Will Apps Really Make Buying Decisions For Us?

J.Walker Smith CEO of the The Futures Co. (Part of Kantar/WPP) posted a thought provoking article about Programmatic Consumption on the AMA blog recently.

It is claimed that digital apps will be used by customers to make buying decisions on their behalf and that a new era of so called ‘on demand’ purchasing is nigh. When has a purchase ever been ‘off demand’? ‘Oh I’ll buy this because I don’t want it’!

The era of programmatic consumption is where me and you aren’t involved in the things we purchase and we leave it up to apps to talk to other apps to decide what we want and place the order.

Forgive me if I think this is technological determinism going a little bit too far.

I get that apps can filter customer choices placed before us but actually deciding the relevance of the purchase seems utterly implausible. This denies the social context in which purchases are made and air brushes the person who has the wallet out of the picture. It shows a lack of understanding of what relevance making is and how it works.

Sure relevance is something that data miners pay attention too. See the work of Sarajevic (2007) Relevance: A Review of the Literature and a Framework for Thinking on the Notion in Information Science. Part II: Nature and Manifestations of Relevance*. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58. Nevertheless as Saracevic agrees relevance making remains a human faculty. See Schiller 1912:

‘Relevance is the product not an attempt to include everything, but of an effort to get rid of the rubbish, to select the humanly valuable part, and to exclude, reject and ignore the rest… The ‘relevant,’ therefore, stands out of a chaotic whole as a selected extract’.

Or as sociologist Schutz says:

‘The question of why these facts and precisely these are selected by thought from the totality of lived experience and regarded as relevant’ Schutz (1967:24)

Not to mention the extensive work on relevance by Grice and Sperber and Wilson on relevance and meaning making too.

The ultimate decision on the relevance of the offer will always be made by a human being even if technology has been used to target the selection. Even when the algorithm proposes something as ‘relevant’ we still have to decide the relevance of that. To do that we test the relevance in terms of our matter at hand at that very moment (and the benefit and value). We decide the meaning.

I am always a tad sceptical of ‘brave new world’ marketing perspectives especially when a shiny new ideas like ‘programmatic consumption’ are floated. The cynic in me says that this is just an old fashioned scare tactic along the lines of “you’ve not heard of prog-consumption? Really? You need to get clued up because it’s the future, throw away the old models and explanations of consumption they won’t work any more….what you need is….’ As they say fear sells.

I wonder if an app will be created that will decide if ‘programmatic consumption’ is relevant to your business. Imagine lying on a beach with a cocktail and letting it run your life for you!

Makes you wonder why you would even publish an article about it. Just get your app to talk to my app.

When two tribes don’t go to war: bridging the sales and marketing divide 

Simon Kelly’s article Align or Die draws attention to a problem that afflicts organisations who find that their sales and marketing departments are at odds with each other.

You would think that organisations would have a common purpose and the people in them would work together to achieve common aims.

Simon points out this is actually less evident than you might expect and the waste and futility of misaligned customer facing functions is commonplace.

The social reality of course is that the desire to have the power to ‘call the shots’ about what matters to customers is very appealing. 

This means that despite the ‘warmth’ rhetoric of collaboration, co-operation and co-creation everyday business activities are steeped in the idea of competition. 

I think one of the issues is the social and cognitive effort needed by those involved to engage in the act of co-operation. 

It takes time to communicate with others and it is emotionally demanding listening to and absorbing different points of view. It then takes even more effort to build a new combined view of the world and a new set of assumptions about how it works.

The easy option is to engineer yourself into a position where you don’t have to listen. You become the King of Meaning. It’s your take on what matters and all others are irrelevant.

The interesting thing here though is that our points of view are very personal. This means that when, lets say, the marketing function declares that the sales point of view is irrelevant they are really saying that sales people as human beings are irrelevant. Ouch! 

Bridging the marketing and sales divide must therefore begin by everyone valuing the people involved in the task of customer interaction regardless of function. Without this as a foundation then alignment will remain a mirage in the desert.

Outing the left brain-right brain myth makers

There is nothing like a gross over simplification to get a band wagon going.

One of the best is the myth that we are either left or right brained. This apparently determines our propensity to be analytical or creative.

I recently came across David Taylor’s informative and thought provoking blog post on this topic. 

What I really like about David’s post is the way he explains how from some seminal research into brain function the whole world of management and education has built an industry on flawed interpretion of the data.

How many people have been adversely affected by the Right/Left acolytes who delight in classifying people into types and then advising them how to conduct themselves?

I am frequently surprised how some people satisfy themselves with the first plausible explanation they find for things without reading around the topic for critical points of view. 

