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.

How can it be OK that 1,000 PC’s are lost in the malware wars every time a bad ad is served up in ad networks?

I admit a certain hyper sensitivity to all things security when it comes to Internet. I worked at CA and then Comodo – both heavy players in the online security world. I learned about the scary things that can happen if you go online alone. It is not a pretty picture.

So it’s no wonder that I tend to have a zero tolerance to bad online security practices – among my friends, my family, my peers.  I have even less tolerance (is that possible?) for online security industry practices that can allow 1,000 PCs to get infected before an ad is checked for malware.

That’s right! I recently learned that all the ad serving platforms check ads in their networks after it has been served. In the case of Right Media I am told an ad is served 1,000 times before it is checked. If the ad is malware – oh well – 1,000 PCs are likely to get infected. I was shocked TBH. And I was even more shocked to learn that according to all the large ad serving platforms it seemed perfectly OK (at least the 4 large ones) to check ads after they have been served already.  I had the chance to press a rep from Right Media for an explanation about why are ads not checked before they are served. It was explained to me that the sheer tonnage of ads would make checking everything before it ran impractical.

That answer seemed pretty lame actually. And one does not have to look hard to see how this causes problem up and down the ad market value chain. Recently, TechCrunch and The Drudge Report were hit with malware on their sites served up by an ad in the network. http://news.cnet.com/8301-27080_3-20000353-245.html. The backlash was felt by the likes of Michael Arrington who had to explain the issue to his audience. I felt his pain, more keenly felt because I knew there was little he could do to make it better. It is likely to happen again – the only question is when.

Here we see most blatantly the bad things that happen when you detach consequences from accountability as is the case here. The ad server networks are the ones who serve up the ads, good or bad, but if there is fall-out, it is largely felt by the site that delivered the ad. That ruptures the basic laws of accountability and consequence which ultimately leaves at least 1,000 PCs infected with malware every time there is a virus outbreak.

Now I really do not understand the technological limits of checking ads within an ad networks – but how can it be OK to permit ads to be served before they are checked? Could it be that 1,000 is too small a number to worry about? And as the number of ads being served grows, will a higher 10,000 threshold be OK? Then maybe 100,000 will be a tolerable number?

Here is a challenge to the industry. Elinor Mills’ article on this subject mentions Bennie Smith, a vice president of exchange policy at Yahoo’s Right Media who I invite to respond here. Maybe I it got it wrong. Set the record straight – please – I really want to be wrong.

Better yet – I would love to start a dialogue to solve the problem – between agencies, ad networks, advertisers and the security industry. Sometimes talk is not enough. An alternative is needed – an alternating current. But more on that coming…

Judy Shapiro

Why did social media become so urgently important right now?

Nowadays, I sometimes feel like the doctor who is often asked his advice “off duty”. Once I say I am in marketing, the inevitable questions begin. “How can I launch a product with just social media?” (You can’t). Is social media really free? (No). Can I be successful at social media without an agency (yes…but). This is not just mere curiosity; there is urgency to the questions I have not encountered before.

Now aside from the inconvenient truth that I am practitioner of marketing and perhaps not an “expert”; the other inconvenient truth is that there aren’t many experts to found anywhere because social media has barely been on the corporate radar for 24 months and it is very fast evolving category of marketing that is growing in importance. This expertise gap understandably makes companies scrambling for advice with a frantic energy approaching panic.

So with that perspective, let’s return to our initial question; why has social media become so urgently important right now?

There are two primary factors driving this laser focus on social media worth exploring. First, I think it’s safe to say that from a purely demographic perspective, social media has just now reached the tipping point, a critical mass of adoption led by key demographic segments like women, baby boomers. (read: More women than men on social networks for more). But the second, equally important reason is that social marketing is emerging as a company’s worst marketing nightmare – it is where a company’s most important branding battles are waged and it is also largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It gets worse. It became very apparent that the old corporate branding rule book needs to get tossed out! Gone are the days when a core branding platform was centrally created and communicated to the various stakeholders groups in a coordinated way. In the new social media branding paradigm, the community now creates the brand positioning for companies – like it or not.

And the days when visual branding standards were created for distribution are dismantling in favor of a model where affiliate communities re-invent the identity of companies to suit the needs of their members.

