Some Viral Magic to Warm the Heart on a Monday

13 May

Why a guy pumping gas became an online sensation

I’ve been writing some long and serious posts recently on effective communications strategies, and have even been called out on Twitter as an “attention seeker” as a result (apparently I hit a nerve by daring to criticize Google :-)).  So maybe it’s time for a quick hiatus from the heavy-hitting stuff, and time just to sit back and enjoy.

I plan to explore in more detail why things go viral.  There’s a terrific book by Jonah Lehrer called Contagious: Why Things Catch On that’s on my reading list.   But it’s clear that some of the things that made the video below go viral so quickly are (1) its spontaneity and the fact you just can’t manufacture something like this; (2) the guy’s authenticity; (3) his (and his wife’s) unquestioning willingness just to put everything out there.

It becomes clear that even though they initially started singing to get a free tank of gas, they end up doing it just because that’s who they are and they want to have a good time.  You just can’t make that up.  Enjoy!

and here’s them on Jay Leno


Why Is Google Glass Already A Marketing Disaster?

9 May

Google did not explain Glass’ compelling uses or discuss privacy honestly, and so it gave up control of the conversation.  But all is not lost…

Remember when products used to get lampooned after launch, when they were already successful?  Google Glass is getting pilloried, and that’s before you can buy the device.   And people are only starting to talk about the creepiness factor.  Google can overcome this huge messaging challenge, but only if it reasserts control of the conversation.

The Loooooong Pre-Launch Caused Google to Lose Control of the Message

Google Glass, a pair of glasses with a tiny display, video camera, and mobile computing functionality, has been openly discussed by Google for about 18 months. Google made a very public display of Glass’ potential in spectacular fashion  last June, with a skydiver flying into Google’s I/O convention all the time live-streaming from the glasses.

But why did Google publicize this so early?  Good question.  Partly, Google needed developers.  They wanted to generate worldwide attention so that developers could ponder the many different potential uses for wearable computing.  Unlike the iPhone, which married an mp3 player, a cell phone and a portable computer (as a converged standalone product), there isn’t an immediate mass-market need for a wearable device.  So Google needs to come up with some killer uses.

But even so, Google intentionally generated consumer-facing publicity.  Considering the product was half-baked, ugly, and lacked many compelling use cases, Google immediately lost control of the conversation.  Huffington Post has collected at least nine humorous parodies of Google Glass (bottom of this page).

Now that developers and journalists have gotten their hands on Google Glass, more blogs and articles are poking fun at the dorkiness of Google Glass.  And SNL jumped in one the joke with the video above.  Is all publicity good publicity, when there’s no product on the market yet?

And then there’s the Creepiness factor

I remember the exact moment I saw an iPhone in person for the first time in 2007.  I was at a coffee shop in San Francisco.  Someone sat down next to us with one of the newly-released, first generation (and still almost mythical) half phone, half mp3 player, half computer, touchscreen device Apple had just released.  It was like being starstruck.  I asked the owner whether I could play with it. (By the way, who does that?!)  I pinched-to-zoom, swiped across, and did all the other things that in hindsight seem so obvious and intuitive, but at the time were so groundbreaking.

By contrast, a few months ago I saw a Googler walk into a restaurant wearing a prototype of Google’s new glasses/wearable computer/Robocop device.  The friend I was having lunch with, and I, had the same reaction: “Is she recording us? Is she using facial recognition software to find out who we are?” Or, “Has she even noticed we’re right here in front of her, or is she just reading dlisted right now?”  I saw someone else wearing Google Glass on the street the other day, and had a very similar reaction.  My head turned on a paranoid swivel as I walked by.

It isn’t possible to tell if someone wearing Google glasses is recording you or not.   You also can’t tell what information the wearer is looking at while they’re talking to you.

(Sidenote – brilliant/scary Google Glass app idea: a dating app so your friends can “be there” with you on a first date, help you sound more charming, etc.)

In short, Google Glass can really make other people feel uncomfortable and is “creating paranoia.”  From a marketing point of view, even though Google is selling the product to the wearer, potential buyers will be deterred by the fear of being labeled dorky and creepy by those around them.

