Thursday, February 28, 2008

Top ten something or other

Been underground in focus groups and meetings for the past week and I’m emerging to restate the obvious.

Survey says:

1) Consumers have a virtually insatiable appetite for lists and rankings of almost any kind, even when
2) They have no idea what the source of authority or mechanism of selection for these lists might be.
3) Their ability to distinguish traditionally defined editorial content from paid content is rapidly decreasing. For many, the distinction is already irrelevant.
4) Everyone wants to read consumer reviews but almost no one wants to write them.
5) If people don’t have to pay attention to what something costs, they almost assuredly will not.
6) It's not very hard to confuse people about what something really costs.
7) A lot of people seem to really believe that illegal aliens are the chief cause of our rising health care costs.
8) Rich media can be really annoying
9) My second least favorite research question is now officially: "How much time do you spend on the internet?"
10) Every new generation of researchers believes they have found the secret to discovering what people really want or what UX pros now call “disambiguating intent.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A little knowledge is a little knowledge

Another thing I’ve been finding lately with companies and brands which have been winging it (by which I mean no research at all--no usability, no site analytics, no segmentation, no focus groups, nichts, nothing, except, of course, definitive conversations with the cousins!) is that the introduction of research into the strategic process can freak them right out, raising all these questions they haven’t bothered to consider before.

Weirdly, or maybe not, it’s not the big questions that bother them like, “Who are our customers?” That’s something you don’t need to worry about so long as they keep coming. Rather, they get nervous about the details. For a year or two or five or ten they’ve been sailing along on a good idea and/or deal-making prowess and/or a strong business model, but when they start to imagine a particular set of customers, with a particular set of desires and frustrations, every decision--even every research decision--can start to seem overwhelmingly complicated.

Do consumers lie? Is that question clear? Should we speak to everyone? Or just our core target? Isn’t the sample too small in a focus group?

To which I try to respond diplomatically that 32 opinions is a lot more than 0.

You can’t blame them. It’s hard to accept something you’ve been avoiding or resisting for a long time. They now have to question all their dismissive remarks about analysis paralysis and worry about paralyzing themselves once they start to get feedback on what they are dong.

The hardest thing to communicate is that a little knowledge is exactly that: a little knowledge, to be interpreted in the context of experience, judgment and the next round of data. For this and other reasons, I’ve always been a bigger fan of multiple, incremental little studies than one big one. Other reasons: You don’t blow your client’s whole research budget on one study, multiple sources tend to build confidence, and most importantly of all, it helps everyone see that research doesn’t just answer questions, it leads to new questions. And it's these second-tier questions which are often the source of real business building insight.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The pitch: desire for change meets resistance to change

Everyone seems to be asking for a new way to approach the challenges of marketing.
The trades are constantly suggesting that marketers want a new kind of agency, new skills, new partners, new new media approaches, new measurement tools.

And like a lot people, I work at one of those companies that is trying to approach the problem in a different way. In our case, the big difference is a network model. Rather than trying to employ someone with every potential skill any client might need, we start with a strategic engagement and then, once we figure out what the client’s brand requires, enlist the necessary partners (from web designers to search specialists to old fashioned art directors to organizational alignment pros) to address it.

The idea is that we can assemble the best available talent for whatever the job requires without having to keep them all on staff. Of course, this model has it’s share of challenges as well, but I’m not bringing this up to promote our approach so much as to use it as an example of how rigid conventions can be, even when everyone seems to want to change them.

Marketers, and the search consultants who represent them, seem to be excited to work with a company with a new model, but everything about the traditional search approach--with it's big final show revealing the spec creative--more or less restricts the search to traditional agencies.

So here's the dilemma. We've created a model that is designed to address some of the key issues raised by marketers over issues they've had with past agencies..
1) They want best-in-class talent in all the various disciplines, from interactive to media to PR, etc, which is almost impossible for a traditional agency, even really good ones.
2) They want a media-agnostic approach. Most agencies say they are media agnostic but the talent still has be in-house for the biz model to work.
3) For some, they feel like the agency is more interested in creating award-winning ads than addressing their marketing problem in the most efficient way possible. Though i think this is less true today.
4) They don't want to pay for all this expensive overhead they aren't using

And yet when it comes down choosing an agency or marketing partner with a new approach they still want to do it in an old-fashioned way (with spec-creative way) which is pretty hard for us to do. For one thing, only a fraction of our clients’ brand and marketing problems are best addressed by traditional advertising. And even our “creative work” isn’t technically “ours,” at least in the sense that we did it with . It was done by one of our partners, who we identified, vetted and briefed. And we certainly can’t do work on spec, because 1) we don’t have the creative resources internally 2) we don’t even know what resources would be required until we understand the marketing problem which you generally can't do in the pitch process

In most cases, these complications have more or less kept us out of pitches. Lately, marketers seem to be inviting us anyway. In a couple cases, we’ve decided to participate on our own terms. Sometimes it's worked , which means the marketer in question adapted their pitch process to our unconventional approach and sometimes it didn't, which means they stuck to their traditional criterion of evaluation and couldn't resist the spec work that they would probably never run, assuming they needed new advertising to begin with.

