Wednesday, December 13, 2017

LB Steak: Clever Marketing, Puffery or Misdirection?

So I had dinner last night at LB Steak in Santana Row. It was part of a group/work dinner. Like most typical group dinners, my expectations for the food wasn't particularly high -- work dinners aren't something you go to expecting to enjoy the food. What's more, having been to LB Steak for some truly mediocre brunch in the past (nice outdoor seating in Santana Row), I already had some sense of what to expect. I feel like I had a reasonably low bar going in.

Still, I was thoroughly surprised by the restaurant's marketing of their food and their dining room -- and not surprised in a good way.

Prior to grinding my way through rush-hour traffic to get there for dinner, one of my colleagues had told me that we'd be seated at the "Chef's Table". Now, being someone who enjoys my share of food and restaurant experiences, I must say that the idea of being at the Chef's Table had me hopefully optimistic. Perhaps this would be one of those enjoyably unique experiences that would walk back my previous brunch experiences. Imagine my surprise to see some of my colleagues sitting at a large table by the front window of the restaurant as I walked up.

I wasn't the only one. A couple of others asked the waiter about the "Chef's Table" and he said, "oh, that's just what we call this."

As I posted on Twitter last night, I suspected that they had switched tables on us for some reason (perhaps group size), but when I spoke with my wife about it, she said that she knew about LB Steak's "Chef's Table". So I looked it up this morning. Here's the link to LB Steak's private dining page. Further, on the PDF of their private dining menu (page 3), you'll find a description and picture of their "Chef's Table".

Of course, as I mentioned on Twitter last night, I don't think that the common perception of "Chef's Table" is "Big Table in the dining room by the front window and door". So I went looking for a definition of "Chef's Table". Here's what's on the Wikipedia page for restaurant:
A chef's table is a table located in the kitchen of a restaurant, reserved for VIPs and special guests. Patrons may be served a themed tasting menu prepared and served by the head chef. Restaurants can require a minimum party and charge a higher flat fee. Because of the demand on the kitchen's facilities, chef's tables are generally only available during off-peak times.
 Note: the emphasis added is mine. 

Clearly, LB Steak intends to set an expectation with the "Chef's Table" designation. It's an obvious attempt at priming (psychology) the customer's perception with a perception of exclusivity. For me, that core misrepresentation ate at me more throughout the evening than I ate at the food.

Being Sold on the Prime Rib Eye
In another round of adventures in labels versus products, the waiter sold a significant portion of the table on the 12oz Prime Rib Eye. He made some explanation about it, but mostly emphasized about how tender it was. Perhaps you are wondering what a Prime Rib Eye is?
  • Expectation-wise, you might think it was Prime Rib...
  • Or maybe you might expect that it's a big thick Rib Eye steak. 
As it turns out, it's a steak that's about the typical thickness of a slice of prime rib (about 3/4"), grilled like a rib eye. It's hard to represent the difference between the plates of steak that were presented to the table and what you probably were expecting if your mind was aligned with either of those bullets I've listed above. Visually, the product looked like something an inexpensive market steak you'd expect to get your average local grocery store. Or perhaps something you might get at one of those low-end chain steak restaurants.

The LB Steak menu lists this "35 Day Dry Aged Prime 12 oz Boneless Ribeye" at $52. I suspect that if I went to Costco right now, I could get a three-pack of prime Ribeye steaks for about the same price, any one of which would have delivered a product closer to what I would expect a business that features "steak" in it's name to be able to produce.

Puffery
So the question that you might ask is, are these misrepresentations by the business puffery? Merriam Webster has the definition of puffery as, "exaggerated commendation especially for promotional purposes : hype". Wikipedia goes further.
In everyday language, puffery refers to exaggerated or false praise. In law, puffery is a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no "reasonable person" would take literally. Puffery serves to "puff up" an exaggerated image of what is being described and is especially featured in testimonials.
There's also this great link from the puffery page to restaurant menu writing style. In short, it's not unusual to attempt to inflate the description of dishes or make them sound more exotic. In one sense, you could say that that is what LB Steak is doing.

At the same time, while a "tenderloin of pork avec compĂ´te de Pommes" may be "a pork chop with a dollop of applesauce," most people would probably be unhappy to be served some thin slices of lunch-meat-cut ham with some applesauce under the guise of a "tenderloin of pork".

