Monthly Archives: October 2009

Twitter lists: You are no longer the center


Twitter has created lists. Now, rather than connecting directly with others in the microblogging-whatever service, you can simply snatch names and build your own list of people under any title you want (Gurus, Athletes, Dorks, Quacks). To take a peek, the new site Listorious offers collections of lists where you can peruse groups of interesting humans like stacks of dusty comic books at an antique shop.

If you play in social media you know that human desires drive most online connections, and now this new Twitter sorting mechanism for egos has people breathing hard. Is it a new form of self-aggrandizement? A new way for ideas to connect with the world? Is it turning human connections away from one-to-one social networks, back to vicariously watched broadcast channels? Grad student Venessa Miemis posed great questions about lists over at her blog, and here is our response:

Your ego has been stolen

“Venessa, nice to meet you … What I find most interesting is this new format has changed social media in a fundamental way — removing the human ego from the center. In the (very recent) past, all social graphs revolved around an individual at the core; now the individual user is removed, and social graphs can float as bubbles in the ether, evolving over time (just as your own list of thinkers will change).

“Networks of people with no ego at the center driving the connections create some intriguing moral questions. Will stalking others be easier, if you now follow people without them realizing it? Can someone defame your name, if they put you on a list of, say, Really Bad People (think of the ugly names of lists posed in the next presidential election!)? Will list-chasing by wannabe thought leaders create a new currency for self promotion? Will companies such as IZEA, which have polluted social media with paid posts and paid tweets, now game the list system by encouraging payments to insert brands or advertisers into popular lists? Will the ability of anyone to promote others to lists create a new sentiment analysis scoring system, providing more intelligence to data miners as they can now see what markets of people think about the individuals or brands in their lists?

“I have no answers. The fundamental issue is people are learning how to manipulate the connections inside human networks for the first time, where in the past they could only control the message. Will be fun to watch.”

To explore more, here is Venessa’s own “meta-list” of the top lists she likes.

Image: Idlphoto

The girl who knew what God looks like

If you care about education then don’t miss this 2006 speech by Ken Robinson. He suggests the Western education system is ill-suited for helping children nurture creativity, and yet in a rapidly shifting world — where today’s schoolchildren will retire in 2065 and we can’t predict the future of 2015 — creativity is the most important skill for humanity’s survival. Plus he’s damn funny.

Via Jim Mitchem.

Google hunts Big Business (while mobile throws the spear)


An editor we know noticed today that Google is running banner ads at the top of BusinessWeek.com, enticing a corporate audience to click through and learn how Google apps can run their enterprise better. The “Go Google” campaign has been out since mid-summer, so it’s time to wonder: What in the world is Google thinking, chasing big organizations?

Los Angeles, for one. The entire city government announced Tuesday it has approved a $7.2 million deal to run Google applications via contractor Computer Sciences Corp. That’s right. Police officer and firefighter email and related web apps will now float off local desktops into the cloud.

Google, whassup?

Google makes the vast majority of its moola from advertising associated with consumer web searches. Even if it were successful in making a dent in Corporate America, selling apps to seats for small fees, it might get a minor uptick in revenues. So why chase the enterprise software market? We see five reasons:

1. Search is going down. Consumer search usage is slipping. Google constantly releases data showing paid clicks are up, but much of that comes from overseas growth. Click over to Google Trends and type in any common products or services, and you’ll see aggregate search volumes in the United States and globally are sliding in most categories. (Try it here: Punch in “flowers,” “diamonds,” “auto repair,” and watch the demand curve fall.) This is driven by consumer adoption of social media and online networking as a new, real-time, more-trusted way to find things. Search still works … but like three broadcast TV channels suddenly surrounded by thousands of new cable options, the triad of Google, Yahoo and Bing face stiff competition from your college buddy making recommendations on Facebook.

2. Businesses are market levers. To fight search slippage, Google needs a one-to-many sale. Business organizations are the easiest point of entry to get thousands of users re-enamored with Google free apps … and search.

3. Redmond will get mad. The “Go Google” campaign also hurts Microsoft. You know, that bad boy that just launched the oh-so-sexy Bing. Google can’t be happy to see Redmond finally out with a hot search product, backed by a $100 million ad campaign launch. So Google is slapping Microsoft back where it hurts, in the business software arena.

4. Business users love cell phones. Google is getting buzz. And who is out with a hot new cell phone operating system? Why, Google Android, popping the lid off the smoking-hot Droid phone. Buzz on one side (apps) supports buzz on the other (mobile).

