Lorton Data's Blog

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Polls

August 30th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

Much like a first date, on a work blog you should never talk about politics, religion or eat an entire rack of BBQ ribs (unless it’s a delicious meat blog). So this week, I’m not going to bury the lead. When doing a large statistical analysis of any dataset, it’s important to check your work. When examining language, tone and intent to make statistical projections about belief, it’s doubly important to make sure the work is done properly—to dig deeper than just the numbers. This is paramount when trying to appear as a trusted news source. On Tuesday, my Twitter feed was blowing up over a screenshot from MSNBC and then later an article called Social media analysis: At the keyboard, Americans slightly prefer Romney. Apparently, a Twitter parody account with over 32,000 followers is one of biggest positive influencers for Mitt Romney.

NBCPolitics.com examined over 2 million tweets and Facebook posts in an effort to analyze a wide number of people who take to their keyboards to share their political beliefs with the world between bags of Cheetos and reruns of Law and Order. As they explained, “Social media analysis is interested in capturing and reporting that structural divide, while controlled national polls have a different mission: capturing a representative sample that proportionally reflects all opinions.” As festive as that sounds, the intent is to look at what people are saying outside the structured polling environment to get another angle for understanding the presidential campaign. The results were interesting; where Obama may be leading in the national polls, Romney was found to be leading the positive sentiment charge on the Internet. From there, NBCPolitics.com provided a topic and keyword chart to help visualize the massive amount of data into bite sized chunks resembling a couple of Smurf everything bagels, and this is where things started to get really intriguing.

You don’t even need to look closely at either the Obama or Romney charts to see some odd results which begin with an “RT” (for the Twitter-uninitiated, RT means retweet or sharing of a tweet) and end with a twitter username. This means there are a high number of retweets for a small number of people who might be skewing the overall results—especially if one of those accounts is providing comedic value. In this case, one of the largest Romney topics is the TeaPartyCat political parody account from Twitter.

NBCPolitics.com doesn’t really get into an explanation of some of the topics displayed in the chart other than the very cursory “this candidate is smart,” or “I think they are electable,” or “I’m voting for cheese,” so they don’t give us a rationale why these oddball topics were uncovered. I suspect the rush to get the article out allowed for some freedom to ignore the topics they didn’t understand, much to my excitement because it gives me something to blog about. The mere fact that they describe their work by saying, “NBCPolitics.com’s analysis, by contrast, explores the actual content of what is being said, providing a glimpse at what issues are specifically driving people’s opinions,” is most ironic. Their social media analysis is a glimpse into the political discussion, but potentially a false one, since it fails to explain the anomalies in the data. As explorers of the social media frontier, no one is going to confuse them with Magellan. The amazing Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight does a much more thorough analysis of political statistics with a lot less total data, but more importantly he tries to explain the outliers when looking at polls and results. While Silver may be dealing with more traditional political polls, the point holds. Often times the outliers are just as telling as the information you expected to see.

Here is some speculation as to what is going on:

1. So many people are tweeting the words TeaPartyCat unrelated to the parody account that the results are accurate.
2. There are enough positive Romney statements in reply to TeaPartyCat that the replies outweigh the initial tweets.
3. People who feel positively about Romney are retweeting TeaPartyCat without realizing it’s a parody Account.
4. NBCPolitics.com didn’t spot-check the results.

While there are many people who associate with the Tea Party and find LOL Cats adorable, I don’t suspect the first two options are viable. We are all familiar with The Onion effect, where individuals share a story as true from the comedy newspaper, but I believe that impact is also minimal. I’d hazard a guess that NBC just has a glaring failure to review their work. If you go to the article and look at the positive discussion of Romney’s electability there are some expected keyword results like “moderate,” “smart” and “Romney2012.” All three of these terms make absolute sense when doing an analysis of this type. However, when you produce a chart of this size and one of the major results is “RT TeaPartyCat” and that term has no contextual relevance, one would expect them to dig a little deeper or at minimum explain why the topic appears as a major result. Especially when you look at the result from a political perspective and understand that Romney is unlikely the preferred candidate for the Tea Party, although he might be polling well for cats.