Re-asserting control of the conversation

There are many legitimate and potentially revolutionary uses for Google Glass.  But Google needs to get back on top of the conversation now.   It’s surprising that a company with as much marketing power and sophistication as Google has lost so much control over the message for its own product before it’s even on the market.

Here’s what Google needs to do:

1.  Warm the heart.

Right now Google Glass is cold, dorky and creepy.  The message needs to stop being “Google Glass records you in public.”  Give Google Glass to some doctors in remote areas that need real-time help from experts during surgery.   Give Google Glass to a climber about to summit a never-before-reached mountain and allow a worldwide audience to share the exhilaration.  These aren’t compelling use cases for the average consumer, but will shift the conversation away from creepy public recording.

2. Lead on privacy rather than being evasive. 

Google has been essentially silent on the privacy implications of Glass.  CEO Eric Schmidt is on record as having said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”  This is not a good way of framing the conversation, particularly for a company with a history of many, many, many privacy violations.

Ideally, Google would find a way for the device to inform people being recorded/photo’d.  A red LED may be too antiquated, but they need to find a way to manage the creepiness factor.

Moreover, Google should take the thought leadership here, coming up with recommendations on acceptable and unacceptable uses for Google Glass.  The laissez-faire alternative to industry leadership is having governments and private entities enact laws and rules regulating Google Glass, which will undoubtedly be less favorable to Google.

3.  Figure out ASAP how Google Glass is useful.

Again, it’s hard not to compare Apple’s approach to Google’s attempt at marketing.   Whereas Apple historically stage-managed with great precision how its products were publicized, the first images many people are seeing of Google Glass are weird photos of Robert Scoble in the shower and three VCs looking like Star Trek extras.

Google needs to shift the conversation from its current status (there’s literally a Tumblr called White Men Wearing Google Glasses) to a place where the product’s everyday uses are the focus.  If Google fails to manage this well, Wired magazine may be right that Google Glass will be nothing more than the next Segway, an over-hyped and under-utilized product that never gained widespread consumer traction.

I suspect that won’t happen here, but only if Google changes the conversation, and changes it now.

Make the Complex Simpler, Part II – Removing Obstacles to Action

3 May

Bump’s CEO explains Cognitive Overhead: why we expect too much from our audiences, and how to fix the problem.

cognitive overhead

This is Part II in a series on “Making the Complex Simpler,” whose inspiration came after I was asked to help students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business prepare for their final presentations/pitches to VCs.  Part I is here.

This post owes a lot to David Lieb, CEO of Bump, and his brilliant article about Cognitive Overhead.  I want to summarize and then adapt his thinking in terms of strategic communications.  David’s perspective is invaluable to anyone designing a consumer internet product, or for that matter any product or process designed for large numbers of users.  But it has clear application to effectively communicating messages, especially when the goal is to produce a specific action from the target audience.

David’s message, in short: eliminate all unnecessary user thinking.  Do as much thinking for the user as possible.

Sounds obvious? Achieving that result can be surprisingly complicated and counter-intuitive.

What Is Cognitive Overhead?

Remember Amazon’s PayPhrase payment option (see image below)?  Amazon thought it would be a good way to eliminate a couple of steps during the checkout process, and make things simpler.  You could type a personalized PayPhrase on any Amazon product page, and skip the checkout process altogether – the product would be ordered based on a specific payment method and delivery address you’d previously specified.  The thinking was that this would significantly streamline checkout.

amazon payphrase

But I remember looking at it, and wondering: what is this and what do I need to?  Sure, I could have figured it out.  But that’s the point – I had to figure it out.  And I never did.  And apparently, nor did many other users, which is why Amazon canned PayPhrases last year.

That’s exactly what “Cognitive Overhead” is.  “Cognitive Overhead” refers to all the leaps or thinking required for a user to take a desired outcome.  The more steps a user has to take while engaging with a product, or the harder it is for a user to figure something out during the process, the less likely the user is to take the desired action.  And when you have thousands or millions of users, Cognitive Overhead can have big costs.