This is the problem with their "Chef's Table" nomenclature. They could name it anything -- the Silicon Valley table, the Grand Table, anything -- without creating the false expectation of a "Chef's Table". Rather than elevating the dining experience, I think it undercuts the restaurant's credibility with the customer. I think that this is a clear-cut case of marketing quackery.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Apple Releases Bug Fix Overnight

So it looks like Apple jumped through a few hoops last night to patch and release a fix for the Root Access bug that came out yesterday. If nothing else, it's proof that if they prioritize and issue and apply resources, they can still be agile company. Or at least, an agile support organization.

Given that, it's kind of funny that the iOS calculator bug is still there.

I Am Root - Apple Introduces Amazing New Bug with High Sierra Mac OS

When I came across news of this new, critical bug that was discovered in the new High Sierra version of Mac OS, I'd like to say that I was surprised. I might have been in the past. These days, not so much. Truth be told, I'd be surprised if we don't see several more critical bugs discovered in High Sierra.

This is exactly why I've been hesitant to upgrade. Perhaps you're like me. High Sierra is one of those "upgrades" that, I don't think I've seen any really useful "features" that they've added (other than this new "universal access feature"). Apple is engaged in a full-on path of Devolution.

So what next Apple? A glass-bottom Macbook Pro so can wirelessly charge the new extra-rapid-draining batteries fueling a new "Super-sized" Touchbar? Imagine the joys of "the thinnest Macbook Pro ever" that requires you use a thick rubber case lest you crack the bottom and wind up with glass fragments in your laptop. Sounds like exactly what every "Pro" user needs.

In the short term, a great fix would be to stop triggering the pop-ups telling me that I should upgrade to High Sierra. Thanks.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Why Apple Products are a Dark Cloud Over the Tech Industry

You would never know it from the stock price, but Apple, the company who's products we once loved, is falling apart. Design, once a cornerstone of every Apple product, is eroding under the weight of copy-cat features and an arbitrary bend through the iPhone looking glass. And quality?

Consider iOS 11. As of this post, we're on iOS 11.1.2, the seventh release of the 11th version of their iPhone software. Take a look at this MacRumors iOS 11 round-up. This update to Apple's iOS, while described as a "major design change", doesn't bundle huge new feature sets. In fact, the second paragraph of the round-up talks about "subtle design changes to interface elements throughout the operating system". And yet, iOS 11 introduced a broad range of bugs into the OS. Seven releases and they still haven't fixed their calculator animation bug.

Now, some companies might offer the excuse that they don't have enough resources build a perfect product. And yet, Apple, with multiple campuses throughout Silicon Valley, hardly seems to be the resource strapped company that it once was. What's more, Apple is sitting on over $261 Billion in cash, so it's not like they can't afford to hire a few good software developers, if that was what was needed to fix iOS.

Contrast iOS with Salesforce.com. In the past, I've often complained about issues with Salesforce.com, but Salesforce releases an update to it's platform three times a year without breaking it's core feature sets or functionality. In iOS 11, I've had issues where the Mail client indicates that I have unread emails from one of my VIPs, even though none of my recent VIPs have even emailed me. I would call that a bug in the core functionality of the device. And this is simply one more issue -- I wish that I had a way to characterize some of the issues that I've had with the touch screen since iOS 11. These days, my iPhone just does stupid stuff -- like randomly playing audio when I put my Airpods away after a phone call.

The Broader Problem with Apple
At it's core, I think that Apple is struggling with a vision problem. While Apple has long been considered a visionary company, I think the current iteration of the company has lost it's way. Consider the new iPhone X and it's facial recognition capabilities. Have they really done anything beyond adding Microsoft Kinect to a phone? Or the Touchbar that was added to the Macbook Pro line -- do you see that anywhere else in their Mac platform? Essentially, the seem to be grabbing at feature straws, wildly swiping through the air trying to capture another brass ring that might equate to iPhone or iMac gold.

But these are not the moves of a mad genius. Instead, they feel more like the flailing efforts of a committee that seems to reach for a consensus view of what they imagine somebody in a black turtleneck might dream of.

