Friday, June 29, 2012

Facebook Engagement = Logging in to Update My Settings

It strikes me as funny that the biggest driver for my engagement with the Facebook platform has become a semi-annual log-in to update some aspect of my Facebook account settings. This week, it's updating my email because Facebook decided that I would probably prefer a "Facebook email address". In the past it's been to make sure that the data that I thought was private was private -- I know, that's actually more than once.

What always surprises me is the way that Facebook seems to want to ignore this idea of opt-in to change. Instead, it's always we make a change that's good for us, then you can go turn it off if you can find the setting and think you want to undo the change. They might want to blame it on the nature of the cloud or modern software, but I think that the reason that so many people are troubled by the company's behavior when it comes to this issue goes back to the freedom to choose to opt it.

When you download an updated version of software, you choose to opt in. When updates the way that their platform works, most of the time you have the option to enable the feature or not -- particularly when it may affect your data and your relationship with your customers. If there were a software bill of rights, your right to choose whether to opt in would probably rank high in that list.

With Facebook, configuration and privacy settings are kind of like one of those mental dream puzzles in Inception, an ever shifting landscape. Considering that distrust of the Facebook platform is so strong, it leads you think that trust is not an overriding goal in their brand strategy.

Unless, like Inception, there is a bigger, hidden factor behind the ever-shifting landscape of distrust -- yet another engagement algorithm mining your behavior data?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taxes, Libraries, and Politics: Social Media Marketing and Influence

I came across this story over at Crooks and Liars this morning. While it's an interesting story about the politics of taxes and spending at the local community level, it's also an amazing story of an advertising agency and a multidimensional social-media marketing effort. The video tells the story.

What the video and check out the tactics in this election campaign gone viral. Facebook pages, signs, other seed tactics all crafted with an astroturf-like execution. It's an interesting look at depth of tactics used.

It's also interesting to reflect upon is the politics of the whole thing. On the one hand, it speaks to the potential of the power of money influence message and, as such, a vote. I'm sure that some of the 'anti-tax' people on the right were probably unhappy with the both the tactics and the result -- and might complain about the 'astroturf' style of the campaign. But this is also different than an astroturf campaign. This one has a reveal at the end. You're never going to get that from an astroturf campaign.

Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is election results. Consider, after everything going on in the campaign, the end results weren't even close -- the community voted overwhelmingly to pay a little more to support their local library. When the conversation was no longer about how 'they' were 'trying to take our money' and instead shifted to one that was, in essence, 'what kind of community do we want to have', the question wasn't really a question at all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Design Lessons from the Comscore Download Registration Engine

So I'm over on the Comscore web site this morning, following this link to a whitepaper on Social Media Marketing. When I decided to download it, I clicked the link and up pops the registration form. As marketers, we all understand this moment, it's the moment when you have to ask yourself, "do I really believe this content is going to be worth me giving up contact information and getting spammed by these guys?"

Often, the answer is no, but a success story about social media marketing from Comscore seemed worthwhile enough, so I plugged my info in. Up pops a new page with the download link -- yeah, no email confirmation loop -- along with listings for several other whitepapers that I might also be interested in. Cool, it looks like more interesting, related content. So I clicked on one of those links. And it took me to a page with a video. Sigh, I was really looking for a whitepaper. I closed the tab.

Not ready to give up, I reread the download recommendation page. It said whitepaper, so I decided to take a second look. On my second pass through, I found a link, "whitepaper", that seemed to be what I was looking for. Clicked it. Up pops the same download registration form that I just filled out a couple of clicks ago. Sigh. No whitepaper for you. Away I go.

When you're designing these types of systems, please remember that every time you ask me for my credentials, there is an exponential increase in the likelihood that I will abandon your site. Not only am I abandoning your site, but I'm also frustrated. How frustrated? Maybe not so much as to overcome the goodwill that you created by providing me with interesting content, but frustrated nonetheless.

