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Hall of Shame

I don’t usually do this but the South Bank Centre emailed me a questionnaire today which was stunningly awful.

My prize for Most Unanswerable Question goes to this pair of lovelies:

What would you put? No, I still have no idea.

On the last page of the survey, after countless other difficult questions, there was a two-part Brand Price Trade-Off question – this question, repeated for the other type of memberships.  IDEK, as they say.   Hard enough to answer when there’s a lady with a clipboard tapping her pen, but a downright brainteaser as an online question.

Please, South Bank Centre, please please please get someone else to check the questionnaire before you go out.   I live in Cambridge (you didn’t ask) and I come to your events once a year.  It’s not that I don’t like you or your acoustically perfect venue. Sigh.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a quick critique and rant

Or, Marketing’s Need to Hear Simple Stories.

If there’s one theory of motivation that everyone has heard of, it’s good old Maslow and his pyramidal Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s the basis of many other theories, including the simpler concept that motivations can be divided into the essentials (hygiene factors) and motivators to action (motivators).

I came across Maslow yesterday while reading a report on public consultation approaches, by someone who is using a Maslow-based system to segment the general UK population according to their values.   These  segments, it is argued, make it easier to predict how people will react in certain kinds of debate.   The approach is apparently popular amongst advertisers.  It’s a proprietary system, so I can’t comment on the detail, and there is no information provided about the reliability and validity of the test questionnaire.    I don’t particularly want to chase after the organisations concerned, because it is quite likely that studies like this one have been  created, sold and reported entirely in good faith.  And that is bloody depressing.

What really concerns me is that marketers and buyers are so damned credulous.   Two minutes of literature searching would yield the uncomfortable fact that while Maslow is hugely popular amongst the self-actualising types, there’s really no evidence for his hierarchy.  Yes, it’s a useful sketch of motivation, and a very pretty pyramid, but there is no evidence that you can account for real people’s behaviour by invoking any part of it apart from the part about people requiring food and water.

It’s an incredibly powerful, deeply meaningless story. We love it. We quote it vaguely.  Then you go and read the Wikipedia entry (which is pretty fair) and think wait, what?

And if you’re a bit cross with me, just think: how would you go about testing it?  What aspects of behaviour do you think create problems for this theory? Do you think that this theory has any political overtones, and does that matter?

Maslow’s theory meets our thirst for very simple ideas.

On loving 70-page Powerpoints


Bored!!!!!!! by SAMAEL TRIP, on Flickr

I feel compelled to weigh in on the whole ‘Death by Powerpoint’ discussion.  Steve Gatt of Volkswagen was interviewed in August’s edition of Research Magazine, and gave an interview in which he complained about the standard of market research in general and in particular about receiving 70 pages of Powerpoint when all his team really needed were 15. Or even three.

As I read, I found myself nodding like the Churchill Insurance dog, for do I not complain about Powerpoint all the time?  Do I not, in fact, possess a copy of Edward Tufte’s seminal critique of Powerpoint?

He wanted 15, they gave him 70.   Time after time, apparently.

That’s odd.

And I’m wondering: is something else going on?  So, I have three thoughts: power imbalances, time pressure and researcher disbelief.

Power Imbalance

Listening to the interview, I had a couple of flashbacks to my time as a green young researcher attending what’s usually known as a ‘car clinic’ – possibly the largest-scale market research ever undertaken.   A research company and a car company take over a giant hall space, and do endless top secret research over the course of a very long weekend.

If I recall, automotive research is some of the most scary that an agency will ever undertake. It’s often very expensive, it’s very high profile and the working culture can be robust, to say the least.  It is so expensive that the agency chairman will pop in for a chat.  The politics of large organisations like this are labyrinthine.  The investment decisions are immense.  (NB I have no knowledge of Volkswagen and it may well be entirely cuddly).

It is very, very, VERY important not to screw this up.

Unfortunately, I don’t think these are the ideal conditions for breezing in with three pages of recommendations.  At the very least, you would want to justify your recommendations thoroughly.

