Friday, April 25, 2008

Everything old is new again? Better products as the solution to the marketing crisis!

Have been reading a bunch of presentations/posts/articles on how the future of marketing depends less on advertising and more on making better stuff. Here’s one on Isakson's blog, but you can find similar arguments about marketing as a service at zeus/jones, or brand utility on PSFK or others on the importance of design. What struck me this time on my pass through these next gen positions was that they sounded kind of old-fashioned, denouncing all this hot air and slick salesmanship which we marketers used to see as our stock in trade. “What we need, son, is less talk and a little more spit and elbow grease. Now get in there and dig me up a really beautifully designed keyboard!"

You want to have a successful brand, these arguments go, make a better widget or at least a nicer looking one. It’s why we return over and over again to the same examples: Mac, Starbucks, etc.

The argument for making better and more useful products is fine so far as it goes (a point Paul acknowledges but doesn’t fully address except through the partial solution of “content”), but seems to forget that one of the foundational values of modern marketing is that it’s a substitute for or at least a supplement to product superiority. Advertising is expensive, sure, but much less expensive, often, than R & D or retooling production.

The points about design and utility work best on (again, no surprise here) functional products and utilities like Ebay and Google. They don’t help much when you are selling perfume or vodka. There and in many other places, style and fast-talk still count for a lot.

We all want better widgets, but we are often in the business of selling ones that are less good, or more likely, just as good as every other version. That might be unappetizing to the utopian band of next gen marketers but less unpleasant to those of us who either enjoy the terrible symmetry of business or who have found you can change people's minds by telling them the same thing over and over again.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What I stopped watching or it can't be a good sign

for HBO when I--a former specialist in 18th century studies and, in general, a fan of Paul Giamatti--hasn't been able to sit through an episode of John Adams since the tedious representation of the Versailles court in all its Sophia-Coppola-inspired decadence. I gather the whole project is an attempt to "humanize" the founding fathers, but I'm finding the narrative frameworks a little too familiar: from Paul G's reliance on head-shaking rages in order to dramatize Adams' well-known crankiness to Abby Adams playing out the oddly familiar role of the nagging wife complaining her husband spent too much at work. It's not that I don't believe Adams shouted a lot or that his wife was annoyed that he was busy founding a country, but it seems strange to pay so much narrative attention to story arcs straight out of a NYPD or CSI or virtually any show with a dedicated pro fighting the system and a beleaguered wife having a hard time holding down the home front. It's probably hard to represent the clash of pragmatism and idealism which was played out in the arguments and decisions of the founding fathers in a way that would make good TV, but finding out that John had a hard family life somehow doesn't feel like an adequate substitute.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bad influence or how many influentials does it take...

One of the more interesting debates in the always exciting world of market research has emerged from the surprisingly heated exchanges between Duncan Watts and Malcolm Gladwell. The issue in question is whether the much-touted category of Influencers really exists, or more accurately, whether so-called influencers are any more influential than any of the rest us.

The question of the influencers' real marketing power wouldn't matter so much if it wasn't central to the whole best-selling Tipping Point thesis and the foundation of innumerable costly marketing efforts. As the challenger, Watts is the crankier of the two contestants, calling Gladwell's thesis a bunch of crap, if only because it never explains the "mechanism" around which the influencers manager to influence so many people. For the Influencer thesis to be true, he asks, wouldn't every person the influencer touches have to become magically transformed into another influential? Gladwell, as the reigning champion, is more circumspect or generous or just too rich to care at this point, and suggests we all are just seeing part of the great whole.

The whole debate was covered with some depth and acuity here in the February Fast Company and it's worth spending some time with for a couple reasons. One, it's just weird that a qustion in market research is the center of this much controversy. Two, it suggests how powerful intuitive theories like The Tipping Point can be, even if they happen to be wrong, though the jury certainly is still out on this point. E.g:

Why didn't the Influentials wield more power? [Watt's speculates about a simulation he created] With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn't they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend--not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone's odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."

Turning away from the fascination with new media magic and the (seemingly free) power of WOM, Watt's takes us back to the right message at the right time. Certain ideas fly around so fast less because they are implanted in the smartphones of the well-connected than because they are good or at least culturally resonant ideas.