If you watch people that don't live and breath computers, they tend to personify the computer experience. To imagine their experience, imagine your interface like a retail clerk. If you went to Macy's and wanted to get a price check, would you be willing to give your contact info to the clerk? And how many times would you put up with a clerk that keeps forgetting that they just spoke with you?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Foursquare Update Update: What Happened to Check-in?

So as of yesterday, I updated the Foursquare app on my phone. My first issue when working with the app -- what happened to check-in?

Once upon a time, the Foursquare team seemed to understand that check-in was an important part of their app functionality. To streamline the process, they made a simple button at the bottom of the interface and tried to reduce the number of clicks required for checking in.

When I first opened the new app, preparing to check-in at the restaurant while I sat down to dinner, I couldn't figure out how to check in. I wound up clicking through several screens before I got back to the main screen. Keep in mind that, unlike the computer with the ability to hover over buttons and links and see where they go, the only way to test functionality on the phone is to click it. This is one reason why good design and simple functionality is essential.

I finally clicked the push-pin button tucked in the upper right corner, which, location and size-wise, seemed to indicate sort of a secondary function. Unsurprisingly, it pulled up a map interface (what I would expect from a map push-pin). However, it turns out that this is the new check-in interface, because from the map and "nearby locations", you select the place where you are and then a small check-in button will appear in the top right corner.

Interface changes can be difficult. We humans struggle to break habits and cope with who moved my cheese. In this case though, I think it's kind of funny -- in the search to find other meaningful, synergistic functionality (whether it's responding to the 'check-in is dead' technology pundits, to their own 'voice of the customer efforts', or whoever else), they have managed to kluge the core functionality that helped them win the 'check-in wars'.

Different Players Look for Different Styles of Games
Back on the gamification theme, this reminds me more of the transition between Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2. With Dragon Age, the Bioware team created what might be the ultimate version of their role playing, multi-party character and story engine. It was an immersive multi-dimensional game that combined great story telling, great game play, and a variety of ways to approach the game. Combat in Dragon Age was typically -- pause, issue commands, play, watch, pause, issue commands, etc.

But when they cranked out Dragon Age 2, it was like they simply reskinned Mass Effect. Instead of multiple story variations, you had one story experienced through one character and unfolding in a one dimensional path. The in-game combat engine moved from a realistic fantasy role playing experience brought to the computer to something closer to a first-person shooter game where bad guys just pop in, appearing behind and around you as if from nowhere just to tweak your fast twitch nerves.

Long and short, it went from selling to the semi-realtime (I need a pause for a snack) crowd to a game more suited for reaction-based players. And as most people that play games will tell you, those are two very different audiences. Game mechanics can mean totally different demographics.

So, is the new Foursquare better or worse? Did they just jump the shark? By the looks of it, they seem to be focused more on trying to address critics that are looking for a different game as opposed to maximizing the game that they have come to dominate.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Gamification: Check-ins and Updated Foursquare

With E3 going on, gamification seems like an good topic. Over at Pando Daily, Erin Griffith has a post on Foursquare's newly updated app and their changing relationship with the check-in.
Perhaps you remember 2011 — it was the year the check-in died. That sentiment wasn’t lost on New York’s resident Lord of the Check-ins, Foursquare.

The company witnessed slowing user growth and a backlash brewing. But rather than ignore it and continue to congratulate themselves on achieving darling status and a crazy-rich valuation, Foursquare did the right thing:

They disassembled the entire app and put it back together again.
As someone who has been using Foursquare for a couple of years, I've personally seen some interesting dynamics associated with the app -- call it anecdotal analysis of behavior patterns and use case. While you might call Foursquare a deals site or focus on the social aspects, gamification is an important part of the app and plays a key role in many of use patterns that I've seen. Here are some lessons that I've taken from Foursquare's gamification.

