Is Live the New Live?

HQ Trivia – the popular mobile game app –  seems to be going backwards. It’s an anachronism – going against all the things that technology promises. It tethers us to a schedule. It’s essentially a live game show broadcast (when everything works as it should, which is far from a sure bet) on a tiny screen – It also gets about a million players each and every time it plays, which is usually only twice a day.

My question is: Why the hell is it so popular?

Maybe it’s the Trivia Itself…

(Trivial Interlude – the word trivia comes from the Latin for the place where three roads come together. Originally in Latin it was used to refer to the three foundations of basic education – grammar, logic and rhetoric. The modern usage came from a book by Logan Pearsall Smith in 1902 – “Trivialities, bits of information of little consequence”. The singular of trivia is trivium)

As a spermologist (that’s a person who loves trivia – seriously – apparently the “sperm” has something to do with “seeds of knowledge”) I love a trivia contest. It’s one thing I’m pretty good at – knowing a little about a lot of things that have absolutely no importance. And if you too fancy yourself a spermologist (which, by the way, is how you should introduce yourself at social gatherings) you know that we always want to prove we’re the smartest people in the room. In HQ Trivia’s case, that room usually holds about a million people. That’s the current number of participants in the average broadcast. So the odds of being the smartest person is the room is – well – about one in a million. And a spermologist just can’t resist those odds.

But I don’t think HQ’s popularity is based on some alpha-spermology complex. A simple list of rankings would take care of that. No, there must be more to it. Let’s dig deeper.

Maybe it’s the Simoleons…

(Trivial Interlude: Simoleons is sometimes used as slang for American dollars, as Jimmy Stewart did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The word could be a portmanteau of “simon” and “Napoleon” – which was a 20 franc coin issued in France. The term seems to have originated in New Orleans, where French currency was in common use at the turn of the last century.)

HQ Trivia does offer up cash for smarts. Each contest has a prize, which is usually $5000. But even if you make it through all 12 questions and win, by the time the prize is divvied up amongst the survivors, you’ll probably walk away with barely enough money to buy a beer. Maybe two. So I don’t think it’s the prize money that accounts for the popularity of HQ Trivia.

Maybe It’s Because it’s Live..

(Trivial Interlude – As a Canadian, Trivia is near and dear to my heart. America’s favorite trivia quiz master, Alex Trebek, is Canadian, born in Sudbury, Ontario. Alex is actually his middle name. George is his first name. He is 77 years old. And Trivial Pursuit, the game that made trivia a household name in the 80’s, was invented by two Canadians, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. It was created after the pair wanted to play Scrabble but found their game was missing some tiles. So they decided to create their own game. In 1984, more than 20 million copies of the game were sold. )

There is just something about reality in real time. Somehow, subconsciously, it makes us feel connected to something that is bigger than ourselves. And we like that. In fact, one of the other etymological roots of the word “trivia” itself is a “public place.”

The Hotchkiss Movie Choir Effect

If you want to choke up a Hotchkiss (or at least the ones I’m personally familiar with) just show us a movie where people spontaneously start singing together. I don’t care if it’s Pitch Perfect Twelve and a Half – we’ll still mist up. I never understood why, but I think it has to do with the same underlying appeal of connection. Dan Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” explained what happens in our brain when we sing as part of a group in a recent interview on NPR:

“We’ve got to pay attention to what someone else is doing, coordinate our actions with theirs, and it really does pull us out of ourselves. And all of that activates a part of the frontal cortex that’s responsible for how you see yourself in the world, and whether you see yourself as part of a group or alone. And this is a powerful effect.”

The same thing goes for flash mobs. I’m thinking there has to be some type of psychological common denominator that HQ Trivia has somehow tapped into. It’s like a trivia-based flash mob. Even when things go wrong, which they do quite frequently, we feel that we’re going through it together. Host Scott Rogowsky embraces the glitchiness of the platform and commiserates with us. Misery – even when it’s trivial – loves company.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, HQ Trivia seems to be moving forward by taking us back to a time when we all managed to play nicely together.

