Are You Pole Dancing in the Graveyard?

graveside-stripper

According to a story in the WSJ, in China the curious practice of hiring exotic dancers to perform at funerals has escalated to the point where authorities need to clamp down. The intent is to attract a sizable crowd graveside to mourn, as an effort to save face. “Otherwise no one would come,” explained one villager.

Now, I will freely admit there are likely cultural and religious nuances that are sailing well over my head here; but from where I’m sitting this practice misses the point.  A crowded funeral hall is a mark of a life that made a difference, that touched others in a meaningful way, a sign that others are moved by the passing and wish to participate in the moment. It is a byproduct. A symptom. A consequence.  Not the goal to be chased.

You can not earn a meaningful life by packing people into the funeral parlour so that it is standing room only. The people attending your grave to see the dancing girls are there to see the dancing girls and not to attend your grave.  One of the comments I saw tied to this story was, “well, that’s marketing for you.

But that’s NOT marketing.  Only, sadly, in many cases it is.

How many strategy briefs have you come across that amount to little more than a pole dancer in a graveyard? Because many of our performance measures in marketing and public relations focus on the number of eyeballs in the room, it becomes easy to lose sight of what actually matters… the measure of the brand. You can pack the room to the brim but if they are not thinking about your brand in the right way, or even considering the brand at all, then you may as well have nobody there.

What’s the last campaign that crossed your path that undoubtedly packed the room full of eyes but did absolutely nothing of benefit for the brand?

Calling a spade a spade when you open the kimono going off the reservation

Our language is a product of our culture, and as such there are a great many idioms and phrases within our lexicon that have their roots in bigotry, sexism and oppression. There is an excellent series on NPR which digs into the roots of these cultural snippets and examines their etymology.

Now we’ve all, at some point used one of these idioms without giving it a second thought or knowing the darker roots. When the dinner bill arrives, and you decide you should each pay for just your own meal, you may suggest to your friend that it be “Dutch treat”.

In all likelihood, anyone who’s “gone Dutch” has absolutely no ill-will towards the people of the Netherlands. Likely they haven’t given a second thought towards the Dutch at all. And when you examine the neuroscience you can see that there is, quite literally, no second thought.

When a metaphor is used, the brain fires up in all the areas pertaining to the involved senses. But for many popular idioms – “barking up the wrong tree“, “burn the midnight oil“, “back to the drawing board” – the brain treats it on par with any other word.   The phrase is so overused that it no longer holds any visual or sensual impact for the brain, but is treated as a word.  “Split the bill” and “let’s go dutch” are treated by your brain as one and the same; just a collection of words.

But the important thing to remember is that in professional communications, it’s not what’s happening in your head that matters but what’s happening in the minds of your your audience.

If your audience take offense, then regardless of your intent, offense was given.  Most professional communications are intended to create a connection, or elevate the esteem others have for your brand.   Giving offense works at odds to achieving that.

Even if no party involved takes offense, there is reason enough to avoid the phrase. No one may see you as being bigoted towards the Dutch, but they could interpret the continued use of the phrase as archaic and a sign that you are behind the times.

Last, but maybe most important, the idiom is equated in your mind with language because it has been so overused that it no longer holds figurative power. You chose a particular turn of phrase because you were hoping to spark something and instead you fired off a dud.  Good writers know that every single word ought to have importance and mean something.  On your second or third reading of your draft you ought to have cleansed your work of empty phrases, lazy usage of the language and words that may not convey the meaning you intend to convey.

Is your measurement of marketing and communications just a joke?

Mutt and Jeff comic strip - streetlight joke

It’s an old joke.  A drunk is looking for something under the lamplight.  A cop tries to help him and asks where, exactly, he lost it.  He indicates somewhere off in the darkness.  The cop asks, why would the drunk be looking under the streetlight if he lost it away, off in the dark and the drunk responds, “Because the light is better here.

It’s a common form of observational bias to search only where it’s easiest to search.  Measurement for public relations and marketing repeatedly defaults to this bias; counting what can be counted as opposed to what counts.  Desperately crawling and groping about, searching – not where the object we’re after, ROI, lies – but simply where the light is best.

Exposure Metrics

Reach.  Hits.  Engagement.  Impressions.  These are quick to find.  Relatively easy to attain and readily available.  They twinkle and sparkle in the only light available and so we get drawn to them like moths.  But no matter what twisted leaps of logic and feats of correlation and multipliers that we produce, they do not give us the ROI that we are so desperately on the ground hoping to find.  Because it lies elsewhere.

