Monday, January 30, 2012

Stupid Questions

A poignant maxim, ascribed to various sources, is that there is such a thing as a stupid question: it's the one for which you should already know the answer. It's a point that would be well taken when considering the design of any interaction with a customer ... or for that matter, anyone at all.

In the live service channel, it's wholly intolerable for a person to repeatedly ask the same questions - it's a clear sign they aren't paying attention, or aren't very bright. There's some tolerance for repetition when there's a hand-off: a clerk calls over a manager, and the customer must to repeat all the details, knowing that the manager just arrived on the scene and could not possibly be aware of what was said in his absence. Even then, patience wears thin when there's yet another change, and the same customer must repeat himself (again) to a third person, then possibly a fourth.

The voice channel is much the same, though the adoption of caller management systems by some firms, which pass along key information when the call is transferred, has (rightly) created the expectation that all firms who provide telephone service should handle transfers with equal competence.

In the digital channel, however, no quarter is given to the firm whose systems are so poorly designed that a customer must re-enter details that were entered on the previous screen, or any screen in the same interaction, even once. It's a reasonable and realistic expectation that computer systems, unlike human beings, can pass any data that has been provided buy the user instantaneously. Failure to do so is poor design, low competence, or indifference to the customer, all of which undermine trust.

In addition to decreasing tolerance for repetitive questions, technology has also increased the expectation of longevity. If a person logs into a site they previously visited and places a second order, they expect their delivery address and other details to be preserved, even if several months have passed between the previous order and the present one. And because many firms are capable of doing so, those that are not are held in low regard.

This is one area, among many, in which digital channels should not strive to replicate the experience of older channels - it's possible, and expected, to do better.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good Omens for 1:1 Marketing

Historically, the division of markets had nothing to do with the customer, but with the operations of the business and the reach of the media. If a business was divided into four geographic regions, it could run different advertisements in each of those regions. If a newspaper reached one state, advertisements in that newspaper would reach citizens of that state. It took some time to discover that making slight adjustments to the message based on region would make the advertisement more effective for the people who lived in that region.

With the advent of magazines, demographics and lifestyle became a part of segmentation strategy. If a given magazine was popular among middle-income white females who were fond of knitting, then advertisements in that venue would naturally reach the same segment. Turned around, this meant that if a company's product appealed to a very specific demographic/lifestyle group, it would do better to place its advertisements in magazines that appealed to that group.

It wasn't considered until very recently that advertisements could be targeted to very specific people, individuals who perfectly matched the kind of customer that is most likely to buy a given product or brand. The idea of personalization and one-to-one marketing blossomed in the early 1990's, in the early years of the Internet. I don't have the sense that the technical capability drove the change, as I recall reading about one-to-one marketing some ten years prior, but it did cause interest to be rekindled because, until the Internet, it was a theory that lacked a means to be put into practice (one could not personalize a television commercial, and while magazine publishers were pioneering ways to offer customization for a single subscriber, they couldn't make it cost-effective for the advertiser).

Even so, the Internet remained a difficult medium in which to effectively segment markets or practice one-to-one marketing because of anonymity - the vast majority of sites a person visits has no idea who that person is, and the few that require the user to create a personal account know only the information provided on that site and the behavior of the customer on that site, which is scant. Merchants such as Amazon seem to have made some progress in that regard, using browsing and purchasing history to make decisions about what other items might appeal to a given individual customer, but it's been quite primitive.

Social media has opened the door further: an individual who logs into a social site is at least flagged - and if they neglect to log out, their session remains active and can be available to other sites if there is an agreement and permission in place to share their personal data. And in that way, it's possible to identify an individual and assess which advertisements would be most appealing/effective for that individual and serve them accordingly.

Going by personal experience, this is more than just theoretical pipe-dreaming. Lately, I have noticed that the advertising I have seen online seems to be better targeted to me based on my browsing behavior. For example, I looked into a few sites from furniture merchants while I was considering redecorating my home office, then noticed ads for some of these very same merchants appearing on other sites I visited. I also noticed that I was seeing a lot more ads for similar merchandise (home office furniture and equipment) from vendors whom I had not visited.

This happened far too often for it to be coincidental. Clearly, my behavior had been observed and an assessment made: I have been flagged as a person who is considering a specific purchase, and merchants who offer merchandise are likely paying a premium to reach me.

Out of curiosity, I peeked into my e-mail "spam" folder, where commercial messages are shunted - and was likewise pleasantly surprised. There are still the old-school spam advertisements - mortgage refinance, hair tonic, boner pills, correspondence-school diplomas, and Nigerian princes-in-exile - but among them, there's an impressive proportion of advertisements from sites I have visited, or about merchandize I recall shopping for, in the past month or so.

