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How Apple Stokes the iPhone Event Hype Machine

What do you do when everyone already knows what’s being announced?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For Susie Ochs, the fervor of Apple media events reaches a desperate point during the hour-long waiting period before the show. It’s when hyper-caffeinated tech journalists mull around outside of the auditorium, picking at the company’s catered breakfast, refreshing their Twitter feeds, and filling their live blogs with anything they can drum up.

“You have to duck Facebook Live broadcasts,” Ochs, who is the executive editor of the Apple-focused website Macworld, told me. “People are Periscoping it. People are taking pictures with their phones, and posting them to their live blog, like: ‘Here’s the building with the logo on the side of it.’ Like, ‘Here’s 10 tweets before we’ve even entered the building.’”

These are symptoms of the invisible but very significant forces that generate excitement leading up to every Apple event. Since Steve Jobs’s legendary iPhone presentation at the Macworld Expo in 2007 — a moment that launched a thousand live blogs — the company’s media events have commanded special attention. No matter the content or format of an Apple launch, there remains a voracious appetite for product details, so much so that the company has spawned a minimarket for online rumor-mongering.

But a lot has changed since the company’s innovative streak in the aughts. Jobs, a consummate showman, is no longer at Apple’s helm, and over the past decade, the tech giant’s announcements have become routine, focusing on existing-product updates rather than completely novel devices. Though the hype-generating infrastructure that was perfected under Jobs’s leadership remains very much intact — and continues to push a seasonal cycle of expectancy that peaks at the company’s fall iPhone event — excitement over the company’s launches has waned in recent years.

“Apple hasn’t had a lot of big surprises in recent rollouts, and I think that has negatively affected the sheer volume of chatter,” Christopher Heine, the technology editor at Adweek, told me. “I don’t think the latest iPhone and iPad editions are enough anymore to drive a crazy level of interest. People seem to think, ‘I’ve been there, done that.’”

That fatigue is palpable leading up to Apple’s iPhone 7 event — which starts Wednesday at 10 a.m. PT and is rumored to present a gadget that is similar to the current design, except for the removal of the headphone jack. But the prospect of a disappointing launch does little to penetrate the behind-the-scenes efforts from Apple’s PR fortress before, during, and after the event.

The Lead-up

Though buzz around Apple’s fall event typically begins in August, the first seeds of anticipation are planted months before, on the stage of the company’s annual Worldwide Developer’s Conference. Officially, its keynote presentation is meant for the programmers who paid to attend four days’ worth of seminars about the latest updates to Swift, the programming language used for iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS. Unofficially, however, it’s an opportunity for Apple’s marketing team to soft-premiere the newest operating systems for Macs, the iPhone, and, more recently, the Apple Watch or other products. If you are a scrupulous iDevice owner who does not intend to purchase new hardware anytime soon, these updates are a welcome perk — a chance to convince yourself that the small fortune you paid for your gadget was entirely worth it.

In the past two years, Apple has recognized that giving customers a peek at new software updates both allows for a more stable final product and generates conversation — especially if the improvements are only small things like a redesigned lock screen, or the ability to use stickers in iMessage. In June of last year, the company began its first-ever public beta for iOS, which allowed non-developers to try out the software, and inevitably, read into stray pieces of code that indicated potential future updates.

“The idea is that your phone’s going to feel like a new phone,” Ochs said. “The summer has become more fun, because along with the device rumors, we’re getting to write about this beta software that anyone can try.” While device announcements used to be the showstoppers, small software tweaks and updates are earning more attention — a signal that the company’s hardware has been refined to a certain limit, and now consumers are more interested in what’s happening inside. It’s certainly less showy, and Apple — a company obsessed with design — has lately been forced to appeal to its fans via function, rather than form.

WWDC has also more recently become a stage for Apple to (somewhat unsuccessfully) premiere products that it specifically wants to push into the market, like Apple Music.

“They saved that for the end, and I think that was supposed to be their big show-off for that keynote,” Eric Slivka, the editor-in-chief of MacRumors.com, told me. “For a lot of people, they were more interested in the iOS, Mac OS news that was coming out at the time. I’m not sure whether that actually played out the way Apple was hoping it would.”

Post-WWDC and leading up to the iPhone event, there’s an order to be followed. By early August, “sources familiar with Apple’s plans” typically leak the date of the fall event, a cherished scoop among tech journalists that has, in recent years, gone to BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski. It’s also during this period that Apple’s rumor mill kicks into full force. If the company’s public relations team sees anything wildly inaccurate or outlandish floating around the internet, it will sometimes intervene by “leaking information to temper expectations that won’t be matched by the announcements,” according to a 2014 profile of Apple’s communications team by Mark Gurman. Still, Slivka argues that Apple’s most effective and consistent strategy is to simply say nothing.

“For the most part they’re very quiet leading up to the event,” he said. “They kind of let the hype build itself.”

