Friday, January 31, 2014

Marketing on the Bleeding Edge

I’ve seen too many discussions lately about leveraging bleeding-edge technologies as a means to get “first mover advantage” by being the first brand to reach customers with the vary latest gizmos, features, and functions.   This seems to come along every time that device manufacturers release a fresh batch of R&D on the market, and it never fails to drive me nuts.   I thought, or perhaps hoped in vain, that marketers would have learned their lesson by now.

I have to concede that latching on to the latest technology fad makes a very good impression on technology enthusiasts.  They seem quite amazed at companies that leverage the latest capabilities of their newest technology toys and give them a great deal of attention and praise.   But I’ve never seen any statistics that suggest that this is a sizable market, or if the attention and praise translates into dollars at the register to a significant and sustainable degree.

Meanwhile, the rest of the market doesn’t notice at all – or at least that’s the best possible outcome, as the alternative is for the “new” features to be incompatible with the technology that they see no point in upgrading just yet.   Statistics on the size of the standard, non-technophile market are varied and unreliable (likely skewed by the publisher’s desire to suggest people upgrade faster/slower based on the reality they wish to project), but even the most aggressive statisticians concede that most consumers wait to upgrade until their service provider allows it, or about once every two years if it’s on their own dime.

In all, I am left with the sense that the cost of missing out on marketing opportunities by being on the leading edge is far outweighed by the cost of alienating customers by being too far ahead of them.   Unless an application, site, or service is high-impact and high-value, customers see little need to catch up to the latest technology in order to use them – and it is extremely rare for marketing-oriented services that push products to be considered vital to daily life.

With that in mind, the sensible approach is to take a step backward, as there really is no telling which technologies will become accepted and which will be abandoned as soon as the novelty wears off.   So instead of attempting to predict the next fad, simply pay attention to what customers are actually using and be aggressive (but not spastic) in building to suit.

Marketing strategy in digital channels must align to the capabilities and habits of the market – customers will not hurry up to do business at your speed.   And while the folksy wisdom of “skate to where the puck is going to be” makes perfect sense, it assumes that you know its future location.   Most don’t, and those who claim to have that sort of wisdom are most often proven by time to be fools.

Fundamentally, technology is just a new (and hopefully improved) method of doing the same tasks to solve the same problems and achieve the same goals as people did before the specific technology existed.   The conversations people have on smartphones are essentially the same as they used to have on pay phones – though the convenience of having a phone handy at any time likely means there are a lot more pointless and insipid conversations that wouldn’t have happened if they required the effort to find a phone and drop a dime.   That’s not altogether a good thing.

The point is: if your service provides genuine value, customers will not abandon it as soon as someone has a slightly spiffier user interface: they will continue to use your “outdated” applications and devices until they are replaced with newer versions, and they will be just as delighted when you upgrade, even if it’s not within a week of the release of the newest features and functions.

Ultimately, successful marketing strategy for the technology must align the goals of the business to the ways that consumers use the channel.   This is not the same as the way in which the technology enthusiasts and business executives wished that consumers would use the channel.   The vast majority of the market will ignore the very latest capabilities unless they deliver genuine value – and assuming otherwise is where the vast majority of markets go horribly wrong.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Buyer, Shopper, and Browser

The traditional approach to marketing sees shopping as a stage in the buying process, which brings with it a distinct bias.  It is assumed, often incorrectly, that a shopper will eventually become a buyer unless something goes horribly wrong.

This assumption is a mistake, and the low "success" rates in marketing are taken as evidence that the tactics of marketing are ineffective.  But this might instead reflect the degree to which the tactics are being used inappropriately.   That is, it is not your aim, but your target.

What is likely needed is a change in philosophy: to separate the shopping and buying process.  In effect, to consider shopping as a thing unto itself rather than a step along the way to buying.