To me, it seems likely that they are both wrong, at the extremes. Most of the time, fast-talking hipsters can't save an irrelevant idea any more than a resonant idea will necessarily circulate itself. And both perspectives are valuable, as they offer two useful views on the social life of information. But at the moment, Watt's is more fun to read, if only because his arguments are fueled by the ferocity of a born spoiler. Hard to believe it, but this might be one argument worth following.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Using your kids as evidence

There are probably few things more annoying to non-parents (or really anyone) than listening to a parent talk about what he's learned from his kids. Especially when the parent is a client. We've all been subject to the deadly, "I showed it to my kids" or "My kids were talking about it and they said..." usually followed by a suggestion to change our strategy or ad or idea. Gee thanks, Dad! I'm sympathetic, and work hard not to use stories about my kids as evidence for anything except their well-recognized brilliance, charm and beauty.

But what's interesting about this whole parenting project from a cultural analysis standpoint is that it forces you to commit. For instance, you can have all kinds of interesting conversations about whether video games are good or bad for you. And there is evidence on both sides of the question. I certainly know ver7 successful people who attribute their skills of one kinds or another to their early mastery of everything from Donkey Kong to Halo. On the other hand, there's a growing body of evidence that a heavy diet of video games can have an impact on cognitive development and noticeably shorten attention spans.

So from a theoretical perspective, you can say, well, who cares? My little darling is undoubtedly training him or herself for a future where high-speed reflexes (and other heretofore unrecognized video-game-honed skills) are more important than long-attention spans. Long attention spans? That's what they needed back in the 20th century! But it's kind of a big bet, and a hard one to make, especially when you are a parent that spent most of their youth reading very long novels.

My solution: moderation in all things is, like all parenting advice, obvious and boring. What's maybe more interesting is the fact that the decisions parents make about their kids tend to reveal the depth of their commitments. And it's not simply because we love our little darlings so much, but because we have to live with the consequences. After all, you can always quit an annoying job.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The mysteriously high cost of speaking

So like everyone else, I was struck alert by the news of the rapid rise of the Clinton’s financial fortunes, but what amazed me most was being reminded of how much money Bill commanded for speaking fees: $250,000 for a talk. Though the news has been out for awhile. Now, I’m basically a fan of Bill C, but I’m not sure I’d pay anything to see him speak for a couple hours on some random subject. No question he’s a brilliant politician but he strikes me as a bit of rambler.

And of course, it isn’t just Bill. When I’ve been involved in planning events, I was amazed by amounts non-celebrities commanded to just show up and talk. I mean, in my experience at these events, half the people don’t pay attention anyway, or don’t even show up; they are too busy flirting out by the coffee machine or open bar, or too hung over from the previous night’s adventures.

It’s weird because people who actually speak to audiences for a living, audiences they strive to instruct and inspire don’t get paid very much at all. Of course, I'm talking about teachers here. I mean, even a very successful professor doesn’t command Bill’s two-hour fee over an entire year of lectures and seminars on Organic Chemistry or Latin American History.

I mean, it’s not like it’s a great performance either, that might be so great or unique that it actually has a historic impact. Like Dylan at Newport. I've met very few people talking about the speeches they saw 5 years ago at some conference or other. Remember Todd Grimm, an expert in rapid prototyping, talking at the CES back in 2002? That rocked!

The whole economic structure seems driven more by the need for events—and content to fill them—than the value, on any standard, of the talk itself. But that still doesn't explain it.

Maybe all of us who sell thinking in one form or another—teachers, consultants, advisors—should position every meeting as a speaking engagement? That would really improve margins.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Innovation in the classroom: an homage

One of the critiques I found most annoying about my past life in grad school from businessvolk was the claim that we, academics, we’re not in the “real world.” I have a bunch of counter arguments to this claim—not least of which that the so-called real world often has lower standards than those maintained in an academic environment--but the occasion for this post was coming across the blog of a former professor who continues to bring such energy, innovation and commitment to the craft of teaching that he frankly makes most of my colleagues in marketing look like, well, absent-minded professors.

He was one of the earliest and most aggressive adopters of message boards and other digital technologies, not for their own sake, but to facilitate student engagement. He taught and taught me that the point of the humanities classroom was not to communicate a particular idea but rather to get students excited to think in a new way. (It's still my goal for early meetings with a new client). What his methods--now widely adopted--created was an ongoing discussion and debate which went on all week. The hour or 90 minutes in the classroom became the climax rather the start of the debate with well-honed arguments that had been advanced and rebuffed and refined online. You can check out his website here.

He recently posted a description of how--long after my departure--he demanded that his students learn HTML so they could develop websites to voice their arguments. This was a literature class, mind you, though always a highly politicized one. The majority didn’t know HTML, but he told them to figure it out. Everyone complained. I'm sure I would have as well. But as the post indicates, it turned at least one into a web consultant. We should all hold our own staffs in the real world to such a high standard of invention under duress.