The Rank and File: Life and Work in a Quantified World

No one likes to be a number – unless, of course – that number is one. Then it’s okay.

Rankings started to be crucial to me back in 1996 when I jumped into the world of search engine optimization. Suddenly, the ten blue links on a search results page took on critical importance. The most important, naturally, was the first result. It turned on the tap for a flow of business many local organizations could only dream of. My company once got a California Mustang part retailer that number one ranking for “Ford Mustang Parts.” The official site of For – Ford.com – was number two. The California business did very well for a few years. We probably made them rich. Then Google came along and the party was over. We soon found that as quickly as that tap could be turned on, it could also be turned off. We and our clients rode the stormy waters of multiple Google updates. We called it the Google dance.

Now that I’m in my second life (third? fourth?) as a tourism operator I’m playing that ranking game again. This time it’s with TripAdvisor. You would not believe how important a top ranking in your category is here. Again, your flow of business can be totally at the mercy of how well you rank.

The problem with TripAdvisor is not so much with the algorithm in the background or the criteria used for ranking. The problem is with the Delta between riches and rags. If you drop below the proverbial fold in TripAdvisor, your tourism business can shrivel up and die. One bad review could be the difference. I feel like I’m dancing the Google dance all over again.

But at least TripAdvisor is what I would call a proximate ranking site. The source of the rankings is closely connected to the core nature of the industry. Tourism is all about experiences. And TripAdvisor is a platform for experience reviews. There is some wiggle room there for gaming the system, but the unintended consequences are kept to a minimum. If you’re in the business of providing good experiences, you should do well in TripAdvisor. And if you pay attention to the feedback on TripAdvisor, your business should improve. This is a circle that is mostly virtuous.

Such is not always the case. Take teaching, for example. Ratemyprofessors.com is a ranking site for teachers and professors, based on feedback from students. If you read through the reviews, it soon becomes obvious that funny, relatable, good-looking profs fare better than those who are less socially gifted. It has become a popularity contest for academics. Certainly, some of those things may factor into the effectiveness of a good educator, but there is a universe of other criteria that are given short-shrift on the site. Teaching is a subtle and complex profession. Is a popular prof necessarily a good prof? If too much reliance is placed on ratings like those found on ratemyprofessors.com, will the need to be popular push some of those other less-rankable attributes to the background?

But let’s step back even a bit further. Along with the need to quantify everything there is also a demand for transparency. Let’s step into another classroom, this time in your local elementary school. The current push is to document what’s happening in the classroom and share it on a special portal that parents have access to. In theory, this sounds great. Increasing collaboration and streamlining the communication triangle between teachers, students and parents should be a major step forward. But it’s here where unintended consequences can run the education process off the rails. Helicopter parents are the most frequent visitors to the portal. They also dominate these new communication channels that are now open to their children’s teachers. And – if you know a helicopter parent – you know these are people who have no problem picking up the phone and calling the school administrator or even the local school board to complain about a teacher. Suddenly, teachers feel they’re constantly under the microscope. They alter their teaching style and course content to appeal to the types of parents that are constantly monitoring them.

Even worse, the teacher finds themselves constantly interrupting their own lesson in order to document what’s going on to keep these parents satisfied. What appears to be happening in the classroom through social media becomes more important than what’s actually happening in the classroom. If you’ve ever tried to actively present to a group and also document what’s happening at the same time, you know how impossible this can be. Pity then the poor teacher of your children.

There is a quote that is often (incorrectly) attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The reality is a lot more nuanced. As we’re finding out, what you’re actually measuring matters a lot. It may be leading you in completely the wrong direction.

