Mark Earls – From “me” to “we”

Thanks to Mat kindly donating his ticket, I was able to go and see Mark Earls give a seminar entitled From “me” to “we” at the Royal Society.

herd by mark earlsRather shamefully, I am still yet to read Herd – the book (and associated research) on which the talk was based. This is despite regularly reading the Herd blog and even having a copy in the Essential library. As I said, shameful.

Despite this, I think I was the target audience. Along with a Q&A only notable for the rather aggressive questioning of a lady accusing Mark of ignoring “the female perspective”,  the session offered a fairly gentle precis of the book’s central theory which, if I had read it, I would of course have been familiar with.

The talk

A tenet of the book is that we’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour. To highlight this, Mark recalled a few statistics from his research:

  • Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months
  • Only 30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims
  • Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value two thirds of the time
  • No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change

This is particularly worrying because behavioural change comes before attitude change – our thinking comes after the fact. We (post)rationalise rather than act rationally.

Therefore, in order to change attitudes, we need to change behaviour. And to be able to do this, we need to understand who we are. Only then can we can create solutions that work.

The Herd thesis draws upon the Asian culture of believing that humans are naturally social. We are fundamentally social with only a bit of independence, not vice versa.

Although it doesn’t sound particularly controversial, this thinking does run contrary to some well established tenets of both marketing and social theory.

According to Mark, thinking is much less important in human life than it seems. He likens us and thinking to a cat in water – we can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.

This is because it is easier to follow than think. We know our judgement is fallible and so we outsource the decision by following the crowd. But while this may work in some situations – many illustrated by James Surowieki – it is also arguably a contributing factor to the financial crisis, as financial institutions copied one another without comprehending the implications.

We therefore need to design our theories and tools to accommodate this social behaviour. It is much more rewarding to understand how social norms are created and perpetuated than it is to work on the assumption of cogito ergo sum.

Some initial thoughts

While brief, the talk certainly conveyed the need for me to read the book fully. Perhaps then some of my questions regarding the theory will be answered.

In particular, I’m interested in knowing where movements originate and whether this herd behaviour can be predicted.

For all the sheep, there must be a shepherd somewhere. Are these shepherds always designated as such – the almost mythical influentials – or do we alternate between thinking and following?

Rarely are our choices as clear cut as choosing whether to join the corner of the party where people are talking rather than the one where people are sitting in silence. Instead we have multiple choices and herds – how do we choose?

Is it a level of proximity? In the Battle of Britpop, Northerners sided with Oasis and Southerners with Blur? However, I’m from the Midlands, so was my choice one of the rare occurrences of rational choice (which would make a rather unconvincing deus ex machina) or is it purely random?

If random, then the work of Duncan Watts becomes pertinent. His modelling has suggested that in situations where groups vote up and down their favourite songs, there is no objective winner. Different simulations create different patterns. Purely random.

This creates difficulties for researchers as we like our statistical certainty. We like to have a set answer that we can post-hoc explain given the evidence. Duncan Watts’ research would suggest that research tools that build in mass opinion – such as crowdsourced tagging or wikis – are effectively meaningless. Rather than ultimately deviate towards a “correct” answer, they simply reflect the random order of participation and interaction.

Can mass behaviour be effectively incorporated into a research programme? I’ll report back with some thoughts once I’ve read the book

sk

We’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour

Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months

30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims

Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value 2/3 of time (pwc)

No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change

Behavioural change comes before attitude change – thinking comes after the fact

In order to change attitudes, change behaviour

We need to understand who we are so we can create solutions

More rationalising than rational

Cognitive outsourcing – memory is a distributed function so only remember slivers

We are fundamentally social with a bit of independence, not vice versa

Asian culture is inherently social

Gandhi said that humans are a necessarily interconnected species

Thinking is much less important in human life than it seems

“lazy mind hypothesis”

We can think independently, we just don’t like it – like a cat to water

Behave according to other people’s actions e.g. go to busy shops

We know our own judgement is fallible so “I’ll have what she’s having” – wisdom of crowds or financial crisis

Leads to social norms

Need to design our theories and tools to accommodate social behaviour

Genesis random – Duncan watts

Is it proximity that leads us to follow a herd, or example of using rationally weighing up the pros and cons

Herds originate from somewhere – must be a leader. Are these leaders the same in each situation, or are we all capable of being shepherds

Research application – crowdsource answers. But random – no statistical certainty as only one situation

Wikis to collate group opinion?

