It’s uncanny

There's a graph so it must be true

Seth Godin here, picks up on a subject which Russell Davies discussed in Campaign last year. The Uncanny Valley. That topic is actually about when robotics (and the like) become too believable, and people begin to respond less well to them. How does this work in marketing?

For me, it’s a bit like when you meet someone at a conference, or when they come for a job interview, and you suddenly realise they’ve been reading your blog. But Godin and Davies are talking about when companies do this to consumers using just a few data points. Using just a couple of snippets of information, companies can start getting all ‘aren’t we good friends’ and ‘first-name-terms’. It’s particularly freeky when the company in question is somewhere you’ve only shopped once, or someone who makes some crappy facebook app you installed years ago.

Godin says, “The relevant issue here for marketers is what happens when our databases and predictions get too good”. Of course, most companies are still struggling to spell their customers’ names right, so we have a while to go yet before creep factor sets in.

From a direct marketing point of view – as I mentioned here – the fundemental flaw to the reasoning appears to be this assumption that faking it is ever going to really work – not because we haven’t got big enough databases or models, but simply because the cost of doing it well (e.g. all the variations of tone, copy, proposition etc) would become too expensive. There’s always also the issue that many communications are best done in a transparently public setting – people need to know not just that they’ve seen it but that their friends, colleagues and neighbours have seen it too. What’s the point having an iPhone if no-one else knows how cool it is?

And we also run the risk, it seems to me, of displaying to the customer just how much is being written down. Privacy policies can feel very abstract until you start to actually have the bredth of what is stored played back to you (it’s a very interesting experience for example to have a look through your Google history). If the government knew this much about us, we’d never put up with it.

The spirit of privacy laws is actually pretty instructive here. Data should only be kept and used where that use can be justified. Should the people I bought a collander off in 1992 still be mailing me collander deals now? Obviously not, and frankly they’re wasting their time as much as mine.

Counter-intuitive perhaps, but companies should be looking to throw away as much customer information as they can, while maintaining the information which genuinely improves customer service. A little more of this disipline could make the move towards greater customer intimacy, actually feel like a benefit for the customer.

A little bit (of) interesting

Today was interesting. It was Interesting 2008, the Russell Davies ‘unconference’; in its second year and continuing rude health. The underlying thought appears to be the same: the first step in being interesting is being interested. Accordingly a very large bunch (maybe 400) cogniscati gathered in an incredible (and extremely well buntinged) hall – Conway Hall in Red Lion Square – to hear some of the best presenters in the UK talk about their pet subjects.

If you were being satirical, you would say it was the world’s best people on branding, advertising, etc talking about their favourite colours, shoes, fashions, music or whatever. Of course, what it was actually about was people talking about things that were close to their own hearts, they thought would be interesting for 10 minutes (i.e. not their jobs) and where they’d found some interesting material.

We had Winston Churchill, Why horses are afraid of crisp packets, the extent to which we can really understand the second world war with only 60 years’ perspective, the relative density of World of Warcraft, the rise and fall of Patagonia, and why a lego fetish is a good thing.

I honestly don’t think there was a bad presenter all day. Although, this last bit – the selection of speakers – is really where Russell Davies showed his hand (despite very amusing and scene-setting opening- and closing- remarks).

Was it middle-class -bourgeoisie guardian-reading nonsense? Absolutely. At one point half the speakers joined together for a Guardaian sponsored recorder playing session.

Was it brilliant? Absolutely. A room in London was filled with some of the cleverest and most critical people of their generation, who allowed and understood their peers to do the most difficult presentation of their lives. We were a good audience – of course – but only for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, intense acts of bravery were conducted on stage as people with a lot to lose tried to be interesting to this dragons’ den.

Hats off to Russell, hats off to the speakers, and here’s to Interesting 2009. I’ll definitely try to be there. I’ve been racking my brain all day about what I’d talk about and I’m coming up blank. The best I’ve got is:

  • Untranslatable words / words that have never existed
  • Object orientated programming and what it can teach you about knowledge and YOUR life
  • How education works in other countries
  • How the WestWing (the TV show) changed the world
  • The Toyato Production Sytem, who nicked it and how it’s changed the world

Hopefully ee you there. And a pleasure to meet a whole bunch of you today, It’s been one of those days that makes it clear the new world isn’t a temporary one.