5. And Google needs cell phones to survive. This is the final, most telling point: mobile advertising. Google’s biggest threat is from mobile, where smart phones now come with do-anything apps that provide hundreds of points of entry into the internet … all bypassing the traditional Google search engine. Log on to an app for weather or traffic or sports scores and you’ve likely just skipped over Google.com. In addition, mobile screens are tiny compared to PC screens, so even if you do use Google as your internet on-ramp, there’s less ad space to sell. So Google needs to own the mobile space, and fast.

Four billion proof points

This is no idle threat. There are now more than 4 billion mobile phone subscribers in the world, compared to about 1 billion computers. Wall Street tech guru Mary Meeker just noted that by 2010 we’ll have 10 billion total gadgets with screens in the world … and most won’t have an interface that houses Google search windows on web browsers. Markets with the greatest growth potential, such as China and India, are leaping right over computers to cell phones which are more affordable, just as powerful, and fit into a peripatetic lifestyle. Human interactivity is moving past your old-fashioned computer, and Google’s core business — search with lots of text ads — works best on those soon-to-be-outdated wide screens.

So Google wants office workers to notice that Google is the place to go for apps, and mobile phones, and yes, search. Put apps and mobile together, and you’ve got a survival strategy. Go, Google.

Barnes & Noble Nook’s $4 billion ad slot


Want to find $4 billion? Look at the design coincidence of Barnes & Noble’s new Nook e-book reader, which has a second color screen at the bottom that is somehow the exact same dimension as a web banner ad. Perhaps this is not happenstance at all — perhaps B&N realized there is still one vast untapped corner of the world that marketers have missed as a channel for their messages, and the humble book is it.

That’s right. Banner ads inside books.

If being served banner ads for Masonic meetings as you read Dan Brown feels unreal, well, let’s first size the market. The average U.S. adult reads four books a year; with a population of 250 million you get 1 billion books digested annually. At 200 pages per book, that’s 200 billion potential ad impressions if we stuck just one ad at the bottom of each page. Now, charge a $20 CPM for such premium placement and — voilà — you’ve just unlocked a $4 billion advertising market. College textbooks with coupons for Starbucks coffee, here we go!

Of course, the challenge would be adoption. Advertising isn’t always welcomed in new spaces, so we might need an intermediary to push the idea along. Let’s see — what part of the publishing industry is desperately experimenting with new revenue models?

Newspapers, your defense beckons

Why, newspapers. Their circulation dropped 10% in just the past year, and the graveyard is beckoning. So here’s a little more free math: If The New York Times gave you a free Nook, you could be served 60 ads a day (assuming the stickiness of the device made you click around only NYT content) … at a $20 CPM giving $1.20 in ad revenue to the Times. That’s $438 in revenue a year per reader. The Times could buy Nooks wholesale for say $100 and break even after only three months, and grab huge interest among new readers (because who wouldn’t want a free gadget and free subscription). Sign up 100,000 new readers, NYT, and in Year 1, after device costs, you’ll make $33.8 million. Triple your CPMs, given the impact of the ad unit, and you’re at $121 million.

That’s a drop in a bucket for a company that made $571 million in the last quarter, but as costs come down from giving up wood pulp and presses, specialized devices tethered to protected content could be a survival strategy. And The Times, like most newspapers, is growing desperate to survive. Would an advertiser pay a $60 CPM for the only ad in front of a reader, who signed up for a device with detailed demographic information allowing rich targeting? Why, since most advertising is surrounded by clutter and thus ignored, we think yes.

Careful, it’s a walled garden

The punchline is this: Newspapers or book publishers would win more consumer attention, because you can’t easily surf away to other web sites on such devices. Advertisers would win higher response rates, because the ads are much more noticeable and could be contextually targeted to content and the user’s personal information disclosed when they signed up. And consumers could win with a device that’s more convenient than smudgy newsprint.

E-readers, in the end, are walled gardens of technology that wring more value from users because they control access while providing the illusion of high-tech convenience. Of course technology will soon leap ahead with 3-D mobile screens … but given the enduring power of printed words on paper, we think users might go along for the read.

Um, Microsoft, we hope that isn’t the babysitter


If you dig hearing people argue about the future of advertising you might like this week’s BeanCast podcast. We joined in the debate Sunday night with marketing gurus Bob Knorpp, the host; Joseph Jaffe of Crayon; Edward Boches of Mullen; and James P. Othmer, author of Adland. One key question that emerged was if advertising, including direct marketing, is really an “impression currency” that is being devalued as consumers learn to share their own content, how can marketers possibly make advertising work?

We think it comes down to three choices: Marketers can try to improve targeting (with sharper media buying and ad performance measurement); they can try to improve relevance (with product attributes, design, or creative that tell real stories vital to real people’s lives); or they can increase shock value.