 

Attention: Divided

I’d like you to give me your undivided attention. I’d like you to – but you can’t. First, I’m probably not interesting enough. Secondly, you no longer live in a world where that’s possible. And third, even if you could, I’m not sure I could handle it. I’m out of practice.

The fact is, our attention is almost never undivided anymore. Let’s take talking for example. You know; old-fashioned, face-to-face, sharing the same physical space communication. It’s the one channel that most demands undivided attention. But when is the last time you had a conversation where you were giving it 100 percent of your attention? I actually had one this past week, and I have to tell you, it unnerved me. I was meeting with a museum curator and she immediately locked eyes on me and gave me the full breadth of her attention span. I faltered. I couldn’t hold her gaze. As I talked I scanned the room we were in. It’s probably been years since someone did that to me. And nary a smart phone was in sight.

If this is true when we’re physically present, imagine the challenge in other channels. Take television, for instance. We don’t watch TV like we used to. When I was growing up, I would be verging on catatonia as I watched the sparks fly between Batman and Catwoman (the Julie Newmar version – with all due respect to Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether.) My dad used to call it the “idiot box.” At the time, I thought it was a comment on the quality of programming, but I now know realize he was referring to my mental state. You could have dropped a live badger in my lap and not an eye would have been batted.

But that’s definitely not how we watch TV now. A recent study indicates that 177 million Americans have at least one other screen going – usually a smartphone – while they watch TV. According to Nielsen, there are only 120 million TV households. That means that 1.48 adults per household are definitely dividing their attention amongst at least two devices while watching Game of Thrones. My daughters and wife are squarely in that camp. Ironically, I now get frustrated because they don’t watch TV the same way I do – catatonically.

Now, I’m sure watching TV does not represent the pinnacle of focused mindfulness. But this could be a canary in a coalmine. We simply don’t allocate undivided attention to anything anymore. We think we’re multi-tasking, but that’s a myth. We don’t multi-task – we mentally fidget. We have the average attention span of a gnat.

So, what is the price we’re paying for living in this attention deficit world? Well, first, there’s a price to be paid when we do decided to communicate. I’ve already stated how unnerving it was for me when I did have someone’s laser focused attention. But the opposite is also true. It’s tough to communicate with someone who is obviously paying little attention to you. Try presenting to a group that is more interested in chatting to each other. Research studies show that our ability to communicate effectively erodes quickly when we’re not getting feedback that the person or people we’re talking to are actually paying attention to us. Effective communication required an adequate allocation of attention on both ends; otherwise it spins into a downward spiral.

But it’s not just communication that suffers. It’s our ability to focus on anything. It’s just too damned tempting to pick up our smartphone and check it. We’re paying a price for our mythical multitasking – Boise State professor Nancy Napier suggests a simple test to prove this. Draw two lines on a piece of paper. While having someone time you, write “I am a great multi-tasker” on one, then write down the numbers from 1 to 20 on the other. Next, repeat this same exercise, but this time, alternate between the two: write “I” on the first line, then “1” on the second, then go back and write “a” on the first, “2” on the second and so on. What’s your time? It will probably be double what it was the first time.

Every time we try to mentally juggle, we’re more likely to drop a ball. Attention is important. But we keep allocating thinner and thinner slices of it. And a big part of the reason is the smart phone that is probably within arm’s reach of you right now. Why? Because of something called intermittent variable rewards. Slot machines use it. And that’s probably why slot machines make more money in the US than baseball, moves and theme parks combined. Tristan Harris, who is taking technology to task for hijacking our brains, explains the concept: “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.”

Your smartphone is no different. In this case, the reward is a new email, Facebook post, Instagram photo or Tinder match. Intermittent variable rewards – together with the fear of missing out – makes your smartphone as addictive as a slot machine.

I’m sorry, but I’m no match for all of that.

