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July 20, 2014

If I were Shakespeare…

Well, here’s what I would do if I were Shakespeare & Co., a theatre company in Lenox, Massachusetts of which I am inordinately fond, as consistent readers of this blog know (hi, Mom!).

Yesterday my wife and I went to an open rehearsal of a scene from Henry IV, Part 2, Scene 2. For about an hour we watched Malcolm Ingram (Falstaff), Kevin Coleman (Shallow), Ariel Bock (Silence) and Michael F. Toomey (Bardolph) being directed by Jonathan Epstein, who has abridged and combined the two Henry IV’s. The rehearsal started out fascinating and got even better from there.

The actors in Shakespeare & Co. rehearse before they’ve learned their lines by being shadowed by someone who whispers their lines to them. That way (as Kevin Coleman explained) they can rehearse while looking at the person they’re talking to instead of looking down at a piece of paper. The result is an early rehearsal in which the actors can act together and experiment.

Jonny Epstein is an actor and a highly collaborative director. He interceded occasionally to punch up a reading, and always kept an eye on the audience’s interests: We need a gesture to understand what “bona-robas” are (high quality courtesans — literally “the good stuff”); Falstaff should turn to the left while pointing to the right so that both sides of the audience are involved, etc.

But as the scene came to a close, it took a turn towards the awesome.

It’s a short and humorous scene in which Justice Shallow is greeting his old friend Falstaff. There’s funny business about rounding up men for Falstaff, which in this abridged, small-cast version had the actors pointing into the audience. Very amusing.

The scene ends with Shallow inviting Falstaff to dinner. They’re about to wander off, in a convenient scene-closing way, when a memory from fifty-five years ago pops into Shallow’s mind. “O, Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the windmill in Saint George’s field?” This becomes a chat about old acquaintances who now are old or dead.

The first time through, the actors played it lightly: a bunch of old folks remembering their lusty youths. But Epstein then suggested that they stop their funny business. Just stand there and talk. Without further direction, the actors changed everything: posture, cadence, expression, diction, interaction. And it became a scene about age and youth that touched me deeply.

It was, in short, a moment of transcendence. I got yer magic of the theatre right here.

  


Shakespeare & Co. is a great company, but it rarely plays to full houses. If I were them, here’s what I would do:

1. Video every lecture they give and put it on the Web for free. In fact, do more lectures, at least one for every play they produce. These lectures have been consistently fascinating. I want people to get used to looking up the Shakespeare & Co. lecture before going to see a Shakespeare play performed by any group.

2. Video a performance of each play presented, and post it for free on the Web. Have some of the summer interns do it. No one who comes would have stayed at home if they could have watched a video of it, especially since the company doesn’t have the resources to do studio-quality video production.

3. Post a second version of these videoed performances with a director’s track. Have the director and some of the actors explaining both the play and their decisions about it. We want teachers to play these scenes when introducing students to Shakespeare, and we want people who just saw a performance to then see the thinking behind it.

Now, there may be Actors Equity rules that prevent this, which would be a shame because videos like these would help expose the actors’ talents more broadly. And I suspect that Shakespeare & Co. may have reservations about posting content that’s not of the highest professional quality. If so: get over it! It’s the Web! Trust comes from imperfection.

In any case, when you’re in the Berkshires, do come. And bring the kids.

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January 18, 2014

Replacing YouTube ads from outside the filter bubble

Like most people (I assume), when a YouTube I want to watch begins with a 30-second, I switch to another tab until it’s safe to come back.

So, could I please have a plug-in that will instead show me an ad-free video that I wouldn’t have come upon otherwise? Preferably something that will stretch my imagination, cast doubt on my assumptions, and enlarge my sympathy? Or at least a cat doing something awwwwwwwesome.

(Hat tip to MakeMarketingHistory.)

