Lessons on the 2016 Election from User-Centered Design

Thanks to @AnthonyDAvella for spurring the conversation that led to these musings.

There are key principles from digital business and design that our political establishment should pay close attention to in the wake of last week’s election.

A little background…

Prior to last week, I continued to be astonished at the lengths business leaders would go to to convince themselves of false truths that happen to be good for their status quo. For example, I’ve received no fewer than 7 pitches this year from well-funded startups based on the following premise: “Wouldn’t it be great if influencers controlled their own social audiences and could monetize them in places and in ways of their choosing? Join us and it shall be so.” My response is always the same: “Sure, that would be wonderful. Except users – real PEOPLE- are on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. They aren’t using your thing. So what have you got that’s going to siphon away their attention? It better be UH-MAZING.” It’s an age-old tale of firms looking consumers not as they are, but how they’d like them to be.

Suffice it to say I’ve become a bit dogmatic about my allegiance to the user, especially in the face of those who seem to forget who it is who’s really going to judge our products. Mine is a seemingly simple mantra: Ask users what they want, watch what they DO, and be brutally honest about what you find. It’s the only way to build great digital products and businesses.

What does this have to do with the election?

It seems glaringly obvious that the political establishment – in both parties – failed to adhere to the most basic precepts of user-centered design. Evidently, they didn’t ask ALL the users what they thought – or potentially an even greater sin, simply ignored the users whose feedback didn’t align with their strategies. “You’re wrong, and I can prove it” isn’t a satisfactory stance when dealing with real people, because real users are free to leave your website, and real voters are free to leave your party.

So, just like good product designers who’ve received a round of somewhat jarring UI feedback, we must go back to the drawing board and design a better product for the user – not for ourselves. Just as companies like those I mentioned earlier aren’t listening to users (they’re thinking about the influencers they’re trying to recruit), the political establishment wasn’t listening to all the voters. You might say that I am wrong, cry foul and instead say that the establishment was listening to voters, but it simply couldn’t beat a message based on our basest tribal instincts. To you I say this: I am unwilling to accept that we live in a world where negative passions always defeat reason and kindness. It’s on us to have listened more closely to our users and to have designed a better message – a better product – for the American people.

Oh and by the way, this is NOT a message for one specific party. Republicans nominated a candidate who departed sharply from their core values, and Democrats lost the election. We’ve witnessed the victory of a candidate who offered the American people a product that is fundamentally inconsistent with major parts of both party platforms. This message applies equally to all in the political establishment who didn’t focus enough on their user – the American voter.

Turning Influencer Marketing All the Way Up

Later this month I’ll give a presentation at Spredfast Summit in Austin, TX in a session called “The Risks and Rewards of Celebrity and Influencer Social Voices.” If you’re going to be in the area, please join us!

In an attempt to share with those who cannot attend (as well as gather my thoughts), below is a general summary of the brief talk I plan to deliver.

Context. Context is key when working with social influencers. Athletes, artists, gamers, etc…each have their own unique culture, each of which in turn has its own unique sub-cultures. Understanding this cultural context is critical not only in picking the right influencers for your campaign but in the development of content as well. If an influencer typically posts from football stadiums, the content that the influencer creates with your brand will be vastly different vs. that which might be created backstage at concerts. Marketers need to do more than simply identify the kinds of influencers they need – they must understand the nuances of their cultural niche and their audiences in order to build effective campaigns. I plan to show a bit of how we organize around this context at Roc Nation and put it to use for our clients and the brands with which they partner.

Empowerment. No one knows how to connect with their audience better than the influencer themselves. Therefore, successful influencer programs require brands to surrender a great deal of control. Setting an influencer loose behind a brand he or she believes in is the best way to make an impact – even if it results in a messier / less predictable campaign than marketers might otherwise be used to. This means empowering influencers by giving them tools and opportunities to participate in the campaign, regardless of how much control the brand has in specific circumstances. I plan to speak a but about what this means practically for things like approval workflows, timelines, talent relations and even media buying.

Data. If you aren’t using data to help select the right influencers, you’re missing a huge opportunity. Social listening platforms are now fairly commonplace, and they can tell you A LOT about an influencer’s audience and what their likely engagement will be. I plan to show some specific examples from my favorite social listening tool.

