Saturday, May 28, 2011

Invention, Imitation, and Innovation

There has been some blurring of the lines between three distinctly different notions: invention, imitation, and innovation. I can't tell if what I'm seeing is the result of individuals trying to sort out the concepts in order to better understand the nature of innovation, or merely posturing that arises when an imitative company wants to claim that they are innovative, or to discount the innovation of others because it is not an act of invention. Some suggest that the terms need to be redefined for clarity, but I suspect they are fine as they are, and it's merely the way in which they are used that might benefit from a bit of consideration:

Of the three, "invention" is the easiest to define, and probably the most difficult to accomplish: it's typically the sole demesne of the very first person or company to do something, ever. The "typically" is there to qualify instances in which two people come to an independent act of creation, each unaware of the efforts of the other - unless there exists some proof that the second was aware of the first, his act of invention is no less genuine.

The term "imitation" is also fairly simple to define, and the most simple to accomplish: a person or company notices what someone else is doing, and decides to mimic their actions in hopes of achieving the same results. Imitation is looked down upon, and perhaps rightly so, as it's generally the result of an individual of inferior intelligence or insight who is merely copying a pattern of behavior he doesn't understand and putting blind faith in his ability to achieve similar results.

"Innovation," a term much in fashion of late, is a combination of the two. The innovator does not necessarily need to invent anything to act in an innovative manner, and it is by nature an innovation begins with the same observation of the imitator - the difference being that the innovator makes adaptations the act of imitation. That is, he understands what he is seeking to achieve, can perceive the way in which another person is trying to accomplish the goal, and recognize ways in which the original actor's behavior is likely to result in success of failure. And in that way, he can adopt some parts of the process that seem beneficial, and substitute a more effective method for those parts of the process that seem flawed.

The difference between the innovator and the imitator is in his understanding of the connection between cause and effect, and his insight to identifying a more profitable course of action. The innovator adapts the behavior of others to suit his needs, which requires creative intelligence, whereas the imitator merely copies without understanding.

It's probably worth noting, as well, that there is a cultural prejudice against imitation that's not entirely justified. Western culture, particularly the American culture, places great emphasis on individualism, and grants esteem to the intelligence of the inventor and stigmatizes the individual who merely imitates as being stupid and lazy, a species of thief who lives second-hand on the intelligence of others.

However, there is not one penny of profit in prestige ... and quite a lot of it in competing with others by doing things that seem to be generally the same in most respects, but wit ha few critical differences that achieve a better result.

There are innumerable folktales in modern culture of a brilliant inventor who never made a dime on his own intelligence, while others who "took" his idea made for themselves vast fortunes. Perhaps the point of such stories is to reinforce cultural contempt for imitators - though the moral they teach is that it doesn't pay to be smart (another lesson that seems to be taken to heart in the anti-intellectual morass of contemporary American culture.)

But what these stories often neglect to mention is that those who make a fortune on the invention of others are often not mindless imitators, but innovators, who recognized the value of an invention as well as the way in which the inventor was getting it wrong: "If I follow his example, but for the (few) things he is doing wrong, I could be very successful indeed."

And that is the very soul of innovation.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Zombie Marketing at the CDC

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) posted a page to its "Emergency Preparedness and Response" blog instructing citizens how to prepare and respond to the zombie apocalypse. It was posted around the 16th of this month, started popping up in social media sites a few days later, and has generated a fair amount of buzz. The page was released without much fanfare, so there's some uncertainty whether it was an intentional, official act of the agency or just a soon-to-be-former-employee goofing around on the site.

The initial reactions seem to have fallen into two categories - amusement and outrage - the latter at the notion that "our tax dollars" are being spent on something so frivolous. For my part, I'm neither terribly amused (it was fairly weak humor, and wouldn't get a second glance but for the site it appeared on) nor terribly outraged (far larger projects have wasted far more tax money, and this is a trifle) .... I'm inclined to be impressed, but have been waiting for more information that I'm beginning to doubt I'll ever see.

As silly or lame as it may seem, this stunt has drawn much attention to a government-operated site that probably hasn't gotten much traffic. I don't expect that the CDC's Emergency Preparedness site ever much attention, and it's likely most people know, or at least expect, that the CDC operates such a Web site, but never really bothered to check it out. And thinking about it now, it's probably a site that a person should visit for their general information - people will respond better to an emergency if they know what to do, but aren't much interested in learning until a situation occurs, and it's too late to prepare.

So in that sense, this little stunt is quite a good use of social media, and if it gets people to visit the site, become aware that it exists, and browse a few articles while they are there, then it should likely be considered a good use of tax dollars as well. The people who are amused would do well to take the CDC a little more seriously, and the people who are outraged would do well to STFU ... but when is the latter not true?

