Tuesday 28 September 2010

"CoolBrands" - a worthless exercise?

A company called The Centre for Brand Analysis have published a list of the top 20 coolest brands.
It has gained extensive coverage as far-reaching as The Drum and the Telegraph, while Marketing Week also got in on the action. I have commented extensively on the Marketing Week website so won't repeat myself, but suffice to say that it comes across as a very flaky piece of research. There's precious little available on their methodology, but what there is doesn't inspire confidence. How can you quantify "coolness" into a list format anyway?
The Marketing Week article is here.


Update, September 2011: a year on, and the exercise has been repeated. It's still fluff, but it got Aston Martin trending on Twitter, so it's fulfilled all its objectives, I suppose.

Monday 27 September 2010

Pearls of wisdom

I had the misfortune of standing next to three dreadfully posh girls on the Overground this morning. They were about sixteen. Their chat was absolutely desperate. There was a blonde girl called Lydia who did most of the talking. She came out with some absolute gems.
He's really weird, like autistic or something.
That's good for starters.
They never go to parties, like ever, like once a month or something.
They continued with lengthy analyses of boys called Zack and Joel, and asserted that there was "beef" between themselves and the "Hampstead Crew". Once, it turns out, Lydia went to McDonalds, where I'll let her continue the story.
So this boy comes up to me and is like can I have a chip so I'm like yeah and he's like you're so cool and then he goes away and then like a minute later he comes up again and is like can I have another chip and I'm like yeah and he's like oh man you rock my world for letting me have a chip and I'm like it's not like I actually CARE and then he goes away and then he comes back and asks for another chip and I'm like yeah and then he hugs me and he's like you rock my world and it was actually the most surreal moment of my life EVVAAAAHHHHHH
I looked around the carriage. There was a lot of grinding of teeth going on.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Which is about racial distribution, Monet and "neuromarketing"

I'm quite particular in who I follow on Twitter, and who I place on lists. I regularly cull anyone who tweets too much, or tweets rubbish, or is overly self-promotional, or just links to stuff that I don't find personally interesting. On the flipside, it means I get to read a lot of really interesting content. This week I've come across some more really interesting articles.

At the moment, my entire reading list (books not blogs!) seems to be based on Mark Earls's bibliography. I'm still ploughing my way through the latter chapters of Thomas Schelling's Micromotives and Macrobehaviour. It's quite pedestrian in style, but methodical and quietly brilliant. Basically it's a calm, rational, statistically-orientated study on the way small personal preferences - just a few per cent here and there - can result in major changes in group outcomes. There are numerous studies, all carefully argued step-by step without any QED flourishes (but then who needs flourishes when you've got a Nobel Prize to your name). The most famous chapter is the one where a simple home-made experiment (you can do it too: all you need is a few coins and a chessboard) demonstrates how very small preferences to have some of your own kin around you, end up in quite stark racial segregation across cities.

It's all very well seeing pictures in a book of what look like noughts and crosses, and as a reader you nod your head and say "how shocking"...but, living in "multicultural" London, where it feels like people of all different colours are jumbled up together, complete racial segregation feels a long way away. I suspect it can't be all that different in the States, either; which is why these new graphics of racial distribution by location are all the more startling.

I'm just beginning to dabble a little in reading around some psychology and neuroscience pieces at the moment, and having been just a few weeks ago to a superb Impressionist exhibition, I found this New Scientist article offering a possible explanation to why the Impressionists are so popular: basically the lack of detail means that our own imaginations are stirred into "filling in the gaps", while our subconscious locks onto blurred images with greater intensity than we might do otherwise. Fascinating stuff.

The same magazine has been causing a bit of a stir recently with its highly publicised experiment to pick the best front cover based on a neuroscience experiment. The neuromarketing claims have caused a bit of a stir with both scientists and neuroscience-focussed market researchers; even Derren Brown picks up on it, and links to this interesting article. Meanwhile, Robert Bain on Research Live presents the story against the background of other neuroscience/marketing issues, and gives a thoughtful and balanced analysis of some of the techniques availale right now. Peter McGraw, on the other hand, is much more sceptical.

Tapping into our natural instincts is nothing new. In Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy explains that the average person looks at an ad for 0.9 seconds, their eyes sweeping from top left to bottom right. (Eye tracking seems more interested in web design applications these days - plenty of interesting stuff out there to read on the web like this article). While advertising agencies and branding consultancies are obsessed with wanting to portray themselves as "different" (there are some truly gruesome straplines but perhaps the most vomitworthy is BBH's "when the world zigs, zag"), surely the aim of most marketers should be to discover scientifically what their best practices should be, and find out evidentially how people respond to certain situations, and act accordingly.

One or two people are muttering darkly about the ethical considerations of neuromarketing. It's a fair point. There's something slightly subversive about much of this, a little like subliminal advertising (a concept which I don't have a great deal against personally). My own take is that neuroscience probably has a lot to offer when it comes to trying to unravel subconscious decisions made by consumers, particularly at point of sale. There's probably a lot of very interesting research that can be done into packaging and logos, for example, based on brain activity, which might explain a shopper's instinctive decision to choose one washing powder over another, particularly on occasions where their usual brand is out of stock and they are relying purely on instinct. As for New Scientist? As Peter McGraw points out, it's a shame that the tree covers couldn't have all been put on sale, to add some real-world data to the lab experimental data. There are loads of great articles out there at the moment, fascinating stuff.

As a postscript, I'm slightly regretting climbing down on my last blog post. I honestly think that anyone who's happy to spout the unverified "research" claims of vitamin supplements on the whim of a PR company but not realise that they're apparently endorsing the product - especially where children are the topic of conversation - deserves both barrels. However, it reads better as it is now, and there's no point in dragging something out.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Becoming a Bad Science disciple, and mummy blogger bullshit

Yesterday Ben Goldacre's Bad Science plopped on the mat, and over the next little while it will be competing with all the other unfinished books that I'm trying to juggle. Bad Science has the unfair advantage, however, of being something that once you've started, is rather hard to stop.

