Agencies and Regression to the Mean

I recently read the fascinating Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. The novel is a detailed look at how the human mind functions, makes decisions and the inherent biases that we all have when it comes to solving simple and complex problems.

As I was reading it, I came across a concept that Kahneman calls Regression to the Mean. He describes it using two equations that he once entered into an Edge magazine competition for ‘favorite equation’:

Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

For most people, the idea of luck seems strange. Surely luck doesn't really play a role in success, does it? But when you think about it, you realize that – of course – luck plays a role in all outcomes.

Kahneman describes these equations using a simple golf example (apologies for the quote length but you won’t regret reading it):

“The unsurprising idea that luck often contributes to success has surprising consequences when we apply it to the first two days of a high-level golf tournament. To keep things simple, assume that on both days the average score of the competitors was at par 72. We focus on a player who did very well on the first day, closing with a score of 66. What can we learn from that excellent score? An immediate inference is that the golfer is more talented than the average participate in the tournament. The formula for success suggests that another inference is equally justified: the golfer who did so well on day 1 probably enjoyed better-than-average luck on that day. If you accept that talent and luck both contribute to success, the conclusion that the successful golfer was lucky is as warranted as the conclusion that he is talented.

By the same token, if you focus on a player who scored 5 over par on that day, you have reason to infer both that he is rather weak and had a bad day. Of course, you know that neither of these inferences is certain. It is entirely possible that the player who scored 77 is actually very talented but had an exceptionally dreadful day. Uncertain though they are, the following inferences from the score on day 1 are plausible and will be correct more often than they are wrong.

Above-average score on day 1 = above-average talent + lucky on day 1
Below-average score on day 1 = below-average talent + unlucky on day 1

Now, suppose you know the golfer’s score on day 1 and are asked to predict his score on day 2. You expect the golfer to retain the same level of talent on the second day, so your best guesses will be “above average” for the first player and “below average” for the second player. Luck, of course, is a different matter. Since you have no way of predicting the golfer’s luck on the second (or any) day, your best guess must be that it will be average, neither good nor bad. This means that in the absence of any other information, your best guess about the players’ score on day 2 should not be a repeat of their performance on day 1. This is the most you can say:

·      The golfer who did well on day 1 is likely to be successful on day 2 as well, but less than on the first, because the unusual luck he probably enjoyed on day 1 is unlikely to hold.
·      The golfer who did poorly on day 1 will probably be below average on day 2, but will improve, because his probably streak of bad luck is not likely to continue.

We also expect the difference between the two golfers to shrink on the second day, although our best guess is that the first player will still do better than the second.”

Think about Tiger Woods. For years, he was the most talented player in golf - winning 70+ tournaments, including 14 major championships. He was unstoppable and couldn't miss. His putts fell when they needed to and he got it done. But what phase was more likely? Continuing his above-average pace or coming back to the average? Suddenly, 2 years goes by and he hasn't won a tournament - was it because he no longer was as talented? That other players had caught up? That his personal issues had forever impacted his game? Or that his luck changed? In truth, it's a combination of everything, but the point is that he had above-average luck and that had to go back towards the average eventually.

Regression to the Mean resonates with me, especially as someone who works at an agency. All agencies are full of talented people – some more talented, some less – but most who are equally driven to create great work, build value for their brands and clients and do the best that they can to create world-class experiences.

When you look at the history of agencies, from when Saatchi & Saatchi got hot in the 80’s to BBH in the 90’s and CP+ B / GSP in the last decade, you can see that these runs are a combination of the right people who have created great ideas and won business – but shops that have had luck on their side as well. This isn’t meant to discredit them in any way – it’s just a fact that these runs have a bit of luck mixed in with the skill, passion and talent of the people working on them.

And, as Kahneman writes, those with above-average luck for a period are more likely to experience average luck at a later point. Goodby, Silverstein and Partners is a prime example of this – an strong agency that had a meteoric rise in the last decade only to have it’s worst week in history last February after losing Spring and HP in a matter of days.

Regression to the Mean.

Luck, especially in our creative industry, plays a role in almost everything – in winning business, coming up with the right idea, executing it well and getting noticed by the target. So how do agencies ‘plan’ for luck?

The truth is, we can’t. We can only keep improving what we can – helping our people get better, pushing for stronger ideas, working harder, not settling and doing everything we can to help our brands succeed. Get half of the equation (the most important half) as strong as we can and hope that we land on the right side of chance. The key, I think, is recogizing that luck is there and that even when an outcome might appear to be only talent related, there are always bad breaks and - of course - lucky outcomes.


The Attention War

I recently finished The War for Late Night; a detailed account of the Jay Leno and Conan O’Brian late-night saga that consumed NBC (and anyone interested in late night) for the better part of a year. While the story has many fascinating parts, one of the points that I found interesting was the importance of the Tonight Show time slot.

Broadcast at 11:30PM for decades, the Tonight Show was a steady part in a troubled NBC line-up. Despite being one of the four powerful networks, NBC is essentially run by their affiliate and regional networks.  These local broadcasters have a lot of sway and can decide which programming to air. They also all have 11PM news broadcasts that then feed viewers into the Tonight Show at 11:30.

Why is this important?

Because when NBC gave Conan the Tonight Show, they also gave Jay Leno a new show at 10PM on NBC. The result of that decision was catastrophic for the affiliates. Leno bombed in the 10-11 slot and, as a result, ratings for their local news broadcasts went off a cliff. Bad ratings result in less ad dollars being fed into affiliate budgets. Less money, results in angry partners and a massive headache for NBC. Most people know the result – Leno goes back to 11:30, NBC tries to get Conan to 12:05 and chaos ensues.

This chaos was all because of the lead in shows and the time slots. While Conan played well at a later hour to a niche audience, when he was brought forward things were different. Ratings dropped and he struggled between NBC execs and who said ‘make your show appeal to a broader target’ vs. those who wanted him to ‘continue to focus on his base of Conan fans’.

Today, many would argue, everything has changed. Time becomes less important with PVR’s, the Internet and ‘view-whenever-you-want’ power results in users having the ability to watch what they want, when they want. It’s the strength of content that draws a following, not just when it is broadcast.  

This isn’t to say that TV viewing is declining because it isn’t – it’s increasing. So is our time spent in front of screens of all kinds – from mobile to PC, digital display to the traditional TV.