Some would be upset by this - there's been a great deal of fear-mongering about the loss of privacy (chiefly from traditional media who haven't yet figured out a way to offer the same capabilities to their own advertisers, so their motivation for drumming up panic is transparent) - but I'm actually quite impressed and, in a strange way, glad to see advertisements for things that I might need in place of ads for things that are obviously inappropriate to me.

But to the point, I see a significant improvement in segmentation and one-to-one marketing that is a positive sign that an opportunity that has been neglected or squandered for decades is finally beginning to be leveraged, and feel hopeful that it's closer to achieving its potential.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Schematizing Communication

I've been meditating periodically on a schema for communication, as a method for assessing what channel of communication is best suited for a given message, and to identify opportunities for accommodating communication in a way that current channels fail. This is likely not baked out as much as it could be, but there's sufficient detail to post a note here.

The Schema

The schema considers the intention of the sender in initiating the act of communication - what he is seeking to accomplish. I've waffled a bit on whether it is the sender's own desires to communicate or his assessment of his audience's desire to receive communication from him, and am led to the conclusion that it is primarily the first, but mitigated by the second.

That said, the communicator chooses a channel based on the following factors, roughly in order of importance:
  • Reach - Does the sender wish to communicate to one other person, a specific group, or anyone who cares to listen? This encompasses consideration not only of those he wishes to include, but also of those he wishes to exclude
  • Distance - Is the recipient of a message proximate in space and time to the communicator?
  • Content - By what methods does the communicator wish to express the message? Words, pictures, media?
  • Response - Does the communicator wish to receive a response from the audience to the content? "Response" is meant as an act of communication, not as a "reaction" or "impression" created by the message.
  • Immediacy - Does the communicator wish the message to come to the immediate attention of his audience, or can it wait for their convenience?
  • Perishability - Is the content of the message time-sensitive? Is it something that should be received, acted upon, and forgotten, or will it remain relevant over a longer period of time?
There may be other factors I have failed to consider, and there may be certain of these factors that a communicator fails to consider (a person who has a personal conversation on a cell phone in a crowded room is certainly failing to consider his reach), but I've stewed on it a bit and feel fairly confided that these are the most significant.

Practical Application

The practical application of the schema is in considering what channels might be appropriate to a given act of communication, which is likely easier to consider and more broadly applicable.

For example, if you wish to communicate to one person, who is not proximate, using text content, desiring a response, and want it to be immediate, there are a few methods that may be effective: an instant message (presuming they are at their computer) or a text message (presuming they have their mobile device handy and will attend to it)

The "presuming" qualifications point to the (inevitable) fact that choosing the appropriate mode of communication does not ensure success - nor do I think that success can be ensured without a serious breach of etiquette and common decency.

Analytical Application

Analytical application of the schema is useful for determining how a given channel or technology is to be categorized. It's likely an academic exercise to ponder a known methodology, except as a prerequisite to practical application later (you must know the capabilities of a medium to determine if it is a match for a need), though it is also useful when considering development of a "new" medium, to determine what other methods might already be available to serve the same purpose.

Consider a proposal to develop a device that is used to communicate to a one person (but indifferent to whom else might accidentally pick up on it) who is proximate, using a voice message that facilitates a response and should be received immediately.

To my knowledge, no such device exists, which would seem to make it a great opportunity ... except that this particular set of requirements can be met without a device at all - just speak to them.

To make the example a little less silly, change the message to text and add a level of concern that only the intended recipient receive the message, and the device becomes valuable, though there are still a couple pf competing technologies: passing them a written note or sending a text message to their mobile device.

That's not to say the device would be useless, but it would need to be superior, in some other regard, to the existing alternatives. Likely it would deal with the convenience or security of composing or receiving a message.


This could likely use a bit more consideration, but my sense is that the basic schema and the suggested applications are fairly detailed and largely comprehensive in their present state. Its also likely that this yields little value in and of itself, but may yield value as a method for categorizing and analyzing the components of an overall communication strategy and the consideration of a given tactic.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Branded Mind

I previously expressed some concern about the credibility of neuromarketing – the application of psychology, neurology, and other pseudoscientific disciplines to advertising and branding. While it is self-evident that marketing is about affecting the behavior of consumers, concepts such as subliminal advertising and emotional branding have about them the scent of snake oil.

With this in mind, I read The Branded Mind – subtitled “what neuroscience really tells us about the puzzle of the brain and the brand” – and came away with a more rational and sober perspective on the topic. All things considered, there is some kernel of valid science among a great deal of disinformation – though it is likely years or decades before the science will have evolved enough to yield reliable results that can be put to practical application.

Much of what is billed as science actually is not. The theory of subliminal advertising, specifically, is predicated on a hoax perpetrated by a marketer with no credentials in any scientific discipline (James Vicary) that was further sensationalized by a journalist (Vance Packard) in a book that sent the entire marketing industry in the wrong direction.

