Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

Is the Marketing Industry Prepared for What Lies Ahead?

It was predictable. Humans are starting to do what humans do. We are beginning to shift gears, working our way through the stages of shock. We are daring to look beyond today and wondering what tomorrow might be like. Very smart people, like Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, are concerned about what we may trade away in the teeth of this crisis.

Others, like philosopher Barbara Muraca, climate change advocate Greta Thurnberg and Media Spin’s own Kaila Colbin,  are hoping that this might represent a global reset moment for us. Perhaps this will finally break our obsession with continual year after year growth, fueled by our urges to acquire and consume. We in the advertising and marketing business kept dumping gas on this unsustainable dumpster fire. There is hope by some – including myself – that COVID-19 will be a kind of shock therapy, convincing us to take a kinder, gentler approach to both the planet and each other.

My own crystal ball gazing is on a much-reduced scale. Specifically, I’m wondering what advertising and marketing might be like in our immediate future. I started by looking back at what history can teach us about recovery from a crisis.

Both World Wars resulted in explosions of consumerism. One could probably make the argument that the consumerism that happened after World War II has continued pretty much uninterrupted right to the current day. We basically spent our way out of the dotcom implosion of 1999 – 2002 and the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009.

But will this be different? I think it will, for three reasons.

One, both World Wars repressed consumer demand for a matter of years. With World War I it was four years, plus another 3 marked by the Spanish Flu Pandemic and a brief but sharp recession as the economy had to shift gears from wartime to peace time. With World War II, it was 6 years of repressed consumerism. 

Secondly, the wars presented those of us here in North America with a very different psychological landscape. We went “over there” to fight and then “came home” when it was done. The war wasn’t on our front stoop. That gave us both physical and emotional distance after the war was over.

Finally, when the war was over, it was over. The world had to adjust to a new normal, but the fighting had stopped. That gave consumers a clear mental threshold to step beyond. You didn’t have to worry that you might be called back into service on any day, returning once again to the grim reality that was.

For these three reasons, I think our consumer mentality may look significantly different in the coming months. As we struggle back to whatever normal is between now and the discovery of a vaccine – currently estimated at 12 to 18 months – we will have a significantly different consumer reality. We don’t have years of pent up consumer demand that will wash away any pragmatic thoughts of restraint. We have been dealing with a crisis that has crept into our very homes. It has been present in every community, every neighborhood. And – most importantly – we will be living in a constant state of anxiety and fear for the foreseeable future. These three things are going to have a dramatic impact on our desire to consume.

Blogger Tomas Pueyo did a good job of outlining what our new normal may look like in his post The Hammer and The Dance. We are still very much in the “Hammer” phase but we are beginning to wonder what the “Dance” may look like.

In our immediate future, we are going to hear a lot about the Basic reproductive rate – denoted as R0  – or R naught. This is the measure of the number of cases, on average, an infected person will cause during their infectious period. A highly infectious disease, like measles, has a R naught of between 12 and 18. Current estimates on COVID-19 put its R naught between 1.5 and 3.5. Most models assume a R naught of 2.4 or so.

This is important to understand if we want to understand what our habits of consumption might look like until a vaccine is found. As long as that R naught number is higher than 1, the disease continues to spread. If we can get it lower than 1, then the numbers stabilize and eventually decline. The “Dance” Pueyo refers to is the actions that need to be taken to keep the R naught number lower than 1 without completely stalling the economy. With extremely restrictive measures you theoretically could reduce the R naught to zero but in the process, you shut down the entire economy. Relax the restrictions too much and the R naught climbs back up into exponentially increasing territory.

Much of the commentary I’m reading is assuming we will go back to “normal” or some variation of it. But the new “normal” is this dance, where we will be balanced on the knife’s edge between human cost and economic cost. For the next several months we will be teetering from one side to the other. At best, we can forget about widespread travel, large public gatherings and sociability as we previously knew it. At worst, we go back into full lockdown.

This is the psychological foundation our consumption will be based on. We will be in a constant state of anxiety and fear. And our marketing strategies will have to address that. Further, marketing needs to factor in this new normal in an environment where brand messaging is no longer a unilateral exercise. It is amplified and bent through social media. Frayed nerves make for a very precarious arena in which to play a game we’re still learning the rules of. We can expect ideological and ethical divisions to widen and deepen during the Dance.

