Jan 12

The Power of Games

I’ve spent the last 9+ years breathing the hot air of marketing soothsayers.  It’s unavoidable.  Whether you’re a CMO or Brand Manager, a Creative Director or Account Planner, or a Media Planner or Marketing Analyst, you’ve been subjected to all the “new” and “change” and “disruption” of the industry.  And while there is fire somewhere deep in all that smoke, I’m not sure the size and direction of it is represented well through all the talking head puffery.

Back when I was a talking head myself, my sole role at the Agency being the “Innovation Guy,” I presented to a global CMO, 3 hours worth, on all the new.  But my partner and I anchored our presentation with the simple fact — humans don’t change much.  And we don’t.  What and who we are change at the pace of glaciers.  ”How” we are changes like the wind.  It’s easy to get caught up in the new “how.”  Industries are being built on leveraging the ever-changing “how” of our “real-time” lives.  But the key to staying ahead of the next how is to start from what and who — rooting yourself in what doesn’t change helps you evaluate meaningful change and differentiate it from chaos or noise.

So rather than talking about what is changing in marketing and advertising, let’s start with what doesn’t change.  Branding and advertising have always been about influencing and teaching through story.  Stories have been one of the most powerful media agnostic forms of teaching since the birth of language. The difference today is the format and medium of that storytelling is no longer as simple as an oral tradition passed on in small geographically constrained ways.  It’s not as simple as a written document reproduced and distributed with wide reach at high latency.  In fact, it’s beyond reach and speed.  Stories now have more reach and speed than ever before, but they also take on limitless shapes, forming and reforming across mediums in place and time, shaped continually by many tellers and retellers.

Marketers are struggling with how they best influence that story.  And in the process, they are experimenting with new forms of storytelling.

But I think there is a very different (and complementary) approach.  While stories, at their best, can inspire people to think and feel differently, and even to act, they aren’t very effective at teaching people how to act.  Marketing isn’t just about branding and advertising, it’s about helping people buy, use, and advocate for your product/service.  The more disruptive the “how” of your product, the more time you need to spend teaching people the “how.”  If stories aren’t enough, what are?

Games are not stories. It is interesting to make the comparison, though: Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously. Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy. Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions. Games are external—they are about people’s actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal—they are about people’s emotions and thoughts.  A Theory of Fun For Game Design - Raph Koster


Could games be the answer?  Not directly, no.  I am NOT saying you should build “gamification” into your marketing plan.  You have to go deeper into what a game really is:

They are ““iconified representations of human experience that we can practice with and learn patterns from.”

The risk, and probably aversion to this train of thought, is that you end up with very rational, practical communication that does nothing for you.  It’s more than that.  I’m not talking product demos, product cut-aways, making ofs, etc.  Games have a more powerful impact.  They influence in more subtly fun ways.

Games have these characteristics: They present us with models of real things—often highly abstracted. They are generally quantified or even quantized models. They primarily teach us things that we can absorb into the unconscious as opposed to things designed to be tackled by the conscious, logical mind. They mostly teach us things that are fairly primitive behaviors, but they don’t have to. A Theory of Fun For Game Design - Raph Koster

Primitive behaviors — now you’re talking.  That’s the power of games.  You simplify complex reality into the core essence, create methods for learning the patterns and actions of that reality that are fun, and people actually change their behavior as a result.

I started this whole thing off with marketing and advertising.  Here’s what I’m proposing:  to leverage the power of games in a marketing context, you have to move beyond simple gamification tactics.  You have to define the essence of your experience, then build fun ways for people to learn the patterns of that experience.

More on that to come…

Dec 11

The Hashtag Fail Whale

If you’ve spent time trying to analyze twitter data you undoubtedly have come across the topic problem.

The Problem
“What’s this tweet about?”
“Are there other tweets that are related?”

Somewhere along the way, Twitter, it seems, decided the hashtag was enough to answer the above.

Hashtags are the wild west of naming conventions. Anyone can create or use one (and most people don’t). Further, with a character limited tweet, proper tagging cuts into tweet content.

But as a user, I want to be able to find all tweets about a news story, an event, a book that was just released. Relying on Twitter users to manually add hashtags to do that is a fail whale of a different color.

The Solution
Why hasn’t Twitter borrowed from Delicious – a service that finds the balance between the freedom and discovery of a folksonomy, and the clarity and utility of a taxonomy?

Why not auto suggest tags as someone generates the tweet?  And these tags don’t count against the character limit.  And further, if someone doesn’t select or create a tag, Twitter auto generates one (and designates it differently than a user generated/selected one).

Just as I can search for an @ so I can connect a person, making a # (or a new version of a tag) work the same way could make Twitter even more powerful — and make it more money.

A Consumer Use Case
Imagine I just watched top chef last week and I wanted to Tweet about a cheftestant.  I start drafting my pithy tweet and auto suggested tags include: top chef, top chef season 8, top chef season 8 episode 7, top chef cheftestant smith.

