Monday, April 30, 2012

Facebook Companion

I was aware, even before I started reading, that a (paper) book about Facebook was at best a foolish enterprise, for the reader and the writer. The site evolves so quickly that anything said in the morning may have changed in the afternoon. Well, maybe not quite that fast, but rather quickly. All the same, it's worthwhile as a consideration, in spite of the fact that such a book covers one site at one moment in time, in that the superficial details change, but the core features likely will not.

I've likely meditated, or at least commented upon, the fact that social media is nothing new. The practice of establishing an identity and communicating with others online goes back to the earliest days of the Internet - and even a decade earlier, as bulletin board systems in the 1980's had many of the same features and functions. And even at that, the way in which people use computers to interact is a wan reflection of the way people interact in "real life."

That is to say that social media has not given us any way of communicating with one another that we did not already have, even from the era of tribalism. It has facilitated, consolidated, and coordinated the things that people were already doing - but ultimately, it has not invented any new modes or methods.

That's not to discount its value, as it encourages communication by removing the barriers (cost and incentive) inherent in previous methods, merely to state that it does not build upon them. Technology doesn't give users the ability to do anything they could not do before, but it adds convenience that makes it more likely they will actually do them.

And there, I think, is the value of technology, and a solid method for separating the value from the hype in deciding what features to develop or leverage. Where technology offers a capability for doing something that you are already doing, it is likely useful and valuable. Where it offers a completely new capability for something that you have never done, chances are you're not going to start doing it.

And while I won't discount the possibility something useful has been overlooked, my sense is that the current incarnation of Facebook has evolved to the point that most of the ways that people wish to interact with one another are covered. The essential features have probably been baked out for a long time, and a number of inessential ones have been tried out and abandoned or pushed to the background: such that if there's something you cannot do on Facebook today, likely it's not something many people would want to do at all.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Power of Weak Connections

It seems to be accepted without question that success in social media entails creating strong connections with other people in your network or, to flip the statement, that it is always desirable to improve upon your weak connections. The automatic acceptance that strength is categorically good and weakness is categorically bad underestimates the significant power of weak connections, as well as the shortcomings of strong ones.

When I consider the group of people with whom I correspond most frequently in discussion groups, it seems that they are all like myself: we have similar credentials, similar occupations, similar interests, and other strengths in common that facilitates communication among an "inner circle" of participants. Given that we have the same foundations, we can discuss ideas without having to slow down and explain the prerequisite concepts to one another - and I very much enjoy the ability to do so.

But on the other hand, we all tend to have the same weaknesses as well. And as much as it turbocharges our conversation to have common knowledge, it can sometimes cripple the conversation to have common gaps in our knowledge. And worse, to the degree we have the same foundational knowledge, we tend to accept the same premises - anything "new" that one of the group considers is likely an idea that anyone could have had, and any mistake that one of the group makes is likely to be overlooked by the others.

So I think it's fair to say that a group of people who have very strong connections lack diversity of knowledge - and as such fall into groupthink patterns. This can be a serious liability.

On the other hand, when I consider people with whom I have weak connections, it is a much larger number, with a vastly broader array of expertise. Much of it is entirely unrelated to the topics that consume most of my time, but there are many situations in which it is useful to consider. So while I don't derive consistent value from any single person to whom I have a weak connection, I derive a great deal of value from the aggregate, each one infrequently - and this is value I could not have obtained from my strong connections.

Nor would I obtain greater value by strengthening weak connections. I may need to access the knowledge of an accountant, a bartender, a truck driver, a research scientist, an astronaut, a manufacturing executive, or any of a myriad of other people - but each only once in a while. To force interaction to be more frequent than necessary just for the sake of having a "strong" connection seems a pointless waste of my time, and likely a nuisance to the other person.

Aside of the diversity of knowledge, there is also the diversity of second-degree connections. People who are strongly connected to one another also tend to interact with the same people: I already know many of the people to whom my strongest connections are connected, because I have a first-degree connection to the same people. But when it comes to people with whom I share a weak connection, there is a greater number of second-degree connections they have to people I don't already know, and the greater their power to help connect me to someone new.

There may also be a benefit in terms of the level of communication: I am unlikely to share information I have received from a strong connection with another strong connection, because chances are they have already seen it from the original source - and I expect it's the same for any information I provide to them. I am, however, likely to communicate information from my inner circle to those with whom I have weaker connections, or vice versa.

