The “Field of Dreams” Dilemma

First published May 3, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There’s a chicken and an egg paradox in mobile marketing. Many mobile sites sit moldering in the online wilderness, attracting few to no visitors. The same could be said for many elaborate online customer portals, social media outposts or online communities. Somebody went to the trouble to build them, but no one came. Why?

Well, it could be because no one thinks to go to the trouble to look for them, just as no one expects to find a ball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. It wasn’t until the ghosts of eight Chicago White Sox players, banned for life from playing the game they loved, started playing on the “Field of Dreams” that anyone bothered to drive to Ray Kinsella’s farm.  There was suddenly a reason to go.

The problem with many out-of–the-way online destinations is that there is no good reason to go. Because of this, we make two assumptions:

–       If there is no good reason for a destination to exist, then the destination probably doesn’t exist. Or,

–       If it does exist, it will be a waste of time and energy to visit.

If we jump to either of these two conclusions, we don’t bother looking for the destination. We won’t make the investment required to explore and evaluate. You see, there is a built-in mechanism that makes a “Build it and they will come” strategy a risky bet.

This built-in mechanism comes from behavioral ecology and is called the “marginal value theorem.” It was first identified by Eric Charnov in 1976 and has since been borrowed to explain behaviors in online information foraging by Peter Pirolli, amongst others. The idea behind it is simple: We will only invest the time and effort to find a new “patch” of online information if we think it’s better than “patches” we already know exist and are easy to navigate to.  In other words, we’re pretty lazy and won’t make any unnecessary trips.

This cost/benefit calculation is done largely at a subconscious level and will dictate our online behaviors. It’s not that we make a conscious decision not to look for new mobile sites or social destinations. But unbeknownst to us, our brain is already passing value judgments that will tend to keep us going down well-worn paths. So, if we are looking for information or functionality that would be unlikely to find in a mobile site or app, but we know of a website that has just what we’re looking for and time is not a urgent matter, we’ll wait until we’re in front of our regular computer to do the research. We automatically disqualify the mobile opportunity because our “marginal value” threshold has not been met.

The same is true for social sites. If we believe that there is a compelling reason to seek out a Facebook page (promotional offers, information not available elsewhere) then we’ll go to the trouble to track it down. Otherwise, we’ll stick to destinations we know.

I believe the marginal value theorem plays an important role in defining the scope of our online worlds. We only explore new territory when we feel our needs won’t be met by destinations we already know and are comfortable with.  And if we rule out entire categories of content or functionality as being unlikely to adapt well to a mobile or social environment (B2B research in complex sales scenarios being one example) then we won’t go to the trouble to look for them.

I should finish off by saying that this is a moving target. Once there is enough critical mass in new online territory to reset visitor expectations, you’ve increased the “richness” of the patch to the point where the “marginal value” conditions are met and the brain decides it’s worth a small investment of time and energy.

In other words, if Shoeless Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver and Fred McMullin all start playing baseball in a cornfield, than it’s probably worth hopping on the tractor and head’n over to the Kinsella place!

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