Sunday, April 29, 2012

Will You Survive The Extinction of the Creative Class?

So here's some rather lengthy Sunday reading for you. It starts with this collection of articles posted on Salon last week, kicked off by this post, No Sympathy for the Creative Class - Art in Crisis, by Scott Timberg. It's a great exploration of how the 'Creative Class' struggles these days, fueled by the economic downturn, American anti-intellectualism, and to some extent, technology and the Internet. It's a long read, but well worth your effort.

While I think that the piece leans a little heavily on the struggles within the traditional arts, he also touches on the creative class in business -- graphic design, writers, and architects. One aspect that I think that he kind of glances over is that, within this sector and the idea of commercial creative, you once had a much larger 'working class' creative. These aren't necessarily people dancing, painting and sculpting, they are people in the corporate world participating in the same kinds of 9-to-5 tasks as... fill-in-the-blank because if you follow that logic, then you've also already hopped on board part of the anti-elitist rhetoric that the piece references.

Anyway, totally worth a read and probably something that I'll write more about going forward.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Steve Jobs as a Template? Who does that?

A while back, I came across this, Bio as Bible: Managers Imitate Steve Jobs from the Wall Street Journal. You don't have to go very far into the piece to get the idea -- it's an anecdotal tale of managers across the country who read the Steve Jobs bio and, subsequently, began to approach the ideas as dogma. The article leaves you with the impression that you're watching an episode of The Office and the boss has suddenly decided to start wearing black turtle necks.

Caveat emptor, I haven't read the Jobs biography, so I can't say whether I'll go finish the book and go straight to shopping for my own turtle necks wardrobe, but I don't expect that to be the result. I could be wrong. But my real focus here is on underlying essence of this imitation, on understanding good design, what makes art good, and why.

Let's take wine tasting as an example. Most of us are familiar with the vocabulary and ceremony associated with wine tasting. And while the vocabulary may seem artificial and pretentious to some, within the wine tasting culture it has meaning and purpose. Now, if you were to segment the wine community, you might start with some big chunks:
  • Let's start with people who don't drink much wine or who aren't familiar with many varieties. For them, Two-buck Chuck is good enough -- they probably wouldn't be sensitive to subtleties and they certainly wouldn't pay a lot for them. They probably don't use wine tasting descriptions and the probably don't worry much about "rating systems". 
  • I would probably put myself into a second group. I've tasted a lot of wine and used that as a basis for my preferences. I'm willing to spend some money on more expensive wines on occasion, but tend to make selections and second purchases based on how a wine matches my preferences. I don't use wine tasting vocabulary and I don't pay attention to ratings.
  • At the upper end of the spectrum and people who spend a lot of money on wine and taste a lot of varieties. These people use the wine tasting vocabulary and they pay attention to rating systems. They make selections based on their tastes and preferences, but also understand how that vocabulary correlates to their preferences. They are probably collectors.
  • Finally, you have the last set that I really want to talk about -- those people who use wine tasting vocabulary, who buy based on rating systems, price criteria, varietal and other characteristics, but who don't really understand or correlate those factors to an actual taste preference. These are the pretentious people who buy the most expensive wines or ones with the highest rating -- or maybe they only buy Pinot Noir because they watched Sideways. These are the people who would probably blindly drink Two-buck Chuck and describe it with flowery wine tasting vocabulary. 
It's this last group that we both love and hate. As marketers, we love them because they are so easily influenced by our efforts. As sales guys we love them, because in many ways that have sucker buyer stamped on their forehead. These are the people who deliver high margins because at the root of it, they don't have meaningful expectations.

Why don't they have meaningful expectations? Because they don't understand quality. Because the only qualities that they value are not related to form and function. They don't look at the world in that way.

Remember when, in the early days of the iPhone, RIM introduced it's own touchscreen phone? Part of the reason why these things come to market is because somebody somewhere said, "Hey, it does the same thing that ours does but it has a music player app store touch screen. We need a touch screen." It's not like the only difference was the touch screen, but how do you explain an entire, integrated landscape in a meeting?

Why is it that most copies are poor versions of the original? Well, going back to the Steve Jobs imitators, imagine if you could follow a Steve Jobs pattern, step for step, note for note. The best you could hope to achieve would still be an echo of the original. What you would miss are those moments of originality, of creative birth that produced many of the things that we look back on historically as unique. Why? Because your path to following the Steve Jobs recipe would be driven by "what would Steve do" instead of "what do I think is right". Hal Holbrook does a great Mark Twain, but he's not Samuel Clemens.

