Sunday, September 30, 2007

No new sunday reading: preparing for a meeting which is itself preparation for a meeting

Which made me think about the intense focus on meetings in business culture.

Almost everyone has strong feelings about them. You can find a dozen articles online about how to have a good or bad meeting. Check it out: Here's one from Inc magazine. Here's one from a consultant. Here's a free 24 page down-loadable manual! But almost any one will do. They all say about the same thing: have an agenda and a purpose and a schedule, end on time, or even early. Establish next steps before you leave. Not that this isn't good advice but it's the kind of advice that makes me think that business people aren't human, or forget their human instincts when they enter an office. How often do we need to be reminded not to bore people. Maybe a lot. But none of these articles talk about why meetings are so important and frequent in the first place.

I don't think there's any question that meetings are the core event in business culture. "Good meeting?" we ask as our colleagues as they walk back into the office, knowing that the answer may well reveal the fate of the relationship. Is it moving in a positive or negative direction? Or moving at all? "Great meeting," they'll say. "Or good but strange meeting." That's usually a bad meeting.

In marketing, we often turn the meeting into a show, or if we think a big show will suggest a lack of seriousness or misplaced priorities, we shoot for an anti-show. "We could have done x or y," we say, "but for this meeting we thought we'd just make it a conversation." "A conversation" is a kind of meeting. But the word is conversation is supposed to suggest a degree of informality that escape the semi-formal decorum--however undefined--of a meeting. This still counts but were not going to say it counts, unless you really like it.

There's nothing wrong meetings, per se. Unless you have too many of them. Or they are substitutes for action. I seem to recall that Bill Ford got so tired with his company's endless meetings that they instituted a new policy limiting meetings. (Here's a note on the subject in Jalopnik). I supposed you could create a whole taxonomy of bad meetings: the endless meeting, the lecture disguised as a meeting, the group-therapy meeting. And so on.

One thing meetings are supposed to do is establish chemistry or the lack thereof between potential business partners. But it seems that too many meetings do nothing but that. The conclusion is: , "I understand you;" "you understand me." Maybe that's okay.

Which is a very long-winded section to ask the same question again: Why are meetings so important? I'm not sure. Maybe it's because business decisions are so collaborative, involving so many people and so many steps that you have to constantly get people together.

Maybe, and this is a big maybe it's because business decisions are so hard to make. This a point I've made in other posts. Marketing decisions are even harder. They are such high stakes, with so much anxiety, with so little certainty, that you almost have to create an atmosphere or energy-level or experience where it's possible to actually feel good about making a decision. Is the point of a meeting--at least an external meeting--to create an environment where people are inspired to act. Is

My working definition, which is rooted maybe paradoxically in classroom experience is this: good meetings advance the conversation. New facts or opinions are introduced, new objections are raised and reconciled. Bad meetings simply restate the facts in a new way. If all we want to do is establish chemistry, let's go out to dinner. Or argue about our favorite movies.

So what's the best thing that can happen on Monday? Someone challenges my current material in a way that leads to a new conclusion, a new idea, a new resolution of seemingly unresolvable contradictions. That would be a good meeting. Or at least an interesting one.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On the other hand: rewriting the textbook

On the other hand, not all news is old news. Using a set of predictive formulas as a guide, scientists have discovered some previously unknown kelp forests near the Galapagos island 50-200 feet beneath the surface of the ocean. The scientific press was full of the news, as it suggested that some forms of marine life were more resilient to climate change than previously thought. (Here's the science daily report.) My first reaction was that it was pleasant to hear some good news about climate change for a change. My second was how exciting it was to hear a research community react to a genuine discovery. As one scientist I heard put it, “This is the kind of paper that gets people rewriting the textbooks.”

It struck me that in marketing we spend so much time talking about (or hyping) how the next new thing that it can become hard to recognize the truly new when we see it. That one piece of data that makes us rewrite the textbooks. If anyone ever posted on this blog I might encourage people to tell me about the latest fact they encountered that made them want to rewrite their own personal textbooks. For me, it might be the big and obvious—though not really predicted fact—that so many people would be so willing and eager to produce and disseminate so much content for free, including me, here. It flies in the face of everything we thought we once knew about the core value of content. For a long time, it seemed that the value of content was defined by its source and context--often its exclusivity. Who knew we'd all be so eager to give it away?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lessons from the classics

Generations of men are like the leaves.
winter, winds blow them down to earth,
but then, when spring season comes again,
budding wood grows more. And so with men--
one generation grows, another dies away.
--Iliad, 6, 181-185

The second powerful use of old ideas belonged to Jonathon Shay a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the psychological damage combat inflicts on soldiers and who just won a MacArthur. He began reading the epics while recovering from a stroke he had at 40. Through an inspired reading of Homer, Shay saw opportunities to draw lessons from ancient combat that were still relevant to contemporary military policy. (Here's an intriguing profile in the NYT from '03.) He recorded these initial observations in his first book on the subject, Achilles in Vietnam.