I'm only a few pages in so won't make much comment at this stage except that Goldacre articulates many things that you suspected already but weren't that sure about - covering all those nebulous things like cosmetics, dietary supplements and so on, which you had an idea were based on guff but never actually went out of your way to read up on. As discussed by Mark Earls in Herd when he cites Bad Science, as interesting as the bullshit is the natural way that it can spread in conversations, in such a way that it's almost like an epidemic.

One thing that strikes me is that for anyone who's not an expert on any given subject...and most of us aren't experts on anything...it's easy to believe anything from someone who is perceived as an authority. It's a perfectly natural reaction. The problem is that the "authority" may just be a journalist, celebrity, or general big shot in a completely unrelated field.

The internet is a wonderful tool for keeping an undercurrent of dissent going, and there is a disproportionate amount of anti-bullshit, anti-conspiracy, anti-spin material out there, with some voices who are capable of shouting pretty loud. Ben Goldacre is just one example. That "moral majority" can propagate their messages far and wide via social media these days - so in many cases, if there's a seriously dodgy bit of misinforamtion being spread by a company, political party of whatever, then often the "truth" will come out.
The problem is, as with the MMR case, that all that can backfire if the well-meaning moral majority all have it wrong, and the "establishment" figures were right to begin with. There's a fine line between mythbusting and unjustified panic.

There's a lot to be said about the "detox" myth, though. I'm a sucker for it myself: I firmly believe in the power of orange juice to cure pretty much all manner of ills from hangovers to flu. I've got a pretty nasty cold at the moment and made sure I got some orange juice at lunchtime. Beyond being vaguely aware that vitamin C is "a good thing" and helps the immune system, I'm not an expert on its powers. But I've always felt a nice tingly sensation after drinking orange juice on top of a cold, and manage to convince myself that it's doing me good, and it's a habit I'm unlikely to change.


From this point forward, I've decided to amend the post. I made a critical reference to one particular blog post by someone who I've never met and have nothing to do with. I exchanged some constructive email correspondence today with an anonymous person who criticised my approach and said that the blogger in question was personally upset. I make no apology for the post and won't remove it - my points still stand - but I'll tone things down a bit and make more general references, rather than a personal criticism. I think that's a reasonable compromise.


I haven't reached the relevant chapter yet, but vitamin supplements companies come in for stinging criticism in Bad Science. Now, I don't know much about vitamins or dietary science or nutrition or anything like that, but I do know that these companies exploit people's ignorance and fears. Look at the advertising. Everything is "this important period in your life" - whether it's childhood, teenage years, pregnancy, menopause, old age. They prey on vulnerable people not knowing what's right for them, people who worry that their diet might not be as varied as it could be and what effects this might have on their health. Scavenging like vultures are the supplements companies, making you paranoid that you're not getting enough selenium.

It's against this backdrop that we come to the phenomenon of the "mummy blogger". They need little introduction - there are countless articles on them already. Although not a parent myself, I have spent a fair bit of time on "mummy blogs" over the last few months, and my private opinion is that almost without exception, they are devoid of interesting content. Many of them are written by PR professionals, and they mainly consist of backslapping each other for getting on various "top bloggers" lists, the odd photostream of their little ones, and an incessant stream of saccharine "reviews" of products sent to them by PR companies. Thought-provoking content is a rarity; they are some way ahead of the SEO-boosting affiliates/link farms/pseudo-blogs, but not a million miles away. It's a field which has had vast amounts of media coverage to the extent that it might be called a "phenomenon", although they are all quite SEO savvy, with badges, charts and backlinks to each other's blogs all over the place - the vast majority of comments seem to come from "fellow mummy bloggers" rather than organically.

I appreciate that this is the way PR works, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest that bloggers are sent free products and samples in order to review them. On the contrary, if the bloggers are given inspiration for things to write about, as well as free products, and the brands get coverage, and the readers get things to read about on a regular basis, then everyone's a winner. Paid reviews are common in many fields - whether restaurant review blogs (lucky them!) or travel bloggers (even luckier them!) - and as long as the bloggers get a reputation for fair reporting, with constructive criticism where necessary, and make it clear if a post is sponsored or if the reviewed products were free, then they can be a valuable source of information.

There have been several parenting blogs writing pieces in the last few days about Seven Seas' range of supplements for children, "Haliborange". I'll freely admit to being deeply cynical of supplements companies targeting nervous and paranoid parents, who worry about the state of their children's health and diet; I'm even more cynical of them convincing parents to write positive things about their products. But I feel that the bloggers themselves have a responsibility too, towards their readers, and I think that some of them have let themselves down.

Several bloggers have remarked, uncritically, that omega 3 - and thus Haliborange - increase concentration/attentiveness in children. One, who makes no reference to her piece being a sponsored post - states confidently that "numerous studies" have shown this. Another mentions that she is looking to feed her daughter vitamins, while propagating the official Haliborange line that the product "may" improve children's concentration; in the comments, she suggests that she's rather sceptical of their claims, but makes no mention of this in the initial post. None of them have tried using the product on their kids; therefore none of them are actually reviewing the product, but rather just endorsing it, with a greater or lesser amount of personal response to the concept of vitamin pills for kids.

What benefits omega 3 actually has, I don't know - although I bet you anything mummy Newton and mummy Freud and mummy Shakespeare weren't obsessively shoving tinned fish down their respective sons' throats. (I also note that Ben Goldacre has devoted an entire chapter to the subject, so I'm sure there are some untold stories. That said, I'm sure it can't do any harm, there's mountains of anecdotal evidence out there so it probably does something good, and it's up to any parent to decide if their kids are eating a healthy diet and if there's a need to do somethnig about it if not. What gets my goat is that the brand - or rather, their PR/digital/social media people - have managed to persuade bloggers to reproduce their PR material pretty much verbatim.

When someone comes blind to a subject and looks for advice, they might read some newspaper articles, they might get on Google, they might read a book. But most of all they'll go to people they'll trust - friends and family first and foremost, and then, perhaps, bloggers. My feeling is that since blogs began, they've been looked at with more trust than newspaper/magazine journalists, because there's a sense that they're drawing from personal experience, telling their own stories. If they're parroting PR companies' spin on issues which could involve worried parents, paranoid about how best to care for their kids, then I think they're letting the side down pretty badly. Surely they have a responsibility to their readers?

