The world according to algorithms

I wrote this post over three years ago! Gosh – kinda of more scary now. Yikes.

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My personal, trusted search agent, my husband, cut out an article for me about DemandMedia, an innovator in offering a service for web owners to pull algorithm driven, highly moentizable content – fast and cheap.

Then a few minutes later I read about Cheaptweet.com and how it uses an algorithm to mine Twitter feeds for deals on clothes, electronics and services.

I began to notice a pattern.

The next day I read about new search methods that were smarter because of, you guessed it, algorithmic technology.

Now with a thud, I realized, a bit to my horror, that algorithmic logic drives a big part of our lives. It drives our searches and, as a result, what we learn about. It drives which ads we see and crunches through a formula to present us with the most relevant, contextual based ad possible. It filters what offers we see or don’t see online.  And the ever iterative algorithmic engines can even choose our future mates.

I even think some algorithm predicted the end of the world to happen sometime in 2012 *sigh*.

It then blindingly dawned on me (better late than never) that my perception of the world was being shaped by algorithms – aggregation of data points. I was taken aback by the fact that my world perception was not formed as I thought by my experiences with real people – but by mechanical machines spitting out numerical answers to questions I had not yet asked.

I realize I see the world through number colored lens. I am not sure I like the effect.

This shouldn’t be bothering me – but it does.

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

The essence of business complexity expressed in pictures

This is the MOST accurate, intelligent, comprehensive explanation of why big companies manage to mess up great ideas time and time again. Pure genius.

The Twitter Secret – why & how to use Twitter for B2B and technology businesses. Rant #1

This is one of those hissy fit posts I sometimes write in frustration when I see my friends at B2B or technology companies struggling with new marketing technologies when they shouldn’t be struggling at all. There isn’t a CEO, COO, CMO et al friend of mine who has not said to me recently; “I don’t get Twitter/ We don’t do Twitter”. URRGGGHHHH!!! This gets me going because using Twitter (or not) should be an informed choice not a result of ignorance. Yet, the lack of Twitter savvy spanning companies of every size, often reflects a lack of marketing leadership from internal marketing folks and more often than not, the agencies that serve them. Sorry – agency people, but nearly all of my corporate side colleagues express a near universal lack of confidence in their agency’s depth in newer marketing tactics.

So, here my dear friends who are CEOs, COOs, CMO, CIOs, CTOs  and directors of companies of all sorts, is the definitive guide to why Twitter matters for B2B and technology businesses. Feel free to share it with your agencies – gratis.

A deeper dive – who really uses Twitter anyway?

First it helps to put Twitter usage in perspective. A recent report from Edison Research gives us an excellent reference point (here is a PDF –   http://trenchwars.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/twitter_usage_in_america_2010.pdf )

Most importantly, it helps to understand that, despite the hyper buzz, at most only about 7% of US population actually uses Twitter despite an astonishing, almost universal 85% level of awareness.

So who are these “7%’ers”? IMHO it happens to be those people who pushed Twitter into the face of “Judy Consumer” with such success – the media/ marketing/ PR world. These folks love Twitter because it is a digital, communal bulletin board, water cooler and late night hangout all in one place.  It’s an efficient amalgam of interesting stuff, useless stuff, ego stuff and occasionally a real gem, like a source for a story. Hence media’s love affair with Twitter and the correspondingly high awareness among the Judy Consumers out there.

Now that we have framed the Twitter picture correctly and hung it on the wall, it’s time to make practical use of it in our marketing decorating scheme.

The secret of Twitter for B2B and technology companies.

At the most basic level, Twitter is mainly about;

1) Listening to what’s going on

2) Connecting with specific reporters, stakeholders and influencers and

3) Broadcasting to a large following

Let’s break this out in more detail (and for you impatient CEO friends of mine – I used as many bullets as I could for quick scanning :)

1) Listening:

Why do it?

In this mode, Twitter offers three excellent strategic advantages:

  • It is one of the best research/ early warning brand monitoring systems on the planet. With Twitter, you’ll learn of gathering negative corporate sentiment storms before they become too big or too hot to handle.
  • It provides you with an easy way to identify key stakeholders for your brand within the industry, media and regulatory groups.
  • Finally, if you become astute at listening, you can learn the hottest trending topics that can provide powerful platforms for your branding and any Corporate Social Responsibility campaigns/ programs you have in mind (more on this later).

