Monthly Archives: February 2010

The tsunami of dread

We wrote this about a year ago. Today, watching a tsunami bear down on Hawaii, it still fits:

We came across a debate on Twitter recently where Amanda Chapel, the faux persona charged with poking fun at social media thought leaders, referred to Søren Kierkegaard’s existential theories that people hide the meaninglessness of life by drowning themselves in diversions. (In case you miss the Amanda Chapel arguments, she’s a mask, she’s brilliant, she’s caustic, and she thinks the social media craze is overblown — which is right, of course.) So we read up on Existentialism and came to the concept of dread.

Dread. You know, that itching feeling that something bad is about to happen. Existentialists use the common experience of hiking to the edge of a cliff, seeing the abyss and getting a wave of confusion as you ponder your own ability to throw yourself off. This nasty little buzz is the human mind recognizing that nothing is really in control in your life, disaster could happen, and you might even bring it upon yourself.

Newscasters love dread; the weather forecasts are filled with it. In the days before Hurricane Ike slammed Texas, CNN, Fox News and the other broadcast outlets were salivating at the thought that cities could be decimated, Galveston drowned, ships sunk at sea. “CERTAIN DEATH!” cried the headline at

We’re going to start searching for examples of advertisers who play this same game. It is a powerful emotion, at least as riveting as sex or death or chocolate, and when the wave of dread surges, we want to watch it come, hoping in some secret part of our souls that the worst will happen. If we see it, at least we’ll be in control.

Network neighbors: Targeting the soul, not vinyl siding

The real value of social networks may not be advertising, or listening to sentiment, but instead in profiling customers who previously were hidden from view simply by looking at their network neighbors.

For a vivid example, visit Slate’s new “News Dots.” Slate has taken homophily analysis — the concept that birds of a feather flock together — into reporting by looking at connections between topics in the news. Its method is simple: software reviews 500 news articles from major publications daily; if a major term such as “health care” or “Obama” is mentioned at least twice, it gets a tag; the software then draws correlations between other keywords. And voilà — a visual map of connections between the day’s most urgent news stories.

Network analysis works for consumers as well — and can be critically important to marketers who can’t see inside homes of customers, because traditional demographic tagging has wild assumptions. PRIZM data, for instance, says you may be a “Beltway Boomer” if you live in the suburbs because your group of neighbors on average has certain characteristics, such as wealth, intellectual reading of pubs such as Architectural Digest, and shopping at upscale stores like Talbots — but what if you’re a former hippy now wearing hipster sneakers breaking out of the mold? What if, God forbid, you’re unique?

Behind your new detailed Twitter profile

Instead of looking at your house location or credit card habits to define you (PRIZM, for instance, stuffs you into 1 of 66 segments), network analysis would parse the connections you make in your personal life — the core logic being people tend to be drawn to other people with similar personas. The hipster breaking away from his neighbors likely shops, talks and works with other avant-garde types, even if the people just over the backyard fence are staid lawyers and doctors. So it’s no mistake social networks such as Twitter are asking users to complete more personal information. It’s a treasure trove for marketers, revealing what each consumer is like by the peer group she builds around herself. Studies by AT&T, for instance, have found that people who communicate with each other frequently by telephone (“telephone network neighbors”) are 3x to 5x more likely to respond to the same marketing offer.

So if you work in marketing, instead of putting up a Twitter feed or silly Facebook widget, perhaps you should have your social media agency start talking to the data guys who build models for your mailing lists. You have an opportunity to move targeting beyond the house to the people who actually live inside.

Lust in the bag

Advertising observer Angela Natividad hints she wants this duffel. We responded with this:

Yes, entire libraries have been written about the psychology of consumer desire, but it’s still amazing how some objects incite such lust. You can keep the bag; for me it’s leather jackets or the sheet metal of certain cars. My first such memory is from about age 17, when I worked at a country inn in Vermont and saw a red Porsche in a cottage driveway. The car had fenders jutting over the wheels, glowing cherry paint, and say your Freudian-cigar-or-mother’s-milk whatever I admit being struck with a sharp pain in my chest. I had a crush on a piece of steel. I have no answer as to why some objects make us want them so badly (with the irony being it is the longing we cherish, because once we buy leather coats they end up in the closet cause they’re rather heavy and uncomfortable). Evolutionary psychology blames it on our need for shelter; Geoffrey Miller says we do it to signal to others. Dunno. Maybe we don’t desire objects; we instead desire *desire,* because longing for that which we can’t have validates the truth of the emptiness inside us.