These things considered, I have likely undervalued my weak connections and been perhaps a little too reluctant to accept overtures to connect on social media sites from people I don't know very well, and should likely be a little less handy with the "ignore" button.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fifteen Seconds

I'm still noodling on the notion that consumers will give only about fifteen seconds to the average commercial message. Given that a consumer is exposed to thousands of messages per day, and has developed the ability to sort out what merits attention very quickly, chances are that some messages get a split-second glance before the viewer dismisses them as unimportant, while others command, by virtue of their relevance to the consumer, even more.

If we consider the 15-second average as a median rather than a mean, how much information can we get across to a subject in order to convince him to spend a longer amount of time paying attention to the rest of the message we want him to receive? It turns out, quite a lot.

The average American reads text at a rate of 250 to 300 words per minute, though it's suggested that if they wish to pay attention and are reading for comprehension, the rate drops to 200 to 230. Likewise, a person who is speaking at conversational speed (and a person can hear words as rapidly as they are said), they are communicating 150 to 170 words per minute. But again, trained speakers and broadcasters slow down from conversational speed, and aim for a rate of 120 to 150 words per minute.

Taken together, this means that in fifteen seconds, a user can absorb:
  • 61-70 words or text information, if they are reading at a leisurely pace
  • 50-58 words of text information, if they are reading for comprehension
  • 37-42 words of spoken information at a conversational pace
  • 30-37 words of spoken information at a broadcast pace
There isn't a guide for image information, but I expect that it depends on the complexity of the image. Chances are a person can recognize a picture of a can of soda, including the brand, in a seconds; but a dense information graphic might require longer to gather the meaning - which is largely a matter of design rather than comprehension (look at a stock chart, and you can tell instantly if the price is going up or down, and if there is much volatility).

My point being: fifteen seconds is sufficient time to communicate a considerable amount of information - almost a paragraph of written text, or two very long sentences of spoken data, or fifteen images of different objects and information graphics. If you can't catch a person's attention with that amount of data, chances are very good that you're either a rotten communicator, or have nothing of interest to your audience.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sextants and Anchors

An interesting metaphor: a mission statement is the anchor that tethers a company to its industry. The declaration that "this is what we shall do" is also declaring "we shall do nothing but this." A company that indicates "we are in the oil business" is setting a course for itself, not merely to indicate that it will provide petroleum products, but also that it will not manufacture frozen peas or operate a theme park.

The reasons for doing so are straightforward: specialization gives a firm clear direction - money and time are finite, and cannot accommodate every possible opportunity. Also, specialization gives a firm the ability to do one thing, or a group of closely related things, exceptionally well.

The problem in adhering to a statement that "we shall do this and not that" can be limiting, and presumes that "this" is a better choice than "that" for a given organization. Sometimes, it is, and they are in the right line of business. Sometimes, it is not, and the consequences are unfortunate. And sometimes, things change: the tides move, and the firm is beached.

The anchor that tethers a firm also has a second function: it can be pulled up if there is a need to sail away. And may firms, including some very successful industrial giants, have done exactly that. People often seem surprised when a firm that is known for making one kind of product actually began in a completely different industry. Many of the companies that are currently considered to be in car manufacturing began my making motors to power the machines and conveyors in factories - but when a more lucrative opportunity arose, they changed significantly. Sometimes, it's vertical expansion (taking on more tasks in the value chain of a product); sometimes horizontal (offering more products of a similar kind); and sometimes transformational (moving to completely different and unrelated industry).

But before I go off too far in an unintended direction, the point I was trying to work towards is the importance of considering whether being tethered to a given place makes sense for a firm.

The problem with being anchored is more obvious when you consider other factors, such as channel. The company that declares "we are a brick-and-mortar retailer" or "we are a catalog merchandiser" and anchors itself to that channel loses its advantage when that channel dries up.

Imagine the consequences to any firm that relies anchored to an industry or channel that is losing customers - or better still, review the bankruptcies a that have occurred over the past few decades. In some cases, it was misfortune or mismanagement, but in many, the firm remained anchored to products or practices that once were sound and profitable.

In that way, it makes sense to question your devotion to your anchor, even the most fundamental elements of a mission statement - though this is likely because the mission statement, as written, is unnecessarily constrictive.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Information Overload

Another bit of information, likely related to the myth that attention spans are getting shorter, is the amount of information to which people are exposed in the modern age. Various sources have cited that the average consumer in the US encounters 3,500 to 5,000 marketing messages per day.

