Wednesday, July 30

What's In A Game? Maybe All The Creativity We've Lost.

Last week, one of my friends shared an article that appeared in The New Yorker and it made me smile. I've known him for almost two decades but never knew he felt nostalgia for a fantasy game that peaked in popularity during the 1980s.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is like that. It's almost akin to being or having been a member of a secret society that doesn't share its membership roster with members. Enough people played to transform this basement-made role-playing game into a multi-million dollar empire, but proportionately few ever talk about it. And even when some do talk, they couch their connection.

"I used to play until I started driving and discovered girls" is a common quip from those who still suffer from an almost inexplicable discomfort in having played it. Few games carry such a stigma.

Today, D&D still feels a bit saddled with its unfair share of stereotypes. Aside from being labeled as a flagship game for geekdom, there remains this lingering association with past religious objections and accusations that the game could cause psychological disorders. None of it was really true, but the outcry earned enthusiasts a sideways glance as being somewhat "weird" anyway.

When combined with several business disputes and trademark battles, the tabletop game was relegated to a niche gaming experience while its brand became a commercial success from extensive licensing agreements that included collectables, card games, novels, films, television series, computer games, online role playing games, and pop culture references. The outcome cut both ways. While the commercialization made the brand accessible, none of it captured the heart of the tabletop game.

At its heart, D&D is a game of imagination. The rules are just a framework.

Wizards of the Coast, which is currently launching the fifth incarnation of D&D, has taken to describing the game as collaborative storytelling. It's a fair description, given that every group of people who play have vastly different experiences. Some people like to play it like a board game with a finite timeframe. Others play it like an epic adventure without end.

The difference between the two play styles (and everything between) is dictated only by the limits of imagination — specifically, the imagination of a narrator (a.k.a. Dungeon Master) and the players (a.k.a. Player Characters). To help them, everyone follows a framework built upon descriptions, definitions, and computations (e.g., a sword with magical properties, provides +5 chance to hit something).

Proponents of the game have always highlighted this framework as the most redeeming part of the game because reading, writing, and arithmetic are at the core of it all. In fact, some would say that if creator E. Gary Gygax and his partner Dave Arneson deserve to be remembered for anything, it was in developing a game that encouraged kids to become immersed in all three areas, while picking up smatterings of science, history and literature alongside those core skill sets.

D&D also provided an effective venue to discover new hobbies and practice a host of other competencies. The game is loaded with problem-solving exercises, social dilemmas, leadership opportunities, conflict resolutions, team-building challenges, and ethical lessons. It reinforces the concept that individuals can strive for success if they are willing to work hard and take risks, but not alone. The best groups (or "parties" as they are called) consist of a mix of races and professions.

More importantly, Dungeons & Dragons nurtures creativity and imagination. It relies on the ability of the people playing to imagine an encounter, spontaneously embellish or add to that encounter, and then communicate their contribution so that other players can incorporate it into their version of the experience. And it relies on imagination, sometimes with an assist from prewritten game modules, to create those encounters. So why is that important?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein

It might not be a coincidence that the decline in U.S. education coincides with its decline in creativity and imagination. Since the 1990s, children in the U.S. have been subjected to more standardization in the classroom and outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, it comes in the form of convergent education structures (standardized instruction measured by the ability to provide one correct answer). Outside of the classroom, it comes in the form of convergent play (video games built on someone else's imagination or movie characters that children use to reenact television shows and movies).

The irony? Despite an increased need for creativity and imagination (leadership traits) in a workforce plagued by average worker syndrome, children are generally discouraged from creative thinking (the ability to think in novel and unique ways to create new solutions) and divergent thinking (the ability to think up several answers to the same question). People might deny it, but evidence bears it out.

Specifically, children who ask too many questions, embellish reality in their drawings, resist conformity, seek independence, display self-expression, dislike rote recital, or seek out solitary playtime — all of which are traits of highly creative minds — are more likely to be discouraged or even reprimanded (if not diagnosed as ADHD) than their peers. Even outside the classroom, most parents prefer their children to obey authority, achieve popularity, and seek social affirmation.

Consider Dungeons & Dragons a solid barometer for the times. Most parents won't pay any attention to a Dungeons & Dragons video game (or especially explicit video games like Grand Theft Auto), but seeing a 20-sided die, some graph paper, and a sketch of an umber hulk could prompt them to validate their concerns. What's the difference? Nothing, except whose imagination drives the story — a game developer/movie producer/etc. or the child who has to employ reading, writing and math to make it work.