To Buy or Not to Buy: The Touchy Subject of Mobile ECommerce

A recent report from Akamai indicates that users have little patience when it comes to making purchases on a mobile device. Here are just a few of the stats:

  • While almost half of all consumers browse via their phones, only 1 in 5 complete transactions on mobile
  • Optimal load times for peak conversions ranged from 1.8 to 2.7 seconds across device types
  • Just a 100-millisecond delay in load time hurt conversion rates by up to 7%
  • Bounce rates were highest among mobile shoppers and lowest among those using tablets

But there may be more behind this than just slow load times. We also have to consider what modes we’re in when we’re interacting with our mobile device.

In 2010, Microsoft did a fascinating research project that looked at how user behaviors varied from desktop to tablet to smart phone. The research was headed by Jacquelyn Krones, who was a Search Product Manager at the time. Search was the primary activity examined, but there was a larger behavioral context that was explored. While the study is 7 years old, I think the core findings are still relevant. The researchers found that we tend to have three large buckets of behaviors: missions, explorations and excavations. Missions were focused tasks that were usually looking for a specific piece of information – i.e. looking for an address or phone number. Explorations where more open ended and less focused on a given destination – i.e. seeing if there was any thing you wanted to do this Friday night. Excavations typically involved multiple tasks within an overarching master task – i.e. researching an article. In an interview with me, Krones outlined their findings:

“There’s clearly a different profile of these activities on the different platforms. On desktops and laptops, people do all three of the activities – they conduct missions and excavations and explorations.

“On their phones we expected to see lots of missions – usually when you use your mobile phone and you’re conducting a search, whatever you’re doing in terms of searching is less important than what’s going on with you in the real world – you’re trying to get somewhere, you’re having a discussion with somebody and you want to look something up quick or you’re trying to make a decision about where to go for dinner.

“But we were surprised to find that people are using their mobile phones for exploration. But once we saw the context, it made sense – people have a low tolerance for boredom. Their phone is actually pretty entertaining, much more entertaining than just looking at the head in front of you while you’re waiting in line. You can go check a sports score, read a story, or look at some viral video and have a more engaged experience.

“On tablets, we found that people are pretty much only using them for exploration today. I had expected to see more missions on tablets, and I think that that will happen in the future, but today people perceive their mobile phone as always with them, very personal, always on, and incredibly efficient for getting information when they’re in mission mode.”

Another study, coming out The University of British Columbia Okanagan, also saw a significant difference in behavioral modality when it came to interacting with touch screens. Assistant Professor Ying Zhu was the principal author:

“The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers’ favour of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers’ preference for utilitarian products,” explains Zhu.

“Zhu’s study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on experiential thinking than those using desktop computers. However, those on desktops scored significantly higher on rational thinking.”

I think what we have here is an example of thinking: fast and slow. I suspect we’re compartmentalizing our activities, subconsciously setting some aside for completion on the desktop. I would suspect utilitarian type purchasing would fall into this category. I know that’s certainly true in my case. As Dr. Zhu noted, we have a very right brain relationship with touchscreens, while desktops tend to bring out our left-brain. I have always been amazed at how our brains subconsciously prime us based on anticipating an operating environment. Chances are, we don’t even realize how much our behaviors change when we move from a smart phone to a tablet to a desktop. But I’d be willing to place a significant wager that it’s this subconscious techno-priming that’s causing some of these behavioural divides between devices.

Slow load times are never a good thing, on any device, but while they certainly don’t help with conversions, they may not be the only culprit sitting between a user and a purchase. The device itself could also be to blame.

How We Might Search (On the Go)

As I mentioned in last week’s column – Mediative has just released a new eyetracking study on mobile devices. And it appears that we’re still conditioned to look for the number one organic result before clicking on our preferred destination.

But…

It appears that things might be in the process of changing. This makes sense. Searching on a mobile device is – and should be – significantly different from searching on a desktop. We have different intents. We are interacting with a different platform. Even the way we search is different.

Searching on a desktop is all about consideration. It’s about filtering and shortlisting multiple options to find the best one. Our search strategies are still carrying a significant amount of baggage from what search was – an often imperfect way to find the best place to get more information about something. That’s why we still look for the top organic listing. For some reason we still subconsciously consider this the gold standard of informational relevancy. We measure all other results against it. That’s why we make sure we reserve one slot from the three to five available in our working memory (I have found that the average person considers about 4 results at a time) for its evaluation.