Badges and Mayorships
Badges and 'Mayorships' can help drive early adopters or provide a small reward for some exclusive social circles (possibly location-based), but they become somewhat irrelevant with long term use or when the number of users exceeds an early adopter threshold. Sure it might be cool to be the mayor of the local Starbucks, but with hundreds of people checking in every day, do I really care about bragging rights over the guy behind me in line? And what do I get for it? Maybe something like a free cup of coffee, but more likely nothing.

The Point System
Foursquare's point system is a great driver for competitive behavior, but their point scoring model also has issues. Foursquare's scoring system points to one of the great challenges of gamification -- the differing interests between new users and experienced users. Foursquare scores new check-in locations with higher point values that repeated check-ins. This means that if you go somewhere for the first time or you are a new user, you get more points that if you go to your usual restaurant.

This model is great for drawing in new users with a sense of competitive behavior. Over the past couple of years, I've seen several people use Foursquare with the goal of beating me on the scoreboard. And when they are new users, this gives them a bump of excitement as they outscore the veteran user. But as they become a more regular user, their scores fall off and they fall into the veteran scoring system. Depending on the user, I've also seen this result in a fall-off of engagement with the app.

In that same way, a good game needs to provide a good entry point for new users, but deliver an increasing level of challenge based on use and experience. At the same time, if there isn't a correspondingly increasing reward system, regular users will fall off. A simple way to restate that would be put in context of the structure of Diablo 2:
  • As you play the game more, you get more experience. 
  • The battles you fight are against tougher creatures, but the treasure and the items that you get are also increasingly greater.
  • Later in the game, you could go back to the areas that you went through earlier, but the battles offer little challenges, the rewards are usually too small, and there just isn't any real challenge, so most players don't go back.
The Foursquare point system doesn't really provide any substantial growth path or increasing level of return. Instead, it's almost like it was designed to serve as nicotine hook -- to get you habituated to a behavior of checking in. Unfortunately, from what I've seen, there isn't the same addiction and new users get bored with the application as their point-rewards start to drop.

Location-based Flash Deals
While this initially held some promise, I've yet to see more than one or two deals that got me to log my check-in with a business. While this could be a result of the challenge of selling local, I also think that there's a difference between the kind of people who seek out deals (and use something like Groupon) versus those that happen to be at a location, check-in, and then are surprised by some added reward for that behavior.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Advertising: Influencer or Scam

I came across this post the other day on Pando Daily, Advertising is Hated — and Failing, by Philip Bump. Here's how he opens:
People hate ads, with two exceptions: A) Sometimes one particular ad campaign will strike the public fancy, or B) Sometimes people happen to be in the ad business and, thus, are paid to like ads.
As professional marketers, we often get lumped into group b. Love it or not, some aspect of the advertising industry probably pays our salary, feeds us, and keeps us warm at night. Advertising is the superpower-creator that transformed Google into GOOG, and it's often looked to as the hopeful savior for next generation internet functionality -- we all just need a little radioactive spider or an intense dose of gamma radiation and we would also be kicking ass and taking names -- or at least, that's the theory.

Advertising is also the last lifeboat on the sinking ship of business model viability. It's the, 'we can't figure out a way to convince people to pay for this' approach. Take Twitter as an example. Millions of users around the world, it's been an instrumental communication tool in many recent global events. But they struggle with how to make money. And they have to make money because 'public good' became obsolete sometime after the creation of the first national parks. So they turn to ads.

Quoting again from the Pando post:
In general, people hate ads so much that they’ve made ad avoidance an art. A tool that facilitates skipping ads is now part of a standard cable sign-up package. There is software that removes ads from webpages. Ads are used as a punishment, such as in the case of Spotify and Pandora, which will intersperse their music offerings with ads unless you pay them not to. Their ads might as well be cobbled together like ransom notes out of various typefaces from the newspaper.
Why Ads Don't Work
Before Google Adwords, all advertising was the same. Essentially, it was a interrupt of your existing attention thread with the hope of drawing your focus into a thread for a period of time. Most modern advertising still revolves around this interrupt model. But people hate the interrupt. The interrupt is an intrusion, an invasion, and seldom a value add.