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How can research inspire?

The question in the title is predicated on the assumption that research can inspire. While the haters may disagree, I truly believe it can.

Understanding the different ways in which it can do so is trickier.

In a slight contradiction to my previous post on “insight”, I’m using the term “research in its most catch-all form. Rather than restricting the thinking to groups or surveys, I’m thinking about all disciplines and all methodologies. Research, data and insight.

In order for research to inspire, the recipient needs to be able to be inspired. Some form of creative process in order to make that new connection or leap is necessary.

In thinking about how research can inspire, I’ve come up with three initial ways. It is by no means a typology and the examples aren’t even mutually exclusive but it seems like a good start in which to organise my thoughts.

Structure:

The way in which research issues are approached and the problems framed. Examples include:

  • Methodology: The methodology itself could suggest new and previously alien ways to approach an issue. This post from Tom Ewing highlights some innovations in how research is carried out, but there are numerous examples of fresh approaches – from fMRI scanning to crowdsourcing.
  • Influences: Research is often (correctly) portrayed as insular but there are notable exceptions – Tom Ewing himself being one of them. He is able to take his knowledge and skills from music criticism and community building and apply them to research problems. Admittedly, this example isn’t research-specific but it nevertheless can inspire others to bring in people with different perspectives
  • Backwards approach: I mean this in a good way – research briefs are often issued to answer specific questions. To discover the most relevant way to get this information, researchers need to start with the answer and work backwards to figure out both the question and the way in which it is asked

Results

While a lot of research may be characterised otherwise, results themselves can inspire:

  • Exploratory research: By its very nature is designed to uncover new observations or – deep breath – insights
  • Fresh perspectives: Seeking to understand different audiences can lead to fresh outlooks as we look at the same issue from someone else’s eyes. While the Morgan Stanley note from their 15 year old intern was undoubtedly overplayed, I did like the notion that teenagers stay away from Twitter because it is full of old people trying to be young (for what it’s worth, I view Twitter as being far closer to Linked In than Facebook – it is useful connections rather than genuine relationships)
  • Holistic understanding: On a larger scale, ethnographers like Jan Chipchase offer us fascinating observations into areas we would never have even previously considered
  • Prototyping: I’ve written about IDEO before, and I love how they actually physically build things in order to better understand the problems
  • Desk research: Somewhat tenuous, but even sitting at your desk and reading, and being inspired, by different blogs or sites can be considered a form of research – whether one is explicitly looking for specific information or not

Implementation and Impact

Moving on from the results themselves, how research is used or the effects it has may also inspire

  • Workshops: Debating how research can be used can lead to further thoughts on idea implementation
  • Social effects of making data public: From last.fm to Nike+ making personal data available both encourages further participation and causes people to adjust their natural behaviour
  • Rewards and recognition: Similarly, in communities there have been noticeable effects on user behaviour and community culture when elements such as post counts or social connections have been introduced
  • Analytics: Avainash Kaushik is a Google Analytics evangelist who is full of great examples in how understanding site data has improved business performance

This question was recently posed to me by a colleague working on an assignment. The assignment is ongoing so any further thoughts, ideas or examples on how research methods, results or implementation can inspire would be massively appreciated.

And perhaps this attempt at crowdsourcing opinion will inspire others to a solution for the issues they are facing…

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenpoff/

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Crowdsourced consumption and product development

We are all consumers. We choose what to consume. But we also choose how we consume it.

This may be completely different to how the inventor anticipated, or expected, usage. It is the law of unintended consequences.

Contrary actions may prevent a product or service succeeding. But equally, an innovative use that builds on the original concept can be game changing. As Cory Doctorow points out in the article, unintended consequences include such inventions as

Even in a planned economy, inventors can’t dictate how their product or service is used. The community decides. No matter how tightly controlled a campaign is, the product owner cannot dictate outputs.

Similarly, companies cannot dictate perceptions or experiences. Products facilitate actions, but the consumer decides what these actions are. Faris Yakob argues that “A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers” while Justin Porter says that “Designers do not create experiences, they create artifacts to experience”

The internet and social networks may enable individual customisation and organic social constructs but these aren’t new phenomena. The community has always had power.

