Is Reading Still Fundamental?

The words in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" haven't changed in 130 years, but the experience of reading it sure has. I don't mean the sociological context; I mean the mechanics of reading the novel itself. Or any novel.

What's changed is our brains. They seem different. That's because we're awash, day in and day out, in emails, tweets, Facebook posts, IMs, text messages, PowerPoint slides and Google results – bits of information we need for a multitude of simultaneous tasks that are interrupted every five minutes.

So after five days and at least 40 hours of this during the work week, it's asking a lot of our scattered minds to immerse themselves in a great American novel on the weekend. We make this challenge even steeper when we try reading it on a computer screen instead of in a traditional book with paper pages.

Researchers are looking deeply into these issues – problems focusing and the potential shortcomings of the digital reading experience.

We at Brodeur are fascinated, too. We already explore on a daily basis how variables like people's sensory experiences make things more or less relevant to them. We also try to stay current on behavioral science, since we exist to help clients change the behavior of their customers, constituents and supporters.

The feel of a good book

Logically, a novel is the same thing whether bound in leather or digitized in a Kindle. You'll be reading the same words. But consider the sensory experience of a traditional paper-based book that is solid in your hands throughout the entire read versus an ephemeral digital image of pixilated text that vanishes when you scroll to the next paragraph.

"What I've read on screen seems slippery," writes Brandon Keim in Wired.

Ferris Jabr elaborates in Scientific American:

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains--the left and right pages--and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase--but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.

As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination--sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations--the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

(Sorry that was so dense. You still with me?)

That article, as well as this one in the Washington Post and Keim's in Wired, cite studies with varying implications for digital's effects on reading. Some suggest problems in the digital experience, others not really.

Your brain on Twitter

Book format aside, what have done to ourselves by disintegrating our days into micromoments? Can we really handle the cognitive burden of shifting gears from consuming small bytes of information during the workday to layers of lengthy narrative at night? Assuming we even still like books?

"We're spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habit of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you," Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading, told the Post. "We're in this new era of information behavior, and we're beginning to see the consequences of that."

Maryanne Wolf, author and Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, put a fine point on it in the same article: "Will we become Twitter brains?"

I think we will. At least I am. Or my brain is.

I'm reading "Middlemarch," the celebrated Victorian novel, and I'm embarrassed to say how long it's taking, even accounting for its 900 pages and my naturally scattered brain. Let's just say months. You can't scan that novel, but that's exactly what my brain wants to do.

While there's a lot more to study about reading in the 21st century, the questions alone have implications for communications. They hint at the limits of the time-honored white paper to sustain a reader's attention as it makes a patient, elegant case. They challenge the wisdom of relying on 1,500-word case studies to sell a prospect. They suggest that any content worth producing needs to be distilled along the way into Tweets, dramatic photos, infographics and short videos to meet its potential.

These questions also suggest that we as marketers need to focus even more than ever on serving the interests of our audience. Obvious? Yes. Practiced? Sometimes. Blatantly self-serving communications, always cheesy, no longer stand a chance.

And sadly, the mere sight of a dense essay, no matter how brilliant the writer and timely the topic, risks scaring "readers" away.

Am I right? You still with me? Anyone?!

Our body parts, ourselves

Why do we clench our fists when we're angry but struggle to get out of bed when we're depressed? Why do we tingle all over when we're happy or in love? And do these bodily sensations actually help us figure out what we're feeling?

Scientists are still working all that out, but a novel experiment from Finland may give us some clues. Researchers asked people from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan to think about emotions they've experienced and, on a screen, "paint" the areas of the body that feel stimulated (hot colors) and deactivated (cool colors) during those times [try it].

"Even though we are often consciously aware of our current emotional state, such as anger or happiness, the mechanisms giving rise to these subjective sensations have remained unresolved," says the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. "Here we used a topographical self-report tool to reveal that different emotional states are associated with topographically distinct and culturally universal bodily sensations; these sensations could underlie our conscious emotional experiences. Monitoring the topography of emotion-triggered bodily sensations brings forth a unique tool for emotion research and could even provide a biomarker for emotional disorders."

