The Metaphysical Corporation and The Death of Capitalism?

Something strange is happening to companies. More and more, their business is being conducted in non-physical markets. Businesses used to produce stuff. Now, they produce ideas. A recent op-ed piece from Wharton speculated that companies are working their way up Maslow’s Hierarchy. The traditional business produced things that met the needs of the lowest levels of the pyramid – shelter, food, warmth, security. As consumerism spread, companies worked their way up to next levels: entertainment, attainment and enjoyment.  Now, the things that companies sell sit at the top of the pyramid – fulfillment, creativity, self-actualization.

ComponentsSP500_2010The post also talks about another significant shift that’s happening on the balance sheets of Corporate America. Not only are the things that corporations sell changing, but the things that make up the value of the company itself are also changing.  According to research by Ocean Tomo, a merchant bank that specializes in intellectual property, the asset mix of companies has shifted dramatically in the past 40 years. In 1975, tangible assets (buildings, land, equipment, inventory) made up 83% of the market value of the S&P 500 companies. By 2010, that had flipped – Intangible assets (patents, trademarks, goodwill and brand) made up 80% of the market value of the S & P 500.

Chains vs Networks and the Removal of Friction

Barry Libert, Jerry Wind and Megan Beck Finley, the authors of the Wharton piece, focus mainly on the financial aspects of this shift. They point out that general accounting principles (GAAP) are quickly falling behind this corporate evolution. For example, employees are still classified as an expense, rather than an asset. I’m personally more interested in what this shift means for the very structure of a corporation.

If you built stuff, you needed a supply chain. Vertical integration was the way to remove physical transactional friction from the manufacturing process. Vertical integration bred hierarchal management styles. Over time, technology would remove some of the friction and some parts of the chain may evolve into open markets. The automotive industry is a good example. Many of the components of your 2015 Fusion are supplied to Ford by independent vendors. Despite this, makers of “stuff” still want to control the entire chain through centralized management.

But if you sell ideas, you need to have a network. Intangible products don’t have any physical friction, so supply chains are not required. And if you try to control a network with a centralized hierarchy, branches of your network soon wither and die.

The New Real Thing

coca-cola-freestyle-machineCoke has not been a maker of stuff for quite some time now. Sure, they make beverages, so technically they’re quenching our thirst, but the true value of Coke lies in its brand and our connection to that brand. The “Real Thing” is, ironically and quite literally, a figment of our imagination. If you were to place Coke on Maslow’s Hierarchy – it wouldn’t sit on the bottom level (physiological) but on the third (Love/Belonging) or even the fourth (Esteem).

Coke is very aware of its personal connection with it’s customers and the intangibles that come with it. That’s why the Coca-Cola Freestyle Vending Machine comes with the marketing tag line: “So many options. Thirst isn’t one of them.” You can customize your own formulation from over 100 choices, and if you have the Freestyle app, you can reorder your brand at any Coke Freestyle machine in the world. Of course, Coke is quietly gathering all this customer data that’s generated, including consumption patterns and regional preferences. Again, this intimate customer insight is just one of the intangibles that is becoming increasing valuable.

Coke is not only changing how it distributes its product. It’s also grappling with changing its very structure. In a recent conversation I had with CMO Joe Tripodi, he talked a lot about Coke’s move towards becoming a networked corporation. Essentially, Coke wants to make sure that worldwide innovation isn’t choked off by commands coming from Atlanta.

The Turning Point of Capitalism

As corporate America moves away from the making of physical stuff and towards the creation of concepts that it shares with customers, what does that mean for capital markets? If you believe Jeremy Rifkin, in his new book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, he contends that capitalism is dying a slow death. Eventually, it will be replaced by a new collaborative common market made possible by the increasing shrinkage of marginal costs. As we move from the physical to the metaphysical, the cost of producing consumable services or digital concept-based products (books, music, video, software) drops dramatically. Capital was required to overcome physical transactional friction. If that friction disappears, so does the need for capital.   Rifkin doesn’t believe the death of capitalism will be any time soon, but he does see an inevitable trend towards a new type of market he calls the Collaborative Commons.

Get Intimate

My last takeaway is this – if future business depends on connecting with customers and their conceptual needs, it becomes essential to know those customers on a deeply intimate level.  Throw away any preconceptions from the days of mass marketing and start thinking about how to connect with the “Market of One.”

How Can Humans Co-Exist with Data?

First published February 6, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

tumblr_inline_mpt49sqAwV1qz4rgpLast week, I talked about our ability to ignore data. I positioned this as a bad thing. But Pete Austin called me on it, with an excellent counterpoint:

Ignoring Data is the most important thing we do. Only the people who could ignore the trees and see the tiger, in real-time, survived to become our ancestors.”

Too true. We’re built to subconsciously filter and ignore vast amounts of input data in order to maintain focus on critical tasks, such as avoiding hungry tigers. If you really want to dive into this, I would highly recommend Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’s “The Invisible Gorilla.” But, as Simons and Chabris point out, with example after example of how our intuitions (which we use as filters) can mislead us, this “inattentional blindness” is not always a good thing. In the adaptive environment in which we evolved, it was pretty effective at keeping us alive.  But in a modern, rational environment, it can severely inhibit our ability to maintain an objective view of the world.