Personally, I was very fortunate to have kept my now vintage Dungeons & Dragons materials. On occasion, my family has even dug out the well-worn manuals, dungeon modules, and an alternative timeline that I had superimposed on The World Of Greyhawk created by Gary Gygax. And while those occasions don't happen often enough, it's still fun to know that I've introduced them to a world shaped by dozens of friends, their characters, the descendants of their characters, and a smattering of embellishments such as "overmen" from a series written by Lawrence Watt-Evens or a ranger society based loosely on Arboria from Flash Gordon (but without the science).

If nothing else, doing so reminds me to balance the experiences my children have while growing up. Yes, I think it is important to strive for educational excellence and encourage participation in activities such as sports and social engagement. But I also think it is equally important to nurture their imaginations whenever possible. The world needs more individual creativity.

If Dungeons & Dragons can help them open their minds even a little bit, then I'm all for it. I wish more people would be for it too. And if a game with a fantasy setting akin to Lord Of The Rings doesn't hold any appeal? Then consider the setting. Tabletop role-playing settings include everything from the Old West to outer space. Or, if nothing else, look for other games or activities (like drawing) to keep their imaginations alive and creativity sharp.

That is the point. The world could use a little more imagination and creativity. If the contributions aren't coming from you, then perhaps you can inspire someone else to never give it up. To me, the greatest gift you can give anyone is the empowerment to never say "I used to do this [creative thing] .... until I got old [and boring]."

Wednesday, July 23

There Is No Such Thing As An Easy A/B Lunch

"It is perhaps an all-too-human frailty to suppose that a favorable wind will blow forever." — Richard Bode

In the context of his book, First You Have To Row A Little Boat, Bode was writing about how almost impossible it is to imagine what it might be like to be caught in a dead calm while there is a breeze blowing hard against your sail or in your face or on your back. It's almost impossible to imagine it because our brains are mostly predisposed to see the most fleeting moments as infinitely constant.

When things are good, we think the honeymoon will never end. When things are bad, we readily embrace the pain as permanent. Never mind that most of us have lived long enough to know that the evidence doesn't bear either infinity out. We're generally inclined to indulge ourselves in deception.

Social media is not a science. It only feels like one.

Sure, some applications of social media seem to fall under the banner of science. Marketers are indeed in the business of observation and experimentation. They do attempt to study the structure of online communities and the behavior of people on a one to one, one to some, and one to many scale.

Some applications even attempt to apply scientific method to the mix, with A/B testing among the most prominent manifestations. There is only one problem with it. While A/B testing sometimes leads to a product development or marketing breakthrough, the operative word is sometimes.

The wind doesn't always blow in a favorable direction and sometimes it doesn't blow at all. Never mind that more and more data scientists are attempting to decipher public manipulation, but they frequently fail to appreciate that data has the propensity to manipulate its handlers too.

The biggest problem today, it seems, is that many data scientists have studied statistics but relatively few are practiced at applying scientific method in the physical or natural world (or psychological and sociological worlds for that matter). If they were, they might better appreciate the incongruity of choice — six studies of which were recently shared in an Econsultancy article by Ben Davis.

While some studies are stronger than others, a fair encapsulation of the research concludes that the choices offered, number of choices offered, order of the choices offered, and order of emotional triggers all influence A/B testing. Or, in other words, if A/B both suck, you prove nothing at all.

If you ask people whether they like big keys or little keys on a cellular phone, no one innovates touch screen technology. If you ask people which cola they like better during an A/B experiment, someone will eventually rediscover the recipe for New Coke. If you always listen to prescreen tests, every movie will have a happy ending.

But those examples are only the most straightforward research failures. Some hiccups are caused by the most subtle changes. The order information is presented (shoes before or/after a new dress). The timing of an interruption (when most people are online or when they are more receptive to share). The influence of the last destination they visited (did they leave feeling elated or aggravated).

There is no such thing as an easy lunch in marketing.

There are plenty of people who will tell you otherwise, but it's simply not true. Marketing is not a science, even if marketers love to sell science. It can be an asset but only if you think and think deep.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on franchise collateral for Capriotti's Sandwich Shop. I can't really speak to what they are doing now in terms of marketing, but I still love their sandwiches.

The challenge they had and probably still do, had a lot to do with psychology. Specifically, one of the questions that needed to be asked was how could they become part of the lunchtime decision-making process? The answer isn't as easy as you think.