Imitation can be a great tool for learning. By repeating the steps in a recipe, you develop an understanding of the mechanics of cooking a dish. But until you understand the how and why of the recipe, you don't really own it. You don't make new, you just make. In the end, what did you learn from the recipe -- about the ingredients, about the process, about why the pieces fit together? This underlying learning process is the heart of what makes you good at something.

In business there is this idea that it's all simply recipe and process. If you can just make a smart phone with a touch screen, an app store and the apps that people like, you'll have an equivalent to the iPhone. Then, if you add a few more features that people like, maybe a memory slot, a faster processor or a removable battery, you'll have more features and you will sell more units than the iPhone. Maybe you understand the parts. Maybe you understand what the parts add up to. But if you can't see the bigger picture, the underlying connection for why those parts -- and those specific parts -- go together, you still don't understand.

To quote Frank Zappa from a 1984 issue of Guitar Player magazine:
What do you think happened in this country?
Well, two important things, and each one of them has only three letters: One was LSD, a chemical which is capable of turning a hippie into a yuppie, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to mankind. And the other is MBA. When people started taking MBA seriously, that was the beginning of the ruination of the American industrial society. When all decisions are based on an MBA's concept of numerical reality, you're in deep shit, because the only thing that can be judged as real is that which can be proved by a column of figures. And when all aesthetic decisions are turned over to these kinds of people, who use these criteria to make steering decisions for a company with no regard for people and no regard for what the product really is, and the only thing that matters is maximizing your profit, you have a problem. Because you can't have quality then; you cannot have excellence. Quality's expensive. I think most of these people that come from business schools have the desire to make sure everything is cheesy. That's what happens when you do things that way.
Of course, it's worth noting that in a lot of modern marketing, creativity and original content matter less than numerical performance. Consider web advertising. While copy and content may be a hook, the real measure (and the thing that you have to optimize on) is click-through and conversion. Not to say that there aren't more complex issues at work, simply that the issue isn't black and white. But hopefully, as people read the biography and begin to study the what and why of Steve Jobs, they find themselves drawn into the world of creativity and art. Hopefully, they find a deeper appreciation of aesthetic aspects and a greater tolerance for the differences that creative thinking brings. But mostly, let's just hope that it doesn't spawn a whole new generation of pretentious wine/design snobs who claim to know so much but who really understand so little.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

LinkedIn and Freemium: Why Overselling a Premium Trial Is Bad For Brand

It's the dirty little secret that many online subscription services want to hide -- if they can get your credit card number and commitment to a 'membership', they can leech off of your bank account, probably for longer / significantly more cost than the amount you might have been willing to spend on the service. My most recent reminder of the audacity of this scam practice, was with LinkedIn and their 'premium' membership.

I mention LinkedIn in the title of this post, not because I consider them the worst offender. I think that the worst of the worst are pretty solidly in the neighborhood of scams that cloak the subscription commitment process (see the Scamville posts). In this case, LinkedIn is up front in informing you of the subscription, but it's the what you get for the price that got them this post.

LinkedIn initially got their hooks in through a free 30-day trial. Initially, the promotional email pitched it as a different version than their normal premium package. I remember reading it and getting the impression that this was a new program that they had started that would cost less and add some unique features that I might use. Considering that I had been active on LinkedIn for over three years before they targeted me with this program, there is an implied notion that this program was different than the premium package that I had already chosen not to pay for.

And so, for 30 days, I got the opportunity to see who had looked at my profile, the chance to send 10 introductory emails through LinkedIn -- something that I hadn't used any of the default five of -- and LinkedIn's tribute to virtual goods, a badge on any resume submissions that I sent out. And, while it's pretty cool being able to see who has viewed your profile, the package is certainly not something that I would run down to Fry's and buy for $30 if it were in a box. In fact, at $30, I would never buy these features -- but I might 'forget to cancel' a trial of the service. Thirty days out, I might even have forgotten what the price was that you initially quoted. And so, hooks in my wallet, LinkedIn proceeded to suck money and destroy any brand equity that they had built with me.

LinkedIn Premium ran in the background for over a year. I didn't really think about the cost until the other day when I happened to be looking at my bank statement and saw the LinkedIn charge. A sense of outrage came over me. They sucked $360 out of my account over the course of a year for a 'product' that I wouldn't have spent $30 on. $360 for a stream of trivia about who viewed my profile.