Why we care

Although bodily sensation maps may never drive marketing decisions, we at Brodeur are deeply interested in the interplay of physical sensations and emotions. That's because it profoundly affects whether people, things or ideas are relevant. Relevance breeds action, which is important to marketers, leaders and causes.

Relevance often starts with the sensory: Think of the first time you touched a smart phone, fell in love with it and bought one for yourself. Or when a candidate's warm handshake, as much as her policy, won your vote. Or when you hugged a sick friend, yearned to help, and found yourself donating more than you planned to find a cure.

Our research uncovers sensory keys to consumer decision-making. In hotels, for instance, water pressure in the shower drives more conversation than bed comfort by a ratio of 2 to 1. Room noise is a hot topic, and breakfast offerings matter a lot more than lunch or dinner.

Can senses affect business-to-business purchase decisions? We think so. If you're a chief information officer looking at storage solutions for your company, hard return on investment is certainly important. But won't you also gravitate toward a vendor who will keep your data center tidy, give you the sweetest-looking-and-feeling user interface, and convince you your head will hit the pillow at night without a worry-induced stomach ache? These are sensory concerns.

As we've mentioned before, logic is just a small part of what prompts meaningful behavior. Sensations, emotions, values and social impulses quite often trump it.

How to defeat the ignorance of the crowd

The wisdom of the crowd turns out to be more of an oxymoron than we thought. Not only can vendors game online "star" ratings to deceptively promote their books, restaurants or hotels; positive ratings may be dramatically inflated even when consumers bestow them in good faith.

Specifically, positive ratings seem to trigger more positive ratings until the thing being rated is...well...wildly overrated.

So suggests new research by scholars from MIT, Hebrew University and New York University. They collaborated with an unidentified news website and focused on the reader comment sections associated with each article. Each reader comment receives a numerical rating based on up and down votes that other readers have given that comment. Over five months, the researchers arbitrarily gave newly posted comments initial up or down votes, or left the comment alone, then watched what happened:

The first [real] person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score.... Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group. "That is a significant change," [co-author] Dr. [Sinan K.] Aral said. "We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding." (New York Times)

Remember this the next time you visit a restaurant that Yelp promises will be a five-star experience. And if you're a vendor, don't assume your online reputation is as pristine as your star ratings. You may be getting absolutely ravaged elsewhere on the Internet.

Look deeper

A far better way to understand your own brand and market is to look at what people are actually saying, and do it methodically. For example, we recently analyzed online conversation around the hotel industry and went far beyond the numbers.

With our partner MavenMagnet, we looked at more than 18,000 online hotel-related conversations between May 2012 and October 2012 across social networks, profiles, forums, news websites and blogs. We examined: •Buzz volume (how much conversation there was about each brand) •Positivity of that buzz (positive/negative ratio) •Impact of that buzz (e.g., the likes, links, mentions, retweets and conversation volume a comment attracted).

Then we dug deeper, separating conversations of leisure travelers from business travelers. Then we drilled even deeper into leisure travelers, separating the comments of those traveling with children from those without.

When we looked at all of these conversations, we analyzed not only practical considerations like cost and location but also guests' comments around their senses, values and social needs, which are the other dimensions of Brodeur's relevance model. (On the sensory side, for example, we discovered that that water pressure in the hotel shower actually eclipses even bed comfort in online attention.)

We ultimately discovered that Hilton, Marriott and Four Seasons rated the highest in what we call Conversational Relevance™.

You can't game 18,000 online conversations. And when you work this hard and smart to understand where a brand stands, you don't get fooled. Here's our report.

Do you ever wonder what people really think of your business?

India's exploding digital economy

This blog was written by Jeffrey F. Rayport who is a member of the Brodeur Partners Advisory Board, a noted digital strategist and private equity investor. He was formerly on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a conference of global entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Mumbai — an event called Founders Forum India. Founders Forum is a franchise started by two successful UK-based entrepreneurs, Brent Hoberman and Jonnie Goodwin, to stimulate US-style entrepreneurship in the European region, and now around the world. The event brought together some 250 entrepreneurs and investors for a series of panels, round tables, and a business plan competition. It also featured a showcase of hot new Indian start-ups.