But Pete also had a second, even more valid point:

“What you need to concentrate on now is “curated data”, where the junk has already been ignored for you.”

And this brought to mind an excellent example from a recent interview I did as background for an upcoming book I’m working on.  This idea of pre-filtered, curated data becomes a key consideration in this new world of Big Data.

Nowhere are the stakes higher for the use of data than in healthcare. It’s what lead to the publication of a manifesto in 1992 calling for a revolution in how doctors made life and death decisions. One of the authors, Dr. Gordon Guyatt, coined the term “Evidence based medicine.” The rational is simple here. By taking an empirical approach to not just diagnosis but also to the best prescriptive path, doctors can rise above the limitations of their own intuition and achieve higher accuracy. It’s data driven decision-making, applied to health care. Makes perfect sense, right? But even though Evidence based medicine is now over 20 years old, it’s still difficult to consistently apply at the doctor to individual patient level.

I had the chance to ask Dr. Guyatt why this was:

“Essentially after medical school, learning the practice of medicine is an apprenticeship exercise and people adopt practice patterns according to the physicians who are teaching them and their role models and there is still a relatively small number of physicians who really do good evidence-based practice themselves in terms of knowing the evidence behind what they’re doing and being able to look at it critically.”

The fact is, a data driven approach to any decision-making domain that previously used to rely on intuition just doesn’t feel – well – very intuitive. It’s hard work. It’s time consuming. It, to Mr. Austin’s point, runs directly counter to our tiger-avoidance instincts.

Dr. Guyatt confirms that physicians are not immune to this human reliance on instinct:

“Even the best folks are not going to do it – maybe the best folks – but most folks are not going to be able to do that very often.”

The answer in healthcare, and likely the answer everywhere else where data should back up intuition, is the creation of solid data based resources, which adhere to empirical best practices without requiring every single practitioner to do the necessary heavy lifting. Dr. Guyatt has seen exactly this trend emerge in the last decade:

“What you need is preprocessed information. People have to be able to identify good preprocessed evidence-based resources where the people producing the resources have gone through that process well.”

The promise of curated, preprocessed data is looming large in the world of marketing. The challenge is that, unlike medicine, where data is commonly shared and archived, in the world of marketing much of the most important data stays proprietary. What we have to start thinking about is a truly empirical, scientific way to curate, analyze and filter our own data for internal consumption, so it can be readily applied in real world situations without falling victim to human bias.

More Thoughts on Outside In Thinking

Before I move on to Carlota Perez and her Regime Transition Theory, i just wanted to add some additional thoughts to yesterday’s post about Outside In Perspectives.

Strangers Amongst Us

As I mentioned yesterday, sometimes a stranger in a strange land is better able to see things than the natives. For the inside group, what they see everyday ceases to become remarkable. It’s just their everyday reality. And, as I said, people in a group tend to conform to the norm of the group. Herds work much better when everyone is heading in the same direction, so we have an inherent drive to get along with our herd-mates. There are multiple ways this plays out, but in the end, our collective behaviors define our culture. However, as we conform to the norms of our group, they tend to become invisible. What strikes an outsider as a quaint custom or odd behaviors is, to the insider, simply the routine of their day. Culture dictates what is remarkable or what is numbingly normal. For example, our noses curl up at some of the dishes from other cultures (China comes to mind, with roasted scorpions on a stick) yet we think there’s nothing remarkable about wolfing down a couple of scrambled chicken fetuses on toast. We may even add a couple of fried slices of belly fat from that foul smelling animal that loves to roll in its own excrement. Normal is in the eyes of the beholder.

When I travel (as I am right now) I notice things about a culture that a native never would. I also notice that travelers from different countries tend to have different levels of tolerance for the new and novel. For example, I find Canadian tourists quicker to conform to the customs of a foreign country than Americans. Americans (and realize, I’m talking about averaged behavior here) tend to like to take a little piece of America with them. They are like cultural missionaries, transplanting the seeds of American culture to the destinations they visit. Canadians are cultural observers, taking note but leaving few traces of their home country. Of course, when it comes to hockey games, all bets are off. The maple leaf suddenly sprouts everywhere.

Canadians in Search of a Culture

McDonaldsinRomeAmericans like the world to conform to them, where as Canadians are more apt to conform to wherever they are. The sheer bulk of American culture spreads far beyond its borders, where as Canadian culture is still struggling to fill the huge empty spaces that make up Canada itself.

Why the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans? Actually, Canadians have a long history of cultural observance. Some of the most esteemed observers of American society all have Canadian roots: Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker – to name just a few. Of course, entertainment is also about observing the foibles of our society, and Canadians have long mined this rich vein – Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen, Ivan Reitman, Rick Moranis, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Michael J. Fox, Eugene levy, Howie Mandel, Lorne Michaels, Leslie Nielsen, Martin Short, Norman Jewison and James Cameron are all Canadians.