Seven Seas/Haliborange have previous history here, inducing the wrath of the Mumsnet community after some grubby sockpuppeting on the forum a few months ago. The mums responded in kind, with a nice SEO-sabotaging campaign. A nice bit of work, and something perhaps the bloggers currently doing their bit for Seven Seas were unaware of. Although I note that Seven Seas have been working with a new PR agency - Virgo Health - since that debacle, who presumably weren't implicated in it.

I should also stress that these are my own private opinions.

PS I wonder if Ben Goldacre ever saw the Real Hustle scam where the conmen sold tiny pots of boutique moisturising cream for £25 a pop. They marketed the fact that Petroselinum crispum was the active ingredient. The "natural powers" held within would cleanse and rejuvenate the skin, or something.

Petroselinum is the Latin for parsley. They had blitzed some parsley with some cheap lotion from Asda (£3 for a large bottle), put it into minuscule jars, stuck on a fancy label, and sold them for a profit margin of around 3000%, if I recall. It was brilliant.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Three of the best articles I've read all year

This week I've been smacked sideways three times by three of the most interesting articles I've read all year. I just had to link to them. Warning: moderate levels of nerdiness.

Firstly this one courtesy of Wired: quantum chess. Wowzer. Normal chess is hard enough for me with enough permutations to keep me interested for ages (at our recent cheese-and-port-and-chess night, the games were always the centre of attention despite some pretty stupendous smelly cheeses), and I've never got into Fischer Random chess, but quantum chess sounds nuts. And impossible.

Then this story from the LA Times, which was picked up on by the Freakonomics crew. That sort of shit gets me seriously excited. Mapping crimes isn't new - and police forces are already aware, for example, that serial burglars tend to work within a very small area - but using simulations to predict the behaviour and movement of criminals while including factors like police movements into the model, adds up to a very powerful model. "Humans are not as random as we think". That sounds familiar! Will it work? Would it ever hit the UK? Who knows, but even the thought cruising around in an IRV with real-time probability heatmaps for crime on the MDT gets me fidgety with anticipation. Look out for further developments.

As an aside, another, similar story that Freakonomics reported was this one on using text analytics to predict whether a film will succeed or bomb. Instinctively, that sounds like bollocks to me; some of the best films have the simplest plot lines, and vice versa. Isn't there some theory about there only being five stories ever written, and they're all by Shakespeare, or something like that? Stories about using science and/or data modelling to predict wacky things tickle me every time, but this sounds like nonsense to me. I'm happy to be proved wrong.

Finally, I've always believed in some similarities between physics and marketing (I've lost count of the number of people ask why I wanted to work in marketing after doing a physics degree, but it makes complete sense to me). What a delight, then, to discover a talk given by Google's Dan Cobley comparing the laws of physics and those of marketing. ("H/T" as they say to Mike Cooke). It'll only take up seven minutes of your time. He splits things up neatly into four analogies - all of which are neat: large brands have larger inertia and are therefore more difficult to change direction quickly (cf Newton II - nice!); and that as time goes on, it becomes ever more difficult to keep control of a brand (cf entropy) - he didn't explicitly make reference to the fact we are living in a more fragmented society, but I wonder if that was what he was referring to. But the real killer was Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the observer effect that results from it. It's a simple idea (not so simple in practice) and many philosophical dilemmas result from it: that any observation you make actually affects the quantity being measured. As Cobley points out, the fact that consumer research can be affected by the very act of observing (consumers are less likely to give honest answers in the presence of an observer), can be compared obviously and simply to the Heisnberg-derived observer effect. Yes, yes, YES. I'd half had the same comparison stored up in my head but Dan Cobley has articulated is concisely. Some people in the comments whine about it not taking the true spirit of the Uncertainty Principle and how that's not the meaning of the observer effect, but that's just bluster and semantics - for all real-world, simple-analogy purposes, it holds true. Those moaners would probably have a fit if they saw my own analogy of flirting with quantum mechanics which I'm pleased to say has the seal of approval from my old flatmate Libby, a postdoctoral physicist who said she'd use the comparison with her undergrads!

Oh, and while we're on a science tip, a good piece by Evan Harris on the impending cuts to the science budgets.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Social media market research from an amateur perspective (1): some examples of online communities

I thought I'd just throw a few things together about some of the developments in social media market research over the last few months, based on a few articles and blogs I've been reading. It's not in any particular order, and is as much for my own reference as anything else, so don't get too excited if you happen to have stumbled across it!

Cecile Lux and Doron Meyassed, from Danone and Promise Communities respectively, gave a paper entitled The future of community based researchThey make the point that "the consumer is increasingly wanting to have their say". The sheer volume of online opinions support this statement; apart from all the obvious media for broadcasting opinions like blogs and forums, feedback on brands, services, and life experiences via all sorts of other channels - like reviews on Amazon or LondonEating, comments on online articles, and sharing titbits of knowledge through all kinds of crowdsourcing channels like Facebook group Secret London or, as in the examples given by Lux and Meyassed's paper, TripAdvisor or Wikipedia. They assert that "status is increasingly driven by what we share, not what we own" (handy for me - I don't own much, but love sharing secrets!)

They also assert that research communities will become more decentralised, with multiple business departments having direct access to the community. This sets my amateur alarm bells ringing. What good can be gained by HR and business development staff asking direct questions to a focus group? I can imagine knee-jerk reactions taking place following one forthright opinion on pricing or business ethics, for example. Would it not be better to leave the moderation and analysis of the community's opinions to the insight professionals? By all means there should be direct contact and input from other departments, but I would have thought it best to leave the overall control to the research team. Hopefully I'm missing their point.

