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The Limitation of Metrics: What We Miss When We Listen Only to the Numbers

I am a statistic. Really, I’m one thousand statistics in a number of studies. I am an American Caucasian (63%), male (50.1%), married (51%), living in California (12% of US citizens) , and exhibiting some degree of religious conviction (87%). I represent/am represented by a particular purchasing class. I vote more often for a specific party. I live in a downtown area in an apartment but drive places more times than not. I use my smartphone for just about everything and try to eat locally grown, organic foods.

One could build a relatively accurate depiction of my personality from the information stated above. A skilled marketer might even get me to open a few targeted emails or click through to a website.

But this is just one part of the full story.

Earlier today I sat in a coffee shop and worked from my MacBook Pro. I looked up at some twenty other people with a nearly identical computer participating in the same action. I started thinking about the situation and what it represented. We were a demographic, a statistic. We all probably worked in similar fields but different industries. And up to this point we might all be labeled the same. But we represented an operating system minority.

I’m a late adopter. I came to Apple begrudgingly after a long life with PCs. Tired of crashing hard drives on short term use products that are nearly worthless after two or three years of use, I decided to move on to the operating system of my iPad and iPhone.

And before you think this is an advertisement for Apple, know that I was an anti-MacHead for a number of years. The cult of Mac seemed obsessed with something I found to be inconsequential. “Its just a computer” I would scoff at friends who made the move from Windows.  Why spend extra? Windows is ubiquitous! Why trade out on the popular choice?

But then I bought my first iPhone, a clear upgrade from an early Android OS. The movement was smooth. The features were rich and thoughtful. There was an appeal to the object as much as to the system. I was never more than three clicks away from whatever action I wanted to take. My first iPhone was – and I feel very uncomfortable even saying this – a joy to use. Joy. Not fun, functional, or useful. It was those things. But it was also a joy to hold and use.

A few weeks ago I watched Jobs. I know many Apple fans disliked the movie for its exposure of Steve Jobs in all his deficiencies. But what the movie showed clearly was an obsession with usability and beauty. Apple computers are and have been designed with joy and delight in mind.

Joy is a difficult metric to track. As a marketer who uses an analytics platform daily, I can easily track repeat visitors. I know when a particular customer visits a website and how many pages they view. I can dive deeper in the data and look at their demographics and the type of content they find most interesting. I can see at what point in a video or survey they decide to bail and go somewhere else. And I can see when a  customer leaves to find interesting content through Google after a fruitless search.

This is all great information to have but is far form the whole story. What is missed in interpretive metrics is the intention, not the reason. The intention of the customer or website visitor directly implies a reason or desire floating around in their head for the consumption or use of something. Even the most pragmatic of us all will exhibit a purchasing bias when confronted with two or more products.

The problem is that the tech industry is often obsessed with data. Data is relatively easy (or very tricky!) to pull up and interpret. We can make assumptions and build stories out of data (I do this all the time). But it doesn’t tell you the story of the customer’s feelings.

I’m getting all hippie here, I know. But think of the last time you bought a car or computer. Remember that exciting feeling you felt when you first fired up the engine or pressed power? That rush is an emotion. Emotions guide and direct our actions. Emotions are the conduit for our decision making process, helping us simplify and filter through an array of input and choose an option. The object that can continue to delight and satisfy an emotional desire for the longest is the object that will be most likely replaced with the much the same rather than with a different product. The object that becomes just an object is easily and quickly forgotten or relegated to the pragmatic use bin and forever seen as just a means to an end.

An experience can be like a drug. Make the experience, not just the object, a joy and pleasure and you will not soon be forgotten. When was the last time you heard that one song or songs that drove you through your high school experience? That song is not just notes and words but emotion on demand. You could not forget it if you tried.

It is only when we look through a qualitative lens that we learn the intention of the customer. We can assume, we can interpret, but it is only through listening that we can truly hear the messages written in the subtext.

Andy Warhol is probably most famous for painting Campbell soup cans. When he approached this common, every day object, as many artists have before and since, he presented an object we have taken for granted. This object and design has an inherit beauty. The color, the shape, the design of the can were and are designed to convey meaning to the viewer. The objects have, as he described, lost their meaning. But the beauty is there. We receive emotion upon viewing and a marketer’s job is to tailor the presentation to create as positive an emotion as possible.