In the end, the systems that companies used to pump out the corporate messages are caving under the more credible corporate branding connections happening in social networks outside corporate control.

So what’s a corporate marketer to do? This can be a tough one to answer, because this is still evolving. But a few principles will help ease the transition to this new model.

1) Develop a learning path for your people to understand the nuts ‘n bolts of social media.

Often, the mystery of social media reduces seasoned marketers to passive observers to these new branding dynamics. Change the dynamic by encouraging active exploration of this media.

2) Launch a secondary branding experiment using an “ignition point” topic.

Nothing instills confidence than real world experience. A way to accomplish this without risking the corporate brand is to find a topic that your users or prospects have passion for. Launch a mini social media campaign and start explore the tools, play with the networks, participate in the community and experience it just for the sake of learning. Agencies and consultants can only take you so far since nothing beats hands-on experience. Learn for yourself how the machinery of social marketing works and that’ll be invaluable in how to create the new corporate social branding paradigm for your brand.

3) Deploy a reputation measurement platform that tracks your social media visibility.

It is crucial to monitor the conversations going on about your brand and there are great platforms our there to help you do that. There are companies that measure Twitter influence, social networking topic trends and specific corporate conversation in social networks. Some platforms are free while others do not cost a lot.

4) Get serious about community creation and management.

Too often companies start a community but quickly realize that maintaining it is far more difficult. Commit the necessary resources to do community management well. If that is not an option – it’s best not to start at all until you can commit the necessary resources. But a well done community will deliver benefits ranging from engagement marketing to an early warning system should the brand falter.

So if social media seems to be taking over your marketing conversations – it’s useful to remember that it is going through a growth spurt. It has not yet matured into a systematic, predictable set of technologies and processes. Until it does, it helps to be brave and jump right in even if you seem to be splashing around. You’re not alone.

Judy Shapiro

So much to talk about but so pressed for time.

Spring is a time of intensity. Things seem to take on frenetic pace as though we want to cram in as much energy as possible when it is so available.  

Lots of tech marketing activity – as always. Lots of new “social media” activity – as always. Lots of things to distract and entertain – as always. 

I have been quiet here for a few weeks mostly because I have been absorbing it all. I have pondering the complexities of copyright in the digital age. I have turned over in my mind the practical concepts of The Trust Web. I consider how to help fix the systemic security issues in the delivery of online advertising.    

In short, so many things are blossoming at once that I find myself basking the thrill of it all. The work I am doing now in social media is delivering metric based results for brands. Since I treat social media like direct marketing, I can deliver campaigns that a brand understands how to work with. It is refreshing for them.  

There are some exciting projects in the near horizon, like the initiative to create security standards for the online ad world. Or the possibility of a social/ DM platform for campaign creation.  And the growth of our network called MingleMediaTV so that even though it just a few weeks old it has began to rank well in Alexa.  

So many possibilities. So much to learn. So little time it seems.  

But it’s what makes Spring so wonderful and I am enjoying the ride.  

Judy Shapiro

The Marketing Measurement Maze: measuring marketing is a mess.

Forgive the illustrative nature of the headline  – but I had to laugh out loud about this whole thing or else I would cry.

This post is a follow up to my previous post about how fragile measuring marketing technology really is based on a real time experience I was having with Technorati regarding the authority ranking of this blog.    Unhappily, my initial concerns about marketing measurement were realized so it is worth recapping.

About a week ago, by accident, I learn that according to Technorati this blog, getting a mere 1,000 visitors a month, vaulted 4x in authority rankings to about 400 when previously I ranked about 100. For about a week, I jumped up and down a few times going between 400 and then 600 (see pictures in my previous post).I contacted Technorati and told them I think there is a glitch. I got a very polite answer to tell me they are updating their rankings system and some blogs are radically shifting in position as a result.  Sounded rather fuzzy to me, but hey – what do I know?

After that response, over the course of the next 3 days, my blog bounced around some more in the 400 to 600 range and then yesterday I seem to have settled back into my original humble ranking of about 100. OK – I think – that sounds more reasonable – except now I am not even listed in the directory at all!

I went from a blogger superstar to a non entity in just three days and it is still not “unglitched”.