Or, it could just be a damn fine bag.

The manification of Toyota

It’s a shame Toyota is getting drawn and quartered over its stuck-pedals-or-sliding-brakes complaints because we’ve been admiring its new campaign for the revised Sienna minivan. Minivans, as you know, are the Great Compromise of automobile purchases, the harbinger of mid-life crises, the acknowledgement that a man has moved beyond the age of hot dating to P-whipped marriage to schlepping children with sippy cups to the local park and you better stop fighting in the back seat or no TV for a week! dialogue. You don’t have to put on the red dress tonight, Roxanne, because you won’t be caught dead with a guy in an egg-shaped hunk of sheet metal.

Toyota’s redrawn 2010 Sienna steps away from prior feminine-hygiene-packaging allusions. Sure, it is nowhere near as manly as Ford’s Flex — which hides its vanness with a Mini-on-steroids facade and a grill fresh off a Mach 3 razorblade — but from ads to brochures, Toyota is crowing this is a minivan that dads can drive. The Sienna’s top designer allegedly loves sports cars; the SE model option includes a dropped suspension and aggressive tuning; the dashboard has a Nike-inspired swoosh inlay either in wood or some fake form of carbon fiber (the swoop is actually a psychological device to give both front-seat passengers the illusion that they own 60% of the forward visual space). And banner ads online, which retarget you aggressively if you visit, proclaim “Daddy Likes.”

It’s a clever combination of product design and ad communications to appeal to two demos at the same time, men and women — and in a recession, both males and females in a household have to agree before shelling out $30k for a family bus. Toyota is obviously pushing the van because it is one of the few models not involved in its current massive recalls. If Toyota can put the brakes on consumers’ safety concerns, sales may suddenly accelerate.

Honey, what’s on the video game tonight?

A common mistake in marketing is to assume the media channels that worked last decade are still dominate your audience. Sure, you know the Internet is big. But how about video games?

Consider the latest stats from the Entertainment Software Association:

– 68% of American households play computer or video games.

– The average game player is 35 years old.

– The average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 39 years old.

– 40% of all game players are women.

– 25% of Americans over the age of 50 play video games, an increase from 9% in 1999.

Games are turning into a major media channel — for entertainment, social networking, music distribution and even advertising.

Rebooting the FCC: When gov’t needs your help

When the Federal Communications Commission was founded way back in 1934 as a replacement for an earlier government radio panel, no one thought 75 years later it might spend half a billion dollars annually regulating airwaves that bring consumers radio, TV signals, computer and mobile wireless data. Alas, in 2010 the proliferation of media makes governing the electromagnetic spectrum a billion times more difficult than solving, say, how to expand healthcare to Americans.

So now the FCC has basically said screw it. Rather that impose specific suggestions, it has launched a “Rebooting the FCC” web site asking you, dear Americans, to write in with your own answers. So go ahead!

1. Should Internet providers be charged with “network neutrality” and give everyone equal access to the Internet (feels good, right?), or make heavy users like the brat next door downloading movies on your shared cable tether sucking up bandwidth pay more (um, that feels good, too…)?

2. Should big companies be allowed to continue closed standards to maintain market share (sure), or does that stop free-market competition (um, no, that sounds better)?

3. Should the FCC step in to help save ailing mainstream media (yes!), to keep dying journalists from passing away leaving us nothing but blogs, or would that be government putting its thumb on history’s scale of content evolution (um, big government)?

On one hand we admire the FCC’s openness in seeking feedback. On the other, it feels a bit like seeking help from a counselor who says only, “sorry you’re upset, it’s OK to feel that way.” To ask a populous that fights over fictional death panels to make decisions about complex wireless technological enablers leading to game-theory conflicts in business seems a stretch. The FCC’s site proclaims: “The starting point for this effort, of course, is the First Amendment.” Great, FCC. Can’t wait to hear the solutions.

Beyond sentiment analysis

Most social media monitoring tools track mentions of your brand and then score whether the sentiment is positive or negative. But how do people position your product in their minds? What connections do they make? And how should you respond in ad messaging?

Data visualization guru Jeff Clark has created four tools that give new insights, including the Twitter StreamGraph shown above. StreamGraph shows the last 1,000 tweets about a term with the other words most closely associated with it, with waves denoting the frequency of each mention. Kleenex brand managers, for instance, obviously know their product goes with colds and noses, but the concurrent waves of “movies” and “men” might give them new ideas for ad messaging.

