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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

Systematic Inefficiencies (1)

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Every time we have an open day at Kent, the University of Essex (hello to my dear friends there!) pays someone to drive a bloody great van with a mahoosive “University of Essex” poster on it and park it all day opposite the main entrance to our campus.

I can’t imagine that 20-30 years ago, when we first started to talk about having some kind of competitive ethos between universities, that we would ever have imagined that we would end up in a situation like this. And it seems to be a systematic inefficiency baked into the system. Unlike the often talked about “inefficiencies” of public sector management, which seem to be just a matter of motivation and management skill, there are real, ongoing, impossible to avoid inefficiencies at the core of a competition based system.

This is a few hundred pounds that could be going into student’s education or research or goddamn it on nicer port for the vice-chancellor’s summer party. Is there any way in which we can get out of this kind of arms race that is consuming vast amounts of money, time, and attention?

Seeming more Specialised than you Actually Are

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Sometimes it is important to present yourself as more specialised than you actually are. This can be true for individuals and for businesses. Take, for example, the following apparently successful businesses:

Woaah there! What’s happening here? Surely any decent web design company can provide a website for a doctor’s surgery? The specific company might provide a tiny little bit more knowledge, but surely the knowledge required to write a decent website is around 99 percent of the knowledge required to write a doctor’s surgery website. Surely, handling payments from parents for school activities is just the same as, well, umm, handling payments, and there are plenty of companies that do that perfectly well.

This, of course, misses the point. The potential customers don’t know that. To them, they are likely to trust the over-specialised presentation rather than the generic one. Indeed, the generic one might sound a little bit shady, evasive or amateurish: “What kind of web sites do you make?”, “Well, all kinds really.”, “Yes, but what are you really good at.”, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, websites are all basically the same once you get into the code.”. Contrast that with “we make websites for doctors.” Simples, innit.

So that’s my business startup advice. Find an area that uses your skills, find some specialised application of those skills, then market the hell out of your skills in that specific area. You will know that your skills are transferrable—but, your potential customers won’t, and they will trust you more as a result.

I’ve noticed the same with trying to build academic collaborations. Saying “we do optimisation and data science and visualisation and all that stuff” doesn’t really cut it. I’ve had much more success starting with a specific observation—we can provide a way of grouping your data into similar clusters, for example—than trying to describe the full range of what contemporary data science techniques can do.

Similarly with courses. Universities have done well out of providing “MBA in Marketing for XX” or whatever, when the vast majority of the course might be generic marketing skills. Again, the point here is more one of trust than one of content.

Websites are Real, too

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

There are two radically different perspectives on what a website is. I only realised this a few weeks ago, and it suddenly made clear a number of confusing and frustrating conversations I’ve had over the years.

The first perspective sees a website as a brochure for the “real” thing. It is something that you read (that choice of word is very careful) before engaging with the “real” physical organisation. The second perspective sees the website as part of the reality of the thing. By interacting with the site (the choice of word is again very careful), you are interacting with the organisation, not engaging with some pre-real experience.

I noticed this when I was talking to a university marketing person a couple of weeks ago. What bemused me was that the marketing person kept asking “what is the message of this part of the website”? Of course, I understand the concept of a marketing message and why they are important—but, what I didn’t grok for a while was what that was the relevant question. This part of the website was the website “for” a new teaching facility and its activities (not a website “about” it). As such, it was going to contain a mixture of descriptions of the facility, signups for sessions, archival video material of activities, profiles of people involved, conversations about the activities, etc. My view was that the site was going to be a continuous part of the facility, such as much as the physical space and what happens in that space are, not just a one-shot “message”.