Chief among these very old ideas was the importance of trust. What Shay read in the epics and heard reflected in the comments from
soldiers was that the most psychological damaging aspect of warfare was the rupture of trust, whether through the perceived betrayal of a superior or being rotated in and out of combat as individuals rather than cohesive units. As obvious as it sounds, Shay pointed out how difficult i it was to go into combat with strangers. Unit cohesion was essential to an individual soldier's emotional and psychological stability in the face of combat's challenges. But Shay's advice, however obvious, has had a direct impact on changing policy even though they were contrary to traditional military efficiency.

The classics might not be telling us anything we haven't heard before. But they often articulate fundamental truths of the human experience so powerfully that they can remind us of what's important for a very long time.

These powerful articulations can also help goad us into action. Shay has described how contemporary soldiers identified with descriptions of combat in the classics, a fact which helped build Shay's credibility with soldiers and military leaders.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Strategic endurance

In rapid succession, I encountered two strong claims for basing strategic decisions on old ideas. Not old in the sense of stale or out of date. But old in the sense of enduring.

The first was a great interview with Jeff Bezos in the October HBR (just arrived today so no link yet), in which Bezos discussed the approach to strategy at Amazon.

There are a number of good bits here, not least his observations that 1) Critics and analysts have frequently attacked Amazons' new developments as distractions or potentially destructive to the core business, from relentlessly lowering prices to Amazon prime. 2) And Bezos' own empirical observation that most new "seeds" (what he calls new ideas in the interview) take 5-7 years to have a meaningful impact on the economics of the company.

So how do they do it? Not, it turns out, by chasing the latest thing but by focusing on what probably won't change. In Amazon’s case, that means focusing on what Bezos calls consumer ingishts. In other words, what consumer's want and are likley to keep wanting from Amazon: selection, price and fast delivery.

"If you base your strategy first and foremost on more transitory things--who your competitors are, what kind of technologies are available, and so on--those things are going to change so rapidly that you are going to have to change your strategy pretty rapidly too."

Another key factor in this world of increasing transparency was Bezos' deciding to align yourself with the customer, even if it pisses off your partners.

"But when the intellectual conversation gets too hard because of these potential cannibalization issues, we take a simpleminded approach.... Well, what's better for the customer."
Of course, these decisions are easier (or possible) when you have Amazon's leverage, a point Bezos acknowledges. But it’s a competitive advantage they’ve developed through years of hard work, creating efficiencies in their operations.

Perhaps most interesting from a planner in the digital age perspective are his descriptions on what Amazon really does. It emerges in his response to another early critic of their revolutionary decision to include negative reviews on their site.
“I would get letter from publishers saying, ‘Why do you allow negative reviews on your website? Why don’t you just show the positive reviews?’ One letter said, ‘Maybe you don't understand your business. You make money when you sell things.’ But I thought to myself: we don't make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions."

The second was the radio. But I'm out of time so I'll save it for tomorrow.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tina in yesterday's NYT

Fey not Brown. Beyond the pure celebrity appeal, interesting on a couple fronts.

1) A great reminder of just how hard it is to predict a success in popular culture. Last fall, when two behind-the-scenes-of-an-SNL style-show entered the network line-ups in the same season, most people were betting on Aaron Sorkin's "Studio Sixty on the Sunset Strip" rather than Fey's "30 Rock." Sorkin didn't make it through the first year. Fey's "30 Rock" is renewed for next season, with a late-career making performance by Alec Baldwin and a surprisingly funny star-parody turn by Tracey Morgan, much funner--at least to me--than he ever was on SNL.

2) In case we needed more evidence about the internet as a powerful register of consumer desires and interests, Fey confessed to trolling message boards and MySpace to see if anyone had picked up on the catch-phrases she and her staff had worked into the script (e.g. "Mind grapes" and "Hammer of Thor") Even star writers (whose careers depend on Nielsen) can't resist knowing if the masses are using their lines.

Here's a link to Jacques Steinberg's profile in Sunday's special Television section

Friday, September 21, 2007

The surprisingly resilient focus group II: going non-traditional

A lot of agencies and other marketing companies (whether they call themselves researchers or strategists or brain scanners) still do focus groups but like to call them something else. This is partially just our ubiquitous need to come up with a proprietary-sounding name for the thinking we are selling (when thinking itself is what is worth something) and partially a desire to articulate a real commitment to some different approach to a tried-and-true method.

