Tuesday, September 09, 2014

influencer theory is the wrong end of the stick

The idea that brands can pick out and target a small group of social media users with large 'followings' and then imagine that they will reach everyone else with their message is still prevalent however this influencer theory is a myth and its protagonists have got things the wrong way round.

There are a couple of reasons marketers still like to believe in this idea of the 'influencers'.

Firstly, a little bit of laziness. It’s a lot easier to believe that a message can spread by the brand tapping apparently popular individuals - those special few to whom we all turn to in order to make decisions as Gladwell-ian rhetoric would have it - rather than get down with the messy business of continually reaching a mass of distracted, disinterested consumers.

Secondly, just by implementing these ‘influencer’ strategies it’s actually the brands themselves who appear to be the ultra influentials!


They, after all, are now the ones who influence the influencers.

Sadly neither of these things are true.

If they were our jobs as advertisers would be so much easier and predictable.

What is true, is that you're just as likely to spread a message or product by targeting a mass market of random consumers as you would by going after so-called influencers, as long as the conditions are right.

If people are ready to adopt a product, message or trend, then just about anybody can start one, but if the conditions aren’t right, then no one can.

Indeed, most of what we should call real influence is much more accidental and principally involves easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people, without either party being particularly cognisant of the influence.

There’s bad news and good news.

The bad news is that the specific conditions in which any given trend might emerge are very hard to predict and success only looks like success in hindsight.

The good news is that the psychology literature explains the general conditions for copying behaviour pretty well.

All day long people unconsciously mimic the behaviours of others they interact with, including facial expressions, accents, postures, gestures, mannerisms and emotions.

And the simple act of observing others’ behaviour can induce behavioural mimicry, particularly the behaviour of others who appear similar to us, and all of the above are unconscious automatic processes.

Likewise, simply observing others’ choices induces choice mimicry - just like behavioural mimicry it occurs automatically - and collectively when we are uncertain about which behaviours or choices are acceptable or accurate, then we use the ‘social proof ‘ heuristic to be on the safe side.

Or in more simple terms, ordinary people copy other ordinary people without really noticing they are doing it.

Speaking of hindsight, we’ve never held much truck with the old Gladwell ‘Hush Puppies’ story.

The legend goes along these lines; some East Village hipsters began wearing Hush Puppies in 1994 and then suddenly everyone else started wearing them, too.

What Gladwell failed to notice is that Hush Puppies were a staple of just about every UK subculture from the early sixties onwards, worn by mods, skins, hippies, punks, soul-boys and ravers right through to 3rd generation mod brit-poppers in ermm.. about 1994.

Even if Gladwell’s theory were true, it still doesn't mean that if East Village hipsters did wear a specific product then it would automatically be popular.

Hipsters in the East Village presumably wear all kinds of other clobber that never becomes particularly popular anywhere else, or even in the East Village.

It depends on whether anyone else was open to copying at that time.

This belief in ‘influencers’ can be simply explained using a particular logical fallacy.

Rosenweig’s ‘delusion of the wrong end of the stick’.

This is the tendency to get causes the wrong way round.

For instance, in observing that successful companies tend to have a corporate social responsibility policy, should one infer that these pro-social activities are contributing factors to their success, or is it simply that that profitable companies tend to have money to spend on CSR?

The former makes for a better story – and is therefore lapped up by the purpose-before-profit lobby and more recently proponents of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ - however the latter explanation is much closer to the truth, if somewhat less sexy.

Similarly, ‘influencer’ theory makes for a better story than random copying of each other by ordinary people.

The final irony is, of course, that the so-called ‘traditional’ mass marketing that ‘influencer’ type strategies seeks to discredit is actually far more effective at reaching accidental influencers than activity focused on reaching those with some sort of perceived influence.

Therefore smart marketers could, in effect, have their influencer cake and eat it, too.

As it is impossible to know which person, if any, is going to start any given cascade of influence, then activities should be aimed at as broad a market as possible to give it the best possible chance.

