Interactive, synchronous theater

There was a time when the ultimate computer-based entertainment was pretty much confined to CD-based computer gaming. That was back in the stone ages, when the web was the exclusive stomping grounds of scientists and academics, and bulletin boards were the only way to experience the asynchronous power of email and forums. Asynchrony is what makes email the original “killer app.” It telescopes time, allowing us to communicate on our terms, when and where we want.

CD-ROMs are themselves asynchronous. By that I mean that they allow you to pop a game in at your convenience and stop and save your place when you are rousted away from your computer by the need for nutrition, or by the beckonings of other carbon-based life forms. (I’m using a little of my dear friend Marty’s terminology. I was never into gaming, but Marty made up for it by playing and mastering computer games the way other people read novels. Once again I merely stand on the shoulders of giants.)

Online games with multiple players can be synchronous, or asynchronous, or a little of both. An online chess game can be played over the course of a year, if the players want it to take that long. Whereas EverQuest, one Marty’s more recent passions, has real-time cooperation among its players. Although breaks in the action are inevitable, when playing resumes there is a synchronizing clock maintained by Sony’s servers behind the proceedings.

A “synchronizing clock” maintains the action of another type of entertainment: live theater. That clock is held by the stage manager. Although plays telescope time with scenes and intermissions, one or more actors on stage at any given time sets up all that is needed for a real-time event, one that must be played out on its carefully scripted schedule.

I bring up theater because way back in the stone ages, I wondered how CD-ROMs could conceivably improve standard modes of storytelling. I thought about live theater. It occurred to me then that a computer could allow a scripted performance to be filmed from many angles. That’s interesting. Instead of a play having three walls (or less), it could have all four. But isn’t that just a film, except you choose the angles and not the film editor and the director?

Then I thought about how the cameras could themselves be point of view shots (POV), and “players” could occupy the bodies of characters as the dialog unfolds. The POV could in fact jump from one character to the next as desired by the player.

That’s interesting, but also creepy and pointless. Plays were written to have audience members participate as “flies on the wall,” not as mics and cameras hidden on one or more of the characters’ bodies. Also, significant action often takes place while one or more characters isn’t looking. What then for plot developments based on hidden letters or stolen glances?

Then I remembered a wish I once had (and still do!) to see performed all three plays of the wonderful The Norman Conquests trilogy. This set of stage comedy/dramas, by the brilliant British playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, takes place over a weekend, and is set in three locales of the same home: the living room, the dining room and the garden. Each full-length play is set in only one of those locales. In other words, one whole evening’s performance is set in the living room (that one is called Living Together). Another, Round And Round the Garden, is exclusively set … guess where? Likewise with the third, called Table Manners.

Ayckbourn is something of a magician, in two ways. First, he really understands the folly and drama of human relationships. And secondly, he is a stage-craftsman of the highest degree. He actually managed to pull off three consecutive nights of entertainment, all telling the same story about the same weekend and each being uniquely enthralling.

What’s more, when one character storms off stage in one play, she enters the next night’s performance of the next play, still peeved and cursing the person she left in the last room, one whole play ago. Magic, huh?

Assuming I ever get a chance to see these performed live, on three consecutive nights, and assuming I’ve got the bank account, and the posterior, suitable for that level theater-going, I’m sure I’ll love the experience.

But wait! Why not pop a DVD into my computer and watch the performances all in one interactive experience? What’s more, what if I could be a fly on the wall that literally buzzes along — tracking, say, that actress who just stormed out of the room, to follow her and see her performance in the next room?

I would still need approximately five hours to hear every single line of the plays (I’m guessing each is one-and-two-thirds hours long). But just like a CD-ROM based game, you would be able to pause at any time and pick up where you left off. Perhaps there would even be a pie chart in the corner of the screen, to show you how much of the action was left unwatched. In other words, how much that happened in the adjoining scenes did I miss by being in this one, and which wall does this fly have to light upon in order to take in that fresh action?

The closest I’ve seen to this in cinema is a film called Timecode, which shows the action of the same 97 minutes in real time, across a movie screen broken into quadrants, with each showing a different, related scene. It was a good experiment by director Mike Figgis, but not a total success as a work of art. The Norman Conquests is, by contrast, a triple-success, and I think the trilogy would be greatly improved — in fact, transformed — by the ability to view it in an interactive way.

