Thursday, June 7, 2012

my first office

At my first job at  S--, I had my own office. This was more an accident of history than a sign of my ability or promise.  The floor plan had been designed in the pre-cubicle days and still arranged along the terms of more traditional hierarchies, with glass enclosed spaces along the perimeter, and a warren of various sized spaces in the interior to which the staff navigated through narrow hallways the color of a damp concrete.   In the early days, orienting to life in a tall office building after so many years working in libraries and studies, I felt at moments like a lost tourist in the most boring Venice imaginable, moving through strange narrow streets that muted both light and sound, and which, despite their beauty, could appear strangely alike, especially when I was disoriented by the endless winding streets.  It seemed that it was only after I’d lost all hope of finding the restaurant or museum I sought, that I would emerge suddenly onto a loud, sun-splashed piazza, tables set for a party, a man speaking into a microphone, young girls in black and red dresses gathering in a line before a seated dignitary; or, in this case, turning before a brightly lit corner office, where Senior Managers were meeting with visiting clients, and they seemed posed as if on stage, their postures of easy camaraderie designed to inspire confidence and envy, while behind them, through a wall made of glass, New York’s buildings rose and fell in uneven levels block after block down to the harbor.


My office was eight feet wide and a dozen feet long.  And though there was no window, I did have a door inset with an eight-inch pane of glass, letting in light from the hall as well as allowing me views of my colleagues as they walked passed.  My office was around the corner from the receptionist who sat before the locked glass doors leading onto the foyer-space containing the elevators so I saw half of the office staff on their way to meetings and breaks on other floors and out to lunch or accompanied by bags rolling beside them like obedient pets, down to waiting cars which would speed them to the airport.  It seemed to me that this position allowed me a perspective on the behavior of my colleagues that others lacked.   For instance, I learned that it took most people the length of the hallway to readjust to the environment of the office when returning from lunch, sipping their sodas and coffees as they pulled off their coats.  I often heard someone modulate their voice in the midst of some joke or remark probably best left outside, invariably at the request of another member of the party who reminded everyone where they were with a gesture like a flat hand descending through space.  It was, in any case, through this repeated experience of listening to so many different voices, young and old, male and female, boisterous, sly, confessional, catty all adjust in volume and tone to an eerily similar register that I first came to understand the power of the space itself to focus the abundant and defuse energy of the staff toward a shared purpose.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fieldwork or a some thoughts on the return of ethnography, pt I

At the dawn of the digital age, there seemed to be an emerging promise that every action of every consumer would now be finally be measurable. We could finally retire that century old quip from John Wanamaker about how he knew that 50% of the money he spent on advertising was wasted; he just didn’t know what half. With the help of web analytics, John or at least his great- great grandson could now identify and dispense with the excess marketing dollars. True Marketing ROI had finally arrived.

Well, we are now a couple decades into the digital era and while everything that happens online is technically measurable, it turns out that this data doesn't explain everything as thoroughly as we hoped. It might tell us what people do on a given site, but it's just about weak as every other research method as explaining the complex purchase pathways people go down these days: using multiple sites, apps, media vehicles, kiosks, phones and word of mouth on their way to making or not making a purchase.

I’ve started exploring the limitations of existing research methods to deliver insights in this new multi-platform world. It appears that we have a bunch of way of finding insights around discreet experiences but not much that will help us understand the connections between those experiences.

Most of the research tools we have fall into a few broad categories

1) Concept tests or ways of measuring how people respond to different ideas and statements in a qual or quant way

2) Communication tests: ways measuring the appeal and impact of marketing like objects, from claimed behavior to fancy Clockwork-Orange like biometric tools.

3) Usability tests: ways of measuring how well something works or easy it it is use

4) Behavioral data: which isn’t claimed behavior but retail and site analytics which will measure an action taken, a click, time spent, or a purchase made.

A lot of us involved in helping make marketing stuff for this multi-platform/multi-channel world want to know not just what happens in these discreet moments but what happens in between them so we can strengthen the connections, driving a person from one to another. It’s one of the reasons we spend a lot of time drawing what we now call “consumer pathways” or “Journeys” or “experience maps” that conceptually visualize the path from one stimulus to another.

I think too this is one of the reasons we’ve seen a resurgence in the use ethnography as a market research tool. While market research ethnographies have of course never really gone away, they fell into some degree of disrepute back during the rise of web and social analytics. Why follow people around making notes when we can measure what we they doing every second, crunch the numbers and turn them into big charts and graphs? The flaws in this logic are pretty obvious (sample bias for one), but it's pretty hard to over-estimate the power of statistical analysis to American business, no matter how dubious the methodology. Any number is better than no numbers.