And then if something does catch on they can correctly say ‘we got the influencers’ because the random nature of accidental influence means that ‘influencers’ can only really be identified after the fact.

Article influenced principally by Gigerenzer, Rosenzweig, Watts, Earls and an unspecified number of random conversations and unconscious influence over time.

Friday, September 05, 2014


While talking with some game developers this week there was a particular phrase they used a number of times which stayed with me.

They talked of 'juiciness' in the gameplay.

Afterwards we looked it up to see it as a real thing or simply a foible of our gamer guests.

Turns out that 'juiciness' is an proper piece of gamer vernacular, and describes a type of feedback message, either in actual words or through sound effects or images, that help to create encouraging positive responses by rewarding a player when they perform an action successfully. 

This is duly being filed in the lexicon for those times when saying 'elicit an emotional response' or describing heuristics or other such system one type responses is perhaps overly scientific for delicate client paletes when reviewing their new advertising.

Never mind the differentiation/positioning/loyalty metrics, feel the juiciness.

Monday, September 01, 2014

what would independence mean for advertising in scotland?

In a couple of weeks Scotland will vote yay or nay for independence from the rest of the UK. 

As ex-pats we are ineligible to vote so will not waste any space on here debating the politics of the issue but among the commentary we were drawn to this article in the Herald by Ian MacWhirter. 

In the article MacWhirter takes a humorous swipe at Lord Birt - the former Director General of the BBC - who has apparently warned Scots that, after independence, they will be cut off from BBC programming and 'sent to bed early with no Dr Who... the screens will go black and cultural life in Scotland will wither as Scots lose access to Strictly Come Dancing'.

Joking aside, clearly Birt is discounting Scots ability to use things like the internet and satellite broadcasting services.

Anyway, the more serious point of the article is this.

'Scotland has had no shortage of broadcasting talent, but it largely gets exported to London, which is why Scottish accents are so prevalent in the media village. Anyone who wants to get on in the BBC has to go to London - as I did - because that is where the jobs are, where the careers and the budgets are. I spent more than 20 years in the BBC, nearly half of it in London... 

...Many Scots do try to come back from London, of course, but it is a big risk. I was speaking recently to one of my contemporaries, who started in the BBC when I did and became one of the best documentary film makers in Britain, with a string of Baftas and other awards to her name. She tried to come back to Scotland three years ago, and found she simply could not get any commissions from the BBC. So she had to go back to London. If you are not in the metropolitan village you are little people.'

Having been away from Scotland for a long time, it's only natural that once in a while the call of of home can be heard and we get a misty eyed for the skirl of the pipes and so forth.

Don't worry, this is not one of those occasions.

And even if it were then we wouldn't necessarily use this journal to express anything of that nature.

Plus, it would be pretty pointless anyway as the advertising industry in Scotland is so small that it cannot employ even a small percentage the Scots ad talent, they face the same conundrum as their broadcast media counterparts as almost the entire industry is in London.

MacWhirter goes on to ask. 'So Scotland could go it alone (ie having a Scottish national broadcaster), but would it ever have to? Everyone I speak to seems to believe the BBC would be determined to maintain its brand identity across the whole of the British mainland, not least as a bulwark against digital fragmentation, which is a threat to the future of the licence fee.'

Would Scotland's advertising industry go it alone?

I can't help thinking of this Australian population data point as comparison.

For instance in Victoria, where we have a population of about 5.7million - broadly similar to Scotland's.
Apart from MediaCom, whom I know are in Edinburgh I can't think of any other global network agency who still operate out of Scotland, yet Melbourne is able to sustain a medium sized office just about every global agency one can think of. BBDO, DDB, JWT, TBWA, Y&R etc etc are all here.

And they almost all have at least one other office in New South Wales, some are in QL, WA, and SA too. All the media agencies are here too, plus numerous indies and digital shops etc.

From that population standpoint, post-independence, a Scottish advertising industry at some sort of scale would seem to be equally sustainable (in theory).