More: here and here

No one to hear you scream

2012 Olympic celebrations in Trafalgar Square

An interesting comment on the last post came back to a topic which I seem to be asked, or ask myself, more and more often. If social media increasingly leads to closed groups, and tomorrow’s media consumers are increasingly avoiding the mass media, what will happen to mass-participation media events, and don’t we as a culture lose something if we lose common points of reference. What on earth will we talk about around the water cooler?

In particular, I’ve heard this as a strong initial response to Clay Shirky, who argues here that however ‘sad’ it is to play World of Warcraft, it’s a better use of the ‘cognitive surplus’ than watching a re-run of Gilligan’s Island for the 100th time. (Incidentally, what was the cognitive heatsink that we had as kids in the UK? Clearly Neighbours later on but before that? Rocketman?).

Of course, this is not a new idea. I remember years ago, a planner explained to me why you couldn’t advertise cars with direct mail – it wasn’t enough for me to know how cool my new Audi is, I need to be certain all my neighbors knew too.

Perhaps the point about ‘mass-participation media events’ isn’t that their power is diminishing (witness Apprentice this year), but rather that they are fewer and more extraordinary.

There also seems to be a point now that whole social groups can have ‘mass-participation’ events which they all know about but which are entirely closed to those outside of the group: that wierd feeling you get when everyone in a room’s been reading the same status’ and knows each others business without having ever discussed it.

It remains worth remembering a serious challenge that has been raised by commentators including Esther Dyson and Andrew Orlowski, about how these groups aren’t necessarily healthy, challenging or participatory. Often preferring to define very strict group rules and mores.

The final point, of course, is just what we mean by participation. By 2012, when the Olympic games is going on in London, what will the experience of watching it be like? If you’ve seen what NBC has planned for Beijing, the mind boggles about what it will be like in 4 1/2 years (three times the gestation period for a standard YouTube) but most certainly there will be opportunities to observe almost everything about the event, to turn the event into a private mass media event for your network, to ‘virtually’ compete and to compile, annotate and share your own coverage. 

With apologies for shoplifting to Hugh MacLeod, mass participation media events have always – of course -been social objects. So in the era of mass media, it’s not a surprise the objects themselves tended to have the same traits. Whilst we may still have global events to built frameworks around, surely local (and group) interpretation and meaning can be added to createsocial object which can be more intimately shared.

The reason, it seems to me, that nobody understands microblogging unless they do it themselves, is that they don’t understand how small social objects can be.

And, to revisit the negativity of small disconnected groups (and ever-decreasing differences of opinion in those groups), technology can take these objects and make them available to huge audiences. Anyone can write a blog, anyone can produce a LOLcat (as Shirky jokes), and by 2012, everyone will be able to participate in our global media event.

It is this access to open social objects which is at the heart of participation in all cases. It’s what got all the bloggers I know addicted, it’s what makes teenagers turn the telly off and Facebook on, and it’s what makes Amelia’s wired retired fall in love with Skype, so they can share the smallest of social objects – not  just their grandchildren’s first words or their first tooth, but their everyday stories about the day at school.

And do I really need to know how many people watched The Apprentice altogether if I know that my family, friends and colleagues watched it. Isn’t that enough?

The implication of advertising revolutions

Throwing the TV away

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago called ‘the structure of advertising revolutions’.

That was all about the way in which we should expect the advertising world to deal with changing paradigms, based on how the scientific community does. It was inspired by Clay Shirky’s video, blog and book, pointing out that the new media don’t have to be an additional load for customers, and that the overall effect can be to free up cognitive function, and to simplify our relationships with brands.

So. Are we there yet. Will we reach this post-marketing-apocalypse-techno-babble-euphoria? Or, is this quasi-Marxist ‘perfect distribution of information’ vision just so much more dungaree wearing nonsense?

And perhaps here we are starting to see some evidence that we’ve reached nearly the top of the hill. Whilst the advertising agencies keep trying to repurpose their wares to suit prevailing circumstances – W&K in particular making a spectacular advert which people actually tuned in to see – many firms seem to be reconsidering their position in networks, understand how influence and reputation is distributed, and at least starting to listen closely to what their customers are telling them.