E.g, IDEO which insists on calling their consumer contact sessions unfocus groups, in order to communicate their emphasis on open-ended inspiration rather than selection. And Frank about Women--a woman's marketing company which is an offshoot of my previous agency--called their gatherings of women "Chatitudes" because they were supposed to be, well, more chatty and hopefully revealing than traditional groups. Most of these companies insist on doing their groups in non-focus group spaces. The theory goes that people in more "natural" surroundings are more relaxed and open than they would be in formal focus group facility and that will lead to more insightful conversation.

There's no question that focus group facilities are some of the most boring spaces I have ever inhabited. There have been times, after 8 hours in the dark and M&M-littered back room that I stumbled into the summer night of Columbus, OH or Atlanta, GA or wherever and thanked various higher powers that I was liberated back into a world of starlight and air that smelled of magnolia and cut grass, but I'm not sure that this made much of a difference to the respondents or the quality of the research.

In general, I think the key components of a good focus group are a good recruit + good questions. Both harder than they first appear

That being said, I did just return from two days of groups in a non-traditional facility (the back room of a nice italian restaurant) and here's what I think:

1) It's fun to drink on the job. You can see why everyone used to do it.
2) It's even more fun when the respondents drink too. They do tend be a bit more expressive in that classic inhibition-lowered way.
3) Respondents drinking wine and eating good food are not in a hurry to leave. I had to kick them out after 2.5 hours and counting.
4) It's a little harder to do activities: show images, make collages, etc, what with all those glasses and bottles around.
5) When you're sitting around a big table eating figs and sipping Barbera, there is a strong temptation for certain respondents to begin side conversations with other respondents, particularly the cute ones.

All in all, the groups were good. Were the resulting insights much better than they would have been in a focus group facility? The quality of the respondents was quite high. Everyone was articulate and passionate about the subject. So perhaps there is a principle of self-selection involved, but it's hard to say. I've had good groups in facilities too, as have we all.

They were certainly a lot more fun. Everyone left the room excited about the project. Involved in a way they wouldn't have been in a facility. They felt like they contributed. Several actually wanted to continue the conversation and actually requested a follow-up. In this respects, the non-traditional facility certainly worked it's magic. Like any other fun gathering, it's building my database.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jane Jacobs II: or the enduring thrill of street life

About a year or so ago, I was exploring the idea of community for what we call--unappetizingly -- a “fast casual” restaurant chain. One of my projects was to figure out the potential role of this chain in the life of the local community. On a survey with a couple thousand respondents, I asked them a half-dozen different ways if they thought the internet had a positive or negative effect on real communities. Was the internet a source of community? A supplement to community? A replacement for community? Death to community?

The results, as I recall, were right up the middle. Half the people thought the internet was good for community; half the respondents thought it was bad. In general the positive and negative evaluations, aligned by age, but not entirely.

Now, a year later, I’m out in the field; this time talking to real-life people about their real-life urban neighborhoods, and finding that—as other studies have shown—the internet has, if anything, enhanced the hunger for real community, at least among city dwellers.

Urbanites are looking for the same things in great neighborhoods they always were: engagement, stimulation, street life, diversity of people and experiences. And they are willing to give up a lot to get it. They live in smaller, louder, less convenient spaces than their suburban counterparts. These inconveniences are, if anything, a point of pride among urbanites, who, characteristically, look down on suburbanites who gave up exciting, cramped, loud urban lives for space, security, homogeny and boredom. One woman who recently moved away from one apartment near a fire station to a new urban neighborhood and said that she missed the sirens.

What else do they love. The same things urbanites have been loving for hundreds of years: the local coffee shops and bars, music venues, art galleries, the dry cleaner that knows their name, and just watching the great mass of humanity pass by. Which isn’t to say that the rise of internet communities haven’t impacted some key dimensions of urban life (in the local coffee shop, the mac laptops were scattered liberally), but it certainly hasn’t replaced the core pleasures of life in teh city.

The one thing urbanites wished they had in their apartment building that they didn’t have now: a door-man or concierge who could accept deliveries! As much as they loved chatting with the local dry cleaner, they all did a lot of online shopping and they needed some to receive their packages when they were at work. They wouldn’t mind a Target nearby either.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The power of No, or another deeply satisfying start-up pleasure

I hear that there used to be a time when there were plenty of pitches to go around. Big agencies only bothered with big clients, leaving the start-ups and aggressive small companies for the boutiques and creative shops. I'm not sure if this golden age ever existed, but it's certainly long gone now. We all know that in the increasingly competitive business of marketing almost everyone goes after almost everything that has any potential for financial or creative impact. If you work in a big agency, or one beholden to a holding company and its shareholders, you know what I'm talking about.