But searching on a mobile device isn’t about filtering content. For one thing, it’s absolutely the wrong platform to do this with. The real estate is too limited. For another, it’s probably not what we want to spend our time doing. We’re on the go and trying to get stuff done. This is not the time for pausing and reflecting. This is the time to find what I’m looking for and use it to take action.

This all makes sense but the fact remains that the way we search is a product of habit. It’s a conditioned subconscious strategy that was largely formed on the desktop. Most of us haven’t done enough searching on mobile devices yet to abandon our desktop-derived strategies and create new mobile specific ones. So, our subconscious starts playing out the desktop script and only varies from it when it looks like it’s not going to deliver acceptable results. That’s why we’re still looking for that number one organic listing to benchmark against

There were a few findings in the Mediative study that indicate that our desktop habits may be starting to slip on mobile devices. But before we review them, let’s do a quick review of how habits play out. Habits are the brains way of cutting down on thinking. If we do something over and over again and get acceptable results, we store that behavior as a habit. The brain goes on autopilot so we don’t have to think our way through a task with predictable outcomes.

If, however, things change, either in the way the task plays out or in the outcomes we get, the brain reluctantly takes control again and starts thinking its way through the task. I believe this is exactly what’s happening with our mobile searches. The brain desperately wants to use its desktop habits, but the results are falling below our threshold of acceptability. That means we’re all somewhere in the process of rebuilding a search strategy more suitable for a mobile device.

Mediative’s study shows me a brain that’s caught between the desktop searches we’ve always done and the mobile searches we’d like to do. We still feel we should scroll to see at least the top organic result, but as mobile search results become more aligned with our intent, which is typically to take action right away, we are being side tracked from our habitual behaviors and kicking our brains into gear to take control. The result is that when Google shows search elements that are probably more aligned with our intent – either local results, knowledge graphs or even highly relevant ads with logical ad extensions (such as a “call” link) – we lose confidence in our habits. We still scroll down to check out the organic result but we probably scroll back up and click on the more relevant result.

All this switching back and forth from habitual to engaged interaction with the results ends up exacting a cost in terms of efficiency. We take longer to conduct searches on a mobile device, especially if that search shows other types of results near the top. In the study, participants spent an extra 2 seconds or so scrolling between the presented results (7.15 seconds for varied results vs. 4.95 seconds for organic only results). And even though they spent more time scrolling, more participants ended up clicking on the mobile relevant results they saw right at the top.

The trends I’m describing here are subtle – often playing out in a couple seconds or less. And you might say that it’s no big deal. But habits are always a big deal. The fact that we’re still relying on desktop habits that were laid down over the past two decades show how persistent then can be. If I’m right and we’re finally building new habits specific to mobile devices, those habits could dictate our search behaviors for a long time to come.

Who Owns Your Data (and Who Should?)

First published January 23, 2104 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Lock backgroundLast week, I talked about a backlash to wearable technology. Simon Jones, in his comment, pointed to a recent post where he raised the very pertinent point – your personal data has value. Today, I’d like to explore this further.

I think we’re all on the same page when we say there is a tidal wave of data that will be created in the coming decade. We use apps – which create data. We use/wear various connected personal devices – which create data. We go to online destinations – which create data. We interact with an ever-increasing number of wired “things” – which create data. We interact socially through digital channels – which create data.  We entertain ourselves with online content – which creates data. We visit a doctor and have some tests done – which creates data. We buy things, both online and off, and these actions also create data. Pretty much anything we do now, wherever we do it, leaves a data trail. And some of that data, indeed, much of it, can be intensely personal.

As I said some weeks ago, all this data is creating a eco-system that is rapidly multiplying and, in its current state, is incredibly fractured and chaotic. But, as Simon Jones rightly points out, there is significant value in that data. Marketers will pay handsomely to have access to it.