If you’d told me five years ago that high-street banks would be considering allowing their staff to speak directly to customers using blogs or that Cannes Gold winners would be a website which was supported with advertising – not the other way around – I would have assumed you were still drunk on the Kool Aid of 99/2000.

But what’s happening in every marketing department company in the world (from the guy who also does sales, to the multinational with teams in every country) is new, and exciting stuff. Of course there’s been some goofy failures. When, precisely, was marketing immune from huge, public and embarrassing mistakes. But for every bit of fake user-generated content, or every time the Playstation boys trips over their skateboarding trousers, we see an attempt to really try and do something new.

Perhaps it isn’t any more than the rephrasing of an age old phenomenon (as Leo says in West Wing, the internet turned out to be ‘no more than an efficient distribution mechanism for gossip and pornography’). Perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to human nature, but we cannot deny that the world has changed recently – if only to revert to a pre-TV, pre-media monopoly time.

So, should we go a bury our TVs in the garden? Well not quite yet. Mass media events will still exist, like the Olympics or the Apprentice. We need common points of social reference. But don’t expect your kids to feel the same way. And what are you going to say to them… it would be hard to make a case for our older fashioned ways being more healthy or intelligent.

Ins and outs – a redefinition of digital marketing

First ever banner

Remember the first website you built. I remember doing them at university a bit but they were really awful. And then I did one for the company I worked in. And then, rather suddenly I was running a company that made them. And in the start people would argue about everything. Should there be persistent navigation? were all-flash sites bad? how about skip-intros? What about those ticker things that used to flash across the page?

And how should you do the coding? Make sure all your fonts are fixed size, and be brilliant with tables. Remember: It’s all about the home page.

And then accessibility was a thing, and then standards. And then we started sneering at people that couldn’t build a website without using tables, or who used fixed fonts. And then it was all about buttons and big fonts. And for a while there, it all seemed to be about being ugly, and then simple, and should it even have a logo any more? And wasn’t persistent navigation a bit tired, and surely users are now clever enough to navigate more complex interfaces.

Every year we think we’ve codified one more chunk, got closer to having all the design patterns sorted out. And every year we get new and – it has to be said – interesting challenges to think about. Does save make sense any more? Do we even care about the home page any more? Is Google your most important user?

Well I think the next one’s going to be bigger, more conceptually difficult, require more complex teams to figure out, and be the beginning of the end of the period where you can work out what to do by just looking at your competitors. It will also be a bitter showdown between the big web agencies (who build where the user ends up) and the digital marketing agencies (who try to get them there), finally standing squarely on each others’ turf.

Because the next phase is where we let go of the concept of domain. It’s about thinking about the users’ lifecycle as needing managing before they even get to you. It’s a question about thinking about the opportunities to capture intent in more than search engine landing pages. And it’s going to be a question of becoming a lot more sophisticated in thinking about what content you will share, how you will consume and repurpose content, and how your users will see your brand.

Possibly my favorite factoid about the internet is that 50% of all searches on Yahoo! (and they must love this) are for the word ‘Google’. In a world where the average punter doesn’t know – or doesn’t care – to this extent, but they are willing to tell Google or all of their facebook friends that they’re looking for a new car or interested in a boob job, the way in which we concieve of capturing and converting intent just became a whole lot more interesting. And so did CRM (or rather the management of a users lifetime value), and so did sales and service.

Early approaches, especially behavioral targeting of advertising have looked like privacy invasions – or as google would have it, ‘increased relevance’. Privacy will be an issue, but skills and dexterity are the main problems and it will be fascinating to see who’s got the most of those. Not advertising agencies, of course, but quite possibly the media agencies, the digital marketing agencies who are a bit more interested in the detail, and of course, the marketing teams in large corporations; not to mention digital media owners like WordPress (scroll down for relevance targeted links!).

The structure of advertising revolutions

Thomas Kuhn wrote and incredible book called ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. It’s probably the one book I studied at university which I ever think of now.

In the book, Kuhn investigates what really happens in science; how the step changes in understanding really get incorporated into the overall body of knowledge.