It is interesting to take a look at the history of the web with regard to this. Many early websites were seen as publications of their organisations, rather than being the online component of those organisations. This is obvious from their design; take, for example, this snapshot of the American Mathematical Society website from 1997 (thanks to the wonderful Wayback Machine for this):

e-math: website of the American Mathematical Society

the website isn’t “the online part of” the society; it is “e-math”; a website produced by the society. A snapshot from 2000 emphasises this even more:

e-math: The Web Site of the AMS

By 2001 the “e-math” branding has gone, replaced with just the organisation name; just like a modern web site would do:

American Mathematical Society

It is my impression that an increasing number of people see websites this second way, as a part of the reality of the organisation. To a digital native population in particular, the idea that the online experience is less “experiential” than the physical experience is otiose. Certainly, when I see a website for an organisation that is little more than a pamphlet, then I don’t think “oh goody, they have thought carefully about what they want to convey to me and distilled it down”; I think “this organisation isn’t anything more than a pamphlet”, or perhaps, to borrow an old slogan, “where’s the beef?”. (A related, but different, point is made by a well-known XKCD strip).

So, websites for rich, complex organisations need to contain their fair share of that richness (not “reflect” or “represent”; to have). In particular, for university websites, we really need to start undoing the tendency to move “real” content so that it can only be viewed by a restricted audience such as current students. That’s not to say that we can’t have marketing materials on the web, and indeed to give them prominence (much as we have marketing materials in meatspace). But, to say that just because websites play a marketing role, they should be handed over to solely marketing purposes is to sorely misunderstand how a large number of people engage with the web experience.

Mission (1)

Monday, November 4th, 2013

When organisations become confused about their mission, they drop their full title and insist on people referring to them by just their initials. This way, the public is confused about their mission, too, and so all is well and good because everyone is on the same page.

Info-stream or Interface

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Online organisations usually have the choice between two ways of making their information available. One is what we will call info-stream, where the information is made available in the form of a stream of machine-readable information that people can view and process in different forms. Twitter is a good example of this: whilst it does provide a fallback option of viewing it through the Twitter website, many users use a different way of interfacing with it such as an app on a computer or phone, or an alternative web interface. By contrast, some other organisation choose to provide the information through a specific graphical interface. An example here is Facebook, who clearly expect all users to interface with the content through the Facebook web-site (or Facebook-provided mobile app). People wanting a different view of the content can get alternative interfaces (e.g. Social Fixer or Facebook Purity, but these appear to work by a screenscraping-style approach that is not designed for in the way Facebook designs its information provision.

What is the business argument (in the broadest sense) for making one or the other of these choices? Clearly one argument for the interface approach is concerned with advertising. One problem with providing an info-stream is that this makes it very easy to filter out advertising. Organisations that have adopted an info-stream approach tend to have a very tight integration between their advertising and their content. For example, advertising in Twitter is in the form of promoted Tweets or Trends, which are Tweets or Trends in their own right; by contrast, the content delivered by Facebook has advertising, but not as part of the main News Feed content.

A more complex example is provided by the choices made by travel, insurance, banking and energy companies. In the early days of the web, much was made of the idea that online commerce would be a purer form of commerce because aggregators would be able to draw a direct comparison between different providers. Clearly, this vision has been realised&#8212up to a point. A number of firms, for example insurance firms Direct Line and Aviva and some of the discount airlines have largely avoided being on comparison sites. What is the business case for this? Possibly, to avoid the commission fees charged by the sites; possibly, to create a more direct channel of direct negotiation with the customer, akin to the old print-advertising strategy of not listing prices but saying “call us for our best price”. Again, this is an info-stream versus interface decision: the “not on comparison sites” are pursuing an interface strategy, where they want to control the interface between the information and customer in their own way; by contrast, the firms that are supplying information to comparison sites are providing information in an info-stream fashion.

"not on comparison websites"

This is clearly not something that was anticipated in the early discussions about e-commerce. It was assumed that organisations would be falling over themselves to provide information for aggregation and comparison. Clearly, though, it is possible for firms to adopt a strategy of opting out of such comparisons. This does not bode well for the development of the semantic web, which (rather naively) assumes that any organisation online will want to readily provide information in a computer-readable fashion. Instead, the choice for a firm is more complex: to provide an info-stream and work on an objective (as far as the measures used) comparison as a strategy, or to provide an interface and rely on more traditional advertising and marketing strategies that leverage the lack of ability to compare directly.