But also, some of what seems like hokum actually has a scientific basis. The theory of emotional branding, for example, is substantiated by medical evidence, the use of MRI and EEG have demonstrated that certain portions of the brain believed to be involved in emotion “light up” milliseconds before other sections that are believed to be involved in rational thought.

The problem is, even the science is weak. The instrumentation, while far more sophisticated than what was available in the past, is still severely limited (the MRI requires the subject to be immobilized for a significant amount of time and the EEG is vague, providing a general measurement of activity in large sections of the outer layer of the brain) and that much of the findings are interpreted through the filter of theory and beliefs that are not scientifically demonstrable (a certain section of the brain is believed to be involved in a given kind of thought, but not proven to be so).

As such, the current state of progress leaves us very deep in Plato’s cave, with the sense that what we do perceive, vague and oblique as it may be, signifies the existence of much more that we cannot.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Using, Watching, and Surfing

I'm disappointed that notion persists among marketers that people "surf" the Internet - it's a term that never did set well with me, sloppily borrowed from another medium (television) at a time when the Internet was too new to understand, and largely inaccurate to the behavior of users in the wild. As such, a likely reason that advertising remains woefully ineffective on the Internet is that tactics are based on the premise that the person the marketer intends to reach is surfing the Internet rather than using it. To my way of thinking, the two are different behaviors and require different tactics.

Consider the medium from which the notion of "surfing" is borrowed; there are instances in which a person is channel surfing: they are bored, turn on the television, and switch from channel to channel watching bits and pieces of video out of context, in a state where an advertisement is no different to a program - it's just a scrap that might be interesting.

I don't dispute that television is used in this manner at some times. But most often, a person watches television - a distinctly different thing from channel-surfing. They turn on the television at a certain time with the intent of giving their attention to a specific program (or turn on the DVR to watch something they have recorded) and, for the duration of the program, they focus their attention on the program. In this state of mind, advertisements are an unwanted distraction: the viewer may chat with others of the room, or even wander out of the room to refill their drink or recycle the last one. For DVR, they fast-forward past advertising to return to the program they intended to watch (though I understand there is some evidence that users who FF commercials on DVR are actually giving attention to them, if only to know when the program has resumed).

And in "watching" mode, advertising is far less likely to get attention. No matter how interesting, clever, or even relevant a commercial message might be, the user is not interested in it - it's a distraction from what they are intending to give attention to at the moment.

Regarding the Internet medium, my sense is that the behaviors are equivalent. In some instance, a person is merely bored and clicks about from site to site, looking for momentary distractions, and is as susceptible to advertising messages as they are to editorial content. Even in that state, it's not entirely analogous to channel-surfing on television, as it involves more decision-making than pressing the "next channel" button to jump from one site to another.

However, in many instances - possibly "most" instances - there is an entirely different user behavior, and I expect it is far more likely for the Internet than for television. The user is intent on giving their attention to a specific task or consuming specific content, which galvanizes them against distractions. People go onto the Internet to check the weather, balance their checkbook, exchange messages with friends, etc. There are breaks between tasks, but when a user is in pursuit of a specific goal, advertising is less likely to get attention.

In both surveys and observational studies, the "surfing" behavior is extremely rare. There are a few exceptions, studies that indicate people spend the majority of their time "just surfing," but I tend to wonder about the methodology (if you interrupt someone in a shopping mall, they will give a convenient answer that is most likely to end the encounter) and instrumentation (a poorly-worded question leads to inaccurate results). I don't entirely discount the possibility, but remain incredulous where details are withheld. Given that the most common uses of the Internet involve task-flows rather than listlessly clicking about to chance upon something interesting, I expect surfing to be a rare behavior.

And to the point: the dismal response rates of online advertising seem entirely justified, all the more so when a particular format or message is geared to "surfing" behavior rather than "using" or "watching" behavior - and so long as marketers and advertisers continue to formulate tactics based on a state of mind and behavior that is not accurate or factual, their tactics will continue to fail.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Social Disconnection

I'm undecided on whether an organization can achieve much by attempting leverage social-like technology in a closed environment. On one hand, I can understand the rationale behind the desire to have an "internal" social network, but I have yet to see a single instance in which this was successful or seemed remotely useful.

The idea of a limited network of people is a compromise between the desire to leverage the capabilities of communication and information-sharing tools that social media provides while still defending the privacy of information: a firm may want its research staff to use blogs to raise internal awareness of their work and discoveries, but not to make the same information available to competitors.

This seems reasonable enough - but it's highly unusual that such programs garner much participation or generate productive results. They languish, and few people use them.

The poor functionality of solutions are at least part of the problem. A company that adopts a personnel directory for employees that has functionality that is "like" Facebook or LinkedIn often offers an inferior version of a service with which employees are already familiar. Their user experience with the public version gives them an level of expectation for what they should be able to do, but cannot, with the crippled internal version, and this discourage adoption and use.

