Saturday, August 18, 2007

The value in dispatches from the field

An article in United Airline’s Hemispheres magazine was extolling the virtues of ethnography in part because it requires presence of the researcher in the context of people being researched.

That’s not a bad point. Much of the difficulty in getting value out of focus groups lies precisely in them being a staged environment in which participants are removed from their natural habitats. A talented moderator can overcome this, as noted in The Lost Art Of Conversation.

There’s still tremendous value in non-ethnographic methods - those in which data and information are received away from the field, much as in dispatches are received at HQ from the battlefield and used to plan and execute albeit a very different kind of strategy.

Both with business and military intelligence-gathering undertakings, these methods are valuable as long as they are conducted the correct way and most importantly, interpreted as part of a greater holistic picture.

The fascination for any person like me who studies human nature and behavior comes from exactly this challenge: of collecting a variety of disparate pieces of behavior and attitudes, knowing which to keep and which to put aside and from these fragments building an understanding that shines with the authenticity of knowing deeply a situation or circumstance that is not one’s own.

One such fragment I came across today is intriguing. It’s a list of the so called ‘stickiest’ websites: those people spend most time at:

What does it mean? Well, it’s not really possible to interpret the significance of this single data set without greater context. Why?

* Site stickiness is connected to a particular type of hard core enthusiast ( reflected in the size of the segments) it’s not representative of large scale behavior

* It’s a single point in time, rather than a trend

With these cautions in mind, is it alarming that almost half the sites are for gambling. The amount of time people are spending on-line at these sites also supports the idea that gambling is addictive. The list of stickiest sites by parent company provides a different picture, one which suggests that other kinds of activities are frequently accessed by a much larger group of people:

It would be helpful is the data separated home from work. Microsoft’s domination is probably skewed by the latter. Still, the table presents some insight into the categories of behavior that people are connecting most with on-line

Cell phones (AT&T, Verizon)

News/entertainment/media (Time warner, Newcorp, New York Times, CNET, Viacom, EW Scripps)

Music (Apple, Realnetworks)

Basic staples (Walmart, Target)

The level of reporting makes it impossible to glean more however, such as email and search engine related activity.

Thank goodness we don’t see gambling dominate this table.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stirring Bulletin(TM) # 3.

For communications to be more effective, they need to exercise appropriate restraint to successfully engage an audience on their terms.

In the quest to ‘stand out from the clutter’ and ‘do more with less’ there is a greater (and less discriminating) use of shock tactics to grab attention. Equally troubling is the trend of communications towards more telling and selling than engaging with people on their terms.

Engaging in a communication is a contract (albeit an intangible one). People give their time and attention in exchange for a reward. It goes beyond the rational acquisition of facts and information, it is the possibility of a psychic reward. This is not just an emotional reward that comes from the content of the ad, such as humor. It’s the lift one gets from the figuring out an ad, which comes from active not passive participation. It makes people feel clever.

There's another important bonus not to be over-looked. Investing something more than mere attention to figure the ad out – imagination, creative problem solving, deduction – and getting a psychic reward inspires a psychological bond. It may not itself motivate people to drop everything and go an buy the product. But it creates a openness, a positive disposition towards the brand that is separate from whatever the content might be.


The Middle Ages

Communications are created to be complete in design, containing all desirable elements and requiring the audience to bring only their attention

Renaissance thinking

The notion of the audience as participants in communications is taken into account in their creation. It requires restraint: leaving room for the viewer to fill in the space to complete the comprehension.

Example: McDonald's Outdoor Board

Requires the viewer to realize it is acting as a sundial to show that it is time for McDonald's foods and beverages throughout the day.

Stirring Bulletin(TM) Vol 2.

The Context
Stirring bulletins(TM) aims to provide a frequent jolt of new thinking in the form of actionable principles that help ease the transition into the complex, ever-evolving, fast-paced and very different world of Web 2.0 - and its coming antecedents – in the 21st century.

In issuing these bulletins.....

‘Middle ages thinking'

describes the old 20th century thinking and approach

'Renaissance thinking'

characterizes the new thinking required for the future

Volume 2

Marketers and their brands need to shift the orientation in how they go to market. They need to engage people on their terms.