What the event made clear — beyond the striking array of talent in the room assembled by our Indian host, Reliance Group’s Rajesh Sawhney — was a stunningly bright future for all things digital in India. Indeed, practically any statistic you might cite about Digital India suggests that something unusual is going on. And the impact will occur in the next 24 to 36 months, based on the following data and projections:

Let’s start with Internet access. Today, India’s population of Internet users is 80 million, which equals a penetration rate of just seven percent (or 17 percent of the urban population). That is about to change. The government is rolling out what it calls its National Broadband Plan, a $4.5 billion initiative to build a country-wide fiber optic network that will connect an additional 160 million Indians by 2014. An Indian investment bank, Avendus, projects 376 million Indian Net users by 2015.

Part of what’s fueling growth in Net penetration is an explosion in mobility. The Indian government sponsored the introduction of 3G services in 2011 with a $30 billion spectrum auction. Morgan Stanley projects that 3G penetration will reach 22 percent by 2015. Government and the private sector have spent something like $55 billion on related infrastructure. Further, we’ll see a roll-out of 4G wireless services across the country in 2012. While there are nearly 800 million mobile subscribers in India, very few use smart phones; most have feature phones that deliver, at best, premium text-based services. As unit economics enable ever cheaper smart phones (the lowest price in the market is now $65), their penetration will rise.

Fueling this explosion is a fact of national culture: Indians love media. No one aware of the nation’s obsession with “ABC” (Astrology, Bollywood, and Cricket) will be surprised to learn that the average Indian consumes 4.5 hours of media and entertainment a day, while 70 percent of the national population spends money on content, both online and off. Time spent online already comes to 40 minutes per capita per day.

Mobility will drive much of the expansion in Internet usage. One of every four Internet users in the country now accesses the Net using a mobile device. A leapfrog effect will mean that three of every four Net users will do so by 2015. Bye-bye to the clunkier and more costly PC.

One result of this expansion is that e-commerce is rapidly taking off. Granted, only 11 percent of Indian online users are transacting online. As in China several years ago, there’s a reluctance to pay for goods using the Web; most of today’s online transactions are in the travel industry (representing 87 percent of a $6.3 billion e-commerce sector, says Avendus). Still, Amazon lookalike Infibeam is growing sales handily. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the domestic retail space more broadly. Infibeam’s founder projects growth of the retail economy from $400 billion today to $1 trillion by the end of the decade. Digital will inevitably play a starring role in propelling this growth.

At the same time, there is an abundance of local capital ready to deploy to feed new ventures. Consumer demand for innovative digital services, when executed ably, seems unquenchable; and that demand is stimulating capital flows. For this reason, one entrepreneur observed, “More companies [in India] die of indigestion than of starvation.” According to Mergermarket, the value of investment activity rose from $111 million in 2010 to $829 million in 2011, while the number of deals doubled from 33 to 66. This expansion isn’t just domestic. Indian entrepreneurs are feeling bullish about global markets. One publicly traded company, OnMobile, an operator of premium SMS services, now does business in 52 countries around the world.

Growing confidence among Indian entrepreneurs is related to one other market attribute: Indian consumers are extraordinarily demanding. Many at the conference articulated the idea simply. As they say in Manhattan, the Mumbai crowd averred, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

Yes, there are challenges. There are at least 16 languages spoken throughout the country. There’s the question of how to develop robust legal, regulatory, and financial infrastructure (including payment systems). There’s the problem of sound policing of intellectual property rights. There’s an aversion to subscription-based offerings. And, as ever, there’s something else you cannot ignore: executional risk.

But it was hard for me, from a moderator’s perch, not to feel exhilarated by the dramatic upside for Digital India. The subcontinent seems on the cusp of amazing developments, only beginning with broadband Net access, high-speed mobility, and e-commerce. The idea that India — with its scale, its energy, its consumers — could become a digital laboratory and growth engine for the world struck me as both likely and inspiring.

