Monthly Archives: June 2009

Should the wisdom of crowds replace standard consumer research?

I usually have a pile of books on my night table waiting for me to finally get around to reading them.  But the ones that, by intention or accident, end up at the bottom of the pile can sit there for weeks or months before I finally get around to cracking them open.

In many cases I wish I hadn’t waited.  And one of these cases is The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki.  I just started reading it and although I’m only a quarter of the way through, it’s already got me thinking about a lot of stuff.

The crowd is wise

The crowd is wise

With a fascinating array of current and historical cases from politics, business, economics and other fields, Surowiecki argues that large, diverse groups of people are better at predicting results and outcomes than traditional analysis, research, surveys or even the most knowledgeable panel of experts.  It’s not even important that the group include a sizable portion of experts.  In fact the evidence shows that the group makes a more accurate prediction when it includes many people with little or no knowledge of the topic.

A key factor leading to an accurate outcome is not to do what most market research does.  Most market research asks people to say how they think they will behave individually when faced with a particular decision or choice, for example the choice to purchase a new product or not.  In Surowiecki’s examples, the question isn’t what you would do, but what you think everyone would do.  So the question might be, do you think this product will be a success, or become the biggest selling brand?  Or what percentage of the movie going public do you think will go to see this film in the first week?

Obviously, if the wisdom of the crowd is more effective in making predictions like this, it raises questions about how companies have traditionally conducted market research.  When launching a new product, a company will typically conduct a quantitative survey, putting a product concept, the actual product, or both, into the hands of a statistically valid number of consumers and asking them how likely they would be to purchase.  Much money and time is spent determining and recruiting a specific target audience that would come into question for the product.

Based on the wisdom of crowds thinking, the survey sample would require only a large and diverse number of people, not a circumscribed target.  And the research wouldn’t ask them to predict their own purchase behavior, but to judge as best they can the behavior of everyone.  Conceivably, a marketer might not even need to go to the expense of asking consumers.  If he had a large and diverse enough employee base, he might just ask the company’s employees to say how successful the new product would be, and still get a more accurate prediction than conventional consumer research.

If anyone knows of marketers that have applied Surowiecki’s thinking to their marketing, I’d love to hear about it.

But perhaps I’ll come upon some good cases as I make my way through the rest of this fascinating book.  I’ll keep you posted if I do.


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Darfur is Dying — can a video game help resolve a humanitarian crisis?

Darfur is Dying is a free online video game created to build awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and motivate people to take action in addressing it.  I discovered the game through an episode of 3 Minute Ad Age which featured segments of a keynote presentation made by Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, at the recent Games for Change annual festival in New York.

Darfur is Dying

Mr. Kristof has become an enthusiastic proponent of video games as a force for engaging mass audiences.  He was so impressed with Darfur is Dying that he will produce an online game to accompany the publication of his new book, Half the Sky — Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women World Wide. While Antonio Neves, the 3 Minute Ad Age host, calls this a new form of journalism, it’s really more about cause-related communication or education.

Mr. Kristof says that one of the things that makes the Darfur is Dying game so effective is that the player identifies emotionally with an individual Darfurian.  It didn’t feel that way to me.   To play the game, you first select from one of several Darfurian avatars, but they are no more than cartoon figures.  Perhaps if a fictional profile for each of the figures had been provided, it might have had that effect.

I also wondered if transforming such things as foraging for water or hiding from the militia into game objectives could potentially backfire and desensitize people to the plight of Darfurians.  But perhaps I’m over-thinking that.

It’s a great idea with great potential.  Nobody will be spending hours playing Darfur is Dying in order to “keep their camp functioning,” the stated goal of the game.  But of course that isn’t the point.  I imagine the greatest value of this game, and others like it, will be to engage a mass audience of young people in social issues and causes — an audience that is less accessible through more traditional communications channels.


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Spoofs of GM’s new “Reinvention” commercial

I merely critiqued the commercial. Others have gone further.

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A 30-second message from our sponsor — how cool is that?

In this amusing clip Malcom Gladwell fantasizes about a world in which digital media always existed and newspapers were only invented a few years ago.  He imagines that digital natives would find it totally cool — information on paper, no need to lug your laptop to the breakfast table every morning.  I’ve had a similar thought about 30″ TV spots. What if blogs, product rating sites, consumer generated content, online conversations, etc. were the only ways to learn about brands? Then someone came along and said — “Hey, I can tell you most of what you need to know in 30 seconds! How cool is that?”

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Jeff Jarvis thinks advertising is failure. What do you think?

This talk by Jeff Jarvis on the future of marketing and advertising was made at the recent Brite Conference at Columbia Business School.  It’s well worth the 21 minute investment to watch it.

Jarvis’s central thought is that advertising is failure.  It’s merely an inadequate replacement for what should be an ongoing exchange between the people running companies and the people that buy those companies’ products and services.  In an online world where new social media technologies are enabling these direct conversations to happen, Jarvis asks a fundamental question:  Will advertising, as “middleman,” still have a role to play?

I think it will, and Jarvis at the end of his talk essentially acknowledges that it will.  But it does make you imagine that what will serve brands better in future is less what we think of as advertising, and more about simply spreading the word to people who care.  It will depend upon connected consumers to pass messages along, which in turn will place a greater premium than in the past on messages that are engaging and entertaining through great stories, or interactivity, or elements of gaming, or who knows what.  And encouraging consumers to mash-up and modify the content in order to give it their personal spin.

I think there will continue to be a role for advertising, but its role will change, and with it, the nature of advertising itself.


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GM’s reinvention commercial on YouTube is as un-inventive as it gets

Fresh from filing for Chapter 11, GM has launched a video on YouTube about its vision for the future.