Why are Canadians cultural observers and conformists, while Americans are cultural imperialists? In the animal world, Canadians would be chameleons and Americans would be peacocks. I think it has to do with the vibrancy of the culture, its critical mass and also the prevailing attitudes of the inhabitants. For example, there’s a strong correlation between the military history of an nation and the aggressiveness of it’s cultural imperialism. If we look at critical mass, that presents another challenge for Canadians. The sheer size of our country means we have pockets of population spread across the landscape, rather than one contiguous community. Each pocket has unique cultures (militantly so in Quebec) so Canadians continually conform to new cultures, even as we travel within our own borders. We don’t have the same unifying cultural icons that Americans do, in their TV, their movies and obsessions with celebrities. In fact, all those things we import from the US. If you go beyond hockey and Tim Hortons, there are precious few cultural threads to stitch our nation together (and we refuse to believe that our precious Timmie’s is now owned by a US corporation – PepsiCo). Before the US, we imported our culture from our British and French founders. As Helen Gordon McPherson said, Canadians have been so busy explaining to the Americans that we aren’t British, and to the British that we aren’t Americans that we haven’t had time to become Canadians.

Carry No Assumptions

My point in this rather long aside is that the less preoccupied you are with spreading your own culture, the more observant you can be with others. Canadians seem naturally suited to this. If you are going to become an effective observer, try to go in without assumptions.

These tendencies also speak to the role of past success in clouding our judgment of the present. It has seemed to me that the more successful an organization has been in the past, the more internally myopic they are now. Indeed, internal focusing of resources is one of the contributing factors to success, but that inward focusing often comes at the expense of an external perspective. Success entrenches group “in thinking” and even when marketplace dynamics cause the once successful company to begin to struggle, the thoroughly homogenized views within the company struggle to identify the problems. They can’t objectively benchmark against the outside world because they’re blind to their own blemishes.

IDEO and Organizational Observation

IDEO actually has a few processes that rely on an outside view. Here are some examples for the IDEO Method Cards:

Rapid Ethnography: Spend as much time as you can with people relevant to the design topic. Establish their trust in order to visit and/or participate in their natural habitat and witness specific activities.

Extreme User Interviews: Identify individuals who are extremely familiar or (for my point) completely unfamiliar with the product and ask them to evaluate their experience using it.

Unfocus Group: Assemble a diverse group of individuals in a workshop to use a stimulating range of materials and create things that are relevant to your project.

These are just a few of the ways that IDEO helps companies gain an outside perspective. My suggestion would be to develop this discipline, and, as your looking for outsiders to help identify your own reality, consider hiring a Canadian. It comes naturally to us!

A Case for Outside In Thinking

girlzooConsulting as a business practice exists to serve two needs:

  • To provide subject matter expertise on an “as needed” basis; and,
  • To provide a fresh perspective on things.

It’s the second of these that I want to ruminate on a bit today. Why is an outside look at things so valuable for companies? Why can somebody on the outside see so quickly what is all but invisible to those on the inside? Increasingly, as my consulting career grows, I’m astounded to continually rediscover how different the view from outside-in can be from the inside-out view. Consultants look at things differently. Good consultants can translate that into insight for their clients. Great consultants combine that with their own experience and expertise to deliver what is, dollar for dollar, the best investment their clients can ever make.

Ideas from IDEO

Outside-in is a great business model. One of the masters of this, the design firm IDEO, has built an entire methodology around “design anthropology,” helping companies reimagine their products by providing a fresh look at things. They base innovation firmly on observation of real people, basically providing an outside-in view of the world. I’ve always been a huge fan of qualitative research, with ethnography in particular being an underused secret weapon. IDEO lives, breathes and eats this stuff. Better yet, they’re willing to share their secrets. You could do much, much worse than learn about more about the IDEO approach to innovation. Spend some time on the IDEO Resource page.

But why does being on the inside blind you to insights that are instantly observable to people on the inside? It’s not that the people outside an organization are so much smarter than the people on the inside. They have no special gift or source of information. They simply have a different view. Why?

Conforming to the Norm

As with most everything in life, I approach these questions from a Darwinian point of view – I seek ultimate rather than proximate answers. I suspect it’s because we humans, being herders, have a need to conform to the norm.

I’m in a unique position right now to test this theory as I’m writing this from a different culture – Germany. In the past few years, as I’ve traveled through different parts of the world, I’ve been amazed at how cultures shape behaviors. Yes, we have inherent human behaviors, but as you travel from culture to culture in Europe, the difference in national behaviors is almost palpable. Or at least, it is to an outsider. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most insightful cultural analyses have come from observers from outside the culture in question, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s (France) Democracy in America to Friedrich Engel’s (German) The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Canadians actually have a long history of observing other cultures, in particular, America. I’ll touch on why that might be more in tomorrow’s post

I’ve written before about Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, a keen observer of culturally driven behavioral traits. His book, Bowling Alone, provides a razor sharp analysis of several cultural trends in America that are altering the very nature of our social bonds. But it’s an earlier work, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, that shows how our social connections determine not only our culture but also the effectiveness of everything from commerce to government. Let me veer a little off track to make a point.