Ethical Business Practices Don't Operate This Way
Contrast this practice with Basecamp. Several years ago, I first signed up with Basecamp to share files and collaborate on projects. At the time, there wasn't really anything quite like it. Since then, competitive solutions for aspects of the service have come online. Sometimes, I'll go through a month or three where I don't use the service. But I still maintain a subscription.

Each month, 37Signals emails me a receipt for the charge. Each time I receive it, I ask myself whether it's worth continuing the service. It's been over five years. This is what an ethical business practice looks like. This is one reason why I have a tremendous respect for the team at 37Signals.

Subscription Pricing
Nobody ever forgets the cost of their subscription. At $60 per month or more, depending upon the edition, it's not something that you forget. Even within the corporate budget, the question repeatedly comes up, "What about Do we need to keep paying for it? Are we really using it?"

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the subscriptions that try to disappear and hide invisibly. Remember when AOL moved from being your go-to dial-up ISP to an afterthought in the broadband world. They dropped their subscription pricing to $10 per month -- keep access to your email and use dial-up if you need it was the pitch. Eventually, they dropped the cost of maintaining an email account to free, but they made you jump through hoops to get them to stop charging. Think about all of those people who sat there -- and for how long -- with AOL leeching $10 or more a month.

Now look at some of LinkedIn's premium pricing options. At $30 per month (or $20 per month for the API connection), it's high, but not necessarily reaching the level of a something that you question the cost every month -- particularly if you're not being reminded of it. It's the cost of buying lunch for your colleagues. And yet, it's also almost a "how much can we get away with" price. And when you consider what you get, I don't think it's something that every user would benefit from -- more likely applicable to a select set. So, basically, you're dumping these crap features on me, leeching from my bank account, and testing the threshold of what I might tolerate? Congrats. You crossed that line.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Golf and Positive Perception

I heard this story on NPR the other day talking about a study where they looked at golfers and found that golfers who were playing better perceived the hole to be larger, and those that did were not playing as well saw the hole as smaller. By creating an optical illusion and altering their perception of the hole, the researchers were able to change a golfer's putting.

It's good food for thought, not only about golf, but for marketing as well. Here's a link to the story.

Can You Think Your Way To That Hole-In-One? by Joe Palca.

Dear Web-to-Lead/Case Spam Sucks

Recently I contacted customer support about problems with Spam getting loaded into my Salesforce instance through web-to-lead forms. While I've enjoyed discussing this problem with your customer service team, please take note of a couple of important points that you may want to add to your solutions when discussing this issue.

Captcha? Really?
Please remove the word 'captcha' from your customer service rep's vocabulary. While I'm sure that there are some web novices out there that are managing sites, most of us with this issue understand the dynamics of web forms and are fully aware of captcha. Many of us also know that captchas can be beaten, and that the people who we are likely to filter out are not spammers -- they are potential customers who don't want to be bothered with additional validation layers.

And for those Salesforce customer service reps who want to help me manage my demand generation programs, I just want to say thank you for your insightful recommendations.

You Are Not Alone
I am not the only customer with a form-based Spam issue. Here's an idea that's been posted on success.salesforce site over a year ago. Any thoughts on when we might be addressing this issue? I realize that hiding the OID will not stop bots from automated submissions that use the actual form, but it's a start. And for those of us that have been customers for a long time (i.e. prior to when this was a problem), even masking the OID doesn't fix the issue. Remember how, when stuff is published on the web it never truly goes away? Making this the key to a gateway that enable the unwanted stuffing of data into your account IS a problem.

Frankly, if I were you, I would consider this unrelenting spam problem to be an assault on your, not just me. When Google started doing email, they used their resources and the power of the cloud to help reduce spam that users experienced. Then, for fun, they bought Postini. Is this really just 'my problem' or is it 'our problem'. 

When You Recommend Solutions That Cost More, I'm Probably Not Going to Be Happy
I know you like your partners. Marketo, Eloqua, Pardot -- they all offer good solutions for aspects of lead filtering and validation. But seriously, do I really need to pay these guys just so that my sales guys to don't have to click on Viagra spam? If the spammer community has essentially broken a feature of your platform, should I be the one who has to pay for the patch?

