Friday, July 31, 2015

Feeding the Kids

I stumbled across a discussion thread in which a new father was asking for advice on how to get his children to eat what they were served at dinner time, which seems to be a common problem with many parents - and while I'm generally squeamish about any analogy that compares customers to children (which implies they are less intelligent and independent than they are), I also took some insight from the answers that other parents provided to him.

The core of the argument is that it's a control issue: some parents are too dominating of their children, others too accommodating.  As one commenter put it: "How would you feel if someone else tried to make you eat when you are not hungry?  Or tried to make you eat something that you didn't like the taste of?  You'd hate them for it and resist them every step of the way."

It's an excellent point, but the counter-argument is that children don't really know what they ought to eat or when they ought to eat it.  Left to their own devices, they would constantly be grazing on sugary snack foods that are entirely devoid of nutritional value.   And it is the responsibility of a parent to develop healthy behavior in their children, which quite often requires control.

It is, in fact, a matter of balance.  Some parents are entirely self-centered and domineering when it comes to feeding the kids, others are entirely delinquent in their duties.   Exactly where to strike a balance is a matter of debate, largely derived from culture.   There is a broad range of acceptability, in which children are neither malnourished nor obese.

The same can be said in the economic sector, in which producers and regulators seek to protect the public from its own ignorance and short-sightedness.   But because customers are adults, with the right to choose for themselves (even when their choices are harmful) it becomes a much more delicate matter.

Companies may attempt to regulate the behavior of consumers by various methods (choosing what to produce, providing customer support and education, providing price incentives to make wiser choices), but this seems to be seldom - they have a profit motive to provide whatever customers demand, and it's noticeable that the better choices are often economically disadvantageous.   Take the example of food: anything that is labeled as light, healthy, organic, or whatnot is always more expensive than a less healthy alternative.

Regulators likewise attempt to gently encourage consumers by controlling the educational system (to teach children) and issuing warnings and bans on products (to inform or control adults) in a positive direction, but this often meets with stern consternation from the voting public when they go too far.

Back to the original discussion about feeding the kids: the most sensible solutions seemed to involve gradually exerting influence: to be accommodating to the appetites of children (feed them when they are hungry, rather than demanding they eat on your schedule) and to be accommodating to their tastes (feed then what they will eat, slowly introducing healthier items as side dishes).   This is a slower and more insidious method of domination.

There are commercial parallels: starting off consumers in an "entry product" that offers exactly what the customer demands, possibly at a financial loss, then slowly introducing alternatives that guide them to what the manufacturer wishes to sell, until the customer is fully phased into a sustainably profitable product line.

Though my sense is this has limited applicability, it does seem to have good potential for a relationship company.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Meaningless Metrics

It surprises me a bit how many people, particularly people who should know better by virtue of their profession, are still obsessed with essentially meaningless numbers.   How many unique visitors arrive at their Web sites, how many times a given page is viewed, how many people "friend" their brand and "like" their comments, and obsess over numeric measurements of activities that have nothing to do with anything.

Part of it is the ongoing obsession with numerology: human experience is reduced to numbers and tortured with implements of statistical analysis to make it confess to whatever the inquisitor cares to hear.   When a number is assigned to something, there's little question as to whether the number is meaningful - but great interest is given to making it better.   And anything that is not measurable must not matter - or if there is a sense that it does matter, then lets' find a way to force numbers upon it.

No-one has yet been able to tender a satisfactory common-sense explanation of why it is important to have more - it is instead taken for granted that more is always better.   But it's possible, and has often been accomplished at the cost of many thousands of dollars, to have more hits, more visitors, more friends, and more likes without providing one more product to one more person that might benefit from owning it.   It's been shown that dumping millions of unwary users on a site's home page doesn't get an equal proportion of increased revenue.

And yet many continue to behave as it would: if a site has a 1.5% conversion ration and you hoodwink 100,000 people into visiting, that's 1500 new customers.  Funny it never works out that way afterwards.  Funnier that in spite of repeated failures, getting more visitors is still a high priority.

My sense in all of this is that the metrics are leading us in the wrong direction.  We don't need to draw a bigger audience, but a more interested audience, and we don't need hordes to "like" a brand, but a much smaller number of people to buy the product, hopefully more often.   All hits are not created equal, nor is there a strong correlation.