The Making of a Clan

Analysis of cultures from mountainous, geographically isolated regions show that they tend to evolve around the power of the clan. These incredibly strong bonds of kinship have been documented in the Scottish Highlands, the Appalachians in the US and Southern Italy and Sicily as well as other similarly geographically restricted areas. There are strong divides between in-group/out-group that hamper the creation of inter-group trade practices and formalized governments. In particular, geographic restrictions on movement of genes in and out of the collective gene pool create even stronger kin selection bonds. Putnam, in his book, documents how this prevailing tribal attitude held Southern Italy back while Northern Italy flourished. There, easy trade routes lead to mercantilism and intergroup trading, reaching a peak in the trade guilds of Florence.

The impact of geography on evolved human behavior has also been fertile ground for UCLA’s Jared Diamond. Prevailing attitudes within a tribe quickly spread, bringing behaviors towards the group norm. The more isolated the group, the more homogenous the views and attitude of the group and the more resistant they are to an outside view. Because we conform to the norm, it quickly becomes true that either the members of the inside group are blind to realities easily perceived from outside, or, if they are aware, they cannot effect change because they’re stifled by the collective influence of the group.

There are some unique corporate conditions where this internal version of restricted group-think tends to flourish. Ironically, past success is usually a good indicator of future limitations in perspective. But again, I’ll get back to that in a future post.

What I Took Away from the Search Insider Summit

First published December 10, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’ve had a few days now to reflect on what came out of the Search Insider Summit in Park City. It was an interesting perspective: Avinash Kaushik telling us that the majority of search marketing “sucks”; Mark Mahaney prophesizing that search is poised for a big climb in 2010; Rob Griffin warning us the entire industry is going through the throes of change; Chris Copeland showing us that social media is inextricably linked with search activity; and Mike Moran cautioning us that CEOs and CFOs worship at one altar and one altar only: profit. If we want to sell search, we have to speak that language.

Adding to this, I climbed on my usual soapbox, arguing that we spend too much time with data and too little time with our customers. In the panel exploring how to balance qualitative and quantitative approaches, the panelists were asked how they differentiated the two. For me, the answer is this: Quantitative is watching the dashboard while you drive. Qualitative is looking out the windshield.

SEM’s Call to Arms

So, when you mash this up over 3 days and distill the essence, what do you end up with? I think SEMs heard a distinct call to “up their game” last week in Park City. Sure, there are tough problems to tackle. Marketers are demanding more from their budgets than ever before. As Avinash said, attribution causes many marketers to “cry like little girls.” Determining user intent and matching it in our ads is tough. Matching it on the landing page and beyond is even tougher. Trying to wrap our heads around the shifting tide of social media gives us all a migraine. And if our jobs weren’t tough enough, Google just gave SEO a slap upside the head last week with personalization of all search results. Thank God the bar was open after the sessions wrapped up.

But we search marketers are a resilient bunch. The people roaming the hallways of the Chateaux at Silver Lake didn’t look morose. In fact, they were almost giddily optimistic. There was a sense that as rough as the ride was in this boat we all chose to set sail in, at least it was heading in the right direction. Rob Griffin put it this way: “If you’re any good, you might not have the same job title or be doing the same thing in a few years, but you’ll be employed. That’s more than a lot of other people will be able to say.”

I’m Not Sure Where We’re Going, but Follow Me!

I look at it this way. The market has already shifted. And where the market goes, we marketers have to follow. Somebody has to figure this stuff out. And, as I remarked to someone over drinks after the sessions wound down, I’m constantly amazed by the number of people in marketing who have impressive titles on their business cards but simply don’t get the magnitude of the behavioral shift we’re in the middle of. Avinash is right. A lot of what I see in the digital marketing landscape “sucks.” We have to get better. We have to get smarter. We have to do a better job of listening to the people we’re trying to market to.

I know we will get better. Really, do we have a choice? And the advantage search marketers have is that we have chosen to work in the one area of online that has been an unqualified success. Everyone is looking to us as an example of digital marketing done right. And we’re looking at each other saying, “Okay, that worked. Now, what’s next?”

Marketers: Shift Your Paradigms

First published December 3, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I think I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to shift paradigms.

Now that I’m older and arguably wiser, people sometimes ask me for that “one piece of advice.” Usually, it involves stepping into someone else’s perspective and seeing things from their viewpoint. With each year that passes, I find myself doing that more and more, leading me to dole out that piece of advice more frequently.

You see, there is no truth or ultimate reality. There is only our perception of it. We have a lens we see the world through.  And everyone else has his or her own lens.  Paradigm shifts happen when we suddenly see reality through another lens, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to try to understand what another person’s view of reality looks like.