The shock option explains why users of Microsoft Office will have hot dates with women who put their hands in your lap.

Dear New York Times: We ripped off your photo to prove a viral point


This is a story about why we decided to steal from The New York Times: because we’re trying to further the original intent of copyrights, to spur the encouragement of learning.

Let’s turn the clock back to yesterday when we read a series of readers’ comments at FoxNews.com about swine flu that were so paranoid we had to say something. (Click here for the Fox News link, then click on “Join the Discussion” to see comments.) Not that the people responding are necessarily wrong; it is possible that the government is turning the flu into a hoax, that no one will die from a pandemic, and that flu hysteria is a communist plot to give government control over your money. Luckily we are wearing a tin-foil hat so the radio waves from the space aliens now managing our government will not corrupt our minds.




Based on such drivel, our initial blog thesis was to explain how all consumers, including us and you, start with biased points of view, that no one is right or wrong but simply viewing reality from different entry points of perception … and how marketers must take this into consideration as they craft their own messages. But as we researched photos for this post, we came across the one at top by The New York Times photographer James Estrin that stunned us into silence.

Copyrights were meant to teach, yet have led to ignorance.

The image is wonderful. It’s heartbreakingly real. It conjures pending loss, a parental figure (mother? off-duty nurse?) coaxing life back into a young child’s lungs, a cloak of leather hinting at darkness to come. Alas, the photo is also copyrighted by The New York Times and not available under Creative Commons license, meaning we shouldn’t be sharing it with you since no revenue passes from our blog directly to NYT. Most bloggers, including us, are careful to share only images marked under Creative Commons, in which the authors of the content allow it to be passed to others as long as we provide attribution. In contrast, copyright laws block the unasked-for retransmission of images, because they hearken back to a 1710 statute in Britain meant to help writers make a living. The original logic behind copyrights was that publishers were unfairly mining the works of authors without paying them, leading to their ruin. By “copyrighting” work and ensuring authors would get paid, humans would have an incentive to create new knowledge, more people would right, and both authors and publishers and readers would win in a cornucopia of intellectual prosperity. Protection of ideas and payment to creators would lead to the betterment of humankind. In an age where it cost money to print a book, the only way to encourage the hard risks of penning words and setting type was to make sure every individual got paid.

However, the world has turned a step beyond simple protection. Now, in this age of consumers sharing everything, copyrights kill viral transmission before it starts; and today, viral success is everything. If you don’t let the masses play with your ideas, your ideas will die in the cradle. Consider the above flu image: If we did not share this New York Times’ image with you, you wouldn’t be rethinking your lack of subscription to the paper. The few thousand readers of this blog might not consider signing up and driving revenue to NYT. Hundreds of people wouldn’t rebroadcast this message, and NYT and James Estrin miss the opportunity to be seen among the masses.

Such a dilemma. We could contact NYT, try to get permission, and perhaps spend a few hundred dollars for the privilege of sharing the photo. By the time we figured out the paperwork the flu issue would be over, and no one would care (or reshare the image). So we’re testing the concept by breaking the law. The NYT lawyers likely did not read our column in BusinessWeek arguing that all content already is free, and if you don’t admit it’s free, you’re walling yourself off from your own success.

All we can say is information wants to be free. Mr. Estrin, we apologize for taking your photo, but to argue the case that swine flu is in fact viral, we want to make sure your image goes viral too.

The Warshaw Curve of brand love


This is a story of lovers and haters.

A while back video producer Douglas Warshaw had an idea: Consumers seem to like extremes in video content, including a lot of low-end stuff (fuzzy home videos on YouTube) and also high-end stuff (the new HDTV, crystal-clear images seen on your big-screen TV in your basement). The stuff in the middle, the ho-hum content produced by local TV stations, was the video people were forgetting. Draw this demand and you get an inverted bell curve with a big dip in the middle.

We think this Warshaw Curve also fits how any range of consumers feel about your brand — and being aware of this pattern is critically important. Imagine you took a survey of your customers and found, on average, the majority moderately like your product. On face value, this sounds good — you have lukewarm goodwill and, as most brands do, room for improvement. But what if buried in your customer base were extremes of love and hate?

The curve above shows how a sentiment analysis of a brand might average with lukewarm affection, but have hidden extremes of customers who despise or adore you. Managing these extremes is what’s important, because the haters can lead to sudden PR nightmares and the lovers can become your word-of-mouth fan base. Blogger Len Kendall noted recently that most social media sentiment rankings show neutral in the majority of consumer comments. Jay Leno is a perfect example: most viewers, according to social-media tracking service Trendrr, feel neutral about his TV show’s performance. But the small fraction who think Jay has jumped the shark are creating a groundswell of negative buzz, and his ratings are down.