One of the major pleasures of independence is being able to be more picky both about who you pick as a potential client and how you seek them out. And sometimes, the very act of being picky helps you find better clients.

Laments about the agency pitch process are a perennial source of content in the trade press (e.g., here and here). The most common complaints: it's a waste of time, energy and money, it's an artificial process that doesn't create meaningful ideas, agencies give away ideas for free. But no matter how loud or frequent the outcry, very few companies are willing or capable of refusing to participate. The stakes are too high to opt out.

So for someone like me, who has been through at least 100 pitches, there is something deeply refreshing about saying, "No, thank you" to yet another pitch with spec creative. And more refreshing still by far are the clients who see that No as an marker of principle and distinction in the marketplace. A sign, in other words, that the agency is trying to approach the challenges of the marketplace in a new way. Which is all to say: saying No can be a very useful way of identifying clients you'd enjoy working with.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Another digital divide

When activists and policy makers talk about the digital divide, they are generally referring to economic, social and educational barriers that prevent certain segments of the population getting access to and benefits from digital technology. (More info here and here).

But I’ve been doing user-experience research with a number of different professional populations recently and noticed that there is another digital divide, which is less a social problem than a communications challenge. The barrier here is not (or not only) socio-economic but rather a factor of the mobility required in their daily lives. These people simply don’t spend their lives in front of a computer all day.

Some of these professions are obvious: skilled tradespeople who work with their hands in the field as well as hands-on professionals of all stripes, like doctors and nurses. I know that both these groups are increasingly bringing computers into the field but they still don't use them like people who work at a desk. When you they access a computer in the field, they tend to be hyper-functional, with very little down time and zero tolerance for distractions.

This groups also includes, perhaps more surprisingly, college students. We tend to think of college students as hyper-wired, checking their Facebook pages every three seconds. And while they are active users of certain applications and programs, they also tend to be highly surgical in the usage, tapping into a site at a public-use computer before moving onto to the next meeting. The majority of their lives not spent in class is spent in circulation around campus.

This, of course, should be obvious to anyone who thinks for a few seconds about their targets, but judging by my experience, sometimes we overlook the obvious if only because it is so intuitive. Most of us who work in the marketing business tend to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, so much so that its easy to forget that a lot of other people just don't. Not because they don't know how to, just because their work and lives require a different set of activities.

And the consequences of this fact is not always so obvious. While mobile marketing is making big promises about how it will reach mobile populations, reaching them doesn't mean they will pay attention.

As I suggested above, people with access to online computers in the field tend to use them very differently than people that work at their desks. When they need to take a break, they don't check on their Ebay auction or the plane fares to Cancun. Engaging these people requires a deep understanding of their daily schedules so you can reach them not only when they are online but when they are receptive to messaging, whether or not it is online.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Top down vs. bottom up: thinking in a digital age

There’s a lot of news out there about agency-like substances repositioning themselves to take advantage of digital marketing opportunities. Today, the WSJ reported on how is trying to get out of its low-margin businesses and position itself as an “idea” company for multiple platforms. And earlier this week, the trades (here and here) were buzzing with Organic’s announcement that it would be offering digital strategy services as a consultancy to marketers and other agencies.

You can hardly blame them. We can all see where the money is. And I’m inclined to agree with Organic’s Kingdon who recognizes lots of opportunity to add strategic value in the complex world of digital marketing. As Kingdon it:

“Historically, the weight was a lot more on execution not strategy. It’s a lot harder today. There’s a huge digital connection strategy that needs to be considered with lots of touch points that have been considered individually but not holistically.”

As this quote suggests and the WSJ article emphasized, it can be hard to incorporate this detail-rich mode of thinking into traditional agencies. And as anyone who has worked at traditional agencies know, it’s easy to see why.

People who work in agencies tend to be focused on inventing some version of a “big idea,” often as manifested in a high-impact execution. They are trained to create stuff that makes a big splash—and generally the same big splash—in as many places as possible. This kind of thinking—let’s call it top-down thinking—likes to apply big ideas across a broad landscape. it values originality, impact and consistency. Top-down thinkers get frustrated by too many details. They always want to "keep it simple" and saying we need “to get out of the weeds.”

Great digital marketing requires an attention to detail and ability to synthesize a complex array of perspectives from multiple sources. This kind of thinking—let’s call it bottom up thinking—is good for customizing messages across multiple touchpoints and optimizing communication through feedback loops. Bottom-up thinkers like data, they like observation. Bottom-up thinkers get frustrated by big ideas that suggest an over-simplified view of the situation. They are always saying things like, “Can we just look at the data?” or “That’s only true some of the time.”

I tend to be a bottom up thinker, more inductive than deductive, to use a more traditional opposition. I start with details and build up a hypothesis, challenging my thinking with new perspectives and data as I work. I’m the one always being told to get out the weeds.

