Living Beyond Our Expectations

First published May 25, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

To my father-in-law, the Internet is a big black box that he doesn’t understand, but inside of which, all is possible. This became clear to me after the following conversation:

F-I-L: Gord?

Me: Yes?

F-I-L: Can you go on your computer and find the combination for my safe?

Me: Huh?

F-I-L: I have an old safe that I locked years ago and I can’t remember the combination. I thought you could probably find it on your computer.

Of course, by “computer,” he meant the Internet. To him, the Internet is the sum collection of all information, and in that, he’s not far wrong. Chances are, in some archive of manufacturer’s data somewhere, the lost combination probably exists. If it does, it’s just one database call away from being public. One would hope that this information would always remain private, but my point is, as naïve as my father-in-law’s question seems to be, it’s probably not that far removed from reality.

Technology and our expectations of what’s possible also seem to play a game of cat and mouse.  No matter what we dream up, it seems that it becomes reality in the blink of an eye. In fact, I suspect that technology now regularly outpaces our wildest dreams. Almost anything is possible, at least in theory. If it doesn’t exist, it’s probably just that it’s not practical. Nobody has bothered to put in the effort to make it happen.

Consider marketing intelligence, for instance. Remember the first time you encountered what John Battelle dubbed the “database of intentions”? It was Google’s query data, and Battelle had what he called a “Holy Sh*t” moment when he realized:

This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind – a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.

For marketers, Google had provided us with the biggest source of marketing intelligence ever compiled. It was the crystallization of consumer intent, in searchable form. We collectively salivated over it.

But that was a decade ago. Now, as marketers, we routinely curse the gaps in and shortcomings of Google’s query data. As powerful as it once seemed, our expectations have leapfrogged ahead of it.

Battelle has recently updated his definition of the database of intent, adding four new “fields” to it. Originally there was the search “query,” signaling “what I want.” Now, the “social graph” indicates “who I am” and “who I know.” The “status update” signals “what I’m doing” and “what’s happening.” The “check-in” signals “where I am.” And the “purchase” signals “what I’m buying.”

For a marketer, this is mind-blowing stuff.  The trick, of course, is to bring this all together in a meaningful way. To do so, there are multiple technology, intellectual property and privacy hurdles to get over. But it’s all very doable. It’s administration, not technology, that’s holding us back. A big part of Facebook’s IPO valuation was based on successfully pulling this off.

Again, technology has dangled a possibility at the leading edge of our expectations. But it will happen. And when it does, it will suddenly seem ho-hum to us. Our expectations will rocket forward to another possibility.

But even as fast as our expectations move, I guarantee, somewhere, someone is already working on something that lies beyond anything we ever dreamed of. Thank goodness our expectations are as elastic as they seem to be.

The “Field of Dreams” Dilemma

First published May 3, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There’s a chicken and an egg paradox in mobile marketing. Many mobile sites sit moldering in the online wilderness, attracting few to no visitors. The same could be said for many elaborate online customer portals, social media outposts or online communities. Somebody went to the trouble to build them, but no one came. Why?

Well, it could be because no one thinks to go to the trouble to look for them, just as no one expects to find a ball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. It wasn’t until the ghosts of eight Chicago White Sox players, banned for life from playing the game they loved, started playing on the “Field of Dreams” that anyone bothered to drive to Ray Kinsella’s farm.  There was suddenly a reason to go.

The problem with many out-of–the-way online destinations is that there is no good reason to go. Because of this, we make two assumptions:

–       If there is no good reason for a destination to exist, then the destination probably doesn’t exist. Or,

–       If it does exist, it will be a waste of time and energy to visit.

If we jump to either of these two conclusions, we don’t bother looking for the destination. We won’t make the investment required to explore and evaluate. You see, there is a built-in mechanism that makes a “Build it and they will come” strategy a risky bet.

This built-in mechanism comes from behavioral ecology and is called the “marginal value theorem.” It was first identified by Eric Charnov in 1976 and has since been borrowed to explain behaviors in online information foraging by Peter Pirolli, amongst others. The idea behind it is simple: We will only invest the time and effort to find a new “patch” of online information if we think it’s better than “patches” we already know exist and are easy to navigate to.  In other words, we’re pretty lazy and won’t make any unnecessary trips.

This cost/benefit calculation is done largely at a subconscious level and will dictate our online behaviors. It’s not that we make a conscious decision not to look for new mobile sites or social destinations. But unbeknownst to us, our brain is already passing value judgments that will tend to keep us going down well-worn paths. So, if we are looking for information or functionality that would be unlikely to find in a mobile site or app, but we know of a website that has just what we’re looking for and time is not a urgent matter, we’ll wait until we’re in front of our regular computer to do the research. We automatically disqualify the mobile opportunity because our “marginal value” threshold has not been met.

The same is true for social sites. If we believe that there is a compelling reason to seek out a Facebook page (promotional offers, information not available elsewhere) then we’ll go to the trouble to track it down. Otherwise, we’ll stick to destinations we know.

I believe the marginal value theorem plays an important role in defining the scope of our online worlds. We only explore new territory when we feel our needs won’t be met by destinations we already know and are comfortable with.  And if we rule out entire categories of content or functionality as being unlikely to adapt well to a mobile or social environment (B2B research in complex sales scenarios being one example) then we won’t go to the trouble to look for them.

I should finish off by saying that this is a moving target. Once there is enough critical mass in new online territory to reset visitor expectations, you’ve increased the “richness” of the patch to the point where the “marginal value” conditions are met and the brain decides it’s worth a small investment of time and energy.

In other words, if Shoeless Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver and Fred McMullin all start playing baseball in a cornfield, than it’s probably worth hopping on the tractor and head’n over to the Kinsella place!