How to execute:

  • I’ll start with a “don’t”. Don’t just follow people who follow you otherwise you will have too much noise. Be very judicious in who you follow.
  • To know who to follow at first, spend a week identifying well respected people, analysts, thought leaders who publish in leading trade journals and follow them. An agency can help you identify important tweeters in your space, but supplement that with your own research.
  • At this stage, focus on quality of information not on quantity of who you follow or gathering Twitter followers. Also, at this stage, do not try and outreach. Give yourself time to get accustomed to the character of the Twitter-sphere.

Who should do it:

Set it up so that everyone in the company follows the same key people for a consistent flow of information. Specifically, though, here is who should be “listening in”:

  • Everyone in the “C” suite:
    • I hear you, my C level friends kvetching that you don’t have time. Nonsense. To check Twitter every day is at most a 15 minutes task spread through the day. The rewards can be tremendous as it can be amazingly energizing and motivating – like a decadent chocolate treat at 3:00 in the afternoon.
  • Every marketing person in the company
  • Key people at the agency.

Best used with:

Nothing in marketing should live in isolation and Twitter is no exception. For the listening side of the Twitter value equation, this is best used as part of the strategic process that determines corporate messaging platforms, as in for example, a corporate social responsibility program. This provides a powerful “real time” voice in the internal strategic corporate brand tracking processes.

2) Connecting:

Why do it?

Simply, Twitter gives you direct access to media and industry thought leaders: Think of Twitter as an extension of your PR machine since you get unmediated access to many reporters that are important to you.  Focus on identifying analysts, trade journals and event organizers that are the gatekeeper for what the industry sees. You want to know what these folks think about.

How to execute Twitter for media/ industry outreach:

Strategically, it is wise to remember that Twitter provides the “public” with a very probing view into your company. I suggest you confine the connecting part of Twitter to people who have both intelligence and sensitivity to recognize that their personal brand will get attached to the corporate brand. It is something not easily outsourced to an agency TBH.

It’s therefore best to set up a formal program and a great example is Robert Scoble of Rackspace. He is one arguably one of the most respected tech Twitterers out there, yet his work is supportive of the Rackspace brand. The point is pick a person/ people with the temperament, passion and intelligence to do you proud.

Once your Twitter Dream team is in place, tactically, here’s how you do media outreach on the Twit-o-sphere. Respect the fact that Twitterers are etiquette sensitive so you want to give yourself time to learn the courtesies:

  • Start by simply retweeting the articles of these influencers that interest you. Be sure you actually look at what you are retweeting and that it is of high quality. What you retweet reflects what interests YOU, so please please don’t just retweet something from important people you follow without looking at it first. If you like, the retweet can have a brief personal comment just to add a bit interest.
  • After you get a feel, then directly respond to the tweets of key influencers with a thank you for sharing something interesting or a comment on their observation. You can even disagree with the Tweeter, but always keep the karma positive and always include their Tweet handle via the @ sign. Twitterers hate rudeness or snarky for the sake to impress. Keep it honest, simple and direct. BTW -don’t expect anyone to answer or acknowledge you. Just keep at it, over time it will pay off.
  • Once you gain some confidence (and that is key), you are now in a position to use Twitter to promote your own agenda using the platform of these contacts. This is the real payoff and it works like this.From your listening stage, you may have identified a powerful positioning platform I call the “ignition point”. Then:
      • Have a blog or article written about the ignition point.
      • Then create a google search alert on the topic and/ or the people within the field who cover the topic.
      • When an article comes up (and it won’t take long if you “listened well”), then comment on the article at the article’s website and point back to your article.
      • Once you have commented, then tweet about the article and include a link to the article – not to your blog. Why? Because people are more likely to discover your article if it is introduced on a well known website rather than a directed link in a Twitter update you post.

Quality content and ideas will attract attention and recognition. Not every platform will work – but over time, you will have a consistent engine for getting your ideas out into the marketplace.

Who should do it?

I will start by suggesting who should NOT do it — an agency should not do this unless they are totally immersed in your business. Period. Otherwise, pick a trusted communicator within the business. They can be in any department: product management, technology, marketing – doesn’t matter as long as they have your trust.

Best used with:

Combining this aspect of Twitter with LinkedIn rocks. Specifically, you want to join LinkedIn Groups from media/ industry thought leaders and you should also start your own LinkedIn group where white papers, company news and updates can be shared.  Continue to post/ share (they can be linked so it is easy to do once) regularly.

