, while sadly sacrificing any real-world, objective testing.  Manufacturers specifications and buzzwords are regurgitated ad nauseum without giving the reader the slightest clue as to the real value. 

Most reviews don't even clearly tell you how many buttons a headset is equipped with, preferring instead to hide the fact that many don't even have on-off switches or proper up-down volume controls any more.  Instead, they tout mysterious, magical features such as noise cancellation and multi-device compatibility, while hard specifications like talk time are almost completely arbitrary. 

Even reviews that bring up obvious negative points still manage to end on a high note with a decent product rating.  I've read tons so far, spending a horrible amount of time, and still have little to no idea which units might be worth buying.  It's bloody well paid advertising, and that's all there is to it.

Not to mention that last months 5-star winner is immediately downgraded to a has-been as soon as a newer, 'better' model is released.  Never mind that the previous headset made all the same claims as the latest one.  Never mind that today's $150 headset is tomorrow's $50 version, yet somehow manages to deliver the same performance.  And that for every stellar review, there seems to be someone out there who has a poor experience.

Now, OK, let's be fair here.  Headsets have issues with fit and functionality that vary according to the user, so everyone will have a different experience.  My face is not your face, my ears are not your ears.  But is it so hard, really?

No, it is not.  It is plainly not hard to conduct objective testing on these things, but no one does - not even the 'test lab' sites. 

Examples?  Despite 95% of the population owning a mobile, they can't come up with more than 4 popular devices to test with.  Despite having decibel meters available for decades, they can't come up with a test for how loud a headset.  Despite 90% of the working population having a significant commute, they can't come up with a real-world test against vehicle noise.  It's just about the most pathetic, idiotic thing I have ever seen.

And why?  They're great moneymakers, that's why.  Lacking objective criteria, people will buy the highest priced version they feel comfortable with, in order to reassure themselves that it will work.  After all, for that much money, it must work really well - right?  The cheap ones can't really work so well, can they?  I mean, if they did, they'd be charging more, right?

It's the same psychological marketing that causes people to pay Monster Cable $150 for a piece of wire that cost less than a buck, and provides absolutely no benefit over the $3 cable on the next shelf over.  Despite an convincing array of real-world evidence that shows there is no difference, people continue to pay obscenely inflated prices because it makes them feel better.

Headsets have a short marketing life anyway.  Even if one sucked, by the time word got around it would be replaced with something new.  (Really, everything in these devices is in the control of the IC makers who make the chipsets.  The headset makers just put fancy packaging around it all, and sell on style and not on substance.)

With constant turnover, people hungry for current information will be driven to the 'review' sites, which have an ready-made, ever-expanding topic for future content.  They are advertising supported, thus increasing their 'user base' and 'unique hits per month' metrics and helping to justify their advertising rates.

So the review sites make money, the manufacturers make money, and everyone is happy. Even Joe and Jane Consumer, who is 'satisfied' they made the right choice based on nothing but fancy packaging and retail therapy.

So, in the end, the real blame is on us - the consumers - for falling for it.  Because it's an old joke - and the joke is still on us.

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