Business Objectives

Real operational matters that determine your ability to conduct a profitable endeavour.  Dollars and cents. A sale.  A satisfied customer returning to purchase more.  A community that welcomes your organization vs one that’s barred the gates to you.  Being able to attract the best of talent and hold on to it.  Seeing the price of your company shares inch upward.  These are the true marks of impact.  The return in the ROI equation.  The place where you see the results of your operational and communication efforts.

We keep trying to make the leap from exposure metrics to business objectives and always fall short of the mark.  That’s because we’re treating the beginning of our communication efforts as if it were the end.

Communication Objectives

The change in the marketplace that you’re actually seeking to make.  Anyone who’s ever stated ‘buzz’ or ‘impressions’ or ‘reach’ as their goal does not understand the role of communications: to change the views and perceptions of the market so that business objective may be more readily attained.

What is it we’re hoping to do with all of those impressions?  What is that change we’re trying to make in people’s minds?  Are we seeking to make them aware of our offerings, or better educate them on the features and benefits?  Are we looking to establish trust?  Create a positive association?  A want or desire?

There are perceptions and viewpoints that need to exist in order to reach the desired business objective.  Where this change is occurring is that dark corner, that place just outside of the lamplight, that we need to be focusing our search.

For years, marketing and public relations have been drawn to exposure metrics.  And like a bad joke, we keep returning there to conduct our search.  The time has come for the profession to set aside the comfort of searching in the light and bring our attentions to where ROI is going to be found.  Time to start looking around objectives and truly identifying the change we’re trying to create in the market.  Yes, it will be difficult.  But better a hard search that ends in results than an easy search that never ends.

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cross-posted from LinkedIn

Animated GIFs are Bad Practice for Corporate Communications

Transformer GIF - That is very bad practice, bad bad bad no no no

Once upon a time, I illustrated comics. The combination of words and imagery to tell a story was both powerful and compelling. So I’ve been watching with great interest as the animated GIF slowly wormed it’s way into the communication between people on social media.

They say an image is worth a thousand words, so in a medium often constrained to no more than a couple hundred characters, it makes sense that the animated GIF would rise as a visual short-hand to make a point.

Communicating a moment of introspection that led to a startling revelation, only to be told to hold your horses and chill?  Then simply toss in a Breaking Bad GIF,

Breaking Bad GIF - hello darkness my old friend

 

followed by a GIF of an old Internet meme,

Screaming Patrick GIF

rounded off with an IT Crowd GIF.

IT Crowd GIF - Relax!

Those unfamiliar with the pop-culture references will still get the general emotions being conveyed, but to those in-the-know it provides an additional layer of understanding and an instant sense of connection and belonging.  A nod and a wink that you’re part of the same cultural tribe.

Captain America GIF - I understood that reference

GIFs as part of the way we communicate in social media, simply makes sense. But I have to admit that I was taken by surprise when it slipped into formal corporate communications last week.

A news site on Internet culture, The Daily Dot, was doing a story about live-streaming via YouTube. Richard Lewis contacted YouTube for comment and received as a reply an animated GIF. Naturally, he took it for an informal communication; an off-the cuff form of ‘no comment‘. But when the story ran, Google contacted the publication and insisted that it was, indeed, their formal response and to please make sure it’s part of the story.  This is Google’s official response to the story:Google comment on DailyDot story

 

It appears that this wasn’t a one-off, but is starting to become common practice for Google.  While I celebrate the playfulness of this, I am going to toss myself into the stick-in-the-mud camp and say this is not best-practice for a formal corporate communication.

First there is the potential copyright fallout that could occur… Disney lawyers may turn a blind eye towards fans passing that clip from Good Luck Charlie back and forth among themselves, but when companies with deep pockets begin inserting their intellectual property as official corporate statements you can expect the gloves to come off in quick order.

But setting aside the potential fisticuffs between retained counsel, it is simply poor communication. Professional communication is about ensuring that information is fully and accurately relayed. When you’re talking about a publicly traded company, the actions of which impact hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of lives, you want the statements of that company to be clear, precise and leave no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.

What exactly is the GIF Google offered saying? Is it saying the story is wrong? Is it a statement of surprise? Is it a no comment?

