Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Retail Values

I’ve just started reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with my 8 year-old: she stumbles over the Victorian locutions, but she’s enthralled by Marley, Scrooge, and that wonderful, enveloping atmosphere that Dickens created.

We’ve come a long way since 1843, when Dickens wrote his morality tale and in many ways reestablished what “Christmas values” should be. The grinding poverty that existed in Dickensian London and elsewhere, which Dickens experienced personally during his time in the blacking factory when his father was in debtors prison, has largely vanished. At least, from the western world.

You have to wonder what CD would think about the modern, commercial enterprise that is our Xmas, Dickens’ ‘Christmas Yet To Come’. In an earlier post I talked about how Orwell’s message still resonates when we read about modern-day Burma, and there’s a parallel with Dickens and the retail values we express during a celebration like Christmas.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Negative Brand Equity

In my last post I picked an easy fight with WalMart and their crappy PR. A lot of others joined in the fun, from Mother Jones to The LA Times.

I argued that this is a moral failing, not a PR blunder. And so it may be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be quantified as a costly business mistake, and measured in terms a stock holder would understand outside of any wishy-washy ethical dimension.

Brand equity, so we’re told, is the net gain a branded entity brings to an organization, compared with an unbranded counterpart. In other words, what is a punter prepared to pay for a branded product, above and beyond the price of a competitive product/service of roughly equivalent function? An iPod costs a lot more than an equivalent generic mp3 player, and the difference is seen to be accrued brand value or equity.

In theory, brand equity cannot be negative, or so says Wikipedia. Some disagree, including me. The problem is brand equity is a fuzzy concept that’s very hard to really quantify.

In contrast, good and bad publicity is getting easier to measure, because most media is now available online, and search technologies exist that can give a reasonable indication of subjective content. Such a media barometer could be a strong tool to ascertain true PR equity, especially if we link this to other tangible measures of business health – say a company’s stock price. A clear correlation between the two would be a strong weapon for PR professionals.

Academics have worked on this already. At an extreme, Rao and Hamilton have shown a clear correlation between unethical (read quasi-illegal) behavior and stock indicators, but you’d expect this because the behavior is very likely to have direct financial consequences – lawsuits, and so on. The Phelps Group, an integrated marketing agency, looked at the wider literature and found studies that showed less than 10% of a stock value was accounted for by brand equity. A boatload of methodological issues go along with all this research, but they’re a start. There’s probably more studies I’ve missed, let me know if you’ve seen some.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The value of PR?

Over the last year of so Walmart has gone from being a Wall Street darling to the embodiment of everything that is bad about Big Business. Alright, so maybe I'm overstating things, but their reputation has been keeping good pace with their sinking stock price, and they seem to take every opportunity to accelerate the decline.

Case in point: Today's Wall Street Journal ran a nasty cover story on the preditory practices of healthcare providers who increasingly are suing accident victims for access to their legal damages settlements. They led with the case of woman hit by a truck who barely made it out of intensive care, and who eventually won a settlement only to be sued by... you guessed it, her employer Walmart. They wanted to recoup the $440k+ they'd paid out in insurance coverage.

Now legally, there's no doubt that Walmart and their healthcare provider have a right to the cash. But ethically, morally? And if they have no ethics, don't they think through the ramifications and cost to their business? They're approaching the retail holiday bonanza with PR that is beyond bad, that will drive off shoppers in droves, and which shows Olympic levels of business stupidity.

Given my profession it would be easy for me to label this a public relations failure, but it really isn't: This is a moral failure that has PR consequences. The Walmart spokesperson rightly stated that they have to protect the interests of all their healthcare plan members and their investors, a stock answer in every sense that displays no sense of proportion, probity, anything.

Maybe this argues for a moral dimension to PR, or is this oxymoronic (or just plain moronic) ?

Friday, November 2, 2007

The chicken was first

Sometimes you bump into a website and rediscover why it's called the World Wide Web, and why it's cool. Ask500People is a relatively simple mashup/social computing site, but it's oceans of fun. Ask a (relatively) random sample of 500 people anywhere in the world a simple question, any question, and see the answers stream in real-time, with location information and voting patterns. Is Hillary going to win? Ever smoked hash? Is marriage archiac? Can you calculate the mean of these five numbers?