Apps for (Famous) People

Celebrity fan apps are all the rage, with many companies offering celebrities their very own apps at little-to-no upfront cost. While apps can be powerful tools for some celebs, they can also require considerable investment of time and resources, and should be pursued carefully, in ways that are consistent with a celebrity’s overall brand and marketing strategy. When done right, an app can serve as a next-generation fan club and community, and even create new recurring revenue streams.

Here are three questions to ask before pursuing a celebrity fan app:

  1. Is the celeb’s fan base native to the mobile / social ecosystem? In other words, do they live their lives on their phones? Are they likely to express their fandom wherever, whenever? Apps are so ubiquitous that we forget there are significant barriers to entry: a fan must hear about / see the app, they need to click a download link, then install the app, then open it, and then they’ve got to invest yet more time to explore and see if it’s something they really want to use. All this to say that you need to make 100% certain there is a critical mass of fans who are likely to follow the celeb and interact with other fans on their mobile devices. And, it should be easy to reach them via social media channels, so a large, engaged following across platforms means it will be easier to reach potential users.
  2. Is the celeb going to be an active participant after launch? This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it does help determine how much of an investment to make. If the celeb isn’t going to actively participate in the community and release exclusive content / programming in the app, then its utility for fans will be limited. A lack of participation also seriously hampers the ability to monetize an app, so set your expectations accordingly if you’re planning on in-app purchases or a subscription product.
  3. What ongoing resources will be available to manage and market your fan app? An app is a product. A good one will also become a community. Products and communities both require all sorts of ongoing management – technical (bugs, new features, etc.), human (user and post moderation, customer service, etc.) and marketing. Even if you get lucky and strike viral gold, every fan app will still require technical and human management. If you don’t have the resources to devote to the app’s success, then set your expectations accordingly.

You don’t necessarily need to check all three boxes to pursue a fan app, but if you can’t check at least two, I recommend taking a hard look at whether an app is really the right strategic fit for your celeb.

If you don’t think there’s a lot of hype surrounding the celebrity app space right now, look no further than Apple. The company is working on an original series called Planet of the Apps about app developers based in the celebrity capital of the world, L.A.

Toward the Perfect Social Listening Tool

For the uninitiated, social listening refers to the practice of parsing the content being generated on social platforms (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram being the most common) for certain keywords, phrases, or other variable dimensions (e.g. followers of specific accounts, posts in specific geographic areas).

So, for example, if you’re working on the hit Broadway show Hamilton and you’re interested in the social conversation taking place around the show’s opening in Chicago, you might set your social listening tool to look for social posts within the city of Chicago that contain words like “Hamilton” or “Lin-Manuel.”

The power of this kind of query cannot be understated. With the best solutions (i.e. Spredfast), one can assemble, in real-time, a stream of all social posts matching specific criteria, in a specific area, AND the people who are publishing them. Because social media is increasingly integrated into our lives (for younger millennials, there’s almost no daily activity that doesn’t leave a social footprint), social listening can provide a detailed look at consumer behavior and conversation at any particular moment and in any particular place.

The implications for marketers are astounding. In the above example, the producers of the show might compare the level of discussion to that seen in New York in order to predict how ticket sales will fluctuate over time. Or, they might observe the social chatter about the show in other cities in order to decide where to take the show next. The possibilities are limitless and can quickly become far more sophisticated. Imagine screening this example social stream for the works “missed” or “sold-out.” Anyone using these phrases would be prime targets for future marketing campaigns.

All that said, I’ve run into 3 big problems with current social listening solutions. The difficulty in addressing each varies over the near-term.

1. Lack of Geo-Data. Most social content unfortunately lacks precise geographic data. By most accounts, less than 10% of Tweets are geo-tagged at all, and Instagram no longer provides lat-long info specific to the user – it only offers the coordinates of the specific location being tagged (if tagged at all). In other words, geo-fenced queries are seriously limited, and anyone who tells you they can “listen to all the conversation in a specific area” isn’t telling the whole truth. UNLESS, and this is the biggie, they have access to some other database that can be merged with the social stream. For now, that generally only pertains to law enforcement. However, in the near future, I anticipate the increased fusion of ad-targeting data-sets (e.g. from tracking cookies) with social data, which could provide increasing geographic resolution.