Given that, is it any wonder many who attended the conference regard India’s digital opportunity in the next few years as greater than China’s?


The future of e-books: iPad's Bram Stoker's Dracula

While e-books are growing in popularity, they represent only 8% of all books sold today. Sales will continue to climb as new concepts hit the market like the iPad-based Official Stoker Family Edition of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula.
This isn’t your Mom’s Kindle e- book.
While it’s the original 1897 Stoker tome, Dracula has been wonderfully re-imagined. Most of the 300 pages come alive, driven by a game engine developed for the Apple iPad by PadWorx Digital Media. This enables readers to experience a book in a whole new way, from social media to gameplay to touch screen interaction.
And then there’s the glorious, shiny, iPad color “pop.” When blood trickles and howling wolves walk across the page, it’s mesmerizing.
There are hundreds of interactive experiences in this iPad Dracula. The compound effect is addictive. We’ve all talked about books “we can’t put down,” but this app takes the expression to a new level:
  • Can’t read a page because it’s too dark? Light a candle, then move it closer to the text.
  • A heavy gravestone slab is blocking your path… so… drag it and listen as the stone scrapes and moves away.
  • As Stoker describes Lucy being hypnotized, she appears in illustrated form, eyes open. Move your finger across her face and she falls into a trance.
  • Press the tip of a transfusion needle and blood flows through the tube.
  • Tilt the iPad and a character’s face changes from glorious to macabre.
  • Blow leaves off a tombstone so you can read the text beneath.
But the real kick, for me, were the small, unexpected touches like…
Snow falling across the page…Touch an envelope and out comes a handwritten letter…Press a (blood) red word and it launches you to a just-received telegram…Rats scramble across the page… Open the window of an insane asylum and peer inside…Unlock a mausoleum’s door with a key…Feed sugar to flies as they buzz across a page.
Music plays a key role in setting the mood. Each of the book’s 27 chapters features original, full-length songs – activated by touching a drop of blood. Eerie music starts playing when you’re reading a particularly creepy or suspenseful passage.
If all this wasn’t enough, there are eight “bonus” forms of content hidden within the application, including:
  • The entire 1922 film Nosferatu, based on the 1897 Bram Stoker Dracula
  • The entire Orson Welles radio adaptation of Dracula
  • The death certificate of Bram Stoker
“It really is a different kind of reading experience," said Jeffrey Schechter of PadWorx Digital Media.
He got that right. Dracula is the future of e-books. And you get all this for $4.99.

Can we get more media variety?

We either get too much of the same thing, too little of the formerly hot thing or not enough of the real thing.
Consider too much of the same thing: last year the media focused incessantly (and often aggravatingly) on BP’s oil spill and its blackened brand, Toyota’s troubles, Facebook’s face, Gap’s new logo, Android’s surge and iPad’s popularity. And let us not forget Foursquare, GM’s resurgence, Nestle’s blunders, Jet Blue’s whacko attendant, Twitter’s apparent omnipresence and technology’s journey to the cloud.
But this isn’t anything new; beating a story to death personifies today’s media.
More curious are the occasions when the hottest story goes glacial. Not because the story ended, but because media interest waned. Case in point: the Haiti earthquake. The story dominated TV, online news and mainstream pubs for three months. But then coverage virtually stopped. Sean Penn called the media on it.
A similar thing happened with the BP oil debacle. Yes the oil had stopped flowing, but like the Haiti earthquake, life-altering ramifications continued to unfold including more affected shoreline, oil tenaciously clinging to marsh grass and people disagreeing with the FDA that it’s now safe to eat Gulf seafood.