Granted, our objective is still to make a sale.  We mean to channel the interest of shoppers, however weak, and use it to guide them to the register.  But if we begin with the assumption that all shoppers are potential buyers, we get the sense that what we are doing is fundamentally wrong and needs to be changed ... when in reality the same tactic needs to be better focused, and an entirely separate set of tactics developed for shoppers who are not strongly inclined to become buyers, which acknowledges the possibility that some may not be.

Another problem with the traditional assumption that shoppers will become buyers is a focus on "barriers" to purchasing.  The marketer sees himself as removing the obstacles between the shopper and the (buying) goal he is presumed to be hot in pursuit of.  But when we have eliminated all obstacles and the shopper still does not buy, it's clear that this approach is insufficient and misguided.  If a shopper is sufficiently motivated to become a buyer, he will often overcome obstacles on his own.   The approach of marketers should be to stimulate motivation rather than merely facilitate actions.

The same is true of each action you might wish a shopper to take, and more so because the technology already makes it as easy as possible.  The shopper has all the tools he needs to browse your product selection or encourage others to purchase - but he does not have the motivation to do so.  Making it easier or more fun to do something that a person does not care to do will not make them more inclined to do it.

Perhaps what is needed is a further level of distinction - to consider a "shopper" to be a person who is considering products with an intent of purchasing, and to create a separate class of "browser" who has no intent of purchasing but is perusing products as a means of entertainment.   I expect that with some effort, the behavioral patterns of each could be distinguished so that the two are no longer (erroneously) considered and marketed as if there were no distinction.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Customer's Journey

A customer journey can be rather neatly described as everything that occurs from the moment a need is discovered to the moment it is satisfied - though it's likely necessary to specify that "a need" is meant as a single instance of a need rather than every instance in which a given kind of need arises in the customer's lifetime - as it is rare, except in advanced age to purchase "the last X you will even own."

For example, the journey surrounding the need of thirst begins the moment that an individual realizes "I am thirsty" to the moment that their thirst is sated and the need no longer exists.   That is:
  1. The customer recognizes they have a need
  2. The customer identifies what they must do to satisfy the need
  3. The customer recognizes they must have other things in order to take the action to satisfy the need
  4. The customer considers how to obtain those things
  5. The customer acts to obtain the things
  6. The customer acts to satisfy the need
  7. The customer decides (perhaps inherently) the need has been sated
A customer who is addressing a need they have never experienced before likely goes through each of these steps - but one who has solved this need in the past can likely skip or at least shortcut the first four, provided that the action he took the last time satisfied his previous need, he is confident that the same results can be gained a second time, and the required materials to effect the solution are still available.

Firms are largely concerned with where their brand may be involved in the steps along the journey:
  • Advertising is concerned with step two - to ensure that the customer understands the product is useful in satisfying a need
  • Promotion is concerned with step three - to ensure their brand is the item the customer considers necessary to satisfying their need
  • Logistics is concerned with the fourth step - to ensure that their product/service is conveniently available for the customer to obtain
  • Retail is concerned with the fifth step - to provide a venue (store) in which the customer may interact to obtain them
  • Manufacturing is concerned with the sixth - to ensure that the product they provide is useful in satisfying the need when it is used
I expect there is potential to address the first and seventh step as well, though it would be unusual for a person to seek a relationship with the manufacturer of a product he does not believe himself to need, or to maintain that relationship after the need has been satisfied.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Perpetual Suction of Mobile

I still find it very discouraging that mobile isn't useful for very much.   While the fanboys are still proclaiming it's the answer to everything, most people use it for practically nothing: updating their Facebook status, playing games, checking the weather, and other largely frivolous purposes.   And while companies are eager to do business in the channel, they do so in such a clumsy manner that the experience frustrates most users into switching to another channel or using mobile in a non-mobile manner.  