I'd like to follow-up on this note when more information is available - confirmation (hopefully) that this was an intentional marketing gambit and the amount of traffic it created to the CDC's site - but I suspect that won't be disclosed, or if so, it will get less attention than the stunt itself and pass below the radar. So I'm left to guess, and I'd estimate that this was a conscious gambit on some level of the organization, and that the traffic is likely to be quite remarkable compared to the trickle of attention the site normally gets.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Length and Depth of Engagement

In a previous post, I noted having some difficulty finding any studies that correlated the length of time a person spends on a page to whether they complete a transaction on a site - my notion being that designing pages according to the "average" length of time a visitor spends was catering to the attention given by non-buyers. I still haven't seen the numbers, but gathered some statistics on a non-commercial site to check the correlation between the length of time spent on a page and the depth of the engagement. Here's what I found:

The scattergraph above plots the number of seconds spent on the home page against the number of pages that a visitor viewed during their session. And while the results are fairly scattered, there does appear to be a significant correlation between the two: users who spend more time on a page tend to view more pages on a site.

I'm not entirely satisfied, though:

First, it's an analysis of a non-commercial site. My hypothesis is that, on a commercial site, the more time a user spends on a site, the more likely they are to complete a purchase during the same visit - so the behavior of users on a noncommercial site is necessarily a reliable indicator or behavior on a commercial one.

Second, I'm leery of implying a causal connection - that by "making" a user spend more time on a page, it will increase their engagement and make them more likely to consume additional content. I think the two are likely related, as this brief experiment shows, but any attempt to force a longer page-view is more likely to result in frustration than increased purchase completion. There's a correlation, but without an A:B test, I'd be very reluctant to assume a causal relationship.

Third, it's a fairly small data set - only about 500 visitors, during the course of a weekend, when they are logically more likely to be engaged in leisurely browsing than in active information-seeking. My sense is that this skews the numbers to more time and more pages in general. To be firmer in the conclusion, it would take a larger number of users over a greater length of time.

All in all, it's a very informal analysis - but it points in the direction I anticipated, and suggests that further research might be worthwhile.

Monday, May 16, 2011

QR Codes: Getting it Wrong Again

I've noticed that QR codes are popping up again. They're starting to appear in consumer advertisements again. Pundits who see the potential value to consumers and markers are lauding them again. Marketers who are desperately grasping at the latest fan are trying to use them to appear forward-thinking again. And my prediction is that they're going to fail again.

I try to avoid making definitive statements - as human behavior is not entirely predictable and saying that something will succeed or fail comes with considerable risk to appearing foolish and losing credibility when reality bears out in the opposite direction ... but in this instance, I don't think I'm taking much of a risk.

What is a QR Code?

The article in Wikipedia provides a thorough explanation of QR Codes, but to quickly summaries: A QR code is fundamentally, a two-dimensional barcode that can be scanned to reveal a moderate amount of information - around 4,000 characters - which can be read by software when the code is input via a scanner or camera. The data can be used for various purposes, the most common being passing data to an inventory management system, but the most germane to the present consideration is using the data to pass an URL to be viewed with a Web browser.

Are QR codes new?

Most disappointing about the Wikipedia article is that it presently provides a history of their use in marketing that begins in 2009 - which is over a decade since they were originally introduced to the market (and failed horribly for the first time).

The present incarnation of the QR code was developed in the early 1990's for use in logistics systems, where they enjoyed great success. Presently, there's hardly a package delivered without a shipping label containing a QR Code or a close cousin of it (such as the Aztec code, EZcode, MaxiCode, ShotCode, or the like) and they are extensively used to track materials though the manufacturing process.

The history should probably be traced back to the 1970's and the introduction of machine-scannable bar codes - though I think it would be a stretch to suggest they go back to punchcard tickets that date back to the 1930's (though it might be reasonable to do so in the context of a discussion on logistics). However, consumer use of barcodes didn't really begin until the late 1990's when barcode readers (such as the Cue Cat) were promoted to the general public (and failed) and, more recently, when mobile phones came equipped with barcode scanners.

The first attempt to use QR codes for marketing began about a decade ago, but never really caught on due to the difficulty of using them: the user had to carry a physical object (such as a direct-mail postcard or a magazine) to their computer, scan it, launch software to interpret it, then copy-and-paste the decoded URL to a Web browser, and then have a thoroughly disappointing user experience.

I'll get into a bit more detail later, but for now, the point is that the QR code is not an entirely new technology, nor a particularly "innovative" use of technology as it's being used in exactly the same way as it was used in the past.