Since I’m commenting on Cheftestant Smith about her performance in episode 7 of the current season, I select those two last tags.

Later, when a fan of Cheftestant Smith (or she herself), is searching for tweets, she doesn’t have to use an @ people search on herself (and if she used twitter, the autosuggest would suggest her @ handle as well).  But more useful, instead of relying on a #topchef tag, searching on top chef would bring up all the tags as discussed above, allowing a user to see more related tweets (rather than those hashtagged), less noise (created by NLP searches), and drill down (a certain episode, ingredient, etc of the episode).

But how does this make Twitter money?

The Business Case

1.  Tag Bidding

2. Page Buying

3.  Tag Structuring

Using the previous use case, imagine where Bravo can get value.  First, they bid on auto suggest tags — they can help structure the conversation.  And auto suggest will bring in both “paid” and “organic” tags to ensure the user still finds value in the tags.

Then, for each tag, a “page” can be registered/bought.  When someone clicks a tag, they go to that page that aggregates the conversations, but also allows for custom content as well — sponsored links blossom into sponsored tags and pages.

Finally, organizations can created “tag structures.”  In the Iron Chef example, Bravo could create a taxonomy of tags, creating order and hierarchy around the folksonomy — show level tags, episode, etc.

Feb 11

Outsourcing Intelligence

Are we becoming dumber as our systems become smarter?

I’m noodling around with the hypothesis —  but it seems that a confluence of factors are making us dumber.

1. We don’t need to think – everything else does so for us. You don’t need to know much of anything — thermostats, microprocessors, you name it, all have feedback and optimization built in. We just have to “set it and forget it.”

2. We don’t have the time – there are too many alternatives competing for our attention. Distractions are increasing exponentially while time is staying constrained. Don’t let #1 above fool you into thinking you have more time. You don’t. You just stop thinking about things you used to.

3. We are entitled – for much of the democratic world our unfilled needs are definitely near the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy. And in fact, as I review the hierarchy, I wonder if the factors here inhibit us from ever reaching self actualization. You get smarter when you feel there is a gap between the present and the future. I think we’re stuck in the vicious loop of seeking belonging and esteem…

This is just a start of a line of thought. It leads me to Schumpeter’s thinking of capitalism eating itself. I wonder if our “progress” make us more selfish, more entitled, and we end up outsourcing real purpose and meaning so we’re not bothered.

The original germ of this reasoning started when I was thinking about what I wanted to ask Arianna Huffington when she visited my office. I was thinking about the information we expose ourselves to — that “news” isn’t about what is fit to print — it’s more about what we want to hear (whether it is interesting, shocking, etc). And if you follow that reasoning to the limit, I fear that rather than having a broader world view we have a more narrow one. Rather than being more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate towards others, we instead seek out our cohorts or tribes and engage in a vicious echo chamber of thought.

There is a counterweight to all this — the transparency and connectivity that comes with the enabling technology. Twitter in the Middle East, Wikileaks and closed government, etc. But are those enough? If American politics are the bellwether we’re doomed.

Jan 11

Real Time Conflicts

I advocate for the power of real-time analytics constantly.   However, Donella Meadows book: Thinking In Systems, provides a more robust perspective on the power of real-time and delays in systems.  Most counterintuitive is the fact that delays can (sometimes) make for a more efficient system.  Waiting to act (and not just in the sense of real options) can make a system more stable.

Your thinking — John, your an idiot, everyone knows over-reacting is inefficient.  Yes — but what is the magical line between acting too quickly and waiting too long?

Systems thinking — when you see the world as stocks, flows, and feedback — is more important than ever.  Technology has created more feedback loops (with faster cycles), more flows (with less friction), and new stocks.  The real potential here is to find out when you need to act — and the minimally effective amount.

The trend of “real-time” is buzzworthy — but dangerous without the appropriate systems thinking to accompany it.

Jan 11

Posts Unwritten

  • Complex Adaptive Systems and the shape of the future.
  • How warfare has changed — but marketing is still living the cold war
  • Enders Game of Advertising
  • 99% people who have strategy in title, or say “strategy”, can’t articulate what strategy is

Jul 10

Email AI

I’m in the middle of a couple books on complexity — and they’ve affected me.    In the email hell that is my worklife, I started to think about an emergent/adaptive inbox.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

Decaying Relevancy:  Imagine all incoming email has a “freshness” date.  It came in X time ago.  That email is either read or unread.  There’s quite a bit of intelligence in these two dimensions.  Email I care about will be read while fresh.  Email I drudge through — or that is complex — will be read and stale.  Email that is unread and stale is useless.  That leaves fresh unread email.  That’s what I really care about making sense of.

