Designing an application around consumer behavior

A recent post on Experience Matters offered a great example of how you can design a user experience around an existing need. Their example is YouTube:

  1. Consumer Need: The ability to share themselves with potentially millions of others through site and sound.
  2. Augment Behavior to include Brand: In the case of YouTube … perhaps the best use of this network was not for a brand to spread its own content, but help consumers share their own. After all, the initial consumer need identified above was the desire for consumers to share themselves with the masses. Wouldn’t it make more sense to empower them in continuing this behavior rather than competing against them? If successful, this takes the process full circle and makes the brand-infused behavior become part of the original consumer need.
  3. Why is this behavior occurring?: YouTube made video distribution easier (on a mass scale) than ever before. It didn’t require hosting a server or website, or being isolated to sending your large files across flaky channels. From a content consumer perspective, YouTube and sites like it offer the depth and variety that professional producers simply cannot match. The quality (for now) of the content is obviously not comparable but consumers are willing to look past it because the content is original, very controllable, and often more personal.
  4. Consumer Behavior: Millions of people are uploading their thoughts, talents, and parodies onto a video sharing network. Even more millions of people are watching those videos (the majority of which are user generated, not professional).

They call this reverse engineering. But really, it’s simply finding a need and filling it in a unique and viral way. Major online successes are the clearest examples to describe this process because their imprint is so deep and the applications are so new and different from the status quo. Here’s another example:

The Birth of Amazon

Jeff Bezos set out to make an e-commerce site. Period. He reverse-engineered from a fundamental desire to buy something in your underwear (so to speak) and not to buy books. It turns out that books simply met the right criteria for ease of warehousing and shipping. Also, books were searchable in a vast and accurate — but, before Amazon, difficult to access — database.

The success of both of these examples is obvious. Len Kendall of Experience Matters defines success this way:When a brand can improve or change a consumer’s behavior so it still satisfies their initial needs.”

He goes on to say that a really big success is when a brand can radically change consumer behavior in a way that makes it virtually inseparable from the initial need.

The Killer App For Your Brand

What is the fundamental need that your audience wants to fill? How can you satisfy that need with your brand and some unique technology?

As an experiment, I tried this reverse engineering exercise with a brand that seems the very antithesis of high-tech. Next week I’ll reveal the brand and the solution.

Are widgets today’s ad specialties?

In a prior life I worked in direct response. My clients were mostly healthcare organizations — hospitals, physician groups and health plans. They used magnets. Lots of them. Not in their MRI devices, mind you. I worked with healthcare marketing departments.

No, these were refrigerator magnets. Magnets such as these:

Not very sexy, huh? Believe me, I tried to break my clients’ addiction to the things. I mean really!

Keeping Your Brand Top-of-mind

But I finally conceded that if you are selling a service that on any given day no one wants (no one, that is, except independently wealthy hypochondriacs), you need to have your brand nearby. Should the need suddenly arise, you want your brand to be the one consumers think about.

It’s not such a bad idea to be somewhere hard to ignore … such as on the door people swing open several times a day.

I eventually resigned myself to my career as a peddler of refrigerator magnets. My project managers were in frequent contact with our fridge magnet vendor, Magnets, LLC (above are examples pulled from their online catalog). Post cards we bulk mailed to targeted regions around our clients crackled with magnetism and hackneyed slogans.

Back then I would quip that if the physical law of magnetism was repealed, all of healthcare marketing would grind to a halt.

Then I joined the online world and mostly forgot all about these give-aways. Until yesterday.

This week Bob Garfield, in an Ad Age piece, compared online widgets to these lowly trinkets. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):

For the past half-century (and for about five more minutes) TV advertising has been at the apex of marketing communications. Then, in no particular order, newspapers, magazines, radio, out of home, direct mail, point of purchase, collateral (brochures, for example) and — in the murky, mucky darkness at the very bottom of the deepest abyss of marketing prestige — advertising specialties.