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words are provided by the beholder. The subjectivity of an image makes it unsuitable for formal corporate communications save for the most clear of messages. And even where the message is unassailable specific, like this other GIF offered by Google:

Google response for confirmations

it would have been more to the point and straightforward to just say ‘yes‘.

As a strictly visual medium, the animated GIF is inherently exclusionary to the close to 7 million people in North America who are visually impaired, and as Wired points out in their coverage, the GIF only works in an online medium.

Most companies I know seek to have their message delivered as wide and as intact as possible.  In cases where a material change is involved with a publicly traded company, there is a legal obligation to achieving that.

Choosing a means of communication that is immediately going to exclude people from receiving your message and understanding your meaning, preventing entire mediums from accurately relaying your message; this seems to me a very poor practice to adopt.

Keeping Communication Measurement On-Budget

photo cc-by TaxRebate.org.ukWhen it comes to marketing and communications, information has a value that is very straight forward to calculate. All too often the cost to retrieve and share that information exceed its value, leading to a general consensus that measurement is expensive; a luxury that may fit in someone else’s budget but, with the limited resources in your hands, the money is better spent doing something rather than observing something.

Measurement shouldn’t be breaking the bank. If it is, then you are making one or more of the following mistakes.

You’re measuring and reporting too frequently

Those of you who are continually refreshing your social news feeds and compulsively checking your emails will understand what I’m talking about regarding the fear of missing out. There is an underlying anxiety that builds when we don’t know something and the need to check and check and check can be overwhelming. All the worse when this desire for an update is coming from several rungs up the ladder. This continual call for a report is being done to satisfy a curiosity rather than accomplish anything and it churns quickly through the dollars.

Your data retrieval ought to occur at an interval in which meaningful change will have occured. Rather than asking, are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.”are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet?

…it would be better to ask at the start, how long do we expect this trip to take? What’s the next turn? What’s the next stop? At each turn of the road a quick exam as to the conditions ahead. At each stop a quick view as to whether you’re making the time you thought you would and is there a change in route necessary? A few checks when they’re actually needed instead of an exhausting litany that can’t help but become just a droning background annoyance.

While your cadence for measuring should match the rate of any significant change occurring, your reporting should come in advance of any decision making process. That is when the information is actually needed. It makes no sense for hourly reporting to be going on through the wee small hours of the morning if everyone who could reasonably do something with that information is fast asleep. Better a single report timed to arrive as the decision makers are starting their day. Better yet, timed to arrive a few hours in advance of the weekly meeting where they make the actual decisions.

You’re being too precise in your measures

Do not forget why you are taking these measures. You are trying to make better decisions and this is the information that will help you do so. A lot of people end up chasing the numbers and losing sight of the decision.

Let’s say you are testing messaging in a new market in advance of a large campaign, and a quick poll of a few dozen people shows that 90% find your phrasing offensive. Well, a quick poll’s not very precise, is it? So let’s do some more formal focus group testing of a couple hundred people. From that testing, 85% found it offensive. That number’s different from the poll, and how precise are focus groups anyways? This campaign is important, and you really want to be sure, so you splurge on a large, random telephone survey of over 10,000. Now you have a really precise number. You know with 95% confidence and a small margin of error that the number who find your messaging offensive is 72.43%.

What was the acceptable number? Maybe you’re an edgy brand that embraces controversy and you’re willing to accept a number of people being turned off in exchange for the exposure. Most brands entering a new market want to be putting their very best face forward and would have little to no tolerance for offending potential customers.

Before the random survey, before the focus groups, before all of that additional expenditure chasing after a more precise number, it was obvious that there was a problem. The difference between 95% and 85% and 72.43% were not going to change that.

You are collecting information in order to make a decision. Once the decision is clear, you have all the information that you require.

You’re not measuring against your objectives

What are you trying to achieve? What is the change in the market that your actions are intended to make? What decisions need to be made? If you don’t know the answer to these, you will not know what you need to measure.

Not knowing what to measure leads people to try and measure everything in hopes that they will capture something of value. The resulting reports are number soups filled with some information that’s interesting and a great deal that is irrelevant. But without knowing your objectives, there is no way to know what information is important.

It may be interesting to know that 5% of your website visitors are using their mobile device from the bathroom: an odd factoid. However, if you’re in the middle of a campaign and you know that 30% of your visits are coming from a single media market where you’ve been doing a heavy push on daytime radio, that’s important. That will help you make decisions as to what to do next and where to push your resources.