What is the potential of QR Codes?

In spite of the decidedly negative bent of the present meditation, it's undeniable that QR Codes could be quite useful - and those who are presently enthusiastic at the return to QR Codes, or perhaps only the small fraction of them that are acting intelligently rather than imitatively, are not to be summarily dismissed for making the same mistake twice. There is excellent potential for success.

As a marketing device, QR Codes are clearly good for one thing: to give a prospect who has seen a brief advertisement and is interested in getting more information a quick and simple way to do so. This removes a significant inconvenience to channel-switching - specifically, transitioning a prospect from a physical medium (such as a poster, billboard, or magazine article) to the digital medium (Internet).

Showing a URL in an advertisement requires the prospect to immediately act upon it, or to remember or record it for future use. In the vast majority of instances, this is not possible (the prospect may be driving or walking when they see display advertising) or convenient (the prospect is reading a magazine and is not likely to stop immediately and go to their computer).

From the marketers' perspective, it also enables them to pass a longer URL, so that response to a very specific code can be tracked either via a unique URL or information passed on the query-string: to tell not only that a Web site visitor was referred by a poster, but a specific poster, at a specific physical location.

Given the inconvenience to the consumer, QR codes didn't go over very well. I don't think that "failed miserably" would be an overstatement.

What are the shortcomings of QR Codes?

With the ubiquity of mobile devices that are equipped with cameras, the inconvenience of channel switching is greatly decreased - and with that in mind, I see why many marketers thing it's worth trying again.

In theory, a person who sees a display advertisement can simply take a picture of it with the mobile device that's always at hand and get instant gratification with minimal effort.

In practice, it's really not that easy. A few obstacles to consider:
  1. The notion that it can be done at a whim is not entirely correct. The user has to retrieve the device from purse or pocket, wake it, unlock it, launch an application ... and only then is it as easy as snap-and-go. It's much less trouble than porting a physical artifact to their home computer and powering up the scanner, but still something that requires several seconds and a fair amount of interest.
  2. There's still the issue of the user's situation. If the user is driving a vehicle or walking down a sidewalk, they're unlikely to be willing or able to use a mobile device - it's presently inadvisable and in some locations even illegal to do so. Even if the user is sitting quietly, perusing a magazine, when they see the code, it's still an interruption of their present activity to do so.
  3. In order to use a QR Code, the prospect must download and install the software to do so. In time, QR Codes may become so widespread and popular that most users have the required software, or that an application becomes part of the default software package (from which few users ever vary)
My sense is that marketers are still in the "theory" mindset, the belief that mobile devices are always on, always in hand, and the hand that holds them is attached to a person with a curious mind and a great deal of spare time to investigate things that stray through their field of vision. That's no the case, and likely never will be, regardless of technology.

However, the factors that doomed the original round of experimentation with QR Codes have been to some degree addressed, and a savvy marketer will be able to identify situations in which a QR code would be better received - for example, a poster at a bus stop or rail station (where users are not otherwise engaged and are generally looking to use their mobile devices as an excuse for avoiding social contact) would likely be an excellent opportunity where a QR code would perform very well, compared to a QR code on poster on a busy sidewalk.

What is the main reason that QR Codes will fail for marketing?

This far, consideration of QR codes has been largely technical - what they are and how they work. The technical aspects of the solution has been a contributing cause of failure - but it has not been the prime reason that they failed in the past, and will fail in the future. The primary reason is bad strategy, bad tactics, and bad practice: the very best tool, poorly used, will inexorably result in failure.

My experience as a consumer has been a disappointment in the value of information retrieved by QR Codes.
  • A code in a magazine article often leads me to the mobile home page of the magazine, where I have to hunt for the article I was just reading. Often, it isn't there at all. When it is, I see the very same content in digital format that I had just read on paper, sometimes with a smidgeon of ancillary content.
  • A code on a poster, billboard, or print advert likewise dumps me on the company's home page. There is no clear indication of where to go for more information of the specific message of the advertisement. Often, it can't be found at all.
  • A code on a menu posted outside of a restaurant brought up the very same menu on my cell phone. (Bonus gaff: the prices I saw on the phone were lower than the ones on the menu, and the restaurant refused to honor the advertised price, stating the Web site was "out of date".)
In each of these instances, I got no value at all from taking the time to do further investigation. Granted, this is my own personal experience, but I doubt that this is unique. In fact, I tend to be a bit more steadfast an patient in my approach to marketing techniques out of my own professional interest, and will give greater attention for a longer period of time in hopes of learning more about my craft. The "average" consumer will likely give up more quickly.

