Planning in High Heels

Why it’s time to stop thinking about the consumer and start thinking about the network.

Two things happened this week that made me realise just how redundant it is today to think about a single, individual consumer.

First, I had a briefing on a new project. Some lovely (and smart) people had done some thinking on the consumer-the classic pen portrait. They’d thought hard about it and they’d done their research but I found myself thinking that it didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. While they were telling me about the individuals, I was thinking about the network. Asking myself:

  • What content are these people sharing?
  • Why do they share it?
  • How do they share it-active endorsement versus more passive sharing (ie via social plug-ins)?
  • Where do they share it?

The brilliant Griffin Farley has already touched on some of these questions in his excellent thinking on propagation planning. As he so pithily puts it, “plan(ning) not for the people you reach, but for the people that they reach”. If you haven’t checked out his excellent presentation, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s one of the most useful pieces of thinking I’ve come across on influence and social spread.

So what do I have to bring to the propagation party? Well, while influencers are undoubtedly important, I think peer to peer networks may be even more so. Or perhaps the point is that everyone is an influencer today-albeit to varying degrees. There is no-one we talk to today (hermits and Trappist monks excepted) who doesn’t exist within a network-and the shape, structure and dynamic of that network may just be the most important thing for marketers to know about them. More important, perhaps, than demographics, attitudes or psychographics. As Mike Arauz puts it, in another wonderful presentation, “The effectiveness of our work is dependent on our ability to engage and empower networks of people connected by shared interests”.

To take this a step further then, perhaps we should stop producing pen portraits of individuals and start providing a portrait of a network:

  • How big is the network?
  • How loose (or tight) are the connections?
  • Are those connections symmetric or asymmetric?
  • What fuels those connections-friendship, a shared cause, shared interests, altruism, personal gain?

From consumer insights to network insights

The second thing that happened is that, having developed a campaign recently around the principles of social spread, a client, not unreasonably, asked how we could be confident that it would scale.

We had a high degree of confidence, no question. We were targeting a highly creative, motivated community-and each member of that community had his or her own fanbase. The core community-and their fanbases-would be actively incentivized to spread the word as far as possible within their personal networks. With luck, it’ll be awesome….

Yet, perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to predict exactly how the campaign will spread. Of course there are some norms we can apply around the number of connections in the average social network and around users’ propensity to interact with content shared by friends or by brands in social channels.  We can use the most robust and predictive data we have. However, we still lack quantitative planning tools that truly reflect the networked consumer. We have vast quantities of data that will tell us what the average 18-20 year old guy is watching or reading but not nearly as much data on what they’re sharing, spreading, using or participating with. We have isolated incidences, greatest hits and occasional case studies of course.

We have very limited data on how sharing varies across different kinds of networks-asymmetric vs symmetric, loose ties versus strong ties- although what we have is fascinating-this presentation from Luke Wroblewski is a must-read for my money. Interesting data is also emerging on why users share content and how this varies across the globe.

However, we still lack a consistent, robust and continuous data stream we can use for forward planning. So perhaps the next generation of planning tools-tools for both account and media planners (if that distinction remains in 5 years time) need to reflect the next generation of planning-planning for the networked consumer. Whoever captures, owns, understands and uses that data will have an extraordinarily powerful tool at their disposal.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that gaming mechanics were the hottest thing on the web.  The advent of Foursquare and the juggernaut that is Farmville alerted the world to the potential of simple, social gaming mechanics. We marveled at how hard users were prepared to work for virtual currency and how powerful an incentive points, levels and badges seemed to be in driving participation, sharing and retention. Game theory and user experience design collided with the newly sexy field of Behavioural Economics to offer a panacea for all the world’s social and commercial ills.

Over the last six months, it’s often seemed that there’s literally no field of human endeavour (or suffering) that hasn’t had gaming mechanics applied to it. We can now get points and badges for reading articles, or for watching television. (I remember when you had to at least be able to swim 25 metres or tie a knot.) On a more altruistic level, we Brits can earn points for participating in the “Big Society” . On a more alarming level, US citizens can earn points for voting.

 

There's a badge for everything these days Photo credit: rocket ship/ Creative Commons

Then came the inevitable backlash. Zynga CEO Mark PIncus caused something of a stir by freely admitting “I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away”.  Ian Bogost developed the Cow Clicker game partly as a satire on the social gaming industry, together with an intelligent and considered articulation of his concerns around the industry.  Ironically, people then played Cow Clicker…and seemed to enjoy it.

Much of the backlash has come from “real” gamers; lovers of console games and MMOs who frown on social games as somehow lower on the evolutionary scale. Interestingly, that’s not Bogost’s problem. Nor mine. Full disclosure-Playstation holds no allure for me, nor have I ever impersonated an Orc. Not on purpose, anyway…. So why do I care?

We’re killing the golden goose (cow)

Applying gaming theory to UX design (still) has real and rich potential. There are inspiring case studies about the impact of gaming mechanics in healthcare for example-take this game designed to encourage children with cancer to follow their treatment regimes or some of the examples cited in this excellent post from the folks at Big Spaceship. We know more every day about how to design an online experience rooted in the psychology of the user that will bring about behavioural change. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for an industry which-at its best-has always been about finding the right prompts to change behaviour in our brands’ favour. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s news to no-one that on-line advertising is in a truly alarming state. Every quarter brings frightening statistics on the revenue shift from display to search and social and on the precipitous decline in click-through rates.  (Currently less than 0.1%) MSNBC recently announced the removal of all banners from its site (although there’s some debate over the definition of a banner).

 

Infographic documenting a day's browsing courtesy of Isaac Pinnock, Made by Many

 

Prevailing wisdom in some quarters is that this doesn’t matter very much-that the demise of the display industry validates what so many of us have been saying for so long about the need for engagement versus interruption. That the demise of the banner heralds the rise of the platform; rich, useful and entertaining brand experiences.

I’m a passionate believer in the power of the platform. I think it’s essential that we start to move towards big, business changing digital ideas. The web can transform the way consumers interact with our brands, changing not simply brand perceptions but business models. The challenge is that there are any number of smart, engaging digital platforms out there that simply can’t get traction because no-one stopped at the outset to ask: how will people find us?

Read the rest of this entry »

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