To put this into perspective, I get that when you are making improvement to a site, things go weird for a bit. But since Technorati is largely viewed as the authority on blogging ranking (and thus ad value), this whole episode is ample proof of the sorry state of measuring marketing efficacy. You often can’t trust the measurement data because of innocent technology glitches and then you have no way to verify the accuracy of the measurement reporting data you’re getting.

While it’s tempting to brush this aside as some little blimp in the world of marketing measurement – you can’t because the financial consequences can be significant. Imagine if my blog was a commerce oriented site or if I am advertiser trying to assess what’s the audience reach of all these blogs. Such variations in rankings can mean a lot of money gets spent or not depending on which side of the glitch you happen to fall on.  And this type of glitch is just the tip of the iceberg. I have seen measurement issues across the marketing landscape from traffic reporting to ad buys to data you get from PPD or CPL marketing programs.

Bottom line. It’s time to get serious about measuring marketing efficacy. Now it is a mess!

Judy Shapiro

My top 10 New Year’s “un-resolutions” for 2010

We all know about our New Year’s resolutions. We make them with all good intentions to keep them. But we also know that what usually happens is that, inevitably, one by one our resolutions go by the way side. So I stopped making those New Year’s resolutions years ago because it seems to be a recipe for failure.

Instead, this year for a change, I have started to make “un-resolutions” – things I am determined NOT to do. Here’s my top 10 un-resolutions. Take care – this may become a new tradition.

1) I will not get seduced by any new digital marketing toy just because some industry pundit thinks it’s the coolest thing to hit the street. Nor will I believe every promise made by every new marketing technology company.

2) I will not abandon common sense in digital marketing and be blinded by digital agencies promises that their “new” campaigns will go viral and get the attention of millions of people. I will continue to listen to my gut and if it sounds to good to be true, I will let skepticism drive my decision.

3) I will not abandon newspaper, magazines, radio and other forms of traditional media if it is the right vehicle. No matter how sexy digital media may seem because of the perceived lower cost, I will continue to create integrated programs that weave together the best of both the traditional and digital worlds.

4) I will not give up my attachment to email marketing. Sorry folks – but email marketing, well done, drives real business results. If your email campaign did not work – either you had a bad list or an inadequate call-to-action or maybe your agency did not know what they were doing.

5)  I will not be fooled into thinking that the ad market is going to rebound in 2010. Nope. The ad market will continue to be buffeted by the tides of an evolving economic landscape and by consumers’ ever fickle attraction to new tech toys like mobile devices.  These trends will continue to dampen ad revenue for publishers for some time to come.

6) I will not get excited about cloud computing – at least not yet. I do see how it is going to dominate in the next 5 years – but there are real security problems to solve before everyone can get into the clouds. Conversely, I do get excited by all types of ASP offers as that is a steady business model that offers real value to consumers.

7) I will not blindly follow Google as they chow down every tech industry from telecom to digital publishing. Ever one loves to love Google. Me too. But that does not mean that I have to support every initiative as Google relentlessly marches toward digital dominance. In the process, they stifle competition and kill real innovation by companies who deserve to succeed. Now here’s my one New Year’s prediction (for 2012) – I predict that Google will have to break themselves up to avoid the growing recognition that Google is really a monopoly, albeit a new kind.

8 ) I will not diminish my slavish devotion to data driven marketing no matter what new platforms come out that can behaviorally target any audience any way I wish. I know I know – the BT folks can slice and dice an audience so many ways that it makes a marketer salivate. But unless I can see, touch and feel the data – I will pass for now.

9)  I will not start following every Tom, Dick and Jane to gain more Twitter followers. OK, so I only have about 175 folks following me but at least I know they read what I tweet. Quality – not quantity is what drives social media.

10) And my final un-resolution. I will not try appear to be “30 something” just because I love digital marketing. I know that the average age of people in digital marketing tends to be 27 – but my depth in this space has yielded real world, hard won recognition. And while I am at it, will not submit to peer pressure to use more “hair product” than one can find in a Duane Reade store so I can appear suitably young as a digital marketer. What you see (grey hair and all) is what you get :)

There you have it. My top 10 un-resolutions for 2010. If you have your list – feel free to share it here.