Another part of the problem is the reach of the solution. Arguably, this is a much larger problem because, even in comparing fully public tools, the value of their features is less of an issue than the activity of the people who are already using the network. That is, even if a social site launched today whose features were far better than Facebook, it would not have half a billion active users, and would be an empty playground.

Granted, the head-count of an internal tool will always be less than that of external ones: if a company of 5,000 employees gains a 100% adoption rate for its internal social tools, the size of the audience is still much smaller than that of public sites, whose participants number in the hundreds of millions. But on the other hand, it does offer a very specific, targeted audience - like a niche social community that has a smaller number of users with expertise in a certain area of interest - and there are many such communities with a few hundred users, or even a few dozen, that are thriving.

Corporate culture is likely the primary cause: companies are secretive about any information, not just the information that is actually sensitive, and those in positions of power maintain authority by limiting the flow of information within the organization - by controlling information, a person becomes a gatekeeper who must be reckoned with by anyone who has need of that information. The boss who doesn't want anyone talking to "his people" without his consent or participation is still a common character in the corporate world.

Beyond the desire to control the flow of information is another cultural factor: the desire to control the information itself. Most organizations are dogmatic - those in positions of authority expect their ideas and opinion to be accepted rather than questioned by their subordinates. To allow an open discussion is to relinquish that control.

Naturally, there can be some debate over whether organizations actually are domineering or whether this is just a matter of perception. But ultimately, the results are the same: if the people in an organization fear reprisal for any remark they make, even if these fears are irrational, they tend to keep their teeth together. This is a matter of trust that is extremely difficult to resolve.

There are likely other reasons that the attempts to use internal tools, similar to social media, have largely been a failure - and it seems highly doubtful that they can be addressed to derive a solution that will be at all successful.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Presumption of a Virgin Mind

Lately, I'm unusually attuned the presumption by marketers that promotional or branding message is delivered to a virgin mind: that the audience will react to a message based on the content of that message alone, possibly with consideration of their present situation, but with no consideration of their past experience. It seems to me rather a dangerous omission.

It's often presumed that emotion precedes reason and follows perception, but emotion itself is not a mystical and inexplicable factor. Emotion is the result of experience. We do not methodically call to mind the precise details of every experience or impression we have had regarding a brand on each new encounter with it, as this would be inefficient; but instead, we have a general impression, a sense that is based on an amalgam of the strongest and most frequent elements. And in that way, the impression of the consumer when evaluating any new information is guided by the existing context provided by experience.

For the person who has never received a commercial message before, has no experience with a product category, and has no interaction with a given brand, it's likely the presumption of the virgin mind likely holds - their lack of previous experience leaves them without a context in which to interpret any new information.

But for most products and brands, such a person is unlikely to exist: past experience with the brand and product. Even in instances in which a person has no previous experience with a specific product or brand, they draw upon their experience with similar ones. If they have never tasted tangerine juice, their framework is translated from their experience of similar products (orange juice), expectations are set, emotions evoked, and the filters through which any new information will be interpreted are constructed.

As such, marketers are faced with introducing new information into an existing framework: whatever we say about a product or brand is compared to the stock of information in the mind of the subject, evaluated for whether it is consistent, and accepted or rejected on that basis.

To presume that no such framework exists, and that our messaging reaches a virgin mind that will not consider any previous experience, seems entirely naive or intentionally ignorant of factors that pose considerable risk to the present initiative.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Neuromarketing: The New Phrenology?

I've heard a lot lately about neuromarketing - the use or EEG and MRI as methods of measuring reactions in the mind of a subject to a brand or an advertising method as a way of getting a more accurate indication of "liking" than by using focus groups or surveys. There is a lot of hype and some grandiose-sounding claims, so I decided to look into some of the sources to see if there's anything to it.

Specifically, I looked to Antonio Damasio, a scientist who is named by some of the cheerleaders of neuromarketing - his book, Descartes Error (no reading notes - a bit more academic than the typical fare) describes some of the recent advances in "brain science" and takes a lot more sober tone. Damasio explicitly states that recent advances in science don't prove anything at all, but present some interesting phenomena that merit further consideration and research. That's all.

I have the strong sense that this is one of the (distressingly many) instances where a research scientist's remark that "I noticed something interesting" is spun up to "science has incontrovertibly proven" by others who see a way to use it as a gimmick to make a quick buck - to make a news story more dramatic or to be among the first to offer consulting services.

I'll need to do a bit more reading before I can settle on one extreme or the other - but for now, it seems reasonable to approach the topic of neuromarketing with a healthy dose of skepticism, given the dramatic difference in the way that the notion is described by those who seem (overly) enthusiastic, and the reluctant tone of the science on which it is allegedly based.