Just googling can often reveal the other side of the coin and as This Article shows things are more subtle and complex than the right/lefters would have us accept.

In some ways this can be a let down. Research I conducted into the way key account managers conducted themselves during customer interactions showed that they were skilled at reading social contexts and communicating and behaving accordingly. 

I mused that maybe they were one sided brain-wise and thought what a great way to select people for senior key account manager roles. Looks like I could have unethically perpetuated the myth.

I wonder what side of your brain your ability to be sceptical resides? 

Are basic marketing mistakes forgiveable?

I know we all make mistakes. It’s one of the ways we learn. Reading the recent post by Tecmark Eight expensive marketing mistakes got me wondering if some marketing management mistakes are unforgivable? I’d always assumed in business that serious entrepreneurs and professional marketers got commercially involved a market sector because they appreciated the fundamental factors for success in that sector. That through deep understanding of the sector it meant they were a credible supplier and didn’t make basic mistakes.

Tekmark’s post about mistakes got me thinking; are there really businesses involved in the creation and supply of content marketing services that have no idea about concept creation and development processes and basic market understanding? I then thought, why not test my own content generation (this post) against the mistakes.

The infamous 8 mistakes are:

Limited investment in the generation of a range of conceptual possibilities. The technical term is ‘ideation’. I find it incredible that anyone would simply start writing content without first having a conceptual frame that guides the what, how and why of the content being generated. Do content marketers just write stuff with no idea why they are doing it!?

I couldn’t have written this post without some idea of its theme and structure. I could have just passed the link on and instead I spent a few minutes thinking how I could add to the debate Neil Barraclough at Tekmark had started. I also had in my mind the TORE model of communication (cf Professor Sam Ham) which emphasises establishing a clear theme, having an organised structure, being of relevance to readers and providing an enjoyable approach.

Not setting clear goals is next. Seriously? Do content marketers write without a goal in mind?

My goals are to increase my blog readership, develop my writing style, encourage debate and dialogue about marketing management and promote interest in Sheffield Business School

Deciding the format first. Suggests the purpose of the content is not thought through before the most appropriate way of conveying information is decided. I’m minded here of Maslow’s phrase ‘if you only have a hammer then you see every problem as a nail’.

In my case I deemed writing a blog post best because it allows me to explain and discuss ideas. It’s quick and convenient and I’m too shy to do a podcast/YouTube and rubbish at graphics so an infographic is out of the question!

No promotion budget. This is interesting. Not providing adequate resource to implement and exploit an idea seems daft to me. It’s either a good idea with potential or it’s not. If you are going to invest the time and energy into ideas surely it’s an obvious aspect of the starting raison d’être and business case to consider the cost of making the idea happen too?

In my case writing this is just about time. Worth it because it makes good use of time on my commute. It costs me an hour and I can easily commit to it to make it happen.

Forgetting how users will access your content. Isn’t this a bit like designing a car and forgetting how drivers drive? Content appears in different formats and much of it is accessed on mobile devices.

In my case WordPress converts posts to the appropriate reading platform which means I don’t need to worry to much. I guess the advice would be design to the simplest format and assume people are reading content on a mobile phone.

Not understanding target audience. Let me check…you’re in marketing right? What on earth are you doing if you have no idea of your target audience! In my case I am targeting readers who are interested in marketing management and who enjoy a slightly skeptical and provocative take on conventional themes and issues.

I don’t think I appeal to readers who want particular problems solved or those who want affirmation that marketing is the solution to every problem in the world.

No sharing buttons. The clue is in the title isn’t it? Social media. Why generate digital content if it isn’t shareable? If there is one aspect of digital marketing that is different to previous ways of doing marcomms it has to be the quick and easy sharing of stuff.

In my case WordPress provide buttons to do this. Neat!

No embed codes in your infographic. Ok you got me! We’ll sort of…it just means that you embed an html link in your image so when people click on it they go to your website or a you tube or anywhere else you want. Part of the driving traffic and sharing gig.

Me? I’m not sure I’ve done that. So need to check. All in all I reckon Neil Barraclough’s post is really helpful for start ups and inexperienced in-house marketing teams more than experienced content marketing companies. The bonus is it gave me something to chat about on my commute too!

In the end all mistakes are forgiveable except I guess the one’s you keep making 😉

How should the value of a university degree be measured?

Jo Johnson is promoting the idea of a Teaching excellence framework for universities and talks of students getting the ‘teaching’ they deserve. Seems like a good idea. There are some provocative issues within this proposal however.