Time Pressure

It takes ages to write a very short report. I would also argue that for some projects, the recommendations will be far more helpful if they are jointly developed.    Too often, there isn’t time for the succinct report.

Researcher Disbelief

Every time I hear a market research manager ask for ‘just three pages’, my soul is a little bit crushed.   I don’t really want to admit this, yet it’s true.  You pour everything you have into researching, analysing and reporting and pfft, three pages and a call to action, that’s all we need. Be on your way,  you dull purveyor of data, for we are marketers.

It sounds disrespectful, to be honest.  All those hundreds of interviews, all those miles of road.   That budget, for heaven’s sake.   And yet it often sounds as though you don’t really want to know the detail.

The comparisons don’t wash, either.   Management consultants are liable to produce 140-page documents in densely packed 12-point fonts, and they’ll charge four times the price.

I need to be clear:  I’m not advocating the 70 page Powerpoint when we’ve agreed something different; but I’ve been in many a 50 page Powerpoint and even a 90 page Powerpoint presentation that was client-sanctioned.  It is often the one time that people look at the data, and the one time that the agency is there to explain it.   Also, many private sector clients live in meetings cultures – you could send it in as a document, but they probably wouldn’t read it.

For me, reporting is like a pyramid.  For every 10 minute presentation to the Board, there’s a 30-minute presentation to the sales team and a lost afternoon to the research department.    I think you need them all.   I’m assuming Steve (or his department) also gets the massive reports to file, and the data tables to look at. If not, I’m worried.

I’m also saying this because I do think there’s a mismatch.  Researchers, God bless us, often want to say more than marketers want to really hear.  That’s the tension.  Different agendas, different interest.  My challenge to the marketers is whether they are really getting the value that they should from the huge investment that research represents.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

Ray Poynter has an excellent post on getting the best out of Powerpoint.

Over to you

Pro tip: Never advertise something as part of a two-part series unless you have both parts already written.   Sigh.   You can triple this if Thing 2 is slightly harder to dash off than Thing 1. (It will come, but I’m in lockdown at the moment what with project deadlines and the upcoming End of Term).

I’m reviewing the blog and what I write here as part of a massive review of my online er, empire and so I’m interested: who are you? why do you read this blog?  Are there things you’d like me to write about more?

I could write more:

– anguished personal insights

– hints and tips and how to dominate the world

– srs research and usability insights

– random mix of whatever comes to mind

– something else! e.g. what is this science communication of which you speak?

…Hmm.  Hmm.  Has anyone in the whole history of blogging, ever replied to this types of desperate placeholder of a post?  Everyone is too busy working or coming up with their own plans to dominate the world.   This is occasional brain candy for the easily distracted. Or, fodder for the Korean spammers with their links to weight-loss sites.

Also, it’s Monday, when true blog commenters are blearily considering their to-do lists and wondering if it’s really lunchtime yet.

Quick overview of Research 2010

I attended the MRS Conference in London this week, invited by Ray Poynter to perform (there’s no other word for it!) a five minute piece at Tuesday’s Ideas Rush.   I have not been to this conference for absolutely ages.   Met quite a few people from former lives and it was great to see them (shout-outs to Anna Cliffe,  Yvonne Burr, and Ann Morgan), not mention putting faces to more of the Twitter names.    There was more going on than I could possibly catch, and the parallel sessions meant that I ended up running from one room to another to try to catch things.

There was a mood of high anxiety about online research and social media: a strong sense that things are continuing to change very fast.  Rosie Campbell brought some perspective to the sense of being deluged by text, pointing out the importance of analysing discourse.    John Griffiths gave everyone palpitations all over again by talk of research bots gathering information, and  Ray Poynter put up a chart mapping online methods that I bet will be seen in every meeting room from here to Swindon.

I enjoyed some of the Day 1 novelties: as an Armando Iannucci fan, the interview with him which opened the conference had very little to do with the topic but was a delight.  Stephen Sackur showed us the skill of journalistic interviewing, with a panel that was pretty incisive given SS’s relatively unfamiliarity with the industry.   One panelist commented astutely that ‘there are several industries represented here’, and I think that’s very true.