The duration of the Dance will be another important factor to consider when we think about marketing. If it goes long enough, our temporary behavioral shifts become habits. The changes that are forced upon us may become permanent. Will we ever feel good about stepping aboard a cruise ship? Will we be ever be comfortable again in a crowded restaurant or bar? Will we pay 300 dollars to be jammed into a stadium with 50 thousand other people? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet.

Successful market depends on being able to anticipate the mood of the audience. The Dance will make that much more difficult. We will be racing up and down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at a frenzied pace that would make a game of Snakes and Ladders seem mild by comparison.

That’s what happens in times of crisis. In normal times we spend our lifetimes scaling Abraham Maslow’s elegant model from the bottom – fulfilling our most basic physical needs – to the top – an altruistic concern for the greater good. Most of us spend much of our time stuck somewhere north of the middle, obsessed with our own status and shoring up our self-esteem. It’s this relatively stable mental state that the vast majority of marketing is targeted at.

But in a chronic crisis mode like that which is foretold by the Dance, we can crash from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy in the blink of an eye. And we will all be doing this at different times in different locations.

The Dance introduces a consumer scenario marketers have never encountered before. We will crave comfort and security. We will be desperate for glimpses of positivity. And it’s certain that our values and beliefs will shift but it’s difficult to predict in which direction. While my hope is that we become kinder and gentler people, I suspect it will be a toss-up. It could well go the other way.

If you thought marketing was tough before, buckle up!

Saying So Long to SEMPO

Yesterday afternoon, while I was in line at the grocery store, my phone pinged. I was mentioned in a Twitter post. For me, that’s becoming a pretty uncommon experience. So I checked the post.  And that’s how I found out that SEMPO is no more.

The tweet was from Dana Todd, who was responding to a Search Engine Journalarticle by Roger Montti about the demise of SEMPO. For those of you who don’t know SEMPO: it was the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization.

It was a big part of my life during what seems like a lifetime ago. Todd was even more involved. Hence the tweet.

Increasingly I find my remaining half-life in digital consists of an infrequent series of “remember-when” throwbacks. This will be one of those.

Todd’s issue with the article was that much of the 17-year history of the organization was glossed over, as Montti chose to focus mainly on the controversies of the first year or two of its existence.

As Todd said, “You only dredged up the early stages of the organization, in its infancy as we struggled to gain respect and traction, and were beset by naysayers who looked for a reason we should fail. We didn’t fail.”

She then added, “There is far more to the SEMPO story, and far more notable people who put in blood sweat and tears to build not just the organization, but the entire industry.”

I was one of those people. But before that, I was also one of the early naysayers.

SEMPO started in 2003. I didn’t join until 2004. I spent at least part of that first year joining the chorus bitching about the organization. And then I realized that I could either bitch from the outside — or I could effect change from the inside.  

After joining, I quickly found myself on that same SEMPO board that that I’d been complaining about. In 2005, I became co-chair of the research committee. In 2006, I became the chair of SEMPO. I served in that role for two years and eventually stepped down from SEMPO at the same time I stepped away from the search industry.

Like Todd (who was the president of SEMPO for part of the time I was the chairman), I am proud of what we did, and extraordinarily proud of the team that made it happen. Many of the people I admired most in the industry served with me on that board.

Todd will always be one of my favorite search people. But I also had the privilege of serving with Jeff Pruit, Kevin Lee, Bill Hunt, Dave Fall, Christine Churchill and the person who got the SEMPO ball rolling, along with Todd: Barbara Coll. There were many, many others.

Now, SEMPO is being absorbed by the Digital Analytics Association, which, according to its announcement,  “is committed to helping former SEMPO members become fully integrated into DAA, and will be forming a special interest group (SIG) for search analytics.”

I’ve got to admit: That hurts. Being swallowed up, becoming nothing more than a special interest group, is a rather ignoble end for the association I gave so much to.

But as anyone who has raised a child can tell you, you know you’ve been successful when they no longer need you. And that’s how I choose to interpret this event. The search industry no longer needs SEMPO, at least as a stand-alone organization.