Much as there’s always more precision to be had, there will always be more information to be had. You could keep at it until you’ve burned through the budget ten-fold and still have new avenues to chase down for more information. So to keep from breaking the bank, you want to focus your measurement on the important over the interesting.

In short…

  1. Start from a solid objective and ensure your measures are against that objective.
  2. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Choose your tools and methods so that you get enough information to make your decisions accurately.
  3. Set a cadence in lockstep with the precision you need and report on it as the decisions need to be made.

Follow those three steps and you’ll not only have the information you need to make better decisions, but the extra dollars in the budget to act on that information.

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cross-posted from Linked-In Pulse

When is a Crisis on Social Media a Crisis?

dont_panic

One of the keys to understanding social media is context.

Although social media has been with us for more than a decade, in a business setting it is still quite new, and as such there is a tendency to inflate the importance of messages on these digital platforms because of that very novelty.

Anyone who has been in digital communications has, at one point or another, had to talk an executive off the ledge because they were out of their minds with what was said on a single blog. Rantings on a scraped together blog that’s read by the author and his mom, have your exec over the moon and demanding somebody do something right now! Yet, had the very same words appeared in a small town newspaper they would have shrugged it off.

It is fair enough because without any reference you could mistake any molehill for being a mountain. Having seen a lot of kerfuffles on the webbernets over the years, let me share with you the three points of reference that I use for context.

Where’s the hate coming from?

Even the most loved brands have a steady contingent of naysayers pumping out negative commentary. Or in Internet parlance, “Haters are going to hate.

The more recognized your brand is, the more it becomes something that people adopt as a reflection of their own personality and beliefs; the more persistent and steady the stream of hate from those who are not your customers. Passion goes both ways; as much as your brand stands for something your customers are, for these people your brand stands for something they are not.

This hate-on will ebb and flow over time, dependent on how often your brand crosses their paths. This is one of the reasons that poorly targeted social ads usually bring with them a glut of negative posts. It’s important to realize that this doesn’t constitute an actual change in opinion, just a change in the engagement of that opinion. You crossed the paths of the haters and they’re going to remind you of that hate.

However, if the current displeasure is originating among those who were previously positive towards the brand, then you may have a serious problem. Keep handy a list of the authors of positive brand sentiment and start with a quick cross-reference to see what proportion of them are jumping into the fray.

Jumps from social to any other stream of media

If you review the news feeds of Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, you will see that a significant share of brand related content is linking to something. A video. A blog article. A news story. Especially a news story. Headline sharing is going to be a large chunk of what’s happening in social that day.

The moment a story jumps from social to the mainstream media, it will amplify the issue ten-fold and solidify what that message is.

Of course the idea is to try and mitigate before the jump occurs. So know and pay attention to where the analysts, journalists and people who cover the beat around your brand congregate.

Kerfuffles of Future Past and the Velocity of Content

Hindsight is 20/20. So knowing what issues in the past have had an actual impact on reputation and business, use that as the benchmark moving forward. Knowing that the current event is only one-tenth the reaction of your last online issue, and that there was only nominal impact to the brand from that, gives you clarity as to just how strongly you should react.

I would strongly recommend not benchmarking just the totals, or looking solely at the peaks. What your really need to know is the velocity of reaction. If the speed at which new content is being issued remains constant, how soon will you hit, or surpass, that peak? If the rate of new posts is increasing you will surpass that peak even sooner and you need to react faster. If the rate of new posts is decreasing then it is quite possible that the issue is already past and any action on your part risks blowing on those embers and rekindling the matter.

If your brand has been fortunate enough to not yet face a crisis moment online, you can use other brands experiences to inform your own. It’s all publicly available information, after all. When everyone around me is insisting that it is the end of the world, I like to use what I refer to as the Z-index as a point of reference. It’s real easy. Using Google Trends, which provides a normalized measure of search traffic, I compare against “walking dead”. Seeing how deeply your issue penetrates into the minds of the general population in comparison to a fictional zombie apocalypse helps keep things in perspective.

Long Story Made Short

  • Take the time and collect your points of context.
  • Know who your promoters and detractors are.
  • Figure out where the journalists who write about your brand are congregating.
  • Use past events to better understand today.

Having context will save your blood pressure from spiking with each and every grumble or mutter on the Internet. You can be clam in the face of adversity, knowing that today’s tempest belongs in a teapot. More important it will free your time and budget to focus on proactive versus reactive measures and let you focus on what really matters.