3) Broadcasting:

This one is easy because IMHO, as a B2B or technology company you need not worry about the broadcasting aspect of Twitter. Honest. The broadcast aspect of Twitter works best if you are a B2C company where you can REGULARLY pump out promo’s which is how you will build your Twitter following. Otherwise, it really is a waste of effort because in the B2B world, it’s not about scatter broadcasting but narrow casting in your segment. It’s better to have 600 well placed followers then 600,000 “whoever”. I know having a big Twitter following feels good – but that’s not a good enough reason to spend time building it.  The only possible exception to this rule is if you are B2B company hell bent on becoming heavy duty content producer. If not, believe me when I tell you it is a waste of energy.

There you have it – the why and how of Twitter for business. But probably the uber power secret of Twitter is this — simply to show up every single day. Consistency pays off in dividends – but don’t despair because it will take months of steady, deliberate practice. But patience and persistence will pay off.

Now dear friends that you understand Twitter, let’s use this power for good – please.

Judy Shapiro

Twitter’s growing pains in 2010.

I have been tracking Twitter much like a bird lover would affectionately monitor a prize species through their every migratory move in an effort to gain that prized sighting. So when I notice a flutter of Twitter buzz that Twitter is profitable – it perked me right up.

My first instinct when I read the tweets was to say; “Well done”.  But when one reads a bit more, one is struck by the realization that their new profitability engine was because of some cash deals rather than a sustainable monetization engine where, gasp, Twitter  actually sells a service to a “Judy Consumer”.

No such business maturity seems to hover anywhere near the Twitter nest. This is probably why Twitter has some serious skeptics, myself among them sometimes. “When will they grow up” I ask myself, “and create a real business with real services.”

But I see no such plans yet, nor, do any of the business analysts who should know. Sure, I see how Twitter caters to a few industries brilliantly – the media world and the PR world for instance. But I don’t see any deepening of “Judy Consumer’s” attachment to Twitter.

Instead, we hear loud twittering about how business can use Twitter to great effect or endless schemes where businesses can use Twitter to promote themselves. And all this business exploitation of Twitter carries the real risk that it will alienate its fragile consumer base which BTW has so many ghost users that its hard to get a real tally of who lives  in Twit-o-ville.

Yet, I can easily imagine some consumer friendly services with just a bit of mature business thinking. For instance, I love Twitter because it has become a highly accurate, human filtered way to sift through the info saturated digital world. The list of people I follow on Twitter is a mere 24 (I have a paltry 185 group of hardy followers) and is highly structured into three rough tiers: about 1/3 are made of up huge news publishers so I hear about the big news items (e.g. CNN), then another 1/3 is made up of a group of “specialty” reporters and pundits covering categories that are important to me (e.g. Guy Kawaski). The final 1/3 are folks who amuse me or are likely to find that quirky item on the web that I would never ever find on my own.  Surely, other people use Twitter the way I do and I bet there’s a paid service in there somewhere.

Maybe I am too hard on Twitter. Maybe they are thinking along these lines anyway. Or maybe Twitter wants to continue its Peter Pan life within the cocoon of the techno-rati.

Maybe.

But here’s a thought for you Twitter folks to help you on your journey of maturation. When you wake up tomorrow pretend that you have no idea about how you are going to make payroll in the next four weeks. Or for a change, forget that you have oodles of someone else’s cash in the bank and try to figure out how to convince your first 1,000 prospects to buy from you. You’d be amazed at quickly you grow up in the process.

Take a chance and join us in the grown up world – we’re ready to welcome you with open arms.

Judy Shapiro

The Alchemy of Digital Marketing As Inspired by Renaissance Masters

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.. Einstein

I was reading Thomas Cahill’s exquisitely written “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”, when it occurred to me that to be brilliant in marketing today is more like being a Renaissance man; trained in a broad range of skills that mesh the rational with intuition and the quantitative with imagination.  Not only that, though, I chose to plant this post in the soil of “alchemy” and the renaissance tradition precisely because the central theme of a Renaissance man that applies to us here is their ability to traverse between the rational and imagination effortlessly. They afforded equal vigor to the pursuit of scientific truths as they did to philosophical contemplation. This paradoxical and improbable juxtaposition created the fertile soil for brilliant minds like Francis Bacon and Thomas Aquinas to shape the foundation of our modern, techno-rich, hyper-fast digital world.