The key point that is made, and the one which seems to be key to the whole concept of online communities as opposed to mere online panels, is the level of interaction and engagement with the consumers. Rather than simply being given a series of surveys to fill in, the participants are encouraged to come up with their own inspiration for the future of the product in question. Thus the brand can use crowdsourcing to generate innovation for their product, marketing, or anything else - everything will be much more open ended. Mircosites will encourage the community members to feel that they are making a difference and go out of their way to come up with insights and innovation in ways that they might not have if they felt they were being used. Research seems to be going the way of marketing where social media is concerned: the marketer cannot only take, but must give something back. In the same way that consumers will only follow a corporate Twitter account if they feel there is something in it for them, the community must fulfil some sort of promise to the consumer - giving them a reason to log on to the community and participate on a regular basis.

Tom Ewing in his paper "Cultures of Collaboration" (from which much of this post was derived) suggests that a consumer's default view of a research community could differ from person to person - so that their perspective is based on their own personal preferences, contacts and content, rather like the way a Facebook news feed runs now. This sounds like an interesting idea. Increasingly, since the push 

Can research learn anything from quantum mechanics?
It occurs to me that research could learn a lot from quantum mechanics. One of the most fundamental aspects of quantum mechanics is the double headed beast of the observer paradox, and the measurement problem (linked to Heinberg's Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger's Cat). Basically, between them they say this: that you cannot determine a result until you take a measurement, but the very taking of the measurement affects the result itself (I've tried to explain it better with a pub analogy here). Whilst it's only noticeable when the scales are very small, these effects are universal.

The tenuous link to research, therefore, is that any measurement that a researcher takes will inevitably affect the result itself. Even in the context of making a passive observation of an online community, the very fact that the participants know that Big Brother is running their every word through text analytics software may have some implications on their responses to prompted questions, or even to open-ended creative thinking. In quantum mechanics, there's no "quick fix" - the errors are fundamental to the science - I wonder if the observer principle can be directly applied. I suspect that even the swishest of technologies can't escape the effects; in he offline world, I imagine that even those cameras which participants wear to allow researchers to analyse their eye movements in supermarkets are still liable to the observer effect as shoppers make conscious efforts not to look too hard at the bargains? Similarly, no matter how much online research community owners step back, the participants will always know why they are there, unless the environment is allowed to degenerate so much that the forum subject matter moves so far away from the guided topics that even the participants forget what they are doing logging on.

Facebook monitoring
In the last few months Facebook has allowed keyword searches on status updates of everyone whose privacy settings are set to public. This means that you can search for what people are saying on Facebook, across the world. For example, what is being said about social media monitoring at the moment? (You'll have to be logged in to Facebook for the link to work). In true stalker style, I now know that a Canadian girl called Erin Brown needs to learn about social media monitoring software for work ("oh god" is her reaction). How about something a bit more brand-friendly? Over the last few months, a brand who have taken a social media hammering at the moment are BP; a simple Facebook search on "BP" would reveal to them what is being said at the moment, in real time.

This is immensely powerful stuff. It would be easy to write this off as just another way of monitoring alongside forums, Twitter and blogs, but I would argue that being able to monitor Facebook statuses is more powerful than all of those, as it displays people in their most "natural" habitat, and perhaps displaying online behaviour closest to their offline ("real") personae.

Of course, arguments still rage over whether whether Facebook's rather fast-and-loose approach to privacy settings are infringing on human rights - the goalposts have moved significantly since I joined in 2007, when it was basically a way of sending messages and updates to your closed group of friends, and nothing was shared with people I didn't know. Furthermore, many people have issues with the ways monitoring companies go about harvesting data, and most importantly how that data is used: this reached the Mail on Sunday recently. There's also an interesting riposte here from a Alex Brown of Virgin Media. My own take on it is that since those Facebook goalposts have started moving around quicker than a bat in a dustbin, users feel a  little disgruntled when their content is going further than expected - particularly when it's rubbed in that they're being followed. As far as pure monitoring is concerned, I would say that as far as possible, the guidelines set down by the MRS Code of Conduct and ESOMAR should be adhered to as far as possible; the first principle of the Code, relating to "informed consent", may need rewriting or adapting for monitoring situations, as clearly the explicit consent of Facebook users cannot be sought, although it could be argued that the fact that the users have opted to make their content private implies consent for companies to put it to good business use. I'm not so sure about this, but feel it's acceptable so long as all data is anonymised, and, where research agencies are concerned, is only used for research purposes and not passed on to the client for marketing or other purposes (like customer services in the case of BT in the Mail article), but only used to provide aggregated research data - in keeping with the spirit of the code as it stands.

See Jeffery Henning's summary and Ray Poynter's post on social media monitoring ethics for more in-depth views on the subject.

I digress. Whatever the ethics of listening to Facebook conversations, the data is now available to be viewed, although my understanding that the API does not allow this data to be automatically exported or cached (perhaps someone can put me right on this? I'm not a developer and got a nosebleed when I stuck my nose in the developers' section of Facebook the other day). These are publicly available opinions, which, as far as Facebook are concerned, users have elected to make public for anyone to "listen" to. And yet I would speculate that attitudes towards Facebook, as opposed to Twitter or forums, say, mean that Facebook personae are closer to "real life" than any other online profiles.

Let me explain what I mean. On Twitter or LinkedIn, one sets up a profile attached to one's real name and image, and the default - and ethos of the networks - is that information is viewable by anyone. To a certain extent, therefore, there could be the online equivalent of "good behaviour for the mother-in-law"; polite, measured, intelligent, but not necessarily spontaneous, as many users will bottle up true opinions for fear of jeopardising their chances of impressing the mother-in-law (or, perhaps more pertinently, potential employers). On the other hand, it's well documented that people posting under anonymous profiles on forums and social networks can often give overly aggressive, controversial, speculative, or simply wrong opinions.

Someone famously described the difference between Facebook and Twitter thus: "Facebook is for people you went to school with. Twitter is for people you wished you went to school with." (I don't know who came up with it first...possibly this guy.) It's a nice analogy.

