data

Why Our Misuse Of Metrics May Be A Cultural Issue

We’ve discussed “wind tunnel marketing” quite a bit recently. As a result, we’ve been thinking more and more about one particular facet of the issue: the misuse of metrics and data. Few industries more regularly confuse their objectives and metrics than marketing. I’m referring to when marketers take digital proxy indicators of progress, and make them the destination, even when they’re multiple degrees removed from the objective. This is distinct from our use of data to adapt our efforts. Maybe it’s karma for collectively turning to display advertising in the late 90’s to save our business, unknowingly opening the Pandora’s box of click-thru-rates that’s held us back for over a decade since.

We reject the notion that is due to some psychological need for validation. If it’s about validation, there can only be an empty feeling elicited from the knowledge that the metric isn’t the objective. Thus began our Inception-esque voyage into the psyche of marketers.

Operating under the assumption we’re rational at some level, it was easy to see the correlation between this seemingly irrational behavior and a code of conduct prevalent throughout our industry: self-preservation. Maybe most professions exhibit this behavior to some degree, but the level of self-preservation in marketing is extreme. Scientifically speaking, Cover Your Ass Syndrome is an epidemic amongst us. It couldn’t simply be that opportunistic, self-preservation obsessed humans just naturally tend to find their way to marketing, right? We couldn’t possibly be like baby geese following the first thing that moves, in our case another human that shows as much self-centered focus as ourselves— suddenly and inexplicably asking “what do you do for a living and how can I start?”

Perhaps we’re victims (wait, is that the self-preservation talking? We’re in too deep to tell). Maybe this misuse of metrics isn’t, in fact, innate survival behavior to ensure we’re not left holding the bag when things go wrong. Perhaps this is a learned behavior we’ve created as a result of our environment. Our environmental analysis turned up three factors that seem to be directly responsible for our rampant metrics abuse. The first is the obvious reality of impatience, prevalent throughout shareholder demands and modern human nature. Let’s put that one aside as it’s been discussed ad naseum via analysis of CMO tenures and the fault of modern capitalist markets. It’s the next two factors that are more interesting- and more productive- to analyze. At the surface, they don’t appear linked to our misuse of metrics, but in fact they are due to their impact on behavior and culture within marketing organizations, from clients to agencies. Both are addressable, but would require an organization’s senior leadership to operate in very non-standard ways.

1. Pre-defined Bonuses

When companies define bonuses of marketing executives based on specific metrics like site visits or total audience engagement or- gasp- product sales, it’s human nature to pursue that bonus at any cost. In fact, the existence of black and white bonuses regularly takes a metric for success and makes it someone’s personal objective. What’s best for the company, calculated risk taking and long-term innovation planning go out the window when considered against school tuitions or new drapes.

Although controversial in many business cultures, why not solve this environmental issue by creating subjective bonuses– ones where employees are judged on rational, subjective contribution to the company? Did the risks they take make sense? Did their approach add some broader value? If the objective is what’s best for your initiative, rather than a metric that is only one of many proxies for that success, shouldn’t a bonus be tied to that?

Compensation subjectivity makes people uncomfortable, but with good leadership in place at a company, it’s likely a more intelligent option. Those that truly want what’s best for the organization will trust their leaders.

2. Crediting Systems

In today’s marketing landscape, the way ideas manifest is complicated. All the various executions of an idea involve more moving pieces, multiple partners and blurrier lines between disciplines. Yet, somehow we employ the same crediting system- from awards to inter-company recognition- as we did 30 years ago.

Our credit list may be extensive, but it’s still partitioned by execution: creative, strategy, production, media (assuming media people even get credit). This is true external to the organization (award shows, press releases), but also true internally at most organizations (departments, recognition).

Why? If lines are blurry, why must we categorize contribution? If this sounds ridiculous, please interview young talent in our industry. They have a tough time defining their role by agency verticals and almost always pride themselves on their organic contributions to an agency output. We love that, and in fact look for T-shaped individuals when hiring.