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cross-posted from Linked-In Pulse

Are You Sure Your KPI is a KPI?

Invasion of the fraudster metrics

Most of us have been in a meeting of this sort. You’re working out the details of a program and the conversation turns towards metrics and the need for KPIs. By the end of the meeting you have a list, somewhere between thirteen and twenty-seven different KPIs. Someone is tasked with putting together an excel sheet to track everything and you commence an ongoing saga of trying to visualize the results onto less than three slides in a PowerPoint deck.

Stop.
Drop the PowerPoint and step away from the Excel file.

I don’t need to know your brand, or your tactic or the planned executions.; but I can tell you right now that you’re doing it wrong.

If you’ll let me help you, it’s time to stop the KPI insanity.

All KPIs are metrics, but not all metrics are KPIs

KPI - you keep using that word.  I don't think it means what you think it means.

Or put another way; not all things that can be counted, count. KPI is an acronym for Key Performance Indicator. It is the one measure that shows that you have achieved what you set out to achieve.

It is natural for people to want to include more. When you see that jam-packed PowerPoint slide filled with charts and graphs and tables filled with numbers, it feels all very impressive.

Look at all the numbers! Everyone must have worked ever so hard for there to be this many numbers and charts moving up and to the right.

But it’s all just surface razzle dazzle. Those that know what they’re doing are going to be less than impressed by attempts to baffle your way through the numbers. And those people tend to be C-suite execs with their fingers on the purse strings for next quarter’s budget.

You can’t set your KPIs before you set your objectives

Putting the cart before the horse

Most people don’t realize this – as everyone tends to skip past terms of service and just check off ‘OK’ – but it is a basic part of every single employment agreement that anyone who recommends setting KPIs before objectives are identified must go up to the rooftop on a rainy day and run forty laps around the circumference of the building.

Okay. So, maybe not. But it would certainly stop short the useless exercise of defining what success looks like in advance of defining what you’re trying to do.

A KPI is a metric that the program hinges on; a metric inexorably linked to your objectives. When you look at your KPI it is a no-brainer as to whether you achieved what you set out to do.

 Your KPI is a unit of measure, not a specific measure

When asked, “What are some good marketing KPIs if the objective is to create a positive association with our brand?” you will never find that the answer is 27. Or 1.32. Or 1,589.

Your KPI will always be a unit of measure, and not a specific number. The specific number is your target or goal.

For example, if you ran a shop, your KPIs might be cash flow and net profit. These are the indicators that your business is thriving or not. Within cash flow you would set a specific number that ensures you can maintain operations as a target. If you have an eye on expansion you would set a goal within net profit that will allow you to achieve that expansion.

You should be able to count your KPIs on one hand

If you need more than one hand to count your program’s KPIs, then you have let a metric slip in masquerading as a KPI. You need to be ruthless with respect to KPIs and slice out measures that people toss in because, “wouldn’t it be interesting to know?

Your KPIs should all fall into the category of, “we absolutely have to know.” Rare is the program that needs more than one measure to determine pass or fail. I’ve yet to encounter a program that truly required more than a half-dozen measures to track performance.

The easiest way for you to suss out the frauds is to honestly ask yourself and your team, “If this KPI came in really high, or came in ridiculously low, would it change our reaching the objective?”  If it doesn’t matter, then it shouldn’t be counted.

Why does it even matter?

Why get picky about what’s a metric and what’s a KPI and if they ought to be numbers or not? What’s all the hub-bub?

Information is vital. If your information is poor, then your decisions will likewise be poor. If you end up, like all too many of us do, tossing aside all of the information because it’s just a hodge-podge of number soup you end up acting purely on instinct and gut-feelings.

Steering the ship based on your gut may keep you free and clear of the rocks most of the time, but the bigger your ship and the more people you carry along with you, the more tragic a single misstep can become.

As vital as information is, however, every dollar spent on watching what you’ve done is a dollar you can’t spend doing something.

Instead of measuring everything, the smart business person looks to what they are trying to achieve and focuses their resources towards measuring that and measuring it well.

The ROI of Measurement: What’s That Information Worth to You?

Lefty

 

When it comes to public relations and marketing, there is a lot of focus on determining the return on investment (ROI) of tactics, campaigns and strategies. But what is often missing is the ROI for the measurement itself.

