Friday, June 26, 2009

Perception vs. Reality: Function vs Philosophy

"Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world." -Hans Margolius

"Reality is only an illusion, albeit a very persistent one" -Albert Einstein

Here's a test for you. Check out this image (from Akiyoshi Kitaoka's site with many more like this):

What colors do you see?

Pink, orange? Others? If you said blue and green, then congratulations! Your perception is just as fallable as 100% of your fellow human beings. The blue and green spirals are the same color.

'No way' you say. Check it out for yourself in Photoshop if you like. You'll see that the RGB values of both spirals are exactly the same.

How can this be? Look closely at the boundary between the spirals moving left to'll notice that the orange stripe doesn't cross into the apparently 'blue' spiral. That's the source of the illusion...the mind judges things based on what's around it and fills in the blanks...but that doesn't make it true.

So What?

It makes evolutionary sense that an organism might perceive the world by its immediate surroundings first and fill in the blanks. Afterall, most challenges to survival come from what's right in front of--or behind--you...and you may not have time to fill in the missing information about a growling bear's intent.

But for marketers, does survival mean that perception IS reality? That if we can control perception, we can control the reality of the survival of our brands, our products...our jobs?

Well, that depends...on whether you adopt "perception is reality" as a statement of function or philosophy.

Perception as functional consideration

From a functional perspective, perceptions are acknowledged as an influence that must be addressed in customer decision making.

GM (aka Government Motors) asked for trouble when it failed to deal with perceptions about product quality until, some would argue, it was too late (here).

In a functional context, perceptions are acknowledged as having their origins in the very real customer experiences that take place outside the scope of marketing. These experiences are often communicated among those who are closest to the experience: the customer and the communities to which the customer belongs (i.e., the basis for social media)...oftentimes with the experience gaps among the community members being filled in.

The good news is that a functional view of perception means that marketers can use facts to fill in the blanks that surround perceptual filters. Better yet, they can start by designing a positive customer experience and do marketing from there.

The obvious news is that facts aren't the same as assertions. If a company provides a crappy customer experience, no amount of advertising or communication to the contrary can unfill the fact, in a globally connected, socially networked world, it might just make things worse.

Perception as a philosophy

For marketers who casually adopt a philosphy of perception as reality, well, good luck. Such a philosophy has a long, dark history of leveraing stereotypes about people's personality traits, values, and other, darker dimensions to assert control, exercise power and manipulate people as if they were, well, not people.

And in this day, no one wants to be pigeonholed without their consent.

At least that's my perception. What's yours?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

SAM I am: What did you think of those green eggs + ham?

Sentiment Analysis--or opinion mining--typically involves linguistic analysis to discern what people think about something. One's sentiments are usually discerned from the language one uses when referring to some said thing.

Offline, sentiment analysis is something that humans are actually pretty good at. Of course, humans also use visual cues like facial expressions and body language to supplement familiarity and trust when we interpret another's sentiments...and even then we can get it wrong. So it's no wonder that machines are notoriously poor at understanding one's sentiments.

The challenge is daunting: The web and its social media spawn have created a seller's market in opinions (the irony of making this statement on a blog is, well, ironic). And while the difference between fact and opinion may seem clear much of the time, the practical aspects of teasing apart the two in software are not so easily algorithmized (?!).

Teragram Linguistic Technologies (now a division of the statistical analysis giant SAS) developed the SAM tool to sort through the social media morass and help brand managers understand what its customers really think. It's the latest in a series of tools, such as Jodange's Top of Mind (which we're using in trial mode now), and others by Attensity, Clarabridge, and Lexalytics that attempts to understand who has an opinion, how intensely they hold it, and what trends develop overtime.

So What?

Asking for an opinion is nothing new to marketers...the challenge, as it always has been, is determining what--if anything--you are prepared to do about it. Sentiment analysis software and services are different than traditional forms of opinion seeking in the following several of many ways:

  1. Minimize selection bias because they do not require respondents
  2. Connect opinions from multiple sources to provide a picture of The Crowd's Wisdom
  3. Support diverse visualizations of opinion including heat maps, realtionship graphs and trending charts.

Most importantly, successful development..and deployment...of sentiment analysis tools will enable companies to do what they must to learn from a market that can't be told what to think: listen to it.

Sample heat map of opinion for a client (generated using Top of Mind):

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Searching for meaning: What's a browser, anyway?

Some Google employees did a bit of person-on-the-street interviewing to answer the question: Do people know what a browser is?

The video on YouTube (below) is quite instructive. When asked 'What is a browser?', the answers ranged from the expected to the sublime:

1. A website
2. A search engine
3. Google
4. Yahoo
5. The internet, where you can find anything

The creepiest respondent is at 2m20s in the video.

So What?

The browser wars being of great importance among the geek class, these admittedly anecdotal evidences indicate the widespread ignorance about basic questions of technology. They also call into question the very relevance of efforts to brand a browser...or to regulate it (see here ).

Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer...what they have in common is that they enable users to do something quite similar: access information by pushing the underlying technology behind a simple user interface.

In some ways, they have been so successful at hiding the technology--and supporting a useful, usable, and desirable experience--that they have made their 'product' brand invisible--or at least unmemorable. The fact that many people confuse browsers with search engines only supports the notion of distinctions without a difference when it comes to the primacy of utility in the digital space.