Enter the new YouTube. Fresh from a new site redesign, the platform also announced that they were investing $100 million for content creators to develop original programming for the site. Google asked a variety of professional creators to pitch their channel ideas for a chance to get some funding to make it happen. Top brands like Comedy Central, Demand Media and Lady GaGa have entered the mix and are creating new shows just for YouTube.

In a superb analysis for the New Yorker, John Seabrook writes about the team behind YouTube's transition and their desire to make programming more and more niche - to focus on passionate groups of users who want very specific types of content vs. mass programming that may have mass appeal, but comes at a high failure cost if it doesn't. Led by Robert Kyncl, team YouTube is focused on creating original content to drive up viewer numbers through the platform and - ultimately - drive advertising dollars from the traditional networks to the platform. 

In his 2011 Entertainment Keynote at CES, Kyncl outlines his detailed strategy for YouTube over the next few years. By 2020, he believes that all channels on TV will be viewed over the internet (stat from CES 2011). Think about that. What was once a closed system, run by four networks, is rapidly becoming a platform that anyone will be able to broadcast to and reach an audience. Couple that stat with the reality that almost all TV's will be internet enabled in the near future and you can see that viewing over the digital space will quickly become the norm. So much so that Kycel believes that by 2015, 90% of all internet traffic will be for online video

YouTube is positioned well to take over this space, however there is work to be done. Currently, the average time spent on the site per day is roughly 15 minutes per user. Contrast that with US TV viewing which is in the 4-5 hour average per day and you can see that there is work to be done.

This brings me back to the importance of time. 

Despite the ability to watch what I want, when I want, there are still certain realities that I live with - I can't watch 2 hours of TV at work from my computer, I only go to YouTube to watch short clips (currently) and the shows that I really want to watch are normally ones that have been created by the likes of HBO, NBC and other major networks. Why? Because they are quality productions, are well written and have top talent.

Beyond that, the live nature of TV is still it's most compelling proposition. Shared, cultural events like X-Factor in the UK or the Super Bowl in the USA are always top rated broadcasts that most people feel they need to watch so that they can have something relevant to contribute at the water cooler the next day. YouTube is starting to get into this space with live streams and I suspect that they will make a play for more event-based content in the near future to start creating habits among niche viewers. 

In the coming months, there are going to be new channels, YouTube shows and events. I'm excited to see which of these creators builds their own following and bypasses the traditional ways of becoming a show business success. I just hope I have enough time to watch them...after all, it is NFL playoff season.


Wide vs. Deep

A few months ago, I finished Nicolas Carr's The Shallows; a novel about how our brains have changed with the emergence of the internet and many new technologies. Essentially, Carr argues that our minds have shifted from being able to concentrate on one topic (go deep into a book / thought / argument) to being able to work across a series of topics but not concentrate on a specific one (wide range of surface-level knowledge). Through a series of examples, Carr makes this point over and over - we are wide thinkers now, not deep ones.

With 2012 now here and the world coming up with thousands of different resolutions, this wide vs. deep thought got me thinking about my own behavior. As a planner who loves digital, I find that I have a continual need to try every service, social network, application and experience that comes across from my Twitter stream, Zite feed, RSS feed or colleague who has found something worth sending a mass email about. In the ongoing rush to 'stay ahead of the game' and never be caught out in a meeting not hearing or using a specific type of technology, I'm always signing up, starting a profile and checking out the latest things. I really enjoy doing this but it takes up a lot of time and, in all honesty, 90% of these services don't really add much to my work life, let alone my own. This exploration takes a lot of time as well, most notably because the justification to try a new service usually comes at the expense of thinking more about a specific topic.

Recent example:

In one of my usual Sunday Starbucks work sessions trying to write a presentation, I take a 5-minute break to check Twitter. An hour and a half later, I have an Empire Avenue account and I'm reading everything Scoble has to say about it. How many times have I used Empire Avenue since? None (although I do get the weekly emails telling me that my 'share' price continues to look like RIM's).

When I look at my own digital life and the specific areas that I want to spend more time on, it is equally as fragmented. There is all the personal stuff (email, Facebook, Google, Calendar, etc) and all the content stuff (blog, Tumblr, book review site, film reviews, etc) and everything just seems - well - shallow. Hence the lack of AdJoke posting during 2011 - while work is busy, my 'digital time' has been fragmented more than ever in 2011 and my deeper level desires have been surprised.

So for 2012 I'm going to focus on a few deep areas vs. start 100 things that never really take off. The list is currently being prioritized but it should be pretty simple - Ads. Books. Films. Nothing to 'announce' as of yet but it's coming. A few new projects. A few things 'killed'. All in all, a priority to get out of the shallow-end in 2012.


Breaking through our Filter Bubbles

For the last month, Fox News has been my default landing page. To those that know me, this may come as a surprise - especially for a Daily Show, Guardian, latte-sipping person like myself. And especially as someone who truly hates Bill O'Reilly.

I made this change for a problem that I've noticed in the last year - my internet life is lived within a pre-defined, personalized bubble. The systems that I use to view content - from Facebook to Google, Twitter to The Globe and Mail - have been customized to my previous click behaviors and changed based on links I find most interesting. In an Amazon 'if you like this, you'll like that' way, my streams have become so personalized that I'm predictable. If I could really see who 'my' algorithm thought I was, it would probably be as simple as my current Twitter description.

This phenomenon is not restricted to me and it is not new.

In the novel The Big Sort, Bill Bishop provides an in depth analysis into the physical redistribution that has been occurring in the US for the last 30 years. Because mobility is much easier, people are choosing to live in communities with people like themselves. Democrats want to live with other Democrates, and the same goes for Republicans. A look at constituency Presidential data shows that the swings are getting larger every year, not smaller. This physical distribution has meant that America is divided and that each side cannot relate to the other - someone who voted for Obama can't understand why another would vote for Palin and vice-versa.

Like these bubble-communities, the same process is occurs everyday on the web. Every site tries to tailor itself to each users - their interests, their past histories and the actions that help them learn a bit more about what content they should be serving.

Google is the dominant example here. Before 2009, search results were relatively consistent for most users in a specific region. Today, they are almost individualized based on over 200 'signals' that Google tracks - your IP address, history, location and browser, among others.

Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, shows these large discrepancies in an excellent TED talk. His novel is an excellent - and scary - look at the effects of personalization on individual users and what could happen as these bubbles grow stronger over time.

Consider this - not only do a few corporations control mass amounts of user specific information (Google search, Gmail, Plus along with Facebook, Amazon and Apple), but other data companies actively scrape users when they are on these sites and then sell their information back to 3rd party networks. Ever noticed that certain sites follow you around the web through banner ads after you've visited? This isn't a coincidence.

The problem with personalization is that it's really attractive - I get shown content that I know I will like, everyday. I find a few topics that I think are interesting (Apple News, Ads, etc) and I self-program to hear more and more about them. Pariser describes this in relation to TV:

'In TV network circles, there's a name for the passive way with Americans make most of those viewing decisions: the theory of least objectionable programming. Researching TV viewers' behaviour in the 1970's pay-per-vie innovator Paul Klein noticed that people quit channel surfing far more quickly than one might suspect. During most of those thirty-six hours a week, the theory suggests, we're not looking for a program in particular. We're just looking to be unobjectionably entertained.'

I believe that this theory is consistent with web content consumption today. We find something we like and continue down the rabbit hole:

'Your identity shapes your media,' continues Parison, 'and your media then shapes what you believe and what you care about. You click on a link, which signals an interest in something, which means your more likely to see articles about that topic in the future, which in turn prime the topic for you. You become trapped in a you loop, and if your identity is misrepresented, strange patterns begin to emerge, like reverb from an amplifier.'

There are many issues with our bubbles and I think that the largest one is that what most users find interesting isn’t what is culturally important. Year after year, the most searched terms are usually celebrities and the most popular articles on sites like the Huffington post are random ‘fail’ videos or 100 Bikini photo slide shows. While this might be interesting content, it’s the junk food of content, not the healthy stuff (to steal another Pariser analogy).

So how to we break out of this stream?

For me, it was the act of reading the opposite source from one news site. It’s helped but it is only the beginning. In the coming weeks, I’ll be thinking about ways in which we can proactively broaden our streams to ensure that we have a mix of ‘junk’ content but also important bits as well. To ensure that we don't lose people with differing perspectives from our social streams – but that these different voices are equal to those with the links that we click on.

In any event, I highly recommend picking up The Big Sort and The Filter Bubble – especially for the digital evangelists out there.


Google+ is here. What now?

We have recently published a deck on some of our thoughts using Google+ over the first three weeks. It's meant to be a thought starter and overview of how the service could evolve in the coming months and what marketers and brands should think about.

Written by myself and Damien Le Castrec. We'd love your feedback!


The Dark Side of Social

A series of services, like uSocial, are now selling fans, followers and views on the cheap. They prey on users and brands who are looking to build a base quickly and don’t really understand that social media is about engaging actual people, not random – and likely fake - accounts.

Brands know that they should focus on user engagement instead of how many ‘Likes’, followers or views their social community has. However, total membership is the metric that most people seem to think about first. Anyone who has ever said, ‘We just launched a Facebook page’ knows that the follow up question is always, ‘Cool. How many ‘Likes’ are you at?’ No matter what platform the brand is using, the Like/Follower/View count is the first stat that users and marketers think about.

That being said, the proposition of gaining 250,000 ‘highly targeted’ Facebook fans or 25,000 Twitter followers in a matter of days is an interesting one, especially when you consider the cost. Here are a few of the offers currently listed on uSocial:

  • 250,000 Facebook Fans for $8,997.30 (and plans to get up to 20 million Facebook fans…quotes only available by direct contact)
  • 100,000 Twitter followers for $3,479 in 365 days (get 25K in 90 days for a measly $869.75)
  • 100,000 YouTube views costs $653.60 and takes between 150-200 days to deliver

These prices seem to good to be true (and they are). When you consider that many brands use the $1/fan metric through traditional Facebook advertising, you can see why some are jumping at prices less than $0.04/fan.

The problem, that anyone who has actually built a community knows, is that social media doesn’t work this way. Unlike link farms of the early 2000s that were more of a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ set up, people don’t just follow, view or ‘Like’ specific accounts at random (even if they are being paid $0.04 for it). Accounts need to give people a proposition that shows users why they are worth following. They need to continually provide content that matches this proposition and keeps users interested, active and engaged over time.

But there is a reason these services exist – because people use them. And I suspect that many ‘social media experts’ who are struggling to find ways to be credible, due to lack of actual brand experience, figure that boosting their follower count for a couple hundred dollars is the best way to jump to the top of the 'guru' heap.

Just remember that the next time someone talks about how successful their social community is in terms of Likes, followers or views, there might be a simple answer – they were bought. Not earned.

Facebook Ads + Your Friends = Better Performance

Article first published as Facebook Ads + Your Friends = Better Performance on Technorati.

If you've ever advertised on Facebook before, you have probably been impressed with the ability to target users based on their age, location, interests and relationship status. Unlike many traditional display campaigns, Facebook lets you hyper-target and focus your ads on the people you want to most.

The challenge that many advertisers have seen to this point, though, is that Facebook ads have typically performed exactly like normal display units - they have low click through rates and are not driving the metrics that many advertisers hope for.

Recently, Facebook re-launched the Sponsored Story ad units. These seven units allow advertisers to leverage user actions (i.e. checking into a Starbucks) and target their ad to the friends of that user (i.e. Show that 'Sam has just checked into Starbucks' under a Starbucks execution).

Early testing of these units by a series of ad networks have shown a 46% increase in CTR and an 18% lower cost per fan. These metrics are certainly positive for advertisers, however they should have been expected. Why?

People who use Facebook do so for a simple reason - they want to connect with their friends and see what they've been up to. Our attention is drawn to the Stream and we all scan through the real-time stories, photo uploads, status updates and check ins that are happening within our network. In the past, Facebook has simply placed ad units beside the Stream or jammed them into the stream as a separate update. But if you had the choice to click on a random ad or a link that one of your friends had posted, which would you choose? Friends will always be more engaging than ads.

And Facebook knows this. The key for the site is to move closer to a world where friend updates and brands are more closely associated with one another. The site will always keep a 'users-first' mindset, but the Sponsored Stories are a way for Facebook to show advertisers that they are serious about improving performance.