Both styles of thinking are important and good creative organizations need a little bit of both. But they don’t always mix well, which may be one of the reasons traditional agencies are having such a hard time integrating their digital practices.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cities real and vitual: or the uses and limits of metaphor

Architecture has always provided a rich source of metaphors for other disciplines, particularly in the marketing and communications industry. We have brand architecture, information architecture, systems architecture. Architecture is such a reassuring term that it’s hard to resist, suggesting the ability to create an elegant and well-engineered system out of a messy array of complex information.

So I was intrigued when I came across an essay by Fred Stutzman on his interesting blog Unit Structures which uses Jane Jacobs foundational Death and Life of Great American Cities as a framework to help understand the power of online communities. Jacobs was the famous advocate for local street life (and notorious thorn in the side of Robert Moses). Her ideas are still (or even more) in fashion today, with most urban planning experts promoting mixed use developments to facilitate “vibrant communities” and avoid the problems of sprawl.

In his essay, Stutzman remarks that online communities are great at facilitating much of the variety, surprise and diversity of interactions that Jacobs loved about local street life in non-virtual city neighborhoods in NYC, and suggests that this may also be a key to online community's vibrancy and vitality. He summarizes Jacob’s argument this way:

Jacobs argued that a vibrant and diverse city should possess four characteristic design elements, the first being that a neighborhood should be multifunction, creating activity throughout the day. Next, a city should have short blocks and its buildings should be multiform, creating interest and promoting exploration by inhabitants. Finally, Jacobs argued for density, in which different populations intersperse, affording variety and shared resources.
Stutzman is also sensitive to the limitations of the city metaphor, recognizing that when we move from the real to the virtual, “the nature of its goods changes.” Real urban spaces are limited and highly valued. Virtual spaces are virtually limitless and still relatively inexpensive. For Jacobs, the preciousness of urban space was central to creating a sense of shared commitment or what we used to call civic responsibility. There are plenty of examples of self-governing behavior online too, though they seem to be inspired by other impulses. (A subject I’d love to hear Stutzman pursue if he hasn't already).

As someone who is currently working on the strategies for real urban spaces, I might call out a couple other distinctions that are worth considering when evaluating virtual spaces with real city metaphors or urban planning theories.

1) Virtual cities are virtually infinite: While Stutzman focuses on the positive qualities of virtual unboundedness (sense of discovery, etc), this very unboundedness has some obvious downsides as well. Virtual communities can feel overwhelming and : endless links that and vaguely defined as they expand beyond our capacity to frame them. One of the things that makes great neighborhoods great are their clear boundaries: a sense that you are moving from one space to another. The vastness of scale of online communities is a subject worth further exploration. Perhaps Rem Koolhaas’ essay on "Bigness" in S,M,L,XL might provide a provocative take on the subject.

2) Real buildings don’t change very easily. Virtual spaces are comparatively easy to change. When you plan for a real space, you attempt to plan for the neighborhood to change because once a building is built, it’s probably going to stay that way for awhile. Virtual spaces are often built on flexible platforms that can evolve as the audience changes, but they can change much more quickly and cheaply than tearing down real structures and putting up new ones.

Metaphors, by definition, don’t precisely define so much as provide a new perspective on the object of study, and by this standard Stutzman’s essay is well worth a read. It gets you thinking about the mysterious power of online communities which continually evolve and elude our understanding even as we try to understand them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the other hand: great ads still compel attention

Greenberg's position--however insightful--is also artificially simple; it's only one side of the story. While advertising as a whole may have lost some of its power to drive purchase decisions, the cultural power of great advertising remains strong. In practical terms, people may use dvr technology to skip over ads in general, but there's plenty of evidence that they use Tivo and Youtube to seek out their favorite ads to watch again.

Here's one piece of qualitative evidence: a report from the field from one of my ex-staffers who recently moved to LA to join a creative hot-shop:

Spent the day watching football with some new, non-advertising friends.

A marketer’s dream: 25-34 year olds, single (thus, high income), always online.

My employment in the industry never came up, but throughout the afternoon, they:

went back on Tivo to re-watch 2 ads they thought were funny (FedEx and Miller High Life)
pulled up an ESPN ad online to watch for fun
would critique probably 1/3 of all ads (“hysterical”; “lame”; “creative”; “that Domino’s pizza looks horrible”)

They found out I was in advertising later in the evening, well-after all of the above had gone down. Learning this led to of course 10 to 15 questions about what I did, what campaigns my agency worked on, what it was like to be in the industry.

The old famous Gossage quote paraphrased a bunch of different ways ("People don't read advertising...They read what interests them. Sometimes it's an ad.") still holds true. And why not? Television ads are tailor-made for consumption in our contemporary era: at their best, they're short, entertaining and easy to understand.