For example, a ballpoint pen emblazoned with your insurance agent’s logo. Or a wall calendar, fridge magnet, coffee mug, yardstick, foam beer-can sleeve, ashtray, key fob, emery board, pocket diary — any cheap giveaway item meant to remind the consumer of you every single time she measures fabric or swigs a Pabst or files her nails …

In a digital world, advertising specialties are as analog as you can possibly get. Until they go digital.

Branded widgets are the refrigerator magnets of the Brave New World.

Say it ain’t so! Is someone playing a cruel joke?

Describing widgets, Garfield puts a finer point on his argument: “These compact, portable little software apps — from video players to countdown clocks to makeup simulators — are inexpensive to distribute, free to the user and (often enough) distinctly useful.”

That’s true. Just like ad specialties. They also remain, often, in front of a consumer until a need for the brand arises. “At a minimum,” Garfield states, “they carry an ad message wherever they go.”

He said “At a minimum.” There’s my loophole. This is what will restore me to respectability! Although Garfield says they are “distinctly useful,” he neglects to say just how useful. No one can argue that a fridge magnet can hold up a parent permission slip or shopping list, but did one ever report back to the advertiser about consumers’ aggregate kitchen behavior?

The best widgets, like the ones my team produces (either the freestanding web apps, or the Facebook games and calculators that are deep into our development queue now), do far more than simply justify their existence on a social media profile page or blog entry.

Because a widget can interact with consumers, and since we can attach precise web metrics to them, widgets can do valuable marketing work such as:

  • Pre-qualify prospects through calculators and configurators
  • Enlist customers in sharing your message with others who may also be prospects
  • Display and play user-generated content appealing to long tail interests
  • Entertain!

This last one is a biggy. Because, unlike refrigerator magnets, people actually want to pass along widgets. This may seem like a small thing to you, but this morning, it’s causing me to hold my head a little higher. I am no mere peddler of digital chochkees.

Watching Bezos: The future of books can be traced in acquisitions

Yesterday fellow blogger Ron Shevlin published an open letter to Jeff Bezos, proposing that Amazon should start giving away Kindles. He proposed that giving away their ebook device would be offset by the incremental ebooks they’d then sell, in a similar way to giving away razors as a way to sell high-margin blades.

I’m of the opinion that, unlink razors, ebooks are too much of a niche product to take off in any scalable way. It was author and blogger Nick Hornby who helped me see the light, when he pointed out that an ebook is a high-tech solution solving problems for a largely low-tech market segment.

Social Networks for Book Lovers

Instead, I think the future of publishing — regardless of whether the ink is real or virtual — will be better advanced through social networks designed for those passionate about books. Notably, I’ve been tracking Goodreads, and the 18-month-old Shelfari.

Jeff Bezos has been watching as well. Today we learn that Amazon just acquired Shelfari, three weeks after acquiring another competitor in the space, AbeBooks.

It’s a shrewd move for Amazon to shift more marketing dollars toward online social networks. If only for this reason: As true book lovers become more of a rarity, the urge for them to congregate will grow.

Long before the day when book lovers warm to a digital book, they will welcome a digital way to connect with other readers.

Facebook direct response ads prove how little has changed

It’s a common theme among direct marketers: There is little that actually changes as new media spring up and ads adapt to them. Take Facebook. As David Berkowitz discussed in his post today (and also in his MediaPost piece), an ad series that targets people based on their gender and age is making the rounds. And getting a lot of scrutiny. I had seen another version of it last week, and had mentioned it to him via Twitter. (Thanks for the mention, David.)

Significantly, this ad series wasn’t showing when I just visited a few moment ago, nor could I find in on the More Ads page of Facebook. Coincidence?

Here is the ad in context -- circa April, 2008Way back on April 9 this ad series first captured my attention, although at the time it wasn’t testing headlines customized to age and gender, as this newest batch does. At the time I made a number of screen captures, and took some notes, but didn’t blog about it then.