Or is Australia just some sort of weird anomaly?

Would the global agency networks be required to open up (or re-open) their outposts in Glasgow or Edinburgh post-independence?

How much advertising spend from companies based in Scotland goes to London based agencies?

And, critically, would the Scottish talent that has had to follow the industry to London and abroad be prepared to return?

Would they even be welcomed back?


Friday, August 29, 2014

large, black & white, funny and sexy

Like most people, we at Boat Global HQ typically while away the chilly winter evenings with a nice Pinot Noir and amusing ourselves with old social psychology test papers.
The other evening one multiple choice question caught our eye...

Advertisements that are _____ are more likely to gain the attention of the consumer.

a. are large
b. are black and white rather than colour
c. avoid humour
d. avoid sex

We were pretty certain that we tend to notice things that are funny and/or sexy, bold black and white can have impact however so does bright primary colour so answer a) are large, felt correct.

We were right.

But what if an advertisement was large, black and white, funny and sexy?
That would seem to be a winning combination, for sure.

Anyway, I went for breakfast this morning with a fellow planning chap.
He works between Melb and Sydney so flies a lot.

You'll remember how this blog has become a big advocate of OOH in recent years, when it is well done?

So we were discussing some of these outdoor campaigns that we had admired.

Obviously the famous Bonds 'BOOBS' poster came up.

Large, black and white, funny and sexy.
Perhaps the most 'pure' a piece of pure brand recognition advertising since the first 'fcuk advertising' billboards in the late 90's.

In case you've not been following our current infatuation with Gigerenzer then a 'recognition heuristic' can be described as a rule of thumb by which  recognised objects will be chosen over unrecognised ones, regardless of any other available relevant information.

What makes 'Boobs' and 'fcuk' even more remarkable is that both in campaigns the singe creative device was simple brand name recognition, yet neither actually used the brand name, by name.

Anyway, my planning friend told me that taxi drivers had mentioned something to him.
There was a particular billboard near either Sydney or  Melbourne airport (cant remember which).

As the cab approached the area the taxi drivers would remark that the traffic tended to be slower in that area at the moment.

'Was there roadworks or something?'


The traffic always slowed because the people in cars wanted to get a better look at the 'BOOBS' billboard.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

red stitching turn-ups and creative publicity

Younger readers may find this hard to imagine, but there was a time not so long ago when simply buying a pair of straight leg Levis jeans was something of a task.

More specifically, for the early-teen punky-mod me in 1979 in provincial Aberdeen obtaining a pair of shrink-to-fit 501XX's was even more arduous, and often required a 3 hour bus trip to Glasgow or an obliging relative in London to secure.

The correct Levi's, however, were important items to own.

Because the distinctive 501XX red stitching visible when the jeans were turned up was one of the key signals of one's status among the rest of the group.

A slightly more discerning in-group within the broader mod in-group if you like.

One simple glance at another young mod's turn-ups was all one needed to do in order to make a judgement of their perspicacity.

To this day I'm as picky, however about different things.

In the case of a unified theory of advertising I'm less likely to satisfice.

I'm happy enough with Gap jeans these days in case you are wondering.

And so fast forward to 2014 and we are in a workshop session at a marketing conference.
The delegates are broken into groups of six or so and the facilitator announces a task that the groups are required to solve.

We are asked to quickly, and just for fun, come up with some ideas around 'how to get people TO CONSUME MORE' of a particular product (and using certain tactics/techniques we have been learning about).

As you can imagine, I reverted to type and immediately found a problem with the task.

Surely, we were being asked the wrong question?

Is not the single most important task for marketing and advertising to achieve about growing market penetration?

So therefore the correct question should be 'how do we get MORE PEOPLE TO CONSUME product X'.

As I began scribbling an approximation of an NBD type distribution curve the fella sat next to immediately spotted what I was doing.

The rest of the group were oblivious however the first merest hint of the Dirichlet and the pair of us were in complete understanding of each others point of view.