And if that’s the case, then SEMPO knocked it out of the park. Because that sure as hell wasn’t true back in 2003.

Search in 2003 was the Wild West. According to legend, there were white-hat SEOs and black-hat SEOs.

But truth be told, most of us wore hats that were some shade of grey.

The gunslingers of natural search (or organic SEO) were slowly and very reluctantly giving up their turf to the encroaching new merchants of paid search. Google Adwords had only been around for three years, but its launch introduced a whole new dynamic to the ecosystem. Google suddenly had to start a relationship with search marketers.

Before that, the only Google attempt made to reach out was thanks to a rogue mystery poster on SEO industry forums named “googleguy” (later suspected to be the search quality team lead Matt Cutts).  To call search an industry would be stretching the term to its breaking point.

The introduction of paid search was creating a two-sided marketplace, and that was forcing search to become more civilized.

The process of civilization is always difficult. It requires the establishment of trust and respect, two commodities that were in desperately short supply in search circa 2003.

SEMPO was the one organization that did the most to bring civilization to the search marketplace. It gave Google a more efficient global conduit to thousands of search marketers. And it gave those search marketers a voice that Google would actually pay some attention to.

But it was more than just starting a conversation. SEMPO challenged search marketers to think beyond their own interests. The organization laid the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable search ecosystem. If SEMPO accomplished anything to be proud of, it was in preventing the Tragedy of the Commons from killing search before it had a chance to establish itself as the fastest growing advertising marketplace in history.

Dana Todd wrapped up her extended Twitter post by writing, “I can say confidently Google wouldn’t be worth $1T without us. SEMPO — you mattered.”

Dana, just like in the old SEMPO days when we double-teamed a message, you said it better than I ever could.

And Google? You’re welcome.

‘Twas the Night Before the Internet

Today, just one day before Christmas, my mind swings to the serendipitous side. I don’t know about you, but for me, 2019 has been a trying year. While you would never know it by the collection of columns I’ve produced over the past 12 months, I have tried to find the glimpses of light in the glowering darkness.

Serendipity Sidetrack #1: “Glowering” is a word we don’t use much anymore. It refers to someone who has a dark, angry expression on their faces. As such, it’s pretty timely and relevant. You’d think we would use it more.

One of my personal traditions during the holidays is to catch one of the fourteen billion airings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yes, it’s quintessentially Capraesque. Yes, it’s corny as hell. But give me a big seasonal heaping helping of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and that “crummy little town” known as Bedford Falls.

Serendipity Sidetrack #2: The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on a 1939 short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. He tried to get it published for several years with no success. He finally self-published it and sent it to 200 friends as a 24-page Christmas card. One of these cards ended up on the desk of an executive at RKO pictures, who convinced the studio to buy the rights in 1943 as a vehicle for its star Cary Grant.

That movie never got made and the project was shelved for the rest of World War II. After the war, director Frank Capra read the script and chose it as his first Hollywood movie after making war documentaries and training films.

The movie was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. It was a financial disaster, eventually leading to the collapse of Capra’s new production company, Liberty Films. One other stray tidbit: during the scene at the high school dance where the gym floor opens over the pool (which was shot at Beverly Hills High School), Mary’s obnoxious date Freddie is played by an adult Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, from the “Our Gang” series.

But I digress. This seasonal ritual got me thinking along “what if” lines. We learn what Bedford Falls would be like if George Bailey was never born. But maybe the same narrative machinery could be applied to another example: What would Christmas (or your seasonal celebration of choice) be like if the Internet had never happened?

As I pondered this, I realized that there’s really only one aspect of the internet that materially impacts what the holidays have become. These celebrations revolve around families, so if we were going to look for changes wrought by technology, we have to look at the structure and dynamics of the family unit.

Serendipity Sidetrack #3: Christmas was originally not a family-based celebration. It became so in Victorian England thanks to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens. After the marriage of the royal couple, Albert brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle. Pictures of the royals celebrating with family around the tree firmly shifted the holiday towards its present warm-hearted family center.

In 1843, Dickens added social consciousness to the party with the publication of “A Christmas Carol.” The holiday didn’t take its detour towards overt consumerism until the prosperity of the 1950s.

