How Did a Time Machine Help Launch IBM’s Watson Analytics?

Marty McFly Rocks!

When I was a teenager, every one of my friends wanted a DeLorean. We didn’t care whether it could go back in time or not. Now that I’m older, that whole time travel thing looks pretty appealing.

Did you know that digital and content marketers CAN go back in time? Yep, that’s right. Have you ever heard of the “WayBack Machine”? Lots of digital professionals know about it, and some have even played with it. But, have you ever actually used it? I’m going to show a case study of how my team used this very cool tool to refine one of IBM’s most important product launches of the year — Watson Analytics.

Leaping Through Time

The WayBack Machine (@waybackmachine) started as a project back in 1996, led by Brewster Kahle (@brewster_kahle). I remember reading about these guys who wanted to archive the web. I thought they were crazy. Now, I can’t imagine NOT having this important history reference.

The WayBack Machine is super easy to use. Just go to Then, type a URL into the “Wayback Machine” box …

Here’s what Google looked like in December 1998 when they launched in beta (hmmm, not much has changed):

Going Back in Time, to Launch a Futuristic Product

IBM recently announced the coming launch of Watson Analytics. Watson Analytics combines some seriously futuristic technologies — predictive analytics, Watson, automation and a host of other very cool capabilities. My team was responsible for the digital experience and content marketing strategy. The challenge we had was how to properly “pre-launch” a product and generate excitement without users being able to immediately use it.

I don’t know about you, but, when I’m confronted with a digital or content marketing challenge, I ponder long and hard … and then I go replicate what someone else did successfully! There is no shame in copying excellence. So, who on planet Earth does the best job at pre-announcing products to drive interest? Google, of course.

Over the years, I’ve been an early participant in many of Google’s projects — Gmail, Google Voice (I was a Grand Central user), Google Desktop and others. They do a great job attracting users and driving a lot of interest. More importantly, they do a great job managing user expectations — Google turns down a lot of applicants to their early release programs.

We knew that Watson Analytics was going to generate a LOT of buzz. We wanted to create an experience that set clear expectations with users. On the one hand, we needed to drive interest. On the other hand, we needed to manage expectations to ensure a great overall digital experience.

We decided to take a look at Google Glass — one of Google’s most recent innovations. We started by honing in on the key pre-beta launch period which was April, 2014 and looking at their site around those times:

By using the Wayback Machine, we could see that up until April 10, Google used high level messaging on their site to promote the Explorer program. On April 10, they started driving to sign people up for the Explorer program, which was starting on April 15. On April 16, just 6 days after starting signups for the program, Google hit their limit and people were placed on a waiting list.

Watson Analytics — Show Time!

We didn’t necessarily want or need to copy Google’s approach. However, using Google as a model highlighted some key principles and confirmed some of the decisions we had already made:

  • Tell the story with as much information as you have. It’s tricky to pre-launch a product when your content team has little information about the product to work with. Build as much content around a set of stories as possible.
  • Keep the sign-up simple. Our form system needed modernizing and Watson Analytics was a great place to start. We created a sign-up experience that led to double digit conversion rates.
  • Provide clear expectations to users. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. We tried to be clear about what happens next and how users will get access to the product when it’s ready.

Going back in time and seeing how others solved problems similar to yours can be an incredible way to jumpstart any digital or content marketing initiative. There’s no shame in leveraging what others have done. The great thing about the internet is that it’s one big universe of people smarter than you (and me). We’d be fools to not use other people’s wisdom, insight and expertise.