Amazon’s Cognitive Overhead for PayPhrase was actually highlighted by the “What’s this?” box.  Amazon was subconsciously telling users “you don’t know what this is, and you’re going to have to learn how to use it.”  In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Amazon created a ton of Cognitive Overhead and the product didn’t work out the way Amazon expected.

How to Get to Cognitive Simplicity

David doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming Cognitive Overhead.  That’s not surprising – if there was an obvious answer, there wouldn’t be any overhead in the first place.   But his suggestions are surprising, because many of them are diametrically opposite to what you’d expect.

  1. “Make People Work More Not Less.”  This is a brilliant insight.  If you force users to take a simple additional step like pressing a button, they become more engaged. If they’re more engaged, they’re thinking more, and less likely to get confused or left behind.  With David’s own app, Bump, users have to physically touch their phones to exchange their contact information.  Of course, there’s a delicate balance in getting the right amount of involvement, but the big picture message is that automation is not the be-all and end-all.
  2. Give users positive feedback.  This one is pretty straightforward.  Let the user know they successfully completed the task.  Slot machines in casinos don’t need to make those electronic gaming noises when you pull down on the handle to play the game, but the mere act of spinning the wheels generates excitement and itself becomes a small reward (as opposed to winning).
  3. Slow your process down.   Another great insight.  Sometimes speed is everything.  If Google took 5 seconds to return search results, but Bing took 0.001 second, Google would be out of business.  But for tasks that we do less frequently, slowing the process down can be beneficial.  David points to academic studies showing that “slowing down results on travel search websites can actually increase perceived user value” because it creates the perception that the service is doing hard number crunching.  I must admit to having the same reaction when using SoundHound or Shazam, where the whole process can take 10-20 seconds to identify a song (that may actually be a case where it literally takes that long though).
  4. Test your product on the old, the young and the drunk (!).  People who are cognitively impaired or undeveloped can help you identify leaps you’ve made, that are not necessarily obvious to everyone else.
  5. Ask users to verbalize what your product does and the process.  Another good one.  Sometimes when users explain things in their own words, it can cast your product and processes in a different light to how the core team is looking at it.

There are probably plenty more strategies like this, and I don’t consider this list comprehensive by any means.

But understanding Cognitive Overhead is as vitally important for effective communications as it is for the actual products, services or ideas being marketed.   If you have spent hundreds of hours on a project, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all of your cognitive leaps and assumptions because you are so absorbed in the work.

Take email (which is generally a terrible marketing tool, by the way).  If you ask someone “why are you writing this email” they will tell you “because I want [audience] to do [specified action].”  But then when they sit down to write the email, how do they start it?  “Dear Joe, How are you?…”  And they end up writing a letter, or extended essay.  But that ends up diluting or confusing the “ask” – the single action you want the recipient to take.

Surely, it makes more sense to start by writing down the “ask”, and then thinking about what minimal amount of information the recipient needs in order to get from their current state of inaction to the point of action.  That process forces you to place yourself in the other person’s shoes, and figure out what connections or leaps you need to be make induce them to act.  In particular, figuring out how to get someone involved or actively engaged (David’s point #1 above) is likely the most important point – but is notoriously difficult to do with email.

I’m going to write a ton more about this, because it really is vital to effective strategic communications.  It’s crucial to think about Cognitive Overhead and what mental obstacles stand in the way of getting your audience from inaction to action.

F***ing Forgiveness in the Age of Sharing

30 Apr

Public reaction to a rookie TV presenter getting fired for swearing on air teaches us which values are really important.

I’ve previously written about the need for more honesty in corporate communications, and the generational shift in the way people communicate. But I think this is actually part of a different trend too.  The constant sharing of personal information has had a fascinating effect: we care less about  human screw-ups.  These are different from corporate screw-ups or political screw-ups – those tend to blow up big-time.  But for individuals, we care less about single goofs because people embarrass themselves online every day.

Take A.J. Clemente – the TV news anchorman fired on his first day for dropping a giant F-bomb without realizing the cameras were rolling.  The clip above of his performance instantly went viral and has over a million views.

