Unless you live in a cave, you probably know that Apple will soon announce a tablet computer. The details have been wrapped in Apple's characteristic cloak of mystery. The company is saying nothing, clamping a gag order on business partners and refusing to respond to media inquiries.
And the blogosphere is going nuts. More than 10,000 Web sites devoted to Apple have been speculating for months. One has collected more than 60 independently produced conceptual designs of what the device may look like. Apple was the talk of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this month, despite the fact that it didn't exhibit.
Apple is often criticized for its opacity. It has no social media program of any consequence. It's the only major technology company without a blog. It has no presence on Facebook and no online customer community. Its secrecy would make the organizers of the Manhattan Project proud. And the strategy works just fine.
A few miles up the road from Apple, the other giant of the Internet age conducts business very differently. At Google, concepts are tested in public online “labs.” The company's mainstream services may carry an experimental “beta” tag for years. Google gives away a lot of software and makes it easy for third parties to build upon its platforms.
Google's social media strategy matches its open style. The company rarely holds press conferences, preferring to announce most of its products on blogs. In fact, Google hosts dozens of blogs devoted to company projects and issues. Developers write with considerable freedom about what they're doing and invite commentary from customers.
These are two successful technology companies operating with social media strategies that are polar opposites. Each is brilliant in its own way.
Apple's benign neglect mobilizes its fan base as few companies do. Apple can freeze markets by simply hinting at its plans. The speculation that follows puts even competitors with real products on the defensive. By the time Apple has something real to announce, it has benefited from word-of-mouth awareness that millions in ad dollars couldn't duplicate.
In contrast, Google plants its flag in a new market long before it delivers a finished product. It uses social media very differently to build barriers to entry. Invitation-only licenses are distributed, creating scarcity that drives demand. Google's vast customer base forms an ongoing focus group and a low-cost marketing channel. Third-party developers write enhancements at no cost to Google that further distance its products from the competition's.
Which company uses social media more effectively? I'd call it a tie. Apple releases no product until it's fully baked. Google never stops baking. Both companies have strategies that perfectly match their unique styles.