Be careful. Even if most of your customers are in neutral, your brand could be grinding gears.

Digital Emily and the future of your flesh

Paul Debevec, the digital effects star behind The Matrix and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, here shows off the latest evolution of animation. The fake Emily looks so real (fast-forward the video to minute 5:00 to see the technically constructed, moving face) that you can no longer tell the difference between computer graphics and reality.

Perfection of human artifice was bound to happen sooner or later. For decades, animators have struggled to overcome The Uncanny Valley effect — the disturbing vibe you get watching animated faces that don’t look quite real. German psychologist Ernst Jentsch coined the term in 1906, as as we’ve written before, most “human” animation attempts such as the Tom Hanks’ characters in 2004′s Polar Express are as eerie as walking through a wax museum at night. The eyes are dead; the faces look ghastly; we don’t believe it is real. But now, fake reality is here.

Untrue faces may mask the truth

What happens to the world of communication when computers can post illusions of humans, who don’t exist, saying anything the controllers behind the scenes want? The first application is obviously video games, such as Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain,” but imagine fake faces intersecting with social media and a computer script that could pass the Turing Test. The possibilities are endless. A company could create a fake public relations spokesperson, as verbally gifted as Scott Monty with the sex appeal of Angelina Jolie. We could elect politicians who don’t exist. The illusion of artificial intelligence would be complete, as long as the lips move just so and the script makes us believe.

How about yourself? Would you improve your own image to the world by creating an avatar that looks like Brad Pitt or Megan Fox? If you go out at night, will it mean typing at a computer while you send a 3-D perfection of species out to mingle in a better, photorealistic Second Life?

The standards for morality will slide in such a future, where our presentation to the world and actions are projected digital ghosts, not our own flesh and blood. Work, advertising, social gatherings, love and war could shift from Earth to the Matrix. It’s all a natural progression from our current use of film and video, which now requires careful costumes, lighting and staging, to a real-time artificial projection. Instead of acting out roles in a movie, each human will simply boot up their animated avatar and leap into the fray. Fake reality, here’s looking at you.

10x more devices. Paradoxically, there’s less room for ads.

Mary Meeker was one of the first Wall Street analysts to realize the potential of the internet. In the 1990s she rode the first tech bubble to the top, successfully predicting the rise of Amazon, AOL and Netscape, and then got beaten up by the press when that bubble burst and other stock picks failed.

Now Meeker is back with a glowing forecast of economic recovery and mobile adoption. The most interesting slide for marketers may be No. 32, which points to a continued rapidly fragmenting media world of 10 times more devices in consumers’ hands. In 2000 there were about 1 billion computers or cell phones on our planet; by 2010 the device plethora is expected to be 10 billion units. The only possible behavior that can support such expansion is concurrent media usage, a trend observed by Nielsen in which consumers use television, smartphones, Kindles, tablets, games and GPS systems all at the same time. Do you have teenage kids? Check what’s in their hands when they’re watching the tube.

A casual viewer of Meeker’s rosy outlook might think mobile phones point to huge opportunities for advertisers (yes, a new platform to push out our message!); a more critical observer will realize that in a world filled with devices for sharing information across multiple channels simultaneously, the ability of consumers to focus on any single ad message is going to be diminished. (Back to those teens: where do their eyes go when commercials come on TV? Why, down to the laptop in their laps.) Play the device expansion forward to 2020, when chips and tiny glass screens and video walls are everywhere, and something has to give. The size of small screens on smartphones leaves about 90% less visual space for ads vs. a computer screen. A simple ruler shows you the severe contraction in advertising inventory approaching … in the very hyped-up devices, cell phones, that are the future of consumer communication.

The paradox: More ad channels, less real ad inventory

What’s that? Ad inventory is shrinking? This seems nonsensical, since we’re approaching 10 billion devices all filled with colorful screens. But it’s true. While media buyers can find low CPMs and millions of slots for banners or mobile apps, the real impressions on the audience are growing diminished. In terms of consumers actually seeing the ads — you know, eye contact required to make the message sink into the brain — tiny screens, concurrent media usage, and shifts in consumer modality from watching to creating all squeeze the “real” ad inventory making impressions on your target customers.

It’s a classic supply and demand problem. If demand for third-party interruptions is falling as consumers learn to make their own content (witness Hulu.com’s struggle to make money with limited consumer patience for online video ads), and the supply of interruptions grows higher (as advertisers try to squeeze into every emerging channel), the value of those interruptions will fall. Substitute the word “advertising” for “interruption,” and you’ll see marketers’ challenge.