But a funny thing happened after he was sacked.  According to ABC News, more than 1,500 people posted on the local TV station’s Facebook page asking the station to forgive him and reconsider the dismissal.  And A.J. was then invited to appear on the Today show, David Letterman, Morning Joe, Inside Edition, E! News and more.

Probably due to his honest and authentic responses on Twitter after dropping the F-Bomb (“That couldn’t have gone any worse!” and “Rookie mistake. I’m a free agent. Can’t help but laugh at myself and stay positive.Wish i didnt trip over my “Freaking Shoes” out of the gate”) and also due to how viral the video went, A.J. generated tons of positive national news for himself.  But why?

A generation ago, more people would likely had sided with the TV station.  “He’s supposed to be a professional” and “You should never swear at work” might have been the reactions.

But, if nothing else, social media has humanized us.  People post embarrassing content about themselves all the time, intentionally or otherwise.  In the aggregate, this likely makes us more forgiving of individual mistakes, because we see them all the time, and no single screw-up seems that bad.  Documenting life in real-time inevitably means that things go wrong and human beings act like, well, human beings.

What does this teach us? It comes back to the renewed emphasis on honesty in communications.  Many people cut their teeth in corporate climates with a “never admit mistakes” culture.  Every message had to be positive, and acknowledging errors was a big no-no.

There’s a generational change occurring, though.  Corporate-speak can backfire horribly and most younger workers see straight through spin and obtuse messaging.  Moreover, because we share so much personal information, there’s much less sting to a single negative data point.  And because the line between “work” and “personal” forms of communication is increasingly blurred, we no longer expect people to be (or even present themselves as) “proper” all the time.  A rawer form of honesty and integrity is valued more than a superficial facade of perfection.

A.J. apparently didn’t get his job back, but we can learn many lessons from the reasons he was propelled to his 15 minutes of fame.

Is “Virgin America = Delays” The Unintended Message? (updated)

4 Apr

Virgin America FB message

Companies need to be careful with the unintended associations they create

I saw this message in my Facebook news feed this morning.  My initial reaction was “why is Virgin America broadcasting to the world that its flights [along with everyone else’s] are delayed?”  I’ve had real trouble deciding whether this is smart marketing or very ill-considered.

Pro Arguments: The case that Virgin is being savvy

Here’s why I like Virgin’s message:

  • Honesty – they are being honest and authentic, two things Kosher Bacon loves in communications strategies
  • Customer focused – they are providing a good service to customers.  Many people check Facebook/Twitter before getting out of bed – it’s a good way to alert people to a problem, and prevent them rushing to the airport unnecessarily.  Consumers love that.
  • Distinguishes from other airlines – if I was flying on United from SFO today, and I saw this message from Virgin, I might think more favorably about Virgin, as the airline that does everything possible to communicate with its customers.  (There’s a flip-side, though. See below).
  • Positive feedback loop (potentially) – social media can generate fantastic positive feedback.  While a very small sample size, the post here already garnered two very positive comments and a good number of Likes.  But there’s always the possibility that well-intentioned Facebook campaigns can backfire with negative comments as Samsung and General Mills, among many others, discovered (Update: see image below).

Con Arguments: The case that Virgin is shooting itself in the foot

Here’s why I think Virgin’s message might be ill-advised:

  • Wrong Audience (non-travelers) – This blast went to everyone that Likes Virgin America on Facebook (a similar message went out on Twitter too).  95% or more of the recipients are not traveling to/from SFO today.  What message does it convey? Possibly that Virgin is customer service-focused.  But possibly either or both of the following:
  • Wrong Association (Virgin America = delays) – Virgin does not want to associate itself with delays. Objectively, Virgin would say, delays happen to every airline, so Virgin is just providing better service.  But marketing is not objective.  The subconscious consequence for Virgin of shouting out flight delays publicly might be Virgin America = delays, or at least reminding people that flying = delays.  Even if its just flying = delays, that hurts all airlines, including Virgin.
  • Wrong Precedent (We will tell you when there’s a delay) –  The biggest problem, though, is this: Virgin America is setting the wrong expectations with its audience.  This FB message says:  if there are delays, Virgin America will tell me.  Virgin is putting itself in a horrible Catch-22:
    • Either they put all significant delays on Facebook (and truly create the Virgin America = delays association);
    • Or they don’t, and risk undoing the goodwill they’ve generated.   Joe Traveler wakes up tomorrow morning, checks his Facebook news feed, sees baby photos and discussions of last night’s The Bachelor, but nothing from Virgin America.  He then goes to the airport and discovers my flight is delayed three hours.  Why didn’t Virgin tell me?  Whatever goodwill and positive association was generated by the above Facebook announcement is gone in a flash.