When most people make decisions about what to have for lunch at the office the first A/B choice they create is fast food or sit down. The primary influencer at this stage is time, but it quickly turns toward taste. If fast food wins the consensus, then most people will run down the big brand list (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, etc.) and make a decision based on preferences, experiences, and proximity.

Interestingly enough, KFC only gets a shot if someone says they don't want a burger. And other alternatives, like Subway, are added to the mix if someone insists on no fast food (a position thanks mostly to their Eat Fresh campaign). So where does Capriotti's fit?

A/B testing convinced some people that it fits everywhere because they consistently win on taste, but it really wasn't true. Sure, it won with loyalists, catering, or as a wild card but not where it needed to. To capture the average lunchtime customer, it comes down to the first round choice. Fast food or sit down? This sandwich shop is neither.

My solution was a bit different from the marketing firm that had contracted me onto their team. While they wanted to push award-winning sandwiches, I wanted to reframe the front end choice that there is lunch or Capriotti's, thereby pre-empting the fast food or sit down decision-making process.

But we didn't then and no one has since. So despite being voted the greatest sandwich in America, it's still niche and not mainstream no matter how many A/B tests they run. Why? As I said. There is no such thing as an easy lunch. Just because the winds of research keep blowing your organization in different directions doesn't mean it will always be there or push you to the destination you want. Someone has to aim for it.

Wednesday, July 16

Number Crunching Is Turning Marketers Into Tactical Bullies

A recent study that surveyed 380 American marketers reported 85 percent of its respondents are under increasing pressure to measure the value of marketing and its contribution to business (hat tip Danny Brown). But despite this increased press to measure, many marketers don't know whether or not their tactics are having an impact. Just one in four said they can measure their impact.

Even among those who do measure their impact, most of them don't know how to report on their findings. Many don't have a formal process to gather, handle, analyze, and report big data. And up to one-third of them don't know if their data is accurate or reliable. So what the heck do these people do?

No one is really sure, which increases the big data idiocy.

Most organizations are measuring something. Chances are they measure key performance indicators (KPIs), which is a fancy way of assigning any variable you want. It might be reach, impressions, qualified leads (which also has a broad definition), website traffic, click-through rates, conversions, direct sales, or anything really. Some people even count social scoring algorithms (sigh).

There is nothing wrong with all these numbers, really. But the sheer volume of data being lobbed at modern marketers is commoditizing the entire field while it distracts marketing from where its focus really ought to be, which is delivering a distinct brand promise to people who might care.

So while the right measures are important, they don't account for the customer relationship — need, desire, trust, presentation, value, reliability, ease of acquisition, satisfaction, market position, and so on and so forth. If any one of those qualities is broken, it doesn't matter how good your numbers are.

How marketing measures can be made quickly meaningless. 

Case in point. After returning from a family vacation that included a few hours of sports fishing off the coast, my interest in finding experiences for my children had piqued. But since fishing options are scarce in the middle of the desert, I decided to search for something else we've talked about doing.

We have an interest in horseback riding, but not just singular experiences. So rather than take a trail ride, I was especially keen to find horseback riding lessons so they could learn something about riding much like they learned something about baiting their own hooks when they went fishing.

Like many people, I started with a search and the engine delivered the usual list of trail ride suspects. There were a half dozen tour operators in the area, some of which I knew from my days as an eco-tour reviewer. I visited a few of their familiar sites. Almost none of them fit my criteria.

cowboysOf the few that did, some were priced too high, were located too far away, or had dismal reviews (including some that alleged animal cruelty). And, of course, there were plenty of third-party booking companies that offered these same tours with a prettier presentations (even the most dismal) to lure in those who don't know the difference. I do know difference. I readily dismissed them.

At the same time, I couldn't help but to make a few mental notes. All of these operators were winning on impressions, click counts, site traffic, and (perhaps) qualified lead generation depending on how they define that. Some might even have felt good assuming my lengthy visit was tied to interest (when it was really tied to not being able to find the right information). So what?

Most of them only succeeded by getting in my way. And a few of those, believe it or not, reinforced  the worst possible impression of their brand. After reading some reviews, I would have a hard time taking a chance with them no matter how many impressions, clicks, and site visits I left behind.

So, at the end of the day, I settled on the one operator I remembered from an in-person presentation I had seen a year prior and nothing from the search results. We'll likely hook up with them for lessons once our summer temperatures drop below triple-digits this fall. I also did bookmark a couple of other operators too. It's always good to have a backup.