Our Trust Issues with Advertising Based Revenue Models

Facebook’s in the soup again. They’re getting their hands slapped for tracking our location. And I have to ask, why is anyone surprised they’re tracking our location? I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. What is good for us is not good for Facebook’s revenue model. And vice versa. Social platforms should never be driven by advertising. Period. Advertising requires targeting. And when you combine prospect targeting and the digital residue of our online activities, bad things are bound to happen. It’s inevitable, and it’s going to get worse. Facebook’s future earnings absolutely dictate that they have to try to get us to spend more time on their platform and they have to be more invasive about tracking what we do with that time. Their walled data garden and their reluctance to give us a peak at what’s happening inside should be massive red flags.

Our social activities are already starting to fragment across multiple platforms – and multiple accounts within each of those platforms. We are socially complex people and it’s naïve to think that all that complexity could be contained within any one ecosystem – even one as sprawling as Facebook’s.  In our real lives – you know – the life you lead when you’re not staring at your phone – our social activities are as varied as our moods, our activities, our environment and the people we are currently sharing that environment with. Being social is not a single aspect of our lives. It is the connecting tissue of all that we are. It binds all the things we do into a tapestry of experience. It reflects who we are and our identities are shaped by it. Even when we’re alone, as I am while writing this column, we are being social. I am communicating with each of you and the things I am communicated are shaped by my own social experiences.

My point here is that being social is not something we turn on and off. We don’t go somewhere to be social. We are social. To reduce social complexity and try to contain it within an online ecosystem is a fool’s errand. Trying to support it with advertising just makes it worse. A revenue model based on advertising is self-limiting. It has always been a path of least resistance, which is why it’s so commonly used. It places no financial hurdles on the path to adoption. We have never had to pay money to use Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat. But we do pay with our privacy. And eventually, after the inevitable security breaches, we also lose our trust. That lack of trust limits the effectiveness of any social medium.

Of course, it’s not just social media that suffers from the trust issues that come with advertising-based revenue. This advertising driven path has worked up to now because trust was never really an issue. We took comfort in our perceived anonymity in the eyes of the marketer. We were part of a faceless, nameless mass market that traded attention for access to information and entertainment. Advertising works well with mass. As I mentioned, there are no obstacles to adoption. It was the easiest way to assemble the biggest possible audience. But we now market one to one. And as the ones on the receiving end, we are now increasingly seeking functionality. That is a fundamentally different precept. When we seek to do things, rather than passively consume content, we can no longer remain anonymous. We make choices, we go places, we buy stuff, we do things. In doing this, we leave indelible footprints which are easy to track and aggregate.

Our online and offline lives have now melded to the point where we need – and expect – something more than a collection of platforms offering fragmented functionality. What we need is a highly personalized OS, a foundational operating system that is intimately designed just for us and connects the dots of functionality. This is already happening in bits and pieces through the data we surrender when we participate in the online world. But that data lives in thousands of different walled gardens, including the social platforms we use. Then that data is used to target advertising to us. And we hate advertising. It’s a fundamentally flawed contract that we will – given a viable alternative – opt out of. We don’t trust the social platforms we use and we’re right not to. If we had any idea of depth or degree of personal information they have about us, we would be aghast.  I have said before that we are willing to trade privacy for functionality and I still believe this. But once our trust has been broken, we are less willing to surrender that private data, which is essential to the continued profitability of an ad-supported platform.

We need to own our own data. This isn’t so much to protect our privacy as it is to build a new trust contract that will allow that data to be used more effectively for our own purposes and not that of a corporation whose only motive is to increase their own profit. We need to remove the limits imposed by a flawed functionality offering based on serving ads that we don’t want to us. If we’re looking for the true disruptor in advertising, that’s it in nutshell.

 

What a Shock: Marketers Don’t Like SEO!

So, apparently marketers don’t like SEO because they don’t understand SEO. That’s the upshot of a new report just out where SEO ranked at the tail end of digital initiatives.

I call bullshit on that. It’s not that marketers don’t understand SEO. It’s that they don’t like it.

I did my first SEO work in 1996. That’s two years before there was a Google. And marketers didn’t understand SEO then. Or so they said. They’ve kept the message consistent for the last 22 years. “We don’t get SEO.”