This is the context then within which I profile the “digital Renaissance marketing man” of today. We need to be broadly trained across a wide range of skills, yet also be trained at blending the rational with the “ephemeral”. We must learn to command quantitative statistical theory, exhibit sound creative judgment, understand commerce requirements, demonstrate keen graphic sensibilities, provide key insights on sociological trends, follow emerging Internet technologies, be sensitive to the platonic-sized demographics shifts and be masterful influencers.

In seeking to achieve such competency, we can be guided by the example of our Renaissance teachers through our commitment to a rigorous learning path inspired by the noble goal of learning simply for learning sake. In keeping with this tradition, I will advocate understanding digital marketing for the sheer joy of learning, without thought to commercial gain. With true inquiry as our motivation, truths are discovered and once insight is achieved, these newly acquired skills are yours to command to rival the accomplishments of any marketing scholar.

The philosopher’s stone of marketing

The philosopher’s stone was the legendary, magical substance supposedly capable of turning base metals into gold. I like the illusion for our purposes here, especially as it is consistent with our renaissance inspiration.

So suspend your modern sensibilities for a time so that we may begin our training into the secret alchemy of turning ordinary marketing tactics (base metals in our alchemy world) into marketing gold with the philosopher’s stone, embodied in digital marketing. Indeed, I contend that digital marketing’s transformative power similar to the philosopher’s stone can be activated if one learns the secret blend which is, in equal measure, rational analysis combined with creative intuition to use digital marketing to engage us.

That’s the rub though. Achieving this magical balance can be as elusive as catching the unicorn in the thick forest – and no wonder – it’s very difficult. The first problem we encounter is that digital marketing is so new that it cannot be analyzed with rational metrics. Then there’s the very practical concern around risking resources with new programs where it’s anyone’s guess as to how they will perform.  On the creative side, you have to rely on digital agencies or small technology companies to interpret the technology into a creative concept, often clouding your instincts given the sheer novelty of the medium.

But again disciplined training will help us rise above the challenges because we can learn new ways to evaluate these new media, and in ways that let us merge rational metrics with intuitive sensibilities. How we do it? By making a study of the Big 6 – the primary elements or ingredients of successful digital marketing.

6 Elements That Unleash the Transformative Power of Digital Marketing

I put forth what I think are the six main elements of digital marketing, as key to us today as the four  “roots” or elements of earth, air, fire and water were to Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and scientist  who lived in 5th cent BC Sicily.  With these 6 primary elements, one can begin spin magical digital marketing programs reasonably and reliably (notice that I continually merge the magic with the metric – a skill that comes with deliberate practice).

1) Seek knowledge – not just information.

A researcher once told me to be suspicious of any analyst who said numbers were objective. He helped me understand that data can provide the answer to any question – the trick is to know how to interpret the data.

I make this point to highlight how important it is in any quantitative exploratory that you be absolutely clear about what you want to know going in. You can drown in data without having learned how to do anything better. To avoid the “data analysis paralysis” trap, be disciplined and work on getting data that you can clearly see driving to a specific business result. It requires a lot of self discipline not to accumulate all types of data, but it will cost far more in a lack of focused answers than all the mounds of data will be worth. So seek out knowledge – not information.

2) Create solid information systems.

Building on the point above, creating solid business information systems is sadly often, overlooked and neglected, especially in technology companies (ironic – no?).  This is a great pity because solid information systems are a key touchstone of any successful digital marketing campaign, arguably any business.

Eventually, though, every company comes to the “OMG, we need a system to track campaigns” moment. Then “all of sudden” there is a flurry of urgency to buy or build systems that are dicey and prone to data glitches. This is a recipe for disaster for a couple of reasons.

First, building information systems takes discipline, patience and a creative approach to information architecture. If ever there was a time to spend money on outside help, this would be it. Get an information architect or business analyst to help you create a system with a management dashboard to get at high level, mission critical information quickly. Time is not your main consideration here – creating a solid system is.

Second, know that information systems take time to mature to work out the kinks. If the success of any program is wholly dependent on the data from these new systems … hold your breathe and be extra sure to manage everyone’s expectations. It is as likely to fail as it is to work in the first try at it.

If you find yourself in this “OMG” position, take firm hold of this project and drive it an actionable conclusion. Do not leave it solely to data architects or business analysts. Apply your judgment to create an information system that permits you to give data its due without ever being enslaved by it. If done correctly, this type of infrastructure will illuminate your business because you can trust the information to be solid and reliable without ever blinding you in the process.