In my mind, these results don’t make sense. However, with a little spot checking on their part, they could have provided some really useful information. As we say around our office, ‘we need to make it easy to get right, and hard to get wrong.” However, when trying to formulate statistical arguments around language usage this mantra can be a challenge. Or as Bill Livingston, a favorite sports writer of mine said, “Empiricism, my friends, is a drag.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if my wife is going to finish that rack of ribs.

Your Email Address Isn’t as Private as You Think

August 13th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

It’s almost football season again. Crisp fall air, bright blue skies, half-grilled/half-frozen brats, cold beer and the slow march of despair from week one to week seventeen that every Cleveland Browns fan experiences—at least this year with the training camp injuries and suspensions, we’ll get a head start on that journey. It also means a plethora of unsolicited emails from companies who scraped my email address off the Cleveland Browns’ website to offer me a myriad of NFL branded products – ranging from the useful (inflatable tailgate chairs with TWO cup holders) to the obnoxious (officially licensed vuvuzela/cowbell combo instruments for the football fan you already hate). We understand that email marketing is an effective tool to reach potential targeted customers. But we also know that a Wild West mentality toward email addresses doesn’t benefit anyone who wants to sell their product, services or even candidate when there’s a high level of competition for audience’s eyeballs.

With that thought in mind, I was extremely disappointed to come across a Minnesota Public Radio article about our state’s Data Practices Act and the lack of privacy for email addresses. The Minnesota Data Practices Act (DPA) deals specifically with access to government data and the presumption that government data is accessible to the people, much like a state level Freedom of Information Act. While I highly recommend everyone read and think about the article, the short summary is that an individual recently requested the email addresses of people from a number of cities who signed up to receive alerts about local government happenings. It revealed that based on the DPA, the information is considered public and cities are legally required to disclose the email addresses to the requestor. There’s only speculation as to why these email addresses have been requested. However, since the person asking for them is married to someone running for political office, campaigning is probably a safe assumption. But what if he wants to sell them? Or operate a very focused local phishing scam? Or in requesting all of those email addresses he is able to find the one he wants for other nefarious purposes? In this instance, I highly doubt that is the case. However, as Mat Honan discussed in Wired, it doesn’t take a whole lot of data for a pretty vicious hack to occur. If a previously undisclosed email address can be coupled with just a few other pieces of an individual’s data, a whole Pandora’s Box of private information can be opened up.

Now that I’ve gotten my scare tactics out of the way, this is really a question of state policy and its relationship to openness. One would hope our legislators would err on the side of caution when it comes to divulging people’s electronic information. That said, the reason we have the DPA is to prevent the government from hiding its doings from the public. Specifically then, legislators have chosen to exclude specific types of information as protected and then assume anything not explicitly protected is open for disclosure. That’s the rationale in this scenario, since personal email addresses aren’t excluded, they aren’t protected from DPA requests. Cities then have no choice but to comply with the DPA. So while I might wish the state would be judicious with access to personal data, there’s a very real reason the DPA supports the ability to disclose/supply more information rather than less. On one hand, it’s a question of privacy, on the other it really gets to the modern technology question of time, money, effort and accountability related to using government collected data. Let’s frame the problem this way. If I want to reach out to an entire community of people (say 5,000), there’s a cost associated with each attempt to contact every person. Be it making phone calls or the printing and postage expense to send a mail piece, there’s time, effort and money baked into each contact attempt. Email is a little different. If you are doing the deployment yourself, you have time and money spent on the software, designing the email and setting up the email list, but after that, costs drop significantly with each deployment. It’s a lot cheaper to send an email a day to a list for ninety days than it is to send a postcard daily over the same time period. It’s problematic. However, just because I want to get snow emergency notifications via email so my car isn’t towed, I don’t want to then expose my email address to any myriad of people with unknown other intentions.

While I certainly come down on the side of minimal disclosure when it comes to personal email addresses, there is some space for debate where it might be acceptable. I just can’t predict what that need might be–which is the crux of the problem where laws and policy lag behind technology.

If the courts haven’t decided if a Facebook “like” constitutes protected First Amendment speech, it’s easy to understand how complex it is to decide if signing up for snow emergency notifications or city council meeting agendas makes your email address public information. The solution isn’t simple and debate on the issue is essential to getting it right. However, in the meantime we shouldn’t just hand them out willy-nilly to anyone that asks. Unexpected benefits would be fantastic, but it hardly outweighs the inadvertent consequences that could come from disclosure.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to email a guy about the officially licensed Cleveland Browns mood rings (they are just a solid brown color designating sad resignation).