Look, SEO is not rocket science. It’s where searcher intent intersects with content. Know what people are looking for and give it to them. It’s that simple. This is not about SEO being hard to understand. It’s about SEO being hard to do. The last time I climbed on this particular soapbox was 4 years ago and nothing has changed. SEO is still hard, maybe harder than it ever has been. That’s what marketers don’t like. Well, that and many other things. SEO is had to SEO is hard to control. It’s hard to predict. It’s hard to measure. And that makes it almost impossible to rely on. All of those things are anathema to a marketer.

But here’s the biggest thing that’s going against SEO’s popularity with marketers. It’s not very exciting. It’s arduous. It about as sexy as weeding the garden. That’s probably why social media tops the list.

So why even both about search? For two reasons. There is no better crystallization of prospect intent – short of converting on your own website – than an online search. The planets are aligned, the heavens have opened with a hallelujah chorus, the Holy Grail has fallen into your lap. I spent the better part of two decades researching search user behaviors. Trust me when I say this is as good as it gets. That’s reason one. Reason two is that somewhere between 75% and 85% of those prospects will click on an organic listing. When we’re talking about capturing a motivated prospect, this is no brainer stuff. Yet marketers are saying no thanks, we’ll take a pass on that – Thank you very much.

If online is important to your marketing, chances are extremely good that SEO is also important. I don’t care whether you like it or not. You have to do it. If you don’t want to, find someone who does.

That brings up another reason marketers hate SEO. It doesn’t really live in their domain. SEO, by its very nature, stretches across multiple domains. It has to be systemic across the entire organization. So, it’s not entirely the fault of the marketer that SEO is neglected. It tends to fall into a no-man’s land between departments. Marketers don’t push it because there are many other things they can do that they have complete control over. And if the marketers don’t push it, there is no one else that’s going to step forward. Executives, who may legitimately not understand SEO, think of it solely as a marketing exercise. Tech support hates SEO even more than marketers. And corporate compliance? Don’t get me started on corporate compliance! There is a reason why SEO has always been known as a red-headed stepchild.

As a past SEO-er, I wasn’t really surprised to see that SEO still gets no love from marketers. I’ve forced myself to eat broccoli my entire life. And it’s not because I don’t understand broccoli. It’s because I don’t like it. Somethings remain constant. But you know what else? I still choke it down. Because my mom was right – it’s good for you.

 

The View from the Other Side

After a life time in marketing I am now sitting on the other side of the table. Actually, I’m sitting on all sides of the table. In my newest venture it’s just me, so I have to do everything. And I don’t mind telling you I’m overwhelmed. These past few years have given me a whole new appreciation of how damned difficult it is to be a business owner. And my circumstances are probably better than 90% of others out there. This started as a hobby that – with surprisingly little direction from me – somehow grew into a business.  There

Is no real financial pressure on me. There are no sales numbers I have to hit. I have no investors to answer to. I have no debt to service. My business is very limited in scope.

But still – somehow – I feel like I’m drowning. I couldn’t imagine doing this if the stakes were higher

It’s Hard to Find the Time to Build a Better Mousetrap…

I’ve always been of the opinion that the core of the business and the marketing of that business should be inseparable. But as I’ve learned, that’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Marketing is a vast black hole that can suck up all your time. And in any business, there is just a lot of stuff that requires a lot of time to do. It requires even more time if you want to do it well. Something has to give. So what should that something be? That sounds trite, but it’s not.

Take me, for example. I decided to offer bike tours. Sound simple enough, right? I had no idea how many permits, licenses and authorizations I needed to have. That all takes time. And it was time I had to spend before I could do anything else.

Like I said, to do things well takes time. Businesses naturally have to evolve. Almost none of us gets it right out of the gate. We make mistakes and then have to figure out how not to make those mistakes again. This is good and natural. I believe a good business has to have a leader that sweats the details, because the details are where shit goes wrong. I’m a big picture guy but I’ve discovered that big pictures are actually a mosaic of a million little pieces that someone has to pay attention to. And that takes time.