3) Every program has a purpose and a place.

Yes, there are loads of new technologies out there and more to come and in greater frequency too, so it becomes difficult to evaluate all of them. To stay head of the curve, learn to apply the “rule of purpose” to each new idea. This rule requires that before any new technology is considered, it is linked to a specific marketing program or goal. By applying the “rule of purpose” you will evaluate only those programs that can drive business results today without wasting a lot of time on programs that are cool but not useful at the moment.

4) Use common sense in evaluating new approaches in digital marketing.

We’ve all been there. The sales person, properly groomed with the right amount of product to sculpt his perfected coiffed style, is giving you all the right promises; low CPA, low CPM, low CPR or high conversion, high efficiency or high impact.

But by the time he is done, it sounds almost too good to be true. If you find yourself getting that, “too good to be true” feeling, that’s your first red flag. Your common sense is trying to tell you something and you should listen with an appropriate amount of skepticism. Ask for business cases, be clear about how the program will be measured and include a contingency in the contract if something goes wrong.

Yet, the seduction of these programs demands we consider them seriously. We can heed the call only if the programs adhere to some basic requirements:

  • It can not divert more than 3% of budget in terms of time, cost and labor
  • It can not exceed your cost per acquisition metrics – and in most cases, these programs should beat current CPA metrics to make it worthwhile to divert efforts
  • The program does not rely one just one business metrics – but includes at least two success metrics
  • There is a clear “out” clause

Finally, after you have done your due diligence, be sure to apply the good old common sense filter again to the mix. If the program can withstand that scrutiny, then give it a whirl. Win or lose – you win because you learned something.

5) There’s no substitute for “hands on” experience.

Sorry to say this but nothing replaces personal experience. Renaissance training required lots of experimentation and we would be well advised to follow their lead. Unfortunately, sometimes agencies insulate us from this practical, real world experience much to our disadvantage. If they are a digital agency, then they advocate programs that are very technical, so no real personal learning is gained.  The larger agencies kinda avoid the whole mess by sticking to the mass media programs they can execute efficiently within their fees (labor intensive programs like social media is a nightmare for larger agencies given falling fees).

That pretty much leaves you on your own. So to understand this stuff, you gotta simply roll you sleeves up and play with it yourself. Use social media (be safe please) to tweet and twine so you can experience the interplay within the digital social world. Explore how Facebook is viral but within a limited sphere. Try new approaches within semantic and real time search engines.

It’s critical to stay curious and maintain a willingness to experiment and play. As we all know, play is a great teacher, so avail yourself of this powerful method of learning.

6) Celebrate the creative mind.

For those of us on the marketing front lines, we want silver bullet marketing answers. For instance, Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buy-ology, is highly seductive because it gives us a well organized list of mechanisms that can be used to evoke specific purchase responses. Yet, his well documented set of markers and triggers obscures the real art of creating successful marketing – the creative spark that draws us in and compels us forward in the purchase process. This creative magic is the powerful pixie dust we all desire in our marketing programs, but make no mistake – it is creative magic steeped in science. Really? You bet and here’s how it works.

First, learn to trust the accuracy of your inner voice to guide your judgment of a campaign. Love or hate – allow yourself to first appreciate your reaction and then try to understand why you reacted as you did.

Next, marry your creative instincts with the science of digital testing. Exploit the internet’s ability to let you test incessantly and iteratively. It provides a great learning laboratory for new ideas and combinations. This is how art can be realized through science and how we can bring the best of both the rational and the creative to work together.

Finally, utilize all the new learning in neuro-marketing courtesy of Lindstrom and others to add a fully integrated and optimized approach. Mix it all up and you get the magic potion that transforms mudane marketing into marketing that sustains businesses in these transformative times.

In conclusion, dear students, we are reminded that in the Renaissance, men understood how to merge the ethereal, sublime nature of art and magic with logic and rational thought. With that as our model, we can create the new “magic” of today’s brilliant digital marketing world.

Men of science are men of art living on the edge of mystery… borrowed from J. Robert Oppenheimer

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

PS – Given my training as a historian, I am deeply grateful to (and envious of ) Thomas Cahill for his clarity and precision with which he brings the lives of people from 800 years ago to life with relevance in today’s seemingly removed culture.

I hope the tone of this post is appreciated for its attempt to playfully discuss challenging problems in marketing.

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