Beyond digital, the idea of branding technology is a challenge. For instance, I suspect that many of us would also fail to recognize the brand of brake pads used in our automobiles...and yet many of us rely on them daily for a very specific and important action without thinking about them. For most, it is the auto brand--via its brake engineering, sourcing and assembly decisions--that stands behind the overall braking (i.e., handling) experience...not the manufacturer of the pad itself.

A case might be made that a Branded House (standing behind the overall experience) beats a House of Brands when the user experience involves a great many complex components aggregated in support of a user's actions.

What's a PC afterall?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Making money with Twitter: Ending up somewhere else

"If you don't know where you are headed, you'll probably end up somewhere else." -Yogi Berra

Much ado has been made by Twitter-haters about the self-indulgent, ambient-intimacy of posts about latte's, bedtimes and teeth-bushing habits...especially if you aren't Ashton Kuchner or Oprah (who now, like Sting, Bono and some Brazilian soccer stars, requires only one name for recognition).

And while there are obvious insignificancies (?) filling much bandwidth, there is money being generated thru Twitter: Dell, for one, claims to have made more than $3 million from it's Twitter posts (here).

How does that work?

Simply, it works the same way the 1999 Web worked...except you have 140 characters to make it happen:

1. Post information about products, specials, offers and information with a link to online shopping cart.
2. Track referring source for visitor (i.e., where they came from).
3. Analyze completed transaction values against referring sources.

Of course it can be a little more complicated to assess bounce rates, transaction flows, direct + repeat visits, but that's all part of having a plan against objectives...

So What?

Hard goods companies (like Dell or Amazon) have a more direct measure of the money generated from their online presence. But even service enterprises can assign some measure of value to their Twitter feed.

Looking at who has chosen to follow, retweet or otherwise engage a company's twitter feed is not so different than analyzing web metrics associated with blogs, company sites or--dare I say it--direct marketing efforts.

As it turns out, measuring Twitter's value to a company is no different than measuring any other element of a company's marketing communications. Or as Yogi Bear might say: "Boo Boo, if you don't have an objective for your Twitter journey, you'll surely end up somewhere else."

To end up on a few prior posts about metrics and measurement, see here, here, here, or here

To end up the week in Jellystone, check out Yogi Bear: Episode 1

Friday, June 05, 2009

Lipstick on the pigs

Where the piggies go, so goes the poke. Market malfunctions from a fiscal flu among swine. Unelected vets debase our value in a world of trade, making paper promises fatter than the hog.

"Only a crisis in confidence" the chattering class declares, a stress test proves it. Change the game, mod the rules, a loss moves to profit.

When called to account, we're all slaughtered at the hands of Keynes.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Jackson Pollack gets his Xbox on: Project Natal and disappearing technology

Last week we posted about edutainment games in marketing (here). Today, we're looking at a different take on entertainment platforms: the Xbox360 project known as Natal and what, if anything, it means to marketing.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) being held this week (everything you wanted to know here), Microsoft demo'd its vision of the future of home entertainment as seen through the Xbox360 platform. And while the current incarnation of Xbox's world is largely popularized via male-oriented war games like Call of Duty and Halo, project Natal sees the Xbox going where no other entertainment system has gone before...away, sort of.

The biggest idea here is that project Natal lets in your body...serve as the game controller. From motion detection to voice recognition to object scanning, the future of Xbox is one where the controller disappears and the Xbox becomes more, well, HAL2000 like. And while Wii fans may incorrectly claim 'been there, done that', the Natal vision is a bit more than just an accelerometer attached to the interwebz via a short range wireless connection.

In the demos, Microsoft showed how full-body gaming might look. They even demonstrated how full-body painting might unleash your inner abstract expressionist (see clip embedded below). I hate clothes shopping. In one demo, Natal promises to let me try clothes on at online stores and use my high-def, eleventy-billion inch LCD monitor as a preening mirror.

So What?

Video visions of the future like Xbox's--or even tradeshow demos--have a history of failing to fully describe the future that actually arrives (where's my jet pack, for instance). What project Natal exemplifies is that for technology to be truly impactful on a large scale, it has to become invisible...making that happen is no simple feat.

By placing the Xbox experience in the person (versus the other way around), Natal allows the Xbox brand to be as differentiated as the individual in whom it's embedded. In other words, the personal context of one's experience using the Xbox-of-the-near-future will define the brand in ways impossibly complex. What defines my Xbox experience if I use it in Natal-world to shop for a new suit? Is it the online store that I purchase from...the actual physical good...or the compliments I was expecting when I wear my purchase, having confidentally (and virtually) tried it on, online?

The technology in that scenario (including the technology that is the suit!), increasingly, becomes a commoditized, invisible component of this complex, personal experience...until it fails of course.

For marketers, Natal provides yet another glimpse at the challenges facing traditional approaches to differentiation, especially when technology is involved: to be successful on a large scale, you may have to lose a bit of brand identity to that of your customers--or supply and distribution partners.

Thus, as brands and products become part of ever-more complex, interconnected systems, surviving may mean standing for less...for the lucky few who exist at the top of the pyramid, it may mean that to stay there they had to let go of something...lest it be taken. In that regard, the future is already present.

For more clips on Natal, including Steven Spielberg weighing in on the future of entertainment, see here.