Jan 12

Shift 1 – Exponentially increasing information will dramatically change marketing

When I was growing up, we had a set of encyclopedias in our house. I often looked at these encyclopedias as a child, and thought that if I read all of them, I’d know almost everything (Of course, I never did read all of them). The access I had to information was bounded by what was printed, and available in local bookstores and libraries. The limit to the amount of information I could access was tangible. That world has irreversibly changed.

Thanks to the web, our access to information is increasing exponentially, and is not going to stop. A single query into a search engine produces millions of results. People are adding information to Wikipedia faster than we can read it: 1000 unique articles are added every day, on top of all the edits and additions to existing articles. We’re creating 2000 tweets per second, 48 hours of YouTube uploads per minute. In 2002, we recorded and replicated 23 exabytes of information. We now record and transfer that much information every 7 days.

This increase in the information we can access has two important side effects:

1. The capacity for information processing and memory is not increasing at anywhere close to the same rate. In fact, it’s barely increasing at all. Our capacity for processing information and remembering it, has formed over tens of thousands of years of evolution. In this sea of information, people often complain of “information overload” and although the amount of information we can now access is unprecedented, the feeling that we’re drowning in information is not new. In fact, it was first felt and described after the invention of the printing press. The word “deluge”, which means a sense of drowning, was a common metaphor for information in the 1600s.

2. This increase in information will have a profound impact on the world of marketing and advertising. Over the past 50 years, the predominant model in advertising has been to attract people’s attention – mostly by interruption, sometimes by surprising people with a juxtaposition of different aspects of society, creating new memes. Marketers and advertisers built systems that interrupted people from what they are currently focused on, to get them to focus on something else. We have long lived in a world where our TV shows are interrupted, our magazine articles are interrupted, our car journey is interrupted. If billboards were invented today, we wouldn’t know what they are because they would be banned by the road safety authority. The exponential increase in information we can access, combined with the fact that our brain has limited processing capability, means that a strategy based on interruption is now a race to the bottom. More advertisers, delivering more information, in an already overwhelming sea of information, competing for the same volume of attention. This ends badly for everybody.

While it’s important to understand the increase in information and the static nature of our brain’s processing capabilities, the critical thing to understand is how these relate to what is holding people’s attention. We’re watching less TV, and spending more time online. We’re spending less time online consuming content from broadcasters and businesses, and more time communicating with other people – most often with our friends. Advertisers are competing for people’s attention by going head to head with those peoples’ friends. It’s easy to see who wins here – we care a lot more about our friends and family than about what brands have to say, no matter how interesting or relevant the message. It’s annoying but acceptable to interrupt a TV episode of Friends, it’s not acceptable to interrupt a conversation amongst real-life friends.

In this eco-system, interruption is never a good experience. Imagine being at a party, talking to friends, and being interrupted by someone you didn’t know well, who immediately tried to change the topic of conversation to something that revolves around themselves. We have words to describe those kinds of people, and they’re not pretty.

Marketing and advertising is about to experience a paradigm shift. In 5 (maybe 10) years, we won’t see much advertising built on interruption because our information overloaded world will have rendered it ineffective and inefficient. All advertising will be context sensitive, personalized, and relevant. The distribution channels for this advertising are the technologies being invented now.

This post is the first in a series describing five huge shifts happening now.

Dec 11

How to understand Facebook: Use it.

One of the most common set of questions I’m asked by people trying to understand the rise of the social web, and how it will impact their business is:

Is Facebook a fad? Why do people spend so much time using it?
How does Facebook work? Why are businesses on it?

In almost all cases where these set of questions arise, the person asking me doesn’t really use Facebook. My advice to them is simple. Start using Facebook every day. Look at what people are doing. Think about what they are not doing. Look at what businesses are doing. Look at what they are not doing. Study businesses that have high engagement (look at the ‘people talking about this’ number on their page) and figure out why. Look for patterns across posts that have high engagement.

It always surprises me when I hear from very successful business people who are trying to understand Facebook by reading third party reports about it. You won’t learn much about Facebook by reading NYT or WSJ articles about it.

Same goes for Twitter, Google+, etc. I’m shocked at how many people mention Facebook and Twitter in the same breath as if they are the same. People are using these two platforms in completely different ways. Facebook is for communication with people you know in real life. Twitter is a way to get information about celebrities, sports personalities and news outlets that you care about. The vast majority of active Twitter users have never posted a tweet. The same appears to be true for Google+. It is unlike Facebook or Twitter. The people who are using it, are using it as a way to connect with people they don’t know in real life around niche hobbies, currently skewed heavily towards technology and photography.

It also surprises me when I hear from people building on the Facebook platform who don’t understand how it works. People complain that it changes too often. This is an understandable complaint, but it’s not going to change. This is the world we now live in. The only certainty is that things will continue to change fast.

The only way to understand a new type of media is to spend time embedded in it. Get your hands dirty. The future of your business probably depends on it.

Dec 11

Stop talking about “social”

As I read, watch and listen to other people describe the changes in our industry, I’m consistently seeing two problems:
- Not enough people are recognizing that the web is being fundamentally rebuilt around people, and that this is going to change how all of us do business.
- Too many of the people who are thinking about social, are thinking about it as a distinct entity.

Let me show you an example of each.