And it's official: the chicken came first, but only just.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What are we talking about?

A while back I blogged about Adoption of Innovation research, and I’ve also talked about how blogs might generously be described to have a symbiotic relationship with conventional media, and uncharitably be described as vampiric.

Back in the day when I studied this stuff, one of the few theories that seemed to have merit was Agenda Setting theory. The theory is oft summarized with the axiom “the media may not tell people what to think, but they do tell people what to think about.” The theory goes that media outlets focus on an agenda of items that are considered newsworthy – these can be enduring news values, or specific news events. For example, proximity is an enduring news value – the closer the ‘news” is to the reader, the more newsworthy it becomes (hence, as happened with The New York Times some years back, a front page story might describe a local car crash where a dozen people died, while buried on page three is a squib about a train wreck in India with over 300 casualties). A specific news ‘event’ might be immigration, or avian flu, or the lead in children’s toys, to name a few of the moment.

There have been mountains of research to show that there is a causal relationship between people’s agendas and what the media is highlighting. This is one reason why politicians are always trying to create an agenda that favors their views or corners their competitors.

Agenda Setting works when you have a fairly monolithic media, with a few controlling interests commanding considerable public reach: This was the case pre-Internet, but has rapidly eroded. Today, most people get their news from many sources, not just their local paper. Today we have blogs.

Does this change anything? Probably, and possibly not for the better. Journalism.org reported that when the mainstream media focused on Iraq and immigration, the alternative media focused on iPhones and game consuls. Blogs do the same thing, as I noted in a past post where nerd-level subjects like Web 2.0 outdo mainstream discussions of President Bush.

Tobias Escher at the OII is doing research in this area, as has Kaye Sweetser and colleagues: Early days, but blogs seems to have some influence on overall news agendas. The effect seems to be indirect – again, an amplification process, rather than establishing agendas.

Blogs exist in subcultures – narrow, divisive, tribal, and often contumacious. They accentuate some abiding news values and usually have a very narrow agenda of interest. In this sense, blogs represent the opposite of mass media – the media of division.

Monday, October 22, 2007

1984 Circa 2007

I mentioned in a past post how Christopher Hitchens, the author of Why Orwell Matters, claimed in an interview that sales of Orwell's books always rise in times of strife and conflict, because his message in 1984, Animal Farm, and Homage to Catalonia is perpetually relevant. When I looked online at Amazon ranking for 1984, I was disappointed to find this wasn't true.

Over the weekend The New York Times ran front page story on the current situation in the country, and Orwell made an appearance in the third paragraph:

“It’s not peace you see here, it’s silence; it’s a forced silence,” said a 46-year-old writer who joined last month’s protests in Yangon and was now on the run, carrying with him a worn copy of his favorite book, George Orwell’s “1984.” “We are the military’s slaves. We want democracy. We want to wait no longer. But we are afraid of their guns.”

This prompted me to recheck sales of the book over the last few weeks, and they indeed have risen. Hitchens may be right after all, which feels like good and bad news.

The pseudonymous Emma Larkin, author of Finding George Orwell in Burma, has been writing a lot about current events, and was back in-country recently. There's an interesting thread here too.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stupid Statistic of the Week: Spit Swapping

A quick, cheap, and simple way to manufacture news is to create a survey and publish the results.

Quick, cheap and simple it may be, but it is definitely not original: I counted 230 surveys on Business Wire just over the last 24 hours. My favorite this week is from the American Dental Association that shows 44% of Americans "are swapping spit" by sharing their toothbrush, some kind of national calamity it would seem. Apparently, 54% also report they'd use their toothbrush even if they dropped it on the floor. The same ADA also reported medical research suggesting how E.coli gets on a toothbrush and thence multiplies and is transferred to your mouth - disgusting stuff, I'll save you by omitting the link.

The PR goal here is presumably to enhance the public's understanding of oral hygiene, but this conflicts with the journalistic goal of manufacturing an amusing and titillating headline. The consequent news coverage can work in the right setting, but too often undermines the intended objective or diminishes the other, more serious intentions of the organisation behind the news.