Has a multiple, synchronous theatrical experience ever been presented as an interactive entertainment / game? Does it succeed, and actually improve on its parts? I’d love to find out.

This blog entry is a message in a bottle to all innovative video game developers / playwrights / filmmakers to get cracking. I, for one, have been awaiting this type of experience for a long, long time.

Monetizing podcasts

Last night I had dinner with a couple of friends, and for the first time found myself trading the names of favorite podcasts. I was surprised it took so long.

After all, they are free, they’re convenient, and the variety of types is growing by the day.

I suspect we will someday soon be discussing podcasts — what happened this week on one, when that one will be releasing new episodes, etc. — the same way we discuss television shows around the water cooler today.

But we pay for television, either indirectly, through the commercials, or directly, through our cable bill. The broadcast television model is certainly on shaky grounds, but somehow I think a visual medium is easier to monetize than an aural one. I could be all wet, but I somehow think podcasts are going to be very tough to turn profitable.

Perhaps the low production costs will allow advertisers to consider the occasional ad break, or full-blown sponsorship, too big of a bargain to pass up. But whereas other online media have very track-able ways to measure results, how will we know if a podcast is moving the needle for those advertisers that support them?

Perhaps there will someday be a podcast solution that is similar to the Brightcove streaming video player, and its ability to enrich ads with more information and relevance.

The case for long vs short direct mail copy

I recently did some digging to help make a case to a client that the direct mail effort we were discussing should be a letter and not a postcard. It was an interesting exercise, because I’ve been having this conversation with clients for more than 20 years. Then and now, they distrust long copy. “I wouldn’t read something that long,” is a frequent refrain.

Little has changed since the last time I needed to gather evidence for the letter format, back when we all got a lot more direct mail. The reasons for this format’s success can be boiled down to:

Credibility: A letter, because of its “gravity,” stops people. They pay attention. Especially if it’s signed by someone they know, or by an authority figure they think they should respect.

Novelty: Then and now, a truly well written direct marketing letter is novel. People give it a chance.

Laziness: This one you need to think about for a moment. If you have a letter that is properly constructed, it is scannable. You don’t have to read every word. Usually, short copy is harder to scan, and easier to dismiss. Paradoxically, good letters can actually encourage the sort of grazing that we all do with our print media.

Drama: Nothing sells like telling a story. And you can’t do that with short copy.

Of course, if you’re selling something that isn’t truly a considered purchase, go with the postcard. Or if the offer is clear enough to spell out in a paragraph, do it. But even then, you may want to test a long-format package to run against it.

Because, believe me, the long-format letters have been tested against shorter packages again and again. It’s sheer economics. And yes, sometimes they lose. But it’s surprising how often they out-pull the postcard mailing by a mile!

Bored? Let’s put on a metaverse!

Second Life is a “metaverse,” which is short for metaphysical universe. In Second Life, everything you see — every scrap of clothing, every piece of scenery and every avatar (which is a player-operated character) — is “built” by the players themselves, either for their personal use or for sale to others. Someday, this world’s ability to empower and inspire its residents to build and share could challenge movie studios. In the meantime, Second Life is becoming the defacto movie studio (and dance studio, and design studio, and much more) for tens of thousands of people with a strong vision and a lot of spare time.

I only wish Second Life had come along 20 years ago, when my wife and I were two such restless auteurs.

This young couple — the Jeff and Julie of the mid-1980’s — are only a memory now, but a particularly vivid one this weekend. I’m writing from a cybercafe in my home town, during a holiday visit with my many family members who never left. Visits like this remind me of who I was back when I lived here too, and how my wife (who also grew up in this town) and I responded to this quirky way of life.

How do I describe my home town? Deep in the forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), it’s not as heartwarming as the place in the 90’s TV show Northern Exposure, but it was, and is, no less eccentric. For instance, I may be in a cybercafe, but it’s one that caters to people who proudly call themselves “Yoopers” (sound out the letters U.P. and you get the epithet’s origin).