Scott Berinato at HBR notes that such data visualization tools are still in their infancy. Or maybe not. We have to wonder what the boys behind the Facebook curtain are doing with all our pokes and Farmville messages.

Sometimes it makes sense to ignore your customers

Social media gurus suggest listening to customers is everything. We say it’s not.

If you pan out and look at the five real forces that drive competition, customers are only one — and the way they feel about you at any time is often not the most important factor guiding your future decisions. Yes, user-content platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs and YouTube provide marketers a chance to eavesdrop on conversations; add listening tools such as Brands Eye, Radian6, ScoutLabs, TruCast, or Umbria and you can watch the “sentiment” or vibe about your brand rise and fall like a weather report. Of course you should listen for flare-ups, and if sentiment falls suddenly and sustainably, you have a structural problem in your business that must be addressed.

But consider the things consumer sentiment could not have predicted:

1. The near-death of Detroit. As late as 2005 and 2006, Americans were still in love with SUVs and big trucks. Spiking oil prices and Wall Street-fed recessions were just about to strike, but an automotive planner of the time, if given the chance to listen to consumer needs, would have designed flashy huge new trucks. GM failed because it did what customers wanted in 2005, and its business ecosystem shifted two years later.

2. Cameras on cell phones. When these first popped up, people laughed. The New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a guy complaining he had just taken a photograph of his ear. But the version creep expanded and built the platform for today’s iPhone-app-styled smartphones which do almost anything.

3. Employer-provided health insurance. David Goldhill noted last fall in The Atlantic that our modern U.S. healthcare system in which most Americans are covered by insurance from their employers was an accident of law. In 1954 Congress passed legislation making employer contributions to your health coverage tax-deductible, meaning it was cheaper for your boss to pay you in health benefits than to pay you with a wage. The incentive of a tax benefit led to today’s insurance culture, which most people like … yet no poll or “listening in” of consumers in the 1950s could have predicted this sea change in an industry.

4. Airline baggage fees. Perhaps the best current example of something consumers say they hate but love to buy is airline tickets. Supposedly add-on surcharges for blankets and baggage are despised by today’s consumers. A simpleton could fire up Radian6, hear the complaints, and change the pricing strategy. Yet that would wreck an airline business — because the reality is consumers shop for tickets using online aggregation services such as Travelocity that compare ticket price points as commodities, and choose the cheapest fares they can find for Hawaii. By leaving some costs elsewhere, an airline makes its ticket price on the web comparison sites look more attractive. If any airline removed surcharges, it would have to add perhaps $100 to each ticket price, and that uncompetitive price point on Expedia would crush its sales.

People talk, but talking isn’t the same thing as what drives their action.

Yes, consumers are smart. Yes, your business should to listen to them. But raves and sighs about satisfaction today are just a small drumbeat in the competitive forces that shape your industry. Social-media monitoring is a powerful addition to your toolset, but beware any consultant who tells you that listening to your customers’ whims today gives you all the answers you will need for tomorrow.

Want to connect with John Mayer? Twiangulate.

Say you dig musician John Mayer and want to chat, perhaps to find out why he said some strange things about dating in a recent Playboy interview. Good luck, of course: John’s famous, you don’t have his phone number, and if you try Twitter, well, you’ll join a throng of 3,052,153 people who follow him — of whom John only follows 80 back.

So ping Tom Lee instead.

Tom Lee, you see, is one of the least-well known people John Mayer follows on Twitter, and there’s a good chance Tom would connect with you, respond to your tweets or even take a call. Get to know Tom, you might get to know John. Such “social graph analysis” is part of a growing trend supported by free tools such as Twiangulate and HiveMind. ReadWriteWeb has a terrific overview of the services, which can lead to freaky-cool findings. Twiangulate, for instance, allows you to compare the online networks of up to three people and then sort them by “smallest tweep,” so a reporter trying to chase down Al Gore for an oil energy story could compare who he follows on Twitter vs. friends of Exxon’s top brass. That common person probably has a few good stories about Al Gore and energy giants. Or you could find an unfamous person followed by both John Mayer and his ex-flame Jessica Simpson and take him out to lunch. Maybe with Jessica.

Hmm. The idea of someone being able to sift through your own network may seem Orwellian, but then, you knew information wants to be free, didn’t you?