Now this latest twist (featuring headlines such as, “29 Yr Male Overweight?“) is a great chance to share my research into the advertisement — especially for those readers who first caught David’s post and wondered how the subsequent user experience plays out.

The answer is it’s very old school, with some shrewd modern touches.

Like the best print ads of the direct response print ad “Golden Age” (somewhere between the 1960’s and the 1980’s, I’d venture to guess), it is a carefully tuned conversion engine, as well as a massive blight on the advertising landscape.

The ad itself had the headline “Get Ripped.” The photo is smaller than the new versions, but the copy is written with the same economy and obvious care. When you click though to it, you see a page that is incredibly busy, with three different fonts and primary colors, and a ton going on. (Click to open it full size in a new window).

An AJAX layer offers a clever YouTube video player (I don’t recall checking to see if it was truly pulling from YouTube, or was residing on the advertiser’s server — but I’m guessing the advertisers were not counting on YouTube’s cooperation, and this was indeed locally streamed).

Folks who wouldn’t know better would assume this ad is a loser. “Who could possibly respond to something this schlocky?,” they might ask. My answer would be that, like the pattern on the carpeting of a Las Vegas casino floor, everything about it is there for a reason. And it’s all there because it’s effective, as proven over time, with much testing.

But Wait!

The best part for me is shown below. When I tried to close the window, I got a fake system message saying, “Hey Wait!” It goes on to say a live agent would like to give me a “last-minute saving,” Okay then. Points for persistence.

A clever way to stop people from leaving

What do you think of this surprisingly old-fashioned approach? Do you think it will work — with, or even without — the age / gender personalized headlines?

Podcasts and the public radio revenue model

On Monday Ira Glass posted the message below on the web home of his outstanding This American Life radio program. He faces a common multi-channel marketing challenge. In his case, it’s this: How do you keep a version of your radio show available on the web for free, but also not tick off the public radio affiliates who pay a lot of money to run the programming over their airwaves (and consequently receive more donations from listeners come pledge time).

I’ve listened to the podcasts since they’ve been made available in MP3 format, and it’s been fascinating to track the various “we need your financial support” pitches proceeding and concluding the podcast episodes. He was initially asking for support of the originating radio station. Now, as the following makes clear, it’s time to subsidize this channel of distribution as well.

Help Keep Our Podcast and Streaming Free
Hello, listeners.

It’s been a year-and-a-half since we decided to offer our show as a free, weekly podcast, and that’s been a crazy, whopping success. But because so many people—sometimes more than half a million—are downloading and streaming our show each week, the Internet bandwidth to distribute the program this way costs $152,000 per year. We want to keep offering This American Life for free. You want us to keep offering the show for free. Our home station, Chicago Public Radio, doesn’t need to make money on our podcast, but they can’t lose $152,000 a year on it, either.

We think we can cover the whole cost by coming to you, hopefully just twice a year, virtual hat in hand. If you listen regularly over the Internet, please pitch in a little cash. To all the people who gave six months ago, a sincere thank you, and please consider giving a small amount again. A dollar from every Internet listener would more than pay for everything, but of course not everyone’s going to give, so consider a $5 donation. It’ll cover you and a few other people for a year of listening. If you donate more than a few bucks, you can choose thank-you gifts—including some stuff you can’t get anywhere else. One of the items is a CD of “The Giant Pool of Money,” our incredibly popular, recent episode about the mortgage crisis, which many listeners wanted to purchase as a gift.

Our dream is that we’ll get you and most of our Internet listeners to chip in at the $1 or $5 level, and that’ll cover everything. We’d love to take care of this expense with a flood of little donations from the people who actually listen to our show this way. And of course, if you feel that getting an hour of our show every week is worth more to you than a dollar a year, we’d be grateful for anything else you’d care to contribute. We really want to keep the podcast free.

How long will it be before we have a micro-payment account (aside from PayPal) that we can set up to allow for quick and spontaneous donations of funds, to support all of the “free” content that is enriching our lives?