Ethnographies are far from perfect, especially the down-and-dirty variety we generally do in market research environments, but I've generally found them pretty useful for reasons I'll explain in the next post.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why predictions are almost as boring as nostalgia or conversations I try to avoid

The interminable news coverage of last week's dark anniversary reminded me that back when I lived in NYC, the conversation I most tried to avoid was on the subject of whether New York City was getting better or worse. The point of view most often expressed-- this was pre 9/11--was that NYC was getting worse, in the sense that it was becoming more commercial, more suburban, less, you know, authentic. The person most often expressing this point of view was a usually man who was no longer young. This person would acknowledge that NYC was generally safer and cleaner than it used to be, but these qualities were seen as evidence for his position. The graffiti-covered trains were part of the experience.

I was younger then and it was hard not to think that the most significant difference between then and now had nothing to do with NYC, but had to do with passage of time. What was better about NYC 20 years ago was that the men were 20 years younger. And who can argue with that?

Nowadays, the conversation I most try to avoid is around the question of whether technology is making life/the world better or worse. Life/the world is a pretty big subject so the argument usually doesn't take on the whole enchilada but focuses around relatively smaller subjects: like reading, or social life or education.

In these arguments you undoubtedly hear—on the nostalgic side of the question--a lot about the sensual qualities of books (the smell of paper!) and how all our relationships on-line are more superficial than they used to be while--on the other side of the question--technophiles will talk about how new technology has "changed everything" (really? everything? ) and empowered users to challenge and engage with centers of power from which they were previously excluded (Gopnick did a solid review of books on the various positions which he classified as the “never betters “better-nevers and, of course the "ever wasers" Here)

I find arguments based on both utopian dreams and nostalgic yearnings equally boring for a bunch of reason. One thing, it's almost impossible to extract one’s highly subjective and hugely limited personal investment from the conversation. For another, historical change is very complicated to predict, almost impossible in the midst of it, and totally impossible to do well in the speed with which most of us work in marketing and advertising. As Popper famously remarked--quoted in another recent article Gopnik article on declinism here--What we know next will effect what will happen next and we don't know what we'll know next because if we did, we'd know it now.

But the main reason I avoid these conversations is not that they are sometimes or often wrong, but that they get in the way of much more interesting conversations which are examining the highly surprising ways various ways people embrace, accelerate, resist or refuse to change, regardless of what we tell them is better, faster stronger, shinier, or just plain new.

E-books are an example of accelerated adoption that surprised even the most aggressive promoters, regardless of the fact that many of us love the smell of paper. The same can't be true for those who predicted--a couple decades ago--that "hypertext" stories would replace the traditional novel or that internet would kill traditional retail or even that the internet would make the traditional office obsolete.

To go into why all these predictions were not only wrong, but based on false and unexamined premises is a bigger task than I can handle in this venue, but I can say that I'm much less interested in conversations that begin (and end) with a statement about how some media, technology or form of expression (Print, phone numbers, Hip Hop, irony, ATM's etc) is dead than a conversation about the factors that influencing current rates of adoption or attrition. We live in time. When it come to business (as opposed to science fiction and history) looking ahead with blinders on is only slightly less boring than looking back, but it's always exhilarating to try and feel (and try to measure) the wind on our faces as we move into the passing lane.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Do-gooder brands pt. II or 6 kinds of advocacy and counting

In my last post, I suggested that contemporary consumer advocacy brands are less about consumer protection (like Ralph Nader) and more about positioning. Generally positioning themselves against a category leader who they view as unfair, anti-competitive and/or obfuscating.

Right after I made this claim, I realized I was at least part wrong, as the exploding category of green brands is precisely about consumer and environmental protection. A brand like Method is one of the most successful examples of a brand that was invented (by an ex-planner no less) who saw an opportunity to deliver a benefit without all the toxic chemicals used by traditional package goods companies. Seventh Generation in another that offers a wide range of household products that limit environmental impact. These brands charge a premium, not for maximum efficacy, but for combining adequate efficacy with lower risk to health, home and the environment.

The power of this claim has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream CPG companies who have made copy-cat products with dubious claims, to the point that we now need old-fashioned consumer advocates to protect us from new-fashioned bogus consumer advocate brands.

