Tag Archives: know your audience

The SF Chronicle Doesn’t Understand Why It’s the Problem

17 May

newspapers complaining about congress

News media whipped up a huge furore several weeks ago about the sequester causing flight delays because of Congress’ automatic spending cuts.  As a result of this uproar, Congress almost immediately passed legislation allowing the FAA to operate at prior spending levels.  Many legislators and members of the media then became upset about the quick fix when programs as important as Head Start, cancer research, and housing subsidies for the poor remained harshly cut.

But who’s really to blame?  Sometimes, a picture like the above tells a thousand words.  The San Francisco Chronicle last week told the heart-wrenching story of a 69-year old woman who now can’t afford her rent due to the sequester’s effect on federally subsidized housing.  She now “rarely goes out because she can barely spare money to see a movie” and is an example of the “the poorest Californians . . . whose political voices aren’t as powerful as a frequent flier’s.”

This was an important story.  Where did the Chronicle place the story in its print edition? In a tiny box on the bottom of the front page.  What was the more important story that went above the fold?  A British yachtsman who died on the Bay during an America’s Cup training race.

In other words, the Chronicle placed the story about the (albeit tragic) death of a guy voluntarily participating in a rich person’s sport above the suffering of millions of poorer Americans whose “political voices aren’t as powerful as a frequent flier’s” nor, presumably, yachtsman.

For those who believe the media is the fourth estate, and has any sort of social responsibility, this is frustrating to say the least.  The fact that the same media kicked up such a frenzy about “two-hour flight delays” in the first place reveals an incredible short-sightedness and lack of perspective.

Unconsciously and unintentionally, but very revealingly, this little anecdote tells much about how editors and publishers think, and who they think they are appealing to.  One effective form of strategic communications is to present information as a simple choice between two thing; to create a dichotomy and let people make a choice.  To me this demonstrates the relative importance the media has elected between separate segments of society.  Granted, viewers play a role in this, but for those who believe that the news media should be Fourth Estate, and that it has any sort of social responsibility, the question is how far have they strayed from that role.


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.

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

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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