Co-creativity and innovation by collaboration
One excellent example of co-creativity is Coproducer. The brainchild of Yougov boss Stephan Shakespeare, it is a very simple concept: creation of an entire film by means of creative collaboration. Every aspect of the film is determined by means of surveys and collaborative suggestions: plot outlines, twists, characters, moods. For some reason I haven't been getting their emails recently, so I'm not sure what stage the project is at right now, but I understand (well, hope) that the collaboration effort will be further applied to any business decisions that are made. I understand that the film will actually be made; it'll be fascinating to find out whether the quality of the product (the film) will be improved by the collaborative aspect.

Co-creation of products is something that consumers are actively enthused by, too. The classic example that gets trotted out as a case study wherever you look is My Starbucks Idea. Others far more qualified than me have said it all before so I won't embarrass myself, but the power of having brand advocates all giving their solicited and unsolicited opinions on what could improve the brand, is frightening really. Yet this rather unstructured qualitative data isn't a million miles from the sort of thing they could achieve by monitoring Facebook and Twitter; except that there's much less noise.

Noise is a real problem with social media monitoring - particularly as there are so many automated bots retweeting content all over the place. The day someone comes up with a comprehensive database of Twitter contacts, arranged geographically, and divided up by their area of "expertise", could be the day that monitoring gives more insight than noise. Putting together such a database is something I'm currently working on in my day job - it's time consuming but I think we've really nailed a method for saying with some confidence that on any given industry or subject area, we can pull together a pretty big list of the people that matter.

Having worked through Steve Rappaport's rather plodding book on social media monitoring (it does, however, have a lot of case studies which, most of them being American, I hadn't heard of), I'm currently getting started on Ray Poynter's new book, The Handbook of Online and Social Media Researchwhich is a hefty work and comprehensive. It's not a sexy book but I think that's the point; more a work of reference, which it seems to me to succeed at brilliantly. I'll probably throw a few words together about it when I get through it (which won't be for some time).

Thursday 2 September 2010

Mark Earls - "Herd": the Da Vinci Code of marketing?

Mark Earls is clearly in the wrong profession. He's an ad man by trade, but Herd: How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature lurches between a vast array of subjects covering all types of popular science yet is so tangential that it rarely mentions any direct applications to marketing and market research. Instead, Earls has created a tome to make you go and think for yourself, and explore topics in greater depth.

It's a beautifully printed volume - nice paper, nice typeface and a bright pink cover of the sort that makes people on the tube squint to see what you're reading (and when they see the "how to change mass behaviour" title combined with a suitably megalomaniac look in your eyes, you'll get a bit of extra standing room, I promise you). The writing style is very much in the catchy mould of the advertising professional, albeit the author is a planner by trade, not a creative. Short, sharp sentences. With lots of sentences starting with 'with'. And many more starting with 'and'.

I'm going to start at the end, rather than the beginning: the bibliography is one of the highlights of the whole book, and the sceptic might suspect that Earls may have gone to great lengths to deliberately cram in as many offbeat and varied references as possible. From Freud to Popbitch, from Goebbels to Thatcher, at times it feels like Earls is desperate to show his versatility and open-mindedness. It should also be pointed out that Earls pays humble tributes to many writers before him, and is quick to pay credit. Indeed his praise for several books put them straight on my wishlist. One of them is Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which, by sheer coincidence, I found my dad (who is neither a marketeer nor a scientific revolutionary, but a psychoanalyst) is currently reading. As an aside, I asked him about repressed memory and the controversies surrounding it; his explanation was almost word-for-word identical to the description in Herd - which certainly added a lot of credibility to the book in my eyes.

Another I did pick up: Micromotives to Macrobehaviour, Nobel Laureate Thomas C Schelling's study of the way group behaviour is affected by tiny fluctuations in individual perceptions or opinions, and the way the decisions of individuals relate to overall crowd behaviour. The examples at times seem so obvious, yet seeing them written down makes you think twice about crowd behaviour. It's absolutely compelling - one of the best I've read in ages. Herd builds on the solid foundations placed by Schelling and sexes it up; he also begins to muse on how these crowd-behaviour phenomena might affect marketing campaigns, although, perhaps wisely, leaves many questions unanswered: what would be the fun in creating loads of mysteries only to clear them all up?

Schelling touches on traffic modelling - something of which I know little, other than it's a fascinating subject and well worth exploring. One fundamental principle is that traffic jams flow backwards with a wave-like motion, as first set out by Lighthill & Whitham in their 1955 paper On kinematic waves II - a theory of traffic flow on long crowded roads (Proc. R. Soc. Lond. Vol 229 pp 312-345) - something which I'm intending to dig out of the British Library at some point, although to get started I have a copy of Robert Banks' Towing icebergs, falling dominoes and other adventures in applied mathematics (I'll report back if I ever become an amateur traffic expert). Hat tip to a Durham maths student called SG Hockey for the links - his dissertation is well worth a read, although it comes with a health warning - if, like me, mere mention of partial differential equations is enough to trigger a heart flutter, then it might be best avoided. He also links to this experiment by Yuki Sugiyama et al which is an experimental verification of, in their words, "a dynamical phenomenon of a many-particle system" of which "in general, such a system drastically changes its macroscopic aspect owing to the collective motion of many interacting particles". A direct analogy of the sort of behaviour Schelling and Earls are talking about! Keep those two chevrons' distance on the motorway, and you'll do your bit to keep traffic flowing as sudden braking slows everything down. It's easier to see on a crowded escalator: if you're in the "fast lane" (left hand side if you're from London!) bunched up close, if the person in front of you stops suddenly, you'll make a sudden stop, as will the people behind you...in seconds, the whole escalator will come to a standstill. Next time you're heading down to the Northern line at Euston in rush hour, try looking behind you to watch the jam flow backwards. It works. Keep a sedate distance, and you might just help speed people's journeys up.

So much for a book review, I hear you say. This deviated from the mainline ages ago. OK, I may be going off at a tangent, but that's probably Herd's greatest strength: for all I might be sceptical of some of its conclusions, and for all I might scoff at the writing style at times, it doesn't half inspire you to think outside the box. I found myself drifting off into daydreams of herd-like behaviour as I was reading. Earls' enthusiasm is infectious. Let's put the traffic modelling to one side for now, however - if anyone knows an expert who can explain it to me properly, please let me know.