The Fear of a Not Doing Everything Right Now

New companies used to have the luxury of time. No one expected them to hit the home run in their first year. Well, Google and Facebook screwed that up for everyone, didn’t they? We are now all supposed to operate within some ridiculously compressed timeline for success. Our business lives are all about rushing things to market, rapid iteration, agile development. And while we’re doing all that, we should also be keeping up with our Instagram posts and building a highly engaged online community. If we don’t successfully do all those things, we feel like we’ve failed.

I’m calling bullshit on that. Most studies done on this subject show the odds of survival for a new company lasting five years are somewhere between 40 and 50%. That’s not great, but I have to believe that given the coin toss survival rate, there are a lot of companies that may not have a fully optimized Facebook business page that have somehow managed to survive bankruptcy. And even the businesses that do wrap it up are not always financial failures. Many times it’s because the founder has just had enough.

I completely understand that. I started this busIness because I wanted to have fun. And while not many of us give that reason for starting a business, I don’t believe I’m the only one. If this isn’t fun, why the hell are we doing it? But juggling a zillion balls knowing that I’m guaranteed to drop many of them isn’t all that much fun. Each morning begins with a dropped ball inventory. It seems that business today is all about reactive triage. What did I do? What didn’t I do? What might kill me and what’s only going to hurt for a while?

I’d like to end this column with some pat advice, some strategy to deal with the inevitable inundation of stuff that is demanding your time. But I’m struggling. I believe it’s hidden somewhere between my two previous points – deal with what’s potentially fatal and try to have some fun. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

What the Hell is “Time Spent” with Advertising Anyway?

Over at MediaPost’s Research Intelligencer, Joe Mandese is running a series of columns that are digging into a couple of questions:

  • How much time are consumers spending with advertising; and,
  • How much is that time worth.

The quick answers are 1.84 hours daily and about $3.40 per hour.

Although Joe readily admits that these are ‘back of the envelope” calculations, regular Mediapost reader and commentator Ed Papazian points out a gaping hole in the logic of these questions: an hour of being exposed to ads does not equal an hour spent with those ads and it certainly doesn’t mean an hour being aware of the ads.

Ignoring this fundamental glitch is symptomatic of the conceit of the advertising business in general. They believe there is a value exchange possible where paying consumers to watch advertising is related to the effectiveness of that advertising. The oversimplification required to rationalize this exchange is staggering. It essentially ignores the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. It assumes that audience attention is a simple door that can be opened if only the price is right.

It just isn’t that simple.

Let’s go back to the concept of time spent with media. There are many studies done that quantify this. But the simple truth is that media is too big a catchall category to make this quantification meaningful. We’re not even attempting to compare apples and oranges. We’re comparing an apple, a jigsaw and a meteor. The cognitive variations alone in how we consume media are immense.

And while I’m on a rant, let’s nuke the term “consumption” all together, shall we? It’s probably the most misleading word ever coined to define our relationship with media. We don’t consume media any more than we consume our physical environment. It is an informational context within which we function. We interact with aspects of it with varying degrees of intention. Trying to measure all these interactions with a single yardstick is the same as trying to measure our physical interactions with water, oxygen, gravity and an apple tree by the same criterion.

Even trying to dig into this question has a major methodological flaw – we almost never think about advertising. It is usually forced on our consciousness. So to use a research tools like a survey – requiring respondents to actively consider their response – to explore our subconscious relationship with advertising is like using a banana to drive a nail. It’s the wrong tool for the job. It’s the same as me asking you how much you would pay per hour to have access to gravity.

This current fervor all comes from a prediction from Publicis Groupe Chief Growth Officer Rishad Tobaccowala that the supply of consumer attention would erode by 20% to 30% in the next five years. Tobaccowala – by putting a number to attention – led to the mistaken belief that it’s something that could be managed by the industry. The attention of your audience isn’t slipping away because advertising and media buying was mismanaged. It’s slipping away because your audience now has choices, and some of those choices don’t include advertising. Let’s just admit the obvious. People don’t want advertising. We only put up with advertising when we have no choice.