Judy Shapiro

What do Ninja Turtles, Facebook, Hush Puppies and Pokémon all have in common?

The answer reveals the secrets to creating a viral marketing machine.

Back when I worked on the Hawaiian Punch business for P&G, we spent a fair amount of time analyzing how “fads” became popular with kids. We tried to understand what ignited meteoric “viral” success. We learned some ingredients of viral campaigns –  ease of acquisition, transmission and novelty –  but we never really cracked the code of how to predictably recreate a viral marketing engine.

For the last few years, there have been a host of books presenting research on how to create a viral marketing engine. These texts add insight into the dynamics of viral marketing, but they fail to define how to execute viral marketing well. How, for instance, do you realistically and reliably identify influencers or content creators or mavens?

Then, just as these concepts were making their way into marketing models, newer work by Duncan Watts seems to suggest that many previous models are not, scientifically speaking, valid. He argues that influencers are not all that influential after all. For something to go viral, he believes, is a function of among other things – “right time and right place,” he says.

How then can marketers effectively utilize this seemingly arbitrary dynamic? While researchers like Watts are still experimenting with new models, I’ll offer my own. My model lacks any published scientific study, but it is a theory grounded in understanding that breakthroughs happen when we blend science with human nature. So here goes.

When we think about wildly popular trends, from Pokémon to Facebook, they have a few things in common. They were all easy to share, they all presented a novel experience and the activity was largely democratic – easy for most people to participate.  But they also share one other, very important ingredient – they all powerfully satisfy our insatiable human need for “fun”. Yep, that’s it.

Now before you reject “fun” as being too lightweight in strategic value to drive business, it will be instructive to look at the iconic viral success stories for answers.

Let’s start with Ninja Turtles or Pokémon. Their success was grounded in the fact that their fun was incredibly engaging on many levels. They provided different modes of play (cards, video games etc), the fun was easy to transport and play could last hours. “Fun” explains the venerable viral success story of Hush Puppies because Hush Puppies reminded us of when we were kids and fun ruled. Fun by association works as well.

Now let’s look at, arguably the most successful viral engine ever – Facebook. When we apply the “fun” filter we see they carefully baked “fun” into every crevice of the user lifecycle – from encouraging friends to find each other and once found, to the plethora of fun ways for the friends to remain connected.

With this new understanding of balancing the latest scientific thinking with the human element of fun, here’s what a workable viral marketing engine might look like:

  • Enable easy content distribution.
    • Bake in the “6 degrees of distribution” as Watts demonstrated to ensure that messages can be easily transmitted.
  • Elevate “fun” to a strategic initiative in customer lifecycle management strategies.
    • Concentrate on creating a fun experience throughout users’ experience – from the moment you try to acquire them through every interaction with you.
  • Promote as broadly as possible.
    • Duncan Watts advocates for mass reach in digital campaigns because without enough reach, you may not have enough “fun distributors” to get the job done.  Tonnage is one of the secrets of viral success (counter intuitive as that sounds).
  • Timing can improve the odds of viral success.
    • Until the day that some clever researcher can scientifically figure out how to time “fads” (and maybe the stock markets too), this is probably the most challenging element in this model to execute. To stack the “timing” odds in your favor, troll the edgy blogs to see what’s percolating.
  • Create community to extend the fun.
    • Create an opportunity for people to relive the fun via community building programs, whether this is a Facebook group or a formal community. Done well, it is a powerful brand extender.

So there you have it – the new viral marketing engine based on the dual foundation of scientific research coupled with the pure joy of delivering fun. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Facebook people. They made “friend requests” fun and built an empire.

Reprinted from a MediaPost article on October 13, 2009

Judy Shapiro

Brilliant marketing made simple – Trust the creative heart.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Einstein

I got a recommendation from someone to read the book by Martin Lindstrom, called “Buy·ology; Truth and lies about why we buy what we buy”. It describes the new neuromarketing sciences exploring how the brain’s physical reaction to our thoughts, sensory stimulation or even rituals can evoke  brand loyalty or apathy .  According to Lindstrom, this new understanding of the biology behind our unconscious mind’s ability to make “decisions” faster than our conscious mind, represents a, “…historic meeting between science and marketing. A union of apparent opposites.”