Those numbers seem suspiciously high, and I have not been able to find a source that explains how they are calculated, but I imagine that it would be necessary to include as an "encounter" any instance in which a logo crosses a person's field of vision: such that every time I check my watch, it counts because there's a logo on the face. Each time I open my refrigerator, add fifty more. It's a bit of a stretch to go to this extreme, and it's the only way that I can figure anyone to be able to justify a number so high.

But if we accept a liberal definition, it would not be unreasonable to suggest 3,500 to 5,000 marketing messages per day - which would mean an average of one message every 12 to 16 seconds of our waking lives (giving 8 hours to sleep). This seems suspiciously similar to the amount of time that marketers claim the human attention span has been degraded to - and as such, if we did nothing but pay attention to marketing, each message would have a very short allotment of time.

This goes back to my earlier point: that in order to function in an environment where we are constantly bombarded with marketing, it has become necessary to be adept at quickly assessing the degree to which a each message is meaningful and relevant and quickly dismiss the many that are not. It's simply impossible, even foregoing sleep, to give as much as 30 seconds attention to every message that marketers want to push at the consumer.

As such, advertisers should be grateful, rather than mournful, when they can get even fifteen seconds of a person's time: there's just too much going on to pay attention to everything, and attention is a commodity that is even more scarce and precious than money.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

CRM Fundamentals

I recently read a book on customer relationship management, which had very little to do with customer relationship management itself, and more to do with the planning, execution, and ongoing support of a CRM program within an organization. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though it wasn't quite what I was looking for at the time.

More interesting than the content of the book (which was fairly generic - swap in any acronym for "CRM" and it's likely 90% of the information would still apply) was the subtext: there was a constant implication, and many outright statements, that most firms that attempt to implement a CRM program fail miserably.

The primary reason for this, simply enough, is that firms aren't genuinely interested in changing their operations or culture to a customer-oriented approach to doing business. They install a system and do nothing else; or they install the system and adapt it to have the least possible impact on their existing business processes, which is entirely missing the point; or they have a general desire to make a change, but not the willpower and stamina to see it through.

If nothing else, it answers the question: why, if CRM is indeed such a major trend, the way in which companies they handle their customers has shown very little improvement?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Don't Doesn't Mean Can't

The shrinking attention span is often taken to mean that people are, by and large, getting dumber, as they are unable to focus their attention on things for very long. It's generally presented as a fact, though in my search for the source of this information, I haven't been able to find satisfactory substantiation - but more to the point, my sense is that this assumption is merely a dodge used by people who don't have anything worthwhile to say to blame others for not listening to them.

It's particularly true of marketing, as I was reminded when reading a blog in which someone was bemoaning the fact that advertisers are now having to cut commercials back to a mere fifteen seconds because people are incapable of paying attention to a thirty-second spot, which itself was reduced from a full minute not very long ago. Nowhere in this post was there any consideration of the content of the message or it's relevance to its audience - the writer presumed that whatever he had to say was worth listening to and, if people didn't give him their full attention, it's their fault rather than his.

Consider this: time is a far more precious commodity in the present day than in years past and people have learned to spend it wisely, not give it away to anyone who wants it. And now more than in the past, people are selective about what they will permit to take their time. To be clear: if your intended audience doesn't pay attention to your message, it doesn't mean they lack the ability pay attention - it means that you lack the ability to offer them anything that is worth their time.

Statistics presented by educational designers is that the average person can manage to pay close attention to a speaker for a span of 15 to 20 minutes if no audiovisual aids are used to break up the monotony, noting that this duration has not changed significantly since the phenomenon was studied in the 1960s. I'll have to concede that these claims are not well substantiated either, but they seem far more reasonable: a person will give their attention to a television program (in which they are interested) for long periods of time between commercial breaks (which are unwanted interruptions). If anything, the complaint is voiced that there are too many breaks in the content in which viewers are interested.

I'd suggest that the human attention span is much longer even than that, but it likely depends on the presentation method and the level of interest of the audience. The average person can easily become engrossed in a two- or three-hour film, video gamers will play a single session that can go on for six or eight hours, and an avid reader can stay engrossed in a good, thick book for even longer.

