Thursday, 31 July 2008

Overriding emotions

So I've been dwelling for several months on this tweet by my colleague Paul Downey.
Me: "the main role of advertising is to use emotion to override informed descisions"
I think it's a really interesting point, and as usual polarising an opinion sparks off the grey matter nicely. It really has been nagging me. But why?

I've done a fair chunk of work in advertising in the past, and so I suppose I felt vaguely put out by the assertion that I've been helping clients to subvert the public. Packaging, most microsites and to some extent the manifestation of brand values all fall into this category. And yet there is some substance to this accusation. Of course clients want to do whatever they can to improve sales.

But on reflection I guess what got my goat is that it points at the weakness of the human condition. As fallible emotional beings we're all susceptible to alluring advertising. And it's irritating that someone with an inferior product can secure market share through an effective ad campaign.

But the alternative is worse. Can you imagine a world where we have to make purely logical decisions about every single thing we bought? Imagine if we had to choose items in the supermarket based just on the facts? After hours in the store we'd return home with stuff we don't even know if we'll like! What about the Paradox of Choice? It's hard enough making decisions as it is; how would we narrow down our options to a more manageable selection, which we can investigate in more depth, without the aid of packaging and awareness of our options as a starting point?

The reality is that we're all emotional beings. And even though we're also guilty of trying to post-rationalise the choices we make, we're wired to get pleasure from these choices. The world would be a pretty dull place if we didn't allow our emotions to guide our choices to some degree.

Besides, much advertising contains information about the product (alongside, y'know, the emotional stuff) so who's to say it doesn't inform decisions, at least in part? Some people have gotten pretty good at separating fact from emotion and, for the others, well, more fool them.

So I've reached the conclusion that it's the human condition at the heart of the matter, and not advertising per se. And hey if your product doesn't live up to the advertising - whether in function or emotion - word gets around fast and you deserve what you get!

Bonus links: Excellent TED footage from Barry Schultz (of Paradox of Choice fame) and Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame, but here talking about how more choice is better). Well worth watching.

Acquire and make friends

Our parent company, BT, has just acquired Ribbit, a voice application company based in Silicon Valley - and I'm rather excited about it.

The acquisition makes sense for a number of reasons. First, BT have been changing their image as a telco to that of a software and services company. Ribbit provide a number of services that'll nicely augment those already offered by our SDK team. Also, it gives BT access to Silicon Valley, which is rich in entrepreneurial developer talent, as well as the headquarters of many large tech companies. I'm genuinely excited by BT's continued march into this physical and commercial space.

But this post isn't about that.

Mergers and acquisitions are often quite painful. I experienced two unpleasant mergers in my previous role, both of which involved integration in person. I learned that it's a BIG challenge to get two foreign companies working together. Which is why I've been impressed and surprised by the way social media has been used to develop the relationship between BT and Ribbit, separated by 8 time zones no less.

Ribbit has a Twitter feed, and many of my colleagues jumped on Twitter to wish Ribbit congratulations on the acquisition, and exchange banter ahead of meeting in person. We've challenged them to a table football contest (accepted), as well as threatening them with cocktails. Our own fair unit, Osmosoft, has offered to help them get their feet under the desk. They've been sending photos from the local coffee house, and we've browsed their photos on Flickr. I already feel closer to the Ribbit team than I did weeks after the previous acquisitions.

What can we learn from this? The very nature of mergers and acquisitions is confrontational. There's often the threat of competition, the possibility of redundancies, the territorial hostility, the commercial undercurrents. Social media helps us to neatly sidestep all of that, to develop relationships with human beings. To get a better idea of what makes us tick as human beings, laying the groundwork for the business to follow.

Sounds a lot like Cluetrain to me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are bumps in the road ahead, but I think we're much better equiped to handle these now we've become better acquainted.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

25 words

Thanks psd and JP for drawing my attention to the 25 words idea. Here's my modest effort:
Putting your priorities in the right order is much harder than it sounds. And it's even harder keeping them there. But it's worth the effort.

Friday, 18 July 2008

When I die

It's an oft-repeated joke that, on their death bed, people never say they wished they'd spent more time in the office.

But I think this is going to change. Instead, I think people will be wishing they hadn't spent so much of their lives on the computer.