It might be raining, but my teeth are sunny

July 16th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

At some point during my glorious ten-day raincation in England, I received a voicemail on my cell phone from an Ohio dental company regarding open enrollment. After 15 minutes of dumb jokes to my wife about how ironic it was to get a call from a dental practice while I was in Britain, something struck me as odd. The call came from a North Carolina phone number, and it came to my cell phone that has a Cleveland area code. In other words, it violated the FTC’s Do Not Call policies because it clearly came from an autodialer hitting up all phone numbers by area code without any intelligence backing it. Naughty!

Now, next to clean teeth, nothing makes me smile more than when I don’t get unwanted solicitations on my cell phone. That said, the prospect of traveling over 700 miles for dental care is a little excessive, even for a sparkling smile. The call was annoying, but frankly I’m probably not going to report it to the FTC. What really stuck in my craw, or got my goat, or even shimmied my scarecrow, is that they assumed my interest in their offering was based solely on the area code of my phone and not my physical location—but more on that later.

Maybe I could head over to Cleveland to get my teeth cleaned before I hit up a Browns game. Then at least I could take advantage of the season ticket offer my wife got by phone a while back. She had purchased tickets to a Cleveland Browns game (I have the best wife ever) when we traveled home for Thanksgiving, which put us on the call list for season ticket campaigns even though we live in Minnesota. Now I love the Browns like Charlie Brown loves trying to kick a football, but I can’t afford to purchase season tickets and fly to every Browns game. I mean, I’m doing okay, but I’m no Mitt Romney. All of these instances exemplify the fact that these organizations failed to use geographic data from a prospect or customer’s address to refine their target audience.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, our historical assumptions about where someone may live are not necessarily still valid. I can call my parents on a phone with the same area code as theirs while no longer living close enough for surprise visits. I can also have four email addresses (or more depending on how many Facebook wants to give me without asking first) that are likely tied to my home address (or at least zip code) in some fashion – from buying things online to signing up for the Chicago Tribune so I can read Rex Huppke, America’s most beloved workplace columnist. With my cellphone, my physical address is even more intimately tied to my home address. The reality is that no matter where I am, if someone wants to market to me, there should be a home or business address associated with my account even if they aren’t going to send mail to me.

Reputable email marketing compilers, as well as telemarketing firms, typically have more than an email address or phone number when selling their services. It’s essential to include geography when determining who to call or email. We tend to think that because email is “cheap,” you can just send out a message to anyone and everyone and see what sticks. For some services that’s great, but if you want me to go see a Pixies concert in Toledo, you are wasting my time and your goodwill, and if you want me to see Nickelback anywhere, don’t hold your breath.

It’s important to think through a campaign and make sure you are reaching not only the right people, but the right people in the right location.  It isn’t hard to make that assumption and then you don’t end up trying to sell Chargers tickets to a Chiefs blogger who lives in Brooklyn.  I can’t think of any marketer that wants to see their multi-billion dollar organization making it into a blog because they failed to do the simple things during a marketing campaign.  Every marketing campaign needs to respect the importance of geographic data to be a success, or at least to ensure examples like this don’t end up being an educational tool for the rest of us.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take advantage of this great deal on a haircut and manicure in Peoria.

Even I Don’t Recognize Myself Anymore

June 13th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

I changed my Twitter avatar on Monday night. Other than displaying a maple leaf on Canada Day (I’m married to a Canadian), this is the most significant change to my account since I first logged into the site in February of 2010. Why is this relevant to anything? Because it’s like I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I tweeted yesterday, more succinctly, “I changed my profile picture last night and now I’m having the kind of existential crisis that only ends with the purchase of a convertible.” Frankly, the threat of my wife’s displeasure at me showing up with a fancy new ride was the only thing keeping this from being true.

Now admittedly, I use a different profile picture, avatar, avi or whatever the kids are calling them these days on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Instagram, but it seems like once I settle on a photo, I stick with it. Honestly, it’s likely because I’m not particularly photogenic and have a Pangaea sized forehead with a hair style that can only be described as the 1985 David Letterman/Phil Collins.