Now, I deeply respect Mr. Lindstrom’s work, but TBH, these types of branding books are a marketing person’s nemesis. They are often recommended to us by CEOs with the implicit expectation of; “Read this so you know which buttons to push. And tell me what you think in 4 days. Thanks.”

If a CEO were to ask me summarize the book, it would pretty much boil down to:

1) Our subconscious mind is much much faster than our conscious mind to take in stimuli and make “snap” decisions.

2) The line between alternate outcomes (dare I say alternate realities) in a situation is as thin as a single thought. If you believe that a ritual or a treatment is going to work – it more probably will. A potent principle in marketing when applied to shampoo or shoes or new technology.

3) If understood correctly, there are fundamental mechanisms in the brain that can be used by marketing to evoke immediate and lasting impact in current and future purchase decisions. Highly useful, no doubt.

4) Finally, the book nobly tries to empower us to make better decisions because we are “armed” with information. I must say, this Mr. Lindstrom’s weakest moment. Being armed with “conscious” rational information does not particularly seem efficacious if we are to believe the bulk of the book which explains in rich detail how driven we are by mechanisms that transcend rational thinking.

But as informative as the book was, I think it misses a big part of the branding story. Mr. Lindstrom, like many others who are drawn to the razzle dazzle of new mind mapping technology, often overlook the real nuts and bolts of what makes marketing really great.

Being great in brand building, IMHO, does not start with technology, but starts with the power of a creative heart. Unlike Mr. Lindstrom who believes that till now marketing and science were “apparent opposites”, I can tell you that much of what Mr. Lindstrom described in the book as powerful branding techniques were not new to me. Why? Because great creative minds in the agencies were using these techniques all along, we just didn’t have the technology or the fancy names to label what we knew anyway.

Some examples:

  • The book refers to “Sensory branding” (page 142) whereby attaching multiple senses to a branding program works a lot better than only  one sense. It also demonstrated that if two senses were inconsistent with each other, (e.g. an image of a lemon has the smell of vanilla), this combination was the least effective in creating a positive brand association. Twenty five years ago we simply called this principle “cognitive dissonance” and any good creative mind knew enough to avoid it without any SST brain scan.
  • Then there’s the very cool idea of mirror neurons, where if you just see an experience, it can feel as vivid as though you are doing it. This mechanism explains the deep satisfaction we get watching spectator sports or theater. Again, back in the 1980s, we knew about this phenomenon even though we did not know the name. We knew about the principle when we created Folger spots to linger lovingly on the brew process so that you could “almost smell” the fresh brewed coffee. We knew this was a powerful marketing technique even if we didn’t have the benefit of science to inform our work.
  • And also we nailed the importance of “Rituals” years ago. Duncan Hines focused on the ritual of making cookies with your kids and Folger became “the best part of waking up”. Again, these principles were masterfully utilized by creative people doing what do they naturally.

We must remind ourselves that neuromarketing or even taken further, the latest new digital marketing technology are tools for the artists and creators. And the best of these minds were using these “latest” ideas decades ago. There was no tension of “opposites” Mr. Lindstrom alludes to, but rather we used our talent to intuit the “science”. The best creative minds already knew what science is now telling us.

I believe Mr. Lindstrom would endorse for a balanced approach. In today’s techno-rich, techno-dense marketing world, it is so very easy to let technology blind you into thinking that there are silver bullet answers in creating powerful brands, (could this account for the stupendously low average tenure of a CMO of about 23 months?)

Instead, let’s turn the model around. Rather than promote the new science as the way to brand vitality, let’s demote technology to its proper place – as a means to an end. Let’s celebrate the creative mind as the primary force that animates it all. It’s about recognizing that for great marketing to live and breathe; even the most amazing new technique won’t work if there is no creative expression of it or if that message is inconsistently applied.

In the end, neuromarketing techniques may tell us that yellower yolks makes eggs more appealing, but ya still gotta get them to buy the eggs in the first place!

Why Google Reminds me of AT&T – Take 2. Can you spell DOJ?