Think about it. Of the best experiences in your life, how many of them were spent online?

As responsible web professionals, we heap praise on web apps which are easier and more enjoyable to use. And this is laudable, to be sure. But maybe we're also focusing on the wrong ends. Maybe we should be praising the apps that help people finish their job, and get back to living their lives? Maybe we should be building them?

The obvious, kneejerk answer is that these sticky and social websites enrich our offline lives. There's truth in there of course. I'm really pointing the finger at myself; I love so much about the web that I have to remind myself that the best times of all are spent away from the keyboard.

These thoughts occured to me after reading this post written by the excellent Scott Berkun.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Battersea Power Station

I've always been a big fan of Battersea Power Station, but have never been able to put my finger on the precise reason why. It's just such a formidable building, and somehow to me represents everything good about London - strong, imposing and resolute, yet stylish and practical.

I suppose I also like the fact that it's such an impressive building and yet it attracts almost no tourists, at least partly because you usually can't get close to it...

But all that might change soon. There are plans a-foot to redevelop Battersea Power Station and the surrounding area. Many others have tried and failed, usually because they underestimate the cost, effort and restrictions involved (it's a Grade II listed building). So it's no surprise that the latest owners need to get public opinion on their side with regard to their current plans. And when I heard that they were opening up the Power Station to the public to support these plans, I jumped at the chance to go for a wander round.

I wasn't disappointed! The building looks even more epic close up than from a distance. After seeing the power station on my daily commute since I moved to South West London in 1992, it was a boost to see it up close. I took a bunch of photos and you can see them here.

As for the planned changes...if it was up to me, I'd insist that the surrounding area be turned into a large park, and for the building itself to be restored to its original state. But we have to be practical. No-one's going to invest in the building or the area unless they can make money somehow. So my practical desire is that they don't build anything higher than the bottom of the chimneys. Also, give the building plenty of space around the outside, so it can be appreciated (there is a park planned, but it isn't big enough). Restore the exterior so it looks the same as it did when it closed in 1983 (no need for retail logos, or roof top gardens!). And, within this confine, do what you like with the inside.

If you're interested in finding out more, or having your say, check out the official regeneration website.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

in which I draw attention to a sham study conducted by Futuresource on behalf of Macrovision

Now this has got me pretty wound up. I picked up on this story in Ars Technica which claimed that one third of U.S. residents rip DVDs. Wait, what? Shurely shome mishtake?

So I followed the trail to this white paper (pdf) issued by Futuresource Consulting, a British PR company. The actual figures they've come up with are 32% in the United States and 36% in the United Kingdom admit to ripping DVDs.

I call bullshit. There's no way these figures are accurate. Most people wouldn't even know where to start. And my guess is that people who (a) know how and (b) can be bothered would be more likely to download their content straight from the web. Even a figure as high as 5% would raise an eyebrow. If you think a third of all people have ripped DVDs, then you haven't met people.

Turns out the research was sponsored by Macrovision, who proudly claim: "Macrovision provides copy protection, digital rights management, digital content licensing and asset management technologies to video, music, entertainment and business software markets". No conflict of interest there then!

But surely even if Macrovision had hired them, Futuresource would still try and demonstrate their integrity. At least they haven't tried to hide the sponsor's name. But where did they find the 5,331 respondents? Slashdot? Usenet? You can't tell from the report. And how were they incentivized to take part? The report doesn't say. You would think that most people smart enough to rip a DVD would also have seen the warnings and promotional films at the start of EVERY SINGLE FILM warning them about piracy. They'd hardly admit to the crime. And what were the specific questions asked? They're not stated in the report. From my experience doing user research, you've got to be very careful not to put words into people's mouths. It's dead easy to manipulate these surveys.

But even still, I doubt very much whether they'd get 1/3rd of respondents to admit to doing something they probably don't even understand. I cast aspersions on thee, Futuresource!!

So, here's a helpful summary:
  • Futuresource are puppets-for-hire, with no integrity
  • Macrovision are so desperate to prop up their broken business model that they'll pay someone to make stuff up
  • And at the very least, shame on Ars Technica for not at least reporting that the white paper was sponsored by Macrovision. You have a responsibility to your readers to do at least a little fact checking before running a piece like this.