I don't see that changing any time soon - in fact, recent first-hand experience suggests that it is getting worse: companies are imitating one another's bad ideas, and they are considering the work-around that users employ as standard behavior that is to be expected, accommodated, and encouraged.   This threatens to scuttle their mobile offerings into a bog of perpetual suction: the fact that users struggle to use something that sucks justifies making it suck even more.

The root of the problem is that developers consider "mobile" to pertain to the device.   If the user interface can be viewed on a three-by-five inch screen, than the application can (technically) be used on a mobile device, and therefore it is a mobile application.

However, "mobile" pertains to the user's behavior, not the device ... "mobile" as in "moving around" as in "not sitting still in front of a computer."   People use mobile applications while they are walking around in an environment that is full of distractions - and in many cases the mobile device is a way to fill a few moments of downtime while they are waiting for something else to happen (the dentist to call their name, the light to turn red, getting to the register behind a line of people, etc.)  

If an application can be used in that situation - to perform a simple task in under thirty seconds with very little attention - then it is truly a mobile application, and is truly useful to the user.   If you look at the most popular mobile applications, it becomes clear that they are popular because they all accommodate exactly this behavior.

The problem is that studies show that people also use mobile in still and quiet environments: they stop moving, sit down in a distraction-free environment, and engage with their devices in a deeply-focused manner, the same way they would do when using a personal computer to access the internet.  The fact that this behavior exists justifies designing mobile experiences that are intended to require long periods of time, full focus, and a distraction-free environment.

But this is mixing up cause and effect.   The reason that people use mobile in a non-mobile is because they have to do so - because mobile applications are very badly designed.  They attempt to perform a task while mobile, recognize that it is impossible to do, and delay doing the task until they can withdraw to a quiet environment to devote more time and focus.    That is to say, they are working around a poorly conceived and poorly designed user experience.

And because people are working around the poor design, there is now the sense that this is their natural method of using mobile devices.   And there it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of suck:

  1. Because "mobile" applications are badly designed and are not usable while mobile, people delay using them until they can sit quietly and give these badly designed applications full focus for a long period of time.
  2. Because people delay using "mobile" applications until they can sit quietly and give these badly designed applications full focus for a long period of time, sitting quietly and giving full focus is considered normal behavior for using mobile devices.
  3. Because sitting quietly and giving full focus is considered normal behavior for using mobile devices, future applications will be designed for stationary rather than mobile interaction
  4. Because future mobile applications will be designed for stationary rather than mobile interaction, they will be badly designed and will not be able be used while mobile
  5. Because mobile applications will be badly designed and will not be usable while mobile ... return to step one.

There are likely many other reasons for bad design of applications on the mobile platform, but these are likely familiar because they are the reason for bad design of any application or service in any platform - but this cycle of suck seems to be specific to the mobile platform, and it seems to be very difficult to break.

So What's the Solution?

I dislike leaving off a meditation that merely explores a problem and proposes no solution - but the solution in this instance should be self-evident: to design for the mobile user, not just the mobile platform.   Designers who wish to attempt this will face a number of very challenging obstacles:

Your partners in the business are attentive to the bottom line and don't want to spend any more money than necessary to capture additional revenue.  Building a separate mobile application to accommodate the behavior of mobile users is very costly.  The problem is that they begin with the assumption, supported by the IT department (whom I'll get to next), that developing a mobile application is easy: just slap a small-screen interface on your existing Internet application and shovel it onto the mobile platform.   Bad design is very easy and very cheap, but it will not get the results-as-promised.

Your partners in the IT department are attentive to the concerns of the information technology systems: they don't want their servers clogged with redundant code that does essentially the same thing, and are enamored by the concept of responsive design, which enables them to write one application that will magically adjust to smaller screen sizes.   But again, mobile isn't about the screen size of the device, but the behavior the user - and unless the application magically adjusts to the environment and behavior of a mobile user, it will require the user to stop being mobile in order to use it, and it will be a very bad experience.