That silence is ceremoniously interrupted when, a few weeks before September, the company sends out cryptic invitations to members of the media. Mere seconds after they arrive in journalists’ inboxes, they are screenshotted and posted on Twitter (guilty), and the announcement that Apple will hold its annual announcement quickly snowballs into a national news story. For the past decade, Apple’s event invites have included a simple graphic, a tidbit of text, and a location — the bare minimum required for the company’s more enthusiastic fans to catch a scent and run with it. Before its highly anticipated September 2014 event, when Apple ended up premiering the Apple Watch, the invitation was intentionally withholding: a white-and-gray outline of the company’s logo with the tagline: “Wish we could say more.” Last September, when the company sent out invites that read “Hey Siri, give us a hint,” Apple upped the intrigue by secretly updating the iPhone’s voice-automated personal assistant so it would respond to that command. One of her replies included, “You’re cute when you’re desperate for information.”

Reading into Apple’s sparse clues has become a time-honored sport among Apple’s online fan communities, according to Slivka. Even if there’s no real promise that there will be an actual surprise.

“Those invitations are a nod to rumors that are floating around at the time,” he said. “They kind of want to play it both ways. They’re fine with a certain amount of speculation floating around, but they want to keep most of the best stuff secret until they’re ready to show it.”

The Event

Though Apple events must often communicate a large amount of detailed product information, they are carefully structured and paced to optimize press coverage. And that coverage starts with the journalists who line up outside the event location in the early hours of the morning. Before social media acted as a platform to track every waking moment of the event, the cluster of press was simply a logistical step of the day, a time to check in attendees and let them get settled before the event kickoff. In recent years, however, it has become its own hype period, when bloggers photograph small details — like the healthy green juices or homemade artisanal toaster pastries at the snack tables — and plop them onto their live blogs. Maybe it’s because every new detail is welcome, or maybe it’s because there aren’t many surprises left to the main event.

These days, in the era of Tim Cook, the events typically begin with a greeting from the CEO and an enthusiastic overview of Apple’s most recent retail and adoption-rate numbers. There are some feel-good video promos, which serve as a break for feverishly live-blogging journalists. When an executive is ready to announce a major product, he or she will typically tag off to one of chief design officer Jony Ive’s famous infomercials. Apple executives often take a significant amount of time to demonstrate the new product’s most impressive features, but blow right through the nitty-gritty details of price and availability. Though the format sometimes changes from event to event, Slivka says it’s always clear that Apple’s order has a purpose.

“There’s a method to their madness,” he said. “Everything is rehearsed to a ridiculous level. Everything is planned out in minute detail down to the second of how are things going to unfold during the event.”

There is always a chance for Apple’s signature encore: a tactic in which the event’s host feigns closing remarks, but then psyches out the audience by declaring he has “one more thing” to show them. Jobs was famous for using the line in dozens of “Stevenotes,” so much that Cook generated headlines the first time he uttered the phrase before unveiling the Apple Watch. Over time, the line has become a shorthand to signify what Apple views as its most important announcement. Marketing consultant Adam King said the technique has grown stale as the company has failed to deliver over the years.

“If you stack the benefit, if you stack the things the products are going to do for you and how they’re going to change your life, then yeah, that builds anticipation,” he said. “I just don’t think their offers have been strong enough. If you’re going to say ‘Oh, and one more thing,’ and then they say, ‘We’re going to change the headphone jacks,’ people are like ‘… really?’”

Whether or not the product in question was truly worth the usage of “one more thing” has become it’s own topic of discussion. And that is sometimes determined by journalists once they’re ushered into the hands-on room. “I look at it as a way to reality-check the hype a little bit,” Ochs said. “They just told you onstage that this is the best thing ever, and you go back there, and you’re like, ‘OK.’”

The Aftermath

Post-event, Apple’s strategy to keep the conversation going is a mix between both traditional advertising and sly product placement. In addition to various print, billboard, television, and online advertising campaigns, a special branch of Apple’s PR department named the Momentum and Buzz Marketing group — a team that Gurman’s report says is “responsible for integrating Apple’s products into pop culture” — is tasked with more subliminal exposure.

“Momentum works with major sports leagues to integrate the iPad into coaching toolkits, helps music events integrate iPads into festivities, and gets organizations to deploy iBeacon-integrated apps for attendees,” Gurman explained in his 2014 story. “When a brand new device shows up on a TV show before it’s in stores, Momentum was involved in making that happen.”

This team’s work was particularly effective after the announcement of the Apple Watch, when the product was not available to the public but began appearing in the wild, strapped to major celebrities’ wrists. Pharrell wore one while hosting The Voice. Drake Instagrammed himself grabbing his crotch with one on. And Beyoncé showed off a gold Apple Watch Edition, a version of the wearable that wasn’t even available to the public.

“They clearly worked closely with certain celebrities to get them some early units and get it shown off in various places,” Slivka said. “Every time one of those came up, there was a kind of free-for-all on the forums, people debating things on all different sides. That worked in terms of generating discussion after the initial announcement and the launch seven, eight months later.”

Though Ochs said that this celebrity-focused product placement felt specific to the watch, she’s curious to see if Apple might use this tactic with the rumored Bluetooth headphones that may come with a headphone jack–less iPhone 7.

Whatever Apple does, you can be sure hundreds of other online bloggers will be ready to take aim — even if it’s just to complain that the company has lost its magic.