I feel something when I turn on my laptop. I have yet to pick it up and not feel a certain amazement at the beauty of such an object. My wife oohs when she picks it up and wants to move over to Apple as well. If we were judging Apple purely based entirely on ownership percentage metrics we could say that Apple is just a fad. Their products are just nice looking but the competition is more useful. If we wanted a computer that will never go out of date, we could assume, we should pick up a PC with exchangeable hard drives and upgradable memory, future proofing our “investment” for many, many years to come.

My assumption is that you can not measure joy or delight with metrics. It is mostly if not only through listening to the language, dynamics, and subtext of an individual and their culture that you can develop insights into the kind of information that will impact business success over the long haul. Metrics are ideal for measuring certain kinds of information. But businesses should listen to other insights as well, using both forms to determine an outcome.

Several years ago I became very interested in the use of Anthropology in business applications. I believe this is even more important than I did then. There are certain skill sets that lend well to different outcomes. An anthropologist, sociologist, or even psychologist will see a different world than the quantitative analyst. We don’t just need to listen to what a customer does, but what they say and mean. We need to learn their intention and hear the rich and valuable emotions that drive the decisions made.

 

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The Brand and the Customer: Evolving Together and Creating a Unique Story

The self is the continuation of the brand. When we consume a brand we continue the story of the brand in our own lives, as a kind of ambassador. A wise brand will allow the customer to become part of the brand.

There are numerous benefits to such a strategy. Perhaps most importantly this allows for a brand’s unique evolution over time and space at the pace of the customer. All products, people, companies, governments, et al change. A well positioned brand will move with a customer, not the other way around.

Both a product and it’s customer are defined by each other. Today I sat in a coffee shop with twenty others, nearly everyone on a Macbook. Each user fit the profile of the computer, as each computer fit the profile of the user. You could see plainly how a brand is an extension of the user, much as the user is an extension of the brand.

Today we can each create our own brand online. We have social media that will freely advertise us being our very best. We can choose to show off only the best selfies, meals, or travel spots. We create our image and show this to the world. Like PR agencies we police our self image and only allow the best to be shown.

And the world, like us, knows that this is utterly insincere. As we each perform this action we are reminded that others are doing the same. Corporations do the same. Brands also do the same.

But if everyone is doing this, what should then be the reaction of the thoughtful brand? Some might pursue further flash and pomp. Some might try to yell louder or extend their customer base. But perhaps it is wise to consider the opposite.

What would sincerity and transparency look like in a brand? What if brands admitted weakness and limitation? What if through social media brands encouraged people to show their dark side, their weakness, their mistakes?

There is a wonderful trend in marketing that is gaining considerable strength. Storytelling is replacing older models of advertising and usurping in a new era of messaging. This important trend is shaping a new generation of marketing materials.

It will always be a struggle to measure the performance of such marketing using existing metrics. The emotional impact  of building connections between customers and brands is not easily quantifiable.

Sure, we can measure the number of tweets or percentage of return customers. And these are important. But just like how it is nearly or completely impossible to judge the level of caring one person has for another based on gifts or time spent, it is equally difficult to equate the same level of connection between a customer and a brand through the actions they take.

Though challenging to develop and measure, the impact of these emotional connections will far out last any short term campaign. A customer who writes a product or service into his or her life will not soon forget or move on. They will tell the story that they lived.

I believe companies should begin to listen as much to the qualitative as they do the quantitative as the impact of each story on the emotions of both the user and the observers can not be converted to an easy number.

Just like we are each not a number but a rich and complex personality built from experiences and continually changing, the product consumer should be recognized and understood for being the same.

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What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze

If I were to say I am a shopping addict, the image you might create is of a guy carrying a dozen bags on each arm walking distractedly towards the next store in a shopping mall. In reality I am more of an obsessive online spender. I’m what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. Purchasing is a sport, a hobby, predicated on making the very best decision based first a learning of everything you can about a product category.

I once spent 40+ hours researching a storm shell (a hyped-up rain jacket). I looked at the weights, limitations, and benefits of every breathable clothing material. I looked at the variations in seam sealing techniques of every major manufacturer. I watched online videos of jacket owners performing tests and looking for flaws in design and build. I looked for features like pocket designs, hood configurations, and adaptability.

I would feel a rush when I made my way to an REI or received a box from the one online retailer in the US selling products produced by an obscure Scandinavian manufacturer offering a slightly different design variation than that of Marmot, TNF, or other more ubiquitous US manufacturers. And I did this with survival knives, camping equipment, flashlights, cooking equipment, electronics and more. After one project was completed I was on to the next, accompanied with a sense of urgency and importance.