The measurements marketers count is not what customers count. 

In this case, I was looking for reasonably-priced Western-style riding lessons that accommodated families and had generally positive reviews. Search, social, and content does not account for all of that criteria.

In fact, brands with better search, social, and content tactics were more likely to be in the way of providers who could meet it. And, as mentioned, some brands did little more than entrench a negative brand impression. They might not even know it. Numbers alone don't tell the story.

For some, they tell the wrong story. Looking at the data, they might be convinced that their content didn't connect or that they need to spend more on reach or their sales funnel needs improvement or that they have problems with their website layout. In reality, it wasn't any of those indicators that make numbers look like something you scoop off the shelf and put in a shopping cart.

They didn't offer what I was looking for. It was that simple (and honestly for the best).

Real marketing is more of an expertise and less of a commodity. 

Marketing from the ground up considers the market need (or desire), competitive price model, product or service mix, total customer experience, and how the marketing message is delivered so that it not only reaches people who care, but also manages customer expectation without complicating the package. In several cases, qualitative analysis not quantitative would have been the better teacher.

Just poking around, I could see many operators invest too much in capturing the wrong kind of traffic or creating content that is too broad for their offerings. Several are attempting to capture a low-cost lead position despite more market demand for a luxury ride. Only a few have figured out that the primary concern most customers have is for the horses, second only to their own personal safety. And meals, which are always touted as the best part of a package value, are the least appreciated and most often complained about aspect of any ride.

Marketing ought to consider all of this data and not just the growing list of marketing measures associated with maximizing impressions and conversions. If anything, the last thing any serious marketer wants is to increase exposure to an inferior offering when they have the means to make it right. Great brands are not made by exposing more people to an inferior offer.

They are made when you can deliver the right product or service to the right group of people. When that part of the equation is done right, the right numbers will follow and measurement will begin to shift from website traffic to something tangible such as public perception and customer referrals.

Wednesday, July 9

Separate Advertising And Pubic Relations At Your Own Peril

Advertising Or Public Relations? by Rich Becker
Every time someone attempts to divide advertising and public relations into two distant camps, it makes my skin crawl. They always make it sound like both fields have to be at odds with each other, with cliché conversation starters like advertising is paid and public relations is pray.

There doesn't have to be such a stark division. No one has to choose one over the other. After all, while it might be true that advertising and public relations have distinct world views, they essentially aim to fulfill a bigger organizational need — to meet organizational objectives through communication while reinforcing a brand that has (ideally) already proven its market differentiation.

It doesn't even matter what that product or service differentiation might be. It could be based on any number of tangible and intangible attributes — quality, price, availability, prestige, functional specifications, design aesthetics, corporate citizenship, and whatever else someone can think up or any combination of them provided there aren't too many to remember. One to three points is enough.

People don't see public relations or advertising. They see brands.

When people see an advertisement or article about Porsche, they don't categorize the communication into categories or departments. They only see stories that reinforce and expand on a single idea.

"In the beginning, I looked around and could not find the car I'd been dreaming of: a small, lightweight sports car that uses energy efficiently. So I decided to build one myself." — Ferry Porsche

To hear Porsche tell it, they have always strived to translate performance and speed — and success — in the most intelligent way possible. It was never about horsepower alone, but intelligent horsepower.

The medium doesn't matter. You will read the same story in every article or advertisement equally. This car is about a dream. And as each dream is realized, Porsche pushes the envelope even further.

PorscheIn being exposed to either the advertisement or the article, consumers don't score the credibility of one or the other because credibility is not created by the communication. Credibility is created by delivering on a brand promise. Advertising and public relations merely reinforce what is there.

And for Porsche, the principle they abide by isn't confined to ads and articles. They apply it everywhere — to customers who believe there is no substitute and to motor sports spectators who may never own a Porsche but are more than happy to share the dream conjured up in every piece of communication. It not only extends to their cars, but also to their corporate offices, environmental policy, employee responsibility, and long-term sustainability as well. You don't even have to like them to respect them.

More importantly, you have to appreciate that this kind of outcome doesn't come from advertising or public relations or word of mouth. It comes from a unified communication strategy, one that transcends the tactics chosen to deliver it.

So no, advertising or public relations isn't a valid conversation. What communication strategists need to ask is what is the organizational strategy and how do we best communicate it to those people to whom it will matter most with whatever budget is available. The answer to that question is as varied as the products, services, and markets served. Every communication budget mix is different.