Overall It’s Probably a Bad Idea

When formulating a communications strategy for any business, large or small, the number one question is “does it help us or does it hurt us”?  In this case, the unintended consequences and potential harm (especially based on bad precedent setting) probably outweigh any potential goodwill benefits.

I’ve never understood why any business sponsors the morning traffic report on the radio, because it always creates the association with frustration and bad news (unless you’re advertising a self-driving car, a GPS system that avoids traffic, an anti-anxiety drug, etc.).  And this Virgin America announcement falls in the same category of conveying the wrong subconscious messages and associations.


More Likes, but some negative comments too…

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 9.47.16 AM

Why Soccer (Football) Pundits Are Sheep – The Power of the Default Rule

2 Apr

The effect of referees’ calls on TV announcers illustrates a powerful rule for those trying to influence others’ choices

John Motson

(Update: Having spent a bunch more time with Behavioral Economics, I think the concept described below could also be described in different ways too, based on heuristics such as anchoring and social norms.  But to the extent the announcer “chooses” between the path already-chosen by the referee, and the alternative decision that could have been made, I think this article just about identifies an example of the Default option.)

I’ve started Dan Ariely’s awesome Duke course on Behavioral Economics called Irrational Behavior.  It’s free on Coursera.  Even though some of the material has overlapped my prior Stanford business school coursework, it’s a fascinating reinforcer of the many factors that influence decisions without our slightest conscious awareness.

Take, for example, the Default Rule.  It’s invaluable for anyone involved in UX and website design, product sales, or any form of communication seeking to motivate people to action.  (That last category almost certainly includes you.)

In a nutshell, the Default Rule is as follows: if people have the choice between staying on the path they’re already on, or choosing a new one, they’ll stay on their current path.  It’s easier not to choose anything at all than to choose something new.  The “default” is the current path we’re already on.

The best real world example is organ donation.  In three pairs of very similar countries, willingness to donate organs is amazingly different:

  • Denmark 4% – Sweden 86%.
  • Holland 28% – Belgium 98%
  • Germany 12% – Austria 99%

How can consent be so vastly different in such similar countries?  The answer: opt-in vs opt-out forms.  When you get a drivers license in Denmark, Holland and Germany, the form you fill out states (in essence) “check this box if you would like to donate organs.”  If you don’t place a check in the box, you don’t agree to donate.  The default is that you do not donate.

In the other countries, the form says the opposite: “check this box if you do not wish to donate organs.”  If you don’t place a check in the box, you are agreeing to donate.  The default is that you will donate.

The incredible differences in willingness to donate is explained by one simple but incredibly powerful design choice by the makers of the form (and the policy makers instructing them).  What is the default setting that people will affirmatively have to change to achieve a different result?  This is cool stuff.

So how does this relate to my favorite sport?

Well, I’ve always noticed something play-by-play TV commentators do.  When referees make decisions (calling a foul, not calling a foul), I’ve often felt the commentators were seeking to justify those decisions, even if the decisions were wrong.  Often times they seemed sufficiently questionable refereeing calls that I was surprised the commentators didn’t see what I was seeing.  And I never really understood why before thinking about the default rule.

Here are two great examples.  First, this bad tackle (you may have to endure 30 seconds of advertising with cool accents first – sorry!) was not penalized by the referee at the time, even though the player went off injured.  It was such a clear red card (ejection) that the referee was subsequently punished for missing it.  But listen to the commentators at the time – all they do is criticize the quality of the pass to the fouled player, and merely call the foul a “forceful” tackle.