So naturally, you can buy a piping hot pasty along with your WiFi access. What’s a pasty? It’s is a meat-and-potato pie that is the closest thing Yoopers have to soul food, which tells you as much about Yooper “soul” as it does about Yooper food. What I mean is, when I think of the U.P., I think of words like traditional, genuine and consistent. These are qualities that I’ve come to appreciate now — both in pasties and in people — but back then these small town virtues were easy targets for rebellion.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived near this town, and wanted to capture the area’s eccentricities before we moved on. We scripted a movie, called The Porchlights, about a fictitious nuclear family who loved each other and their Upper Peninsula lifestyle. It was to be a comedy.

We had little choice in what technology we would use for our proejct. If we were going to shoot this thing at all, it would on 16-millimeter film. The format wouldn’t make us candidates for commercial success, but that was far from the point. This film was for the exclusive entertainment of ourselves and our friends — most of whom were to be involved in its production.

None of these friends were actors, by the way, but we solved that problem as well. All of the characters in our little film would be pink, plastic lawn flamingos (clever, huh?), manipulated off-camera and synchronized later to sound studio voice-overs.

The project died a quiet death in pre-production, as they say, and much of the reason was the technology challenges. Film stock. Lights. Editing equipment. Producing even a humble Porchlights was so out of reach.

Not today. Right now, many thousands of people have similarly daft plans and dreams. But they are making them come to life, in quirky patches of virtual real estate.

They’re putting their stories on Second Life.

I mentioned that all the objects in Second Life are residents’ creations, including the avatars. Roughly a third of these objects are scripted, which means they can realistically interact with each other, at the whim of Second Life’s 230,000+ residents. Roll-playing games are common, as are amateur theatrics. These are sometimes “filmed” using special cameras that other residents have developed, for replaying and sharing.

You see why I wish Second Life had been around 20 years ago. To be clear, most residents find their fun in ad libbed interaction, not carefully plotted entertainments such as The Porchlights. But along with the typical night club and public park gathering places, Second Life includes such innovations as a “living” re-creation of a dying Native American culture. Built by a real-life Native American, this authentic village keeps alive his tribe’s heritage.

That’s just one example of how this metaverse is absolutely anything residents want it to be, even if their vision might include a U.P. ranch home populated by talking pink lawn flamingoes.

Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Labs, the software company behind Second Life, says his residents are far closer to the norm demographically than participants in most multi-player game environments. These residents are more likely to be middle-aged, and more likely to be female.

He says it’s hard to generalize in any way about these residents. Their stories and motivations are that diverse. Except for this fact. Rosedale says that Second Life resonates most with people who live in parts of the world with bad weather, limited entertainment options and good broadband connections.

In other words, right here.

Perhaps right now that woman I see at the next table, tapping away at her laptop, is creating her own Second Life send-up to this odd little corner of the world. If she is, I’m sure that she — like Julie and me before her — is having a great time of it.

Curious about Second Life? This link shows a video that will help fill you in.

Sharing is good, but only with a few hundred of your closest friends

Metcalfe’s Law says that the usefulness of a network grows exponentially with its size. A recent New Yorker article by John Cassidy (pp 50-59, 5/15/06) pointed out that if this were the case, MySpace would be far more useful than Facebook. My calculations are that it would be about 100 times more useful.

MySpace has 70 million members. Facebook has 7.5 million.

However, if usefulness is measured in activity, you can’t get much better than Facebook.com. Two-thirds of all members are on the site every day, and they spend an average of 20 minutes there!

If “stickiness” isn’t a measure of usefulness, consider this fact. Cassidy reports that since a recent Facebook policy change, members can upload an unlimited number of photos to their Profiles. Boy, are they enjoying that free ride! 

The volume of photos added to the site is unsurpassed anywhere on the web. One and a half million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day!

Other sites, most notably Yahoo’s Flickr.com, also have members, and unlimited uploading bandwidth. So why isn’t Flickr the leader? After all, it has far fewer restrictions to membership (just a Yahoo account), and far more open sharing between members (anyone can see everything).