Finally, and most inexplicable, we have the third story type affecting the media blend: not enough of the real thing. Consider this mere handful among hundreds of underreported stories:

  • While we heard all year that Twitter was everywhere and a major social force, a December 2010 Pew study about Twitter gave us fresh perspective, saying only 8% of American adults using the Internet use Twitter. This equates to only 2% usage on a typical day. Nearly half hardly ever read a word of the endless Tweets being Tweeted. You wouldn’t know that from all the buzz. 
  • Who knew that defrauding health care companies has now become the hottest thing since Medicare fraud? $2.5 billion was collected in the past year alone. It’s only going to get worse.
  • Last week, Amazon announced the Kindle 3 became its best-selling item of all time. Interesting news considering iPad’s media mania.
  • More than 30 states are extracting natural gas from shale rocks, fueling a new “gas rush” as we seek to diminish our reliance on foreign oil. But critics are saying the EPA is underestimating the impact this is having on our drinking water.
  • Fiber optic cable was positioned as a be-all-end-all solution, but last year companies holding dark-fiber inventory (fiber not being used) took portions off the market to push prices up. Prices have doubled in the last 12 months as the inventory shrinks while more computing goes to the cloud. Is our Internet future in danger?
  • Good news! Did you know people gave more money in 2010, despite a troubling economy?
  • Did we hear enough about the anti-regulators who “permitted the Great Recession” who were left in charge, or even promoted?
  • Even though the banks repaid TARP funds, this doesn’t mean they are healthy. “Their asset values are often grossly inflated, which means their net worth is grossly inflated.”
Getting more story richness and balance in 2011 is arguably a naïve request. But can you imagine a media climate where we heard less of what we’re tired of hearing and more of what we don’t know? Bring it on, we have the time, interest and ability to deal with more variety, not less.

Super Bowl ads 2011: what worked, what didn't

What worked & what didn't with 2011's Super Bowl ads

  • What happened to social responsibility? Super Bowl ads were trending this way but we lost it last night. My hopes started rising when Timothy Hutton began talking about Tibet, but the ad speedily deteriorated into a pathetic sales pitch for Groupon. Not aligning purpose-driven brands with authentic social responsibility marketing campaigns is a missed opportunity.
  • Bloat busts brands - I usually love Coke's Super Bowl ads, but not this year. The medieval-themed animated world was visually mesmerizing but the idea fell apart. The evil dragon can't breathe fire because he guzzled a Coke...the invading army retreats. Too much set-up for a petering payoff. Ditto for Coke's enemies border guard ad - a lengthy build-up to a disappointing ending. Other brands lost their way: Motorola's de-positioning of Apple's iPad tablet was another example.
  • Jumping the shark - The E*TRADE babies aren't cute anymore - the concept is hackneyed. Cloud computing must be jumping the shark when animated Black Eyed Peas characters are pitching the atmospheric technology concept in ad. Some topics should never go consumer. 


  • Simple trumps complicated - the ads that stuck were also short and simple. VW's endearing Darth Vader and Faith Hill's "your rack" ad for Teleflora artfully demonstrated how a tight focus generates the most impact and memorability. 
  • Dumbing down can be dumb - we faced an onslaught of sophomoric Doritos and Bud Light spots in the early going. Post-SB measurement is validating how the lowest common denominator doesn't always equal effectiveness.
  • Dumbing down cleverly is better - Bud Light's dog-themed "They'll do whatever you want" was clever-dumb, right down to the canine poker game fade-out.
  • Long builds can work if the concept is tight - while bloated, convoluted ads (see Coke) can lose the brand, the Detroit-themed "this is what we do" Chrysler commercial featuring Eminem was captivating.