But the majority of brands claiming consumer advocacy are motivated by taking on some unfair industry or industry practice. Used car dealers probably stand—fairly or not—as the most iconic example of dishonesty in American business, so it’s not surprising that a number of service brands have sprung up to advocate for consumers as they shop for used cares. CarMax has created a retail model which attempts to take all the unpleasant haggling and doubt out of the process, while CarFax claims to provide the hidden history of the used car so the consumer can make a more informed decision.

And there is whole category of brands that became consumer advocates through technology alone, serving the consumer faster, cheaper, better than traditional retail devices. Virtually every industry that’s been impacted by the internet has brands that occupy this space, whether it’s tax preparation, travel, retail or banking. This is how all those aggregation sites work. They streamline the shopping so you have a better chance of buying what you want for the price you want.

In fact, so many brands recognize the consumer in control era that it’s maybe more interesting to note those categories where we still can’t quite get the control or information we want. The financial services industry might be a prime example but when even the pro's don’t seem to know what they are selling, it’s hard to imagine anyone can offer us much help. And then there are industries that we keep thinking will get democratized, like Real Estate, but for reasons from a strong lobby to the complexity to the sale, never quite get there..

All this suggests that consumer advocacy is almost cost of entry these days. The question becomes what kind of advocate are you.

Supplementing my previous list, with a still provisional set of categories, I’ve now get 6 versions, but I’m sure there are more. (And I'm not counting brands or brand confederations that are pure non-profits.)

1) Information/transparency advocate: like Carfax, providing the consumer with important and previously hidden info

2) Competition advocate: like LendingTree, bringing competition to a category that lacked it

3) Green advocate: Like Method, bringing a safer, less toxic version of a product to a category filled with environmentally damaging products

4) Service advocate: Like Zappos, bringing a new level service and conditions to a category that previously offered restricted terms

5) Self-service advocate: Like Etrade or the other online trading services that allow consumers the chance to do what only the pro’s could do before.

6) Social Mission advocates: Brands like Ben & Jerry's which build their social mission right into their product and confederations like RED which enlist a set of brands to raise funds for social causes

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Do-gooder brands or what counts as consumer advocacy today

It seems like every brand manager I talk to these days is claiming that their brand is a consumer advocate. Whether they are selling cars or mortgages or checking accounts or shoes or health insurance or ice cream or travel packages or just about anything else, they want to align their product or service proposition with the notion of consumer advocacy. And they seem to mean it. Whenever I push the broader management team on their commitment to this principle they almost all say they are true believers. (There are notable exceptions but pesky contracts preclude me from revealing names) Most managers now claim that consumer advocacy is in their company DNA.

On the one hand, this isn’t so surprising. You only have to type some variation of “good” into The Google these days to see many people—or at least young people—believe that business can and should be an agent of positive social change. You could even say that finding or starting a career that enables them to both do good and get rich is the trick kid’s most want to pull off these days. (An evolution from my own Gen X’s equally tricky ambition to somehow get rich by being creative.)

But the very ubiquity of this claim raises some interesting question. Can every brand justifiably claim they are a consumer advocate? Technically I suppose so. But then what does consumer advocacy really mean? One thing or more than one thing?

Consumer advocacy has been around almost as long as lawyers, but didn’t really start to mainstream traction in America until the 60’s, supported by fiercely uncompromising advocates like Ralph Nader. As represented by his breakthrough book Unsafe at Any Speed--attacking GM's safety recrod--Nader was and is primarily fighting to protect consumers, workers and the environment from unsafe products and practices. Nader and others are still hard at work, but thanks to the democratization of everything, the role of consumer watch dog has been extended to everyone, with blogs like The Consumerist eager to post your complaints and help fight the power.

But most brands claiming to be advocates aren’t in the business of consumer protection. Beyond government agencies and blogs, consumer protection is mostly performed by non-profits.

Consumer advocacy for brands is more about positioning than protection, either against a competitor or category. And in my very cursory overview, it seems to me that these brands generally rest their claim of advocacy on 1 of 3 potential actions:

1) Introduce competition to a category with very limited or no competition

2) Offer—or seem to offer—the consumer more information about a product or service that has traditionally kept the consumer in the dark about important information.


3) Offer the consumer new service (often self-service or customization) for a product or service that lacked this offering in the past.

LendingTree, a brand I used to work on, is a good example for the first kind of advocacy. LendingTree isn’t a bank. It’s an aggregator of banks offering mortgages and other loans to consumers. But the brand’s original tagline, “When banks compete you win,” and early advertising both called attention to how anti-competitive the current practice of getting a mortgage was. They claimed—with considerable justification—to be one of the first brands to give the power to say no back to the consumer where it belonged.