But to make matters worse, I can speak to my experience on the other side of the code, working for the companies and advertising personnel who felt it was important to include a code in their advertising, but had no clue as to what they were doing. My question of "so what should a person see once they've scanned the code" was answered with some version of "I don't know," followed by a suggestion that involved no thought at all of the user's desire for information: show them a copy of what they just saw, take them to our home page, etc. Suggestions to provide value-added content met with apathy or even resistance.

And that, more so than any technical limitation, is the reason that QR Codes failed in the past, and will fail again. From what I've seen thus far, marketers are doing no better now than they did back then - which is what leads me to the prediction that they will fail yet again. And likely marketers will blame the technology rather than their own bad practices.

Will QR Codes ever succeed for marketing?

There is great potential for QR Codes to be used in marketing, especially for the mobile channel, where an prospect (and ultimately, a supplier) would benefit from a convenient way to get additional information on a specific topic of interest. To my way of thinking, it's far preferable to push-based methods of mobile marketing, in which advertisers want to use mobile devices invasively to push unwanted messaging, both to the consumer who doesn't want to be pestered and to the marketer who realizes that they will get better results by seeking an audience with some level of interest.

However, in order to realize this potential, marketers must approach QR Codes strategically. It can't simply be a "me too" impulse without a sense of what value they will deliver to the interested prospect - but instead, the placement of a QR Code in an instance where a prospect is likely to be interested in receiving more information, and then to deliver information of immediate value. Done that way, I see excellent potential.

But there is one final drawback worth mentioning: the tragedy of the commons. Consumers are unlikely to differentiate the campaign of one company from the campaign of any other. Once they have had two or three unsatisfactory experiences after scanning QR Codes, they will give up on them, just as they have done before. So even if a few advertisers take pains to get it "right," all the others who get it wrong will poison the well.

The same is true, and has historically proven true, of virtually every advertising medium: inappropriate, intrusive, and ill-concerived advertising practices have either turned people away from channels or has led them to seek ways to avoid commercial messaging - and with QR Codes, avoiding a bad experience is very simple: just don't scan them. And my sense is that this is exactly the road we're on when it comes to the use of QR codes in advertising.

In the end, I wouldn't go so far as to say that QR Codes (or some similar phenomenon) won't eventually get it right - to the point where they are used well by a sufficient majority of advertisers, and so gain acceptance and even favor in consumer advertising. But I don't have much hope that the marketing industry will get it right this time around.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Danger of Testing in the Wild

I read an interesting article on the UXmatters site, the thrust of which was that usability testing with a mockup that contains errors "can compromise your data collection, complicate your study's logistics, and potentially, impact your study's budget and schedule." It's an excellent point, albeit academic and idealistic, but my greater disappointment is its myopic focus on the experiment itself.

That's no fault of the authors that the expectation I brought to the article was unfulfilled -the topic I wanted to explore wasn't the same as the topic they cared to discuss. But on the bright side, it does leave me with a topic for my notebook - specifically, that testing "in the wild" (as opposed to in the usability lab) is a dangerous proposition.

I've encountered firms that have an inordinate amount of pride in doing an insane amount of A:B testing and read books that advocate extensive real-world testing of absolutely everything. I'm generally a fan of the practice, as real-world test results trump the maelstrom of opinions and posturing that undermine the design process, but I've seen some truly terrible things hung out on the Web under the premise that it's "just a test."

The point I was hoping the authors of the original article would get around to making, was that testing does damage. The tens of thousands of unwitting participants are unaware that what they are seeing on a given day is the "B version" of an A:B test. For them, the page or flow that they see is reality, an encounter with a company that shapes their perception of the brand.

To some extent, a lab test has the same effect - the experience of being a test subject shapes the perception of the brand - though the small sample size and the laboratory environment in which testing takes place set expectations. There are test sessions where the subject, excited by what he's just seen, eagerly wants to know when it will be available "for real" - and it follows that there must also be sessions where a subject, disappointed by what he has seen, carries away a negative impression.

But testing in the wild is done without any notice, or any indication - telling users in advance that they are seeing a "beta test" likely skews results, and telling them afterward could compound rather than mitigate the negative sentiment toward the brand.

That's not to discourage testing as a best practice - it's essential, and far preferable to launching a change to a full audience before you can see what the results are - but that testing must be done with the expectation that it can be harmful, and steps taken to mitigate the damage, such as limiting sample size and test duration, as well as the number of different tests performed in a given period of time.