What I discovered after changing my avatar was an ample number of positive comments from my online friends about the new picture and that was really nice. I also noticed a difference in the response to my tweets. Some individuals who typically react to my comments and thoughts were noticeably absent, while I was getting feedback from people who I’d never seen before. It was almost as if I was a brand new person throwing ideas out into the ether at a completely new audience. I didn’t even recognize my own avatar in my timeline a couple of times, illustrating that while Twitter is the most text-based of all social media platforms, the impact of your avatar cannot be discounted. How does this relate to the work environment? Understanding that even a simple change to a company ‘picture’ such as a logo or brand design can have serious negative ramifications on how customers react to your messaging.

I despise the buzzword “personal brand.” In essence, it monetizes identity in ways that may appear harmless, but actually perpetuates the idea that even when you are online in a personal capacity, you are always working or selling yourself to others. Back in grad school, we talked about technology and performing identity and lots of fancy ways to say that we interact with the world differently when we eat pizza while tweeting than we do while sitting at a dinner table conversing with other humans. Now for the most part, except for people creating fictional identities of themselves for Match.com (you can Photoshop out the unibrow from that 1996 sunset beach photo), we are ourselves online. Even though it’s us, it’s only a static representation of us. I’d like to think that I’m myself on Twitter and Facebook, with the most boring parts stripped out. But that’s where the idea of personal brand comes in, because for most of us, we pick an avatar and stick with it. It becomes the primary representation of how people recognize us, and when we change that image, people we associate with online suffer the cognitive dissonance related to their expectations—we are reading the same things, but seeing it in a different and unexpected manner. In other words, no matter where you move the cheese, most people are still going to be baffled and muttering to themselves when it isn’t in the meat and cheese drawer in the fridge.

So when you make a change to a logo or redesign a website, a lot of thought needs to be put into it. The impact can be unexpected, and it isn’t easy to just flip a switch and change it back. Last night, after a moment of regret, I changed my avatar back to the familiar. Within seconds, I had a message from a friend asking me why I went back to the old one so quickly and telling me they had liked the new one. I could become a serial avatar changer because it doesn’t cost me anything, but organizations invest a lot of time and money to alter their branding, and that’s something that can’t be done on a whim.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to Photoshop some forehead hair on my avatar before the five-head jokes start rolling in.

Zombie Voters

February 27th, 2012 by Nita Estrem

Don’t let November 6, 2012 be “Day of the Zombie Voter”

I read an article on Politico.com the other day which stated that there are nearly 2 million deceased people still listed on voter registration databases across the United States. Dead people voting? Come on now! We all remember the scene from “The Sixth Sense” where little Haley Joel Osment says “I see dead people”. That’s a movie, and just for our entertainment, but what if one of these people who say they can “talk to the dead” gets the word out to more of these zombies? All it’s gonna take is for James Van Praagh to start spreading the news that the dead have voting rights and we will have an epic horror show come election day!!!

Here’s an example of how this can happen: You live in Michigan where you’ve been a registered voter all of your adult life. At some point you get tired of the cold and snow, and up and move to Florida to warm your bones and eat soft, bland foods with all the other retired gray & blue hairs. You don’t vote anymore because you have a hard enough time keeping your prescriptions straight. But your long term memory is solid, and you haven’t forgotten the Florida debacle of 2000. Missing the Early Bird Special only to have your ballot thrown out due to a pregnant Chad hardly seems worth it. Eventually the day comes when you pass into the next life, or great beyond or whatever you believe happens next. BUT, since the state of Michigan hasn’t updated its database in many years, you’re still registered to vote there! (possibly along with your great-great grandfather and crazy Aunt Millie)

Thankfully, you’re still alive and kicking and not one of the “Walking Dead” from that new cult flavored television show. You have a right to vote, you pay your taxes, you probably work for a living! Dead people don’t pay taxes, and they surely should not have voting rights. Still, 953 ballots were cast in a recent election in S. Carolina by deceased voters. Apparently this was partly due to clerical error and the need to update their database. Perhaps someone submitted absentee ballots on behalf of the departed. Or did the election officials just not want to admit to seeing the zombies???