Some professionals think it's all about persuasion. Stick with the truth.

The fundamental reason that no one questions a Porsche advertisement is that the brand has banked credibility. It is known for taking care of its customers. And in doing so, its relatively small customer base has worked with the company to create a public perception that extends beyond that base.

Sure, some people will mistakenly believe this is a phenomenon exclusive to luxury brands, but it really isn't. Walmart, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble (various products) and Colgate (various products) all employ the same fundamental premise. Small marketers do too. The Abbey Inn in Cedar City, Utah, is one example. It's a 2-1/2 star hotel that consistently ranks as the number one place to stay in town.

There isn't big budget marketing behind it. It employs targeted advertising with some public relations support, with most media and social media exposure earned by exceeding expectations (including mine) rather than feeding journalist story pitches.

Abby Inn in Cedar City, Utah
Not all of the advertising is great, but it still succeeds in establishing a brand promise from a 2-1/2 star hotel (one that it can easily exceed with friendly service). In doing so, it achieves what other hotels — even big brands — cannot do. They has achieved and continues to have a market advantage along with repeat visitors and a strong referral base. And in some cases, it is this groundswell that earns it inclusion in other stories about the area — everything from the Utah Shakespeare Festival  to national parks like Zion and Bryce.

When considered as part of a comprehensive communication strategy — marketing, advertising, social media, public relations, customer service — organizations that can deliver the right concept with the right market differentiation across all of it win and those that can't struggle. And the only reason that more organizations don't employ such an approach is because most talk to one specialist or the other, with each attempting to maximize their budget rather than considering the overall mix.

It's something to think about. When was the last time your organization put the strategy ahead of the tactics? Considering what most professionals are measuring these days, I'd say not very many.

Wednesday, July 2

Welcome To The Petri Dish. A Great Big Thumbs Up.

Don't expect the fervor over what some people are calling a breach of trust by the social network Facebook to last very long. Despite the growing distaste that most people have for it, big data is here to stay and the abuse of it will always be a few clicks away. The Internet is a petri dish.

If you missed the story, Facebook (in cooperation with Cornell and the University of California) conducted an experiment involving almost 700,000 unknowing and potentially unwilling subjects. The study was originally designed to debunk the idea that positive social media updates somehow make people feel like losers. Instead, it affirmed something most sociologists, many psychologists, and a few marketers already know.

"Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks," concluded the study. Negative and positive emotional content can influence our moods.

The significance of the study from the socio-psychological viewpoint. 

The summary of the study is clear cut. The researchers showed via a massive experiment on Facebook that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. They also provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient) and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

The experiment itself consisted of manipulating the amount of positive and negative content people received from their friends and relatives throughout the day and over long periods of time. Sometimes the test reduced users' exposure to their friends' "positive emotional content," resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Other times, it reduced exposure to "negative emotional content."

The study confirmed that the changes to a person's newsfeed had the potential to alter their mood. While interesting, it's not surprising. Everything we let into our heads influences us.

The books we read. The television programs we watch. The news we subscribe to. The advertising we see. The people we hang around. It's human nature. We are prone to adapt to our social settings and seek out affirmation for acceptance or validation. And the only remedy is awareness — either the truth or sometimes the constant recognition that someone is attempting to influence you.

The ethical lines of emotional manipulation and big data have blurred. 

It is naive for anyone to think that affirmation media doesn't have an agenda much in the same way it is naive to think that marketers don't have a brand agenda (which can be much more powerful than direct sales). They do, much in the same way Facebook has an agenda. The more the social network understands where our new ethical lines are drawn, the more it taps any amount of data for anyone.

The only reason this experiment has touched a nerve is because the people were forced to look at what they don't want to believe much in the same way people who track down an online catfish are often disappointed. The truth isn't something people necessarily want. They want their truth.

As privacy issues have waxed and waned over the years, so has public tolerance. People are all too willing to opt in (or neglect to opt out) for the most marginal of benefits. And as they do, online and offline privacy will continue to erode. The only changes since some of the earliest online privacy debates have been around semantics. Consumer profiling has morphed into big data. Shaping public opinion has drifted toward mass manipulation. And all of it is covered in TOS.

At least, that is what some people think about privacy. What do you think? Is manipulation in the eye of the beholder? Is an apology enough? Would it be all right to promote one hair color over another without product identification just before introducing a new hair dye? Or maybe it is fine to dedicate more airtime to isolated tragedies in an effort to change public policy. The comments are yours. 

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