In one of his books, Stephen Covey tells a story of a ride home in a New York subway. In the same car was a father with his two children. The children were running wild through the car, jumping on seats, jostling other passengers and fighting with each other. The father sat oblivious to the actions of his children, staring straight into space.

Suddenly, Covey could take it no longer. Someone had to rein these children in and the father didn’t seem to be doing anything. The reality through Covey’s lens was that the father’s obvious lack of parental discipline had resulted in two rude, ill-mannered children. Finally, he could take it no longer. He moved over to the father and said, “Your children seem a little rambunctious.” The father looked at the children, then, turned to Covey, “I guess they are. I’m sorry. We just came from the hospital. Their mother passed away this morning.”  Needless to say, Covey’s paradigm shifted in an instant.

The Paradigm of the Marketer

Most of the problems I see in marketing result from the fact that marketers see the world one way and their prospects see the world another way.  We have two different paradigms. And marketers have a difficult time putting their lens away long enough to try the view through their prospect’s lens.

About a year ago, at the Search Insider Summit (I’m actually at it again as I write this) I saw this clearly in a session on mobile advertising strategies. From the audience, which was made up entirely of marketers, there was frustration that the carriers wouldn’t allow targeting of mobile users through their account information. “You have all the information, why don’t you allow us to use it to target our messages?” was the cry from more than one frustrated marketer. I asked for a show of hands of all who thought, as marketers, that this would be a good move on the part of the mobile providers. Every hand shot up.

“Okay, as mobile users, who still wants to have ads targeted to you by your personal information.” Several hands suddenly wavered, hit by the force of shifting paradigms. Many went down. Others dipped noticeably as their owners realized their own hypocrisy. Suddenly, they were seeing the world as a customer, not as a marketer.

Analyzing campaign data and crunching numbers is not the way to shift a paradigm. Our personal lenses are stubborn things. It’s very difficult to swap them for another.  The best way carries the fancy title “ethnography” but it simply means “writing about people”. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, seeks to understand people by observing them “where they live”, in the full context of their lives. In this setting, one gets further removed from your reality and more embedded in theirs, making paradigm shifts easier. I don’t think we, as marketers, spend enough time in the lives of our customers. And unfortunately, the Internet and the flood of data available is only making the problem worse.

The Survey Says…

Here’s my last analogy. I’m a huge “West Wing fan,” and I recently watched an episode from season two where President Bartlet’s staff was polling five red states on their attitudes towards gun control.  Not surprisingly, the percentage approving came up short of expectations. Josh Lyman, a White House staffer, was disappointed and frustrated.  “That’s it!” he said, “We have to dial down our gun control rhetoric.”

The pollster, played by Marlee Matlin, responded, “I think you have to dial it up.”

“That’s not what the data says,” Josh said.

“How do you know what the data says?” said the pollster. “The data says whatever you want it to. It depends on how you ask the question, what they had for breakfast and whether a gun control lobbyist pissed them off yesterday.”

Data tends to reinforce paradigms, not shift them. It’s the understanding that comes from personal contact that shifts paradigm. It’s sitting beside an apparently delinquent father and learning that he just lost his spouse.

“What” is a Lot Easier to Ask than “Why”

In the last couple of sessions I’ve done, I’ve urged marketers in general, and search marketers in particular, to step away from the spreadsheet a little more often and start looking at why their customers do what they do. In Park City last week, at the Search Insider Summit, I urged those collected in the room to “spend less time thinking like marketers, and more time thinking like your customer”.

Do Unto Customers as You Would Have Done Unto You

There was a moment that crystallized the issue for me. The session was talking about mobile search, and one person in the room asked the presenter when the mobile carriers would make subscriber information available to marketers for better targeting. For me, this sent off all types of alarms, but in looking around the room, I could see marketing heads nodding in agreement. “Yes,” they nodded, “that information would make our jobs so much easier. We could zero in on exactly the right segment, so we could deliver ads targeted right to them.”

I couldn’t hold back anymore. Commandeering the mic, I asked how many in the room thought this would be a good marketing idea. Many hands went up. Then I asked them, as mobile users, who thought this would be a good idea. You could feel the paradigm shift sweep across the room. They chuckled uncomfortably as they realized they would be inundanted with more disruptive, annoying advertising. Suddenly, the shoe was on the other foot, and it didn’t fit very well.

Too Much What, Not Enough Why

As marketers, we spend long hours puzzling over the what questions:

  • What channels reach my customers most effectively
  • What messages will convert the best
  • What will give me the highest return on advertising spend?
  • What landing pages will yield the highest conversion rates

We crunch truckloads of data, because it’s available. You’ve heard it over and over. One of the blessings of search is that it’s so measurable. Yes, it is measurable, if you’re looking for the answers to what. What link, what click through rate, what traffic source, what conversion action? It’s all laid out for us in a statistical smorgasbord, and search marketers love to dive in. We feast on KPI’s and Metrics, finally pushing away from the table like some over-sated visitor to an all you can eat Vegas buffet, stuffed beyond the point of comfort.