Progressive insurance also introduces new competition to a category, but their function as advocates depends more on offering more information, placing their quote within the context of the competitors.

Their site has come under attack for not being quite as fair as they claim (MA investigation report here), but I’ll save my comments on the role of comparison engines for my next post with the hope that others will point out other versions of consumer advocacy they've encountered in the rapidly expanding world of do-gooder brands.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Service economy anxiety pt III, or good help is hard to understand

Over the past couple posts, I’ve been writing about America's collective uneasiness with our long shift to a service-based economy, citing a range of examples that seem to express what I'm calling our Service Economy Anxiety. I've written about our collective desire to nostalgically celebrate the skilled trades (through the artisanal movement and elsewhere) as well as the frequency and volume of complaints about customer service on social media platforms. But the richest and most dynamic cultural expressions are often produced by artists and writers who intuitively tap into this underlying anxiety as a source for their work.

I think I first noticed the popular expression of this anxiety in Louis CK's now famous "Everything's amazing and nobody's happy..." riff on Conan (here). His monologue focuses on how the amazing advances in technology have made us impatient with just about all kinds of service, including the technological replacements for personal service.

But once I got sensitized to the importance of customer-service content in popular culture I started to see these scenes everywhere.

Just last night, watching a TIVO’d episode (Season 3, Epi 4: Mitten, cited here) of Nurse Jackie, I saw the indomitable Edie Falco pretend to be a restaurant manager in order to confront an arrogant customer berating a waitress for failing to get his order right. The waitress/customer confrontation is pretty standard fare, almost an iconic representation of social relations of any era. (Think Five Easy Pieces to Seinfeld)

But you don't have to very work hard to see how this scene is particular to our current cultural moment: 1) Edie F isn't an irate customer but a service vigilante, stepping to address an injustice, like the Consumerist come to life. 2) Eddie's nurse’s uniform positions her as an iconic leader of the service professions 3) most most revealing of all are the dynamic of the scene. In order to make her case, she turns to the arrogant customer’s dining companion and asks him if he’s a client. When the dining companions replies that he is, Edie then asks him if he wants to do business with an asshole like this. He replies, “No...Actually, my daughter is a waitress.”

Past versions of this would have likely called out the differences between between the two rich white guys dressed like lawyers or bankers and the women serving them. But in Nurse Jackie the distinction is collapsed to make a point about shared social responsibility. Don't be assholes to service pro's; after all, they are all somebody's daughter. (And yes I'd argue the gender politics are no accident either, but that would require another post).

Nor it need hardly be mentioned—though I’ve mentioned it before—that the show Nurse Jackie is itself all about privileging the nurse’s work of attentive personal care over the work of the self-interested and generally flawed doctors--the higher-status experts, who are the professional equivalents of the assholes Nurse Jackie castigates in the restaurant.

But the freshest and funniest take on our service economy anxiety has to be this year's 6-part IFC special Portlandia. The source of most of its comedy—as my clever wife first pointed out—is the social confusion and blurred roles caused by our service economy.

Virtually every one of the first six episodes has at least one scene that represents a character perplexed by how they are supposed to behave as a provider or receiver of service. Portland's notoriously lefty social politics create the raw material for this confusion, but the confusion extends beyond political correctness to the nature of the work itself. In scene after scene, service providers and recipients stumble awkwardly back and forth across line of uncertain authority, trying to figure out who is actually in charge. Often, the service provider tries to redefine the role to something other than service: they want to be friends or educators or therapists, almost anything but old-fashioned servants.

In the opening episode, a waitress at a progressive, lefty café doesn’t just tell the diners that their chicken is local, free range and “all across the board organic” but actually produces its “papers,” which documents its pedigree. (Clip here under "Is it local?") "His name was Colin," she tells the diners, the series' creators and co-stars, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, but of course even the papers don’t satisfy Fred and Carrie who leave to “check out” the farm on which Colin was raised.

In another episode (clip here), a spot-on parody of the Ace Hotel (renamed The Deuce), the show mocks the boutique hotel chain’s notoriously crappy service with Carrie playing a hostess, trying to bond with customers angry over the lack of attention even though she’s the one who has failed to serve them.