The rise in consumer affluence coupled with rising sovereignty from access to knowledge and choices – both driven by the internet – puts people at the center of driving decisions of what and how they want their needs fulfilled. The internet has also spawned a people-driven dialog about issues and brands that is apart from the previously order, controlled and dictated by media companies, marketers and advertising agencies who dominated the channel and the message:

There are so many examples of how marketers can change in order to engage people on their terms, it will be the subject of the next several Stirring Bulletins (TM). Volume 2 will focus on giving ideas to the people they can grow.

Middle Ages thinking

Advertising ideas where communicated at people, as passive recipients. Success was often measured and tracked in terms of whether or not people played back the idea the marketer had defined

Renaissance thinking

Give people an idea they can take, engage with and make their own heightening their involvement, as well as in the process reach into new areas and interpretations not previously planned.

Example: Axe Click

The idea of young men using a clickometer to record how many times they were checked out took on a new life beyond the original idea. Young men debated what the scoring should be, how it should differ in different situations, etc. giving it a life well beyond advertising exposure and penetrating popular teen culture

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rediscover the lost art of conversation

Maligning focus group has become something of a sport over the last few years.
Bad recruiting, the ‘group think’ dynamic, an unnatural discussion environment have all been given as the reasons why this research forum consistently delivers under-whelming results.

In this moderator’s opinion, the over-whelming reason why focus groups don’t provide the actionable insights and inspiration Clients and agencies need comes from the craftsman, not the tools. It is simply mediocre moderating.

Moderating is not about soliciting people’s opinions in capturing reactions, either in feelings or thoughts. Its greater value is in challenge people to engage their imaginations, to make them willing collaborators in evolving concepts, executions or positions. Too often, the focus is upon establishing what the reaction is and what drives it, without engaging participating in a ‘what-if’ type exercise.

Tapping into our imagination is something we all do in our basic experience of every day life: our perception of reality is shaped by it. And yet all too often stimuli are presented in a way which doesn’t encourage people to engage their imagination.

Perhaps the greatest flaw that comprises research value is the tendency to follow a linear line of questioning. Insights come from conversations that mirror the real –world character. They are fluid and evolve dynamically as the exchanges flow. All too often, the imposition of a rote list of questions comes from a client’s restrictive (yet understandable) desire for consistency. Yet what is gained in consistency is lost in quality of discussion because no two groups think the same way and evolve ideas in the same pre-determined order.

At Grey SF we’re all about maximizing the Return on Research investment. So for all clients and agencies out there here’s a list suggestions for how to get more out of a much maligned research method:

Identify a core range of ISSUES to explore not a prescriptive list of questions
This will keep the discussion focused but allow the moderator to tackle the issues in the way that make sense for the character of each group.

DON’T over fill a group with too many issues
It will compromise the key quality of focus groups which is have the time to explore issues and get a deeper understanding.

Don’t over fill a group with too many PEOPLE
Conversations are richer among discussion of six people than eight. Facility value and moderator time is not improved by talking to more people. Guaranteed, two of eight people will sit back and not say much. It means the moderator will spend more time soliciting opinions than exploring opinions, ideas and reaction, and what-ifs.

Build time in for the moderator to EXPLORE an issue ‘off topic’.
All too often, there’s a moment of magic possibility in most groups when an exciting idea emerges that hasn’t been predicted. Give the moderator the freedom to explore at least one such idea per group. It can often unlock the most powerful learning of the group. In many cases though, the opportunity is passed up by the moderator in order to follow the strict list of question.

Listen as much to what is NOT said as to what it being said.
It requires more active listening and thinking on the fly, but it can provide extraordinary insight. Once you’ve got the hang of it, after a while you will hear them as loudly and clearly as if they’d been actually said.

Pay attention to WHEN comments come up in the evening.
Avoiding group think can be challenged and minimized by a good moderator, but part of being a good back-room attendant is learning what NOT to be influenced by. For example, when the room has been discussing a topic for 20 minutes and only then do problems and issues start to emerge, these are likely to be from venturing into ‘over-think' mode rather than issues that anchor people’s reactions.