The goal of interaction is not to interact with a mass of steadfastly disinterested individuals, but to engage with those who have some level of interest, and who might be inclined to show greater interest.  It's much more difficult to gauge that, because there are no numbers that can be derived, and even assessing a person's likeliness to purchase based on various parameters in a regression analysis is seldom more than a desperate attempt to quantify something that defies quantification ... but is nonetheless extremely important.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Knowledge Systems and Consumer Behavior

I find myself routinely disappointed by the use of personas in marketing.  While it seems, on the surface, to be a way to personify the otherwise nebulous concept of "the customer" they are often based on demographic profiles that leave much to the imagination - and many peoples' imaginations seem to be limited to stereotypes when translating these characteristics into buying decisions.

Ultimately, personas are a step along the path to identifying the knowledge systems of various customers, which drive their decisions and precipitating behaviors.   A knowledge system consists of three key components: history, stance, and tools.


A person's history includes the things he has encountered from actions in real life as well as those that have been absorbed second-hand from the accounts of others.    In general, people are drawn to repeat the actions that had been successful in the past and to avoid those that have failed or caused harm.   In that sense, the knowledge that is gained from history tends to be the strongest, as it has been "proven" by first-hand experience or the testimony of a reliable source.

A perfectly rational person analyzes their own history, and accurately interprets the sequence of events and their causal relation to the results that were achieved - but few individuals are perfectly rational, and their analysis is skewed by superficial interpretation or misinterpretations.   In that sense, history is a fictional account that justifies the present - but simply because it is not entirely true does not discredit it in the mind of the historian: it is his truth, which he maintains as reliable.

In terms of consumer behavior, history benefits a brand when there are positive events in an prospect's past - or sometimes, when there are negative experience with other brands.   The worst treatment of history is to simply ignore it: to treat each encounter as a fresh start, pretending that unfortunate events (a negative service experience or exposure to an offensive commercial message) had not occurred.   Not all prospect are green fields, and history must be considered in each interaction.


A stance is a belief about something, which results in an attitude when that thing is encountered.   A stance drives behavior in real time, as the premise upon which decisions are made and actions are taken.   This can be profoundly influential, even when the stance is founded in raw emotion or flawed reasoning - nothing can be done to change behavior unless a contradictory stance is first addressed.

A person's stance is expressed in two specific ways: sensitivity and distinction.   Sensitivity is the inclination to ignore something and to give it attention.   Distinction is the ability to evaluate those things to which a person is sensitive: there is the binary consideration of whether it is good or bad, as well as the evaluative comparison as to whether it is better or worse than something else.

A positive stance to a brand causes a prospect to become highly motivated: they are interested in the brand and consider it to be not only good, but better than alternatives.   But in most instances the prospect's stance is either lacking (they see no benefit in the brand) or uncertain (their evaluation is mixed), in which case their stance must be addressed in order to secure them as a customer.


Tools are the cognitive processes by which experiences are evaluated: they include theories, procedures, decision rules, and other instruments of assessment that enable an individual to consider the present situation to the possible future state that may be achieved by undertaking an action.

And of course, tools are imperfect: a person may be utterly lacking in the tools necessary to make a sound decision, which leads them to refrain from taking action - or they may misapply the tools that they have and take an inefficient, ineffective, or damaging action.   The most serious mistakes are made when the wrong tools are confidently misapplied.

The "hot prospect" is an individual whose toolset has already led them to the conclusion that a given product and brand is the right choice for them - though this comes at the danger of creating dissonance if their tools were applied incorrectly.   Addressing the needs of a prospect who lacks the proper tools to make a decision can be difficult - there is the matter of trustworthiness to consider, in that it's expected that a vendor will provide information and tools that are skewed to favor their own brand, so considerable trust-building must be done before providing tools to a prospect.


A final word of caution: these qualities of a knowledge system should not be taken as innate and immutable, though it is very often a tendency to assume that people "are what they are" and cannot change. A person can choose to adopt a stance or to change it.   He can choose to rely on the tools he has or acquire new ones and discontinue ones that are not productive.   He can in some instances choose the experiences to which he exposes himself.   The ability to do so gives him control over our knowledge system, and the ability to adapt and evolve over time.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


In the present day, standardization of products is born of a desire for efficiency in mass-production, but prior to the Industrial Era it was a means of cultural control.   It is with some irony that there is harsh criticism of standardization and the development of mass culture in the present day, when it is merely a continuation of previous practices, merely on a grander scale.

In effect, it is not an objection to standardization, merely a power struggle over which individuals set the standards.  The effect of standardization, on any scale, is the removal of options for consumers.   One cannot satisfy or express cultural values or exercise personal choice if the options available to choose among are strictly limited.