Sincerely Yours,
Yet Another 'One-captcha-recommendation-away-from--really-angry' Customer

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Creativity and Design Stuff on My Mind

Recently, I've run into a number of blog posts and other items that have had me thinking a lot about creativity. Rather than apply too much structure to them, I'm just going to send them out your way for you to use as you see fit.

Here's a link to a post I came across on PandoDaily the other day. The Illusion of Imagination (And How It Drives Silicon Valley) by Francisco Dao is a great example of how one nugget, one kernel of thought, can change your perspective on things. Here's a sample:
Instead of actually considering odds, we tend to calculate probability based on the ease with which we can imagine something. And whether or not we can imagine something is often determined by specific details that create subsets, thereby lowering the actual probability of it occurring. I know that’s a bit confusing so let me give you an example.

When people were asked how likely they were to die in a plane crash caused by a terrorist attack, compared to people who were asked how likely they were to die in an unspecified plane crash, significantly more people believed the odds were higher in the terrorist attack scenario. This, despite the fact that an airplane crash caused by terrorism is a small subset of all total crashes.
This is truly an interesting read and totally in line with some of the other creativity things I've been seeing recently.

Here are a couple of posts by Hamish McKenzie for PandoDaily. These are interview segments from his conversation with Jonah Lehrer on his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. There’s No Such Thing as Individual Genius in Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs Was Right to ‘Steal,’ and Beer is Inspiring give you a nice window into the ideas in the book.

Here's another one that we came across recently. How to hire a product manager by Ken Norton is an interesting look into one guy's idea of what makes a good product manager. There are some amusing elements here (like big company specialization versus start-up flexibility), but there are also a few points that he makes that seem internally contradictory. This piece is yet another reminder of the philosophical battle between "need to be technical and have an engineering background" versus "need to have a broader, more creative background with an ability to comprehend complex technology".  For me, I find the default to an engineering background to be a mindset that is hamstrung by conventional wisdom that forms an funny contrast to the idolization of Steve Jobs -- not that Norton covers that here, but it's another topic that I've seen a lot about since Jobs' biography was published.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Would You Give Your Facebook Login for a Job?

One story making the rounds recently was about employers asking prospective job candidates for information needed to access their Facebook profile. Of course, employers crawling Facebook isn't new, but the idea that an employer would ask a potential hire for login credentials seems a bit over the top. But in many ways, this kind of scrutiny is not new.

While today's Facebook generation may not remember it, once upon a time there was an era when employers might ask a job candidate to take a polygraph as a condition of being hired. Thankfully, there was enough of an outrage over that practice that it was made illegal.

Similarly, some companies ask applicants to take drug tests. However, historically drug testing has been easier to pass through the legislature and the courts. After all, even if you have a reasonable argument to counter "you don't want your fill-in-the-blank to be on drugs," opposing drug testing is like endorsing an ad campaign against yourself in the next election.

At the heart of this debate, there's this stew of issues cooking with issues of personal behavior and privacy being positioned against an employer's freedom to set screening criteria for hiring, "safety", and a host of other "interests". If I sound less than balanced when characterizing the interests of employers in this issue, it's because I'm skeptical of most arguments in favor of this type of employer behavior.

Earlier this week on NPR's Talk of the Nation, they had a segment about teachers, their behavior outside of work and social media. In the segment, one caller referenced a teacher in Georgia who was fired for posting a picture on Facebook -- a picture of herself, on vacation in Europe with a glass of wine in her hand. A contingent in the local community raised enough of a fuss that the local school board ran her out. While one of the guests on the show argued that "teachers are the symbolic and moral leaders of our children and they need to be conscientious of local morality," constitutional law scholar Jonathan Turley, who authored this piece for the LA Times, notes that the problem goes beyond your own participation and could cause you problems if someone at a party posts a picture of you.

Employers claim that this kind of scrutiny is an acceptable part of their screening process and that they have a right to set the criteria for the people that they employ. Somewhere, within the process of deciding to adopt these practices, they have espoused an idea that this will bring them better employees; more honest, more reliable, more moral, safer, perhaps even more harmonious. They take the position that since you have a choice of working there or somewhere else, that these processes and requirements are not an unreasonable cost of screening.

Employment law has all sorts of rules designed to prevent some level of discrimination and unfair treatment. In practice however, this doesn't prevent businesses from hiring the pretty one, the tall one, the guy from my church, or that nut with the funny beard and his own iOS app that I met at the coffee shop last night. And when you consider all of the 'importance of establishing a corporate culture' discussions that float around, who's to say that these examples aren't important indicators of a good fit? And yet, what about the ones that were skipped over -- the ugly one, the one that was too old, or even that guy that voted for Obama.