Encourage a climate of EVOLUTION

Exposing the same stimuli across multiple groups delivers consistency at the expense of maximizing return of research investment. Far better to evolve the ideas or work to leverage learning and tighten up the form for expose in later groups, than unequivocally prove why the in-going stimuli has failed.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stirring bulletin, Vol 1

Poor George Samsa. As the protagonist in Kafka’s classic novel, we might think him unfortunate. In waking up to find he’d turned into a cockroach overnight it was he who had changed rather than the world around him.

Ironically the biggest crisis facing marketers today it is they who have not changed while the world around them undoubtedly has. The one they live in, work in and make profits in.

A Darwinian Mandate
The consumer, cultural and technological landscape has so dramatically been recast that it calls for a different approach that fits the times, not only to how to connect with people but in a companies’ primary goal of building profitable brand relationships.

To do so however requires a corollary shift in thinking. Existing ways of thinking and marketing have become outdated over night. Companies are scrambling to re-orient their practice. But it’s a time of unprecedented opportunity for those who are able to adapt quickly and seize the initiative.

We’ve heard that one of the things getting in the way of companies adapting the demands of the new era is in understanding what the existing ways of thinking and principles are replaced by. You can’t get rid of something unless the replacement is clear.

These dispatches aim to do just that. By showing what the new principles are for this gilded age (for it is lined with gold) we’ll shine a light on the way ahead.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Meat as strategy and medium

While the basic dating ritual is not that complex, it’s the extensive variety of mediums used in the dance and their capacity to convey a variety of meaning that makes it a challenging realm of human nature to understand.

Take eating steak. A piece in today’s NYT Be Yourselves Girls Order The Rib-Eye suggests that eating meat is a deliberate strategy for certain women on a date: they’ll do it either because of what they feel it will say about them or simply to impress men.

For some, eating meat is a declarative statement, one of confident self-acceptance (I am woman, hear me chew). One woman believed it signaled she was unpretentious, down-to-earth and unneurotic, of not being obsessed with weight and of not having any food issues.

For others eating meat conveys character substance. “I don’t want to be considered vapid and uninteresting” Eating a salad “seems wimpy, insipid, childish” intoned one woman.

The allure of steak can also come from a desire to project an image that fits what men want. “Everyone wants to be the girl who drinks beer and eats steak and looks like Kate Hudson” intoned one. A vegetarian admitted she considered ordering shorts of Jagermeister – famous for its frat boy associations – to prove she’s a “guy’s girl”

There are other dimensions to meat as a medium of expression. Having knowledge about the different caliber of steaks suggests worldliness. Hamburgers suggest a woman is down-to-earth, low maintenance and a cheap date – in a good way.

Meat it seems is a potent medium to manage perceptions in a ritual in which impressions are shaped more by what is not said and by what is observed than by what is spoken.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Even an Ocean Has Its Limits

I recently reviewed Blue Ocean Strategy by W Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. The book’s title is drawn from a colorful analogy. A red ocean is produced when too many firms compete in the same territory. The water is red both from the intensity of competition for limited opportunity and from companies attacking each other in the process.

Blue ocean strategies aim to take a firm away from the madding crowd of competitors and to new territories of opportunity which are more profitable and – at least in the medium term – uncontested.

The main thesis of the book is that value innovation lies at the heart of developing blue ocean strategies, and presents a systematic way for companies to examine a variety of perspectives outside of the trap of inner-category thinking to create a new vision. Three key themes stand-out:
• Focus on potential from consumer vs competitive frame of reference
• It requires more (r)evolutionary efforts than incrementalism
• It needs to be operationalized effectively within a company to be successful

Despite the strengths of the book, two limitations persist:

1. Adoption of blue ocean thinking must be undertaken with longer-term business and brand vision in mind. At least for this writer, the absence of making this point forcefully could encourage readers to pursue blue ocean strategies on the basis of the size of the opportunity at the expense of alignment with corporate mission.

2. The cost and pain to the organization for implementing blue ocean strategies varies greatly with the scale of the idea. While the author does devote a section of the book to the importance of internal adjustment and commitment within a firm to make the outcome a success, there is no clear sense of the degrees of organizational re-orientation required in implementing blue ocean strategies of different scale.

Here’s my sense of what form this takes……

Hopefully this can help companies have a better sense of where different kinds of strategic undertakings fall with regards to the degree of organizational re-orientation required, and better guide conversations about resources and timing required to make blue ocean strategies successful.