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November 20, 2013

[liveblog][2b2k] David Eagleman on the brain as networks

I’m at re comm 13, an odd conference in Kitzbühel, Austria: 2.5 days of talks to 140 real estate executives, but the talks are about anything except real estate. David Eagleman, a neural scientist at Baylor, and a well-known author, is giving a talk. (Last night we had one of those compressed conversations that I can’t wait to be able to continue.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

How do we know your thinking is in your brain? If you damage your finger, you don’t change, but damage to your brain can change basic facets of your life. “The brain is the densest representation of who you are.” We’re the only species trying to figure out our own progamming language. We’ve discovered the most complicated device in the universe: our own brains. Ten billion neurons. Every single neuron contains the entire human genome and thousands of protens doing complicated computations. Each neuron is is connected to tens of thousands of its neighbors, meaning there are 100s of trillions of connections. These numbers “bankrupt the language.”

Almost all of the operations of the brain are happening at a level invisible to us. Taking a drink of water requires a “lightning storm” of acvitity at the neural level. This leads us to a concept of the unconscious. The conscious part of you is the smallest bit of what’s happening in the brain. It’s like a stowaway on a transatlantic journey that’s taking credit for the entire trip. When you think of something, your brain’s been working on it for hours or days. “It wasn’t really you that thought of it.”

About the unconscious: Psychologists gave photos of women to men and asked them to evaluate how attractive they are. Some of the photos were the same women, but with dilated eyes. The men rated them as being more attractive but none of them noticed the dilation. Dilated eyes are a sign of sexual readiness in women. Men made their choices with no idea of why.

More examples: In the US, if your name is Dennis or Denise, you’re more likely to become a dentist. These dentists have a conscious narrative about why they became dentists that misses the trick their brain has played on them. Likewise, people are statistically more likely to marry someone whose first name begins with the same first letter as theirs. And, i you are holding a warm mug of coffee, you’ll describe the relationship with your mother as warmer than if you’re holding an iced cup. There is an enormous gap between what you’re doing and what your conscious mind is doing.

“We should be thankful for that gap.” There’s so much going on under the hood, that we need to be shielded from the details. The conscious mind gets in trouble when it starts paying attention to what it’s doing. E.g., try signing your name with both hands in opposite directions simultaneously: it’s easy until you think about it. Likewise, if you now think about how you steer when making a lane change, you’re likely to enact it wrong. (You actually turn left and then turn right to an equal measure.)

Know thyself, sure. But neuroscience teaches us that you are many things. The brain is not a computer with a single output. It has many networks that are always competing. The brain is like a parliament that debates an action. When deciding between two sodas, one network might care about the price, another about the experience, another about the social aspect (cool or lame), etc. They battle. David looks at three of those networks:

1. How does the brain make decisions about valuation? E.g., people will walk 10 mins to save 10 € on a 20 € pen but not on a 557 € suit. Also, we have trouble making comparisons of worth among disparate items unless they are in a shared context. E.g., Williams Sonoma had a bread baking machine for $275 that did not sell. Once they added a second one for $370, it started selling. In real estate, if a customer is trying to decide between two homes, one modern and one traditional, if you want them to buy the modern one, show them another modern one. That gives them the context by which they can decide to buy it.

Everything is associated with everything else in the brain. (It’s an associative network.) Coffee used to be $0.50. When Starbucks started, they had to unanchor it from the old model so they made the coffee houses arty and renamed the sizes. Having lost the context for comparison, the price of Starbucks coffee began to seem reasonable.

2. Emotional experience is a big part of decision making. If you’re in a bad-smelling room, you’ll make harsher moral decisions. The trolley dilemma: 5 people have been tied to the tracks. A trolley is approaching rapidly. You can switch the trolley to a track with only one person tied to it. Everyone would switch the trolley. But now instead, you can push a fat man onto the trolley to stop the car. Few would. In the second scenario, touching someone engages the emotional system. The first scenario is just a math problem. The logic and emotional systems are always fighting it out. The Greeks viewed the self as someone steering a chariot drawn by the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion. [From Plato's Phaedrus]

3. A lot of the machinery of the brain deals with other brains. We use the same circuitry to think about people andor corporations. When a company betrays us, our brain responds the way it would if a friend betrayed us. Traditional economics says customer interactions are short-term but the brain takes a much longer-range view. Breaches of trust travel fast. (David plays “United Breaks Guitars.”) Smart companies use social media that make you believe that the company is your friend.