To jump on the bandwagon, I’ll use Twitter as an example. Media coverage of Twitter concentrates on either celebrity uptake, or its position within breaking news stories. These are popular expressions of Twitter use, but were they anticipated?

One of Twitter‘s co-founders says that it was initially conceived as a text dispatch service. Did they foresee that Twitter could be used for, among other things

  • Microblogging
  • Socialising publicly
  • Socialising privately
  • Linking
  • Echoing
  • Syndicating
  • Following
  • Polling
  • Tracking
  • Searching
  • Reporting
  • Announcing
  • Promoting

I suspect that some of these actions would have been considered. But not all of them.

Friend or Follow is a simple tool that can highlight the different ways that people use Twitter. Promoters will have more followers, followers will be fans of more people, and socialisers will have a high proportion of friends. Each person will use Twitter in a slightly different way.

The Twitter founders accepted and embraced this. And took it a step further. Recognising that business development is constrained by their own imaginations (among more prosaic factors such as finance), they opened up their API to outside developers and effectively told them to “go wild”. Individual consumption is supplemented by devolved development.

These tools may have contributed to the growth in popularity as those not convinced by the core offering may be sold by a new application. Some of these – such as Summize – have even been incorporated into the core offering.

This movement takes the concept of community power to the next stage. Product development has joined consumption, perception and experience in being co-opted by the crowd.

But the consequences aren’t wholly positive. Twitter had to buy Summize. With a closed API, they could have introduced a search function organically with minimal cost. A multitude of functions could create a paradox of choice, or confuse the core offering (while perceptions are individual, a company needs a core offering as an anchor). Not to mention the Firefox levels of bloat that could ultimately occur.

By effectively trusting the masses to create Twitter apps, the company also leaves itself open to nefarious or incompatible activity. This could be fake services phishing passwords, or a service that – for example – could promote fascist behaviour.

This makes the path of product evolution far more unpredictable than within a tightly controlled environment such as Apple (though their iPhone apps store does partially relinquish this). How can Twitter remain confident in their product experience. Is some level of control necessary to ensure a coherent thrust, or can the community be relied upon to promote the positive innovations and marginalise the negative?

I don’t know the answer to this, but it also poses some questions regarding usability testing. Is the only way to facilitate this in real-time through public beta testing, rather than closed-shop research initiatives? A balance between organic, crowd-sourced improvement and publicly known missteps need to be found.

To conclude this wildly incoherent post, I remain fascinated by the ability to appropriate not only imagery but functionality. Whether Twitter, or the burgeoning RFID-enabled internet of things, it is an area producing a myriad of innovative activity.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/heyyu/

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Links – 8th February 2009

I know it’s overkill, but the snow excitement is yet to abate. I didn’t create this snowman, but he is so exceptional that he deserves all the publicity going.

Picture by me

Anyway, things I would recommend reading include:

  • Live | Work have an absolutely brilliant post on Service Thinking – a must-read
  • Umair Haque’s Smart Growth Manifesto proposes a focus on outcomes rather than incomes, connections rather than transactions, people not product, and creativity not productivity. Very thought-provoking – another must-read
  • Asi Sharabi channels Sturgeon’s Law to sober up from digital. Some digital campaigns may be great, just as some TV campaigns are great and some press campaigns are great. But a lot of advertising isn’t great. There is a great observation in there about social media helping brands become more humane.
  • Dave Trott’s blog is fast becoming one of my favourites – a regular must-read. I particularly love this tip on great management.
  • Silicon Alley Insider set up a Twitter contest, inviting people to propose a business model for the service. They chose a market research tool as the winner. Commenters were unimpressed – largely, I think, because the proposed revenues were quite modest. (Via Tom)
  • The Compare the Market/Meerkat campaign has been getting a lot of attention online (and rightly so). Amelia Torode, a Planner at the agency responsible, summarises the success
  • And finally, Neil Perkin’s presentation on community created by the community has justifiably gone down a storm. He requested readers submit a slide, and received 30 replies (including one from myself). It highlights about both group thinking and individual ideas can be harnessed for maximum effect by some sort of moderator/curator/director/benevolent dictator. Great stuff. Click through the link above to get the transcript of the deck.