Here’s a hint: That’s the explanation. Cassidy suggests restrictions add value to this type of network. Who wants to share really interesting photographs* with everyone in the world?

Unlike MySpace and Flickr, Facebook is a gated community. Only if you have an email address from one of the 2,000 colleges and universities it recognizes can you get in and establish a profile. And even within its walls, there is limited sharing of profile information between members who don’t designate each other as friends. Its very exclusivity encourages sharing.

* Speaking of interesting photos, many have discovered that you can have a fun, if useless, online experience by going to Flickr.com and searching on the tag “interesting.” But it’s a pain to browse through pages with very limited numbers of thumbnails on each. I discovered this cool way to view 500 of the most interesting photos of the day — and any other day you specify. Thank you houserdesign.com for wasting more of my time!

What monkeys can teach us about offers and pricing

Earlier this month, research that I had come across a year ago, in The Economist, received additional attention in Seed. This study of the economic behavior of capuchin monkeys suggests that the human response to various pricing strategies has been in our DNA for a very long time.

When these monkeys were trained to use special shiny disks as money (which could be exchanged for pieces of their favorite fruit), they tended to behave with this cash in exactly the same ways as us humans. In fact, looking only at the data, you would be hard-pressed to differentiate a human consumer from one of these monkeys.

The research sheds light on behavior that marketers have puzzled over, and exploited, for generations. These include:

Why are “premium” test offers so much more likely to out-pull non-premium packages in direct response, even when the price of the offer covers the cost of the premium?
Answer: We all love getting a free “bonus” with our purchase.
Why are gambling games with some of the worst odds, such as lottery tickets and slot machines, also among the most popular?
Answer: They give the player small rewards more frequently, and keep our losses incrementally small.
Why are bonds more popular than stocks, in spite of the latter always performing better over the long haul?
Answer: We are loss-averse, and would rather guard what we have than take short term risks for long term gains.

What do I mean by loss-averse? Human experiments in game theory have repeatedly shown that in two scenarios — one where (for instance) we lose half of our transaction every third time we trade, and another where we double our transaction every third time we trade — we tend to choose the second set of trades more often.

Even when the equation is altered significantly to favor the first set of trades over the long run, we still favor the occasional free prize over the less likely loss. It’s simply human nature. Now we know the same rules apply to capuchin monkeys. Go figure.

Parenthetically, there is one other way that these monkeys seem to be behaving a lot like humans. Last year I read an account of this study in The New York Times. There I read that these researchers witnessed what was “probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind.” Keith Chen, the Yale economist behind this study, said that he noticed the exchange out of the corner of his eye. Although he wanted to think skeptically, that the trade was coincidental, he conceded that “The monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.”

When is an email click-through not a click-through? Think “unsubscribe”

When is an e-mail click-through not a click-through? When they’re telling you to kiss off!

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since I had lunch with my friend and long-time career doppleganger, Medlina Krueger, and she told me about her latest email metrics discovery. It was a way to take into account the click-throughs that people register from your emails when they are in fact clicking through to unsubscribe.

She described it, and it made perfect sense. Melinda’s formula in many cases would take meaningless data and actually tell us something. Specifically, it measures the power of a specific offer or message to cause a segment of your email audience to decide that enough is enough.

She was thinking of calling it the DI, the Disaffection Index. Personally, I thought something a little more dramatic was in order for a metric that could enter the email lexicon. I suggested, because it measured their very last click-through with you, the LCI — the Last Click Index.

She thought otherwise, and DI it remained. Do read this article, and the other articles and advice that Melinda provides as MediaPost’s “Email Diva.”

Crunching the numbers can expose myths

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine’s Freakonomics column, and one of my favorite books of the year, both remind me that a careful examination of data can dispel long-held myths. Neither is directly related to a particular marketing challenge. But they both inspire me to continue to goad my clients into thinking beyond the obvious. We can seize a strong competitive advantage by assuming nothing and testing our premises whenever possible.

The Freakonomics article is ostensibly about soccer and an odd correlation between player excellence and the month that player was born. In analyzing data about the birth months of some of Europe’s best soccer players, it was found that they were born far more than you would expect in the first three months of the year. When researchers looked deeper, they realized that a logical explanation is that children born in these months were exposed to more months of coaching in their schools — more repetition, more chances to excel.