Say what you will about skeuomorphic design, I think that when Apple leaned more skeuomorphic, there was a clearer framework to shape the thinking of the people inside the company.

And while today's Apple may consider designers and "pro-users" to be just "some small segment" of their much broader cash cow, I think that they truly underestimate why Apple products became so beloved within that segment -- and it wasn't simply because Apple offered different color options or a rose gold (pink) version. Fundamentally, the core aspect that made Apple product so much better was good design.

These days, Apple just bolts on products and features to build some arbitrary unity around an ecosystem of unnecessary accessories. If Apple were the Marvel Universe, it would be like having Howard the Duck show up in all of their content because, hey, Howard the Duck. And so, we have the Amazon Echo copy, Apple Homepod, so that you can say "Hey Siri" at home. And you also have Siri making a random, Howard the Duck appearance on the Mac. Hey Siri, can you turn my wifi off for real this time?

I'm sure that over in the halls of whichever Apple campus, that they still have product management meetings. They still make product roadmaps. They track their bugs and they schedule their releases. I'm sure that, when it comes to the formal dance of a product, they go through the steps. And yet, iOS 11.

So what does it mean for other companies more broadly, when a company can have more money than most of us can imagine, all of the resources that they could possibly need, and yet to still struggle so fundamentally in something like this "update" to their iPhone OS? What does it mean when innovation for "the most successful technology company" simply means thinner, or slapping a "Touchbar" on it?

So this is what happens with tech companies grow up.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Salesforce.com's Dreamforce '17 Wrap-up

This is just a quick post to share some of my observations and experiences from this year's Dreamforce with you.

Salesforce Tower at night

Weather
In all, the weather worked out well for this year's Dreamforce. The last time when Dreamforce took place at this time of year, it rained all week, so rain only on Wednesday night was an improvement from that -- though one not made by anyone.

New Announcements
Whether it was the timing of the event, or just that Salesforce has changed the way that they deal with Dreamforce, there wasn't a host of new features announced during the event. From a features standpoint, I think everything that they talked about is already available in the current Winter'18 release. They did talk about a new partnership/closer integration with Google, but they did something similar 10 years ago, so I'm a bit skeptical about what the real impact of this agreement will be.

Crowds
The biggest challenge with Dreamforce -- and has been the last several years -- is the overwhelmingly large crowds. Lines, lines, everywhere lines. On Monday, I attempted to go to a roadmap session, only to find a line of 15 people waiting outside a full ballroom at the Marriott. As is usual for Dreamforce, for whatever reason, the lines and crowds for the breakout sessions are much longer on the first day of the conference, then they lighten up after that. Not that it wasn't still crowded later in the week. On Wednesday, I tried going to a Google advertising session in the Palace hotel, and the line to get in ran more than the length of the hall on the main floor. I left for a bit, convinced that the session would be too full, then came back after the session began to discover that I was able to get in. It was crowded, but still a fair amount of seats in the room.

Einstein AI
This is the second year that Salesforce has been promoting their Einstein AI functionality. Einstein is more visible in Winter'18, but if you're using Salesforce Classic like we are, that functionality isn't available. This year, they've rebranded the Wave Analytics package as Einstien Analytics. They were also showing off some ability to configure Einstein's analysis parameters and build some advanced Einstein capability. For this reason, I sat through several data science and Einstein sessions, only to get to the part in one where they told you, "you need to contact your Account Exec" to enable this feature. In other words, "there is a cost to enable this, contact your AE to find out how much". Considering that Einstein is a carrot to enable the Lightning interface, I found it kind of funny to dangle the carrot, then take it away.

Put another way -- like Salesforce.com Portal -> Community or Wave Analytics -> Einstein Analytics, I'd have to say, "those are some nice features, but I don't think that management would agree to a doubling of our Salesforce costs just for that."

Creative Visualization, Design Thinking, and Drawing to Win
Perhaps the best sessions that I've sat through in a long time and probably the biggest surprises for me were sessions that I went to on Creative Visualization and visual story-telling,  Design Thinking and Drawing. Essentially, these sessions revolved around using visual imagery to present ideas and conceptual frameworks. They were an altogether unexpected bright light for me in an otherwise uninspiring Dreamforce week. With exercises like "draw the toast", these sessions were really engaging. What I found even more surprising was that many of these people came from a team at Salesforce that does exactly what they were presenting -- meets with customers and uses these visualization and drawing techniques to explain, define, and then craft solution plans for customers.