Additional links and pictures can be found at my tumblr

Hangover permitting, I’ll be at the coffee morning on Friday

sk

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Links – 30th November 2008

This list is both later and longer than recent posts, but the quality of thought and writing is extremely high

Changing industries

Seth Godin on things the New York Times could have done to stay ahead in the digital environment. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, and while every successful online venture is greeted by many more failures, the post does indicate the benefits of being a forward thinking organisation that is willing to adapt. Ultimately, it is not about running a newspaper but building ideas.

I also liked Mitch Joel‘s post on “Trading analog dollars for digital pennies”, which lists six reasons why traditional companies are struggling. It is a painful adjustment as industries with high barriers to entry are opened up to anyone with a domain name and some spare time, but it is an adjustment that is vital to survival.

On a sidenote, as marketing budgets get cut, it will be interesting to note whether there will be a shift in distribution between traditional and digital. In times of uncertainty, people tend to fall back on tried and trusted methods, so the online world may temporarily retreat.

I enjoyed this interview with Bethany Klein on the subject of music and advertising. She is writing a book on the subject and, in her view, advertising is replacing the record label as middleman between artist and fan.

And to sum up this section, the Satir model of system change argues that a transforming idea at the moment of chaos can push organisations onward to the next level

Social media innovations

“This Book Will Be Famous” – passed around from famous person to famous person, before being auctioned off for charity. A great idea taking social media properties into the real world.

Zeus Jones has a gift selection site, that can be filtered on elements such as price and gender.

The New York Times has a fascinating article on how crowdsourcing is being harnessed to improve the Netflix rating/recommendation system. There is a prize for the first group to improve the system by 10% yet competitors are collaborating with one another to get closer to the goal. The biggest challenge to overcome is the Napoleon Dynamite problem – a cult film that is particularly divisive.

It has been delayed due to technical issues, but it is worth bookmarking the European equivalent to Google Book SearchEuropeana

Online video

Fox’s take on moving content online (Newteevee). To my mind, the move from single to multiple distribution models is one of the biggest challenges of online video.

Roo Reynolds has written a fairly comprehensive list detailing ways in which one can enjoy online video socially (from backchannels to blogs)

Advertising

A fascinating conversation with a couple of advertising guys, who riff on ideas to take traditional properties into the digital sphere. Facebook overalls and Katie Couric will never be the same again. (New York Times)

Three youth marketing strategies on mobile phones that actually work – creation, communication and customer service are key

Other blog-related posts of interest

Guy Kawasaki on the art of bootstrapping

Bruce Schneier has a thought-provoking post on ephemeral conversation. Today’s children are growing up in an environment where every action and interaction is recorded – very little is now being lost in the ether (which is both good and bad)

From the archives, a New Yorker profile on Shopsin’s General Store – a restaurant with hundreds of choices and a unique attitude to growth and customer service

Miscellaneous posts of interest

A profile on Jason Rohrer – a video-game artist (Esquire)

The database of a music fan that has been to 5,000 gigs over the past 35 years

Fimoculous is starting the aggregation of all lists of 2008 – well worth bookmarking

20 pieces of trivia from Listverse

For the more time-pressed, I would recommend: Seth Godin on the New York Times, Netflix and crowdsourcing, Digital advertising riffs, and Ephemeral conversation

sk

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Crowdsourcing needs confines

Last week I went on a media planning course. Once the introductions, overviews and drinking socialising was done with, we got down to business with developing a media strategy for a new value range of products. In an afternoon.

It was incredibly challenging (especially considering we were all researchers) but extremely rewarding. We eventually found the balance between inspiration and insight, and came up with a half-decent plan.

In effect, the brief we were working on was being crowdsourced.

I have some problems with crowdsourcing, which I have written about before. It can work, but needs certain circumstances. A major problem we faced was a problem many crowdsourced projects face – finding the right dynamic.

We were placed in small groups of peers, each from a different background (media agency/ research agency/ software company etc). We had little knowledge of one another, and by dint of being peers there was no natural leader. By my nature, I work in a fast scatter gun fashion. Others are slower but more methodical and thorough. Both are equally valid, but it can be difficult to get them to complement one another.