It suggests that the power of the Two P’s of practice and passion — as opposed to simply having “raw talent” — is far more important in excellence than is commonly believed. Thus the title of the Freakonomics article: “A Star Is Made.”

If you know me, you know I care little about sports. But after reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis, I was so inspired I bought three copies*. One to keep, one to pass around to co-workers, and a third to give to my father as a gift. The message of the Freakonomics article was that stars are made, not born. Similarly, the message of this book, about the unlikely, data-driven success strategy of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, is: “A winning baseball team is made, not bought.”

Read the book, and marvel at how Billy Beane, the general manager, refused to believe the group think of baseball scouts and the status quo. He wouldn’t listen to them when they told him how to identify promising players for his under-financed, under-performing team.

It’s a great read, and another reminder that looking at the data instead of listening to the way things have always been done can pay huge dividends.

*Thank you Bret Stasiak, my boss from my BVK/respond360 days, for letting me know about this wonderful book!

Internal search data is free, quantitative usability testing, if you use it

Even if I’ve never met you or visited your web site, I can diagnose with a fair amount of certainty what many users say about it. Whether you realize it or now, they don’t particularly enjoy visiting your site.

That’s because most people use web sites only out of necessity. And your web site really has only one responsibility to these people: To give them the information they value. Period.

Ideally this trade of “effort for information” should be short and sweet. No visitors to your site want to feel like they’re on a scavenger hunt. But that’s exactly what it often feels like, and it pisses them off. Thus, your site’s low conversion rates and high abandon rates. How did I know about those? They’re about as predictable as inhaling and exhaling.

So how do you take some of the frustration out of using your web site? Simple. Fix your site’s confusing navigation and it’s improperly labeled and organized content.

And I suggest you start with the single easiest and best source for learning what’s missing on your site: Namely, data from your internal search.

Think about it. If you have an internal search engine operating right now, the people who find your site the most frustrating are often typing out their frustration in that little text box. The sound of user dissatisfaction (dissatisfaction with your navigation, dissatisfaction with your content) is right there … loud and unequivocal. But it’s got to be captured and measured or this gold mine of information is lost.

Okay, here’s a shameless plug: I and my team at ec-connection build this system in many of our clients’ web specifications. By tabulating the search phrases that users type in, we get to see what’s frustrating them, or at the very least, what they want to see on this site that they’re not finding. With this valuable, free quantitative research, we can fix our clients’ navigation and content problems. And watch the searches, and the user pain they suggest, fall off.

Many customers who made the same types of phone calls as you also bombed The World Trade Center

I’m not ordinarily a defender of Bush Administration actions concerning its response to The World Trade Center attacks, but the database analysis proponent in me feels something should be clarified in the minds of most Americans. According to a recent NEWSWEEK poll, “53 percent of Americans think the NSA‘s surveillance program ‘goes too far in invading people’s privacy.'” This of course is the taking of cell phone and other telephone records and mining them for clues to possible terrorists.

The outcry, I think, is in part because when we think of phone surveillance we think of wire-tapping (or, in the case of cell phones, wireless-tapping). However, if I understand this situation correctly, the NSA used this vast database of phone call numbers (both of originators and recipients), along with call dates, times and lengths, to look for suspicious patterns that were similar to those found in known terrorists’ phone behaviors.

I know, I know. If you analyze for this type of activity, you can also find patterns in the activities of your political enemies. Imagine the blackmail potential! It could shut down Washington! (Hmmm … could the blackmail have already begun?)

But let’s assume for the moment that we could somehow shine some light on the activity, thus preventing such abuses. Is this data mining an invasion of privacy? I suspect it’s closer to the surveillance we’re all accustomed to — and appreciative of — in our quiet suburban neighborhoods.

Probable cause is a term used to justify a police officer pulling over a citizen for questioning. I would equate this database research to looking for probably cause. So how is the research done? It uses the same technique that marketers use to predict whether a consumer will like this product versus that one.