Like a nerdy marketing science equivalent of teenage mods noticing each others turn-ups.

The truth is, in advertising today there seems to be nothing that polarises opinion quite as much as the 'How Brands Grow' effect. You are either in or out, there's very little middle ground.

I recall on one occasion meeting with another Planning Director at an agency I was courting and tentatively dropped a couple of thinly veiled EB-esqe phrases into our conversation.

He noticed my 'red stitching' immediately and kindly offered that I need not be coy, he was also a subscriber. Ha.

However the principle objection to scientific marketing ideas seems to come from creative quarters.

'I warn you against believing that advertising is a science.'

So said Bill Bernbach.

Bernbach, as we all know, was one of the key players in the so-named 'creative revolution' within advertising in the early 60's - one that was, in many ways, a revolution against the prevailing ideas of the likes of Rosser Reeves.

Whereas the Reeves approach was 'claim based'- he is the inventor of the USP, after all - and could be described as somewhat formulaic, the Bernbach approach was the antithesis, all out creativity.

It was this more 'functional' Reeves approach that Bernbach was describing as 'science'.
Not actual science.

[Fair play to old Rosser. you know you've made it when you get a logical fallacy named after you.]

My sense is that if Bill were around today he would be embracing the emerging field of marketing science for the space it creates for free creativity.

There is a final passage in the famous paper entitled 'Brand Advertising as Creative Publicity' by Helen Bloom, Rachel Kennedy, Andrew Ehrenberg and Neil Barnard; and published in the Journal of Advertising Research in 2002, that may have tickled Bernbach.

The authors propose that brand advertising seems to work best by simply creatively publicising a brand (salience), and not by trying to persuade people that the brand differs from other brands, or is even better or best.

'Some people fear that this 'mere publicity' stance is unhelpful to creatives. But we suggest that the exact opposite is the case.

Advertising a better mousetrap is fairly easy if it is in fact a bit better. One can, for instance, just say so. But having to center your advertising on adding year after year some indiscernible 'Whiter and Brighter' product-boon can restrict the kind of creativity that aims at memorable impacts for the brand.

In contrast, publicizing a brand gives ample scope for imaginative insights and for disciplined marketing communication skills.

This can stimulate creativity, that is, making distinctive and memorable publicity for the brand out of next to nothing. This seems the hallmark of good advertising as we know it. We think still that advertising a competitive brand means just 'Telling a brand story well', without there being just one solution.

There is huge scope-the campaign need not be hemmed in by the brand's 'selling proposition.'

In a recent post we mentioned renowned German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer's 'recognition heuristic'.

'Firms that spend their money on buying space in your recognition memory know this. Similarly politicians advertising their names and faces rather than their policies, and colleges, wannabe celebrities, and even small nations operate on the principle that if we do not recognise them, we will not favor them.

Taken to the extreme, being recognised becomes the goal in itself'.

Another way of describing salience and creative publicity.

[Indeed, Gigerenzer even offers a specific smart recognition heuristic for buying hi-fi equipment with minimum effort.

'Choose a brand you recognize and the second least expensive model'.]

For creative types this scientific approach should be liberating. To be free from dealing with message comprehension, USPs, positioning and differentiation and instead inhabit a world where the principle requirement is using unreasonable creativity to get branded ideas noticed and remembered.

And as Professor Sharp says in 'How Brands Grow'.

'...the primary task of advertising agencies is to generate ideas that viewers will notice and and will be willing to process over and over. This process must be brand-centric; it must refresh the memory structures that relate to the brand. This is a difficult task, which is why most advertising fails.”

Difficult? Yes.
Impossible? No.

To paraphrase Rory Sutherland; this appliance of science frees us from a 'world where creativity is heavily policed but where shallow rationality is a allowed to run rampant.'

What better  creative challenge than to be able to battle on a level playing field with everything else in the culture that competes for bits of our attention?

So as we started this article talking about Levi's, it seems fair to end it with their latest campaign. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this new direction is likely to do much for recognition or memory structures.