It’s when marketers credit by specific discipline that metrics become disproportionately emphasized. We may call it a team effort, but we take a Hollywood approach to “team,” defining it as a collection of individuals. So, digital-era metrics like sharability, clicks and participation must be measured because they reflect individual contribution (“my part of the project”). As a result, we make decisions that emphasize metrics instead of simply contributing to the broader objective. Credit is needed for survival in this marketing habitat. As a result, metrics are exaggerated and the overall objective goes by the wayside, the remaining vestige of community achievement in a market that deals in only individual currency.

At the end of this pseudo-scientific examination, it’s clear the environment is polluted. The result is a cyclical reality that few companies and brands transcend; even fewer do so consistently. The environment impacts the inhabitants and the resulting means of survival requires substituting metrics for objectives. That said, we remain optimistic that in the near future, leadership of marketing organizations will nurture a culture that shifts our archaic approach to incentives and crediting. This will cleanse the environment itself, breaking the cycle of rational argument for or against the use and application of metrics. The work will no doubt benefit as a result. Ironically, the beneficial impact of the change toward correcting our use of metrics may at first go unnoticed.

Hey, maybe we should put a measurement in place for it….

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Internet Trends 2010, by Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker

The thing we like most about Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends presentation is it’s just packed with data. The charts are sometimes *too* intense, in fact, carrying too much data. But it’s always revealing, and usually inspiring. Because it’s fact, not fiction.

Slide 7 is especially impactful. I was born on the left hand side of the chart, probably around when there were 5 million computing-capable units globally. On the right, just ten years from today, the forecast is for 10 billion+ units. Extraordinary.

View more presentations from CM Summit: Marketing in Real Time.

Mapping Twitter Part 2: The Tweet-o-Meter

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Came across this today. Tweet-o-Meter (link) is the beta version of a platform created by University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. The Tweet-o-Meter supposedly updates every ten seconds (not sure it does quite do that right now), showing the number of tweets in each city per minute. The ambition is to log and analyze all geo-located tweets in these major cities. Once logged, they will be used to show Twitter activity over time and space. Various kinds of maps will be the main output. I imagine a variety of delicious visualizations will be forthcoming.

We are possibly attracted partly by the simple analogue-feel, dial-based interface. But we’re also struck by yet another work-in-progress attempt to bring life to the data spawned by Twitter (see also Getting to Know Your Twitter Followers & Why that Matters from earlier this week).

Tweet-o-Meter is part of a broader project called NeISS (National eInfrastructure for Social Simulation), another UK Government-funded project. Read more about it here.

And of course it also reminds us of of the work by Google’s Aaron Koblin on visualizing SMS messages sent on New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam in 2007 (see below). We imagine as Tweet-o-Meter moves forward through beta they’ll need to figure out how to marry Koblin-esque visualizations to their gushing pipe of data. Bringing magic to the mayhem.

Amsterdam SMS messages on New Years Eve from Aaron on Vimeo.

Amsterdam SMS messages on Queen’s Day from Aaron on Vimeo.

“Do not glorify aesthetics”: a manifesto for Data Visualisation?

We’re moderately obsessed with the world of data visualisaton here at Labs for a number of reasons: the ability to generate fresh insight from extraordinarily complex data sets, the ability to trigger radical reappraisal of familiar problems, the ability to put consumers in control of the vast quantities of personal data they generate every day.  Not to mention the extraordinary fusion of technology and creativity it represents. 

We firmly believe that data visualisation has a wealth of exciting commercial applications, from communicating in new ways to developing new tools, apps and utilities for clients and consumers alike. So we’ve grown slightly frustrated by the rise of visualisations that are moderately pretty but add little in terms of real insight, utility or illumination.

We’re also, as we may have mentioned,  big fans of Manuel Lima here at Labs. So we were intrigued to see that he has authored an “Information Visualisation Manifesto”, a provocative (but characteristically generous and nuanced) take on the future of data visualisation which tackles head on the thorny questions at the heart of this ever-expanding field:

  • Art versus Science
  • Intrigue versus Immediacy
  • Aesthetics versus apprehension.