The technology to cleanse the zombies from your database is right at your fingertips. Keeping them won’t create the potential for fraud in most cases, but removing them could save you money in the long term, both in saved postage, and in saved relationships with those who were left behind. If you repeatedly mail to someone who is deceased, on some level (conscious or not), it’s likely a negative emotion may be tied to your business in the mind of the recipient of that mail.

This Blanket Has Klout

February 9th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

A little while ago Klout, an organization that scores individuals based on their perceived social media influence, changed their algorithm for measuring that influence. For two weeks or so after the change, the Social Media Gurus were abuzz blogging non-stop about how they were no longer going to spend any time talking or writing about Klout (and the irony of blogging about not blogging wasn’t lost on me). While there is a lot of excitement about using “Big Data” from social media to target potential customers, in reality, any tool that claims to measure social media influence is going to be fraught with problems and misconceptions about its value. There is an inherent struggle to interpret the massive amount of information being shared through mediums such as Twitter and Facebook, and contextualize the meaning of what is being said.

For example, Klout proposes that I am influential not only on topics such as humor and beer (no surprise there), but also tea, parties, and cats – which may actually categorize me as someone thirty years my junior, and a girl. While technology is helping us to slice and dice larger and larger volumes of data at an ever increasing rate, without the human impact of analysis, there will always be shortcomings to any system that purports to provide strong analysis of social media interactions. There should be excitement for marketers with services like Klout, but that energy needs to be tempered with an understanding that any information from “Big Data” is likely to be flawed because of the sheer volume of information processed and the inherent challenges of understanding it.

Klout’s premise is that social media has “democratized influence” and that applications like theirs can help you to isolate the appropriate influencers who can help drive a valuable return on marketing dollars. In other words, instead of wandering around in the dark sending messages to every potential customer, you can find key people on various social media platforms and let them do the heavy lifting for you.

Here’s one example of this mindset. I was recently offered a free fleece dog blanket from Subaru as a Perk from Klout. While I don’t own a dog, or a Subaru in which to comfortably place a dog on a fleece blanket, the intent was probably to get me talking about Subaru to the people I communicate with on social networks. So even though I didn’t get a blanket, here I am using this example, so I suppose it actually worked. Now can I retroactively have my blanket please? I know it isn’t a lucrative as the payout a vapid reality star gets to attend a party, but free stuff is free stuff.

So on one level, their marketing ploy worked even if I didn’t get a blanket. I had Subaru at the top of mind and told the story of how they wanted to give me a free doggie blanket to talk about them. Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of interaction on the Subaru twitter page and even a few conversations about the blanket. So for their organization, it makes sense to extend their marketing to reach out to influencers that aren’t engaged with their brand. However, for many businesses (especially smaller ones) this might not make sense. There’s significantly more value in reaching out to your own followers and creating positive shared experiences than in trying to reach out to people who aren’t already willing advocates of your brand. When planning a marketing campaign, it’s easy to get distracted by the new, bright and shiny toy and ignore what has already made your organization successful.

It's unbelievable that EMF still exists.

I speak from experience when I say I’ve reached out to companies on Twitter, said positive things and they haven’t felt the need to respond. While on the other hand, I had a one-hit wonder band comment to me humorously after I made a dumb joke about them (EMF for those of you old enough to remember them). So the question is: how many times can you ignore your “arbitrarily calculated” influential customers on a social media platform while spending money encouraging new influencers to promote your brand? I think the example from Subaru, being heavily invested in responding to their customers, seems to be the exception to the way many organizations treat Twitter and Facebook. Am I more likely to keep saying nice things about companies or organizations that make me feel good in return, or will I just give up? If you are serious about growing your business outside of traditional or historical marketing channels, you need to evaluate your customer acquisition strategies beyond the latest and greatest product a social media company is trying to sell you, and look at people who already appreciate your organization enough to want to engage you on one of the many social media platforms.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a Corgi and a Forrester so I’ll have a place to keep my new fleece blanket.