Are there other organisational/business arguments about the info-stream/interface choice?

“You switch if you want to…”

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The government and the press occasionally get in conniptions about why people aren’t switching energy providers (or similar service providers) more readily. The government has gone to all the trouble of creating a rich marketplace of competitive providers, with the intention that people will exploit this liquid market by readily moving from provider to provider and therefore putting pressure on the providers to provide efficient, cheap services.

But the people have spoken with their feet—the bastards—by standing still and refusing to change fluidly. Why? Part of the problem is that the stalls set out by all of the providers are obscure and uncomparable. The last time I talked to an energy supplier we had a conversation along the lines of “your last three months gas and electricity usage amounted to about 35 pounds a month; therefore we’ll set your direct debit at 73 pounds a month”. When I asked for an explanation of what “therefore” meant in that sentence, there was, of course, no explanation. It was take-it-or-leave-it; and, the same would no doubt be true for all other providers. Comparison sites help somewhat here.

Another part of the problem is that people have bought into the efficient market hypothesis and therefore don’t see the point in switching. This is meta-capitalism: the effect of awareness of market mechanisms on the market itself (a slapdash version of the “Lucas critique”). People commonly say “it might be cheaper now, but I’m sure it will all even out in the next few weeks”, which is reinforced by headlines like “final energy provider falls into line and puts up prices”. This is where service markets vary from the markets concerned with the purchase of individual items; in a one off transaction, a customer can immediately benefit from the cheapness of a widget there-and-then; with a service, conditions might change rapidly.

There seems to be a further effect here. All providers feel the need to present themselves to the customer in largely the same way: a complex, incomprehensible presentation together with an assertion that they are therefore obviously the best and that if you tie-in now for the next 24 months you will get an even better deal. It seems that there is some conservation law of complexity emerging here whereby the complexity of presentation to the customer remains the same across providers, regardless of the number of providers in the system.

It is odd why there isn’t a provider that tries to distinguish itself by radical simplicity—the “Gordon Ramsay” strategy of “throw away the complex twelve-page menu and write half-a-dozen dishes on the blackboard”. I don’t think that there is anything conspiratorial going on here, it is just that such an approach is too big a risk to try, and the costs for new entrants with a radically new strategy is too high. It is interesting that in another industry—gym subscriptions—which previously had a similar complexity of presentation to the energy firms, has recently been shaken up by the emergence of upfront, fixed price, no tie-in providers. But, it is easier to build a few gyms (or just one) and experiment with a new model.

I wonder if there is an opportunity for a supplier to run a “diffusion line” under a different name, with a radically different level of complexity of presentation? This would bring a new “provider” into the market backed by the requisite infrastructure but without the risk of the original provider exposing its whole customer base to the experimental strategy.

Advertising Opportunities (2)

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Almost all hotels seem to supply generic no-name toiletries, sometimes branded with some ad hoc private label, sometimes branded with the name of the hotel. This seems to miss a tremendous marketing opportunity for manufacturers of shampoo, shower gel etc. I’m surprised that such manufacturers aren’t falling over themselves to give free samples of their products to hotels, as this is one of the rare occasions where people use products that aren’t “the usual”. I wonder why this doesn’t happen.

House Size

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

On the kind of property programs that were popular a few years ago and that my mother was addicted to watching, a clichéd suggestion was that “you could just knock this wall down”. However, when compared with housing in many other countries with similar economies and lifestyles, the typical English house has lots of small rooms.

Why does this contradiction continue to hold? We might assume that if there is sufficient demand for larger rooms, then eventually the market would respond and start providing houses with a smaller number of, larger, rooms. However, I suspect that the answer is in how houses are marketed. By contrast with, AFAICT, every other country in Europe, no headline indication is given of the overall floor area of the house. Therefore, number of rooms is used as a proxy for overall size of house, which motivates builders to build houses with a large number of small rooms.


Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Components of large public sector organisations usually have dull-but-explanatory names for their sub-units: the Department of X, the Y Office. Sometimes, though, particular parts have a slicker sub-brand. This is typical of estates and hospitality units; names such as Kent Hospitality, Edinburgh First and ConferenceHertfordshire (complete with go-faster-CamelCaps).

Presumably the motivation for these is so that, when the need arises, they can elide away the fact that they are part of some scummy university and charge as if they were some rapacious private company. An external customer might expect to benefit from the public subsidy afforded to universities if booking something from the Accommodation Department of the University of Rummidge; the slickly-branded RummConf can get away with a much slicker deal.

Yet, such organisations serve two audiences—always a tricksy proposition. Many people within the organisation fail to understand that these branded sub-units are actually a part of the organisation. Instead, the impression is that that part of the organisation has been hived off to a private profit-making organisation. As such, problems evoke a much stronger negative response from internal clients, who see the sub-unit as some incompetent external body obsessed with profit and completely un-obsessed with offering a service.

Within universities, academic units are much more uniformly branded. Some have a befuddling mixture of Schools, Institutes, Centres and Departments all describing academic units of roughly the same level of granularity, but this has mostly been ironed out. However, in a dynamic organisation, this cannot hold for long: as an example, the University of Edinburgh only a few years ago adopted a clear “Colleges and Schools” nomenclature, only for the merger with Edinburgh College of Art to break the scheme by having a School-level unit called a College.

This example illustrates another feature of the naming of academic units. Typically, when there is a uniformisation of names, a few units will be allowed to break the model: a “Business School”, “Law School” or “College of Art”. The argument here is always a historical/sector uniformity one: everywhere else is called a “Business School”, we’d look absurdly pedantic to call ourselves a “School of Business”. This is reasonable, but can sometimes lead to prospective students distinguishing the differently-named unit in a negative way rather than a positive one: I’ve certainly overheard students on open days asking if the business school was a “proper part of the University”.

Interestingly, an argument for creating an off-model name based on some more future-focused proposition wouldn’t fly. Proposing to be the first “e-School” in the world, or whatever trendyism applied at the time, wouldn’t go anywhere. Perhaps this is a good thing—it probably saves us from the equivalent of naff individual-level titles like “Imagination Engineer”.

Niche Marketing

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

Brilliant example of the kind of long tail marketing that could only be possible due to the internet: a site that provides the service of translating a short phrase into Latin, for use on tattoos. “For US$30.00 we offer what we believe is the only comprehensive Latin translation tattoo service available.” Kinda like the old joke that if you pick three words at random you have an internet business opportunity.

Latin Tattoo page

That Luxury Feeling…

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Here is an interesting difference between B2C and B2B marketing. In the B2C arena, it is common to label products with “upmarket” labels, even if they are fairly cheap, to give the impression that you are getting a lot for your money. This fails if transferred over to B2B marketing, because the purchase usually has to be approved by someone who doesn’t get to see the full context.

Two examples. I was recently booking a hotel room (in a place clearly marketing itself in its strapline as a “business hotel”), and the lowest-grade choice was described as a Premier room. The second example is a supplier of education robotics products: a fairly basic kit, containing just about enough stuff to get a project working, is called the “deluxe” set (hey, the ’70s are calling and want their marketing strategy back). In both of these cases they are setting themselves up for a fall; I have to go through the embarrassment of putting in a purchase order or expenses claim, and potentially get a snarky note back from the Dean asking if I could manage with a basic room or whatever.

Advertising Opportunities (1)

Monday, October 11th, 2010

I am surprised that there is almost no advertising in airport luggage collection areas. It would seem to be one area where there are millions of people standing around, doing almost nothing, for multiple minutes at once.

Like, so Twentieth Century

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

When I visit my parents in Nottingham, I often pass by this delightful shop on my way to the station from their house (image courtesy of Google Street View, obviously):

The Monitor Shop: Purveyors of 386's and VGA monitors

I like the unrepentant refusal to change the signage, as well as the name. The idea of a shop specialising in something as prosaic as monitors is charming, as are the signs advertising VGA and SVGA monitors in sizes up to 21″, and the proud claim that they sell 386, 486 and Pentium computers.