But back to my rapidly unraveling narrative thread: What would Christmas be like without the Internet?

I have celebrated Christmas in two different contexts: The first, in my childhood and the second with my own wife and family.

I grew up with just my immediate family in rural Alberta, geographically distant from aunts, uncles and cousins. For dinner there would be six of us around the table. We might try to call an aunt or uncle who lived some 2,000 miles away, but usually the phone lines were so busy we couldn’t get through.

The day was spent with each other and usually involved a few card games, a brief but brisk walk and getting ready for Christmas dinner. It was low-key, but I still have many fond memories of my childhood Christmases.

Then I got married. My wife, who is Italian, has dozens and dozens and dozens of relatives within a stone’s throw in any direction. For us, Christmas is now a progressive exercise to see just how many people can be crammed into the same home. It begins at our house for Christmas morning with the “immediate” family (remember, I use the term in its Italian context). The head count varies between 18 and 22 people.

Then, we move to Christmas dinner with the “extended” family. The challenge here is finding a house big enough, because we are now talking 50 to 75 people. It’s loud, it’s chaotic — and I couldn’t imagine Christmas any other way.

The point here is how the Internet has shifted the nature of the celebration. In my lifespan, I have seen two big shifts, both to do with the nature of our personal connections. And like most things with technology, one has been wonderful while the other has been troubling.

First of all, thanks to the Internet, we can extend our family celebrations beyond the limits of geography. I can now connect with family members who don’t live in the same town.

But, ironically, the same technology has been eroding the bonds we have with the family we are physically present with. We may be in the same room, but our minds are elsewhere, preoccupied with the ever-present screens in our pockets or purses. In my pre-Internet memories of Christmas, we were fully there with our families. Now, this is rarely the case.

And one last thought. I find — sadly — that Christmas is just one more occasion to be shared through social media. For some of us, it’s not so much who we’re with or what we’re doing, but about how it will look in our Instagram post.

Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

Data does NOT Equal People

We marketers love data. We treat it like a holy grail: a thing to be worshipped. But we’re praying at the wrong altar. Or, at the very least, we’re praying at a misleading altar.

Data is the digital residue of behavior. It is the contrails of customer intent — a thin, wispy proxy for the rich bandwidth of the real world. It does have a purpose, but it should be just one tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Unfortunately, we tend to use it as a Swiss army knife, thinking it’s the only tool we need.

The problem is that data is seductive. It’s pliable and reliable, luring us into manipulation because it’s so easy to do. It can be twisted and molded with algorithms and spreadsheets.

But it’s also sterile. There is a reason people don’t fit nicely into spreadsheets. There are simply not enough dimensions and nuances to accommodate real human behavior.

Data is great for answering the questions “what,” “who,” “when” and “where.” But they are all glimpses of what has happened. Stopping here is like navigating through the rear-view mirror.

Data seldom yields the answer to “why.” But it’s why that makes the magic happen, that gives us an empathetic understanding that helps us reliably predict future behaviors.

Uncovering the what, who, when and where makes us good marketers. But it’s “why” that makes us great. It’s knowing why that allows us to connect the distal dots, hacking out the hypotheses that can take us forward in the leaps required by truly great marketing. As Tom Goodwin, the author of “Digital Darwinism,” said in a recent post, “What digital has done well is have enough of a data trail to claim, not create, success.”

We as marketers have to resist stopping at the data. We have to keep pursuing why.

Here’s one example from my own experience. Some years ago, my agency did an eye-tracking study that looked at gender differences in how we navigate websites.

For me, the most interesting finding to fall out of the data was that females spent a lot more time than males looking at a website’s “hero” shot, especially if it was a picture that had faces in it. Males quickly scanned the picture, but then immediately moved their eyes up to the navigation menu and started scanning the options there. Females lingered on the graphic and then moved on to scan text immediately adjacent to it.

Now, I could have stopped at “who” and “what,” which in itself would have been a pretty interesting finding. But I wanted to know “why.” And that’s where things started to get messy.

To start to understand why, you have to rely on feelings and intuition. You also have to accept that you probably won’t arrive at a definitive answer. “Why” lives in the realm of “wicked” problems, which I defined in a previous column as “questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough – for now.’”