Day 2’s set-pieces were more disappointing (although Dragon’s Den had some terrific performances).   The cynical forecaster was, well, cynical.  I was impressed to see him down the front afterwards selling copies of his pamphlet for a cool £5 (cash only) to a huddle of interested takers.

What can I say about the panel on cultural evolution?   Well.   Mark Earl’s initial party piece, about errors in transmission of gestures, made for wonderful theatre and had the most genetics in it of all 3 pieces.    We then had a piece about the evolution of objects, and a piece about patterns of adopting new objects…

I had joked to someone that there should be a bleeding-edge paper about the application of genetics to market research, but actually this wasn’t it, and I am going to be forced to write that one myself.   It will definitely include the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, as well as a discussion of founder effects.  Heh.

General thoughts:  although I love online research and think it can be rich and illuminating, I caught myself wondering whether the present climate represents the bubble for online involvement.  Communities seem to represent the best of online methods, giving the opportunity to talk to groups in quite a different way; yet there is a great deal of self-selection going on here, and in the online world, as everywhere else, the most desirable groups may be hard to pin down.   Sometimes it’s faster to pick up the phone.

The Research Magazine team did a brilliant job of interviewing and rapid blogging, and I particularly appreciated the Armando Ianucci interview in terms of the amount of preparation required (although repeat viewing of Malcolm Tucker is always rewarding).

The sessions were quick but a lot of delegate yakked on beyond their slot, leaving no room for questions. So, lots to see but could do more to be interactive.  And in the name of heaven do please give delegates a proper lunch.

Special Google Buzz rant edition

Google Buzz came to my Gmail account yesterday.

I am beyond angry with Google right now, as well as with the other developers of social networks who seem obsessed with recreating their own smug worlds of urban white male 20somethings geotagging their coffee bars.

Vaguely coherent reasons for hatred:

1. Appalling usability – options and their effects are completely unclear; the actual interface is not intuitive; and when I logged on this morning, I found that Buzz updates arrive in my Gmail inbox as well as the Buzz one. That’s not going to fly.

2. An apparent inability to consider privacy issues. Others have been far more lucid on this one, but in particular whatever you put in your left-for-dead Google Profile will now bite you in the bum, because your default ‘followers list’ may well be publicly visible until you edit it.

3. By putting a social network in email, Google Buzz crashes the barriers that many of us put up between public and private, work and personal, and indeed private and private.   My social and business worlds consist of many overlapping circles.  People in one circle may have very little in common with those in another.  Right now, I’m happy to manage this network-by-network.  I’m broadly aware of my audience on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.  I don’t want a mixed-up audience: even if it works, it tends to result in blandness rather than increased connection, for one thing.

4. Geotagging is the Devil’s minibar (Mobile Buzz only)

Seriously.  I don’t care how much you all bloody love it, it’s horrible, it’s completely sodding creepy and it is BEYOND DULL.  YES FOURSQUARE USERS I AM LOOKING AT YOU.

‘Oooh, look at me I am in a bar in Chicago and I’m wondering which happening new club to go to next, perhaps the internet can help me?’


NB You may attribute this to the bitterness of a mother-of-two who Doesn’t Get Out much, but still. Rawrrrr.

(No, it’s still creepy. Maybe – maybe if you are very young and you want to know where all your friends are RIGHT NOW this instant on the way to the cool bar, but even then I can see this advantage fading rapidly.  And anyway, can anything really beat the sheer user experience  the simplicity and joy –  of standing around in the cold barking into your mobile ‘I’m outside Holborn tube! Where are you?’)

4a. Thing is, I adore the Internet. But I would love for developers to stop spending their entires lives devising crap stuff to market to people just like themThe future is in figuring out what people not like you might conceivably want.   Facebook, for all its myriad faults, actually turns out to be one of those things.

5. I would occasionally like to get some f%&cking work done.

No, really.  There is only so much Social I can really take, and I’m at the limit here.   I may not be alone.  See all those Twitter updates which cross-post to Facebook? People are cheating on you.