More stupid stats in later posts - please send me suggestions.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Gartner ITExpo is over, at last. Some 6,000 blameless IT professionals have sat through hundreds of presentations on every conceivable aspect of IT. All these different presentations shared one thing in common - all were delivered using Powerpoint. It's very hard to imagine any presentation being delivered without Powerpoint today - it is ubiquitous. As a result there's many blogs discussing how to make your PP decks better: Creative services offers how-to hints; Indezine takes a design-centric view; Dave Paradi seems to have a broader perspective on presenting effectively with PP.

Death by Powerpoint is a real phenomenom, and PP isn't a very flexible approach to presenting any information, on any subject, as the excellent Edward Tufte makes clear. Often, I'm not even sure what it adds - many presenters seem to use slides as memory crutches, or read directly off the slide as if it where a script. Most slides add little additional information. All this is a shame, because many good analysts presenting at the Gartner event stood in front of gigantic, 20 foot screens that delivered miniscule value and which overshadowed what they actually had to say.

Without question the best presentation of the show was the (ironically) Powerpoint-less interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, well summarized in Deal Architect (and a podcast review here). He has an audience of a few thousand, and everyone was paying full attention. Ballmer famously dismissed social computing (aka Facebook and everything down to this blog) as a 'fad', although his recent pronouncements shows a more nuanced view. Microsoft clearly wants to take on Google, the darling of the analyst and Wall Street set: Based on what I saw, I wouldn't want Ballmer after my business, even if he is the guy behind Powerpoint.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Agenda Setting

I started this blog commenting on blogs, a kind of involution, I know. Anyway, commenting on hype brought me back to the subject. What is hype, anyway? From the wonderfully indispensable dictionary.com:

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) - Cite This Source - Share This
/haɪp/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[hahyp] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation verb, hyped, hyp·ing, noun Informal.

–verb (used with object)

1. to stimulate, excite, or agitate (usually fol. by up): She was hyped up at the thought of owning her own car.

2. to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods; promote or publicize showily: a promoter who knows how to hype a prizefight.

3. to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc. (usually fol. by up).

4. to trick; gull.


5. exaggerated publicity; hoopla.

6. an ingenious or questionable claim, method, etc., used in advertising, promotion, or publicity to intensify the effect.

7. a swindle, deception, or trick.

[Origin: 1925–30, Americanism; in sense “to trick, swindle,” of uncert. orig.; subsequent senses perh. by reanalysis as a shortening of
hyperbole ]

Modern hype, in the Britney Spears sense, is a shameless, at-any-cost grab for media attention. In the Princess Diana sense, it’s something that is thrust upon the subject, no doubt with only nominal resistance, but is nevertheless persistent and audience-driven (she’s dead, remember, and ain't looking for any more publicity herself).

Blogs fuel hype – it’s all part of their amplification role. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the amplifier isn’t selective, as you can see from the attached chart from BlogPulse. I’ve graphed the blogging counts for SOA (nerd alert: service oriented architecture is a new movement in IT), for Web 2.0 (similar nerd alert applies), and George Bush (democracy alert on this one). Now, whether you think Bush is God’s gift to political life or a plaque on American values (correct answer is the latter), he is undoubtedly more significant, more known, more in the news than, say, Web 2.0. But you’ll see this is not reflected in the blogosphere: Web 2.0 is getting more attention than Bush.

Did anyone notice there’s a war going on?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Hype Cycle

This week I’m attending Gartner’s ITExpo in Orlando, you can read more about it at their blog. I arrived at the hotel a few minutes ago – it’s strange to see thousands of middle-aged guys milling around with the 2 year-old Mickey Mouse set.

Gartner’s a strange beast, the 200 pound gorilla of the IT industry that can make or break markets, companies, and products. They started out in 1979 and now have almost 4,000 employees, of which about 1,200 are analysts. Forrester and IDC are the only other companies that really compete in terms of size and influence. IT is complex, and there’s not doubt that these companies add a lot of value by providing insight and context on how to make technology effective and productive. And from a marketing perspective, these firms are hugely influential.