The view you might get if you speak to a scientist about all this, or believe what you were told at school, is that the process is essentially rational and evolutionary. As more observations come to light which challenge the conventional thinking, scientists learn to re-examine their theories and come up with better ones.

Kuhn found the truth to be quite different. He created a distinction between ‘normal science’ (in which observations which can’t be fitted into prevailing theories tend to – counter-intuitively – be abandoned), and ‘revolutionary science’ where a new comer will shake the entire foundation of science, leading to a difficult period of change which eventually the entire scientific body takes on board.

Thus we see that scientists will in fact keep adding exceptions and caveats to their experiments and results in order to maintain the status quo of overall thinking. Probably the best example of all this was complex array of assumptions and exceptions (and the invention of a considerable number of planets) needed to explain why, if the earth was indeed at the centre of the solar system, why all the planets’ orbits didn’t seem to fit together. In this phase, it is the scientist’s job to house the new information in the old framework, rather than question anything (the ‘things don’t work like that around here’ school of science).

At this point, a maverick will come along and propose a counter theory which doesn’t need all of these exceptions and caveats to work, and – grudgingly and slowly – the new paradigm will be adopted. This is ‘revolutionary science’. Of course, when I say maverick, I’m referring to Galileo, Einstein and so on.

It’s Kuhn’s book which popularised the idea that science might not be all it was cracked up to be and elevated the phrase and concept of ‘paradigm shift’ to everyday English.

And thus – and I’m sure you’re way ahead of me here – we get to our world: marketing, advertising and communication.

I’m really interested at the moment about trying to pick apart and understand the different social changes that have affected our generation and previous generations. There is a truism that it’s difficult to really remove yourself from the time you’re in – can we really imagine what it was like to live through a time when presidents made promises about going to the moon, or we were engaged in a cold war with the soviets. They’re not small things, and they define their time, but can we understand them now?

The same is true of media and communication. When I was growing up, the thought of TV disappearing was incomprehensible. It would have been the end of my little A-team-obsessed world. For us, TV was part of the evolution of man and we pitied those who went before, not really understanding how they got through the long, cold evenings.

And I think we are long due of a revolution of the size of heliocentricity or relativity in how we feel about that box in the corner of the room and the corporations who pump content into it.

Here (and here if you prefer video), Clay Shirky does a great job of exposing the TV myth for what it really is. In the time before TV, he argues, people had a ‘cognitive surplus’ which TV, with its soap operas and sitcoms filled in nicely. There’s a great Kurt Vonnegut quote on this:

‘TV is … providing artificial friends and relatives to lonely people. What it is… is recurrent families. The same friends and relatives come back week after week after week and they’re wittier, and they’re better looking and they’re richer and they’re more interesting than your real friends and relatives’

Shirky tells the story of being interviewed by a TV producer about Wikipedia and in particular about the evolution of Pluto’s page when it was recently declared to no-longer be classified as a planet, and she said ‘where do people find the time ?’. His response: ‘No one in TV gets to ask that question’.

Now, he argues, people are taking that cognitive surplus back.

Are advertising and communications agencies really understanding what’s happening here? All I hear is TV thinking applied to the web: Let’s put banners here, let’s pay these people to talk to those people; let’s try to ‘do some community’. Or these hideous ideas about getting and managing crowd-sourcing or ‘operating communities of interest’.

As with Kuhn, one paradigm cannot necessarily be understood from inside the other. There’s going to have to be a lot of fresh thinking going on if companies are going to keep paying these agencies all of these dollars.

But of course, Shirky isn’t really worried about what the big dumb agencies (as George Parker calls them) don’t know. He’s more concerned with the potential upside.

Given the size of the ‘surplus’ currently being spent on TV, imagine what they could do with all the time. More LolCats? Five more wikipedia projects? 1000 more? A million?

 

Advertising advertising

image

Apart from being an absolute copywriting car crash, doesn’t this Facebook ad for Cadbury’s Trucks campaign raise a question about what exactly the original ad was for.

I’m guessing the agency is getting a few of those ‘why didn’t it go viral?’ questions from the client and is trying to give it a little helping hand.

Viral isn’t a method, it’s a mark of success. And, if you can’t even get me to watch the ad, are you going to be able to buy your chocolate.