As a brand manager, you can feel pretty burnt when you’ve devoted thousands of your budget this quarter to research and what comes back is a spiral bound pamphlet of a PowerPoint deck spewing a lot of things that you already had a strong gut feeling for.

It can be pretty daunting when your agency recommends a measurement approach that’s in the tens of thousands. Those are dollars that could be directed towards additional tactics.

How do you know that your research has any real value? How do you know that the information is worth what you are paying for? What is the ROI for having research and measurement in place?

This is actually a very straightforward calculation to make. You simply need to answer:

  • How confident are you that you are making the right decision?
  • How much do you stand to benefit from being correct?
  • What will it cost you if you are wrong?

Say you’re running a million dollar campaign to drive trial of a product; the goal being to bring in new customers. You’re targeting a demographic several steps removed from yourself and so while you are liking the direction that’s being taken there is some doubt whether it will resonate with your intended customers.

The value of having perfect information, of making all the right decisions and no strategic missteps is the sum of the costs and the gains:

  • The cost of being absolutely wrong is $1M: the cost of your campaign.  You spend your money, keep yourself, your team and your agencies busy for a couple of weeks and change nothing.
  • With the lifetime value of a customer and knowing the intended goals for reach and conversion of the campaign you can estimate what you stand to gain if your decisions are right. In this example, we’ll say that comes to $5M.

Suddenly the value of information becomes very tangible in dollars and cents and you can begin to make informed decisions as to whether it is worth the cost to pursue.

There is no such thing as perfect information.  But we all have a solid sense of how confident we are before pulling the trigger.

If you were 95% certain that you were making the right call, then there is very little value in further validation. But if you’re making a call that will determine millions of dollars and you’re feeling it’s a coin toss as to whether you’re right, suddenly a few thousand to validate those decisions becomes the bargain of the century.

Contextual Advertising is Still Klunky and Dumb

Antique Robots

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” – John Wanamaker

Of course we know that it’s more than half that’s wasted. Direct mail is considered successful if you get one out of a hundred to convert. The marketing team high-fives one another and everyone goes home for the day if you get one out of a thousand to convert on a digital ad. With radio and television, most often we don’t even bother to track conversion and simply take the number of eyeballs the ad passed in front of as a job well done.

The reason most of these ads don’t work is because of context. No matter how many flower filled fields with dancing women in white dresses that you show me, as a single man I am not going to be purchasing your sanitary napkins. I don’t care how much blue water you demonstrate it absorbs.

When your brand shows me an ad that doesn’t relate to me, it is an interruption and most likely an annoyance. You are wasting money to annoy me. But when I see an ad for something I am currently in the market for, suddenly your ad becomes of interest. In many ways I may not even see it as an ad, but treat it as content.

It’s for that reason that I am a huge fan of contextual advertising. After visiting the Radian6 website, I am met with ads for the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and the Dreamforce Conference. I am much more likely to view these things. I may even be pleased for the reminder of the upcoming conference.

I look forward to the day where the web of data I leave behind me is such that I am served up ads for a new computer around the time that my current one starts creeping towards obsolecence. That I’m shown ads for venues and restaurants in a far away city based on the airline tickets I purchased. That my lack of purchasing a new winter coat this year triggers the serving up of ads for a coat early next year.

But right now we are in early days and much of what exists in contextual advertising is klunky and dumb. It’s like the early days of keyword matching where ads for new cars would be matched against news stories of horrific traffic accidents. And so much could be solved if the ad networks knew two simple things:

  • Have I ever clicked on any of these ads?
  • Did I make the purchase?

I bought a new drafting chair from Staples. I booked a trip for my son and I to visit Disney World. I bought my son a quadcopter for Christmas.  All of these actions and the online researching before purchasing have triggered contextual ads to show up as I browse the web.

Why am I still being served up ads for office chairs? I only need the one. It just arrived this week. There’s not a chance in the world I’m going to click on any of those ads. Why is Disney still extolling me about the very deal I took advantage of? I booked that trip in October. It’s paid for. A done deal. I’m not going to book another one. Why am I being shown the same image of the very same toy I purchased repeatedly? It was quite clearly a one-time purchase and I’ve not clicked again on any of those ads since making it.

These ads are no longer a helpful reminder or a gentle nudge to get me from consideration to conversion. They are an annoyance. And in the case of Disney and the toy, came close to tipping off my son on impending gifts.