Advertisers are excited about the early results from Sponsored stories. Attaching themselves to real content makes engagement more likely. The challenge for Facebook is that many users may not want to have their updates repackaged and sold to brands without their knowledge or consent.


Does Your Tweeting Need a Buffer?

Article first published as Does Your Tweeting Need A Buffer? on Technorati.

Have you heard about Buffer? Buffer is an application that makes tweeting easier. If you’ve used apps like CoTweet or Hootsuite, you’re used to publishing services that allow you to schedule Tweets to be posted on different days and at different times.

Buffer is different, though, in a few important ways. For starters, it gives users a Chrome extension (or Firefox bookmark add on) that allows users to save links that the find while surfing to Tweet then or at a later time. As a browser who views hundreds of pages in a week, I like the idea of simplifying my tweeting process and not having to open Twitter to post a link.

The second is that the tweets are randomly scheduled so that your followers don’t get overly annoyed with your super-sharing. When you install Buffer, it sets four random times and then allocates your Tweets over them. Users can set them and tailor them as they wish.

And the third is a smaller feature that suggests Tweets that you might want to post. The engine currently populates your stream with inspirational quotes from the likes of Steve Jobs.

There are also nice options to add multiple accounts, some good analytics and incorporation. In my first 24 hours using the application, it’s been incredibly simple, intuitive and helpful.

Joel Gascoigne, one of the founders, took a few minutes to answer five of my questions about Buffer after using it for 24 hours. Here are his responses:

In 140 characters or less, why should a Twitter user start using Buffer?
'With Buffer, you can Tweet more without annoying your followers. Add great content you find to Buffer and we share it on an ideal schedule.'

Buffer makes it incredibly easy to store, schedule and share Tweets and unlike other publishing platforms (CoTweet as an example), the scheduling has been taken care of with random times to Tweet. Are these times based on data that you've collected (i.e. optimized based on best time to Tweet) or simply random?
'Our current times are based on data we've researched, with an element of our own experiences. What matters most to us is to leave our users in control. We therefore keep it is super simple for them to go ahead and adjust the timing to their needs.'

Suggest a Tweet is an interesting feature. Right now it currently provides the user with great quotes. How do you see this evolving in the future?
'We're delighted that many people are finding the quotes interesting and are Tweeting them. What we are really excited about is that these suggestions are now submitted by our users. So it is a crowdsourced project, and has been a great way to involve our community. We plan to push this further and build more tools for our community to help us shape the product.'

Describe the thinking behind your Pro and Premium accounts. For example, you can have multiple team members. Can these members be categorized and given different publishing privileges?
'The main reason people upgrade is for extra Tweets in their Buffer, or for the ability to manage multiple Twitter accounts. Additionally, they can allow team members to help them keep the Buffer topped up. Currently we've kept it simple, but there is definitely potential for different publishing privileges and ways to measure the impact each team member has had on the quality and quantity of Tweets published.'

Global brands are setting up Twitter streams en mass and experimenting with a slew of publishing platforms. Why should community managers and marketers consider using Buffer for their accounts? Are any brands using the service right now?
'We aim to be more than just a tool, and we're always delighted to talk to brands and help them succeed with their efforts on Twitter. We have many community managers using Buffer as a tool in their arsenal to manage Twitter. One community manager said the reason she chose is that Buffer is "The human way to schedule tweets to your community. My new favorite tool for myself and my clients." We have a number of medium sized brands using Buffer and we're reaching more brands each and every day.'

The potential for the twitter suggestion feature for brands is huge. Like Twitter promoted tweets, Buffer could allow brands to insert specific suggestions or links so that users can find content and Tweets to talk about when they're stuck.

Simply put, Buffer is worth a download. Test it out and tweet easier.


Marketing for Payday

I just read an interesting comment this week from the CEO of Wallmart, Mike Duke. According to Duke, “Purchases are really dropping off by the end of the month even more than last year.” What he's referring to here is that Wallmart shoppers often are paid at the beginning of the month and stock up on goods then. As a result, Wallmart is able to track the impact of sales that happen immediately after payday and they've seen that sales, as a whole, have consistently declined near the back half of a month.

This might seem like an obvious point - people spend more immediately after they've been paid - but it's one that I suspect is being ignored by many marketers. Time based ad serving is something that a number of companies have been experimenting with over the last few years.

The most memorable one that I've seen was for Wendy's on ESPN. From 12-2PM on Friday's, the company bought a home-page takeover and filled it with product shots of Spicy Chickens and Baconaters. Why was the perfect? Because most people who are at work at that time (at least in Canada), had a big night out and are incredibly hung over. Rationally, they want a greasy lunch to feel better. Emotionally, they want to spoil themselves for making it through another work week. Every Friday (for the 4-8 weeks the ad ran), I couldn't stop thinking about going to Wendy's. Was it because of the well-timed ads? Maybe.

But back to payday timing.

Most payrolls work on cycles. Bi-weekly or once a month. We can predict these cycles and can target based on them. A well served ad on pay day has a chance of impacting and driving sale more than one at the end of the month.

So when does your target get paid? And what will they splurge on right after the deposit goes into their account?


Expectation + Experience = Value in Digital

What is 'value to the user' and how would you define it?

It's something that a lot of digital people talk about but few have actually explored a full definition of what 'value' is. The most common way that I hear value defined is in rational, economic terms - value is the rational exchange of something (money typically) for a product. I pay $5 for a video rental on iTunes because then I get to watch the movie that I missed in the theaters.

Yet that example doesn't capture the whole 'value' of that transaction - the film that I watch helps me get into social conversations that might be happening about that film. It gives me the opportunity to participate, to show that I'm interested in the same things and too relate. Said another way, it helps to shape my social identity (albeit in a small way) and that value exchange is part of the choice as to why I'm willing to part with $5.