What's more, during the keynote interview with the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, she mentioned that IBM has added a significant number of design teams (I don't remember the exact number). But, as you can see from this design thinking page on their site, design thinking is thematically important to IBM too. In that way, it feels like this is probably representative of a broader trend in business -- or at least in the software industry.

Dreamfest
Of course, what would Dreamforce be without the band / concert experience. As I mentioned in my post about last year's event at the Cow Palace, I couldn't imagine a band that would make me want to go to another Dreamfest event. This year, the band was Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys, and the event was held at AT&T park again. Last time they had the event there, the band was Greenday, it poured rain, and most people hung out in the stands trying to avoid the rain. This year, since the event was within walking distance again, I walked to the event just to check it out. Overall, the park experience was similar to the previous time at the venue -- ball-park food, VIPs directed to luxury box level, crazy crowds.

As I've noted previously, possibly the funniest thing about all of this is how surprisingly rudely selfish the Dreamfest concert crowd is. For example, there were huge lines backed up into the alcoves trying to follow designated paths down to the field. At the back end of this, the line became a mass, choking the walkway around the food stands. And yet, there was no give in the mob of people there, no flex to allow people to pass through the walkway. I've been to many other general admission events where the audience was far more polite to one another. It's something in the demographic of this audience. And, at the same time, you have to know that most of these people have been to concerts and events before, but they act like a ravenous mob being thrown a small, insufficient allocation of food -- a couple of steps away from a riot or a stampede.

Needless to say, between the food not being great, the crowd, and the music not really appealing to me, I left after three songs from the Lenny Kravitz set. Perhaps the best part of the night was walking back to the hotel, knowing that I didn't need to stand and wait with that crowd for a shuttle bus to arrive some time later than most would expect.

Keynotes
On the first day, I was on my way from one breakout session to another when I noticed a large line of people on Mission. They were queued from the corner on 3rd back nearly to the Metreon. Isoon realized that this was the line for the opening keynote that was still over an hour away. For the Michelle Obama keynote, I was in Moscone West and the event staff was already redirecting people from the two overflow keynote viewing areas there to the Marriott. It was probably ten minutes after that when I heard them saying the Marriott was full. Needless to say, I found the best way to watch most of the keynote presentations was from my laptop in my hotel room. While I occasionally had drop outs (thanks Hilton wifi), not having to deal with the crowds was a huge advantage. At the same time, it was a little disappointing to know that, when they had a give-away based on a "golden ticket" at the end of the Sales Cloud keynote, I was fairly confident that my hotel desk chair didn't have anything taped underneath it.

For all of the crowds, it's also worth noting that there was a stepped up security presence at this year's conference. You could see security staff at any event you went to, any gathering of people. In all, while it was an ugly reminder of recent events in the world, it was some comfort seeing all of the efforts that were done to ensure everyone's security. In all, it was present, but unobtrusive.

The Expo
In some ways, you had to feel bad for the companies exhibiting at the Dreamforce Expo. This year, the Expo was in the reopened South hall. However, the current layout (and, from my understanding of Semicon West in July, this will also be true through that time) has the only entrance to the show floor down near the 3rd Street side of the hall -- essentially, the 100 - 400 aisles in an event. It made going into the South hall kind of like venturing into a cave, with the far, 4th Street side feeling rather disconnected from the entrance. To make things more accessible, Salesforce opened one of the emergency exits near the 4th Street end out to the Howard Street "Dream Valley" and decorated it with a bit of artwork suggesting you were exploring a cave.

Additionally, most of the sponsors were relegated to using a standard inline 10x10 system, so you had rows and rows of partners, all struggling to differentiate themselves or display some sort of unique identity. Mostly, as somebody walking through, it was like walking through endless white wall partitions. As a result, I found myself spending little time there.