The commercial is a disaster. I call it a commercial because that’s exactly what is. The same old marketing cliches, hackneyed images, the stilted language of advertising (”This is not about going out of business, this is about getting down to business” — oh please!) — and not a shred of a fresh thought or any content beyond empty generalities to give anyone a sense of confidence that GM will reinvent itself successfully. If anything, this commercial, which is more or less interchangeable in content and tone with thousands of other corporate commercials, makes me feel the opposite. If GM is incapable of reinventing the way it communicates with its consumers and the general public, how will it reinvent anything? And to add insult to injury, comments about this spot on YouTube have been disabled. Another indication that GM just can’t figure out that the world has changed.

Did they show this video to Christopher Barger?


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Slay big old Goliath with social media

The May 11th, 2009, issue of The New Yorker features an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “How David Beats Goliath.  When underdogs break the rules.”  Gladwell reviews principles by which the weaker of two competitors, who under normal circumstances would surely suffer defeat, can shift the odds to come out the winner.

One of the key principles will be familiar to anyone who has read Adam Morgan’s marketing classic, Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders.  Morgan says that in order to succeed, small-share challenger brands, as he calls them, have to change the rules of the game — for example by breaking the conventions of the category.

A great case study of a challenger brand (although I’m not sure it’s mentioned in Eating the Big Fish) is Felix Cat Food.  Originally the number 4 or 5 cat food brand in the UK, Felix advanced up the ranks to challenge the market leader Whiskas with an unconventional, consumer relevant creative approach and by using newspapers as its primary medium, rather than TV.  TV was where most of the other cat food brands were putting their money.

In The New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell’s signature case for this principle is the story of David and Goliath.  Gladwell writes:

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath.  But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said … and picked up those five smooth stones.

When the David’s of this world choose to play by different rules than the Goliath’s, more often than not, they win.


Another great example that Gladwell writes about in some detail is the story of a girls’ junior high basketball team, whose players were neither especially tall, nor especially gifted, but who nevertheless made it to the national championships.  They did it by utilizing a strategy that is basketball’s equivalent of David reaching for the five smooth stones.  It’s called the full-court press.  Many basketball teams practice the full-court press a few minutes at a time, but the Redwood City girl’s basketball team pursued it relentlessly.

There is a convention to playing basketball that most teams follow.  When Team A makes a basket, they immediately run back to their own end of the court to await the approach of Team B, who now has possession of the ball.  As Gladwell explains, this convention favors good teams:

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end.  Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

The coach of the Redwood City’s team — who, by the way, had never played basketball or coached a basketball team before, and therefore had no preconceived notions of the game’s conventions  — took a different approach.  He coached his girls to exercise the full-court press constantly.  Rather than retreating to their own side of the court after they scored a point, they aggressively challenged the opposing team for the possession of the ball on that team’s side.  Instead of standing behind the single opposing player she was assigned to shadow, to impede her if she received a pass, each Redwood City girl maneuvered herself in front of her opponent, to prevent her from even receiving the pass in the first place.

Often this meant the opponents would lose possession because they would fail to advance the ball across the mid-court within 10 seconds, a rule of the game.  This helped the Redwood City players to regain possession close to their opponents’ basket, which meant they could score more often with an easy lay-up, rather than going for lower percentage, long range shots, which demanded greater skill.

They also aggressively tried to block the inbounds pass, which is when the opposing team throws an out-of-bounds ball back into play.  Most teams don’t bother with this, but the Redwood City girls did.  This often forced the opposing team either to exceed the five second limit for getting the ball back into play (and lose possession) or, panicking, to simply throw the ball away.  In general, the opposing players simply lost their groove against the Redwood City team’s tactics.  Flustered and frustrated, they couldn’t take advantage of the strengths that normally made them so powerful.

iStock_girlbasketballSmallSo what does this have to do with social media?

As I read Gladwell’s article, I began to see interesting parallels between advantages of the full-court press strategy for the Redwood City underdogs and the use of social media for a challenger brand.

First of all, social media is not the conventional choice most big brands will use for communicating with consumers.  They aren’t comfortable with it and continue to focus their efforts, and their budgets, on the standard TV, radio and print media they already know.  But just as Felix replaced TV with newspaper, which was the unconventional medium for the time and the category, a dedicated commitment to social media and the power it has to forge brand-consumer relationships can be a potent strategy for stealing share from the big guys.

Another point Gladwell makes about the full-court press is that it takes much more physical effort than the conventional way of playing the game:

It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing.  We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity.  It’s the other way around.  Effort can trump ability … because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

In other words, it’s easier to create and produce a flashy 30″ TV commercial and stick the thing on air, than to be out there in the social media space day in and day out, talking like a human being with individual consumers, engaging with your brand enthusiasts and building your brand’s reputation one consumer at a time.   As my friend Joseph Jaffe says:  in the world of new media, “Marketing isn’t a campaign, it’s a commitment.”

And finally, consider this quote from the Gladwell article:

Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one.

Putting a positive spin on it, the inbounds pass is the point in a game where the weak team is as powerful as the strong team.  The same can be said for social media.  It doesn’t require a mega-budget for a brand to put together an effective social media effort.  Unlike conventional broadcast media, the playing field in the online social media arena is fairly even, whether you’re the market leader or a smaller challenger brand.  Social media is the place where great ideas can catch on and spread without big budgets, thanks to the connections people have within their communities and their passion to pass on content they love.

So to all you small players out there in the marketing world — think like David and the Redwood City girls basket ball team.  Consider how social media can help you shift the rules of the game to your advantage, and slay big old Goliath.

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