Even your usability analysts are going to be against you in this effort.  The current usability test, and the usability lab, is designed to model the home office environment, which is totally different to the environment in which people use mobile devices.   So long as test subjects are made to sit quietly in a room and engage with a device that is bolted to a table, usability results will encourage design in the wrong direction - to build applications that are not used while the user is mobile.

And in the end, reality itself is going to be against you.   The reality to which I refer is that design can facilitate a task, but cannot change its nature.   If a task is complex, such as balancing an investment portfolio, evaluating multiple products to decide which to purchase, etc. then that task requires the user to stop and focus in order to do it well - and the design of the interface will not be able to reduce the ease of the task without reducing its effectiveness.   Simply stated, there are some tasks that do not lend themselves to being done on the mobile platform, and there's really nothing for it.

In the end, it's the tragedy of the commons - while most companies are behaving badly, no company sees the need to behave well.  They're going along with the crowd, doing what everyone else is doing, and considering "industry standard" to be good enough for their own customers.   There will be a few innovators who get it, who understand that mobile and the internet are two different things, who design mobile applications for the mobile user, and who be rewarded with a considerable first-mover advantage for taking the time, effort, and expense to get it right.

But going by history, it won't happen soon.  It took about ten to fifteen years for most firms to recognize that just shoveling your printed sales catalogs onto the Internet and giving the public access to the same data-entry screens as your inbound phone reps did not result in having a good Web site.  And it's obvious that a number of firms are still lagging in that regard. And it may take just as much time for firms to understand that just shoehorning your Web site onto a small screen will not result in having a good mobile experience - and possibly even longer as this perpetual cycle of suck feeds itself and gains momentum.

In the meantime, keep fighting the good fight and accept what little progress you can make - but set your expectations low, because you're bound to be let down.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Influence without Manipulation

I’ve recently read Rob Jolles’s book on Influence without Manipulation, and it’s given me much to think about regarding the way in which we attempt to sell products online, as well as my own personal ethics as a marketer in the online channel.

To start, I don’t think this author has the answers: his approach to selling is still manipulative, it’s merely more subtle.  I don’t think he’s an evil man, just a bit half-witted in that he wants to avoid being manipulative but lacks sufficient knowledge of rhetoric and psychology to do so entirely.   You cannot, in any way, toy with peoples’ vulnerabilities and psychological tendencies to subvert their rational faculty with the aim of getting them to do what you want and then claim not to be manipulative.

What’s more, I don’t think he’s alone in this.  I regularly witness people who attempt to manipulate me, or to manipulate others in my presence – and it happens so often that I find I am no longer as offended as I should be at their lack of ethics, but instead take offense of their lack of subtlety.  The clumsy and ham-handed mannerisms add insult to injury, suggesting “I think you’re too stupid to realize how I am attempting to manipulate you.”

But it then begs the question as to how guilty I am of the very same practice.   I would like to ask “whether I am guilty” rather than “how guilty I am” but I can’t go that far.   Through intent or negligence, I sense that everyone is manipulative to some degree, and living in a society in which you have to deal with people who stubbornly refuse to do the right thing, it is inevitable that you have to get your hands greasy sometimes, hopefully for the right reasons.

And in the end, that is likely the standard by which morality is judged: not what was done, but the reasons for which it was done.    That’s part of the reason that sales is such a greasy business – it’s all about making money for yourself and your company by influencing other people into purchasing certain products.  So it’s likely that a salesman or marketer can justly claim to be ethical if the products they sell to their customers render a value to them that is worth the cost.

This in turn drags me back to a couple of pet peeves.   First, if profit is a reward for service, then profit is ethical.   Those who seek to earn a profit without providing equal or greater value are clearly on the wrong side of the road.   Second, that those who take a long-term perspective tend to be more ethical than those who take a short-term perspective.   There’s good money to be made in tricking someone once into buying something that’s not worth the cost, but there aren’t many people who can be tricked a second time.