Conclusion
In summary, it was another event and another year. Most of the time, I found little joy in being there. Would I recommend it? Hard to say. There are certainly some interesting take-aways, but at the same time, I'm not sure how well it stacks up against the raw costs in terms of ROI (when you consider the astronomical cost of hotels -- ~$395/night -- and the full $1500 conference cost). When you add in the oversubscribed crowds, you'll probably find that you're asking yourself why you subjected yourself to this -- an even more common thought than, is this worth it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

More on Facebook Manipulating the 2016 Election

As I wrote about back in 2014 in this post, Facebook Can (and has) Manipulated You With Their Feed Algorithm, we already know that Facebook can manipulate it's audience just by tweaking their algorithm regarding what's displayed. In much of the discussion regarding Russian advertising during the election and the various fake accounts that were being run by these Russian interests, I haven't seen this referenced once in the media.

And yet, after I wrote this post on online advertising the other day (and after I had a chance to see some of the ads and other Russian programs released by Congress), a broader realization occurred to me.

While the 2014 research by Facebook involved Facebook tweaking their algorithm, what if, instead of tweaking the algorithm, you simply changed the nature of many of the resources that the algorithm drew from? In other words, if the core algorithm behaved neutrally, but the assets that it presented were broadly colored, it would probably have the same effect as changing the algorithm.

Again, back to the point that I wrote in the previous post -- it doesn't really matter whether people clicked on Russian ads or not. Their presence there worked to change the color of their target audience's feed on a much broader scale.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Underestimating the Impact of Facebook and Political Ads

I happened to catch this story on Talking Points Memo, Rosenstein: Americans Not ‘Influenced By Ads Posted By Foreign Governments’. In the post, here's the key quote from Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.
“American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for,” he said in a podcast interview on the Target USA network. “I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”
Previously, I've also seen a similar quote from House Speaker Paul Ryan. The general theme is sort of a play to the vanity of an audience as a way to psychologically put a thumb on the scale of perception. Phrased a different way, it's sort of like, "come on, millions of people see infomercials every day, but people like you and I are smart enough not to actually order those products."

Of course, the obvious extension of that is that, some people do order these products. In the same way, it's easy to assume that no one would click on an attachment in a strange email or no one would fall for a Nigerian prince scam. But they do. In pure advertising terms, you can call these conversions. And while it's easy to say that well over a majority of people viewing ads, impressions, wouldn't convert, that's normal. With Adwords, Google considers 5% a good conversion rate. That means that 95% of the people who searched a specific term will see ads on that term without clicking on them. That's a successful ad.

The Impact May Have Been Much Greater Than A Conversion Rate Implies
The impact of these Facebook ads may have been far greater than the specific dollar amount sited or that any conversion rate implies. There are a couple of reasons behind this.

First, one aspect that hasn't really highlighted in the media coverage of these ads is the nature of the campaigns being run. For example, if the ads were running on a cost-per-click (CPC) model, then it's possible that the optimal cost result (for the people placing the ads) would have been few clicks, but many impressions. Essentially, this is like a brand identity campaign -- you don't necessarily need clicks, just the impressions can build mind share.

Another element might have used re-marketing campaign techniques to only show ads to people who had visited other specific content in the past. Using this technique, you could help identify and heavily target the ones who were most likely to buy into your message.

But perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is related to this story from back in 2014, Facebook Can (and has) Manipulated You With Their Feed Algorithm. In summary, what Facebook posted a paper detailing how they modified the algorithm that delivers the feed to users, and for one set, they delivered more negative, less positive emotionally colored results, and for the other set, they delivered more positive, less negative emotionally colored results. As you might imagine, both groups essentially began echoing and amplifying the tone of their feed -- the negative group producing more negative content while the positive group produced more positive emotions.

As I wrote back in 2014,
For me, I see a much bigger danger implied by the Facebook study reference here. If you think of the ability to influence in this way, then the Facebook "scientific" paper is potentially a press release announcing their offering of an entirely new type of advertising. Imagine if you wanted to broadly shift public option. With the right amount of money and access to the right platform, you could pay for shifting the filter of the algorithm.  
What if you didn't need to broadly shift public opinion, you just needed a marginal push? What's more, you probably don't need to change the whole algorithm -- the algorithm already responds to a certain level of political polarization. Instead, perhaps all you need to do is color in some of the spaces...

In summary, I'd say, don't buy into the notion that these ads had no impact, that there's no there there.