Gartner has a concept called the Hype Cycle, which they apply to IT trends and new technologies, but which I’d love to see applied to diets, cars, bands, or movie stars. What’s strange about the Hype Cycle is that is can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – the very act of Gartner placing something on the curve elevates it and gives it new buzziness. Forrester famously got into trouble when the Internet bubble burst, and the Wall Street Journal showed how they’d fuelled positive forecasts for companies and markets right up until they’d collapsed. Some are seeing similar over-hype around the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon, which is a major theme at the Gartner event.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Soap Opera

I’ve worked in technology marketing for most of my career, and have always harbored a lingering envy for my consumer brethren. After all, they get to play with bongo bucks in the mass media, peddling aspirational lifestyles to young moms to sell soap. I get to drone on about SOAP message headers to Web services developers to sell SOA governance applications. It just doesn’t seem fair.

But over the last few years technology companies have wised-up to the wishful aspirations of even the geekiest of IT professionals, and have tried borrowing a page from the consumer marketing playbook. The results in press releases, whitepapers, and corporate reports are mostly painful and embarrassing – just visit the average software company’s homepage if you’ve doubts. Better yet, try Andrew Davidson’s marketing gibberish generator for a few simulated paragraphs of the stuff I’m referring to. Dack’s has a pithier version of the same.

Why does this happen? I think it’s a simultaneous desire to inflate value, combined with a wrongheaded notion that good marketing is monolithic. But more on the diagnosis later – for now, lets cut straight to a cure. A few years back Deliotte Consulting developed software designed to test for gibberish before it hits the wire or website: bullfighter. Give it a try.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Burmese Days

I’ve always liked Orwell, not as a great writer but because of how and why he wrote. Christopher Hitchens, who wrote Why Orwell Matters a few years back, captures this well.

Orwell was born in India and served in the police force in colonial Burma. He wrote Burmese Days about the experience, as well as the famous and wonderful short story Shooting the Elephant, and he inevitably comes to mind with the recent, terrible news from the country.

Hitchens once said that sales of Orwell always rise in times of strife and conflict, because his message in 1984, Animal Farm, and Homage to Catalonia is perpetually relevant. Not so, apparently.

I visited Burma a decade ago, during a brief window when access to the country was opened. At the border they forced westerners to exchange $300 equivalent for FECs, a foreign exchange currency, at a rate fixed by the Junta. FECs could only be redeemed for official Burmese Kyats at state-run banks: On the street you could get about 300 Kyats to a dollar, when the official exchange rate was under fifty. Guilt at entering the country intensified when you saw the constant presence of soldiers and jeeps. Yet I have no regrets about the visit – seeing Rangoon, spending time with the saffron-robed monks, traveling down the Irrawaddy river, visiting the fabulous temples at Pagan, this was unforgettable.

Most western countries have already imposed sanctions, but China, a major trading partner, refuses to take action. Lets hope recent events aren’t a repeat of 1988.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life on Mars

After hibernating for much of the Martian winter, the NASA Rovers are starting to move again. The images they've captured are amazing. The Rover Opportunity is about to make a descent into Victoria Crater, which promises to be spectacular.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and Meta-Analysis

I’ve always been interested in how statistics are used in social sciences and the popular media. It was Mark Twain who famously said “there’s lies, damn lies and statistics,” but of course statistics never lie, only people. Business Week recently reported on an arcane branch of statistical analysis, meta-analysis, that is being used more and more to justify claims about new drugs, herbal remedies, educational systems and just about anything else that is a popular field of study and can easily be reduced to a set of numbers. It’s definitely contributing to the ‘statistics lie’ debate.

I’m no statistician, but here’s my understanding of meta-analysis. There are many fields of study where research is repeated, either to attempt to verify or replicate existing studies, contradict findings, or get a richer or slightly different understanding of a question. Medical research and educational research are good examples – there’s been numerous experiments done to test the efficacy of vitamin C as a cold cure, for example. Often individual studies aren’t conclusive, or seem to disagree: but what if you could pool the research results of multiple studies and get an aggregated, summary set of findings? This would be very cool, especially if you’re an impoverished PhD (are there any other kind?) with no budget but access to a well-stocked library: all you do is judicially sum reported results from a handful of published papers, with no fieldwork required. Even better, the results of meta-analysis should increase the power of the overall conclusions – you can discern smaller effects, based on bigger sample sizes.