I do have a sense that the present age of communication will help to move firms in the right direction: when people could only tell a few others about the incident in which they were deceived by an unethical salesman, it was easy enough for salesmen to find fresh suckers who are unaware of their character – but in the present age in which people can more broadly share their experiences, good and bad, then consumers have the ability to find out more about the firms that approach them, and an unethical business  cannot long sustain itself.

Said another way, ethics are no longer disposable – if ever they were – in selling and marketing products, especially in the online channel.   And it’s for that reason that I sense that Jolles’s approach, while far better than the traditional “tricks” of salesmen, still needs a great deal of refinement.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Innovation in the Corporate Morass

There are a plethora of reasons, and many of them quite valid, that corporations or other large organizations are largely incapable of being innovative.   Innovative ideas are subjected to bureaucracy, politics, committees, personal agendas, group think, and many other cultural dysfunctions  that were instituted to ensure that any new idea was reviewed, approved, risk-managed, and adapted to the point that it was thoroughly denatured and rendered utterly impotent.

But there is at the same time the argument that large organizations are necessary to innovation in the present day, and I think it does hold some water.  Primarily, the corporation is a source of resources to creation on a grand scale.  No single individual has the knowledge and resources to tackle a project of significant scope in a reasonable amount of time.

Much of this is due to technical progress.   In the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, many revolutionary devices were developed by a lone inventor or a small team, working in a small workshop in their spare time, with very little money.   But as technology progressed and advances, the workshop inventor fell by the wayside and the research and development arms of large organizations took over.

Consider that Orville and Wilbur Wright built an airplane in their bicycle shop and Henry Ford built a prototype of a new car in his tool shed. The Boeing 787 and the Tesla electric car were not sketched out on a cocktail napkin and cobbled together in someone’s garage: such innovations required thousands of people, millions of dollars, and many months to develop the first prototype.

That’s not to say that innovation is the sole demesne of large organizations.   The “first” of most devices can still be cobbled together by the workshop inventor and many likely will, though there are some that cannot even be attempted without significant resources.  But innovation, which consists of taking something that someone else invented and making it better, requires a broader range of expertise and more extensive resources to effect.

My sense is that it is fair to say that corporations are the patrons of invention and innovation in the present day, and that the number of advancements developed under the aegis of large organizations far outstrip those done by a lone inventor.

But at the same time, the preventative mechanisms of bureaucracy inhibit innovation.  Though some firms have attempted to overcome this limitation by various means, progress seems slow in this regard.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Organizational Character

The drawback to segmentation in the present day is that there is far less separation between the segments than there used to be.   An advertisement may be intended for a certain audience, but there is a greater likelihood that others will see it as well, and this becomes a problem when there is a high level of disparity in the messages that firms are sending to different market segments.

The problem is further compounded by the perseverance of memory - in particular, digital memory has a much longer lifespan than organic memory, and advertising messages that were sent a decade (or much longer) ago are still lingering in archives.   Marketers count on customer laziness - "who's going to look at what we sent last week, it's probably already been deleted."  But even without digital assistance, customers have a long memory.

Putting the two together, brands have a significant problem: they must have integrity.   While it should still be possible for a brand to tailor its messages to specific audiences, and to change its messages over time, the disparity cannot be as extreme as it sometimes is in the present day.

This should not be an unreasonable expectation, as integrity is a quality we expect and value in human beings and many of those who have it are able to maintain it effortlessly: simply be honest to yourself and others, and your integrity will follow.  It's only those people who put on difference faces, who behave very differently at work than they do at home, that need to put effort into making sure they provide the same information and tell the same lies to whatever group they happen to be with at the time ... and live in fear that people from the two groups will mix.

In fairness, organizations are at a disadvantage, because they consist of many people and the people in the roles that govern communication change frequently.    So while an individual person has a single brain and a single set of memories, a company lacks that central repository and the ability to maintain consistency without effort.  Or perhaps that's being too generous?  Given that filing systems are also computerized, maintaining a digital memory of past communications is possible, and not even that difficult to do, though it does take a modicum of effort to consult them and consider whether a new or segmented message is in agreement with the history.