I love my friends, my acquaintances and indeed many of those I work with; but I don’t especially want to talk to them any more than I already do.  Too. much. information.

Are you ready to deal with enragement as well as engagement?

A quick follow-on from Friday’s post on climate science and the need to engage the public.   Science’s vision of ‘the public’ is typically a bunch of  respectful yet unfortunately undereducated folk.  In reality, there are many publics,  including the respectful and the occasionally hostile.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried an interview with Professor Phil Jones, the head of  UEA’s climate science unit, and as such at the centre of the furore over leaked emails from the unit that appear to suggest scientists suppressing Freedom of Information requests.

In the interview, Phil Jones talks about receiving death threats and even having briefly contemplated suicide.  He also talks about the level of requests for information and how he and his colleagues had to come to see them as mischievous attempts to derail the work of his unit.

Jones, 57, said he was unprepared for the scandal: “I am just a scientist. I have no training in PR or dealing with crises.”

Engaging with the public is one skill that many scientists seek to develop, whether they work in obscure fields or TV-friendly areas; however, in many of the sensitive subjects that have blown up in recent years, there has been a passionate base of opposed and activist people.    Quite honestly, if someone is constantly dealing with passionate opposition, it’s not a case of whether a PR crisis will occur, but when and where.

Three points:

1) Engaging with activism is quite different from everyday science communication

It takes a huge amount of energy, as Phil Jones’ interview makes clear.  It requires enormous sensitivity, for people do not adopt passionate viewpoints lightly.  However, the content of activist debate can also distract scientists from addressing more general issues and concerns that passing members of the public might have.   Sustained mutual hostility can also lead to shut-down, as one group feels persecuted by the other and seeks to withdraw from the debate.

2) One-off crisis management is not the answer, especially where scientists are working in networked groups.

I do believe that research funders should be doing all they can to support scientists working in contested areas; and I strongly suspect that scientists are likely to be better prepared to deal with real crises if they are experienced in communicating their science more generally.

The online community specialists Freshnetworks published a nice piece today from an amateur blogger who took up sports blogging and in so doing, encountered ‘engaged’ fans and ‘enraged’ ones.  Dealing politely with the enraged group was a learning curve in itself.

3) Sadly, ‘I’m just a scientist’ probably doesn’t cut it any more.

Ten years ago, I remember talking to confused molecular biologists who held the same views. Some of them felt that the fancy arguments really ought to be held by other people (government, policy experts, PR bods), not by ordinary working scientists like them.  The  sad truth is that few of these others can really advocate effectively.   The scientists themselves need to keep talking, however difficult that conversation might be.

Show and tell: finding lovely communities

After Christmas, I got a bit weighed down by the Twitter-created business blogosphere – often wonderful but increasingly like a giant webring where you know you will eventually come back to Seth Godin.   This web-fatigue is part of the cycle, I think, because I see it in other online settings.

My overwhelm got to the point where I couldn’t summon up the will to comment.   I don’t like that.  So I stopped reading-for-work, and just played around for a bit; and in so doing I found blogs, message boards and websites which are still entirely packed with comments. It’s fun going back to being a participant again.

Here are my top 3.  I’ve added some thoughts on the drivers and barriers to active reader participation that I noticed along the way.

Belgian Waffle

Belgian Waffle is a beautifully written personal blog written by an English woman living in Brussels.  It’s a classic of the confessional style, enlivened by the Waffle’s glorious eccentricity – her launch of rude biscuits, for example, and last year’s online village fete.  I have never commented to Belgian Waffle – the commenters feel like too much of an in-group – and I bet the numbers of comments don’t reflect the numbers reading.

The Fluent Self

This is the business website of Havi Brooks, who is a business coach to start-ups.   She is an interesting mixture of New Age and down-to-earth; she writes the longest, strangest blog posts you will ever see, yet I always look foward to an update.   She is also part of a small-scale revolution in online business-to-business communication, where hard sell is replaced by something altogether different.