In conversations with clients and critics who express doubt about the power of advertising, I usually express it this way: "People don't hate advertising. They love advertising. They wouldn't know what to do without advertising. They just hate bad advertising."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Muddled Funnel: Greenberg on the new purchase pathway

The columns in Adweek often sound like well-articulated statements of the obvious. Recent topics include the importance of understanding your consumer and how clear differentiation helps to build a strong brand. No kidding? Bob Greenberg is often the exception, challenging the old chestnuts with new experience and evidence. This week, he uses a recent Forrester report on Engagement as a platform to discuss a number of issues challenging contemporary agencies:

Greenberg's fundamental point is that the traditional marketing funnel is obsolete. Consumers no longer follow a path from awareness to consideration to purchase to loyalty. Greenberg quotes Forrester:
"Rather than a clean, linear path, the real process looks more like a complex network of detours, back alleys, alternate entry and exit points, external influences and alternative resources."
In other words, consumers now draw on a rich array of resources; returning, checking, comparing before they make a purchase, and are likely to go through the same process again the next time they buy a similar product.

I've been ranting about this point since I left my last job. It's one of those facts that should be obvious to everyone. After all, we all know we don't shop at one store or site anymore. We just like to pretend that other consumers do because it's easier than coming to terms with the complexity of the real purchase process. Whenever some process monkey puts up one of those brand funnel charts, listing the steps of the traditional purchase pathway, I always want to ask him or her how many web sites they checked when they last booked a trip online?

As Greenberg also rightly points out, an ad can still trigger the awareness and interest but consideration and choice often happen online, and when we are evaluating product choices online we tend to be more influenced by rational than emotional appeals. In other words, we tend to favor brand sties that provide the best user experiences and prices, not necessarily brands with the best taglines. Does amazon even have a tagline?

Finally, Greenberg reminds us that if we want to motivate consumers through these new complex pathways we need to create different kinds of teams, including
"information architects, data analysts and an army of technologists of various stripes." I couldn't agree more. It's why I've posted below on why all planners should learn at the least basics of IA and why our strategy group includes specialists in information architecture, user experience and analytics.

Of course, you still need get them to work together, which, like mapping a purchase pathway, is harder than it looks.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sunday afternoon reading #4: Rilke, which proved to have refreshingly little relevance to the world of marketing

The tops of the maples are actually starting to turn here in northern New England and so I felt the desire to get reacquainted with some autumnal lyrics, starting with Rilke’s famous Herbst Tag or Autumn Day. Here it is in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
I was going to move onto Keats and Coleridge but once you start reading Rilke, it’s hard to stop. I flipped over to the Duino Elegies, which are quite a long poems, but the first one begins:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I would perish
in the embrace of his stronger existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure and are awed
because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Each single angel is terrifying.

Which made me want to quit me job. Luckily, I have a mortgage.

The one poem from which one could possibly dervie some marketing lessons is the equally famous Archaic Torso of Apollo. It is the only poem I've ever had the nerve to put on the beginning of a power point presentation (about conversion experiences.) The poem sets a standard for a visual work of art, to which, as marketers we can wistfully aspire: an inanimate object so powerful that it shocks the viewer into a need for self-transformation. If you wanted to be glib, you could say it's like an ancient Nike ad. But it's hard to be glib reading Rilke.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Don’t we all.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Quick and dirty just got quicker and dirtier

Seems like almost every day there is a new way to gather consumer info from various networks in almost real time. I recently wrote below how Brandon Geary from Razorfish shared some of his tricks using photo-sharing sites to gather info on and illustrate consumer behavior at the planning conference in San Diego. And lots of planners I know have been using FaceBook informally to get a quick read on a population or a consumer trend.

But, as one of my staff recently pointed out, FB now has their own polling tool that lets you do a quick survey of 1,000 people, incentivizing them with amounts as little 25 cents. You can custom-design the questions and do some selection of the respondents by age, location, sex and interest.

More cool still, and all the talk among fb enthusiasts (here and here), is the Socialistics application which allows you to measure, chart and graph just about any detail of the friends in your network. Fb'ers with large networks seem to be discovering surprising things about their communities.

Another example of how a new way to present the same data can surprise and delight.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Selling ideas

“These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air…”
-- The Tempest, IV.i

Agency people are always lamenting (e.g., here and here) the fact that we give away our truly unique offering--our ideas--for free and charge for the commodities--color copies, overnight packages, production facilities etc--that anyone can provide. As a former planning director at an agency, I know the pain. Particularly at pitch time, when you give up your life to give away your best ideas, along with a half-dozen other agencies for nothing but the promise of future work.