Many of you will remember the July 7 article in AdAge on Why Google Voice Reminds Me of AT&T, where I broadly outlined how Google, like AT&T before it, can be undone by its ambition to dominate a key “infrastructure” sector, like the web. I contended in the article that, much like AT&T’s quest to dominate information systems, Google’s quest to dominate web services can divert precious resources from core businesses leaving it weaker not stronger.

The article generated, uh, considerable conversation; some polite, some not – but most were incredulous that I could even dare to make such a comparison.

Now, a mere 3 weeks later, Fred Vogelstein of Wired Magazine chivalrously comes to my defense (however unwittingly on his part) with his article; “Keyword: Monopoly …Why is Obama’s top antitrust cop gunning for Google.” where he explores the Department of Justice’s newly launched anti-trust investigation of Google (see where this is going?).

The article explains why the DOJ is going after Google now:

“Recently, Google’s size and ambitions have begun to obscure its halo. Advertisers watch nervously as the company’s share of the search-advertising market have jumped to 75% from 50% …Google’s largest problem isn’t what the company is today; its what is plans to become. Google aims to create a world in which web services replace desktop software.”

Does this not sound familiar?  The government gets nervous whenever one, very large, commercial enterprise wants to dominate any key infrastructure, whether it is software, information or the web. It was why AT&T and Microsoft were targeted in their day and it explains the DOJ timing now.

This investigation is yet another element demonstrating the parallel between the two companies. Sadly, the DOJ investigation changed everything for AT&T and it is likely to fundamentally change how Google does business, even if the case is not brought for years.  You see, once the government had a “virtual” seat at the AT&T table, the lawyers started running the show. It slowed us down, blunted much of our competitive bite and even restricted which technologies we considered. It simply took the life out of AT&T. Google seems prone to face similar constraints.

At this point, I hope most of you can at least understand why I saw and continue to see a pattern repeating itself. The real question becomes what’s in store for Google? What can Google do better/ differently than either Microsoft or AT&T when they were at this critical crossroads? Maybe nothing – I don’t know. Yet, that does not seem to sit well given Google’s well earned reputation for its Google genius. So for a moment, using history as our guide, let’s consider “out loud” some of their choices – together.

In the face of a potential anti-trust suit, Google can follow the path of Microsoft to fight to keep Google whole. It can use the legal argument of “anyone can go to any number of competitors with a better mousetrap” strategy. But that approach is not without peril if the lesson of Bill Gates’ now infamous court testimony with the resulting loss of Microsoft public good will is any indication. Poof – in a virtual moment, a decade of good will was gone. And the irony of following in Microsoft’s legal footsteps is rich given Google’s corporate culture of being as much anti-Microsoft (e.g. their “Don’t be evil” mantra) as it is “for” anything.

Google has another option; one that celebrates what Google what it does most brilliantly; innovate with new business models to create sustainable, profitable and ethically oriented corporate growth. It is an option that follows the contours of AT&T’s footsteps (read on before you all descend into an epileptic shouting fit), but avoids its failures.

Here’s what I mean.

AT&T ended breaking itself up into seven companies (the 7 Baby Bells of which three are still around) after a lengthy and costly battle which left AT&T very much weakened in the process. Maybe, just maybe, Google takes the first, brave step to focus on getting smaller and better – not necessarily around becoming bigger. Google can consider innovative ways to spin off smaller, more sustainable businesses via a consortium or community of like-minded companies. This community of companies model was first tried successfully by the Bell Labs New Venture Group in the late 1990’s. It operated with a structure that let connected businesses share basic, scalable overhead services like HR or marketing, but they remained relatively small to allow for innovation and ideas to flow freely. I was there that time and I can attest to the fact that with this model, we were able to more quickly assess and launch new technologies with successful outcomes.

While getting “smaller” may echo back to the AT&T “breakup”, that’s where the similarities can end. AT&T never really embraced the notion that smaller companies could be stronger and more profitable. Perhaps Google, by staying true to its very DNA to “be a force for good on the Internet” can free us from outmoded business models where bigger is automatically assumed to be better. Google can keep its cool by being a role model for a well balanced company that’s big enough to stay strong and innovative but not too big that it drowns in its own grandeur and bureaucracy.

It has not been done yet. In this respect Google reminds me of no one. And maybe this is what saves them.

Judy Shapiro

This is a reprint from Ad Age DigitalNext column.

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