Friday, February 19, 2010

What marketers can learn from game design: The essential experience

Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing
-Oscar Wilde

Games rule! We all play them. Some of us play Bridge, some of us play Call of Duty. Some, like Lindsay Vonn, ski down mountains at incredible speed. A few (?) of us can even make a game out of other people's confidence or a country's currency.

No matter what the game, there is something that speaks to just about every human when it comes to getting your game on.

Theories abound as to why we play games--from prime-evil competitive instincts to ego- or sensory gratification to a way to while away the time with friends--and everything in between. Beyond theory, one thing common in the practice of gaming is that game playing creates an experience.

Funny then, that gaming and marketing should have something so fundamental in common. And while great instances of marketing fun and games can be found, there's something more essential about the connection: designing a game has much in common with designing a brand.

personal branding

The Art of Game Brand Design

Books have been written. Quite a few even on game design! Beyond how-to's and theoreticals on flow, structure, narrative, action and scoring (including our own game example here ) a new book entitled The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell could just as easily be titled The Art of Brand Design.

The book takes a decidedly different approach to a discourse on games. It looks at what makes games worth playing by seeing game design through various lenses, including the lens of the designer; the lens of the team and the lens of the player among others. You could easily substitute 'brand' for 'game' and much would be equally applicable.

For instance: Just as gamers expect to unlock more value from a game as they develop skills, brands may have customers who have developed as much (or more) knowledge than the original product designers. Communicating with highly skilled users as if they were brand n00bs isn't likely to engender the loyalty or positive word of mouth one would want from these influencers.

Brands, like games, can design a pathway to increasingly robust experiences by balancing challenge and skill
(from Art of Game Design)

Essential skills

Schell lists the more than 15 skills game designers should have some experience with, from Anthropology to creative writing, mathematics to sound design and visual arts.

These skills should all look familiar to marketers: they are the broad skills required of the best marketers who operate in a complex, technology-enabled social marketplace firmly under consumer control.

But the most important skill according to Schell is listening: to clients, to oneself, but most importantly to the gamers themselves.  Focus groups, panel discussions and proxy surveys all hold value to marketers. But listening to customers, in all their variety, through direct channels like social media, customer service and sales is another skill the best marketers among us possess.

Essential questions

Other connections in the book that might just as easily address brands as games include the importance of iteration and testing, the interface, measuring interest, clients and users. But of all the lenses, there is none so relevant to marketers as the first: The lens of essential experience.

Brand designers--like game designers--do well when they remember that the brand is not the experience: it is a means to an experience. A very personal experience that resides in the mind of the customer.

Which brings us to the essential questions (not to be confused with these Three Questions Marketers Should Ask Themselves!) brand experience designers can take away from the Art of Game Design:

  • What experience do you want the customer to have?
  • What is essential to that experience?
  • How can your brand capture that essence?
By constantly assessing the experience you want to create against the one you have created, brand designers stand a chance at being in the game. Confusing or unhelpful product support, interruptive or annoying attempts at building loyalty, inconsistent and insensitive pricing or quality...are all essential brand experiences that no marketer would intentionally design.

Foreseeable experiences, however, are not unintentional ones. By focussing on the essential experiences that can be foreseen, brand designers can ensure that customers find their game worth playing.

For a loosely related musical interlude on the games people play:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Future of Marketing: Three Questions Every Marketer Should Ask Themselves

The condition of learning is most fully engaged when we undervalue that which we think we know and overvalue that which we think don't.

Ken Fisher manages investments...a lot of them. As son and heir to one of the post- 1930's investment legends, he's had a first hand look at nearly a century's worth of market cycles, successes, and failures. You'd think someone like that could teach investors a thing or two...or three.

But marketers?

I think so. Fisher has written an entire book on the subject of three questions every investor should ask. I've seen the questions. They are not small. They don't ask you to consider whether Ben Bernanke is a hero or villian...nor do they ask you to contemplate the future social influence of generations of teens, tweens, X's and Yer's with vampire and zombie obsessions.

In spite of that, I think theses questions can do more than guide investors. They are useful inquiries for the larger lives we all lead, beyond investing...big picture life questions worthy!

And so...The 3Q's
  1. What do you believe that is actually false?
  2. What can you fathom that others find unfathomable?
  3. What the heck is my brain doing to blindside me now?

So what?

The obvious element of all three questions is that they ask one to self-reflect. And that's their power.

In a time where social media seems on the surface to be so chock full of ourselves as to provide all the insight into all of us that any of us might need, one senses there is often a very blurry line between indulgent navel gazing and meaningful self study.

These questions, on the other hand, ask us to challenge what we know, personally, and to know ourselves better in the process.

More than a handful of bloggers have asked what the future will hold for marketing, marketers, and the brands we serve. Many thousands have offered their answers with variations on wishful thinking themes or dramatic doomsaying.

But while facts certainly are not personal, truths often are. The personal truths about marketing's future will exist as thousands of variations in individual marketer's minds...some will be satisfied to co-opt the truths of others.

For the leaders, though, these three questions can help us discover our own truth about marketing...usually in the form of new questions. For example:

  • If I believe that online display advertising is useful for branding, what if that is false?
  • If I can fathom a world in which privacy is routinely exchanged for added service, what opportunity does that present my brands...and my customers?
  • If I'm focussed on using social media for my PR, what larger societal trends might I be missing in my planning?