It might also be considered that organizations often have a mercenary agenda, such that they will say anything it takes to get what they want from other people (employees and customers) - but that's really not an excuse for being false.   People often have mercenary agendas and seek to get things from others, and this has never been an excuse.  If anything, people are circumspect when they are aware that their motives may be questioned, and it's entirely fair to hold brands to the same standard.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Why Study Psychology?

I've been reading up on psychology lately, and have been asked the question "why?"   My sense is that even to ask this question shows a lack of understanding of customer experience, which is in fact a profession to which the theories of psychology (along with other studies of human behavior) are critical to success.   I'll try to explain some of the reasons for those who don't make the connection:

Of particular importance is that people are the most important contributor of an organization's success.   That statement is too often regarded as a trite platitude by managers, but if they should ignore it entirely they will be chagrinned by the results: the equipment, facilities, and capital resources of a corporation are of no use whatsoever without the people to put them to work.   That is all the more true for knowledge workers than those who perform routine tasks, and it is especially true of customers, who are even more important to success than employees.

More specifically, it is the actions that people take that cause organizations to succeed or fail - whether it's performing routine tasks or contributing the ideas that shape the future of a firm, all value derives from the employees' behavior.   For the customers it is (our ought to be) even more self-evident that the actions that they take in purchasing, using, and recommending to others are critical to the success of the firm.  And it is for this reason that understanding human behavior is critical to successfully managing a business.

For simple work, like carrying things from one place to another or pressing the buttons on a factory line, it is sufficient to teach behavior and demand that the workers replicated it with precision and speed.   Complex work, like developing strategy or designing products, cannot be modeled - you cannot show someone how to write a brilliant plan, because to do so would be to write the plan yourself. As such, deriving profit from knowledge workers is not a matter of showing them what to do, but giving them motivation to do what they are capable of doing, in situations in which you are not capable of doing it yourself and know only what the outcome ought to be like.   You have to understand psychology.

For the customer, it is all the more obvious that their behavior is the result of their perception, interpretation, and motivation - and there is no shortcut to influencing these things.   With employees, an inept manager can always fall back on the ability to threaten their job, which is to threaten their income and the well-being of their family, in order to compel them to do what is needed for the firm to be profitable.   With customers, firms can make no such threats, and must be all the more cautious of the way they attempt to influence their behavior.

The human mind is a very complex machine and highly idiosyncratic.  While it is possible to group people into categories and stereotypes, this must always be done with the acknowledgement that you are making generalizations that are so simplified that they are deleterious.   There can be no simple formula for motivating human behavior.   At best, we can understand the underlying theories that enable us to create a game plan for motivating a specific individual in a specific situation - which is to say a specific target market for a specific solution to a specific need.

For example, we understand that different customers have different needs.   At the lowest level, all human beings have a similar need for food, water, shelter, and aid in times of emergency - but most consumer products do not address those needs directly or primarily.   Instead, most products deal with the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where there is less clarity and certainty about which needs are prioritized and what exactly will meet them.

We can understand that a customer seeks to "have security" and "experience a sense of personal growth" and "feel confident in their decisions" and to some degree all people have such needs.    But which of these is most important, how it can be fulfilled, and what trade-offs a person is willing to make to have one at the cost of the others, is highly subjective.   In that regards, different people will make different decisions, and even one person will make different decisions at different times - so there is constant need for investigation and fine tuning that makes a product successful to different people at different times.

And this, I think, may be the beginning of an explanation of the reason that the teachings of psychology are extremely valuable to customer experience practitioners, and the commercial world in general.   Because of the complexity variability, it's unlikely a single blog post, book, or even a library could provide a complete answer that is broadly applicable - but it's a guidepost on the way to success.