And then there is episode 3 in which Fred and Carrie discover that their maid is in fact their favorite artist and cultural hero—indie songwriter Aimee Mann. The most slapstick representation yet of our current confusion about our roles as service purchasers and providers, Fred and Carrie fall over themselves trying to ingratiate themselves with the hired help. They might be paying but they aren't in charge. In Portlandia, capital is no match for cultural capital.

In the final episode, W+K (which seems to have some involvement in the series) pokes fun at itself by documenting Carrie’s first day on the job at the famed agency (clip Wieden and Kennedy). While there are a handful of obvious jokes about hipsters trying to signify how cool their job is--birthday parties for dogs and dodge-ball brainstorming sessions--the deeper social comedy is about our newly uneasy relationship to our co-workers.

In her first moments on the job, Carrie is invited to sign a birthday card for a woman she has never met. The show plays up the artificially intense emotion for comic effect (this is advertising’s job after all: instant affect!) but the creepiness lingers, and should be familiar to any of us who have worked in environments which strive to erase boundaries between professional and personal life. Throughout the scene as Carrie is bombarded by increasingly personal questions and requests, her puzzled expression seems to ask: Who are these people anyway? Are they my colleagues? My bosses? My friends? My family? Is this a job, a lifestyle, a cult, or what?

Versions of these anxious questions are ones the show poses over and over again.

It's easy to forget that it wasn't always like this, but you want to be reminded just how uncomfortable we are our new roles, just read a novel from the first half of the century to remember how comfortable we—or our English friends—once were feel telling servants how to behave.

The distinction between providers and receivers of service was once clearly divided along class and then professional lines. Those distinctions are now long gone. We're all serving somebody now. We have adjudicate our roles in each and every interaction as we simultaneously try to pretend that something more meaningful (an education, a relationship, a bond, enlightenment) than just plain service is happening.

It's exhausting of course but no one said customer service was easy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Service Economy Anxiety, pt II or how we complain now

Our uneasiness about our nation’s long shift to service economy has spun off a number of cultural expressions.

A few examples I cited in the last post were related to our attempt to hold onto the myths and values of the skilled trades even as they become marginalized in the nation's economic life. It seems to me that this anxiety might also be seen in the widespread use of social media to complain about customer service.

Almost every major brand on earth now has a Facebook page dedicated to failures in customer service, or in the parlance of soc-med: how much they suck. Sears sucks as does Home Depot as does as does JC Penney. JP Morgan sucks. Fidelity sucks. Bank of America suuuuucks. McDonalds sucks. Burger King sucks. All the airlines suck of course. As do all the telecoms. And all the cable companies.

And branded twitter hashtags can sound almost biblical in their Job-like litanies devoted to the miseries inflicted by bad service. Above is a Cablevision thread but just about any brand + sucks will tell the same story.

When any form of expression becomes pervasive it's hard to hear what’s new and strange about it anymore. So if you want to refresh your experience of all this complaining, try getting a member of the boomer generation (a parent will do for many of us) to read one of the “X brand sucks” threads and watch their faces wrinkle into one of those “why do people waste time on this unpleasant nonsense” expressions.

In the most annoying and yet apt expression of the era, these old people just don’t get it. We may like to think that what they don’t get is how empowered we are now that we can complain on social media to brands who better listen or WATCH OUT because we can spread our complaints to the four corners of the earth. But the generation gap doesn’t work that way. Older generations aren’t necessarily blind to contemporary experiences. They just don’t need what we need. They got and get their satisfactions elsewhere.

What the non-net-complaining-generation don't get is that our new social rules have been defined by our new social-economic roles. We are a nation of service providers providing service to a nation of service providers. No wonder we are so judgmental, so impatient, so demanding, so intolerant of minuscule FAIL-ures. Every time our service economy fails us, we feel implicated in the exchange. How do we expect to make it, unless we all give %110 all the time, people. Pro-class members of a previous generation would have never dreamed of asking to change places with a cashier or barista; we contemporary service pros will happily do it: just to show them show how it's done.

Consumer advocates argue that we complain so often now because we can. And that’s probably true. (It's certainly and obviously true social media has become an important tool of political activism.) But it seems to me it's also true that we complain so often because we need to. It's a point of pride, a reminder of the expectations we all have to meet. It's service we were born for. It’s Bergdorf's we mourn for.

Of course not all of us are blind to the cultural contradictions of the service economy. I've recently become sensitized to the prevalence of scenes in TV shows and movies that represent customer service failures, including an entire series that seems devoted to the social tensions created by our service-to-service culture, Portlandia. But more on that next time...