However as clue to the feelings here at Boat Global HQ, in spite of the disfluency and general unfathomable-ness of the tagline, it is the irony of that line is perhaps the most salient thing on view.

Just Don't Bore Them?

Friday, August 15, 2014

shoplifters of the world, unite and take over (or: why online advertising is mostly a flop)

Yes, we can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and require little in the way of thinking.

We are mostly reasonably skilled at performing a number of 'automatic' or 'system 1' type processes - chatting to a passenger and listening to the radio while driving, for instance.

However effortful mental activities activities that interfere with each other, multiplying 17 x 24 while making a right turn into dense traffic - the example Kahneman often uses - is much more difficult and should probably not be attempted.

On occasions when I have to interrupt a colleague to answer a question or something, I ask - as they are typing or whatever

'Can you multi-task for a moment?'

'Of course' is the reply.

The subject then either stops what they were doing to listen to my request.

Or continues to type, more or less ignoring me as I speak.

Either way it goes I derive some psychologist humour from the situation.

The truth being that no-one can multi-task particularly.

Magicians and illusionists understand this better than most, particularly those who practice 'close-up' magic of the kind that is often performed at restaurant tables.

One of our favourites is the famous Derren Brown example. In one of his TV shows Derren was able to 'pay' a Hatton Garden jeweller with blank pieces of paper for a 1000GBP watch, by sufficiently distracting the vendor's system 2 with complicated questions about London bus routes.

I was once inspired by this trick and managed to get an Australia Post employee to bag two imported British music mags worth about $50 for free by confusing him with questions about domestic Australian vs overseas stamps.

As I am a pseudo-scientist rather than a habitual shoplifter, I returned to the counter within a few moments and coughed up. The smugness of winning was reward enough.

The term for this is inattentional blindness, and is most famously demonstrated by the famous invisible gorilla experiment.

Inattentional blindness occurs when selective, focused attention towards one task renders us 'blind' to other peripheral happenings around us.

However both mine and Derren's experiments are dwarfed by this example of real world shoplifting skill as reported by ABC news.

A Texas woman has succeeded in stealing $57,000 worth of iPads from various Wal-Mart stores by loading up her trolley with various sundry items, allowing the cashier to scan the ipads, placing these items in her own handbag then informing the cashier that she needs to nip back to aisle 3 for teabags or something then marching straight out of the store while the hapless Wal-Mart employee is busy scanning the rest of the items in the basket.

So we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.

This could go some way to explaining the general failure of online advertising versus the continued effectiveness of, less fashionable, outdoor advertising.

It is simply far more easy - extreme creativity allowing - to get a tiny bit of attention from people who are not concentrating on doing something else that is more important.

Tried living in the real world instead of a shell.

But... I was bored before I even began

Friday, August 08, 2014

a note on recognition heuristics and moving from party tricks to business results

Until recently we were unfamiliar with the German psychologist, Gerd Gigerenzer.

It turns out that Gigerenzer and Kahneman were at odds for many years.

This is despite that both researched and studied heuristics and came to about 95% of the same conclusions, however the principle point of conflict appeared to be; Gigerenzer believed in a kind of ‘expert intuition’, whereas Kahneman is more sceptical.

Whereas the Kahneman and Tversky school (ie much of the behavioural economics lobby) principally associate heuristics and biases with human error  (to be fair, in Thinking Fast and Slow DK does say that his view had softened over time, much System one activity can also be described as 'skill'), Gigerenzer assert that heuristics not necessarily cost the decision-maker and are often 'smart'.

These are the semantics that cause the big rifts in Academia. Heh.

What is initially startling about Gigerenzer's ‘Gut Feelings’ (we are reading this just now) is how much of his schtick Gladwell appropriated for ‘Blink’.

In 'Gut Feelings' Gigerenzer references H G Wells, who famously noted "If we want to have an educated citizenship in a modern technological society, we need to teach them three things: reading, writing, and statistical thinking."