But in pouring through this data, we tend to become fixated on it and think the truth lies hidden in there somewhere. We don’t step back and wonder “why” all those “whats” are happening. I had a great chance to chat with James Lamberti from ComScore at the show, and we talked about this. There’s few sources of sheer quantitative data richer than the ComScore panel. And James and I have had the chance to talk about how Enquiro’s qualitative approach often dovetails nicely with ComScores “quant” perspective of the world. As James said, “the thing I love about your research is that it tells me why much of the stuff we see in our data is happening.” Amen.

Human Hardware

Here’s just one example. In a number of studies done both by ourselves and others (one Microsoft eye tracking study comes to mind) we found that users tend to move down the search page in groups of 3 or 4 listings at a time. This is the “what” that was happening. But it wasn’t until I started looking at concepts in cognitive psychology that were several decades old that I started to understand “why”. It’s because, like most things, it’s human nature. It’s what I’ve started calling a “human hardware” issue. Often, when you see a consistent behavior emerge for the “what” data, it means there’s a significant “why” to be uncovered in the workings of the human mind. In this case, it was rooted in the concepts of working memory and channel capacity, along with the behavior of satisficing, based on work done by George Miller and Herbert Simon over 50 years ago. And once we uncovered the “why”, it lead to a whole new understanding of search behavior.

In his book, “How Customers Think”, Gerald Zaltman talks about a company that did a conjoint analysis of three different package designs. Conjoint analysis is perhaps the perfect embodiment of “what” research; what combination of factors provides the greatest positive response from customers. It’s the basis for multivariate testing in the online world. At the end of the study, researchers were confident they had found the best possible design, but were puzzled when market acceptance was much less than forecast. It turns out that their conjoint analysis simply showed them the lesser of three evils. They failed to uncover the fundamental problems with the design, because they were focused on the “whats”, rather than the “whys”.

Look for the Whys in the Shadows

“Whys” are difficult to uncover. As I said in an earlier post, “whys” are often buried in our subconscious, emotional brain. “Whats” are right there, on the surface, easy to collect and combine in a zillion different ways.  In fact, in many research projects, when behaviors emerge that don’t fit into the hypothetical framework of the conductors, (when the “whats” we see are not the “whats” we expect to see) they are ignored because they’re labeled irrational. In many cases, they’re not irrational. They’re just not understood by the researchers, because the “why” has not been uncovered. As Zaltman says in his book, it’s like the story of the drunk looking for his lights under a streetlight. A passerby stops to help and asks the drunk where he lost his glasses. He points to a far off place in the darkness. The passerby asks why he’s not looking there. The drunk replies, “because the lights so much better here”.

Quantitative data is incredibly valuable. It can provide statistical confidence to see if behaviors are representative. And from the patterns that emerge, we can identify the “whys” we need to look at closer. But it should be part of a collective research approach, not the entire answer. “Whys” should lead to “whats”, which should lead back to more “whys”. It should be a self feeding cycle.

Trust Your Gut

And for the marketers reading this, to ensure yourself a long and successful run as a marketer, become an astute observer of human behavior. Learn to embrace emotions and gut instinct, both in your self and in anyone you meet. As you go through each day, spend as much time as possible wondering why people do what they do. Develop a finely tuned ability to look at things from your customer’s point of view, and if it doesn’t pass the gut check test, don’t do it. Our emotions and instincts are a finely tuned, essential part of our intellect. Trust them more often.

Why We Have to Keep Doing Market Research

Following up on my previous post about the problems with most market research, here’s a plea why we should keep trying to get it right.

At the recent London SMX show, I presented on the Ad Testing and Research panel. Like other times I’ve done this panel (this is probably the 3rd or 4th time) I hear about skillful practitioners employing various A/B and multivariate testing methodologies. Ad testing is a definite must do, but before my presentation, which came at the end of the session, I took a few minutes to provide an alternative point of view.

I asked the small crowd how many of them were doing regular campaign management, checking click through rates, conversion rates and optimizing their campaigns based on what they saw. Almost everyone put up their hand. Then I asked how many did A/B testing. This time, a little more than half put up their hands. Next, I asked how many were doing multivariate testing. This time, about one third of the crowd. Finally, I asked how many had actually sat, watched a customer interact with their site and then asked them questions. We dropped down to about 10% of the group, and most of these were in a fairly structured usability test, with limited or no opportunity for interaction with the user.

Now, campaign optimization, A/B and multivariate testing are all best practices and should be done religiously. But I urged the marketers in the room to step back from their data heavy, spreadsheet  bound view of the world and pick up a book on cognitive psychology, social science or simple usability. Better yet, spend some time just watching how real people interact with your site. Try, for a moment, to look at the world through your customer’s eyes.

The problem with the typical, quantitative methods are that they’re all lagging indicators. You don’t get an idea of what’s happening until after customers have interacted with your ads and your site. You generally get a good sense of what they did, but it’s very difficult to determine why they did it. To do that, you have to dig beyond the numbers. You have to try to get into that subconscious mind. And that’s not easy. Typical market research methodologies won’t cut it. To get some idea of what’s required, read Clotaire Rapaille’s The Culture Code, or Gerald Zaltman’s How Customer’s Think. Do some digging into the work of Herbert Simon.  It takes a deft combination of psychiatric know how and detective skills. But here’s why it’s worth it.