[Update, 7 September: I'm now reading Banks' Towing Icebergs which is very interesting if you like maths, and is bringing back rather more vivid memories of differential equations than I'd like to remember; and how could I forget to link to this post comparing traffic modelling to online communities?]

Meanwhile, Mark Earls is able to cover huge amounts of ground in subjects close to his heart. He launches into a discourse on one of hs favourite subjects with gusto in the early pages. a self-confessed amateur primatologist, he explores the human/chimp boundary and concludes that socially, as well as physiologically, we are infinitesimally close: humans are an example of a super-social ape. Chapter 1 doesn't say anything particularly radical. Rather, it sets the scene for Earls' later dramas, a scene with all humans as a naturally social species, with interactions with other people playing a central role in the way we approach all problems and decisions.

The second chapter carries on where the first left off, with helter-skelter, high octane voyages of discovery covering illusions and memory - and where the two meet in the middle. Then, out of the blue on page 72, comes the first killer blow: the claim that attitudes change after behaviour, not before.

This is based on work by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose writing sounds fascinating and whose book Judgement and uncertainty: heuristics and biases has shot straight to the upper echelons of my wishlist.

I take issue slightly with the way Earls treated Kahneman's work, although I must stress that I haven't read the original material. Earls seems to sensationalise everything - using Kahneman's "lazy minds" theory to suggest that nobody ever makes decisions for themselves and we're kidding ourselves if we think we do. It's easy enough to understand the point he's making - and it's an important one - but does he need to exaggerate so much? It's a rather tabloid style that turned me off the book somewhat; indeed, my enjoyment of of the book fluctuated as I went through - looking something like this:
How good is Herd? It varies as you go through. (Pictorial representation only!)
Kahneman's model talks of heuristics as mentioned by Nigel Hollis - subconscious, instinctive, even irrational judgements or actions that we make. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the impression I get is that Earls takes a rather defeatist attitude: he seems to suggest that it's not possible to break down and analyse the motivations for these heuristics, let alone take advantage of the heuristics themselves and influence people's decisions in this way. Surely that is one of the great challenges for researchers and marketers: to discover the heuristics at the point of decision-making and then throw a spanner in the works by affecting those unconscious thoughts. Earls, it seems to me, seems to take a rather fatalistic attitude (repeated later in the book) - you can't do anything about it so don't bother trying.

The attitudes change... statement might be controversial, but, as Earls points out, it challenges the awareness-interest-desire-action model of marketing. Decisions might not be made in the frames of reference we assume.

The question is: how can we work out in what ways, and at what times, that decisions are made? The most obvious example of mass behaviour not working out as expected that I can think of in recent months was Cleggmania in the run-up to the general election in May this year. Before the election, I attended a social media summit where respected political commentator (and influential blogger) Paul Waugh proffered the opinion that the result of the election would depend less on social media than on television, as the televised leaders' debates would change more attitudes than anything else.

The first debate took place and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was almost universally acknowledged by those who watched the show live to have "won" it. Sure enough, the various opinion polls, with their varied fieldwork dates (some with rolling fieldwork dates; there was much excitement on the UK Polling Report discussing methodologies!) displayed dramatic increases in support levels for the Lib Dems.

But let's consider. Say 10 million people watched the debate on TV and another 5 million saw clips on YouTube or on the news, a total of 15 million who had seen the debate in some form, and not all of those would be eligible to vote. How many genuine floating voters among that lot? Surely not that many. Yet the changes in the opinion polls were dramatic. The Liberals gained up to 10% of the vote in the space of a couple of days in some polls. What was even more interesting was the fact that the bounce wasn't just an immediate thing: the Lib Dem share of support increased as time went on - and stayed high throughout the remaining weeks.

Surely this was a classic example of herd behaviour going on? Had the Twitter campaigns (for example #iagreewithnick) succeeded? Critically, were there people changing their preference who had not actually seen the debate at all, but were reacting to the hype and opinions of others around them? It's often said that voters like to choose a winner so that they can feel like they have contributed something personally to that success; this is why such positive language is used in electioneering. The Lib Dems, masters of the campaign trail thanks to the genius of Chris Rennard, have monopolised the phrase "Winning Here" as a result.

And yet come election day, the herd phenomenon seemed to vanish completely. Pre-debate polls were actually more acurate than post-debate. This seems to have been a dramatic example of the herd effect/word of mouth affecting opinions, yet when it came to the decision-making that really counted, the voters lost their nerve, or else there are other heuristics involved inside the ballot box. My feeling is that Earls' Herd theory needs re-evaluating after this, but also the research industry as a whole: the post-debate polls were largely worthless in predicting the election result, given that they gave a Lib Dem share of up to 30% right up until polling day, which dissolved completely. That's not to say there was necessarily any flaws with the methodologies used at the time... just that people's intentions can be different from their actions (as Earls would agree - it's a fundamental point of his book).

What can researchers learn from this? That intentions and behaviour are very different - that surveys can be a very inaccurate way of predicting future behaviour (what's the disclaimer that you get on investment ads?) - that perhaps word of mouth has its limits. Were the polls useless? Not entirely; they may be able to give a clue to the heuristics involved in making a decision on who to vote for. Besides things like fear, optimism, wanting to contribute to a success story...what could they be? I have no idea, but anyone who works them out accurately could be a person in great demand. I'd love to know what Mark Earls' thoughts are on the mechanisms at work in the weeks preceding the election.

Earls' argument, taken more generally, is that people are not really in control of their own lives and opinions. The key point for research is that what we think we believe in, or what we aspire to believe, or what we believe we do, and the actions we actually take, may not tally up at all. Now researchers have known for ages about the dangers of respondents giving "socially acceptable" answers to questionnaires. earls takes things further by arguing that traditional focus groups can never provide a natural environment in which we operate and interact, and that we need more organic ways of monitoring behaviour - ideally at the point at which those heuristics kick in. Does this simply point to social media research? I'm not so sure. Monitoring naturally occurring conversations - in forums and on Facebook, for example - can give a wealth of opinion data; but as with a focus group, one is reliant on opinions being put forward, however naturally that may be. Perhaps some of the newer, more sophisticated techniques might be the way forward in analysing decision-making processes - are they just hot air though?