So how to we define value when it comes to a 'digital' experience like a website, Facebook page or mobile application? I think that Suzan Boztepe's paper, 'User Value: Competing Theories and Models' provides an excellent framework to assess value in the digital world. After reading through it, I think the process for understanding digital value can be broadly categorized in a three part framework:
  • Pre-Experience Expectations: any digital experience, just like any pre-product purchase, comes with a pre-existing set of expectations. Take an application. Before you tried out Angry Birds, you probably heard about it from a friend or one of the thousands of tech media sites that is obsessed with it. You heard that it was addictive, simple to learn and the top game for the iPhone. So you decide to try it out. You go to the App Store. You find Angry Birds and see a few screenshots. You read a few of the reviews. After seeing that they align with your friends (and everything else you've read), you decide to download the app. Before you've even played it once, you expect it to be simple, fun and addictive. This creates a value-expectation that needs to be considered prior to playing. As you've probably guessed, we can apply these pre-experience expectations to anything - a website (how do you find it in the first place? What did the banners say? The search terms? The Meta?), a Facebook page (what friends joined, why did they become a part of it? Etc).
  • The Experience Itself: So now you've got Angry Birds. And you start to play. It only takes a minute to figure out the rules, the different types of birds and before you know it, everything you've heard about the game you are actually experiencing. It's fun. It's simple and your friends, and the reviews, are right. It's a winner. The value of the game (to this point) is that it gives you a break and lets you have some fun. It's emotional and, of course, through game dynamics helps to take you on a journey that keeps you engaged for the long term. If you think about it, shopping on is similar. You go there because you know that it has the biggest selection of products on the web but once you arrive, you not only find exactly what you were looking for but get additional value (through reviews, low pricing and 'if you like this, you'll like that') recommendations that the experience as a whole has long term value. Services like Open Table or Kayak offer similar benefits. Factual utility turns into positive emotional responses. (I think that this is the most important part of the value creation process and I'm sure that most website designers / agency creatives would agree with me).
  • Post-Experience (and returns): At some point, you have to stop playing Angry Birds. You go back to work, the Tube ride ends and you have to get back to real life for a few hours. Eventually you return and keep playing. And you do this, again and again, until (at least for me), you find a new shiny app that dominated your attention for a few weeks. Like the movie rental example, my post-Angry Birds experience translates into value because I can tell people about how I enjoy the game, I can relate to those who have been playing for longer than I have (finally) and I can recommend / talk about it to people who haven't played before (for an early adopter, this part of the value equation is likely the most powerful).
Looking at digital value as a 3 part equation (pre, during and post experience) helps to focus strategies on the key moments that create it. I think that too often we focus on the experience itself vs. how the pre-experience expectations are set or the post experience results. We all want people to only spend time on our sites or in our apps but the reality is it doesn't work like that.

Value can be temporary (a great YouTube clip) or long term (a continual return to your Facebook news stream) but in order to create it, you have to first understand what type of value you are looking to develop. More specifically, value could be utility (quality, conveniences), social significance (identity, prestige) and emotional (fun, nostalgic). What type of value are you hoping people get out of what you've made?


Finding a niche

I had an interesting discussion today with one of our search experts. It started with some personal advice about a new website I'm starting (more to come). I wanted to be sure that I had every SEO fundamental in place and soon realized that I needed to reconsider the domain to ensure that it was search friendly in places other than Canada.

The discussion quickly evolved to affiliate programs and the power of them for someone with a bit of knowledge about search. I recently joined the Amazon Affiliate program and was very impressed with the simplicity of the process - simply sign in, find links, insert them into your site and if someone makes a purchase from your site (as a referral), you get a percentage of the revenue (in this case 4% with an upward moving scale based on sales). It's incredibly simple to implement and if you're site starts to gain any amount of traffic, the money can (albeit slowly) start to flow in.

But how do you find the right terms? And how do you decide what categories to focus on?

I started from a content-creator perspective. I had an idea about a new blog and worked from the content-type out. Many search experts, though, start from the keyword out. Using the Google Keyword tool, they look for 'attractive terms' (3-14K monthly searches) and then try to buy the .com domain for that term. Once it's purchased they join a relevant set of affiliate's programs, create a site with a few dozen pages and wait for the clicks to come in.

Chances are you've been to a link-baiting site before. It typically looks awful, is full of Google ads and doesn't answer your search query. Link baiting, like email scams, is a game of numbers. Get enough volume and any user will respond. If the volumes are high enough, those responses can generate real cash from affiliates.

The problem is, the quality of the experience is poor. And, as a result, the web gets polluted. Especially with public companies like Demand Media generating mass volumes of content specifically designed to answer medium volume search queries.

But still, what interested me is starting the content generation process from the pre-existing demand vs the passion of creation. For those people, the content is a means to an end - an answer that leads to a referral. For content creators, it is the attraction and the desire to be heard, to create something that people will - eventually - want to search for.

The key is to remember that the web is a spectrum. From one search query to thousands of blog posts, success not only depends on the quality of content produced but also the demand for it once it has been published. Using free tools (like the Google Keyword Tool) help to understand pre-existing demand for a content type is a great step for any content creator looking to find their niche.


Mapping Engagement in the Home

Deb Roy, an MIT researcher, recently gave a fantastic TED talk about his sons speech development. Roy installed video cameras in every room of his house and recorded - for over five and a half years - every movement, word and step his son took. During his TED talk, he shows how his son goes from 'Gaga' to 'Water' over the course of a year. Take a quick watch here:

What I found most interesting about this talk, though, was how the system mapped television content to the discussions that happened in the living room. In one excellent scene, we see how some normal TV shows - Jersey Shore, an NBA game, Grey's Anatomy, etc - not only drive the conversations that occur in the physical space but also influence the words that a child learns. While this might not seem surprising, the technology used to map this insight truly is.

We all know that popular shows drive conversations not only in the home, but at work the next day, in the pubs and other spaces we visit. Watching Roy actually map these conversations - from the medium to the physical space - allows us to actually see the engagement rates, by program, over the course of 5 years.

If we all had Roy's camera system, media companies could finally find a new metric and kill the GRP.


In digital, you can do almost anything. Don't.

There are limitless opportunities in the digital world. From creating a new Facebook experience to improving organic search rankings, developing an Android application to testing out the latest social game theories, for many brands - anything is possible.

In the 'old days' (i.e. 2 years ago), organisations with separate teams would create, test and trial new tactics across the digital space. If you think about the rise of the web in the late 90's, this started with experimenting with websites (which were mostly recreations of corporate brochures) and rapidly grew into microsites, bespoke email marketing programs and display banners for little campaigns. Then came Search, the social web and now a plethora of new options - location-based services, payment solutions, gaming partnerships, the works.

For marketers, the digital world isn't getting better with time - it's becoming more confusing. Right when you start to understand microsites (and why not to create them), the next 'hot' trend emerges. Once you do a well-thought out test, another smarter, faster, cheaper and better technology has emerged.