For the past Century, we’ve largely refined our marketing practices based on trial and error. Pretty much everything has been done through seeing what’s worked, changing something, and seeing if it worked better. That’s been okay, as long as the channels we used to reach customer’s were relatively limited. With limited channels and a certain amount of control inherent in the process, we could do this. But those days are over.

Now, rather than a few controlled channels that run pretty much straight from the advertiser to the customer, we have an explosion of information that turns the typical buying process into a Gordian knot of unbelievable complexity. We can’t control the variables anymore. When there are so many channels, so many interdependent factors and so much of it affects customers below the conscious level, trial and error is just not an effective testing methodology anymore. In fact, it was never an effective methodology, for all the reasons I stated in my previous post. It’s just the best we had.

Let me use another example. The way we did marketing was pretty much like jumping in a car, randomly making decisions whether to turn right or left, keeping track of our success rate in getting nearer to our destination, and using this method to eventually pick the right route. This method might eventually work okay in a town of a few thousand people, but try doing that to navigate through New York or Los Angeles. We don’t have enough time in our lives to leave this much to chance. A map (or better yet, a GPS) is a much better alternative.

But we’re just starting to put that map together. And it won’t come from market research. Market research, at least in it’s current incarnation, is hopelessly flawed. It will come from diving deep into the workings of our brains. And once we begin putting the map together, it will allow us to begin to measure leading indicators. It will keep us from the trap of relying on self reported rationalizations and dig deeper into all the activity that’s happening below the conscious surface of our minds. That’s where the answers will be found.

Here’s another reason. Our brains are not only complex, but they’re also highly adaptive. As we do new mental activities more often, and abandon previous ones, new routes are established through the neurons and old ones become overgrown and eventually, unused neurons are cut away. It’s called “pruning” and “neuroplasticity”. It’s probably why you’re much better at using a search engine now than you are doing the geometry you learned in grade 9. We’ve worn new paths in our brain.

This is also true of how we’re buying. The way we buy now is bearing little resemblance to the way we bought in 1975. As time goes on and we rely on the Internet more and more, the paths that we used to use for our consumer decisions will become overgrown and we’ll clear new ones. This will happen not only at the conscious level, but also the sub conscious level. We will literally rewire how our brains decide what to buy. So the body of market research that has laboriously been gathered over the past several decades will become obsolete. And to discover those again through trial and error will be an long and potentially impossibly task.

So, a word of advice. Step back from the spread sheet now and again. Take a break from looking at “what” and start to explore “why”. Dig into things like the triune brain, selective perception, bounded rationality, working memory and some other basic cognitive concepts. It will be time well spent.

What’s Wrong with Market Research

sharingbrainWhen we first started doing research at Enquiro into how people used search, we found very quickly that what people say and what people do are very different things. It just happened that we were doing a survey and a focus group at roughly the same time. In the survey, where we got the results first, we asked if things like the position of a listing was important in whether people read it or not. We asked people to rank a number of factors on their relative importance, including position, relevancy and trust in brands and vendors shown. Almost without exception, in the survey, people indicated that relevancy was the key factor. They also indicated that they read listings pretty carefully and gave a fair amount of thought before selecting one. Finally, many said they would never click on a paid listing.

Then, we invited about 30 people into our labs and actually recorded their interactions with the search engines (before our eye tracking studies) and it quickly became obvious that how they said they used a search engine and how they actually did were two different things. The vast majority of clicks happened in the first few listings. Many who indicated they wouldn’t click on paid listings actually did, and perhaps, most interestingly, the average interaction was around 10 seconds or so. Subsequently, we’ve seen this type of behavior repeated in eye tracking after eye tracking study. Of course, the famous golden triangle study we did with Eyetools and Did It, and subsequent ones conducted by Enquiro, have shown over and over how quickly we interact with a search engine and how much of our scanning activity is “top loaded”. Also, we don’t really skip over sponsored listings, but in some circumstances (research based activity) we’re less likely to click on them. We’ve used this body of research to come up with a fairly consistent model of how people interact with search results. The results belie what people indicated in our very first survey. Well over 60% of the clicks happened in the first 4 or 5 listings, including the top sponsored ones. People generally spent just a few seconds on the page (around 10 to 12 seems to be the average) in which they scan (not read) 4 to 5 listings. There was almost no deliberation. People click quickly, and if they don’t like what they see, they click back. It would take the average person about 2 minutes to actually read all the results on the average search results page. Even if we just read the top 4 or 5, we’d be spending about 30 to 40 seconds on the page. It takes about 7 seconds to read one listing. But we don’t spend much longer than this covering 4 to 5 listings, about 2 seconds per listing. Obviously, we don’t give a lot of thought to the credibility of the search listings.