The broader marketing lesson: even when you think you are giving people what you think they want, they still have a hard time giving up a familiar process. The whole "devil you know" syndrome is a lot more powerful than we sometimes give it credit for, especially in high stakes decisions. It's a lot like health insurance. But that's another story.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Experimental office fiction #4

In addition to interviews with the full executive team and others who were identified as important stakeholders, Nichols recommended three separate interviews with the leader himself. This was unconventional and some would argue an extravagant use of executive time, but if challenged on this point, Nichols would remind his client of the pivotal importance of the assessment his company had been hired to perform. “What can a single interview tell us?” Nichols explained to the Board of Directors. “Men and women who have long held leadership roles have a difficult time expressing their true intentions, even”—and here he paused for emphasis—“when that is their specific desire.” The first interview elicits the well-developed positions which the leader has developed and honed over the years. In the second, he begins to express his genuine doubts and in the third, you begins to a express his true hopes for his legacy." Meyers typically won this argument for what executive team does not thrill to a description of a thorough process? This case was no exception.

The CEO in question, who we shall refer to as B--, was an engineer by training and tended to view his company's challenges as a technical problem. Before he had taken over the helm of the company, he had an impressive record as a practical scientist and held the rights on several patents that had been crucial to the early development of semiconductors. He had turned to management because, he claimed in multiple interviews, it “offered a more interesting problem.” People, he said, were messy machines. The trick was to organize them in a way to ensure maximum yield. All these “forces” by which he meant, energy, motivation, talent, could be defined and organized if you faced the problem objectively, dispassionately.

Nichols didn’t disagree, but he had heard it all before. The CEO was famous for applying engineering principles and modes of analysis to the messy world of organizational development. His proposed enactment of these principles was seen as a key to the company’s success and like all successes, led to a wave interest in his analytical method among schools and other companies. But like all powerful theories, it met with equal resistance, derided as “social engineering” by detractors including former employees who had attacked the office environment as a technocratic sweatshop.

Even now, as Nichols settled onto the black couch, B-- stood before him, hands raised, ready to lecture, command, decide, shape the destinies of thousands. “Let us,” he said, “start with the assumption that I am a blank slate.”

Monday, February 11, 2008

What's in a name in the digital era?

There was a time when those of involved in naming brands or products would spent a lot of time trying to think up names with the perfect mix of descriptive clarity (so people would know what the thing was) and evocative power (so it sounded desirable and cool). We’d swing back and forth between names that sounded like post-punk rock bands (Manatee) and entries in an office-supplies catalog (Net-2-Phone). (Many of course still do and some naming firms, like Lexicon, have developed interesting creative methodologies though I'm not sure it matters as much as it used to)

At some point a decade or so ago, the whole branding world seemed to turn to neologisms derived from roots of various indo-european languages and the world became filed with Corollas and Accentures, not to mention Viagras and Cialis's The reasons for this shift seems obvious, particularly for global brands: if the word doesn’t exist, you don’t have worry about it being owned already. And made-up words have a better chance of working across a variety of international markets. I’m not sure who exactly started the practice, but I know Interbrand was involved in a lot of high profile coinages.

In general, the packages good’s world tends to be more conservative, sticking to a made-up words with recognizable semantic elements: Swiffer is a primes example of P&G’s latest near-billion dollar brand.

Online, of course, brand names have long erred on the side of goofy and distinctive. Amazon with its suggestions of abundance sounds positively old-fashioned compared to Squidoo or Ovoo or Veoh to pick three from the emerging web video space. And there are thousands more of course. Do these names work? Are they good or simply available in this world where domain names are now traded like currency? (One almost hear William Blake's lament. The chartered thames was bad enough. Now, we’re selling words on the open market!)

As an endless supply of these invented words flood the ether, I’ve been wondering how to evaluate the quality? How would we know if they were good or not beyond a purely subjective impression. Squidoo! Love it! (Though apparently Squidoo is actually more descriptive than silly, intended describe the way the service draws in packets of info like a squid draws in it’s tentacles.)

But in this era of total access, it might not matter at all. I just came out of some research, exploring some naming options for an internet service and frankly, we had a really hard time getting the younger consumers to care at all. The most characteristic response: “Eh, it’s distinctive, I can find it.” Beyond that, it didn’t really matter. Or, “I don’t really think about it. I’ve bookmarked it.” In the era of ambient findability, all that careful crafting of a great brand name might be becoming irrelevant, especially if it’s easy to spell and turns up on the first google page and you don't have to buy it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

“Another gift for the landfill” or the potentially under-explored realm of disposal costs

I’ve posted earlier about my attention to switching costs, how economists describe the barriers to switching from one brand/service/system to another. Behavioral economists have been all over this lately, uncovering depths of hidden emotional costs to the obvious financial burdens (which telcom companies among others have tried to assuage with “pay to switch you and switch you back” offers).