The answer to why males scan a website differently than females is buried in a maze of evolutionary biology, social norms and cognitive heuristics. It probably has something to do with wayfinding strategies and hardwired biases. It won’t just “fall out” of data because it’s not in the data to begin with.

Even half-right “why” answers often take months or even years of diligent pursuit to reveal themselves. Given that, I understand why it’s easier to just focus on the data. It will get you to “good,” and maybe that’s enough.

Unless, of course, you’re aiming to “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs said in an inspirational commencement speech at Stanford University. Then you have to shoot for great.

Search and The Path to Purchase

Just how short do we want the path to purchase to be anyway?

A few weeks back Mediapost reporter Laurie Sullivan brought this question up in her article detailing how Instagram is building ecom into their app. While Instagram is not usually considered a search platform, Sullivan muses on the connecting of two dots that seem destined to be joined: search and purchase. But is that a destiny that users can “buy into?”

Again, this is one of those questions where the answer is always, “It depends.”  And there are at least a few dependencies in this case.

The first is whether our perspective is as a marketer or a consumer. Marketers always want the path to purchase to be as short as possible. When we have that hat on, we won’t be fully satisfied until the package hits our front step about the same time we first get the first mental inkling to buy.

Amazon has done the most to truncate the path to purchase. Marketers look longingly at their one click ordering path – requiring mere seconds and a single click to go from search to successful fulfillment. If only all purchases were this streamlined, the marketer in us muses.

But if we’re leading our double life as a consumer, there is a second “It depends…”  And that is dependent on what our shopping intentions are. There are times when we – as consumers – also want to fastest possible path to purchase. But that’s not true all the time.

Back when I was looking at purchase behaviors in the B2B world, I found that there are variables that lead to different intentions on the part of the buyer. Essentially, it boils down to the degree of risk and reward in the purchase itself. I first wrote about this almost a decade ago now.

If there’s a fairly high degree of risk inherent in the purchase itself, the last thing we want is a frictionless path to purchase. These are what we call high consideration purchases.

We want to take our time, feeling that we’ve considered all the options. One click ordering scares the bejeezus out of us.

Let’s go back to the Amazon example. Today, Amazon is the default search engine of choice for product searches, outpacing Google by a margin rapidly approaching double digits. But this is not really an apples to apples comparison. We have to factor in the deliberate intention of the user. We go to Amazon to buy, so a faster path to purchase is appropriate. We go to Google to consider. And for reasons I’ll get into soon, we would be less accepting of a “buy” button there.

The buying paths we would typically take in a social platform like Instagram are probably not that high risk, so a fast path to purchase might be fine. But there’s another factor that we need to consider when shortening the path to purchase – or buiding a path in the first place – in what has traditionally been considered a discovery platform. Let’s call it a mixing of motives.

Google has been dancing around a shorter path to purchase for years now. As Sullivan said in her article, “Search engines have strength in what’s known as discovery shopping, but completing the transaction has never been a strong point — mainly because brands decline to give up the ownership of the data.”

Data ownership is one thing, but even if the data were available, including a “buy now” button in search results can also lead to user trust issues. For many purchases, we need to feel that our discovery engine has no financial motive in the ordering of their search results. This – of course – is a fallacy we build in our own minds. There is always a financial motive in the ordering of search results. But as long as it’s not overt, we can trick ourselves into living with it. A “buy now” button makes it overt.

This problem of mixed motives is not just a problem of user perception. It also can lead publishers down a path that leaves objectivity behind and pursues higher profits ahead. One example is TripAdvisor. Some years ago, they made the corporate decision to parlay their strong position as a travel experience discovery platform into an instant booking platform. In the beginning, they separated this booking experience onto its own platform under the brand Viator. Today, the booking experience has been folded into the main TripAdvisor results and – more disturbingly – is now the default search order. Every result at the top of the page has a “Book Now” button.

Speaking as a sample of one, I trust TripAdvisor a lot less than I used to.

 

Why Are So Many Companies So Horrible At Responding To Emails?

I love email. I hate 62.4% of the people I email.