2880 Minutes of Silence

January 16th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

We were somewhere northbound on Minnesota Highway 61, of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, when I posted a photo to Twitter of me at an ice bar enjoying a frosty beverage and shivering. Shortly after that picture, I went silent for nearly forty-eight hours. As we continued our drive north to the Bearskin Lodge, our cellular reception slowly faded. When we got so close to Thunder Bay, Ontario that my Blackberry actually went on international roaming, I did the unthinkable and shut it off for the weekend. My wife and I had joined eleven of our friends for a ski weekend in Northern Minnesota, and while the idea of propelling myself forward on fiberglass sticks at death-defying speeds wasn’t compelling for me, the opportunity to jab my wife with the pointy end of a pole was appealing enough to make me unplug from the electronic world for a weekend.

Those are not cell towers in disguise.

I wasn’t technically shut off from the electronic world. While there was no cellular service in our location in Superior National Forest, we did sort of have internet. The lodge had a satellite connection that was on such a tight bandwidth restriction that half of one “cat playing a piano video” would max out the connection for the day. Seeing as I didn’t want to be the cause of a digital Tragedy of the Commons, I turned the Wi-Fi off on my phone and didn’t turn it on again until the drive home on Sunday.

Instead, I talked with people. I laughed and drank a few beers. I hiked and played broomball and did the sorts of things I did before social media became such a large part of my life. To be honest I had an easier time staying unplugged from Twitter for forty-eight hours than some folks had going thirty minutes without asking me if I could survive forty-eight hours without Twitter. It was a relaxing weekend, and a nice reminder of the value of getting away from the non-stop, always on, post-modern world of being connected to everyone all the time. It was nice to escape the Pavlovian response of checking my Blackberry every time that little red notification light starts flashing like someone just tucked a hockey puck into the back of the net.

While I didn’t actually have a life altering epiphany while I was away in the woods, it was really nice to get away from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Gmail for a weekend and it really did allow me to recharge my batteries—of course that could just be the wicked bump on the back of my head from a particularly vicious fall during Saturday night’s broomball game. Either way, there’s something to be said for shutting it down for a few hours here and there to regain perspective on what is really important. It isn’t always about personal branding development while measuring the ROI based on cross-platform, value-added, thinking outside the box, content creation. Sometimes, it’s about getting a really bad night’s sleep on a tiny bed and spending some time talking to people without a computer screen as an intermediary.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” I realized the value of this ethos as I trudged alone through the snowy woods on Saturday. It wasn’t the thick wool socks and gloves, nor the Thinsulate boots and coat, or even the fleece lined hat keeping me warm. It was the burning embers of desire to have a loved one suffering with me out on the trails protecting me from the cold. In other words, one man’s harrowing tale of being in a world without electronic communications is another man’s story of growing a lumberjack beard, reading Walden and coming to the realization of what is really important—having your loved one be just as miserable as you. Honestly, based on how lost I was using the lodge map, a GPS unit would have been nice as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go post a bunch of photos of my trip to Facebook because sometimes even new habits die hard.

I Like You Is the New I Love You

January 12th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

“Will they or won’t they get together?” It’s a theme Hollywood has built an empire on and then ground to dust by the fourth season when every dedicated fan pleads “just get them together already.” By that point, most of us are wishing the show would end in a dramatic series of events like Romeo and Juliet. Just give us some finality to the story so we can get back to giggling manically at people getting hit by large padded swinging objects on Wipeout (Note: I don’t actually watch Wipeout, but I do make my wife replay the commercials over and over and over again). However, it’s the magic words “I love you” that drives the audience to wait for the big payoff. Those words reward the time and effort involved in watching twenty-two episodes and approximately 15 hours of insurance commercials a year just to see the main characters ride off into the sunset together. It’s the validation we’ll be rewarded with a happy ending rather than a conclusion of tragic love we learned about while drooling through the Shakespeare unit in high school English.

In social media, “like” has replaced “love” within the context of emotional validation. Like my Facebook update. Star my Tweet. Heart my Tumblr post. +1 my Google+ +thingy. Review my restaurant on Yelp. Check into my store on FourSquare. Enjoy my bamboo on Pandabook. Despise my minions on EvilGenuisSpace. It’s enough to give anyone validation exhaustion. It’s especially tiring when businesses expect it from us rather than friends or family and they are simply looking for the unrequited type of love.

“I’m the top garbage disposal distributor in the Northern Midwest Southeastern Region; follow me on Facebook to learn more.”