“But wait,” the ad industry is quick to protest, “In surveys people say they are willing to have ads in return for free access to media. In fact, almost 80% of respondents in a recent survey said that they prefer the ad-supported model!”

Again, we have the methodological fly in the ointment. We’re asking people to stop and think about something they never stop and think about. You’re not going to get the right answer. A better answer would be to think about what happens when you get the pop up when you go to a news site with your ad-blocker on. “Hey,” it says, “We notice you’re using an ad-blocker.” If you have the option of turning the ad-blocker off to see the article or just clicking a link that let’s you see it anyway, which are you going to choose? That’s what I thought. And you’re probably in the ad business. It pays your mortgage.

Look, I get that the ad business is in crisis. And I also understand why the industry is motivated to find an answer. But the complexity of the issue in front of us is staggering and no one is served well by oversimplifying it down to putting a price tag on our attention. We have to understand that we’re in an industry where – given the choice – people would rather not have anything to do with us. Unless we do that, we’ll just be making the same mistakes over and over again.

 

 

Sorry, I Don’t Speak Complexity

I was reading about an interesting study from Cornell this week. Dr. Morton Christianson, Co-Director of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues explored an interesting linguistic paradox – languages that a lot of people speak – like English and Mandarin – have large vocabularies but relatively simple grammar. Languages that are smaller and more localized have fewer words but more complex grammatical rules.

The reason, Christensen found, has to do with the ease of learning. It doesn’t take much to learn a new word. A couple of exposures and you’ve assimilated it. Because of this, new words become memes that tend to propagate quickly through the population. But the foundations of grammar are much more difficult to understand and learn. It takes repeated exposures and an application of effort to learn them.

Language is a shared cultural component that depends on the structure of a network. We get an inside view of network dynamics from investigating the spread of language. Let’s look at the complexity of a syntactic rule, for example. These are the rules that govern sentence structure, word order and punctuation. In terms of learnability, syntax offers much more complexity than simply understanding the definition of a word. In order to learn syntax, you need repeated exposures to it. And this is where the structure and scope of a network comes in. As Dr. Christensen explains,

“If you have to have multiple exposures to, say, a complex syntactic rule, in smaller communities it’s easier for it to spread and be maintained in the population.”

This research seems to indicate that cultural complexity is first spawned in heavily interlinked and relatively intimate network nodes. For these memes – whether they be language, art, philosophies or ideologies – to bridge to and spread through the greater network, they are often simplified so they’re easier to assimilate.

If this is true, then we have to consider what might happen as our world becomes more interconnected. Will there be a collective “dumbing down” of culture? If current events are any indication, that certainly seems to be the case. The memes with the highest potential to spread are absurdly simple. No effort on the part of the receiver is required to understand them.

But there is a counterpoint to this that does hold out some hope. As Christensen reminds us, “People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification.” From this emerges an interesting yin and yang of cultural content creation. You have more highly connected nodes independent of geography that are producing some truly complex content. But, because of the high threshold of assimilation required, the complexity becomes trapped in that node. The only things that escape are fragments of that content that can be simplified to the point where they can go viral through the greater network. But to do so, they have to be stripped of their context.

This is exactly what caused the language paradox that the team explored. If you have a wide network – or a large population of speakers – there are a greater number of nodes producing new content. In this instance, the words are the fragments, which can be assimilated, and the grammar is the context that gets left behind.

There is another aspect of this to consider. Because of these dynamics unique to a large and highly connected network, the simple and trivial naturally rises to the top. Complexity gets trapped beneath the surface, imprisoned in isolated nodes within the network. But this doesn’t mean complexity goes away – it just fragments and becomes more specific to the node in which it originated. The network loses a common understanding and definition of that complexity. We lose our shared ideological touchstones, which are by necessity more complex.