All well and good, but two problems emerge. First, very few research studies are conducted identically. Questions are asked in a slightly different way, to a slightly different population, under slightly different circumstances. Sometimes these differences can be reasonably ignored because they are small or insignificant, but most often this is a judgment call. Make the wrong call, and you are comparing apples and oranges. A second problem is what is often called the file drawer effect: research that is inconclusive isn’t likely to be published, and so goes unreported, potentially biasing meta-analysis. This can result in exaggerated effects being reported.

This helps explain why we see heated debates about the impact of standardized school tests, allergy remedies, or the impact of violent TV on real-world violence.

Sometimes I wonder if blogging is simply meta-comment, or meta-news, or meta-babble. In the same way that meta-analysis is data from data, or more accurately statistics calculated from other statistics, it feels like blogging is derived, secondary, imitative. It has all the power of meta-analysis, and all the pitfalls.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Blogoganda

Following from my last post, the New York Times is again reporting an attempt to influence blogdom, this time by the US government. The front page story describes a small department being created to haunt and post on Muslim blogs, providing pro-US views. In this case, they do identify their affiliation - and seem to be having mixed responses.

What would Edward Bernays have to say about this blogoganda?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Corn and Chasms

Theories of mass communication come and go, but one that has enjoyed some longterm success is the diffusion of innovation work made famous by Everett Rogers. You may not have heard of Rogers, but you have heard of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, which drew heavily on Rogers’ work and which remains hugely influential.

It all started with corn. Everett Rogers grew up on a farm in Iowa and studied at Ames, an agricultural school. He was drawn to research that investigated why some farmers had adopted hybridized corn, which had much better yields and was drought resistant compared to other varieties. His interest was personal: his father had resisted the innovation, and his farm had failed. In 1962, after studying other examples of adoption, Rogers wrote his famous book, The Adoption of Innovation. From this came all the terms we’re familiar with: innovators, early adopters, the late majority, and so on. He postulated that mass media fostered awareness, while interpersonal interactions were the primary way people made decisions. He went on to characterize innovators and early adopters, and his work was used to spur foreign aid missions, market new drugs, and eventually inspired countless business plans.

All this came to mind when I read a wonderful interview in the New York Times with the great Rick Rubin. He’s trying, in his fashion, to rescue Columbia Records, which like all major labels is watching lucrative CD sales transform into lucre-less downloads. And he’s figured out that teenage hip-hop fans behave a lot like Iowa corn farmers: they are influenced by word-of-mouth. And so, following Big Business logic, Columbia formed a “word-of-mouth” department:

The "word of mouth" department will function as a publicity-promotional arm of the company, spreading commissioned buzz through chat rooms across the planet and through old-fashioned human interaction.

An interesting question: can you apply a kind of covert propaganda to influence the Chasm Crossing process? And is this ethical, expressing paid-for opinion as freely voiced fanaticism?

But more importantly, does any of this blogophonics really work? A critique of diffusion theory is that it doesn’t really take a good marketing view – it doesn’t organize around attributes of the innovation and the organizations or people adopting them. In other words, anyone can be an early adopter if the product fits. Said another way, good tunes sell, period.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

One in 15 Million

According to Technorati, there are over 15 million bloggers in the world today. That's a lot of people talking about their cat, their job, their day. To put it in perspective, there's more bloggers than the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Which begs the question: Why add one more?

There's a school of thought, popular with old-school journalists, that bloggers don't really create any news, or advance any agenda, or add much to the world at all: instead they selectively amplify what's already being discussed in other spheres. This is partly true. It's also true that fewer and fewer people read newspapers. Or write and mail letters. Blogs are certainly an effective way to chatter, chatter, chatter...

...But are they good for anything else? The reality is, most blogs go blessedly unread. Maybe mine will have the same happy fate...