“We’ll cut your cat’s bangs just the way you want ‘em. We are the Twin Cities top hair salon for pets. Learn more on Twitter!”

It isn’t so much the volume of companies that want you to like them, it’s the volume of companies that want you to like them but fail to provide any value in return. Generally it’s repetitive status updates sharing a website link or the exact same tweet every day. Maybe it works for your business or maybe the one-way street method of communication is being ignored by current customers, or worse being passed over by your potential customers. While the tenants of direct marketing still apply to social media, it isn’t as tangible or front of mind as mailing a coupon. While I always have Twitter in hand (thanks to my smartphone), I don’t remember marketing messages for long. If your tweet doesn’t have an immediate impact, I’ve already moved on to the next one. I’ve probably thought a hundred times that something is cool, but it doesn’t stick in my head for more than five minutes because I’m not really engaged.

Social media needs to be interactive. You need to “like” your customers as much as you want them to “like” you. We can’t all be selling Ding Dongs or sneakers or the world’s most amazing fish tacos that can drive an unrequited relationship without customer interaction. So if you want to be successful on social media, you need to give your customers a reason to like you, and more often than not, it’s by letting them know that you like them too. I may have grown up in a Sam and Diane Cheers world, but I know Sam would have moved on to someone else well before the surprise end of season four. It’s the same thing for businesses. If you don’t give your potential fans or followers a reason to like you, they’ll pass you right over for someone else. If social media is a part of your marketing efforts, make sure you are directing those efforts in the right place—meeting your customer’s needs.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to get my cat’s hair cut before her audition for Feline Wipeout.

Hairless QR Codes

January 5th, 2012 by Joel Ingersoll

The six of you that faithfully read this blog may remember that last summer I traveled to New York and was inundated with QR codes and felt the need to share my disappointing experience at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve thought a lot about QR codes since then, but didn’t feel compelled to write about them (there’s enough hyperbole being typed about them already) until a coworker sent me an interesting article from Shelly Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. QR in the New Year? is worth a read if only to get a thoughtful story beyond the statistics and rationale for using QR codes.

Her results, much like my experiences as an end user, were mixed. She explains, “So, I think what we end up with is simply a project that isn’t an overwhelming success or failure.” That’s a pretty blah result and hardly a motivation to keep plugging away with the effort involved to manage information for the mobile market. So if her results were mediocre with a concerted effort to make them useful to the museum consumer, why are they being slapped on everything from rental cars to bald spots? Okay maybe not bald spots yet, but if Google Earth is looking to advertise, I’ve got a large available space. Call me.

I can just see the meeting right now.

“Hey Bob, what do you know about QR codes?”

“Not much, but I hear the kids love them as much as they love the Twitter.”

“Well, we don’t have a budget for it, but let’s slap a bunch of them on our marketing materials and have ‘em link back to the main page of our website. It’ll be great!”

Six months later they don’t understand why people aren’t scanning them.

A new article from BizReport explains how people are interacting with QR codes and they found the following scan rates. “Newspapers and magazines are where most QR Codes are being found and scanned (35%) followed by on packages (18%) and on websites (13%). Surprisingly few were scanned from billboards (11%) or a piece of direct mail (11%).”

This makes sense to me, but the one I don’t get at all is the 13% that scanned on websites. If you are sitting at a desktop, laptop or using a tablet, why in the world would you whip out your mobile device to scan a QR code on a website to see a smaller version of where you already are? It would be like printing a tiny map on a highway sign. I don’t quite understand the logic there. When I was in New York City, I struggled getting a good angle to scan a billboard QR code, and if they were implemented on roads Burma Shave style, I’d be concerned about people accidently mowing down cows that have liberated themselves from an idyllic Midwestern pasture. According to Ad Age, some of the other interesting places QR codes have appeared are in the subway (with no cell reception) and on in-flight magazines where even Alec Baldwin isn’t allowed to have internet service to play Words with Friends. Finally, and possibly my favorite, MillerCoors teamed with some Seattle bars to allow patrons to scan a QR code and get a cab. While well meaning and a great experiment, the manual dexterity required to operate a smart phone was a little too much after a few frosty brews—which probably also explains why Apple keeps forgetting iPhone prototypes in bars.