For instance, you buy a CD on Amazon, and the web site immediately says, “Other of our customers who bought that CD also purchased these.” Then it lists three or four other, often surprisingly unrelated, artists, along with their latest CDs. If you have a big enough music collection, and predictable enough tastes, you’re surprised that you already love the work of one or two of those other artists. Amazing!

Amazon, and other large marketers using this profiling, let you know in advance that they looked into their database and found those correlations (through the statement, “Other customers of ours …”). What they don’t tell you is that usually, those data relationships are — on their own — too obscure or unrelated to be recognized in any way other than by using a sophisticated statistical regression analysis.

The same for this NSA action. I think a lot of Americans are concerned because they imagine an all-seeing computer is examining every single phone call they make or receive. I also suspect they are angry because now they have yet another privacy vulnerability to worry about, along with identity theft, spyware, etc.

But I suspect the process of profiling that was done by the NSA is more along the lines of the Amazon example. The predictive model takes into consideration thousands of weak correlations — possible coincidences that are only significant because when added together they match the behavior of known terrorists, (I would say convicted, but good ole Mr. Moussaoui is about it, and that’s an awfully small sample to try to model against! Known domestic terrorists would include the guys who died in their planes on 9/11, and made plenty of phone calls before they did).

So, if that is the case, is this intrusive? That depends.

 Is a police officer driving down your quiet residential neighborhood invading your neighborhood’s privacy when looking for probably cause to investigate a possible crime? This officer may not stop if one suspicious fact is noted about someone in your neighborhood. Maybe even two or three aren’t sufficient for probably cause. Each on its own may be too subtle — too similar to the behavior of those not breaking the law. But if there are enough suspicious facts concentrated around the behavior of, let’s say, that guy parked outside your door, then the officer will conclude the correlation is too great. The behavior and evidence surrounding that guy show too many similarities to those of convicted criminals. This behavior taken as a whole is too close to that of a burglar, let’s say.

The brain of that cop isn’t going to retain much information the next day, or even the next hour, about the non-suspicious behaviors that were observed, and in a similar way, I don’t think the NSA’s computers will be able to do much else but identify the behavior patterns they are programmed to sniff out.

Which brings me back to my original observation. How in the world did I become a defender of Bush? The answer is the NSA, under his watch, found a non-intrusive way to comb this country for possible criminal activity. I only pray that there will now be enough judicial (and judicious) oversight to ensure that the profiling being done is for real enemies of the state, and not enemies of the administration and its incumbents.

What if the contents of your home page was ultimately controlled by Google?

I’ve noticed that the growing power of search engines has brought about a new way to look at the design of a commercial web site. The old approach was to design a site starting with the Home Page. That was the presumed entry page — at least much of the time.

Paradoxically, the new paradigm suggests we should design our sites with pages beyond our direct control in mind. 

Today I’ll focus on the entry pages to your site that a very important set of prospects uses. I’m talking about search engine results pages (SERPs) on important search engines, for specific, relevant search terms.

You know what you want to say on your home page. But what about what is said on a search results page? If you consider that you will be getting 10% to 15% of your total site traffic from search engines (a norm we’ve witnessed with many of our commercial sites), can you afford to ignore the influence that these SERPs have on consumers who click through to you? Or worse, the influence they have to cause other prospects not to click through?

I suggest we all regularly check to see what descriptions are showing up for our sites on important SERPs. What’s more, consider setting up a way to find correlations between the best descriptions in these organic listings and those consumers’ chances of converting from visitors to customers. It can be done, and could yield better ROI from those visits. Remember, these folks are pre-qualified and are often your very best prospects!

By the way, I’m talking here exclusively about “organic” results — the results that are generated by a search engine’s true search algorithms. Much has been written elsewhere about testing and tweaking text listings for pay-for-click ads. My point is, why not apply this same discipline to refining your organic results descriptions?

You may even eventually want to optimize key pages that are most likely to be visited from these organic search click-throughs, to ensure that was is stated on the SERPs’ descriptions is restated on that landing page. It could be the difference between a new, satisfied customer and a frustrated, departing visitor.

Speaking of not frustrating your site visitors, my plan is to follow this post with one about the easiest and most sure-fire way to improve your site’s navigation. Stay tuned.