Part of this confusion is because of the pace of innovation. Things improve, fast. Brands like Google and Facebook evolve and give us better opportunities to engage a select group of people. Formats change. Pages get updated. And we have to adapt.

But the other part of the confusion is because of us. Every agency, specialist and consultant can talk about a 'forgotten' area of the digital space. Doing a great job with campaign creative but not thinking about search strategy? Implemented conversation monitoring but not game theory? Created a Facebook page but not a YouTube channel? And on.

There is always something more. Always a new trend to chase. But the basics are what matter first. And, most often, they are overlooked. More and more, I think we need to focus on the fundamentals of digital. The building blocks of a user experience along the journey we are hoping to take them on.

How to people find your experience? Why would they spend more than 2 seconds there and not hit the back button or close the tab? What content would they want to share? Why would they opt-in?

Digital planning is like being an architect. Someone who knows the basics of all the tools required to create something great. Someone who puts together a strong foundation, based on a blueprint, that specific experts can build from over time.

Materials change. Techniques come and go. Technology evolves.

But before you get caught up with the most recent Mashable post, make sure the fundamentals are in place.


This is what great advertising looks like

I know I'm about 4 months behind on this campaign but it just started airing in the UK (I think). Disney, inspired by a great video (posted below), has created a series of TV spots that showcase kids being told by their parents that they are going to Disney Land (World / Paris, etc). The campaign, called Let the Memories Begin, features real families and their home footage of their Disney experience.

What I love about this campaign is that it's built off a great, simple insight: if you've been to Disney World, you have a great memory of it. And if you're a parent, there is no better way to feel like the best Dad in the world than by taking your kids to Disney.

The campaign seems to have started with a video on YouTube (below):

I'd bet that the second the client / agency saw this video, they knew they had a campaign. It would have been easy to simply air this spot (which they did), but they also made a YouTube channel the heart of the campaign.

The channel itself is very low key but the idea is simple: upload your Disney memories and kid reactions and they could be in the next spot.

I don't have kids but I went to Disney as one and hadn't thought about it in a long time until I watched this spot:

Yes, it's sentimental. Yes, it's cheesy. And yes, it doesn't push the digital envelope with innovative ways to engage an audience. But if you see this and you've been to Disney and have kids, you're thinking about going there. I guarantee it.

Remove Friction, Add Value

Recently I read a great piece in GQ called The Viral Me by Devon Freeman. The article takes a look at a non-digital obsessed journalists quest into social media - from Facebook to Blippy, Twitter to Quora - it's a great look at what drives people to use these services. More importantly, it looks at the powerful VC's and incubators who take ideas from smart, young, enterpenuers and turn them into massive companies.

Brian Pokorny, an angel-investor, is interviewed in the later part of the article and discusses how he evaluates 'social' companies. The core of his thinking is about services that reduce 'Friction' to as low as possible (in other words, make the service as easy to use as possible and it will scale quickly - resulting in viral growh and potentially major revenues). Freeman describes it as:

'Friction is what you don't want. Friction is what keeps people from signing up for your site or downloading your app. Because it's too expensive, because it's too embarrassing, because it's too difficult, because it's difficult at all. The Internet has been working to reduce friction. To make everything easier to use, easier to sign up for, easier to navigate, cheap, free, freer than free. In a perfect world, there'd be friction if someone didn't sign up for your thingy. Again, FB has it right: It's frictive to not have an FB account; just ask anyone who has to explain six times a day why he doesn't have one.'

When you think about different types of friction on the web, there are many - it takes time to register a profile, to validate an email address, to go through steps. But beyond that, it takes time to think of a photo to upload to Facebook or even a 140 character Tweet to write. That seems almost insane (that a Tweet would be considered Friction) but it is. That's why sites like DailyBooth are on the rise (more on this below).

When you think about this idea, it makes complete sense. The more friction (or steps) that you make me go through, the less chance you have of making me complete the journey. When you apply this to a site journey or Facebook application, you quickly see that every click results in a drop off - somewhere between 10-20% depending on the user ask. Applied to 'rich' experiences that ask the users to click 8-12 times and you've got a fraction of the people who made it to the landing page in the first place (which is a fraction of those who you might have been running ads against). This friction counts and hurts many of the brand experiences out there.

The second theory of Brian's is a perfect additon to Friction - with any experience, the user must get more out of it than they put in. So simple.

But think about it applied to photo-upload contests (as one, frequently-used example). We ask users to go through the app, register, think of a photo that applies to the theme of the contest, upload and then beg for votes. If they're lucky, they will look at the other photo's that users have uploaded and be entertained. But in reality, they won't. They'll just canvass votes or - more commonly - forget about the experience.

Reducing friction and adding value are buzzwords of the digital world. But just because everyone talks about them doesn't mean that they are actually being applied to experiences.

As an aside, I've started using a few sites mentioned in the article, specifically:
  • Dailybooth: One of the easiest experiences I've had. Create a profile, take a picture of yourself. Upload. People comment. Repeat. Hugely popular among mobile users. It's like a mix of Flickr and Twitter but easier to use than both.
  • Blippy: It was scary to give my iTunes password, Gmail and Credit Details, but I'm intersted to see how live, social tracking of my purchases changes my behaviour. I figure I'll either delete the account in a few days or be obsessed for the year.
Test them out if you've got a sec.

Oh the irony

Want to go to the 'cutting edge of tech innovation?' Head to CES. Here's something interesting though. Among the LG's, Samsung's, RIM's and Motorola's, you'll find the gaming section. And in the gaming section, you'll find this:

That's right. A gaming chair. Also known as a 'stay single' chair. Functions include:
  • 2 CD racks (seriously?)
  • 2 can holders (for your pops most likely as 12 year olds can rarely find someone to buy beer)
  • Guitar Hero Guitar Strap on the back
  • Game pouch
  • Various pouches to store additional items (HDMI cables, why not?! Drumsticks? Of Course?!)

CES has thousands of people walk though it. You play with every gadget imaginable. Things that haven't hit the market and won't for months. But any vendor can get into CES - even ones who sew pockets to an Ikea chair and fill them with XBox games. Amazing.