I'll do a bit more research to find if much study has been done in this area, but I'm not sanguine I'll find anything. I expect it's fairly common for companies to test to determine the potential impact on immediate user behavior, but I expect it's exceedingly difficult to determine the impact of the test, itself, on the brand equity - it's likely written off as collateral damage, and my point in this meditation is to suggest that it should not be.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Crackhead Marketing

In a post in the Hubspot blog, Julie Devaney mentioned that "Black hat [search engine marketing] tactics are like drugs - just say no." Her point was that there's a lot of pressure to try them, everyone seems to be dabbling, and you end up getting "busted" by search engines. It was a good post, and got me thinking in the broader context.

I was charmed by the apt metaphor: the allure of a quick buzz (from increased first-time visitors tricked into visiting your site) without any real benefits ("tricked" visitors don't become buyers), and the potential for long-term damage (your brand reputation is marred for having been deceitful).

But more importantly, it spoke to a notion that's been troubling me for some time: that marketing in any medium is often reduced to "tricks" to get people to pay attention - and that the metrics for success are focused on the short-term assessment of how many people were attracted (or tricked into paying attention). And in the end, they do more harm than good to the company that uses such tactics.

That's not to say getting attention isn't of value - it's the first "A" in the "AIDA" model of marketing, and entirely valid to assert that people won't buy from you if they don't know you exist. So getting attention is, important - though it's pointless and even damaging if you get the attention of the wrong people (those unlikely to buy) in the wrong way (deceptive tactics).

My sense is that a marketer who focuses on the long run - getting real customers, with a preference for repeat buyers and even regular customers - should be very leery of the "quick buzz" offered by crackhead marketing. But I fear that many fail to look beyond the present campaign, the present quarter, and the present fiscal year to the long-term customer relationship - as evidenced by the continued interest in the kind of tactics Devaney feels it worthwhile to warn her colleagues about.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Design by the wrong numbers

I'm presently beset with a question, the same question with which I've struggled for many years: what is the average amount of time a person will spend on a Web page? The question seems to arise at the beginning of most projects, and it's a question to which there has, to date, been no satisfactory answer. But what's struck me about it this time isn't the lack of a reliable answer, but that it is likely the wrong question even to ask.

One problem is that it is backwards-looking: how much time a person spent on the current page is not necessarily a good indication of how much time they will spend once the page is redesigned. Different content will get a different level of attention. A person may spend mere seconds on a page of search results, and several minutes reading an article. To pages on the same site may garner different levels of attention. There can be no single number that suits all pages.

A second problem is the amount of time a user chooses to spend perusing a page is something that can be controlled to effect a positive outcome: there are various tactics that can be demonstrated to affect the amount of time a user spends on a page - more or less - but what's lacking is the consideration of whether that has a positive or negative impact on the goals of the site operator. Again, you can examine historical data to determine that a user who spends a given number of seconds on a product page is more likely than others to buy - but this is likely circular logic: a person who is more serious in their intent to purchase will spend more time than a person who is not - so statistics of time spent and purchase likelihood correlate to interest and not to one another.

A third problem is that statistics is based on the assumption of a bell curve, with most measurements clumping toward an average and diminishing toward the extremes. Observations of behavior on the Web tend to display more of a U-shaped curve, with greater numbers at the extremes and fewer closer to the average, such that designing for the "average" will not have good results - and will more often be counterproductive.

That last bit might need a bit more explanation, as those who put their faith in numbers and eschew observation may find it hard to accept. And so, a quick analogy: examining the age of visitors to a given public park, one could accurately conclude that the mathematical average age of visitors is 29, whereas any causal observer could note that most visitors are children between the around the age of ten accompanied by grandparents around the age of sixty - and virtually no-one of the mathematically average age is present. Thus, redesigning the park to suit the average would lead you to tear out the playground and the benches and replace them with a running track and a soccer field - and as a result, the park would no longer be appealing to its current users, not attract a sufficient number of users of the "average" age to replace them.

The same is true for the visitors to a Web page: they are skewed to the extremes. The statistic that comes to mind is that the average time spent on a single page is around one minute, or sufficient time to read 200 words of content. Even if you exclude "spiders" and "robots" who create the impression of a very short visit, and users who are distracted and leave the page on-screen while they are doing other things, there will still be considerable concentration at the extremes: some users click to a page, recognize very quickly it's not what they wanted, and leave after reading the first few sentences; others have a genuine interest in the information and will read the entire content.

As such, designing Web pages according to the average amount of time spent will result in bad design - and given the second point, that users who are interested in buying will likely spend a long time perusing - the design will be skewed to suit the least valuable audience for the site operator - in effect, to provide enough information to enable a non-buyer to leave, but not enough to encourage a likely buyer to continue.