For marketers--just like investors, politicians, parents and every human ever born--the first step to understanding the truth in others often comes in the form of a question...of ourselves. Ken Fisher's three are a great start.

For a mysterious question mark with an answer of 96 tears, check it:

Friday, February 05, 2010

The customer satisfaction prison: When one becomes a five

I am not a number: I am a free man!
-The Prisoner

Back in the late 60's, British Television aired a series called The Prisoner. In it, a British Intelligence officer abruptly resigns, and finds himself kidnapped and held prisoner in an isolated, seaside location where he is known only as...Number 6.

He finds himself amongst hundreds of other nameless but numbered individuals living tranquilly in a surreal Orwellian resort village. The perpetually sunny space is outfitted with the dark shadows of surveillance, hypnosis, and mind control schemes, administered by a series of nameless Number 2's who want to know, on behalf of an unseen Number 1, but one thing: Why did he resign?

I bring this up as a loose link to a new number 1 in the quest to quantify customer satisfaction: Number 5.

Number 5 being the number expected when asked to rate our satisfaction with whatever customer experience we've had. It goes something generically like this:

'Hi, On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being completely satisfied, how would you rate the service you just received?'

The Likert-ization of customers serves a valuable data capture and analysis purpose. I've worked with clients using five-point thinking to:

  • identify directional trends in collective pools of product feature and attribute feedback; 
  • gather a point of objective reference in a world of subjective customer service nuance; 
  • and occasionally, to provide actionable insight on pricing, promotion or positioning.

But, like the seemingly tranquil village in The Prisoner, a look below the surface of 5-point customer satisfaction surveys sometimes reveals a dark undercurrent: when the Number 5 becomes an end unto itself, we risk transforming people into numbers.

Turning constructive feedback into an unsatisfying feedback experience

Here's a story. I recently had my car serviced. I was handed a two-page survey to complete when I left. I set it the recycling pile.

Five days later the phone rang and, soon regretting my decision to answer the Toll Free number, I spent 5 minutes answering ten questions from a polite corporate representative about my local dealer service experience.

In the course of asking me 10 questions, I rated one area a 4, rather than a 5. I also mentioned that my service rep was helpful and professional. End of story. I had provided honest feedback on my mostly excellent experience. Or so I thought.

A day later, I got a call from my local dealer service rep. He seemed a bit nervous. My 'not 5' rating on 1 of the 10 questions the day before had already made it back to him. He implied that he needed 5's, even though the 4 I provided was in an area beyond his direct responsibility (scheduling).

It was very personal to him: Because, as I found out, his job performance was evaluated based on whether his customers all give all 5's.

He mentioned that the same corporate entity that called me, would be sending me a more detailed survey via the email address on file and hoped that if there was anything he could do to get all 5's he sure hoped I would tell him.

I spent 5 minutes on the phone telling him what I told the corporate surveyor. When I got the email survey it said it would take about 10-15 minutes to complete. Right.

So what?

The story I relay above is meant to illustrate, in real terms, how good intentions in seeking completely satisfied customers sometimes go awry. To borrow a phrase, let me be clear: I believe in research and I believe in customer survey data. The modern world is built, afterall, on that which can be quantified. But it's also built by that which, perhaps, ought not be quantified quite so easily.

Quantifying one's perceptions, for instance, doesn't magically make them anyone else's.

As marketers, we understand that a good customer experience can be undone pretty easily and a bad one can be hard to overcome. So why let the otherwise useful act of satisfaction surveys be a risk to the very satisfaction they survey?

Four principles for putting quality in the quantity

Here are four general principles--derived from being both purveyors and party to hundreds of customer survey initiatives--that I believe will help create a good feedback experience:

1. Align time + value: Ensure that the time requirement you ask of the customer is only a small fraction of the time invested in the actual experience being surveyed. In other words, a survey on a 2-minute transaction should probably take far less than 2 minutes. Likewise, align what you invest in measurement with the value of the customer.

2. Identify what's being evaluated: If you are asking about an overall experience, state that and mean it...and be comfortable with the limits of generalized conclusions. If you are asking about a specific aspect of the experience, then clearly state that. Knowing what you are asking requires a clear understanding of your satisfaction survey objectives. In other words, why ask? Broad based questions seldom result in specific feedback. Using general responses to draw specific conclusions is risky. Likewise, using specific feedback to draw generalizable satisfaction conclusions can easily eliminate any relationship between effect and cause.

3. Use data first to learn, then to confirm: Learning often comes from failure. If the point of a customer satisfaction survey is to confirm what you already believe or hope is true, save everyone their time and let it be true because the organization believes it is. If the point is to learn, then something that is not a '5' should be embraced as an opportunity to do good.

4. Keep it personal: Behind the numbers are real people...customers and associates...who defy descriptions in 5 shades of gray. Incorporating some facility for open-ended response helps keep people present in the analysis.  

Customer satisfaction surveys need not create a prison of numbers. Applying a few reasonable considerations helps ensure that people are Number 1 in the customer satisfaction show.