We essentially needed a project manager to direct us.

Crowdsourcing has many benefits. But for it to be effective it needs to be tightly structured with the constituent elements clearly demarcated. A leader needs to fashion a coherent and cohesive central vision by pulling the pieces together to ensure that the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.

Take brainstorming as an example. I love brainstorming (I try to avoid “thought showers”). It is a great way to create ideas and to bounce them off different people and thoughts. But it needs a facilitator to carefully select the participants, to steer discussion and to ultimately make sense of the outputs.

And projects need project managers. Impetus comes from ownership. A project manager doesn’t necessarily have to possess total authority, but that person needs to keep the cogs whirring/plates spinning/pick appropriate metaphor. They need to delegate tasks to the most appropriate individuals, identify the weak links, keep the project focused, and ensure the deadlines are in sight.

But while the project manager doesn’t need total authority, he or she does need some. The Apprentice neatly shows the problems a leader picked from a group of peers encounters, and that was the challenge we faced on our course (though thankfully we largely managed to keep it good-natured).

Newspapers need editors. Exhibitions need curators. And projects need managers. Crowds have power, but that power needs someone to harness it.

sk

Links – 27th August 2008

Another shorter list. Rather than my getting more clinical in pruning bookmarks, I believe the main reason is that the Internet gets a bit quieter in August (and I’m posting this earlier in the week).

Blog-related:

Seth Godin upsets direct marketers – by suggesting that if we click ads on sites we like, we can up-end the status quo and marketers are forced to improve conversion rates. I disagree with it – if I’m clicking through with no intent to purchase, then a snazzy landing page or a special offer isn’t going to change my mind. But an interesting thought nevertheless

Age Concern are looking to reclassify the silver surfer with research findings from Equi=media – I agree that 55+ is an impossibly broad target, but then does the same thing not also apply to 16-34s, ABC1s or housewives? However, I do concede that they are an overlooked market, and the study does contain some useful statistics

Nike have admitted asking the Chinese government for details on a blogger who posted what Nike insists are false claims regarding Liu Xiang pulling out of the Olympics – I’m not sure where I stand on this. If it were written in print, Nike would no doubt sue. But anonymity is currently a right of bloggers, and privacy should not be co-opted after the event.

Can the British make money from blogging? The discussion started on Techcrunch UK, and then the BBC picked it up. An interesting debate, at least until the name-calling began

The ten most shameless product placement plugs in cinema (Cracked)

What Facebook’s engagement activity means to brands – as always, an informative summary from Jeremiah Owyang. Personally, I’m not liking the fact that I’m getting brand gifts from people who I’d previously marked as spammers. I assumed that had blocked them from sending me invites and gifts. Unless the price is right, I guess.

Will crowd-funded journalism take off? (NY Times) I think not – there will be too much conflict between editorial independence and proprietor opinion/interference, no matter where the delineations occur

The BBC iPlayer is going to offer series-stacking (press release) – great from a consumer perspective, but it will be interesting to see whether Ofcom has anything to say about it

Websites:

Pixlr looks like a very good in-browser Photoshopesque image editor

Youtube sunshine – profane comments are replaced with a touch of sunshine

The Orwell Diaries – updated in real-time, 70 years after the original entry

Ubiquity – a new, intelligent, add-on in Firefox that interprets an instruction and takes the appropriate action. A bit like Google Calendar. So, if I typed “Twitter I’m playing with Ubiquity”, the programme would upload that Tweet to the system. Looks incredible.

Recom.me – a Twitter tool that sends you music recommendations based on the artist you Tweet to it

Random:

Photos that changed the world – awesome collection of history-defining images (EDIT: Link fixed)

How your printer pretends it is out of ink – and how to get it working again (Slate)

A Freakonomics look at Usain Bolt and other sports records, and how they relate to a normal distribution curve. The title says it all – Usain Bolt isn’t normal

A fantastic graphic showing athletics world records over time (NY Times) – you can see that there was also a brief period in the 1960s where the average speed of the 200m record was quicker than that of the 100m record

An interactive map of history’s great journeys (Good Magazine)

This week my double recommendations go to What Facebook’s engagement activity means to brands, Pixlr, Photos that changed the world, Ubiquity and A fantastic graphic showing athletics world records over time

sk