Truth and classification

Libraries are no fun

Like Antony, I’m waiting for Royal Mail (or rather Amazon) to deliver my copy of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. From reading around the book, it seems it will be a fascinating look at the role for taxonomy in the new world order of infinite capacity.

The traditional taxonomies of mass storage systems (that’s a euphemism for the fusty libraries of my youth) were necessary to make it possible to find stuff. Because physical items (books) must have a physical location, we need some way to map and understand that, hence we need some sort of filing systems, and we end up with taxonomies that put everything in its precise place: Non fiction > Travel > Humour > B > Bill Bryson > Neither here nor there. But we all know the limitations of that approach. What do we do when Bryson writes a book on copy editing, or the English language, or an autobiography about growing up in small town America (all of these things have happened). Now it looks more like a useful taxonomy is Authors > American > Slightly overweight > and funny > Bill Bryson.

And, of course, we get into the bizzare circumstance where the tail starts wagging the dog and it becomes a skill to navigate the taxonomies. It becomes  something you learn in school, even though it is not a natural way of thinking. The brain is much more able to build rich adaptive non-hierachical maps of how things fit together (the packed cupboards of the Advertised mind).

In this interview, Weinberger points to the underlying belief (which he describes as Aristotlean) that there is a perfect classification of things. Of course Aristotle was never faced with some of the quandaries we have today like the Jaffa Cake problem (is it a biscuit or cake). And indeed many brand marketers are now employed specifically in order to challenge and break taxonomies.

But the bigger problem is an even older debate, and it is the most fundamental taxonomy decision: true or false. I might be able to say something is green and yellow. I might be able to describe something as old-fashioned and trendy at the same time. I can describe something as  a tool, an advert, and an event at the same time. But can I describe something as true and false simultaneously?

The question becomes more obtuse when we look at socially owned knowledge like Wikipedia. Can a post in Jimmy Wales’ encyclopedia ever be truly correct?

Again, we can thank the ancients here. And this time it’s Plato, and in particular some interpretations of Plato which place knowledge as an unchangeable mirror of underlying forms and essences. This has led many to expect certainty in knowledge which in our day-to-day experience is simply not there. If all our knowledge had to stand up to that level of inspection, we’d never get out of bed.

How many of our views could not be reversed without damaging our overall framework? What if – for example – it turned out that the world wasn’t round. I don’t mean flat, or polo shaped but, lets say it’s actually shaped like an egg. I’d carry on my life with little disturbance. So which of our truths aren’t like that. Could George Bush be a quiet genius with a dastardly plan to fool the world? Perhaps that’s taking things a little too far.

I was lucky enough to study under Michael Welbourne many years ago (and millions of brain cells ago) at Bristol University. One of his central beliefs and areas of study was about the role of testimony (telling) in knowledge transfer. In fact, having been told something by a source we trust is the source of much of what we regard as knowledge. So what has changed recently isn’t perhaps the nature of knowledge but the nature of testimony. Historically we may have had to have been told something directly to believe it (and incorporate it into our ‘knowledge’). Now we can co-opt whole knowledge frameworks, and whole authority frameworks straight off the web.

As seen on Web 2.0

Blog maps

Antony’s Map, Monitor and Engage mantra was a great rule of thumb for brand marketers looking to take their first steps in social media. Unlike most 1-line solutions it has the benefit of being usable and meaningful; providing an actionable plan for sometimes very hesitant marketers. First of all work out who your community is, then track what they’re saying about you (and everything else) and then – and only then – consider how to engage with them. Easy!

It (or this approach at least) also led to few practical mapping/monitoring tools, often called “webmaps” such as Jon‘s and one from Spannerworks. I’ve heard of two or three others, and just today seen this interesting post from a staffer at VML, who are using their seer solution to alert brands to problems (unhappy conversations) so action can be taken. The Wall Street Journal discussed how Seer was used by Addidas to spot a problem with its Predator boot which led them to provide customers with care advice. Perhaps it would be preferable for customers to be having those conversations directly with the brand but this is a good second best.

More importantly than the fact they’re clearly getting better press coverage, VML certainly has won the battle for the coolest (if not strikingly useful) visualisation.

Stop me if you think that you’ve HERD this one before

I hardly ever give up on a book. There was a Kate Atkison book my mother gave me for Christmas four years ago but that’s about it.

 Herd cover detail

Well Herd has stopped me in my tracks. This feels like real shame because I think the idea behind it is brilliant and the key insight is central to understand who we are as a race. And the author, Mark Earls, has clearly really put his back into it.

