‘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.

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.

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.

 

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?

Disruption in the Rear View Mirror

Oh..it’s so easy to be blasé. I always scan the Mediapost headlines each week to see if there’s anything to spin. I almost skipped right past a news post by Larissa Faw – Zenith: Google Remains Top-Ranked Media Company By Ad Revenue

“Of course Google is the top ranked media company,” I yawned as I was just about to click on the next email in my inbox. Then it hit me. To quote Michael Bublé, “Holy Shitballs, Mom!”

Maybe that headline doesn’t seem extraordinary in the context of today, but I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 20 years now, and in that context – well-it’s huge! I remembered a column I wrote ages ago about speculating that Google had barely scratched its potential. After a little digging, I found it. It was in October, 2006, so just over a decade ago. Google had just passed the 6 billion dollar mark in annual revenue. Ironically, that seemed a bigger deal then their current revenue of almost $80 billion seems today. In that column, I pushed to the extreme and speculated that Google could someday pass $200 billion in revenue. While we’re still only 1/3 of the way there, the claim doesn’t seem nearly as ludicrous as it did back then.

But here’s the line that really made me realize how far we’ve come in the ten and a half years since I wrote that column: “Google and Facebook together accounted for 20% of global advertising expenditure across all media in 2016, up from 11% in 2012. They were also responsible for 64% of all the growth in global ad spend between 2012 and 2016.”

Two companies that didn’t exist 20 years ago now account for 20% of all global advertising expenditure. And the speed with which they’re gobbling advertising budgets is accelerating. If you’re a dilettante student of disruption, as I am, those are pretty amazing numbers. In the day-to-day of Mediapost – and digital marketing in general – we tend to accept all this as normal. It’s like we’re surfing on top of a wave without realizing the wave is 300 freakin’ feet high. Sometimes, you need to zoom out a little to realizing how momentous the every day is. And if you look at this on a scale of decades rather than days, you start to get a sense that the speed of change is massive.

To me, the most interesting thing about this is that both Google and Facebook have introduced a fundamentally new relationship between advertising and it’s audience. Google’s outré is – of course – intent based advertising. And Facebook’s is based on socially mediated network effects. Both of these things required the overlay of digital connection. That – as they say – has made all the difference. And there is where the real disruption can be found. Our world has become a fundamentally different place.

Much as we remain focused on the world of advertising and marketing here in our little corner of the digital world, it behooves us to remember that advertising is simply a somewhat distorted reflection of the behaviors of the world in general. It things are being disrupted here, it is because things are being disrupted everywhere. As it regards us beings of flesh, bone and blood, that disruption has three distinct beachheads: the complicated relationship between our brains and the digital tools we have at our disposal, the way we connect with each other, and a dismantling of the restrictions of the physical world at the same time we build the scaffolding of a human designed digital world. Any one of these has the potential to change our species forever. With all three bearing down on us, permanent change is a lead-pipe cinch.

Thirty years is a nano-second in terms of human history. Even on the scale of my lifetime, it seems like yesterday. Reagan was president. We were terrorized by the Unabomber. News outlets were covering the Iran-Contra affair. U2 released the Joshua Tree. Platoon won the best picture Oscar. And if you wanted to advertise to a lot of people, you did so on a major TV network with the help of a Madison Avenue agency. 30 years ago, nothing of which I’m talking about existed. Nothing. No Google. No Facebook. No Internet – at least, not in a form any of us could appreciate.

As much as advertising has changed in the past 30 years, it has only done so because we – and the world we inhabit – have changed even more. And if that thought is a little scary, just think what the next 30 years might bring.