And so, the fact that people don't pay attention to advertisements cannot be reasonably mistaken as evidence that they lack the ability pay attention to something that is relevant and interesting - it's just that for most things, especially mass-broadcast commercial messaging, it is neither relevant no interesting. The fact that a person can now recognize that something is irrelevant more quickly likely means that people have gotten smarter rather than dumber in their ability to make a faster decision as to whether a message that's being inflicted on them is worth the time and attention.

To the marketer or designer, understand that if your message is relevant and meaningful, people will give you their attention for quite a long time; and more importantly, that if your message is neither relevant nor meaningful, people won't give you their attention, and they will make this decision very quickly - or said another way, the contemporary consumer can recognize an irrelevant message in less time than consumers of previous generations.

Ultimately, marketers must stop blaming the audience for the fact that they are not paying attention. Alleged lack of intelligence on the part of the listener is merely a convenient diversion for failure of the speaker. And further, so long as you scapegoat the audience, you will likely never seek, find, or accept that the real reason people aren't paying attention likely has more to do with your message, your channel, your timing, your target market, or something other than the human attention span.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Privacy vs. Service

I posted a text scrap from an article about Google's invasion of privacy, which at first seemed a bit disturbing - but as I thought about it, it makes perfect sense that, in order to provide good answers to a search query, it's necessary to know not merely the question, but the querent.

The specific example the author provided was searching for "restaurant between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe." The chief problem with search is that it very often gives you a long list of results that are entirely satisfactory. Considering this very example, a raw list of every restaurant between two points on a map is all you could get based on the question - and you would then need to filter through them yourself, guessing by the names which might be satisfactory, then clicking through to read more to discover whether they are acceptable. It takes a lot of work - which may be OK for some things, but using a mobile device to get a restaurant reservation shouldn't result in a list that gives you a 30-minute chore of sifting through "matches" that don't really match.

And so, to provide a specific answer to that question, Google needs to know what route you're driving, when you'll set out, what kinds of restaurants/cuisine you prefer, whether you have any religious or medical dietary restrictions, how much you prefer to spend on a meal, and the tastes/preferences of other people in your vehicle. This means snooping into your behavior, your medical records, your religious beliefs, your finances, and your associations to other people.

It's a bit disturbing ... at first. But pause to consider this: if someone were to ask you that same question, would you not need the same information to give them a good answer?
  • What route are you driving and when will you set out? If you do not know this, you might suggest restaurants that are not along the way, or that they would pass at an inconvenient time or a t a time a given place is closed.
  • What cuisines do you prefer? If you do not know this, you might suggest restaurants that the querent would not consider because he doesn't like the food they serve.
  • Do you have any religious/medical dietary restrictions? If you do not know this, you might suggest restaurants that don't serve anything the querent can eat for these very reasons.
  • How much do you prefer to spend on a meal? If you do not know this, you might suggest restaurants that the querent would not consider because he feels they are too expensive.
  • What are the preferences of your fellow travellers? If you do not ask this, you might suggest a restaurant that the querent likes, but that would be objectionable
If you can think of a way to give an unknown person a good recommendation without all of this information, I'm sure Google (and many others) would love to hear from you - but I don't think it can be done. Leave out any of these details, and you're going to give a bad answer.

Arguably, it's because the querent asked you a vague question. An alternate solution would be for people to learn to ask more specific questions that provide the information that the system needs to give them a specific and appropriate answer. So rather than seeking a "restaurant between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe," the querent would have to ask for a "restaurant near Roseville CA that is open for lunch that serves anything except Mexican or Vietnamese cuisine and has Kosher, vegetarian, and gluten-free options and costs under $15 per person."

Search engines have tried, unsuccessfully, to get people to do that for years, using long queries and Boolean flags to ask a very specific question in order to get an appropriate answer - and the long list of results is the user's fault. But most people can't be bothered to do that, and even those that do tend to forget details that they do not realize were relevant until they get a bad answer and end up searching multiple times to get to a list of appropriate options - and because they didn't get a specific answer to a vague question, it's the search engine's fault.

A lot of work is being done, and will continue to be done, to find a solution. It is, as with many issues, a matter of balance between having enough information to give a good answer (how much does a given person spend on lunch art a restaurant) without being too intrusive (upload your tax returns for the past five years so I can figure out how much you're likely to be willing to spend).

The path to arriving at that happy place is not to stop everything immediately, but to continue the trial-and-error process until both sides get it right.