Along with purchasing the chair I picked up some notepads, pens and pencils. I browsed for illustration board and art pads and glanced at the graphics tablets. If Staples waited a week or two and then started feeding me ads for some of those consumables, there would be a much better chance I’d view that as pleasant serendipity instead of the annoyance at being asked yet again, “so ya wanna buy an office chair?

It would be nice if I were offered ads for other attractions and places to visit in Florida rather than the same Disney offer that ceased being of relevance to me a couple of months ago.

And after more than a month of not clicking on any ads for quadcopters it would be nice if they just went away.

I realize that rules around privacy and silo’d data-sets are the cause of much of this stupidity. But a stupid ad, clumsily presented, is almost more of a hindrance than the blind shot-gun approach we’ve taken in the past. Because it is so close to what we want but not-just-quite it ramps up the ‘creepy‘ factor. It’s mired in the uncanny valley where we are so aware that this is an attempt at serendipity that it fails to be serendipitous. It trumpets ‘we are watching you‘ louder than it suggests, ‘wouldn’t your life be better with?‘. So long as that hurdle can’t be crossed we will continue to throw away more than half of our dollars and the kicker is we will know exactly which half that is.

Patrick Stewart and the Tralfamadorian Greeting

Patrick Stewart at Comicapalooza, Houston 2013 - photo by Randall Pugh
image by Randall Pugh

When the media was only a handful of channels, only the most significant of stories would find their way to us. Massive life changing events that could only be described with, “Oh the humanity.”

The everyday stories. The things that we tell each other over a drink or at the evening dinner. The little anecdotes that we experience. Those were always too small to reach the media save in drips and drabs. The disease of the week. The consumer advocacy tale. The plucky little kid that started a bottle drive. The elderly gent blowing out the candles on his hundredth birthday. But really they were just fillers. Noise to fill the air between commercial breaks because not every day was an “oh the humanity” day.

These stories and happenings would be just memories to the few people who witnessed, and those witnesses may share the tale when the context was right or when trying themselves to fill the time with a prior more interesting event. And once you’ve relayed the tale to those that you know and they’d heard it once, twice, a dozen times too many, it would simply become a memory. And then it would be gone.

Take a moment to watch this video.
And then read Heather Skye’s own words recounting the event. And then finally watch this last video.

The advent of digital media and the ability to distribute it through social channels is freeing these stories from their temporal and geographical and anecdotal limitations. You did not need to be in Houston last weekend in order to catch this particular moment. You did not have to be a friend of one of the people, and happen to have mentioned Star Trek or X-Men, sparking the “did I tell you about the time I saw Sir Patrick Stewart” story. I caught this tale on Facebook, from a friend Mike Wood. Mike had seen the story on Gawker and posted it. The author of the post on Gawker picked it up from GeekoSystem. None of these people were in Houston this weekend and none of them are friends of Heather. But the author on GeekoSystem found the YouTube video, shot by Oswald Vinueza and posted by Heather.

Through that video and Eugene Lee’s photos and Heather’s words the moment was preserved.

Heather was never at the book launch for ‘Created Equal’, where the actor spoke quite movingly about his own personal experience with domestic violence. But someone from Amnesty captured the moment on video and posted it to YouTube in 2009. Heather only came across the video a couple of months ago but says, “After seeing Patrick talk so personally about it I finally was able to correctly call it abuse, in my case sexual abuse that was going to quickly turn into physical abuse as well. I didn’t feel guilty or disgusting anymore. I finally didn’t feel responsible for the abuse that was put upon me. I was finally able to start my healing process and to put that part of my life behind me.

People opine about the disconnection that our devices and networks create. People talk about living the life through the viewscreen of a smartphone or tablet instead of in the moment. Would they really choose the world in which these were words and moments that none of us would have had the opportunity to share in? Too small for the evening news and unlikely for Heather’s words to find their way into any magazine or paper. Trapped in the minds and photo albums of the few who happened to have been there in that room, at that moment.  Would they be happier for these moments to be transient experiences, fleeting and then gone?

The people who tweet and instagram and film and live blog and check-in or status update aren’t missing out on the moment. They are preserving it and sharing it and making it more than just a memory.  I think that Heather’s life is better for having been able to share the moment from that book launch from 2009. I know that I’m glad to have been able to share in Heather’s moment with Sir Patrick Stewart. I hope that you’re all enriched a little bit from my having shared these moments and that you go on to share across your own platforms and networks.  Thanks to social media we are all of us unstuck in time and space and able to experience this together whether it was before, or now, or still to come.