  • Connecting TV to the online brand - Go Daddy made the most blatant connection between traditional and new media, driving viewers to its website to see the presumably titillating payoff.  
  • Fresh creative will always pop - the CarFax ads were original and felt it. The messaging platform "Service shouldn't be a thing of the past" was brilliantly set up by eager beaver 1950's era service station attendants and home delivery milkmen. Ditto for this brand's "I feel like a..." ad. It was fun to watch because we haven't seen it before. Ditto for GM's Camaro ad featuring voice-overs from TV creatives talking through their ad concept as we saw it unfolding. The schoolteacher ending was cherry-topping.
  • Flashback montage winner - who wasn't sucked into the NFL Channel's zippy montage of favorite TV characters brought back to life? 
  • Seventies music ruled - from Budweiser's Western gunslinger to BMW's X3, the music often took a retro turn featuring baby boomer classics like Elton's "Tiny Dancer" to Bowie's "Changes." 
  • Best tease - went to VW's "Beetle" ad. Their only mistake was using Ram Jam's politically incorrect 1977's "Black Betty" as the theme. They could've picked a better-fit song; this will backlash.
  • Subtlety thy name is not Audi - it's unusual to see a car company select one - and only one - competitor to aggressively and directly de-position. Like its previously themed ads, Audi used nearly all the time from last night's spot emphasizing how Mercedes is no longer relevant. The new Audi 8 makes a quick appearance a few seconds at the end as the shiny relevant machine. Meanwhile, Mercedes relied on Janis Joplin's tune and P. Diddy to assert its hipness - it didn't work. 

What's jumping the shark in 2011 in the world of tech?

As I watched The Office the other night (missing its original cleverness & quirkiness), I wondered: what’s jumping the shark in the world of tech?
Some are obvious: MySpace; cable TV subscriptions; brick & mortar video chains; Digg; flip phones, eBay and DVDs.

But what’s jumping the shark before our eyes? Consider the following candidates - some are unquestionably declining; others remain arguable in their pending sharkiness :

  • Delicious – word got out last month that Yahoo was shutting down its social bookmarking site. Then it shifted gears, talking about selling the service. Does this mean the world doesn’t need wide-scale storing, sharing and discovering web bookmarks?
  • Netbooks – the handwriting is on the tablet – netbooks from the likes of HP, Dell and Asus have been usurped by the Tablet Rush. (Thanks Apple for showing the way.) Now established companies like Motorola are in the game with the favorably reviewed Xoom and unknowns - like Notion – are garnering buzz with Adam. RIM skipped the netbook phase and moved directly to the tablet.
  • Virtualization – although it might be a tad early to make the call, there are some indications virtualization may be taking a hit as all things shift to the Cloud as companies worry more about taming management complexity issues.
  • Cloud computing – a harried, flight-delayed couple gets happy when they say “let’s go to the cloud” in a current TV commercial. Is cloud computing so mass market already that it’s jumped the shark? Some people think it’s already peaked.
  • Chatroulette – who doesn’t want a face-to-face webcam experience with an endless parade of strangers with a complete inability to manage the experience (find friends, trace your steps back, etc.). Evidently, a lot of people.
  • Twitter – a frequent knock against Twitter is “lots of talk but is anybody listening?” If Twitter usage hasn’t peaked, has its clout?
  • Large email service providers – several very capable small email service providers have proven themselves and are delivering a high level of functionality at far less cost. Why pay more when you can get it from vendors like Newsberry?
  • Quora – it hasn’t been around long (launched June 2009) and buzz is growing not declining, but some are already questioning its viability. If you’re not familiar Quora, it’s Search meets Wikipedia meets Yahoo Answers. Is it a retread or a valuable idea we’ll need more.
  • Facebook – some pundits are saying Facebook has peaked. With 500 million friends and climbing, it’s hard to make the case though. But maybe they’re right…The Social Network won a Golden Globe for Best Picture.
  • Augmented reality – there’s growing buzz that while it’s definitely cool, augmented reality hasn’t (and might never) find a useful purpose. To avoid jumping the shark, it needs to go from cool to practical applications.
  • Blu-ray – every year since it came out, marketers have prophesized “the year of Blu-ray” but it hasn’t happened yet. Blu-ray video now accounts for 11% of all movie sales according to Nielsen. The format appears to be growing, but the buzz has flattened. For example, there were fewer Blu-ray announcements at this year’s CES (except for the Star Wars trilogy news). Will 2011 be the tipping point year?
  • Blogging – last year’s Christian Science Monitor article (Has blogging peaked?) made a case for Twitter and Facebook now being the glue that keeps online communities together. There’s growing buzz that blogging requires too much work and diminishing returns. The biggest sharkiness sign may be that the majority of blogs are never updated.
  • Governance risk and compliance (GRC) – is this software being increasingly marginalized as more and more customers go SaaS?
What isn’t on this list that should be? What shouldn’t be on the list? Talk to me…