Apparently, The Guardian described the book as “Like Malcolm Gladwell on Speed”. Well that’s exactly right, although I suspect not in the way it was intended. Take the clear, insightful, reasoned writing style of Gladwell and make it verbose, egotistical, aphoristic, incoherent and go on too long, and you have Herd. For a writer who tells us there is no well defined concept of ‘I’, he is certainly fond of the pronoun. And some of the misadventures in reasoning are blinding. The works of Descartes, Hobbes, Adam Smith and Thomas Kuhn are covered in a couple of sentences each. The golden rule hypothesis, the source of language, autism and many more huge discussions become minor supporting characters in the grand Earl’s hypothesis that… we are a social creature.

A good summary of some of the key thinking of the book (and it’s application to CRM) is in this adliterate post.

In short I think the conclusions are right, if the journey slightly tortorous:

  1. People are social. They value social interaction and are made stronger by it. It is central to how we learn and develop.
  2. Market research is likely to be unreliable. Because people don’t really understand their own motivations, certainly not when quizzed outside a social context
  3. Consumers-to-consumer is more powerful than business-to-consumer (and of course, it is now possible en masse for the first time in history). If you can generate word of mouth marketing, it will be effective.
  4. Be more interesting
  5. Let go of the brand
  6. Don’t try and manage what can’t be managed. Be realistic about how much you can control and refocus your efforts on doing the things you can control – product, production etc – better

A couple of Bullmore quotes which I’ve had lying around for ages that seem to top that off:

“Brands… are made and owned by people… by the public… by consumers”

The image of a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand.”

Like Cluetrain, Herd seems to describe what is happening with consumer empowerment and brands, without providing concrete advice to marketers about how to respond (if we can all agree that “co-create”, “be more interesting” and “harness word-of-mouth marketing” are not really practical advice). It’s easy to see why many marketers feel threatened by all this, as it marginalizes or makes impotent much of what until recently has been the day job.

I really like the idea that the new marketplace reduces “gaming”. What does that mean? Well in SEO gaming is obvious, it’s trying to artificially drive traffic to your site, despite not really being relevant. Indeed you can think of Google’s primary mission online to be to reduce SPAM and to fight against people who are gaming their system.

Now look at how they are looking to deal with video advertising (advertisers pay more for unpopular pre-roll ads). Isn’t it possible to see the empowered consumer network as a force against gaming in advertising – where that could mean the telling of lies, the telling of irrelevancies or using other mechanics which mislead or overpower consumers? This means we will drive out relevance and efficiency in consumer brand selection by forcing brands to communicate honestly, relevantly, interestingly and engagingly. And how do we do this? Together, using the internet.

Can I count the ways

 I see from the fact that it is still everywhere that Ask.com is not taking a great deal of notice of the massive amount of negative feedback to its truly awful information revolution campaign. Well, aside from the fact it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, I’d think it’s important we dig down into the detail of this whole sworded episode which must have left google quaking in their boots:

  1. It’s not accessible (iframe on home page)
  2. It’s not even accessible to engines (Ask hasn’t indexed the first sentence on the main page)
    Ask indexing  “welcome people of courage”

    Although funnily enough, Google can see it – if not ranking it very highly!

    Google ranking “welcome, person of courage”

  3. It’s got that whole “fixed height” thing that people from traditional media make digital agencies do becuase they think “people won’t scroll”. Ironic if the client’s a search engine.
  4. Loads of nonsense text on the home page
  5. Dropped navigation on “Why ask” page
  6. The sign-up page is white text on a yellow background – completely unusable (am I the only person who’s signed up? – I had to use my decoder ring)Information revolution sign up
  7. No t-shirt (due to high demand, I’ll bet)No t-shirts due to high demand
  8. Flogs and fake video blogs – full on, invented human beings with obnoxious invented marketing nonsense in them (Sell a couple more t-shirts and buy a copy of Cluetrain chaps).Flog posting
  9. Some fairly obvious fake comments.
  10. Same title on every page (tut tut) and system generated page names !!! ?
  11. Really annoying interface errors (scroll bars in the middle of pages, non-standard search buttons, incorrect ident top left)
  12. The word “revolutionistas”
  13. Spelling Google with a lower case “g”
  14. Ask doesn’t even qualify as the “other search engine”. That’s Yahoo or Windows Live. Ask.com is the “unused search engine”.
  15. This is supposed to sound like the way “real people speak”

“What could possibly make a sociology graduate, a computer engineering dropout, a silent expert of monkey peer groups and a genius handyman come together? Sheer determination & a shared passion to evolve the way people search, and a common love of jammy dodgers.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and take my medicine. 