A decade or so ago this just looked sad: a shop advertising technology that was several years out of date. Now, though, it has transcended that, and its wilful display of advertising for products that were dated when my students were babes-in-arms seems daring and self-confident. They appear to do a decent trade, anyway; perhaps I will go in one day.

Decline of Physical Mashup

Monday, September 13th, 2010

There is this screen in St. Pancras station:
Sky News Screen at St. Pancras
(indeed, there are lots of these around at stations). When I first saw these screens, they offered a rolling news service, alternating periods of news display with periods of advertising. I’d often watch them for a while, a quick chance to catch up on news and weather whilst waiting for a train.

I rather liked the way that this mashed up online information with the physical world. It certainly felt futuristic—like Bladerunner, but in a good way! This idea of mashing up the physical with the online is rather appealing, and whilst I wouldn’t want to see the urban environment dominated by such things, it was good to see some examples of this just as a day-to-day thing rather than an experiment or artwork.

Unfortunately, this seems to have stopped doing anything interesting now. It just displays dull 20th-century stylee ads for the Sky channels. It has become another thing on the “to ignore” list, redolent of a dull TV ad break from the era when we didn’t timeshift TV rather than something futuristic. I want my future back.

Update 2010-09-22. Live news and weather is now back at St. Pancras Station. The future is back on track.

Bookshop Payola

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

It is commonly believed that the books on promotion in bookshops (for example those on the 3-for-2 deals at the front of bookshops) are not chosen by the bookshops themselves, but are the result of payments from publishers to the shops. I can imagine that this is realistic. This is commonly seen as being a problem.

Is it a problem of significance? I would argue that it isn’t, because there is no motivation for the publishers to put out anything other than their best books. Why spend money on this form of advertising for something that you consider mediocre, when that money could be spent just as well on something that is better?

There are a number of caveats here, some with merit, some with less:

  • The system becomes conservative, because publishers will put this kind of support behind established authors, or only established publishers will have the money to put this kind of investment up front. This criticism has some merit.
  • Publishers are using this to promote material that isn’t selling very well. Whilst this is fine in theory, in practice, the dominance of the 3-for-2 section by newly published books provides some evidence against this.
  • A more sophisticated version of the previous argument is that this acts as a kind of triage process. Good books that would sell well anyway don’t end up going on the 3-for-2; by contrast, at the other end special interest books and books that have been struggling don’t get this kind of promotion. As a result the 3-for-2 ends up being the mediocre middle that need this support to sell in a decent quantity.

Risps, Cisps, Crips, Crisp, Criss

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Rather surprised to see the branding on this packet of crisps:

Photo of Crips Crisps

Crips Crisps

Rather reassuring in a way that the offensive term “crip” (as in, short for cripple) is so obscure now that a branding like this could go all the way through an organization without coming up as a problem. I presume that they started with a concept like “like crisps but not quite” and this is where they ended up.

Oh, and the crisps were very nice too, and supposedly very healthy compared to canonical crisps. Also rather liked the weird image on the packet.

Science Fiction Product Placement

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Watching the new-ish Star Trek film earlier this evening, it was interesting to note that the mobile phone that had a clear “Nokia” branding. Mere product placement? Perhaps. But, there is perhaps a more finessed interpretation for why a company might want to place a product name specifically in a science fiction film, and that is the gravitas and trust earned by the brand by the suggestion that it will still be around 200 years into the future. Many shops have a little bit of signage with “Est. 1873” or similar, to convey an image of solidity and stability. Might placing a product name in a fictional futuristic context achieve something of the same effect—suggesting that the company might be relatively young but “of course” it is so successful and reliable that it will still be a thriving concern hundreds of years in the future. 

(Of course in this specific example the company is rather old. Whilst Nokia might now be a future-focused technology company, it has long history in many industrial sectors—my Finnish colleagues can all remember wearing Nokia wellingtons as children!).