Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Web Giveth, and the Web Taketh Away


Sometime around 2004, I began finding it difficult to read anything more than a few paragraphs. I could do it, but what used to come naturally was now hard work.  My eye danced over sentences.  My default seemed not to read, but to skim. I thought I was going just a little bit crazy.

It turns out, I was, and still am. According to Nicholas Carr’s article in the July/August 2008 Atlantic, entitled, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?", so are you.

First comes Carr’s reassurance that we’re all in this together:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Carr suggests--unless we’re willing to change the way we interact with the Net--that we’re probably rewiring our brains, just as we did when the clock, the book, the printing press and the typewriter entered the lives of our ancestors.  Here are the key takeaways from Carr’s article:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Game 3 Employees

This morning I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio talk about the Los Angeles Lakers’ win in Game 3 of the play-offs against the Celtics.  I’ll paraphrase: The Lakers won Game 3. Big deal. The Lakers were supposed to win Game 3. Teams that lose the first two games in a basketball play-off series almost always go home and win Game 3. It’s practically a given. And it doesn’t mean a thing.

“Game 3,” Cowherd said, “is Fool's Gold.”

To prove his point statistically, he noted that the Lakers have about a 15% chance of becoming World Champions. That’s the history of NBA teams, at least after falling behind in the first two games. So, while miracles do sometimes happen in sports, the Lakers are effectively cooked.

Cowherd ended by saying that, after the first two wins by the Celtics, this series was established.

It got me to thinking about all the “Game 3” events that occur in our lives.

Suppose you are on a diet, trying to lose weight, but find yourself ever-so-accidentally in the drive-thru of Burger King at lunchtime. And, being starved, you order a Whopper with cheese, an onion ring, and a Diet Coke.

The Diet Coke is essentially a “Game 3” event. It’s good of you to do, but it doesn’t matter. You might as well have gone with the chocolate shake, because once you’d ordered the Whopper and onion rings, you had no chance of sticking to your diet. The no-calorie drink was “fool’s gold.”

Your lunch was, in Cowherd’s terms, established.

Or how about this. You have a bad experience with an on-line merchant and launch a complaint. In return you get a form email and no other response.

Finally, after repeated calls you get through to customer service, which apologizes and offers you a credit against future purchases.

That’s a “Game 3 event.” By the time you have a bad experience with the service and a second bad experience trying to correct the first, it doesn’t much matter what customer service does.

That merchant is established.

Many years ago I was offered a job with a questionable boss, a lousy salary, but an office with a great view of the Rocky Mountains. The view was entirely Game 3. The job was already established.

I’ve often thought that one of the toughest things in business is to manage the “Game 3 Employee.” That’s the person capable of delivering superior work--and who does so for stretches at a time--but habitually falls off (for whatever reason) to perform at an unacceptable level.

What happens? You try to correct through conversation, compensation, review, or even warning. And, inevitably, after one of these sessions, good performance returns—often better than before.

But, in 85% of the cases, this is a Game 3 event. It’s fool’s gold. Because, with time, the Game 3 Employee inevitably falls off the wagon again.

And, trying to be good managers, we meet once more with the employee and correct the performance. And off they go again, turning in stellar work.

For a while.

It’s a frustrating activity at best: Too good to fire and too bad to keep.

And you become aware, once you’ve been through the cycle two or three times, that all you’re really getting from the employee is a series of “Game 3s.” You can root and you can hope, but the percentages are entirely and inevitably against you. There’s probably no champion here.

This employee is established.

Of course, you can always try again. And a lot of us do.

But history would indicate that the smarter thing is to cut our losses and move on.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Camouflage Marketing: Making it OK to Buy What We Want

This is a post about vibrators--and, yes, those kinds of vibrators.

In “Socially Camouflaged Technologies: the Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator,” scholar Rachel Maines argues that there are certain products and technologies which, while sold legally, are expected to be used illegally, or in a socially unacceptable manner. The success of these products demands not just marketing, but camouflage marketing.

One such product, the electromechanical vibrator, was marketed in the popular press from the late nineteenth century through the early 1930s in the guise of a modern, professional, medical instrument designed to cure female hysteria, a catch-all diagnosis that might comprise up to 75 percent of a nineteenth-century physician's practice.  Advertising leveraged the prevailing belief that electricity was a healing agent.  Once vibrators began appearing in stag films, however, this kind of camouflage was inadequate. Marketing of vibrators did not resurface until social change made it unnecessary to disguise use of the product.

Home vibrators were marketed as benefits to health and beauty by improving the circulation and soothing the nerves. An ad in the 1921 issue of Hearst magazine urges the considerate husband to give his wife “A Gift That Will Keep Her Young and Pretty.”  Advertising of electromechanical vibrators did not appear in magazines selling for less than 5 cents or more than 25 cents per issue.  This suggested market segmentation of readers whose middle-class homes were being added to the electrical grid, but not so well off that they could visit a spa.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census found 66 firms manufacturing these devices in 1908, and by 1919 the annual market was well over $2 million.

Maines lists other products that have been sold actively using camouflage marketing. Distilling technology sold during Prohibition was “Ideal for distilling water for drinking purposes, automobile batteries and industrial uses.”  Today, burglary tools are marketed in some popular magazines “with the admonition that they are to be used only to break into one’s own home or automobile.”

“Most recently,” Maines tells us, “we have seen the appearance of computer software for breaking copy protection, advertised in terms that explicitly prohibit its use for piracy, although surely no software publisher is so na├»ve as to believe that all purchasers intend to break copy protection only to make backup copies of legitimately purchased programs and data.”

I took a tour around the Internet, seeking more examples of camouflage marketing.  Planning to be in a brawl tonight? How about some brass knuckles, illegal most everywhere in the world? I found a great site to buy them "For novelty purposes only. Makes a fine paperweight.”  Another site proclaims that Bittorrent is "the global standard for accessing rich media over the Internet," a better message than “Bittorrent: You too can rip-off Hollywood."

If you’ve ever been on the Seattle Underground tour, you’ll know that the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 brought hundreds of prospectors into town on their way north to Alaska. Just coincidentally, there appeared an inordinate number of young women, most without visible means of support, who listed their profession as "seamstress."

Unlike traditional marketing, camouflage marketing isn’t about educating the consumer or creating a compelling value statement. The consumer already knows what it is he or she is buying.  Camouflage marketing just makes the transaction possible.