My question, at the time, was whether switching costs were, in general, going up or down. As systems and services get more complex and demand longer learning curves and degrees of involvement, are we less likely to switch? Alternatively, as options multiply for just about everything, the emotional hold of any one brand/system/service might be loosening. I’m sure it’s different for different categories. I’m still exploring that.

The long holiday season and my recent car purchase, however, has me thinking about another locus of financial /emotional costs, which strikes me as less fully explored.

The title of this post comes from an environmentalist friend of mine who responds dryly to the opening of presents on xmas morning with the phrase. “Oh, it’s going to be a great Christmas for a landfill. And there's another one for the landfill!” He obviously has a grim point to make, but I'm not sure it’s fair. Because what I’ve noticed is that kids, and everyone else, has a really hard time throwing crap out. I mean a really hard time. Which is why there is a whole industry and specialized consultants devoted to de-cluttering our houses and our lives. My mother-in-law obviously feels this way too as all she ever wants for Xmas is for us to take 5 things out of her house. Direct marketers and promoters know this fact as well, which is why they are so eager to give us 30 day free trials of any product or service. Once we’re in, it’s hard to get out.

That's all obvious and familiar. But I wonder if this difficulty—a combination of some primordial hording urge plus general inertia and laziness—has ever been studied/quantified. I'm not talking about the financial costs of waste management which are, of course, well documented, but rather one of those psychological/behavioral tests of the kind I so adore which created variable pricing of similar objects according to their ease of guilt-free and effortless disposal.

Which also makes me think that there might be a value-add consumer benefit in stuff and services that automatically self-destruct. Brands are already promoting their green credentials by promoting recycling options right with the product etc.

But fair attention to disposal costs would take this service to the next level. Once your kids all passed a certain age, Hasbro or Disney or whomever would swing by with a big truck and just cart it all away. Oh, dream. Though as all the environmentally consciousness planners in the bloggersphere somewhat self-destructively insisting, it would probably have been better (for the earth, not our careers) if we hadn't bought it in the first place.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Planning on what's next, part II

Returning to the question of forecasting: And just to be clear I'm not talking about a product upgrade or line extension. Not another detergent which you inject into the fabric of clothes for a really deep clean or a new high-energy bar including micro-particles extracted from clouds above the Baltic Sea. The rules on line extensions are pretty clear. And you usually have the package goods machinery to back you up: the concept tests and volumetric projections and prototype usability tests to go on.

But we all know the limited usefulness of concept testing something that doesn’t yet exist. Consumers are famously unable to predict their interest in something they haven’t seen before. I think the most useless focus group question in existence is: “Would you like that?” Sure, why not? Right? But that’s not the topic at hand.

The topic at hand is what do we do when we’ve got nothing: On the conceptual level, you can retreat to the trusty war-horses: “best cases” and arguing from analogy. You turn to Facebook or Wikipedia or reach further back to Amazon. But if you’re used to building conclusions from multiple data sources in specific categories it can feel very flaky indeed to fill up slides with borrowed data, especially when you are staring at a bunch of engineers or VC’s.

Another option is scenario-planning. That way, you don’t feel like you’re predicting exactly what will happen so much as detailing the consequences of a range of outcomes. It enables some conceptual framework and doesn’t feel like an all or nothing bet. Of course, even this involves some prediction. You still have imagine a range of outcomes. And as Societe Generale recently found it: it’s not always easy to imagine what can happen. Scenario planning is best on the big picture. But it’s less useful for helping define the details.

So far I’ve gotten the most traction by retreating to my comfort zone: consumer behavior. Any new product, no matter how advanced, has to be tapping into some existing consumer behavior, generally among early adopters. In the example in the previous post—real-time gastro-intestinal observation—it might be people with serious conditions or people who think they do. Or maybe it’s people with a thing for medical imagery.

In any case, the strategic question becomes how far out does a brand want to lead consumer behavior. The brand can build the consumer base by serving the core behavior of the early adopters and hope there is enough of them or their freaky intense involvement catches on. Or you can identify the mainstream behavior that is likely to see GI imagery has the logical next step in their personal journeys to perfect digestion. It might be Prevention subscribers it might be people with regularity issues.

In any case, they both have risks. If you bet on the early adopters, your position could quickly get marginalized by a fast follower with easier technology. The bet on mainstreaming is a big opportunity but might never come to pass. But in this scheme, you can turn to real consumer data and some attempt to size the market to guide your decision.