Can we assume that talking of getting the ‘teaching’ they deserve was a slip of the tongue? Surely Mr Johnson means getting the education they deserve? There is an important difference that is to my view grounded in an emancipatory philosophy. It’s not just about getting stuff into someone’s head (teaching) it’s also about getting stuff out. Karen Millheim explains in Adult Education (2011) :
“According to Sprague and Brown (2008), ‘education provides students with cognitive tools and self-efficacy to understand and impact the broader structures that shape their life chances’ (p. 2). Viewed this way, emancipa- tory educators hold the potential to shape instruction in a way that cultivates this way of thinking. Their role is to advocate for social justice, posing problems and eliciting dialogue from their students (Tisdell & Taylor, 1999).”

The clue therefore is in the title; higher ‘education’ not higher ‘teaching’ . Universities are not simply beefed up secondary schools tasked with getting stuff into pupils heads they are the social context where the rite of passage of changing from being a taught student to a self-directed learner takes place. The introduction to subject knowledge is but one dimension of this experience. 

Are we to assume from Jo Johnson’s slip that he thinks a university is just a big secondary school and that they should be managed accordingly? We can assume that he is steeped in a managerialist ideology because he has an MBA and this might guide his perspective.

I have an MBA too and I know just how biased the philosophical assumptions of this qualification can be towards linear rational objectivity. The belief that nothing has value unless it can be measured.  So no wonder he leans to measuring things without necessarily expressing  ‘what’ needs measuring and why , what appropriate types of measure might be and why, and scant attention to any unintended consequences of metric selection that may result. (Just witness the coaching of pupils to pass exams, directional assignment explanations and repeated resubmission of work that takes place in our schools).

The TEF is proposed to run in parallel with another quality framework posited by the higher education funding council. Seems like the bureacrats can’t get enough of measuring things. Metriphilia is a predatory bureaucrats disease (cf David Graeber). Already the administration compliance burden on UK universities is £1billion per annum. 

Jo’s other target of interest is grade inflation. This is laudable and at the same time ironic. The number of instances of students telling me what grade they deserve and expect and the frequency of challenging grades is on the increase. Of course it is! We keep telling students they are customers. 

People who go to university are both customers of the institution and at the same time students having their intellect developed and tested. This latter process may not necessarily be the comfortable experience a mere customer might demand or expect.

Students in customer mode know that if their grade expectations aren’t met they can anonymously undercut the reputation of academics (without evidence btw) on module feedback forms, student voice meetings and the NSS. So reasons to give a 2:1 are sought by academics because of the preference to accede to the view of the customer rather than grading the student at a 2:2. 

So called grade inflation is further reinforced by university pedagogic experts and external examiners recommending ‘the full range of marks’ is used. In other words the 70% glass grade ceiling that defines a first is shattered. 

Of course the tax payer should get value for money. As any MBA student will tell you though, ‘what you measure is what you get’ (cf Norton and Kaplan) and you might just get a secondary school rather than a university! 

See  An Ofsted for universities too

You are awful but I like you


‘You are awful but I like you’ was a catch phrase of British comedian Dick Emery

It seems to capture a philosophical position that pervades education whereby no matter how badly behaved a pupil or student is they are to be ‘understood’ with a high dose of liberal empathy and an attempt at getting them to ‘re-frame’ their attitudes is encouraged. 

This of course assumes that the perpetrator is also liberally minded, self aware and socially intelligent and therefore interested in and capable of self reflection about the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others. There are ‘hard cases’ who don’t give a sh@#’. For them the educational setting is irrelevant (Schiller 1912, Grice 1957, Sperber and Wilson 1995, Clark 2013).

This article Sparing the rod…discusses how pupils learn there are no credible sanctions (social or otherwise) to mark the line that has been crossed when the ‘orders of interaction’ (cf Goffman 1959) that can be reasonably expected in a learning context have been transgressed.

The unexpected side effect (cf Anthony Giddens) of this laudable philosophy is an imbalance of responsibility taking. The pupil/student simply abdicates any responsibility for their behaviour. This is exacerbated by a facile grasp of the notion of customer centricity that preaches that pupils and students are customers. 

Let me be clear. Students are both customers and students, not just customers. They are customers of the institution and deserve excellent administrative and facilities service. The moment they are in the class, seminar or lecture they are students engaged in a transformative rite of passage. 

Their guide on this journey is typically a more mature, experienced and qualified person. If as a pupil/student they do not comply with orders of interaction typical of a learning environment they should expect to be rebuked and their misbehaviour treated as just that, rather than an opportunity  for a 1:1 counselling session.

If all the lessons from the commercial world are to be applied to education then dealing emphatically and decisively with inappropriate behaviour in the class room might be high on the list. 

Ask yourself what would happen to the unruly individual (colleague or customer) in a commercial work setting? Oh…so students aren’t customers after all!


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