I really like A List Apart. But in their reader’s review of 2011, where their readers talked about the biggest changes they saw in 2011, I think they missed the biggest change of all – that the web is being rebuilt around people. They talked about apps, mobile first, emotional design, measurement. But social design was a glaring omission. All designers should be recognizing, and should be on top of, this shift. Yes, “social” has become a buzzword, and there are many charlatans selling themselves as “social media gurus”. But this shift is very, very real.

At Le Web a couple of weeks ago, George Colony, the CEO of Forrester, gave an interesting talk where he described three social thunderstorms. The first and third thunderstorms were interesting – moving from browsers to local apps interacting with the cloud*, and the rise of social design within enterprises. But the second thunderstorm is where George missed the same shift as the readers of A List Apart.

George misunderstands the shift with the social web. He said “social” is:
- Running out of hours: people have a finite amount of time in the day and are already interacting with social applications more than many other activities such as exercising.
- Running out of people: penetration of people interacting with social applications is hitting 80 to 90% so doesn’t have much room to grow.

This analysis makes no sense. Social is not a feature. Social is not an application. Social is a deep human motivation that drives our behaviour almost every second that we’re awake. It doesn’t matter if we’re online or offline, on a browser or using an app. Humans are social creatures. George says 86% of US online consumers are social, and describes a “post-social” world. Again, this makes no sense. 100% of online consumers in every country in the world are social because it’s deep in our DNA to make connections and interact with other people.

The big shift that George is misunderstanding is that the rise of the social web is a structural change being driven by online life catching up with offline life. The winners in this world will be the ones who assume social behaviour in everything they do. It won’t be the ones thinking about social as a feature or product in isolation. The winners will be existing businesses who build on top of social platforms to rethink how their business operates. Here are three recent, and simple, examples:

- When you buy tickets on Ticketmaster you can see whether any of your Facebook friends have bought tickets, and if so, where they are sitting. Simple. Want to spend time together? Sit next to them. Want to do your own thing? Sit far away, or don’t buy a ticket.
- When you book flights on Air France, you can see if any of your Facebook friends are on the same flight and where they are sitting. Same as Ticketmaster – sit close by, or far away.
- When you browse for gifts on Etsy, you can use the things your friends have liked on Facebook to filter your results. Your friend likes Bill Murray? Here are all the products about Bill Murray. This moves the experience from a random and almost limitless set of options, to deep social personalization.

These are three dead simple integrations that substantially improve the core product/service experience. The leading businesses are recognizing that the web is moving away from being centred around content, to being centred around people. That is the biggest social thunderstorm, and all of us are going to have to understand it to succeed. So stop talking about social as a distinct entity. Assume it in everything you do.

*You should watch George’s talk to hear his pitch about the first thunderstorm. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a fascinating perspective.

Jan 11

Influence is bidirectional

There is an interesting thread on Quora about measuring online influence, with some solid ideas from Brian Solis, Karl Long and others. My contribution to the discussion was to get people to stop thinking about influence as something unidirectional, and think of it as bidirectional:

The problem I see with most of the tools claiming to measure influence is that they are measuring something unidirectional (one person influences the dumb masses) when in fact, influence is always bidirectional. There is the person trying to influence, and the person potentially being influenced.

For example, I may persuade person A to buy something, and using the exact same argument and language, person B may decide not to buy the same thing.

In order to build accurate models that measure influence and help businesses understand who to interact with to improve their bottom line, we need to study and understand the relationships between people. In other words, who trusts who about what?

To give another example, if Justin Bieber tweets that he loves his new deodorant brand, we need to understand who then decided to try that brand, and what were the common characteristics of those peoples’ relationship* with Justin Bieber.

*I use the term “relationship” loosely here. I’m taking about their perceptions of Justin Bieber, how they see him, what he means to them, how they came to know and be influenced by him, etc

Check out the full discussion.

Apr 10

The fans + followers arms race

Marketers are trying hard to increase their number of fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter. This makes sense. It gives them an audience of people who expressed an interest in what they have to offer.

The question marketers need to ask is what they are going to do with all these new fans and followers. How will having someone as a fan or follower fundamentally improve the relationships between the brand and the customer? Adverts often say “Follow us on Twitter!” “Become a fan on Facebook!”. But they never say why.

What’s worse, some marketers are trying all sorts of tricks to get people to fan or follow them. There is an arms race for the most fans or followers. But the question is whether quantity or quality of fans is a better goal. I’d argue for the latter, yet many are going for the former. Bing is a case in point.
[Disclaimer: I work for Google. I'd prefer to use a different example but this is the best one I've got]

Bing ran an ad inside Farmville, offering Farmville users “Farm cash” (real money that can be used to buy stuff in the game) in exchange for becoming a fan of Bing on Facebook.

Farmville users were motivated to act, and Bing had 400,000 new fans in 24 hours. This gave them more fans on Facebook than Google. But so what? What does that mean? The quality of those fans is questionable. Are those people really fans of Bing? Or are they fans of Farmville? Many people filled Bing’s Facebook wall with questions about Farmville, and whether Bing were handing out any more free cash. Was this what Bing had hoped for? I don’t know Bing’s goals with this marketing activity, so I can’t comment on whether it was a success. I can only look at their wall, and conclude that the content and quality of conversation there, is unlikely to be what Bing had hoped for.

Before you try and collect as many fans and followers as possible, think long and hard about who you want as a fan/follower, and what value you’re going to give them when they follow you.

You don’t want the most fans. You want the best fans.