11 Stats from CES

Remember all the posts I promised about CES right when I got there? I know, I lied. I'm sorry. Just a whirlwind. Here, though, are a few stats that I heard at the various sessions and booths at the conference (sorry, can't remember the names of most people):
  • Samsung's Application Store has over 105 million downloads (from VP Innovation at Samsung on a panel) This shocked me. With the emergence of Smart TV's, the proliferation of applications will continue to grow.
  • Habbo Hotel has 9 million active monthly teens on the site and over 200 million registered characters (Head of Habbo New Biz)
  • GameStop, the largest bricks and mortar game retailer in the world, CEO said that 50% of their game revenue in 2010 was for PS2 games - a system that hasn't been made in several years (a reminder for all of us on the innovation curve that it takes a lot of time for the early majority to adopt new technologies)
  • Netflix video streaming accounts for 20% of all streaming in the US (CNet)
  • The average American TV viewer watches over 34 hours of TV a week (Zander, CBS)
  • To that end, the average US TV viewer spends over 150 hours a month watching TV and only 3 hours a month on online video (Mindshare)
  • There are over 60 million PlayStation Network users (Sony)
  • Production costs for a Hollywood-quality TV drama are approximately $2 million per hour episode (Zander, CBS speaking about TV quality vs. web)
  • 98% of all rich media ads are created in Flash (Adobe)
  • 80 different tablets were 'launched' at CES (launched in quotations as only a small percentage of these will actually make it to the market)
  • iTunes is the 2nd most popular application on Windows (unverified)
And one of my favourite quotes from the show from a guy in the audience at one of the sessions:

'There is no such thing as an unassailable technology position. The giants fall. Winners never stay.'


Interactive Display

Loving this. So simple but cool. Nice to see someone use smart technology in a way that is easy for people to enjoy and doesn't ask them to change their behaviour!

Thanks to Alix for the link.

Interactive Display Window Concept from Gustaf Engström on Vimeo.


CES - Pre Show

Happy New Year everyone.

I'm currently in Vegas attending CES 2011. The early reviews from the media day yesterday have all focused on convergence of technologies - from your TV to your car, everything will continue to be connected for the future. It seems like we've been hearing about convergence for a long time now and I'm interested to see how brands continue the story during the show.

Major areas that I've already noticed gaining coverage include:

1. 3D everything - every brand has launched something that is 3D, whether its a TV, camcorder or camera. This continues to be a major focus area for the show and all manufacturers are battling for the best, thinnest, clearest and most advanced 3D experience. While I think that 3D from a tech standpoint is cool, it's the content providers who need to start creating in the new tech. Only then will 3D become mass (and many people have a huge issue with the glasses, it seems)

2. Internet TV - from Google TV to Sony to LG, truly web-enabled TV's will become the standard this year. For me, the multitasking aspect of the experience will be critical. I currently watch TV with a iPad and laptop going in the living room. I need multiple screens and wouldn't ant one experience (ie. Watching Inception) to be hurt by another (Twitter notification in the screen).

3. Mobile - again, no surprise. 4G is getting a lot of press and so are the plethora of new tablets that are launching. This space is the most interesting to me because the mobile is by far the most important device that most people will have.

If you'd like me to check out any specific products or brands while I'm here or want me to ask any questions, please leave any in the comment section.

In any event, it should be an interesting show and I'll try to post regular updates.


Possibility is easy, Execution isn't

Over the last few weeks, I've read Kevin Kelly's masterpiece, What Technology Wants. If you are at all interested in technology, the future, our past and where everything could be going, you've got to read this work. It's filled with enough insight to warrant a new blog (which I'm thinking about doing) but for now, I wanted to focus on one thought in it.

One of the early chapters deals with the idea that innovation is inevitable - there are examples throughout history that the same discoveries - the lightbulb, the camera, the telephone - were discovered independently by multiple inventors in the same time period. During this chapter, Kelly shows the Inverted Pyramid of Invention which polymath and serial inventor Danny Hillis describes in detail:

"There might be tens of thousands of people who conceive the possibility of the same invention at the same time. But less than one in ten of them imagines how it might be done. OF these who see how to do it, only one in ten will actually think through the practical details and specific solutions. Of these, only one in ten will actually get the design to work for very long. And finally, usually only one of all those many thousands with the idea will get the invention to stick in the culture."

When I read this example, I couldn't help but think of the agency creative process - starting with high level concepts (anything is possible!), selling the high level idea and then starting to work through the core details (well, not anything...), working through feedback towards a prototype (is this even doable?), banging out a half-functioning execution (at least we got it done!), launching and hoping that a mass of people will accept it (..they didn't, but it's not our fault!). And restarting the process again.

Those in digital know that execution is just as important as the creative concept itself. Anyone can think of the possibility of an aggregated content site that magically tailors content to any users desires without them asking anything, but few - other than Google - can actually build, execute and launch it.

More and more, a focus on finding the people who can generate an idea of how it works, outline the details required, build a prototype and enable adoption has become more critical.

Because most agencies are great at the 'Thought of Possibility'. We are creative, at the highest level, and can imagine great experiences. But moving down one level (let alone four) is a massive challenge - and one that if we don't answer, will leave us confined to the corners of a pub where we host nightly 'what if we did this?' conversations that quickly lead nowhere.

This isn't to suggest that creativity is not important. To quote Kelly in a later (unrelated but still relevant) passage:

'And because we cannot image it [a life without technology], it will never happen, because nothing has ever been created without being imagined first.'

Imagination is vital. It creates possibilities and ideas. But a possibility is not a prototype.

What do you think? How could we get better at taking a great possibility and distilling it through the Pyramid of Invention?

The Power of Imprinting: 80,300 Minutes

A few weeks ago, I finished Dan Ariely's excellent book Predictibly Irrational. A number of ideas and posts will come from this great book but one that jumped out at me was the idea of imprinting.

The wikipedia definition of imprinting is as follows:

'Imprinting is the term used in psychology and ethology to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behaviour. It was first used to describe situations in which an animal or person learns the characteristics of some stimulus, which is therefore said to be "imprinted" onto the subject.'

The way that Ariely describes this is through a very simple example - going to Starbucks for the first time.

For many people (myself included), going to Starbucks 4-6 times a week is a routine. But why is this the case?