So, were all 1600 of our original survey respondents liars? Were they intentionally misleading us? No, they were just being human.

What we found was the systemic fault with almost all market research. And there’s a very good explanation for it. We’re generally not aware of 95% of what we do or why we do it. That’s because much or what we do is hidden in our subconscious. I’m currently reading How Customers Think by Gerald Zaltman and he pinpoints the problem with traditional market research. In almost every case, we ask people to tell us, either verbally or through writing, what they’re thinking. Just by doing this, we kick in the cortex, the rational seat of our intellect. But Zaltman tells us that at least 95% of every decision is made subconsciously. There, in the murky depths of our brains, predating the evolution of our cortex by many millions of years, thoughts are created through tremendously complex connections of memories, beliefs, instincts and intuition. In many cases, our decisions are made long before they bubble up to our conscious minds. The conscious mind exists to put a little polish on them and, in most cases, to rationalize a decision that was largely based on primal instincts. We may have done what we did because our flight or fight mechanism kicked in, or because our need to procreate surfaced. That’s why we chose the minivan, or the red convertible. It really had nothing to do with the Consumer Reports rating. But, being highly evolved humans, we convince ourselves that our choices are much more rational than those of a lizard (our basic brain core, which rules many of our decisions, is basically the same as a reptile’s brain).

In our case, our initial respondents indicated that they deliberated over which search result they chose. In actual fact, there was little risk in choosing a wrong link (it’s not like our lives, our family or our money is at stake), so we cut off the amount of deliberation we did and after a quick scan, picked the result that seemed to be most relevant to our intent. The lack of deliberation wasn’t lack of intelligence, it was a survival instinct bred into us by eons of evolutionary refinement. If there’s no immediate risk to us, why should we kick in our brains and spend unnecessary time and cortex processing power to come to the optimal decision. It’s not required. A simple scan and click will suffice. Our brains are simply doing what they’ve been programmed to do. And it’s not that the decisions are bad. As Malcolm Gladwell shows in Blink, often these decisions prove to be better than the ones that we endlessly deliberate over. Our brains, especially the 95% that remains under the surface, are amazingly adept at making good decisions.

But there’s a more fundamental issue here. If what we experienced in search is typical in all market research (which it is) how do we ever find out how people actually make purchase decisions?

This is a significant challenge, the extent of which might not be obvious at first glance. Let me use an analogy to further illustrate. Remember the tale of the shoemaker and the elves? Let me use that and adapt it slightly for my purposes. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, a poor shoemaker only has enough leather left for one pair of shoes. He cuts the leather and lays it out for stitching the next morning. He awakes, amazed to find the shoes made, and meticulously crafted at that. Elves apparently helped out during the night, soon to bring fame and fortune to the shoemaker.

But what if the elves didn’t exist. What if, instead, the shoemaker was actually making the shoes in his sleep? The idea is not so ridiculous. Rumor has it that Coleridge actually wrote Kubla Khan during a dream, and managed to scribble it down before it faded from his consciousness. As any psychiatrist will tell you, we’re closest to our subsconscious when we’re hovering between sleep and wakefulness. It’s about the only time we get a glimpse into those murky depths.

So let’s say our shoemaker actually makes the shoes in some bizarre bout of sleepwalking. He awakes every morning, to find the shoes nearly perfectly finished. All he needs to do is add the laces and a bit of polish. And the shoes are fair more carefully crafted then he could ever accomplish while awake.

The shoemaker really isn’t aware of where the shoes come from. In fact, as time goes on, and as he receives more and more recognition for the quality of his workmanship, he begins to believe that it’s solely due to the little bit of work he does while he’s awake, threading the laces and adding a little polish. He learns to ignore the 95% of the work that’s done while he’s asleep.

Now, imagine someone comes to ask him why his shoes are so exceptionally crafted. Would he admit the truth and say he doesn’t know? No, pride and genuine lack of knowledge would keep him from saying that. He has no idea what he does while he’s asleep. It’s almost as if someone else did the work for him. His conscious brain would kick in and come up with some perfectly rational but completely untrue explanation. Clotaire Rapaille, in his book The Culture Code, cites an example of this:

In a classic study, the nineteenth-century scientist Jean-Martin Charcot hypnotized a female patient, handed her an umbrella, and asked her to open it. After this, he slowly brought the woman out of her hypnotic state. When she came to, she was surprised by the object she held in her hand. Charcot then asked her why she was carrying an open umbrella indoors. The woman was utterly confused by the question. She of course had no idea of what she had been through and no memories of Charcot’s instructions. Baffled, she looked at the ceiling. Then she looked back at Charcot and said, “It was raining.”

This is what happens in almost every instance of market research. Our buying decisions are like the shoemaker’s shoes. They’re usually quite good, but we have little idea how they came into being.

For most of the history of marketing, we’ve been restrained by the limitations of market research. It’s only recently, through advancements in cognitive psychology and brain scanning technologies that we’re beginning to get a glimpse of what might actually be happening. My next post (tomorrow) why it’s important that we keep trying.