I don’t comment to Havi, either, but I probably will soon.  Her comment design is terrific:  the software not only links your website, but provides a link to the last blog post you wrote.  It’s a great way of discovering people, and it also encourages commenters to play nicely.

Havi also controls comments, by having a ‘Comment Zen’ policy setting out what she does and doesn’t want in comments.  I can’t imagine that working in many settings, but it works extremely well for this site.

BBC Being Human

At the time of writing, this is a quite brilliant example of the best in communication between production team and fans.   The blog has extra content and prequels to the show and  the production team host a live blog when the episode airs. It’s also Season 2, and it’s interesting to see how a minority of fans are already getting quite shirty about the direction being taken by the show.   However, it’s a long way from the fist-fights and vitriol that can be seen in a Doctor Who forum. *cough*

I lurk on Being Human and I probably always will: the BBC has one of those exhausting comment ID setups that’s a bit like buying a hifi, and I’m not sufficiently motivated to join in.

Plus bonus 4th:

Oh! Fransson

This one is a splendid example of the craft blog, in this case a blog about modern quilt-making.  I don’t have a reason to read this one regularly, but when I do, Elizabeth Hartman’s beautiful step-by-step photography always brings tears to my eyes.  As with many craft blogs, there is a mixture of good citizenship and sound business sense: you can buy her patterns in her Etsy shop.

The Fluent Self and Oh!Fransson are also examples of a new style of small business on the internet.   They showcase work and promote community, while at the same time developing new businesses models.  Belgian Waffle – well, I’m guessing that the Waffle is a writer and if she doesn’t have a book deal soon I will have to buy some of her Mean Magnets.

I have more but I’m hugging them to my chest.  What  sites are you loving at the moment?

Wisdom of Mobs: the feedback loop

It’s that eerily calm pause between Christmas and New Year frenzy.  There’s a number of half-formed posts in my head, but we’ll go with a swirling scarcely-formed one about crowds, audiences and mobs. Desirable audiences and undesirable ones.

Thought one: the way that the internet has caused unknown mass audiences to become active participants.  I’m thinking of the people who complained to the Press Complaints Commission about Jan Moir’s piece on Stephen Gately; and on a lighter note, the people persuaded to download Rage Against the Machine in preference to this year’s reality TV winner.  The public are kicking back, in ways never seen before.   We have become a fine bunch of complainers, in particular.   We’re able to express ourselves easily now, in ways that used to be difficult.

Thought two: TV’s nervous courting of fans while striving to maintain distance and control.   Russell T. Davies’ famous characterisation of diehard Doctor Who fans as ‘ming-mongs’.   On a fresher note, the BBC Three series Being Human has dished up lots of interesting extras for fans of the show; still, if you apply for tickets to a preview screening, the BBC asks you for your age and gender so that it can, errr, shape the studio audience appropriately.  As you move to tick the box for your age, you think: am I the fan this show is actually looking for? Would I be better off presenting as male and twenty-something?

Thought three: danah boyd’s unpleasant experience of presenting against an increasingly hostile Twitter backstream. danah boyd is a greatly-respected internet researcher with a private dread of speaking in public.   She gave her presentation against a large-screen backdrop of live Twitter updates, which the Twittering audience then used to criticise her.  Up front and behind her back, all at the same time.

The internet allows us to feed back our enjoyment, our heartfelt disapproval and even our bitchy private comments. But on the other side, what do we (as receivers of the feedback) do with it?  Is all of it The Truth ™? Do we throw it out because the feedback is not representative (they’re not Daily Mail readers, they’re not true fans)?  Do we congratulate ourselves on the upswing in page views?

The thing about feedback of this kind is that it’s really not a conversation.  It can be a tennis match, or out-and-out war, but there’s typically little conversation.   The danah boyd example shows what happens when feedback is so close and unregulated that it changes the very nature of the act.

Thought four: One of the oddest reactions to the danah boyd was that ‘Live Tweeting is the way of the future, she’d better just get used to it.’   Really?  Really?

I don’t think we yet know what feedback means, or what to do with it.