Years ago living in the Bible-belt South, I worked for a music store that essentially had a religious test for hiring. The business was owned by born-again religious types that became more devout as the business climate grew worse. Perhaps the only reason that I was hired there was because my friend who already worked there gave me a heads-up on how to answer some of the interview questions. Sometime after I left, they began holding all-employee prayer meetings. Realistically, you probably couldn't find a more clear-cut case of behavior that employers should not do and laws on the books designed to prevent; and yet, within the local community, I doubt that anyone would give it a second thought.

Laws to Prevent Employers from Asking for Facebook Login Credentials
Lately, when Apple, Google or Facebook find themselves in the news, somebody wants to codify some aspect of their behavior with a law. Here's an example of what's started happening around login credentials, Maryland passes law prohibiting employers from asking for social network passwords. To me, the amazing aspect of the case that helped fuel this law is that the guy already worked at the place, but in order to get re-certified, his employer wanted his login credentials.

While we can always hope that laws like this will work like the polygraph laws and prevent employers from requiring prospective employees from taking a polygraph, I doubt that it will have the same success. Instead, I suspect that the end result will be more akin to my experience at the music store. After all, a polygraph test requires an overt process that should be easier to prove if the employer was called out. Probably the most damning thing about the polygraph wasn't the idea of testing prospective employees, but rather the accuracy of the test.

Fundamentally, the problem is much broader and the battleground has been fought over for much longer. On the one hand, you have challenges going back to the early civil rights movement trying to force disclosure of Arkansas teachers that were members of the NAACP. On the other hand, you have modern Libertarian politicians who want to kill the fourteenth amendment because it prevents businesses from selling to a customer who is black, Jewish, or comes from India.

It's one thing to "want to pick your team", but what if the criteria you're using isn't connected to job performance. Were the people who worked at the music store better employees because they espoused a religious view? Were they more honest? Did they sell more instruments? I once worked with a start-up where the CTO was a cross-dresser. Would he have made it through some Facebook-based screening process? As the guy driving that company's technology, did it really matter what he did in his personal life? Or for those drug screening advocates, what about Steve Jobs whose recent biography included reference to his noteworthy experience of taking LSD? Assuming that you had the opportunity, would you hire Steve Jobs?

Would You Undergo a Strip Search to work for Google?
Often, when we hear stories about amazing work environments, Google comes up as a great example, so much so that they receive thousands of resumes per day. But what if their employment screening process went beyond five rounds of IQ tests and the need for a Masters degree or a PhD from a top tier school? What if they strip searched prospective employees? What if they required employees to be searched when the arrived and when they left like in the diamond mines in Africa, searching for nuggets of data? How many Google employees would be headed for Facebook?

The simple truth is that most of these aggressive screening techniques are implemented and applied to the desperate -- the people with limited alternatives. If your work environment sucks, you can always work somewhere else -- unless you can't because there are no other jobs, no other opportunities, no other environments. In that same way, these screening methods are not used to identify noteworthy attributes; rather, they are used for subjugation and control.

Forget about the cost to a collaborative, happy work culture, what this type of monitoring and scrutiny also do is diminish the creative diversity of an organization. Take the teacher from the earlier example; by 'cracking down' on her 'immoral' behavior, you also spread a chill across the rest of the community of teachers and prospective teachers. Now teachers with different points of view are afraid to speak out, to be 'caught' behaving in ways that might not meet 'community standards'. One voice equals no new ideas. If your business values innovation, you have squashed it.

Years ago, back in the days of the polygraph test, I had an opportunity to get a job at a record store that required the test. At the time, I had come to a constitutional and ethical decision not to work at any business that required a polygraph. I sometimes wonder how things might have been different if I had taken that job. Eventually, another job came along. It probably wasn't as cool as the job at the record store, but I'm happier for it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Advertising: In-game Product Placement

Here's an interesting piece I came across yesterday talking with EA about in-game product placement advertising.

Four Types of Advertising Are Emerging in Social Games, EA Says, by Tricia Duryee at All Things D.

What I think is particularly noteworthy is not the in-game aspect, but the "how you structure the ad" aspect. It's definitely an interesting read and worth reflecting on.