 Manuel comes down firmly on the side of clarity of communication versus visualisation for visualisation’s sake, citing the discipline’s roots in the desire “to facilitate understanding and aid cognition” and a growing frustration with the “eye candy” approach to the craft. Many of his principles are rooted in this utilitarian approach, reading almost like a Bauhaus manifesto (and none the worse for that):

  • Form follows Function
  • Do not glorify Aesthetics
  • Look for relevancy
  • Aspire for Knowledge

It’s a bold, purist and punchy vision yet also acknowledges the power of narrative and the role of intrigue. Indeed the question of narrative seems to lie at the heart of this Manifesto; the need to pose a specific question of the data and to weave coherent themes and stories from it. These themes then drive the aesthetic approach. As Manuel puts it:

“Form doesn’t follow data. Data is incongruent by nature. Form follows a purpose, and in the case of Information Visualisation, Form follows Revelation

This is perhaps the key distinction between Information Visualisation as defined here and what Manuel suggests we start thinking of as “Information Art”. Within this approach, artists will freely allow form to follow data, using the random-ness this creates to add texture and interest. Take, for example, Aaron Koblin’s desire to embrace the random-ness of a data set and indeed the richness and texture added to his famous Radiohead video by “interrupting the data”:

“I think it really gives character, because I think it’s really that kind of intricacy and detail that builds character and in a sense it’s the errors and flaws that make art”.

Incongruity making art: Aaron Koblin's "House of Cards" promo for Radiohead

Incongruity making art: Aaron Koblin's "House of Cards" promo for Radiohead

Both approaches are undoubtedly valid. Within any medium there will be times when we seek immediacy and times when we are prepared to be intrigued and to explore. There will be times when we want to understand our world better and times when we want to turn perceptions of it on its head. I can think of few practical applications of, say, the “Synchronous Objects” visualisation series but it mashes up art forms and messes with my mind in a truly delightful way.

As ever, then, we need to return to objectives, to ask what we are trying to achieve:

  • Do we want to educate around an issue, making complex questions simple?
  • To shift perceptions and provoke a response?
  • To offer a fresh perspective on an infrastructure question for our clients?
  • To offer our consumers better comprehension and control of their behaviours?  

Simply put, are we going to offer something that is either very, very useful or very, very beautiful? Either way, greater clarity of intent and greater discipline throughout the industry can only be an advantage in building credibility and engagement. Building that credibiltiy is vital if data viz is going to become not just an entertaining diversion but a vital tool for navigating a world generating more and richer data by the second.

If what we are building is neither very beautiful nor very useful, to Manuel’s final point “Avoid Gratuitous visualisations”: “Simply conveying data in a visual form, without shedding light on the portrayed subject, or even making it more complex, can only be considered a failure”. 

Or as William Morris put it: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

From Art to Apps: Data Visualisation finds a purpose

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

I recently attended an excellent Made by Many event hosted at BBH which featured a re-presentation by Manuel Lima of his 2009 TED talk on data visualisation. Manuel is the curator of visualcomplexity.com and is an eloquent, modest, charming pioneer in this fascinating field.

As a novice myself, I could not help wondering why we are all so immediately and instinctively attracted to the best of data visualisation.To start with, I’m sure there is some fundamental truth that for most of us data become meaningful only when we can see scale, change, patterns and relationships. Seeing is understanding.

It’s also very reassuring to discover that complex, seemingly chaotic data sets and networks can be expressed as elegant, colourful, ordered maps and models. Perhaps there’s something akin to what the Enlightenment scientists felt as every new discovery revealed the endless beauty of nature.

Indeed the best examples of data visualisation have their own aesthetic beauty. (I felt a nostalgic pang as I recalled time spent with spirograph in my bedroom as a child.)

Like spirograph, but better: Email map by Christopher Baker

Like spirograph, but better: Email map by Christopher Baker

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“An Epochal Debate over the Value of Content”

That’s how Rupert Murdoch recently summed up the current relationship between online publishers and aggregators during a call with his shareholders.

He ended with a shot across the bow: “The current days of the Internet will soon be over.”

It’s about to get interesting.