The Ad Age piece continues to explain, “Experts cite three reasons that QR codes haven’t caught on. First, people are confused about how to scan them. Two, there’s little uniformity among the apps required to read them. Last, some who have tried the technology were dissuaded by codes that offer little useful information or simply redirect the user to the company’s website.”

I think the third part of this argument is the most compelling because people will eventually figure out the first one, and the second will shake out as the technology advances. If you want a QR code campaign to be successful it really needs to consider three factors. It needs to be optimized for mobile platforms. My Museum of Modern Art experience illustrates this. It was nice to have the QR codes, but I couldn’t get information to load on a Blackberry or iPhone because the landing page was too complex to be managed by most smartphones. QR codes should be used sparingly. Marketers should not just slap them on everything because that’s what the cool kids are doing. If all your advertising, products and collateral have a QR code that leads back to the main page of your website, not much is accomplished except annoying your potential customer. Which leads into my final point, QR codes need to have a purpose. Lead users to product reviews, or give us a coupon (but just one because how are we supposed to manage them all on a phone), or provide something of value. Make the pause required to pull out the phone, select the app, and wait for the camera to scan worth something. If the code provides value, people will keep using it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to wash this black Sharpie QR code off my bald spot.

Santa 2.0

December 20th, 2011 by Joel Ingersoll

In the mid 80’s, when my dad got fed up with horrible rabbit ear reception for Cleveland Browns games, we got cable television. Glorious cable television! And after we smacked the side of the TV to make it display in colors other than shades of green, a whole world of video entertainment opened up to me. This included all three movies that were aired over and over and over again on HBO. One of which was the classic War Games. In the movie, Matthew Broderick’s character finds a backdoor into a military computer allowing him to hack in and play a game called Global Thermonuclear War. However, the game isn’t what he thinks. It really leads military monitors at NORAD to believe the United States is actually going to war with the Soviet Union.

While the film provides us with a somewhat happy non-apocalyptic ending, it does play on the Cold War tropes of the end of the world through nuclear war and genius child hackers using computer technology that looks like a Commodore 64 attached to a 8-track tape player. It was also my first experience with the idea of NORAD and the utilization of emerging technology. Fortunately for us today, our experiences with NORAD and computers are significantly more positive than the impending doom portrayed in that classic film.

Unless you are living under a rock, or maybe under an old Motorola Razr, you are probably aware of NORAD’s annual Santa Tracker which provides up-to-the-minute updates on Santa’s trek around the globe to deliver presents. I suspect there is a GPS unit inside Rudolph’s nose, but that’s probably a conspiracy best left undiscussed like Area 51. The Santa Tracker idea started in 1955 with a fortuitous accident. A local newspaper ran a Sears ad with a phone number to call Santa, except it was off by a digit leading children to dial up military personal expecting to hear about an attack on America and not an attack on holiday gift giving. For more information about this wonderful story, I highly recommend Daniel Terdiman’s CNET article, Behind the scenes: NORAD’s Santa tracker.

From phone calls in the 1950’s to the digital communication of today, the Santa tracking program has exploded to include www.noradsanta.org with video and Google Maps integration, a NORAD Facebook page which caused me to lose at least fifteen minutes of work productivity (sorry boss), a Smartphone app, and of course in my wheelhouse @NoradSanta on Twitter. All that’s missing is the API integration allowing Santa to check in to Foursquare all over the world, but only at “nice” locations.

My wife and I don’t have children, so our Christmas morning revolves around sipping coffee with Bailey’s, wrangling the cat into an elf costume, and pelting her with catnip filled mice until she gets worked up enough to attack the tree (my wife, not the cat). So pretty normal behavior for a couple of adults during the holiday season. While we won’t be glued to the computer getting updates on Santa’s location, this doesn’t mean that the tracker isn’t the coolest thing since sliced cheese. If you have little ones, I highly recommend you spend some time interacting with NORAD’s Santa tracker because at minimum it will help you get them nestled in their beds at a reasonable hour.

It’s interesting that in 1955 no one would have thought to call this a viral campaign. But in reality, no matter what your online interactions are, you never know how an accident can turn into something truly successful and positive, like bringing in nearly two thousand volunteers to work with the people who spend their days at one of the most important military installations in the United States.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a dial-up modem so I can play a game of chess.