I have realized that my desire to learn and the excitement of the purchase (that emotional rush that comes when new packages arrive in the mail) combined into an obsessive compulsive, out of control spiraling that would infringe on my ability to focus fully or ever hope to exist in the moment. There is a sense of urgency with this type of purchasing. I would feel as though something was wrong or missing until I had discovered and owned that perfect purchase. And the longer I “researched” and obsessed, the more exciting the fulfillment would become.

Companies know this to be true. Product marketing and branding professionals place significance on products and features, each year offering a better version of the last. What came last year was good, but what we have this year is even warmer, better, safer, more breathable, more resilient, better customized for specific applications, smaller, lighter, revolutionary, cutting edge, or just plain game changing. Every year we are told our lives will be better with this unique, more improved product.

And in some cases this is true. But when I walk around in my hi-tech, rain proof jacket with storm flaps, pit zips, and a material guaranteed to keep moisture out while still remaining breathable I should remind myself that the first few individuals to climb Everest or walk to the South Pole did so with animal furs, cotton, and wool. Do I really need the latest advancement in waterproof protection to help on the walk from my car to the office? Do I really need a survival knife with just the perfect balance between length, weight, and steel? Will 1095 carbon, VG10, or 154cm really make a big difference on those 20 mile r/t backpacking or simple car camping trips on heavily populated trails (if you understand this sentence, you may too have a problem)? Will the jump from 140 to 160 lumens in a flashlight make a difference in my way of life?

But Robert, you say, this is a hobby! Sure. I get it completely. Its fun to learn and use this knowledge. But is this the best use of your time or could you possibly be filling in space that could be more useful as, say, room to breathe?

For the past five months, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I have almost entirely cut out extraneous spending from my life, and by default obsessive product researching. I have purchased only the very basics, and then only just a few items. On two separate occasions I began the process of looking for something I deemed “necessary”, my brain tricking me into old behaviors. And after feeling the obsessive and emotional inclinations pop back up, I cancelled the search. That was as or perhaps more rewarding as not purchasing in the first place.

After the first two months I began to notice an increase in the time I had available. I started going to the gym, attending a weekly meditation class, and spending time reading. I went out more often and spent time wandering around the city. Most importantly I spent time thinking critically about where I was and where I wanted to be.

Critical thinking is something that is a bit of a challenge when applied to the self. We all know the old adage about the unexamined life, but we also know how much easier it is to pick the problem out in someone else than to see the glaring error in what we do ourselves. And we also get caught in patterns of behavior rather than look at what those behaviors mean.

Throughout the last few months I have been keeping tally of my emotional impulses (what else can I do with all of this free time?). There are trends in what and how I look for purchases. Some results include:

  • I am inclined to purchase survival type equipment when I feel powerless
  • I am inclined to research vacations or travel options when I feel stuck
  • I am prone to distract myself with entertainment when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish
  • I am inclined to purchase cooking equipment when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home

Do you see the trend? My inclination towards purchasing and distraction are directly correlated with a deficiency in my emotional well-being: aka, I have been self-medicating. My purchasing has not been meaningless. It has a cause and an effect. The cause is the set of emotions that are felt due to stressors and variables felt in my life. The effect is that I am unable to deal with the cause because I am not aware of it due to the fullness of my mind in relation to purchasing. The emotional impulses are not satisfied, they are simply brushed aside.

In the short time I have been stepping back from purchasing I have noticed small windows of growing clarity. I’m already finding that I have time for to create better boundaries, channel impulses, create opportunities, be more present in every moment, ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, and develop more room to breathe and examine what is really going on in my life.

There was a study once in which researchers looked at the lives of lottery winners. They found that after their win, these new millionaires would keep purchasing more and more expensive items and adapting to a more expensive lifestyle. Essentially, what thrilled them once no longer thrilled them and they needed more and more spending to feel the enjoyment they once felt. This was termed the hedonic escalator.

Take that idea and apply to purchasing, entertainment, or anything else that is enjoyable but capable of moving into a space out of control. I joke with people that I am either spiraling upwards or downwards. I am either moving towards positive actions or negative. I cannot stay still. I know that I’m not alone. The question then becomes, what are you moving towards, and are you aware of this movement? What could you gain by taking a step back?

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