In the money

Carlsberg £10 note “litter”

The Carlsberg ad campaign has always been extremely entertaining and memorable. It’s what Russell Davies describes as generous or rich, as opposed to simply being the “big” idea of which ad men are so fond. In 2004, this was successfully adapted to a very nice “french disqualified” viral email idea (if you know me you’ll know how much it hurts to say the ‘v’ word). The latest incarnation, spotted on Flickr by Leo Ryan at RMM is a sort of piece of viral activity started offline which travel online. A bit like the Microsoft Vanishing Point game but a lot more subtle and with not all the discussion activity necessarily online, Carlsberg appear to be hoping the £10 will do more than just go into someone’s pocket – it will make it into public discourse. I’d love to know what happens, and clearly it’s all inlne with the rest of the advertising.

Yet, while the advertising idea here is big, rich, deep, generous, memorable, famous and all that, does it motivate you to buy the product?

One follow up on Flickr says a great deal

If it only cost them fifty grand (which is a snip for advertising) then potentially the five thousand people who discover one of these on a friday night will tell all their mates. Still wouldn’t make me drink Carlsberg though…

Having said that. Perhaps it only cost them £10 and they got lucky!

Summer madness

I know it’s not summer yet. But it’s going to come soon and it’s going to be full of crazy people. And the crazy people are going to work in marketing agencies and they’re going to be trying to reinvent the interweb. Here are some early starters:

Thompson ad 

Firstly some klutz at JWT clearly doesn’t know that Google Earth is a product name and not a generic. Rather more importantly is this candidate for most patronising and inelegant phrase I’ve heard for a long time: ‘read what people like you made of it’.

The site itself has some nice features and UI bits and pieces, as well as a (not bad) custom virtual earth. I can only assume they’re still working on the content. When you roll over the continental United States you get one clickable link which opens up to say: “Holidays in the USA will offer you the warmest of welcomes, the biggest of portions and lifetime of memories”.

Thompson Earth

Well I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve been there before I even got on the plane. I might explore more with some user generated content. Although Thompson would like to make it very clear that any resemblence to trusting their customers is purely accidental:

THompson Flickr

Well they can’t be too careful what people like us might upload.

The ad was in good company. The newly updated information revolution ad was right next to it. Remember boys and girls, Google is too powerful so you should use Ask.com. That’s the same ask.com that only exists now because it ran Google ads for the last five years.

Ask - the other search engine.

PPC earth tremor – 50 evenings mildly disrupted

Earthquake - residential damage

Tonight was the promisingly named “PPC Earthquake” for Chinwag(#3). Each of these events has had an unusual noun appended to it (I suspect for searchability and Flickr tagging purposes), but this little bit of hyperbole was the most impressive and misleading to date. Unless they meant it would involve mindless destruction of my evening.

Putting aside the poor staging – constantly interupted by technical failures and squeeking doors – and the rude audience members carrying on conversations during the proceedings, our host for the evening Mike Butcher ranged between bored and aggressive as the pannelists (with the exception of Nigel Leggatt from Microsoft) said not very much at all about anything.

Considering the amount of general press and blog attention for the new Yahoo platform, the discussion tonight was fairly redundant as we cycled to the conclusion that the big three would scrap it out, unless…. er…. someone else came along to challenge them.

Mobile search might be interesting, but everyone agreed not quite yet. At one point someone in the audience said “shouldn’t we be more user-centred”, meaning – I think – why are the main engines not providing better user experiences (incidentally a point I would dispute, they’re all pretty bloody good from all the tests I’ve seen). But the point did have relevance tonight. Get someone to oil the door, fix the lights and apply electric shocks to the pannelists when they’re saying nothing. That would have been more centred around tonights poor ‘users’.

For what it’s worth, I think Chinwag, should either declare itself an industry event (i.e. about the structure of the industry and industry politics, and pick some really contentious industry debates – who’s best placed to do search, an open debate on advertiser funding etc.), or broaden the debates to cover something actually new, something outside the audience’s comfort zone.

I suspect their current mild ambivalence to matters of interest is caused by the need for a sponsor, although senior people from big mouth media (tonight’s sponsor) were noticably absent from the event. This is a particular shame since 10 minutes of Steve might have made all the difference.