No brand's perfect, and that's okay

Rhetoricians call it “arguing against interest.” In simple terms, it’s a good way to build credibility fast. You readily admit a weakness in yourself or your argument to actually advance your larger case. I swear to you, your honor, I had no role in the killing of which I’m accused. I was out of state, uh, delivering a shipment of drugs. This mechanism causes the audience to wonder, who but an honest-to-God truth teller would disclose something so damning?
Arguing against interest can be a powerful tool for building brand credibility. Look at Domino’s Pizza, now publicly admitting their old pizza was terrible. Or Dos Equis: What, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer? This is a beer commercial!
What makes arguing against interest so powerful is its stark contrast against the vast majority of communication that argues, often lamely, in its own interest. Ads, websites, press releases and corporate blogs dump buckets of overstated goodness on a cringing consumer. You know, if you buy the right camera, you’ll shoot National Geographic quality images. With the right diamond necklace, you’ll be back on your honeymoon, and with a fabulous spouse.
Not saying such images aren’t seductive, but overstatement is the Achilles heel of marketers who are mired in old-school corporate communications. While gilding the lily has never been a great persuasion technique, today’s audiences despise it. They are sophisticated, discriminating and skeptical, if not cynical, driven largely by social media.
Case in point
A wonderful example of a brand arguing against interest to deepen credibility is Patagonia, the maker of outdoor apparel for skiers, rock climbers and campers (it’s like a crunchy Timberland). They’re not just sprinkling their content with a few aw shucks asides, they’re actually building their brand around a concept that, at first glance, is directly opposed to their own goal of making money.
The company’s Common Threads Initiative is urging customers to buy less clothing, wear it longer, repair it instead of throwing it away, and when it’s worn out, hand it back to Patagonia for reuse or recycling.
… to wrest the full life out of every piece of our clothing, the first three of the famous four R’s are equally important – to reduce, repair and reuse as well as recycle.
Under reduce, the company is calling on consumers to “buy what you’ll wear, and want to keep long enough to wear out” in order to “get by with fewer clothes.”
Under repair, it’s offering to fix zippers for free if the garment has enough life left in it.
(The company already has a recycling program that’s collected 39 tons of used clothes.)
This initiative is like General Motors telling you to drive your clunker into the ground because it’s the right thing to do. Of course, Patagonia is a for-profit business and commercial brand. So their larger goal with the Common Threads Initiative, one assumes, is to deepen customer loyalty, reduce raw material costs, and put a noble face on plain ol’ customer service (I mean, they’re probably going to fix zippers anyway).
Deep in the content
All this is clearly a flavor of cause branding, but Patagonia is taking it to the next level with a generous dose of argument against interest throughout its public content. For example, Patagonia recently underwent a corporate social responsibility (CSR) audit. A nonprofit watchdog organization took a hard look at their operations. Patagonia blogged about the audit in great detail. The post mentions a couple of instances of where the company fell short in the review (arguing against interest). They even admit they’re a founder of the group that was auditing them. Who even blogs about audits, much less the negative findings and conflicts of interest? Now you might be asking, where’s the marketing value in this? What comes through is not Patagonia’s warts, but its seriousness about being green and transparent. It’s as authentic as you can ever expect communications to get. And utterly believable.
Another example: In writing about the new Common Threads Initiative, Patagonia talks about its five-year-old recycling program, whose goal was to make all Patagonia clothes recyclable within five years. “This we will achieve in fall 2011,” Patagonia writes, “a year behind schedule.” Another argument against interest. This line is just sitting there in the copy, no excuses, no tortured transitions, just a fact. You make the call. This kind of statement is convincing.
Patagonia has a minisite, The Footprint Chronicles, that drills into the origin of Patagonia garments. Click on the Merino 2 Crew sweater and learn that the wool is sustainably ranched, the dye is okay, and the factory is okay,  but the wool travels 16,280 miles from sheep to store. “This is not sustainable,” the Patagonia website tells us. Who says this about their own supply chain? Nobody. In how many instances is it true? All the time, presumably. Patagonia cares so much about getting it right they readily admit what they’re still getting wrong.
In another Patagonia post, a blogger admits his orthopedic problems ruined his climbing adventure. One would expect tales of glory. But while Nike has LeBron and UGG Under Armour has Tom Brady, here’s Patagonia speaking through a guy whose arm keeps dropping out of his shoulder socket.