As a solution to this vexing problem, some of us have gotten into the business of trying to sell ideas rather than advertising. It sounds good on paper. Particularly to planners, who, sooner or later wonder about their value proposition in an ad agency. And a lot of smart people have tried different approaches: brand consultancies, research companies, start-ups of various stripes, including the one I’m at now. Rob White and Adrian Ho have recently invented another new version (Zeus Jones), which is focused on providing added-value utility to brand communications, what they call “marketing as a service. I know Rob and Adrian have thought hard about the value of intellectual property and I’m sure they’ve come up with something new and interesting.

But in my experience, re-positioning the offering from work to idea (whether it takes the form of strategy, service, advice, etc.) doesn’t really answer the question so much as displace it. No matter what you say your selling--no matter how well-defined--most clients aren’t comfortable buying just an idea. They almost always need something tangible they can point to and say: I’m buying that.

In the case of brand consultancies, this usually means “a process” (which is often a bunch of research plus a conclusion); for more design-oriented firms, this means some kind of branding elements like logos and taglines and style guides.

But can you really blame them? Are good ideas really so rare? Haven’t we all had great ideas that others have had the will, courage and determination to execute and thought, “I should have done that.” But didn’t. What is an idea without an execution or at least a plan for execution? Do clients really need more good ideas? Or do they need people who can take an idea and bring it to life?

I spent most of my youth in the realm of pure ideas. It was called graduate school. The product was a dissertation. I am here to tell you that while it might be very satisfying to create, in most cases, it isn’t worth very much money. At best, you can barter it for a job.

When experts laud the value of “ideas:” comparing how much more “intellectual property” is worth compared to material goods—what they are usually talking about are patents, and these days, technology patents. These aren’t just “ideas” in the marketing sense of the term, but actual blueprints for technological applications that have concrete value in the marketplace.

Our ideas—marketing ideas—usually aren’t products. They are the raw materials for dreams. These can be very valuable indeed, but not until someone puts them on stage.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Case study marketing

We all know B2B is hard for all the reasons that marketing is typically hard: clients tend to err on the rational side (It's business after all), the propositions are complex, and the targets can be hard to reach. Interactive has helped up to a point (rich media makes it easier to demonstrate complex products and digital media can make it easier to target relevant b2b consumers), but most of it is still pretty boring.

So I was intrigued when I came across the latest HP for Business Campaign less because of the Burton association, which is fine as coolio borrowed interest but frankly is starting to feel a little overused as the ur-hip business with charismatic leader.

What I like about it more is use of the old-fashioned case study as content. It's a form that most of us know and use, both as a source of info and to make arguments to clients, so we--as potential b2b customers--have already bought into the format.

Case studies also have the advantage of an existing structure, with information pre-organized into familiar categories: brand identity, customer research, etc so you know your audience will know how--and potentially want--to navigate it. As we used to say in grad school, the audience is already "competent readers" of the form. They might even find it useful.

The weak point, for me, is the connection between Burton and HP. The site suggests that HP can help you build a brand like Burton. But it's a bit of a stretch to claim that Burton built it's brand on pre-formatted letterhead, business cards and stickers.

Nevertheless, whatever the limits of the particular execution, the campaign definitely opens up some new conceptual territory for b2b ads, suggesting other forms of business documentation we might mine for interesting marketing content. In other words, rather than trying to make business look more interesting by pretending it's something it's not, we can start with what is interesting about business in the first place.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

"We're just talking"

is one of the things that one of my former bosses used to say when I was sitting in his office, catching up on various projects. If he felt I was holding back or carefully choosing my language or he wasn't getting the answers he wanted, he'd lean back and say, "We're just talking here."

I was sympathetic to his intention: the desire to clear the air, talk turkey, be candid, blunt, not mince words, stop all the bullshit. tell him what I really thought. (The very fact that we have so many expressions for this speech act is itself a sign of how much we we all want it and how hard it is to achieve).

I was sympathetic because I’m a boss myself and have said similar things to my own staff. But what I’ve found is that no matter how hard you try to transcend or side-step the boss-employee relationship, you really can't. You can't because the basic constitutive fact of the boss-employee relationship is that is an economic and not an emotional one: a boss-employee relationship, unlike a friend or loooover, is not really voluntary. To put it simply, and in a way we almost never do explicitly: our bosses are in control of our employment and income. And most of us believe that “just talking here” or telling our bosses what we really think isn't worth the risk to our livelihoods.

I've found the barrier one of the more maddening features of corporate life, far more unbreachable than the much-maligned gap between the sexes in a relationship. The notorious he-said, she-said problem is nothing, at least for me, compared to the structural barrier between boss and employee. This barrier is, of course, the source of a lot of the great comedy in the office. (e.g. Michael saying, "His salary isn't better, it's just different.")