Sorry. That’s not quite right. I hate 62.4% of the people I email in the futile expectation of a response…sometime…in the next decade or so (I will get back to the specificity of the 62.4% shortly).  It’s you who suck.

You know who you are. You are the ones who never respond to emails, who force me to send email after email with an escalating tone of prickliness, imploring you to take a few seconds from whatever herculean tasks fill your day to actually acknowledge my existence.

It’s you who force me to continually set aside whatever I’m working on to prod you into doing your damned job! And — often — it is you who causes me to eventually abandon email in exasperation and then sink further into the 7thcircle of customer service hell:  voicemail.

Why am I (and trust me, I’m not alone) so exasperated with you? Allow me to explain.

From our side, when we send an email, we are making a psychological statement about how we expect this communication channel to proceed. We have picked this channel deliberately. It is the right match for the mental prioritization we have given this task.

In 1891, in a speech on his 70th birthday, German scientist Hermann Von Helmholtz explained how ideas came to him  He identified four stages that were later labeled by social psychologist Graham Wallas: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. These stages have held up remarkably well against the findings of modern neuroscience. Each of these stages has a distinct cognitive pattern and its own set of communication expectations.

  1. Preparation
    Preparation is gathering the information required for our later decision-making. We are actively foraging, looking for gaps in our current understanding of the situation and tracking down sources of that missing information. Our brains are actively involved in the task, but we also have a realistic expectation of the timeline required. This is the perfect match for email as a channel. We’ll came back to our expectations at this stage in a moment, as it’s key to understanding what a reasonable response time is.
  2. Incubation
    Once we have the information we require, our brain often moves the problem to the back burner. Even though it’s not “top of mind,” this doesn’t mean the brain isn’t still mulling it over. It’s the processing that happens while we’re sleeping or taking a walk. Because the brain isn’t actively working on the problem, there is no real communication needed.
  3. Illumination
    This is the eureka moment. You literally “make up your mind”: the cognitive stars align and you settle on a decision. You are now ready to take action. Again, at this stage, there is little to no outside communication needed.
  4. Verification
    Even though we’ve “made up our mind,” there is still one more step before action. We need to make sure our decision matches what is feasible in the real world. Does our internal reality match the external one? Again, our brains are actively involved, pushing us forward. Again, there is often some type of communication required here.

What we have here — in intelligence terms — is a sensemaking loop. The brain ideally wants this loop to continue smoothly, without interruption. But at two of the stages — the beginning and end — our brain needs to idle, waiting for input from the outside world.

Brains that have put tasks on idle do one of two things: They forget, or they get irritated. There are no other options.

The only variance is the degree of irritation. If the task is not that important to us, we get mildly irritated. The more important the task and the longer we are forced to put it on hold, the more frustrated we get.

Next, let’s talk about expectations. At the Preparation phase, we realize the entire world does not march to the beat of our internal drummer. Using email is our way to accommodate the collective schedules of the world. We are not demanding an immediate response. If we did, we’d use another channel, like a phone or instant messaging. When we use email, we expect those on the receiving end to fit our requirements into their priorities.

A recent survey by Jeff Toister, a customer service consultant, found that 87% of respondents expect a response to their emails within one day. Half of those expect a response in four hours or less. The most demanding are baby boomers — probably because email is still our preferred communication channel.

What we do not expect is for our emails to be completely ignored. Forever.

Yet, according to a recent benchmark study by SuperOffice, that is exactly what happens. 62.4% of businesses contacted with a customer service question in the study never responded. 90.5% never acknowledged receiving an email.  They effectively said to those customers, “Either forget us or get pissed off at us. We don’t really care.”

This lack of response is fine if you really don’t care. I toss a number of emails from my inbox daily without responding. They are a waste of my time. But if you have any expectation of having any type of relationship with the sender, take the time to hit the “reply” button.

There were some red flags that these non-responsive companies had in common. Typically, they could only be contacted through a web form on their site. I know I only fill these out if I have no other choice. If there is a direct email link, I always opt for that. These companies also tended to be smaller and didn’t use auto-responders to confirm a message had been received.