Back when we were floating high inside the web 1.0 bubble, it became indisputably accepted that online content was going to be free and advertising was going to pay for it. And until recently this worked since there was still enough media money in circulation to fuel experimentation and allow digital to continue as a loss leader with an eye toward the future.

But things have changed. Quickly.

Long tail economics are working swimmingly for the aggregates – the blog networks, ad networks, search engines, etc – prosper through triangulation while those that actually create the content that gives these engines their value die a little more each day. Watch in the coming months as the providers, who are now quite literally in a fight for survival, begin to circle the wagons and shoot back.

But within this climate there is also real promise. Necessity being the mother of invention, we may now (finally) begin to see the growth of micropayments in our near future.

Numerous companies have already tried and failed to introduce these systems, but please keep in mind that only a few years ago, it was predicted that consumers wouldn’t trust online security in large enough numbers to sustain retail on a mass level. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for great online content, it is the high, one time price tag and the hassle of inputting credit card info that is the barrier keeping publishers from our money.

When the barriers are removed, we are generally more than willing to pay 25 cents for a text, 99 cents for a song, so why not 1 cent for an article?

With the introduction of internet ez-pass type payments, users will be able to pass through web pages fractions of a cent at a time. From video games to recipes, from pornography to journalism, this will allow the actual creators to be properly compensated for their work.

Individuals like former Time editor Walter Isaacson and start-ups like Kachingle are pushing just such sytems. But leading this charge will likely require new habit-changing products like the Kindle, which is already beginning to do for print what iPhone did for music. Or more immediately, the new iPhone itself which will change the whole game again this summer by allowing for third party micropayments within its upcoming software update.

In our new data-driven world, micropayments might begin to apply to how creative agencies are compensated as well. Creative and media will likely increasingly begin merging services, molding to a more performance-based system. This doesn’t need to adversely effect creativity though, since appealing to more sophisticated eyeballs might pay better than the blunderbuss approach.

Watch for Labs to be dabbling in exactly these kinds of methods in the months ahead. We welcome further conversation by potentially interested partners and clients here.

“Data tells stories about our lives”

Mind blowing: Flight patterns by Aaron Koblin http://www.aaronkoblin.com/
Mind blowing: Flight patterns by Aaron Koblin http://www.aaronkoblin.com/
If data visualisation is the new rock and roll, Elvis has (just) left the building. Aaron Koblin played to an enthralled audience of BBH-ers this afternoon, blew our minds and incredibly kindly agreed to be interviewed by Labs afterwards.

Our interview to follow soon, but to whet your appetite, a quick download of our (and your) key questions for the rock star of the data visualisation world.

Balancing immediacy and intrigue: A frequent criticism of data visualisation is that while often extremely beautiful, sometimes it doesn’t make the information contained any clearer-it can sometimes even seem to obfuscate in the name of art. Should great data visualisation simplify or should it embrace complexity and reward exploration? Should it be reductive or expansive in intent?
Where left brain meets right brain: When embarking on a project, which comes first, the data or the technique? How critical a role does software play? Do the themes and memes recurring in data visualisation reflect the artists’ preoccupations or the data sets available?
Proliferation versus privacy: One of the key enablers of data visualisation is the phenomenal explosion in the amounts of data we now generate everywhere we go. We live in a golden age of open-ness around personal data but will we reach a tipping point where we reclaim our personal privacies? Or will we opt in to share anonymised data for the common good?
The power of synesthesia: Some of the most compelling data visualisation projects are those which express one medium-almost one sense- by means of another. Visually representing dance or music, aurally representing data sets-what is it we find so compelling about this “synesthetic” effect?

Crowd-sourcing versus the wisdom of the crowd: Koblin’s recent work experiments with crowd-sourcing but suggests an ambivalence about the process. While a central theme of data visualisation is the wisdom of the crowd, how does it skew the data if the crowd knows it’s being watched? Is the unconscious wisdom of the crowd purer and more compelling or is conscious collaboration of the masses the future? How important is the role of the curator in that process?

Answers – or at least compelling and considered answers – on a blogpost near you shortly….