But what, or whom, will bring order to this chaotic and emerging market? The value of the data compounds quickly when it’s aggregated, filtered, cross-tabulated for correlations and then analyzed. As I said before, the captured data is its fragmented state is akin to a natural resource. To get to a more usable end state, you need to add a value layer on top of it. This value layer will provide the required additional steps to extract the full worth of that data.

So, to retrace my logic, data has value, even in it’s raw state. Data also has significant privacy implications. And right now, it’s not really clear who owns what data. To move forward into a data market that we can live with, I think we need to set some basic ground rules.

First of all, most of us who are generating data have implicitly agreed to a quid pro quo arrangement – we’ll let you collect data from us if we get an acceptable exchange of something we value. This could be functionality, monetary compensation (usually in the form of discounts and rewards), social connections or entertainment. But here’s the thing about that arrangement – up to now, we really haven’t quantified the value of our personal data. And I think it’s time we did that. We may be trading away too much for much too little.

To this point we haven’t worried much about what we traded off and to whom because any data trails we left have been so fragmented and specific to one context, But, as that data gains more depth and, more importantly, as it combines with other fragments to provide much more information about who we are, what we do, where we go, who we connect with, what we value and how we think, it becomes more and more valuable. It represents an asset for those marketers who want to persuade us, but more critically, that data -our digital DNA – becomes vitally important to us. In it lays the quantifiable footprint of our lives and, like all data, it can yield insights we may never gain elsewhere. In the right hands, it could pinpoint critical weaknesses in our behavioral patterns, red flags in our lifestyle that could develop into future health crises, financial opportunities and traps and ways to allocate time and resources more efficiently. As the digitally connected world becomes denser, deeper and more functional, that data profile will act as our key to it. All the potential of a new fully wired world will rely on our data.

There are millions of corporations that are more than happy to warehouse their respective data profiles of you and sell it back to you on demand as you need it to access their services or tools.  They will also be happy to sell it to anyone else who may need it for their own purposes. Privacy issues aside (at this point, data is commonly aggregated and anonymized) a more fundamental question remains – whose data is this? Whose data should it be? Is this the reward they reap for harvesting the data? Or because this represents you, should it remain your property, with you deciding who uses it and for what?

This represents a slippery slope we may already be starting down.  And, if you believe this is your data and should remain so, it also marks a significant change from what’s currently happening. Remember, the value is not really in the fragments. It’s in bringing it together to create a picture of who you are. And we should be asking the question – who should have the right to create that picture of you – you – or a corporate data marketplace that exists beyond your control ?

Google Holds the Right Cards for a Horizontal Market

First published January 9, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

android_trhoneFunctionality builds up, then across. That was the principle of emerging markets that I talked about in last week’s column. Up – then across – breaking down siloes into a more open, competitive and transparent market. I’ll come back here in a moment.

I also talked about how Google + might be defining a new way of thinking about social networking, one free of dependence on destinations. It could create a social lens through which all our online activity passes through, adding functionality and enriching information.

Finally, this week, I read that Google is pushing hard to extend Android as the default operating system in the Open Automotive Alliance – turning cars into really big mobile devices. This builds on Android’s dominance in the smartphone market (with an 82% market share).

See a theme here?

For years, I’ve been talking about the day when search transitions from being a destination to a utility, powering apps which provide very specific functionality that far outstrips anything you could do on a “one size fits all” search portal. This was a good news/bad news scenario for Google, who was the obvious choice to provide this search grid. But, in doing so, they lose their sole right to monetize search traffic, a serious challenge to their primary income source. However, if you piggy back that search functionality onto the de facto operating system that powers all those apps, and then add a highly functional social graph, you have all the makings of a foundation that will support the ‘horizontalization” of the mobile connected market. Put this in place, and revenue opportunities will begin falling into your lap.

The writing is plainly on the wall here. The future is all about mobile connections. It is the foundation of the Web of Things, wearable technology, mobile commerce – anything and everything we see coming down the pipe.  The stakes are massive. And, as markets turn horizontal in the inevitable maturation phase to come, Google seems to be well on their way to creating the required foundations for that market.