Rich use of case studies is one of the best things about Herd. The Milgram Experiment is one terrifying example of just how irrational human behaviour can become when we feel that there is an "accepted" way of thinking. I'd never heard of it before and barely dared to breathe as I read Earls' two page account. I distinctly remember staring at the wall and saying "shit" repeatedly after reading about it. There are other, similarly dramatic (if less horrifying) examples which most "marketing" books won't come within a hundred miles of. For example, how much idle fun can you have with this Mexican Wave generator? (There are other similar modelling simulations here).

Having set the scene, Mark Earls proceeds to lay down his Seven Principles of Herd Marketing. Don't get too excited: this isn't a step-by-step bible on how to double your turnover in a year. Rather, they're a set of rather nebulous ideas, some of which are frustratingly obvious. Instead, you should continue to focus your attention on the game-changing case studies and analogies with which his arguments are made.

It starts unpromisingly. Urinals? C'mon Mark, it doesn't need a laborious analysis of the rules - that's known to anyone who's ever had a few drunken conversations (if you haven't, there's plenty of stuff on the internet). My attention wavered. Following this, however, we get into the real meat of the first chapter (simply entitled Interaction): it's lengthy, but rich in case data and ideas, and convincingly presented. We learn about markets; whether it's betting markets or financial markets, much of their behaviour and volatility is a result not of external factors, but purely the interactions between people concerned. Betting markets are similar - particularly when you start to think about either starting-price betting, or the new betting exchanges such as Betfair, where you take on the market directly. There are comparisons to be made with game theory - another subject which Earls touches on, and Thomas Schelling concedes that his entire book is really about game theory. I was chatting to a hedge fund trading mate of mine the other week, who is keen to learn more about game theory in order to improve his work; if I remember to dig it out of a locker in Holborn, I'll lend it to him - I might point him in the direction of Herd at the same time.

A fascinating discussion on metastability ensues, and how phase transitions can be compared to other social situations (for example crime levels). The pedigree of the theories is impressive: Earls rehashing Phillip Ball rehashing Campbell & Ormerod influenced by Schelling. It's no less entertaining for all that. Thrillingly, there appear to be quite a few comparisons to be made between physical systems and human ones.

I wonder if Earls has ever come across percolation theory, an area of statistical mechanics which has some striking similarities to some of Earls' material. It deals with lattices connected by nodes and the probability of some form of path finding its way through the lattice to an infinite degree. In other words, if each individual bit of mesh in the coffee percolator has a certain probability that coffee will manage to drip through that one bit of mesh, what is the probability that some coffee will make it all the way through? Admittedly that's an oversimplification, but percolation theory, which has applications in geology and materials, as well as, for example, the propagation of forest fires. Networks vary, depending on the number of connections at each node, and the number of dimensions. But the key property is that, for an infinitely large lattice - the simplest model - across a range if individual node probabilities (how porous one "junction" is) the probability of the percolation taking place jumps from zero to one around a critical probability. So there's a critical point above which the information will always find a way through. The similarities with human networks are clear: each node or person or organisation, connected to a certain number of other nodes, has a certain chance of "getting their message across" to the next person. The spread of information greatly increases as the influence or effectiveness of transmission of information at a particular junction reaches a critical level. I wonder if the Mexican Wave model could be predicted using percolation theory? It's a fascinating subject - one I came across at university - and one that merits further reading.

Earls only makes direct reference to market research a few times in the text, but when he does, he tends to be pithy. He cites the example of when a different methodology gave a completely different answer to a descriptive research problem he was involved with on shoe-buying habits. It's easy to see where his scepticism towards traditional research methods comes from: a methodology could conform to all the usual rules on sapling, validity and so on, and still give wildly different from another methodology which was similarly robust. (Could this provide a clue to where the opinion polls went wrong? Could we try a radically different methodology next time?)

Following on from Milgram's experiment, Earls then examines the models of influence: how we are all influenced, by whom, and in what way. He thoughtfully considers various descriptions of the types of people who are "influential" (though the definition of influential remains somewhat shrouded). There is the Opinion Leader approach - where one in fifteen are "social influencers". There is the "early adopters" model. Malcolm Gladwell has his ideas. Earls doesn't conclude in favour of any one approach - or against any for that matter; personally, I think that you can't just define what an influencer looks or sounds or behaves like - it simply depends on the situation. Opinion Leader talk about MPs, CEOs and community leaders. That all seems a bit predictable to me. I'd say it's much more of a social personality thing: in my experience, those people who are natural leaders and natural influencers within social spheres are the most exuberant, most outgoing, funniest, most interesting people. They're the ones who are good at everything - from rugby to pub quizzes - and don't waste a minute of their time lying around on the sofa but are involved in loads of activities (although they always seem to be good at computer games too, ironically). The ones with god jobs and attractive partners (they're probably attractive themselves, too; good genes, I suppose). In other words, the ones you're jealous of. The ones who suggest a trip to the pub and the rest follow. The ones everyone else is jealous, and wants to be like, and wants to copy. Is it possible to pinpoint what sets these people apart? I don't know. This does, however, extend to internet forums, where again there are influencers and leaders; this does not correlate with post counts. It's something I might write a post on at a later date.

