Pownce Shuts Down: A Branding Post-Mortem

Micro-blogging service and Twitter competitor Pownce is shuttering its site. Presumably the company was purchased by SixApart (makers of the MovableType and TypePad blogging software and service), and its technology will presumably be rolled into a SixApart offering at some point in the future.

Pownce never reached the critical mass of Twitter despite having arguably better technology (though at the much lower user numbers a true load testing crucible like experienced by Twitter this year never happened), which prompted me to look into the branding aspects of this "failure to thrive":

While "Pownce" is by no means the worst Web 2.0 start-up name out there, it’s also far from ideal. The name SOUNDS good, but presents spelling problems. You don’t want your early adopter users and everyone else to have to spell your company or site name every time it is passed on. You may think that this seems like a minor detail, but for almost any Web start-up concerned with mass services, velocity of the spread of the idea is paramount.

Pownce also likely fell prey to what I call the "too cute by half syndrome", in that the name may relate to the posture/spelling of the hacker term "pwned", which means to "own a computer by root access through password hacking", and by extension just to "own someone or something" as in beating them thoroughly in a contest. So the name may have made for a cute geeky insider joke, but either way did little to advance the mission of the company to spread their micro-blogging service faster than its competitors (of which some like Twitter had a head-start).

The name also does little to describe or even merely allude to what the service was doing for its users, unlike Twitter, which with its name and bird imagery created a story in people’s minds that Twitter was about super short, rapid, distance-independent messages, which came to be known as "Tweets": The image of birds hectically twittering away to each other in a dizzying symphony of missives was concrete enough that more people hearing about and/or testing out Twitter almost instantly got the point.

Even though there are large numbers of people who test Twitter and subsequently think that Twitter is, well, for the birds, the point is not about a potential user ultimately liking the service, just whether the brand name immediately helped them get what was going on or not. This is the kind of thing that ultimately gets you awareness saturation, like being mentioned NIGHTLY on CNN, etc. (you can’t buy something as good as Anderson Cooper constantly mentioning your service, as in "check out our account on Twitter…").

(By the way, I am in the process of updating an original "Twitter for Business" private forum post of mine to put up on the blog, which explains about a dozen ways in which Twitter can be used advantageously for your business. Stay tuned.)

The English language already has the idiom of "the place was all atwitter with the news of the …" and similar constructions, further helping the meme of fast, rumor-like spreading of news to stick. "Pownce" evokes no such allusions, instead it at best brings up ideas of "pouncing" on prey. Not something that seems to have much to do with the goal of the service, which their slogan stated was: "We send stuff to our friends."

Again, I repeat, Pownce had some superior technology features compared to Twitter (including allowing the sending of image, audio, and video files, and several other value added features), but it failed to capitalize on it and grab mind and user share. This branding stuff really does matter!

Wallop: Microsoft’s Branding Cluelessness Claims Another Victim

Microsoft’s indirect attempt at a youthful social networking site, Wallop, is packing it in after 2.5 years as a venture-backed spin-off company.

And one thing appears to be clear: Regardless of the merits of the technology and features behind the platform, Wallop never had much of a chance of succeeding during the same time frame in which first MySpace and then Facebook rose to massive prominence.

Why? Because the “Wallop” brand name that the new owners (presumably voluntarily) took over from Microsoft Research Labs is simply a horrible idea branding-wise.

One can almost see how a group of middle aged techies thought it sounded sort of cool. But as reality has proven, there are a number of things wrong with the name:

1) It is a generic noun/verb and as such creates little differentiation in the mental real estate of consumers.

2) It is confusing in terms of giving no indication what “Wallop” is supposed to do for its users. Brand names like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook on the other hand give a reasonable hint. When you are free to choose, when in doubt opt for something that makes a modicum of sense, and actually helps make your case as a company.

(Granted that a number of very successful companies have used “non-sequitur” names – Google, Amazon, and Yahoo come to mind. But that was during the Web 1.0 era when it was a lot easier to break through the noise, and get your share of attention to imprint your brand on the mental real estate of consumers. Also, back then everything Web was still so new and wondrous…)

3) Worst of all, the only association it does have is with something negative and somewhat archaic sounding, per the American Heritage Dictionary, “Wallop – v. tr. 1. To beat soundly; thrash. 2. To strike with a hard blow.”

Given that Wallop apparently started out as a photo sharing site at Microsoft Research, the name makes even less sense. But one should NEVER use a name in branding that conjures up potentially negative associations. Unless you know exactly what you are doing (as in some youth slang were “bad”, “ill”, etc. actually means “good” – or at least has in the past), and know your target market audience to a T.

Not so good if your 15-30 year-old target market for a social networking site associates your brand name (even if more or less unconsciously) with spankings they may have received by their parents, or on the playground.

4) It is missing any kind of pleasantness in sound, rhythm, or rhyme that would make it more likely to be repeated by people (to themselves or to others), which may seem trite, but in reality can make a huge difference in the adoption of your brand name “meme”.

Wallop rolls of the tongue like a sack of potatoes. Its particular combination of consonants and vowels leaves it oddly unpleasant to say (maybe that’s because the word originally denotes an unpleasant event). Just try it out-loud to yourself a few times: “Hey dude, go check out that party invite I put up on Wallop.”

5) There could be spelling issues in terms of people hearing it word-of-mouth (if it weren’t for the fact that people are already less likely to repeat it very often), as to the number of L’s and P’s, also never an advantage in getting something to spread “virally”.

Do your homework…

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