If this sounds like a rant, it is. One of my biggest frustrations is lack of email follow-up. I have found that the bar to surprise and delight me via your email response procedure is incredibly low:

  1. Respond.
  2. Don’t be a complete idiot.

It’s the Fall that’s Gonna Kill You

Butch: I’ll jump first.
Sundance: Nope.
Butch: Then you jump first.
Sundance: No, I said!
Butch: What’s the matter with you?!
Sundance: I can’t swim!
Butch:  Why, you crazy — the fall’ll probably kill ya!

                                     Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – 1969

Last Monday, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum asked, “Is Advertising Obsolete?” The column and the post by law professor Ramsi Woodcock that prompted it were both interesting. So were the comments – which were by and large supportive of good advertising.

I won’t rehash Rosenbaum’s column, but it strikes me that we – being the collective we of the MediaPost universe – have been debating whether advertising is good or bad, relevant or obsolete, a trusted source of information or a con job for the ages and we don’t seem to be any closer to an answer.

The reason is that an advertisement is all of those things. But not at the same time.

I used to do behavioral research, specifically eye-tracking. And the end of an eye tracking study, you get what’s called an aggregate heat map. This is the summary of all the eyeball activity of all the participants over the entire duration of all interactions with whatever the image was. These were interesting, but personally I was fascinated with the time slices of the interactions. I found that often, you can learn more about behaviors by looking at who looked at what when. It was only when we looked at interactions on a second by second basis that we started to notice the really interesting patterns emerge. For example, when looking at a new website, men looked immediately at the navigation bar, whereas women were first drawn to the “hero” image. But if you looked at the aggregates – the sum of all scanning activities – the men and women’s images were almost identical.

I believe the same thing is happening when we try to pin down advertising. And it’s because advertising – and our attitudes towards it – change through the life cycle of a brand, or product, or company.

Our relationship with a product or brand can be represented by an inverted U chart, with the vertical axis being awareness/engagement and the horizontal axis being time. Like a zillion other things, our brain defines our relationship with a product or brand by a resource/reward algorithm. Much of human behavior can be attributed to a dynamic tension between opposing forces and this is no exception. Driving us to explore the new are cognitive forces like novelty seeking and changing expectations of utility while things like cognitive lock in and the endowment effect tend to keep us loyal. As we engage with a new product or brand, we climb up the first side of the inverted U. But nothing in nature continues on a straight line, much as every sales manager would love it to. At some point, our engagement will peak and we’ll get itchy feet to try something new. Then we start falling down the descent of the U. And it’s this fall that kills our acceptance of advertising.

2000px-HebbianYerkesDodson.svgThis inverted U shows up all the time in human behavior. We assume you can never have too much of a good thing, but this is almost never true. There’s even a law that defines this, known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, it plots performance against mental or physical arousal. Predictably, performance increases with how fully we’re engaged with whatever we’re doing – but only up to a point. Then, performance peaks and starts to decline into anxiety.

It’s also why TV show runners are getting smarter about ending a series just as they crest the top of the hump. Hard lessons about the dangers of the decline have been learned by the jumping of multiple sharks.

Our entire relationship with a brand or product is built on the foundation of this inverted U, so it should come as no surprise that our acceptance of advertising for said brand or product also has to be plotted on this same chart. Yet it seems to constantly comes as a surprise for the marketing teams. In the beginning, on the upslope of the upside-down U, we are seeking novelty, and an advertisement for something new fits the bill.

When the inevitable downward curve starts, the sales and marketing teams panic and respond by upping advertising. They do their best to maintain a straight up line, but it’s too late. The gap between their goals and audience acceptance continues to grow as one line is projected upwards and the other curves ever more steeply downwards. Eventually the message is received and the plug is pulled, but the damage has already been done.

When we look at advertising, we have to plot it against this ubiquitous U. And when we talk about advertising, we have to be more careful to define what we’re talking about. If we’re talking specifically, we will all be able to find examples of useful and even welcome ads. But when I talk about the broken contract of advertising, I speak in more general terms. In the digital compression of timelines, we are reaching the peak of advertising effectiveness faster than ever before. And when we hit the decline, we actively reject advertising because we can. We have other alternatives. This decline is dragging the industry down with it. Yes, we can all think of good ads, but the category is suffering from our evolving opinion which is increasingly being formed on the downside of the U.