The next couple of chapters of Herd fade away very slightly, with a rather forgettable discussions on word-of-mouth marketing - although I wholeheartedly agree that buzz isn't something you can conjure up, and that half of these word of mouth, buzz and social media "conversation" agencies are charlatans. A slightly sanctimonious chapter saying "just be yourself" follows; presumably this was the chapter where Earls convinced his publisher that this was really a marketing book rather than a popular science one, as there are quite a few case studies. Again, however, while a little predictable in its ideas (make good products, be nice and smiley to everyone and everything will be OK) it's written in a gripping style. He defines a "Belief Business" as one which applies its ideals across all forms of its operations. He gives several examples; the most obvious one that  can think of in my experience is The Lexi cinema. Run by volunteers, with all its profits going to charity, it's not just for the bleeding hearts - it's a lovely comfortable interior with great decor, friendly staff, a bar (yes, you can take in your pint), no ads, a personal introduction to the film by one of the friendly staff...all in all, it's easily the best cinema in London (and 10 minutes walk from me to boot). The damage is a tenner a time, but the overall experience is so far removed from the nearest alternative (the multiplex on the North Circular) that it's worth every penny. The Lexi has been cited before as a social media case study (not sure where the article is or who wrote it but suffice to say that their Facebook and Twitter pages are active, conversational, multilateral and give you plenty of reasons to follow them).

Earls is back on compelling form when talking about co-creativity - with countless examples, across platforms and industries (and outside industry!), of group collaboration proving to be more effective than one "genius". His nineteenth century engineering example was particularly strong; more up to date was his discussion of co-creativity in the software industry. Perhaps he missed the two more obvious examples of collaboration in the technological world: APIs, where programs and applications such as Twitter and Google Chrome are opened up, allowing developers to create extensions and tools to really enhance the user experience; and of course the ultimate co-creative project, Wikipedia. There are plenty of academic studies on the wiki phenomenon out there so I won't embarrass myself - but I will point you in the direction of one of the most interesting articles on Wikipedia: about its own accuracy.

Herd finishes on a slightly damp note of don't bother defeatism again (hence the slight tailing off of my enjoyment graph!) but I found myself coming away with more and more examples of group Herd behaviour flooding into my head, and am in serious danger of considering myself a disciple.

One example that always gets to me, although not strictly an exercise in herd behaviour (it's my blog and I'll cry if I want to), is choosing who to sit next to on the bus. If you go upstairs and each two-person seat has exactly one person sitting on it...how do you choose where to sit? Now don't say "random". There will be some sort of reason. Perhaps there's a simple rule you take: the front seat, or the one closest to the stairs. But let's say you don't. OK, if you've got the whole bus to choose from, then certain people rule themselves out straight away: those sporting loud headphones, gross obesity, and cans of special brew are unlikely to have their adjacent space taken away from them early on. But then who? Trying to deconstruct my own subconscious, I think I aim for someone as neutral and bland as possible, someone who is unlikely to make a fuss, someone who keeps their stuff on their side of the seat, someone who won't make a big deal of getting out. I don't think I'm fussed by male or female...although if I decide to sit next to a woman, it can't be the most attractive one there (too obvious), although I'll err on the attractive side of average if possible. It'll probably be someone of nondescript age (ie middle-aged). And although consciously I would never choose on racial grounds, having read Schelling I'd love to know statistically/historically whether my seating habits are biased towards white people. They probably are. Incidentally, as a schoolkid, I always used to get paranoid if I was the last person to be sat next to. In truth, I probably still do.

I could go on all day providing examples. Just the other day I was in Edinburgh at the festival (I've put some reviews up here). I went to see stand-up comic Stephen K Amos - one of the better and more dependable middle-of-the-road comedians in this country. At one point, a bloke got up noisily to go to the toilet; when he was gone, Amos decided to try a little experiment in herd behaviour (or peer pressure as he put it). He briefed us on what to do, and when the chap came back with a newly empty bladder, Amos casually said "now, c'mon folks, let's be honest here. How many of you used to pick your nose and eat it when you were younger?" As one, we put our hands up...and, sure enough, chappie's hand went up with the rest, whereupon he was stitched up royally by Amos, to his embarrassment (and our mirth).

Mark is a constant critic of the traditional focus group - his arguments perhaps point to weaknesses in even the latest trendy research-by-crowdsourcing and online communities (MROCs) - that they are artificially created and therefore can never be a place to watch true, natural interactions between people. But there is a difference between online communities and focus groups and that is timescales. Scientists can create artificial environments very easily - whether it's artificial reefs or contrived forests - and, although nature will take a while to adapt, in time the relationships between creatures and plants will adjust as normal. Hell, Big Brother was a great concept at first, and no matter how much the producers contrive to force increasingly incompatible and decreasingly interesting people who they think will be good for a fight/shag/ratings (delete as appropriate), even in a short space of time true human emotions, relationships and frailties poke out from under the veneer - and thanks to the camera work of Tony Gregory and his team, every glimpse, every pained expression, every faltering relationship will be captured on film (although, of course, the editing reduces it all to fighting, shagging and ratings). If left alone, a garden will start to sprout weeds and brambles and similarly, now matter how artificial an online community is at first, if left alone, the true insight can appear. Weeds and brambles encourage the real money shot back garden wildlife like bees, mice and foxes; perhaps if left to go to weed, online communities can also provide that rich interaction of the type that Mark Earls thinks is so elusive.

My mum (like my dad, also a shrink; breakfast-table conversations could be quite stressful) was talking to me the other day about a conference organised by the Tavistock Institute she attended in Leicester many years ago. Ironically, it's a conference on group behaviour; she told me that what was fascinating was the way that over the course of the week-long conference, groups, factions and schisms grew naturally - which all began with a rather heated discussion between the smokers and non-smokers at the conference. In the space of a few days, delegates had clustered together around natural leader-types, to the extent that cross-group interaction was almost non-existent.

"An indispensible manual for the Web 2.0 era" extols Matthew D'Ancona in the list of endorsements on the back cover. Would I be right in thinking that D'Ancona has missed the point of the book entirely? The "Web 2.0 era" isn't something new, and nothing has changed about the way people interact and behave. The behaviour just manifests itself more clearly. Opinions, trends, and the propagation of content and views can just be traced quantitatively much more easily.

Herd could be described as the Da Vinci Code of marketing. It relies a little too heavily on shock tactics, the writing style is an acquired taste, and it draws some conclusions that might be distinctly dodgy, but damn, it's good fun getting there: you'll gobble it up page after page, and come out on the other side feeling quite liberated, with some pretty major questions in your mind about how human beings work, and whether our communications efforts could all be in vain. One of those rare things that might actually justify the description "essential".