Adwords is an entirely different model. With Adwords you are engaged in a search transaction and the ads provide a supplement to the results. Theoretically, they are paid for and placed by businesses with some expertise in the content area, so your chances of landing on useful content are increased. And because Google used a content relevancy calculation to prevent spam from surviving in Adwords, you weren't usually assaulted by irrelevant content. Instead, it was a potential shortcut to content that you were searching for in the first place. At the same time, whether it's because of the way that they've changed their layout or because people are more selective about what they click, I've noticed that my Adwords campaigns don't produce at the level they did five or six years ago.

Modern advertising has significantly improved its content relevancy optimization methods. Platforms like Facebook know so much more about you that it's possible to deliver very targeted ads. But the real question for online advertising is not whether you can display them, but what do they do for the user.

People often want to look to print media for guidance, but display ads in print media can provide a visual break from text. Imagine giving someone who normally reads People Magazine a copy of a scientific journal -- they would be so bored, they probably wouldn't do more than flip through a few pages.

And as for ads in video, most of us that have grown up with broadcast television have an entirely different relationship with commercials. With broadcast television, advertising also functions as a brief intermission break -- run to the bathroom or to the refrigerator. It's a pause button in the broadcast of the live moment. These days, broadcasters have added so many advertising breaks that most broadcast television is unwatchable. And when you can download or stream the video -- and use the pause button at your discretion -- who needs the forced commercial breaks?

The Times They Are A'Changin
Consider General Motors recent move to abandon advertising on Facebook. In case you missed that story, here are some different posts that I found with some connect-the-dots elements in them.
You can come away with a number of different perspectives on why they might have dropped the program. But however you look at it, their programs clearly weren't delivering enough ROI to make continuing a no-brainer.

In the early days of Adwords, Google's content network looked like a great deal for businesses. Here was an opportunity to do low-cost brand-based advertising in content relevant media. Unfortunately, it was also a big driver for the growth of content mills and click fraud. Put a different way, if you set up algorithm parameters where anyone can publish and get paid for ads, somebody else will set up a system to try and plunder that payment system. Put in a more web-modern way, as traditional media and publishing models were disrupted, we all learned that while it was possible to create an algorithm for relevant content, not all content is equal. In the end, what we also learned is that, in a B2B environment, content network advertising is a sucker's bet.

Ad Networks Optimize the Appearance of ROI
Perhaps the best example of of gaming the system comes from some old Techcrunch posts (looking back through my Blogger drafts, I'd written a long post about this, but I never published it). This post, How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro, details some of the ways that ad networks can manipulate the publishing system. It's a great read.

Big Data is a powerful advertising tool. For all of those things that Facebook knows about you, you can probably bet that they have a pool of users who are more likely to click on ads. If you wanted to serve up some hot juicy click-through numbers, it's a fair bet that you could run an optimized algorithm that's more likely to get your clicks -- even if it's just grandma who double-clicks on anything that moves. So if Facebook, the company that knows so much about you and your habits, can't convince GM that their ads work, what does that say for the little pop-up ad that screws up the interface on your phone and the company that's paying for that space?

The revolution is nigh. Sooner or later, the 'advertising' bubble will burst and everyone that has pinned their hopes on the economy of you-and-I-clicking-on-that-thing-that-we-really-weren't-looking-for-but-was-in-the-way-of-what-we-were-trying-to-do will be on the front-line of the collapse. It won't be a happy day. And worse, it probably also means that many of the services that you count on, that you know and love, will go away. All of their revenue (and any prospective funding) will dry up in the shifting winds of 'viability' fashion.

Or perhaps the rest of the world will evolve to match the ad-driven business model... your view of Yosemite will begin after the following 3 second video.