Sender Benchmarking:  Now is when it gets interesting.  Imagine that I know, for each sender, a distribution on read/unread and freshness.   That distribution is going to tell a lot — some shapes will be fat-headed, where 80% of the emails I read right away.  Some will be fat-tailed — where I read very few of them right away.  Based on these distributions, I can start to categorize and prioritize my email (or rather, it can be done adaptively based on my normal interaction with email).

Behavioral Conclusion:  The last area that rounds out my adaptive email system is what happens with the read email.  My biggest problem with work email is actually read mail that is sitting in my inbox.  I either need to reply, archive, or take other action.  The first two conclusions are part of my normal email workflow.  Adding a follow-up action usually puts an email in purgatory.  This is where the freshness comes in.

Bringing It All Together

So my problems fall out as follows:

  1. Unread important email
  2. Read, non-concluded, important email
  3. Read, non-concluded, unimportant email
  4. Unread, unimportant email

The key unknown is importance.  Using sender distributions — I can determine importance as a function of freshness.  Adding behavioral conclusion to the freshness metrics, we now can calculate % of items read and % concluded per sender.  We can also weight these by the time it takes to do both of those.

By creating benchmarks/norms, each email can be given an importance rating.  High importance items, with longer times in the unread and/or non-concluded buckets, receive the highest priority.   Just by organizing my email inbox into unread-important and a read-non-concluded views, prioritized by freshness, I know I’d be quite a bit more productive.

Other interesting by-products could be a way to score how productive you are by day/daypart.  You could also create a feedback mechanism to people you interact with via email — how important their emails are to you.  Finally, you could break apart a senders importance distribution to allow them to explicitly rank a message on how important they think it is.  Their rating could then be matched to how your emergent system rates it — and productive feedback loops could ensue.

May 10

The Perfect Grocery List Interface

Kottke says iPad.  I think there is an equally portable and user-friendly approach:  the pad and pencil.  If all it helps you do is walk around to make a list — not a plus.  If it, instead, organizes what shops, and route through the store, based on my list — now you’re talking.  If it tries to identify things I’m almost out of and haven’t listened — win.  Otherwise — paper and pen work…

May 10

Pickle Jar: Affordances and Innovation

Last night I had a rough time opening a jar of pickles.  I exerted quite a bit of effort to finally pop the lid.  It made me think of my grandmother (who passed a few years ago).  She lived alone for quite a while.  As she got older, and a little sicker, she seemed to eat less and less.  And I think her diet suffered quite a bit.

With the baby boomers aging into the retired and elderly phases of life I think about the pickle jar.  How many objects don’t have elderly-friendly affordances?  The old-time canning jar (and versions of it like the pickle, olive, etc) hasn’t progressed much.  They are innovating around refrigerator boxes of beer and soda, beer bottles that supposedly make the beer taste better, easy flow ketchup, etc.  But what about making it easier to for people who it isn’t easy for?

I bet my grandmother started to select food items at the grocery store she knew she could open.  As much as she loved pickles, I bet she stopped buying them.

As any parent knows, another big packaging issue is toys.  So many boxes are impossible to open (and this extends to many products that require knives to break through the plastic shell).  And then the toy itself is fastened with plastic coated metal twist ties.  Tens of them.  Not only is it a pain to open — you’ve got all these choke hazards lying around.

Instead of innovating around package design to either stand out or increase consumption — why not focus some effort on facilitating use in the first place.  Innovate around your product affordances… create them or make them better.

Apr 10

The Magic of Dance

If your kid (evidence only for kids <3) is acting out his/her terrible two part — there is a solution:  Queen and Michael Jackson.  My 2.5 year-old daughter asked for a few encores of “Rock You” song.  And, if you ignore the lyrics and just groove, PYT, Beat It, and Billie Jean are winners.   We jammed for a good 20-30 minutes — and she transformed back into her fun self.  I had forgotten how fun it is to break loose and dance.  I wonder what happens between the body and the mind that releases all those good vibes.

Evidence Exhibit A (weak)

Evidence Exhibit B (no science — but makes sense)

Evidence Exhibit C (getting closer):

Still, dance boosts mood more than does exercise alone. In a study at the University of London, researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

Evidence Exhibit D (seems like the real deal)

Apr 10

Lost Touch

When a critic turns his aim towards a medium he doesn’t understand:  see Ebert’s article on why games aren’t art.  He’s handicapping his argument through a critique of a TED talk.  Nonetheless, his premise is flawed and mired in logical inconsistencies.

A quick example:  I would contend Ebert thinks some commercial films (and books) are works of art.

I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.

Why is he selectively ignoring the fact that any film studio or publisher has business structures like the above?

Most unsettling, and perhaps most demonstrative of his antiquated view, is the feeling that I think his main problem is that “players” control the narrative of the game.  He makes faulty logical arguments.  In the end he stands on taste.  And Ebert, stick to the movies, you’ve got a better sense of taste there.

P.S.  I usually like (even if I don’t agree with) his points of view.  This kind of article just makes him seem irrelevant.