The battle among these three networks drives decisions. “Know thyselves.”

This is unsettling. The self is not at the center. It’s like when Galileo repositioned us in the universe. This seemed like a dethroning of man. The upside is that we’ve discovered the Cosmos is much bigger, more subtle, and more magnificent than we thought. As we sail into the inner cosmos of the brain, the brain is much subtle and magnificent than we ever considered.

“We’ve found the most wondrous thing in the universe, and it’s us.”

Q: Won’t this let us be manipulated?

A: Neural science is just catching up with what advertisers have known for 100 years.

Q: What about free will?

A: My labs and others have done experiments, and there’s no single experiment in neuroscience that proves that we do or do not have free will. But if we have free will, it’s a very small player in the system. We have genetics and experiences, and they make brains very different from one another. I argue for a legal system that recognizes a difference between people who may have committed the same crime. There are many different types of brains.

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October 6, 2013

Holes, not drills

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

This gets quoted a lot by marketers. Usually it gets attributed to Theodore Levitt, an economist at Harvard Business School, but he quite explicitly [pdf] attributed it to Leo McGinneva, about whom I can find out nothing other than that he was a “businessman.”

This quote has the salutary effect of focusing marketers away from what they’re selling and on what customers are buying. So, I find it useful. But also irksome.

I’m irked first of all for the small reason that people don’t actually buy quarter-inch drills to drill quarter-inch holes. The buy a quarter-inch drill bit to drill a quarter-inch hole. A quarter-inch drill is a drill that accepts drill bits with a maximum of a quarter-inch shank. And, yes I know I’m being annoying.

The more important reason this formulation bothers me becomes clear if you use something other than a tool as your example. “People don’t want to buy a towel hook. They want a _____.” How do you fill in that blank without it being simply redundant: “They want a hook to hang a towel on.” It’s not just that it loses its rhetorical punch. Rather, it becomes clear that you have to go further into the customer’s value system to make sense of it. Why do they want a towel hook? Because they like dry towels? Because they want to impress their new in-laws? Because they repainted and the old towel hook is now the wrong color? Because they want a place to hang a dress so that the shower will naturally steam it? Because their shower rod is coming loose? Because their pet ferret is getting old — poor Ratface! He can barely see! — and is soiling towels left on the floor?

So, people don’t buy holes. They buy something that helps achieve a goal that is particular to them and is part of the larger set of interests and values that make them who they are. The hole example helps but doesn’t go far enough.

We all know this. So why does the “drill/holes” example keep coming up, and keep feeling like an insight? To me, this is evidence of just how much we take for granted the misalignment of the interests of businesses and customers — the great business tragedy of the Age of Massness.

But that’s a different story.

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September 4, 2013

Guess who lost the right to complain about Yelp reviews?

Yeah, I’m talking to you Scrub-a-dub.

ScrubADub offering 50% off if you like them on Facebook

Way to corrupt the system.

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July 22, 2013

Paid content needs REALLY BIG metadata

HBR.com has just put up a post of mine about some new guidelines for “paid content.” The guidelines come from the PR and marketing communications company Edelman, which creates and places paid content for its clients. (Please read the disclosure that takes up all of paragraph 4 of my post. Short version: Edelman paid for a day of consulting on the guidelines. And, no, that didn’t include me agreeing to write about the guidelines)

I just read the current issue of Wired (Aug.) and was hit by a particularly good example. This issue has a two-page spread on pp. 34-35 that features an info graphic that is stylistically indistinguishable from another info graphic on p. 55. The fact that the two pager is paid content is flagged only by a small Shell logo in the upper left and the words “Wired promotion” in gray text half the height of the “article’s” subhead. It’s just not enough.