Let’s spend a little time looking at how powerful this position might be for Google. Microsoft is still coasting on their success in creating a foundation for the desktop, 30 years later.  The fact that they still exist at all is testament to the power of Windows. But the desktop expansion that happened was reliant on just one device – the PC. And, the adoption curve for the PC took two decades to materialize, due to two things: the prerequisite of a fairly hefty investment in hardware and a relatively steep learning curve. The mobile adoption curve, already the fastest in history, has no such hurdles to clear. Relative entry price points are a fraction of what was required for PCs. Also, the learning curve is minimal. Mobile connectivity will leave the adoption curve of PCs in the dust.

In addition, an explosion of connected devices will propel the spread of mobile connectivity. This is not just about smart phones. Two of the biggest disruptive waves in the next 10 years will be wearable technologies and the Web of Things. Both of these will rely on the same foundations, an open and standardized operating system and the ability to access and share data. At the user interface level, the enhancements of powerful search technologies and social-graph enabled filters will significantly improve the functionality of these devices as they interface with the “cloud.”

In the hand that will have to inevitably be played, it seems that Google is currently holding all the right cards.

What’s Apple’s Plan for 2014?

First published January 2, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

apple-storeWhen new markets open, value chains first build up, then across. Someone first creates a vertically integrated experience, and then the market opens up as free competition drives efficiency. This is the challenge that currently lies ahead of Apple.

Apple has been the acknowledged master at creating seamless vertically integrated experiences. They did it with the personal computer. They did it with music. They did it with mobile. They did it with tablets. The advantage of working within a closed value chain is that you control every aspect of the experience. You can make sure that everyone plays nice with each other.

The challenge is that at some point, as adoption heats up, you simply cannot scale fast enough to meet market demand. Open competition drives horizontal competition, which drives down prices. The lack of control up and down the chain introduces some short-term user pain, but eventually the dynamics of an open market overcome this and the advantages of having several companies working on an opportunity outweigh the disadvantages.

Apple loves early markets. Or, at least, they have in the past. Under Jobs, they had a knack of creating an elegantly integrated experience that was carefully crafted from top to bottom within the walls of Cupertino. The vision and obsession with detail that defined the Jobs era was a potent combination when it came to building vertical experiences. Somehow, Apple was able to open new markets over and over again, seemingly at will. They were able to bridge Geoffrey Moore’s “Chasm” – by making new experiences painless enough for the front end of the adoption bell curve. As markets rode up the curve, markets turned from vertical to horizontal, driving a decline in margins and prices. This is where Apple tended to kick out and look for the next wave to catch.

But that was then, and this is now. As mentioned, Apple doesn’t do very well when markets turn horizontal. They depend on high margins. Only once, with the Mac, were they able to come back and stake out a respectable claim in a horizontal market. And they almost disappeared in the process. The number of dependent circumstances that would be required to repeat that trick is such that I doubt they’re eager to go down the same path with the iPhone or iPad.

In the year end summaries, many are talking about a seeming anomaly –  that despite Android’s massive market share dominance over iOS (81% vs 12.9%, according to a recent Forbes article) it’s Apple that’s ringing up the holiday sales with mobile shoppers (23% vs Android’s paltry 5%).  This becomes more understandable when you put it in the context of a vertical market that is becoming horizontal. Shopping experiences are still much less painful on iOS. And, you have a user base that is much more comfortable with mobile ecommerce because they’re on the leading edge of the adoption curve. They’ve had a mobile device for a number of years now. Android users, in general, tend to be further back on the curve. As the benefits of Darwinian competition redefine the mobile marketplace along more horizontal lines, those ecommerce numbers will revert to a more natural balance, but it will take some time.

As this inevitable change in the marketplace happens, the question then becomes, “What does Apple do next?” Can they find the next wave? And, if they do, does an Apple without Jobs still have what it takes to create the vertical experience that can open up a new market? There are plenty of opportunities – the two most notable ones being connected entertainment devices (the much-rumored new generation of Apple TV) and wearable technology (iWatches, etc).

Apple has always been known for keeping their cards glued against their chest. In 2014, it remains to be seen if they have anything amazing up their sleeve.