To this day we teach reading and writing to children but not yet statistical thinking in any significant way.

Perhaps we won't get much better at avoiding certain cognitive slip-ups until this is addressed.

An example of a typical statistical error is given from the New Scientist magazine.

A Food inspector visited a restaurant in Salt Lake City famous for its quiches made from four fresh eggs. She told the owner that according to FDA research every fourth egg has salmonella bacteria, so the restaurant should only use three eggs in a quiche.


Anyway, Gigerenzer describes a 'smart heuristic' as a tool for making good decisions in an uncertain world, where one sometimes has to ignore information in order to make an optimal choice.

His principal gift to the advertising world is one such smart heuristic - it should be said that this one crops up less frequently than it's usefullness would indicate - the recognition heuristic.

In simple terms, this means that when faced with a choice between something familiar and something unfamiliar, people tend to opt for the former, and this choice is often the best choice.

In other words, it's usually sensible that people should place a higher value on something they recognise over an alternative that is less familiar.

Therefore recognition based heuristics help consumers choose which brands to buy in frequently purchased categories.

Another way to describe this is salience.
Salience in this context, being the propensity of a brand to come to mind in buying situations.

It seems simple but, and this is something you can try at home, when asked to name as many brands in a particular category as possible, people can rarely name more than three or four in that first instant.

After a few moments thought a few more can come to mind, but theres rarely that kind of reflection in a buying situation.

Though when read a list of brands in a given category then people will be 'aware' of a far larger number.

Therefore, unaided salience is an better predictor of the brands people will buy.

And a useful example of a recognition-based heuristic.

As Professor Sharp notes in 'How Brands Grow'; there are many brands that buyers could consider, if they had thought of them.

I've introduced the good Professor at this point for a specific purpose.

I attended the MSIX (Marketing Science Ideas Exchange) conference in Sydney last week.

A fuller review of this I intend to write shortly, but one of the stand out (salient) points was made by one of the speakers - a non-marketing person - Jon Williams of PwC who said that for behavioural economics to have an impact on business/marketing then 'we need to move from party tricks to business results'.

My sense is that is what Professor Sharp was alluding to in an article he published in Marketing Mag this week entitled 'Behavioural Economics is not the big story in marketing'.

Professor Sharp says:

'But what really worries me is that this infatuation with theatrical psychology lab experiments – that show participants in lab experiments can be nudged without knowing it – is bringing back a discredited theory of brand image of besotted/manipulated consumers'

Then goes on to describe recognition heuristics almost exactly.

'Yes, consumers use heuristics to make ‘good enough’, not perfect, decisions. But they use these heuristics because they work rather well. For example, the assumption that higher-priced items are better quality works pretty well because it’s largely true.

Then later adds.

....don’t forget that the main reason your sales aren’t what you’d like them to be is that your brand doesn’t have the mental and physical availability to produce the demand that you would like.'

Many months ago I read a piece by Mark Earls who also expressed some scepticism abut the ability of behavioural economics to paint the whole picture. At the time this didn't really register however there is a picture becoming clearer now that is pointing towards a more unified theory.

What Professor Sharp describes as 'mental availability' - or salience - is the same thing that Gigerenzer would describe as recognition. A major factor in recognition is the sense of popularity - and this is core to Mark Earls's thesis.

These factors combine to create demand.

Fulfilling demand, however, is heavily dependent on 'physical availability' and much of the so-called 'party tricks' of nudg-ery are perhaps best employed in that context, if only from the point of view that even if recognition is a principle driver we will tend to 'satisfice' right at the last second if one of the other couple of brands that are salient present themselves more easily.

Anyway, to round off we were delighted to discover the very first TV ad for the fledgeling VW Golf featuring The Munich Beefeaters Dixieland Band with one Gerd Gigerenzer on the steering wheel and banjo.

As an undergraduate Gigerenzer was a keen trad-jazz banjo player, playing in jazz bands at night in order to fund his university studies.