It is also worth noting that industrial and commercial standardization is done with the full consent and participating of consumers in the market.  In choosing to accept a standardized product, rather than insisting upon and being willing to pay for something more suitable to their tastes, the consumers have given their consent to standardization.

In the age of mass-production, distribution, and marketing the producers of goods and service benefit from the efficiency of producing uniform products that can be sold to a large number of people.   It has been argued that this provides mass-producers with a competitive advantage over the manufacturers of customize goods, in that the additional margin grants them greater ability to underprice their competition, greater ability to increase the size of manufacturing operations, and greater ability to reproduce retail operations.

Meanwhile, culture is socially constructed and individualism is by necessity uncontrolled – which both are in conflict with decisions being made by a few for the many.   Cultural evolution requires flexibility, and it is likely that the present cultural stagnancy is the result of a lack of flexibility in an economic environment in which the options available to satisfy and express taste are limited by suppliers who unilaterally decide to provide uniform products and services.

To my original point, this is supply-side economics which pointedly ignored that the customer is in control.  Suppliers have no ability to force anyone to buy from them, and seek to cater to the desires of buyers.   If there is any criticism to be leveled, it should be at consumers who sacrifice individuality to save on cost.

Sad another way, it is not "the corporations" that are dehumanizing people by limiting their options, but people who are sacrificing their individuality by accepting the options provided.   Commercial interests will rush to provide anything that people demand - and if their demands are uniform, then uniformity is what will be provided.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Leadership and Personal Goals

I read an article about the importance of setting clear goals, and it dawned on me that this is exactly the problem that many people have when they attempt to practice leadership - so I'm going to spend a bit of time trying to connect the two.

Validating Goals

The article itself was about determining whether a goal is valid, with an eye toward figuring out what to do in order to turn a feeling or dream into a goal - or in some instances to realize that a notion is only a feeling or a dream, and to avoid acting upon it as if it were a goal.

The first important distinction is made between a goal and a feeling.   All goals begin as feelings - a vague sense of being dissatisfied with the present, or the equally vague sense that making a change could result in a better sitaution.   Until a person knows what needs to be done to achieve their desired outcome, all they have is a feeling - it is not a goal until it is clearly understood and articulated.   A leader who does not have a goal is wasting his time and annoying his followers.

It also stands to mention that having a goal is necessary for leadership.   It should be obvious that a leader must lead his followers in achieving something.   To attempt to influence the behavior of others without a desired outcome in mind is not leadership, but manipulation - it satisfies the personal need to have power over others, but does not achieve an outcome.

Another distinction is to be made between a goal and a dream.   A goal can be attained and a dream cannot.   The distinction between a dream and a feeling is that a feeling is vague whereas a dream is specific - the individual knows exactly what he would like to happen, but is (or ought to be) well aware that there is no means to achieve it.

This problem is often seen in leaders who can articulate a goal but cannot provide specific enough direction, or who expect their followers to somehow figure out how to achieve the things he wants, even though he can provide neither instructions nor resources needed to accomplish it.

Leadership Goals are Personal Goals

The article itself was more personal in nature, but I believe that the same ideas apply to leadership situations - because the only difference between personal goals and leadership goals is that the latter are things a person can't accomplish by his own efforts and must influence others to cooperate.

I will concede that it is entirely possible to lead other people to do things that you could just as well have done yourself.   This smells a bit like unnecessary manipulation and dominance to me, but it may be justified if there are time constraints or conflicting goals - you ask someone to do something for you because you don't have the time to do it, or have more pressing demands.

But in another sense, all leadership goals are personal goals.   The desire to achieve an outcome is entirely self-centered.   Even if a person is taking an action to achieve a benefit for others, they are undertaking it because they have a selfish desire to see other people receive the benefit.   That is to say, leadership requires the help of others to achieve a goal, but the desire to achieve that goal is always personal - other people are merely the means.

Personal Goals are Leadership Goals

In many instances, the equation can be inverted: because we live in a complex social enviroment, most goals require the participation of others.  Even a simple transaction such as purchasing an item requires others to undertake the activities that make it available for sale, and even an action taken on one's own effort requires the passive cooperation of others not to interfere.

So the things that we truly do on our own and the things that we do with the help and cooperation of others are difficult to distinguish - but at this point I sense myself wandering into an academic/philosophical meditation rather than a more practical one, which is a good sign that I should stop typing.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Mobile Applications: History Repeating

On a recent trip, I was looking for a restaurant using my mobile device and came across three separate places that did not provide a menu on their mobile site, but instead wanted me to download and install their mobile application in order to see their menu.   Naturally, I did not.   The obvious reason is that I didn't want to spend the time or sacrifice storage space to download and install software for a one-time visit.  But it occurred to me that mobile applications are, in general, a bit of history repeating.