And it's too bad. Because almost all of us have hungered for some straight talk either up or down the chain-of-command. And I've tried various strategies with my own staff, promising I wouldn't let their opinions or plans influence my decision making, confessing details about my own frustrations, but when push comes to shove (when we were negotiating for a raise, or I suspected they were exploring other "opportunities"), I was almost always treated along the lines of corporate conventions. They told me about their other job offer at precisely the same time everyone does, once they had the offer letter in their hands. And who can blame them? Why should they put their income at risk just because I want to have a little straight talk? The conventions are there for a reason.

I'm not suggesting you can't get along with your boss or even be friends. I know there is all kinds of conflicting advice on whether bosses and employees should be friends (like here and here. And now we even have the problem of our boss trying to friend us, blogged about here.) I like to think that I'm "friends" with some of my staff too, but it's a friendship of a certain kind with very particular limitations. You can tell because when the relationship shifts (i.e., they take another job) so do the terms of the relationship. We can suddenly talk more freely.
The economic reality of office relationships is one of the reasons I tend to resist the more sentimental descriptions of company life, the talk of the office community as “a family,” or even certain descriptions of what it means to be a mentor (but I’ll save that for another posting.) Even when the office is congenial and emotionally supportive, even when it’s so fun and warm that it feels like “a family” at times, it fundamentally is not. The simplest way to remember the difference: if for some reason you lost your job, your mom would probably take you in if necessary. Your boss, probably not.

So what to do? How do you create a platform for relatively honest dialogue between boss and staff without misrepresenting the reality of the relationship. I’m afraid I don’t have much original to say on the question. My biggest success has been an old-fashioned one developed by our wise founding fathers though often ignored by later administrations: separation of powers.

A key component separating powers is having a strong #2 who my staff feels they could tell things they couldn't tell me. Then she could alert me to potential issues with general guidance (X is overworked: Y needs their expectations reset; Z is ready to be promoted) without compromising their confidential discussions in any detail

This is hardly an ideal solution. For one thing, it requires that your staff trusts your#2 and for another, it doesn't help your #2 much, who still doesn't have anyone to complain to, but it's a start.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Sunday Afternoon Reading #3: Habit

is another subject Proust is famously great on. Remembrance of Things Past is full of subtle descriptions on the power our habits to define our experience, whether we like it or not. Here is the one I came across today. His narrator has just received the note at the end of The Captive telling him that Albertine has left him for good:

Yes, a moment ago, before Francoise came into the room, I had believed that I no longer loved Albertine. I had believed that I was leaving nothing out of account, like a rigorous analyst; I had believed that I knew the state of my own heart. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see into my own heart…I was so much in the habit of having Albertine with me, and now I suddenly saw a new aspect of Habit. Hitherto I had regarded it chiefly as an annihilating force which suppresses the originality and even the awareness of one’s perceptions; now I saw it as a dread deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so encrusted in one’s heart, that if it detaches itself, if it turns away from one, this deity that one had barely distinguished inflicts on one sufferings more terrible than any other… (Moncrieff, p. 426)
In his long rumination on the subject, the narrator decides that sheer repetition, the habit of a relationship, is the source of a more powerful bond than what we typically think of as the emotionally intense elements: passion, lust, love. The really unbreakable bonds, or the ones that seem difficult to break, have more to do with our rituals of daily life.

In American culture, we tend to be sensitized to the power of bad habits, usually pathologized as an ever-expanding array of “addictions.” (For a great if dense account on the mania of addiction psychology, check out Eve Sedgwick in Incorporations and reprinted in Tendencies.)
But we tend to be less sensitive to the slow, steady usually unconscious development of habits to keep us moving down our well-groomed paths, even though the evidence of habit is all around us.

Anyone who has ever taught a class for a length of time has witnessed the mechanism in action. Even when the seating is totally voluntary, students tend to return to the same seats over and over again. And if someone decides to change their seat for some reason, you can almost hear the machinery creaking, as students walk around, readjusting their world-view.

Most serious disciplinary regimes--the military, AA, religious programs—already understand these psychological facts. It’s why their programs have so many stages and steps and forms of social reinforcement.

One of my old coaches used to say, “I don’t care if you run every day; just once a day, put on your running shoes.” He understood the power of habit. So do health clubs and personal trainers. They know that paying money and making social obligations are often far more effective ways to motivate action than communicating even a really good benefit (e.g. live longer, look better, feel better).

Whenever we want someone to buy one brand instead of another, we are essentially asking them to break one habit and start another. And as many in the business have realized, telling them that it will be really good for them often isn’t as powerful as creating a pattern of behavior.