Worse, once you figure out that it’s an ad, you start to react to legitimate articles with suspicion. Is the article on the very next page (p. 36) titled “Nerf aims for girls but hits boys too” also paid content? How about the interview with the stars of the new comedy “The World’s End”? And then there’s the article on p. 46 that seems to be nothing but a plug for coins from Kitco. The only reason to think it’s not an ad in disguise is that it mentions a second coin company, Metallium. That’s pretty subtle metadata. Even so, it crossed my mind that maybe the two companies pitched in to pay for the article.

That’s exactly the sort of thought a journal doesn’t want crossing its readers’ minds. The failure to plainly distinguish paid content from unpaid content can subvert the reader’s trust. While I understand the perilous straits of many publications, if they’re going to accept paid content (and that seems like a done deal), then this month’s Wired gives a good illustration of why it’s in their own interest to mark their paid content clearly, using a standardized set of terms, just as the Edelman guidelines suggest.

(And, yes, I am aware of the irony – at best – that my taking money from Edelman raises just the sort of trust issues that I’m decrying in poorly-marked paid content.)

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May 30, 2013

[2b2k] Can business intelligence get intelligent enough?

Greg Silverman [twitter:concentricabm], the CEO of Concentric, has a good post at CMS Wire about the democratization of market analysis. He makes what seems to me to be a true and important point: market researchers now have the tools to enable them to slice, dice, deconstruct, and otherly-construct data without having to rely upon centralized (and expensive) analytics firms. This, says Greg, changes not only the economics of research, but also the nature of the results:

The marketers’ relationships with their analytics providers are currently strained as a service-based, methodologically undisclosed and one-off delivery of insights. These providers and methods are pitted against a new generation of managers and executives who are “data natives” —professionals who rose to the top by having full control of their answering techniques, who like to be empowered and in charge of their own destinies, and who understand the world as a continuous, adaptive place that may have constantly changing answers. This new generation of leaders likes to identify tradeoffs and understand the “grayness” of insight rather than the clarity being marketed by the service providers.

He goes on to make an important point about the perils of optimization, which is what attracted the attention of Eric Bonabeau [twitter:bonabeau], whose tweet pointed me at the post.

The article’s first point, though, is interesting from the point of view of the networking of knowledge, because it’s not an example of the networking of knowledge. This new generation of market researchers are not relying on experts from the Central Authority, they are not looking for simple answers, and they’re comfortable with ambiguity, all of which are characteristics of networked knowledge. But, at least according to Greg’s post, they are not engaging with one another across company boundaries, sharing data, models, and insights. I’m going to guess that Greg would agree that there’s more of that going on than before. But not enough.

If the competitive interests of businesses are going to keep their researchers from sharing ideas and information in vigorous conversations with their peers and others, then businesses simply won’t be as smart as they could be. Openness optimizes knowledge system-wide, but by definition it doesn’t concentrate knowledge in the hands of a few. And this may form an inherent limit on how smart businesses can become.

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April 20, 2013

Subverting ads

I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:

I also really liked this one as well:

I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.

While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.

I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.

I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.

Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:

Well, not as far as I can tell. But the tweet made me look.

And a heavily-favorited tweet is quite savage:

Someone in the KFC Marketing Department has already written an email to senior management explaining why this is a good thing for KFC. But, um, it’s not.

Neither is this:

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March 7, 2013

Are brands people, my friends?

The always thoughtful Terry Heaton [twitter:TerryHeaton] has posted a provocative thesis, which is expressed in the post’s title: “How Brands Can Behave as People (And Why They Should).” Terry writes:

Futurist Stowe Boyd believes that we’ve entered a stage of “social business” in which “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.”