To be honest, I don't remember the first time I went into a Starbucks and I don't remember what I ordered. But I do know that when I first when into the coffee shop, my rational thought pattern when something like this:

A. I'm thirsty for a coffee (or something)
B. This place is right on the corner
C. I know people who love it here
D. I'll try it out even though it seems over priced
E. If I don't like it, I'll stop going.

Trying out Starbucks - at that moment - wasn't a big deal to me. It was a one-off. But immediately after that experience, I now had an imprinted version of Starbucks (an expectation) that then led to a routine that has cost me thousands of dollars and lasted for year over 8 years. It was an experience that made me feel good (warm cup/good taste), comfortable (quick break before the day really starts) and prepared for success (start the day well and it will be a good one). That first experience led to a chain of events that not only changed my daily behavior (from no coffee each morning to 'must have or else')

Extend this concept to the web. The first time I created a Facebook profile I viewed it as a test. A friend of mine was raving about the site and said that I needed to try it. After resisting for a few weeks I thought, 'I'll give it a shot for an hour or two'. That was on December 15th, 2006 (the first day when I uploaded a profile picture).

It's been almost 4 years since then and I can't remember a day where I haven't checked the site - either for work or personal - on my computer or mobile. Like Starbucks, I start my day with it - run through brand pages I'm a part of and, of course, check through the News Feed to see what my 590 friends have been up to.

The average user spends about 55 minutes on the site based on recent Facebook data. Consider that number in relation to the 1,460 days I've spent since I registered my profile. Some days I'll only spend a few minutes, others (due to work) I might spend a few hours. But let's take 55 minutes as the average and multiply it across 4 years.

80,300 minutes. Looking at that staggering number another way, that's over 55 days solid on Facebook since I joined (3.8% of my time over the last four years has been dedicated to creeping photo's and updating streams on Facebook).

Whether or not it's been 'worth it' is a topic for another post but the important thing, for me, is going back to December 15th, 2006. Opening the computer, searching for Facebook and starting a profile in less than a minute.

Just like Starbucks, that first experience led to a fundamental change in my behaviour - and something that took less than a minute to start, has taken over 55 days of my time since.

The next time you think about 'just trying something' once, remember that it might not be easy to stop after that first experience has been imprinted on your mind.


Pure Advertising from Dior

Being a guy who lives for digital advertising, I've found myself in rooms wishing that big TV budgets were being spent on other things - strong social campaigns, digital out of home ideas that create a big impact, excellent (long term) site experiences that can be built on over time - you know, the usual list of stuff.

Sometimes when I watch a TV spot or campaign, I wonder how much it cost and how that money could have been spent elsewhere. The dollars (or pounds) get added up in my head and I (mostly foolishly) wonder what the ROI on a specific spot would be.

I've got to say, though, that in the world of digital and clients who want less TV and more platforms, tests and experiences, perfume advertising remains one of the purist in terms of old-school thinking: big, expensive films that focus on weird, emotional little vinnietes and stories. Most leave the viewer with a 'WTF?' expression on their face.

In the UK during the holiday's, literally every break contains 2-3 30 second spots featuring international stars. The one that really caught me is for Dior featuring Jude Law. After some searching, I found out that the 30 was actually a cut-down from a 4-minute film that was directed by Guy Richie. It's something out of the mid-80's; extremely well-shot, weird, great track (Muse) and some shots that you don't forget. Check it out here:

I've watched it 3 times and I still can't say whether I even like it. It is so over the top, so expensive, so ridiculous that it's almost, well, awesome. I've never considered buying a perfume product before but if it makes me feel half as good as Jude Law driving at 5am through the streets of Paris, I might need to get to the nearest John Lewis as soon as possible.

Could I have bought this as a client? I don't know. Especially considering the price was probably well over 3 million pounds to get this crew together for a few days. But sometimes we have to remember where this industry came from - emotional, strange, short ideas that make you notice and consider a product you'd never heard of before.

What do you think? Brutal or great?


CBS Chris Henry Thanksgiving Story

Because I'm now over in London, I pretty much miss the traditional American Thanksgiving Thursday that features 3 NFL games. One of my favorite parts of that day is the stories that get told about the NFL teams, the broadcaster crews and the people who are most interested in the game.

The top story - by far - that day was one that CBS put together about Chris Henry. Henry, only 26, passed away last year during the season and his team, the Cincinnati Bengals, as well as the NFL was struck by the tragedy for the remainder of the season.

CBS put together a story about Henry's mother and the legacy that he's left behind. If you don't tear up while watching this, there's something wrong with you:

What I love about this piece isn't just that it's a great story - it's that it is told in a superb way. Although follows a typical narrative, it's incredibly personal and uses the medium perfectly. It is also, to me, the definition of great content: the minute after you see it, you can't help but share it.


Apps - In Our Own Words

I recently came across a great script that the developer of Instapaper wrote in his spare time that highlights some great insights about how we rate apps. The script was designed to crawl through the US Apple App store for the top 100 applications for every category and compile the most common words from the 1-star and 5-star reviews.

Here is the list of the most common reviews from the 5-star group:
  • Awesome, worth, thanks, amazing, simple, perfect, price, everything, ever, must, ipod, before, found, store, never, recommend, done, take, always, touch
And here is the list from the 1-star group:
  • Waste, money, crashes, tried, useless, nothing, paid, open, deleted, downloaded, didn't, says, stupid, anything, actually, account, bought, apple, already
What jumped out at me when I first read this list was that positive reviews really confirmed a lot of the terms that you commonly associate with strong digital experiences - simple, awesome, always, perfect. Applications that are associated with those words have been carefully crafted and thought through. They haven't been rushed to market and they aren't just extensions of something that already exists - they are unique to the device, to the system and to the expectations of the user.

On the flip side, apps that got the worst reviews were summarized in the language of disappointment - waste, useless, stupid, crashes.

Breaking through in the application market is just as (if not more) difficult as doing so on a site. When I consider my own application usage on my iPad / iPhone, if the application isn't awesome or simple within the first five minutes, I'm done. Research into application usage reflects that I'm not alone. Most apps are deleted within the first 30 days of their download. People try them, get bored, and move on.

The interesting insight about applications, though, is that we can rate all of them in the same place where they are downloaded. Imagine if the same was possible for every brand website that's ever existed? I suspect we'd see a lot of the same words associated to the 1-star reviews that we get on apps. If only we had a place to put them.