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Cloud Computing Confuses Consumers

Though consumers have been using the 'cloud' longer than most businesses, many have embraced cloud computing without even knowing it.

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During the recent introduction of Apple's forthcoming iCloud file synchronization service, CEO Steve Jobs described the file distribution model by saying, "The truth is in the cloud."

For most consumers, he might as well have been saying, "The truth is in the woolpack."

"The cloud," as a concept, may be all the rage in the technology industry, but consumers are baffled by the term, which appears to have been brought to mainstream attention in 2006 by Eric Schmidt, who was then CEO of Google.

For businesses that wish to sell cloud services, it may be time to focus on marketing messages that mean things to customers rather than promoting something as amorphous as the cloud.

Research firm Ipsos OTX MediaCT recently conducted a survey of 1,000 American adults that plumbed respondents' thoughts about cloud-based services. In reporting his firm's findings, researcher Todd Board suggests that cloud computing is as alien to most consumers as the term "woolpack," an obscure word that, among other things, can be used to refer to a cloud resembling sheep's wool.

The survey found a profound disconnection between consumer understanding of the cloud and consumer use of the cloud. Some 22% of respondents said they used cloud-based email, while the percentage of respondents who said they used cloud-based services for photos (13%), music and videos (9%), storage and backup (8%), and office software (9%) in each case was significantly less.

Yet, when asked about the use of branded cloud services, without any mention of the terms "cloud" or "cloud computing," a different set of answers emerged.

"When presented with brand names, nine out of ten consumers indicate they are using some type of cloud-related service," the report finds. Ask a Yahoo Mail user if he or she enjoys the cloud and chances are you'll hear, "No, I prefer Yahoo."

This perception gap is most pronounced with regard to email services and music services; users of online storage and web-based productivity apps mostly recognize that they're cloud computing customers.

The message for tech marketers, the report suggests, is to talk about comprehensible benefits and brand value rather than the ill-defined cloud. Apple, due to the strength of its brand, may not have trouble convincing customers to use its iCloud service. But the Amazon may have to work harder to sell its Cloud Drive, particularly in light of the recent EC2 interruption, the report argues.

The pitch Google uses for its cloud services, "Nothing but the web," offers an example of how to talk about the cloud: Talk about something else.

"The 'cloud' concept may be too nebulous to grasp without a clear brand reference as a guide," the report says.

This is not to say that consumers need to be sold on the cloud. Aaron Levie, CEO of, a content management, sharing, and collaboration service, confirms the report's finding that consumers have warmed to the cloud and are using cloud services, whether they know it or not. The ones that still need coaxing, says Levie, are businesses, though they are moving to the cloud.

"Consumers have been using the 'cloud' much longer than most businesses--whether through email, paying your taxes, or sharing photos--you're already using web-based services that manage complex technology behind the scenes," said Levie in an email. "Thus, most of this technology comes naturally and intuitively to consumers, without them ever realizing that they're using the cloud."

"Businesses have taken longer to adopt the cloud simply because the types of applications they use, security requirements, competency around IT, and scale of services and storage have traditionally required them to manage everything in-house. The ease we've been experiencing in our personal lives around using online applications is now finally entering the business world en masse."

Perhaps businesses, like consumers, are none too impressed with the term "cloud." Board's report notes that we have been keeping our money in the cloud for years. Yet, you'd be hard pressed to find a bank that touts the benefits of the cloud.

Imagine where the industry would be if Google's Eric Schmidt had promoted "safe computing" instead.

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