In the earliest days, before the Web was invented, the Internet was a network that connected file repositories stored on FTP and Gopher servers.   Just like the old dial-up servers before, all that users could do was to download files and applications from a remote server to use on their personal computers.   It was all that could be done, and people expected no more.

When the Web came along, all of this changed - albeit slowly.  Rather than downloading an application (which only ran if you had the right computer and operating system) or a file (same problems, plus you needed the proper version of a specific software program), you could visit a site that was readable in any Web browser and access applications that ran server-side.

For some time, there was a transition phase in which some firms still required users to download and install applications on their personal computers and others who provided websites that did not require anything to be downloaded or run locally.   And of course, websites won - and firms that still provided file repositories were compelled to change their ways, or accept failure in the online channel against competitors who used the Web.

Return to the present: this is the exact same conflict that occurred when I was looking for a restaurant on my mobile device.   As backwards as it seems, some firms are treating the mobile channel in the same manner as the pre-Web Internet.

Or more aptly, it's that many customers are treating the mobile channel in a different manner as the Internet.   The firms who provide service are merely responding to customer demand - and so long as customers are happy to download applications, firms will provide them.

It seems curious to me that people who are unwilling (and even a bit horrified) to download and install software to their personal computers are so blithe and ignorant about doing the vey same thing on their other personal devices.

Granted, two of the greatest problems have been patched: the potential for an application to be harmful (virus, Trojan horse, or malware) is mitigated by careful screening processes from some of the largest sources of applications; and the fact that downloaded applications go stale is mitigated by automated update functions.   The other two, the time involved in downloading and the clutter of one-shot applications that accumulates on the local device, don't seem to bother most users.

So in the end, my sense is that the patches will hold together mobile applications for a while - until there is a serious security incident, users will be indifferent to the potential harm, and providers will continue to support this quaint and outdated method.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Leadership or Manipulation?

I've been meaning to read more on the topic of leadership, but find myself putting down books after the first chapter, when I have grasped the author's definition of "leadership" and categorically reject what s/he has to say.   The main problem is that there seems to be little understanding of the practice - or more specifically, partial understanding: leadership is seen as control or persuasion, but without a purpose.  To my way of thinking, this is not leadership, but merely manipulation.

Leadership always requires a goal - to lead someone is to lead them somewhere, or to something.   There are instances in which a person attempts to control or manipulate others without any sense of a goal.  This is not leadership, though it might be said that the "goal" is to appease their own desire for domination.  As a rule, a person's attempt to influence others can only be regarded as leadership if it is intent on the achievement of a goal.

However, that is not to say that the goals of a wannabe-leader are always clear.   Most operations managers who oversee the work of employees who do the same daily tasks have the vague sense that they want better performance, but no clear concept of exactly what they must do to achieve it.   Others have a clear goal, but are quite vague in the methods by which it will be achieved - so their directions seem misguided or aimless, as they do not correlate to the goal. Perhaps the worst wannabe-leaders are those who have goals that they do not disclose to their subordinates, which seems to be blatantly manipulative.

There is also the problem of weak leadership, who merely support and encourage activities that require neither support nor encouragement. A person who is already motivated to do something does not need to be "lead" to do it, and while sports fans may disagree, I reject the notion that someone who merely cheers a performer on can be at all credited for their performance.   Insofar as support is concerned, it's often necessary for someone in a position of authority to clear obstacles and authorize the allocation of resources - and this is very helpful, but it is not leadership if this is all that is done.

Another common misconception is the notion of "self-leadership," which is claimed when a person overcomes their own reluctance or pessimism to undertake an action.    This is necessary, but is more along the lines of self-discipline and integrity, both admirable qualities, but neither of them qualifies as leadership per se.

But this misconception is useful in considering the behavior of a leader whose behavior consists of compelling or tricking others into doing things that they are unwilling to do themselves.   Granted, it does meet the criterion of having a clear goal for influencing the behavior of others, but it reeks of moral cowardice.

At this point I seem to be straying a bit - to summarize: to qualify as leadership, influence/persuasion must be directed toward the achievement of a goal that followers would not have pursued without the influence of the leader.   I think the last major topic is the beginning of a different discussion - ethical versus unethical leadership - that is a secondary concern.