If we speculate on where this might go in the future, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see an increase in tribalism in matters related to any type of complexity – like religion or politics – and a continuing expansion of simple cultural memes.

The only time we may truly come together as a society is to share a video of a cat playing basketball.

 

 

Which Me am I — And On Which Network?

I got an email from Strava. If you’re not familiar with it, Strava is a social network for cyclists and runners. As the former, I joined Strava about two years ago.

Here is the email I received:

Your Friends Are on Strava

 Add friends to follow their adventures and get inspired by their workouts

 J. Doe, Somewhere, CA

 “Follow”

 (Note: the personal information has been changed because after preaching about privacy for the last two weeks, I do have to practice what I preach)

Here’s the thing: I’m not friends with Mr. Doe. I met him a few  times on the speaking circuit when we crossed paths. To be brutally honest, J. Doe was a connection I thought would help me grow my business. He was a higher profile speaker than I was. He’d written a book that sold way more copies than mine ever did. I was “friending up” in my networking.

The last time we met each other — several years ago now — I quickly extended a Facebook friends invite. At the time, I — and the rest of the world — was using Facebook as a catch-all bucket for all my social connections: friends, family and the people I was unabashedly stalking in order to make more money. And J. Doe accepted my invite. It gave my ego a nice little boost at the time.

So, according to Facebook, we’re friends. But we’re not — not really. And that became clear when I got the Strava invite. It would have been really weird if I connected with him on Strava, following his adventures and being inspired by his workouts. We just don’t have that type of relationship. There was no social basis for me to make that connection.

I have different social spheres in my life. I have the remnants of my past professional life as an online marketer. I have my passion as a cyclist. I have a new emerging sphere as a fledgling tourism operator. I have my family.

I could go on. I can think of only a handful of people who comfortably lie within two or more of my spheres.

But with social sign-ins (which I used for Strava) those spheres are suddenly mashed together. It’s becoming clear that socially, we are complex creatures with many, many sides.

Facebook would love nothing more than to be the sole supporting platform of our entire social grid. But that works at cross purposes with how humans socialize. It’s not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all thing, but a sprawling landscape cluttered with very distinctive nodes that are haphazardly linked together.

The only common denominator is ourselves, in the middle of that mess. And even we can have surprising variability. The me that loves cycling is a very different guy from the me that wanted to grow my business profile.

This modality is creating an expansion of socially connected destinations.

Strava is a good example of this. Arguably, it provides a way to track my rides. But it also aspires to be the leading community of athletes. And that’s where it runs headlong into the problem of social modality.

Social sign-ins seem to be a win-win-win. For the user, it eases the headache of maintaining an ever-expanding list of user names and passwords. Sure, there’s that momentary lurch in the pit of our stomachs when we get that warning that we’re sharing our entire lives with the proprietors of the new site, but that goes away with just one little click.

For the website owner, every new social sign-in user comes complete with rich new data and access to all his contacts.  Finally, Facebook can sink their talons into us just a little deeper, gathering data from yet one more online outpost.

But like many things that seem beneficial, unintended consequences are part of the package. This is especially true when the third party I’m signing up for is creating his own community.

Is the “me” that wants to become part of this new community the “me” that Facebook thinks I am? Will things get weird when these two social spheres are mashed together?

Because Facebook assumes that I am always me and you are always you, whatever the context, some of us are forced to splinter our online social personas by maintaining multiple profiles. We may have a work profile and a social one.

The person Facebook thinks we are may be significantly different from the person LinkedIn thinks we are.  Keeping our social selves separate becomes a juggling act of ever-increasing proportions.

So why does Facebook want me to always be me?  It’s because of us — and by us, I mean marketers. We love the idea of markets that are universal and targeting that is omniscient. It just makes our lives so much easier. Our lives as marketers, I mean.

As people? Well, that’s another story — but right now, I’m a marketer.

See the problem?