Second, skip to 50 seconds of this video below, where the player was given a red card for a tackle.  The league later reversed the decision saying there was nothing wrong with it – it wasn’t a foul.  Nonetheless, the commentator justifies the referee’s red card, saying the bottom of the player’s “boot was raised” (meaning in a dangerous position) and that he made contact with the opposing player.

In both these scenarios, the commentators stuck with the default rule (the decision the referee had just made).  In the first video, the announcers disregarded the fact the player screamed in pain upon contact, and what they probably saw with their own eyes, because the referee had decided it was not a foul.

Granted, these people are human, and instantaneous decisions are never made with complete information.  But that’s the point.  It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance, even when it’s sometimes not in our interests, or contrary to the evidence we can see and hear right in front of us.

And this is powerful stuff to think about whenever trying to communicate choices or motivate someone to action.  What is the default path? How can you present information or choices to achieve your desired result?  Many organizations, entities and individuals have started to think about this, including websites, health care professionals, politicians, and retirement planners.  Practically every business, service or organization seeking to get clients or customers to act should incorporate this idea into their thoughts and business processes.

Screw the Polar Bears: How to Effectively Frame “Greater Good” Messages

26 Mar


New Research Is Clear – Appealing to Americans’ Sense of Independence Works;   Appealing to the “Greater Good” Actually De-Motivates!

One of my core messages about Communications Strategies is: Be Authentic! How do I reconcile that with the following new research from Stanford – to motivate Americans to do something for the greater good, you have to appeal to their independence and individuality.  Surely, this encourages dishonest and disingenuous communications strategies?  Not really.

This research recently came up in the context of the difficulties President Obama has had selling gun control to Americans, even in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Obama was quoted as arguing:

We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, the Stanford research found that when people (specifically white Americans) are asked to perform tasks explained to them as being part of the greater good, it actually demotivates them.   It doesn’t have a neutral effect – it actually undermines their performance.  Wow.

Independence is apparently so wired into Americans’ DNA that anything perceived to restrict individual liberties just doesn’t resonate.  In the gun control debate, this hurts liberals.  However, in another hot button image, gay marriage, one reason the liberal position has gained popularity is because it actually appeals to individual rights and freedoms (less government restriction on how people live their lives).

So, as far as communications strategies, here is the significance of this research for me:

Focus on direct individual benefits to specific audiences, rather than intangible abstract universal goals.

For someone passionate about climate change, talk less about polar bears.  Instead, tailor messages to the disruptions in specific groups’ current ways of life.  For example, emphasize to skiers and snowboarders in Northern California that Lake Tahoe’s snow could well disappear over the coming decades unless more actions are taken to prevent climate change.  For gun control, talk less about “gun control,” and more about individual safety, reduction in violence, and billions of dollars of savings for taxpayers from the reduced deaths and injuries.  To get your selfish friends to take a flu shot, ditch the argument that they could be spluttering next to your grandma on the bus, and instead focus on days they will lose of work, activities they may miss by being sick, and the costs of hospitalizations.

So does this encourage inauthentic messaging when the “greater good” is actually the “true” goal?  Not really.  The “selfish” selling points described above are all assumed to be true.  And in many cases, those individual rewards, if aggregated together (by motivating people to take the specified actions) will actually produce the underlying societal benefits.

The American military got into the act years ago, with their early 2001 “Army of One” recruiting campaign, which replaced the famous “Be All That You Can Be” slogan.  The point was to highlight the career opportunities that the army could produce, and to make the army seem less dehumanizing.  The then-Secretary of the Army admitted to the New York Times the contradiction of selling individuality to recruits for the ultimate collective unit.  But he understood the need to effectively frame the message to get those recruits in the first place.  “They are going to get the ethic of selfless service, duty, honor and country in basic training and in every unit they are assigned to . . . But you’ve got to get them in the door… And you’ve got to let them know that even though it is about selfless service, they are still individuals.”

I will leave it to others to analyze whether all this reveals something dark and disappointing about human motivations.  But, the take home is this: to motivate people to support the greater good, focus on individual benefits.  If you’re uncomfortable with that, realize that those small rewards, when all taken together, are just the flip-side of the same coin!

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