When Cisco Systems introduced its latest big line of routers last week, it threw in something that's never come in a major platform from the company before: Fun.
The launch of the ASR1000 series of WAN edge routers was accompanied by a Facebook group, a product demonstration in the virtual world Second Life and a series of online video commercials that feature Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and other fairy-tale figures as IT managers. To top it all off, chairman and CEO John Chambers introduced the product in an online video event where viewers could post questions as he talked.
This was a departure for Cisco, an IT giant traditionally known for dull blue-green racks of Ethernet ports and fine-print fact sheets listing interface speeds and acronyms. But since late 2006, the San Jose company has seemingly been looking south to Hollywood for inspiration. It launched TelePresence, a big-screen, high-definition form of videoconferencing, and acquired collaboration and social-networking companies.
Cisco's idea was that a networking vendor should help enterprises collaborate and reach their customers, and that social-networking technology will creep into business through the back door. If employees are going to congregate online instead of in person, why not sell the virtual water cooler?
For the ASR1000 launch, the company used all its traditional marketing tools, such as press briefings, direct email and product data on its website. But it added several Web 2.0 pieces to reach a wider audience and also show what the new, high-powered router is needed for.
At Cisco's virtual campus in Second Life, the company gave a stage presentation and then led participants into a building with visual demonstrations of the ASR1000, including one in which more than 150 current Cisco routers morphed into a single ASR1000, showing off its space-saving qualities. The initial event drew 60 or 70 participants, according to Doug Webster, director of service-provider marketing. Typical of Second Life, it wasn't exactly a buttoned-down audience.
"It was an interesting situation, talking about the power of the Quantum Flow Processor to people without their clothes on," Webster said.
The Facebook group, "Cisco Support Group for Uber User Internet Addicts", had about 550 members worldwide by Wednesday afternoon, and though a good chunk of them identified themselves as Cisco employees, many were affiliated with other companies, universities, or just themselves. In the group's forum, there were only seven discussion topics, and only one of those, "Submit Your Top Signs of an Internet Addict," had more than 10 entries. But the participants on that board seemed to be having fun. "You search for Wi-Fi hotspots when planning a family camping trip," wrote one member. A Cisco moderator compiled a Top 20 list of those addiction signs.
The group's page also directs visitors to Edge Quest, which may or may not be the world's first routing video game.
Tony Bates, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's service provider group, appears in sunglasses as Network Commander Bates and warns players: "The future of the worldwide network is relying on you." Then they fly a sleek spacecraft, the back end of which looks surprisingly similar to an ASR1000.
Cisco's prerecorded launch event, which was repeated four times in 20 hours to reach people in different time zones, featured about half an hour of presentations by Chambers, other Cisco executives and customers. About 7,000 people participated, Webster said.
Questions were moderated, but by using the format, Cisco bravely opened itself up to a real-time dialogue with users. "Is this all marketing talk or is he going to say something that makes sense?" wrote one viewer, who called himself Ryan. The moderator pointed Ryan to a webpage full of product specifications. But most questions were pointed and technical. The company clearly had found its audience.
"Is this router appropriate for an environment with multiple full BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) feeds?" one observer asked. Yes, Cisco replied, and provided a link to a page with test results.
The event came off smoothly but exposed at least one pitfall of the medium.
"Why is this product so loud?" one observer asked after a close-up shot of an ASR1000. "Is that the live noise from the fan?" another wrote.
"The noise may be enhanced due to the sensitive nature of the microphones used for the filming," Cisco replied.
"We think the audience can give us a little dramatic leeway for things like that," Webster said.