If all this arguing against interest sounds like overkill, it’s only because we’re calling out the exceptions to the rest of the Patagonia content, which as you would expect is generally favorable to the company. But this positive content is all the more believable next to a few well-conceived arguments against interest.

By acknowledging that’s nobody’s perfect, starting with yourself, you can strike the perfect note.


Who are today's most effective thought leaders?

Nearly every organization/company would agree thought leadership is a good thing.
But when it comes to readily naming brands that exemplify thought leadership, most people struggle. When they do name names, the results are either remarkably similar or widely diverging.
I surveyed 20 high-level opinion leaders to uncover their insights and opinions on this topic. Their titles included CEO, CMO, Chairman, Founder, Partner and EVP.
First finding: people have a hard time. One CEO’s response sums it up: “Your question gave me pause, because no company came to mind immediately.” There were many extended pauses with the others.
Second finding: they have the obvious in common.
It’s amazing how frequently people answer “Apple” when asked questions like “Who’s the best branding company?” or “‘Who’s the best marketing company?” or “Who do you admire the most?” In this particular instance, our question was in the same zone, but substantively different:
Who does the best job being a thought leader?
Apple’s brand reputation is built on product innovation; they dream up cool products so thoughtfully conceived people buy them en masse. They definitely shape agendas. But do they personify creative, proactive, 35,000-ft. thought leadership?
Beyond Apple, the two most frequently cited were the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Wal-Mart. On the latter, one EVP said, “I have to admit the evil empire has led its industry in the adoption of clean energy for its stores, arm-twisting its suppliers to use more eco-friendly materials and packaging. It’s pushing organic food and it’s starting to buy more locally grown food.”
Third finding: beyond the obvious, there was zero commonality. Answers ranged from Bank of America, AARP and to Facebook, Pepsico and IBM to Mass General Hospital, Stanford and Nike to The New York Times, DreamWorks and Amazon to P&G, the Koch Brothers and Disney.

Fourth finding: several strong candidates emerged for which respondents passionately defended their thought leadership. These included:

  • Zappos – “They’re all about building a great company that customers want to deal with - even in the potentially dehumanizing/commoditizing world of the Web.”
  • McKinsey - “Unquestionably my number one example”
  • Brighter Planet – “Putting their money where their mouth is in terms of creating interactive, collaborative environments for change.”
  • Deloitte – “That’s the business the consulting firms are in and they are the best at it.”
  • TOMS Shoes – “Has a social philosophy built into it”
  • NPR – “A thought leader both in content that flows through the organization as well as their innovative use of multiple media”
  • Tea Party –“Hate to say it, but they’re a thought leader (very little thought) for 15% of the population.”
  • Nissan – “For their Nissan LEAF ‘Innovation for All’ electric vehicle adoption campaign”
  • Stonyfield Farm – “Using its high profile CEO to advance sustainability”
  • 3M – “Good positioning of the company’s focus on innovation and building”

Companies and organizations create thought leadership campaigns to differentiate and establish leadership personas for themselves. Messaging of this type has broad, forward appeal. It’s not a rehash of where things have been, but rather a brilliant articulation of how things should be.

Compelling thought leadership lives a long life … years, not days. The ideas are so strong that direct competitors frequently adopt them - either overtly or indirectly. The best ideas are thought-provoking, sometimes controversial. They challenge the marketplace, are perceived as newsworthy by traditional and social media and energize consumers to take action.

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