Terry cites two examples of this, both during the Superbowl power outage: Oreos tweeted a photo with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark,” and Audi tweeted something about bringing LEDs to the stadium (which may be an Audi reference that I don’t get). Brands, says Terry, need to play “by the rules of human interactivity instead of the hierarchical ‘driving’ of behavior.” This means not only tweeting humorously in real time, but being more menschlich: “New York ad agency Young & Rubicam has been studying consumer behavior for decades and shocked the world last year by noting a 391% spike in ‘kindness and empathy’ as a favored brand attribute among consumers.”

Terry gives five practical rules for these new persona-brands. These rules are ethical and sensible. But they also raise interesting issues. In particular, rule #3 says:

  • No selling whatsoever.

  • No calls to action not based in participation.

  • No gimmicks. None.

  • Nothing artificial or fake.

And #5 says “Be personal.”

But brands acting like people is artificial and fake, and how can you be personal when you’re not a person? So, on the one hand, I want to dismiss this idea. But on the other hand I want to hand it to Terry. The ability of a company to sally forth into social media is, I believe, giving rise to what Terry and Boyd are pointing to: a new type of entity that acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, is not a duck, and that fools no one into think it’s a duck.

Companies used to do something like this when they would personify their product and their brand: green giants, cookie elves, prepubescent dough balls. Some of these became figures of popular culture. But that’s not what Terry is pointing to. The Oreo tweet didn’t come from a cartoon character acting like a cookie. It came from Oreo, which is obviously not itself a particular cookie, and is also not the same as Nabisco or Kraft Foods Inc. You read the tweet understanding that it came from some marketing folks who are talking for the cookie and for the company. The closest entity I can think of is: the Oreo tweet came from the brand. Pure brand. No mediation through a character. Pure brand.

I’m guessing that part of the charm comes from our recognition that there are people behind the brand’s tweets. And we seem to like that. Those people seem to be like us. They have a sense of humor. They don’t have to run all their tweets through focus groups. Nor do they have to dress up in some stupid mascot costume or hire an actor to speak like a squeaky-voiced chipmunkâ?¢ or something.

Businesses have always had this problem. They are not people and thus seem phony and manipulative when they try to speak like people. But businesses do need to speak via social media, or, as we used to say in the Cluetrain days, join the conversation. Some have done so by empowering people from their marketing staff â?? usually young folks â?? to speak for them on Twitter and the Eff Book, often using their own names along with their corporate identification. That makes sense and it sometimes works. I expect it’ll continue. But I suspect we’ll see a growth in the construction of social brands that are like what the brand would be if it were a person, and that is understood as having real individuals behind it.

One could perfectly well bemoan this development. After all, it is phony down to its core. Brands aren’t people, and the people pretending to be a brand are terribly constrained in what they can say and do by the requirement that they advance the brand. These people-brands are not folks you’d become friends if only because they won’t shut up about Oreos and Audis. But, I’m assuming that by this time we’re smart enough to understand that a talking brand has a ventriloquist behind it.

Further, these social brands may erode the wall between the authentic and the inauthentic. Yay.That’s a wall that needs to come down anyway because the concept of authenticity makes even less sense now than it ever did. Our Web selves are constructed selves. If tweeting Oreos can help us recognize that, then they’ve done us a service, in addition to being quite delicious.

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January 28, 2013

Unstartling presentation

Oy. I fell for an ad today because it promised to tell me four startling things that happen to you before you get a heart attack. The video, which has no pause or fast forward button, is a grating infomercial, with a heavy emphasis on the “mercial.” So, here’s the startling information Dr. Chauncey Crandall so selflessly is imparting to us:

The four things are:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.

Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness To prevent heart attacks, cut back on fat intake but most importantly, cut back on sugar.

Yeah, these are the symptoms you will find listed anywhere that discusses heart attacks. For example, try a little place I like to call “Google”: top hit for “heart attack”.

It takes Dr. Crandall forever to get even the slightest piece of information — first promoting himself and pitching his newsletter etc. — that I gave up. So I quoted the above from trogdor1 on a discussion board. Thanks, Trogdor1, for taking the hit for the team.

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