2. F@!K this track is so FIRE! Natural language is a problem. Even the best enterprise-grade social listening tools support only advanced Boolean queries. They generally have integrated sentiment analysis tools, but these can be hard to interpret. If a query returns 60% neutral, 20% positive and 20% negative, is this good? It certainly isn’t very actionable. And there’s no good Boolean query that would capture the overwhelmingly positive sentiment of the above phrase. Profanity could be mistaken as negative, and the use of the word “FIRE” requires knowledge of contemporary culture.

The good news here is that unlike the lack of geographic data, natural language processing (NLP) IS happening and both the private sector and academia are pushing it forward every day. There are now decent NLP APIs available for the enterprise, and we are going to see more marketers merging their expansive social management platforms with best-in-class NLP tools.

3. Words are SO over. Not everything on social media gets typed out in words. The web is increasingly visual. Some research has even shown that over 80% of images posted to social media that include a brand don’t mention the brand in the post’s text. The rise of visual communication is no secret – Instagram, Snapchat and even private one-to-one messaging apps (e.g. WhatsApp) are all playgrounds for people communicating without words. Images, GIFs and video are all the future. Why type it when you can show it? The elephant in the room of social listening is the lack of image recognition in many of the most successful social management platforms. There are standalone tools (Ditto, Talkwalker, others), but they are limited and don’t yet cover video.  Sprinkr includes logo search and facial sentiment analysis, but like everyone else lacks a custom search tool (e.g. show me photos that contain images of TVs) and is extremely limited in what it can pick up.

So let’s return to my earlier example. With today’s solutions, the Hamilton producers

  1. would probably miss a great deal of the social conversation about the show in Chicago (since it lacks geographic data),
  2. they wouldn’t be able to accurately gauge how people felt (due to the absence of a good NLP solution, although in this case Hamilton isn’t a good example since the sentiment will have to be 100% positive!), and
  3. their query wouldn’t even return posts of images or videos of smiling fans outside the theater if those posts didn’t include textual information (unless you are lucky enough to be using one of the few tools that performs this kind of visual search AND the logo of the show is clearly included in the photos).

The perfect social listening tools would add better geographic data from other sources to the social networks’ APIs, it would integrate top-shelf natural language processing, AND it would include built-in image recognition. The industry is getting there but still has a long way to go. Luckily there are a lot of smart people working on all these problems.

Friday Rant: Strategy ≠ Tactics


There’s too much talk about “strategy” followed by discussions of very tactical action items. Social posts, events, ad placements, etc. are NOT strategy. Strategy is the “what” – the high level plan for achieving an objective. Tactics are the tools and specific actions we use to execute a strategy and (hopefully) achieve an objective – the “how.” I’ve encountered this confusion in every workplace I’ve been in among high-school-aged interns and MBAs alike.

This isn’t just semantics. The distinction matters because oftentimes when we misuse the word “strategy” to describe tactics it is a symptom of a complete lack of any strategic thinking whatsoever. Quick! What can we do? We need a plan! Lots of people will jump right into listing action items when faced with such urgency.

But we need to agree on the why. What is the objective? How will we measure it? Why are we doing this in the first place? When I see the word Strategy at the top of a slide I really, really want the content to engage with these kinds of questions. It often does not.


Part 2: Reach Reborn

ICYMI: Part 1 addressed the fragmentation of media, making it harder to reach audiences at scale. In the post-TV era, many more publishers are creating more content for more platforms, all of which have relatively smaller audiences. 2 + 2 used to = 4. Now 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4.

So the future is likely to be one in which brands must aggregate an ever-increasing array of niche audiences. This is easier said than done. Niche audiences on diverse platforms require different marketing creative and messaging.

That’s roughly where we left off.

The Publisher’s Challenge: Format Adaptation

Publishers face a similar challenge, but it is a simpler one. For publishers, fragmentation can be viewed through the lens of formats. The same core creative can be imagined for different formats; that is, a 22 minute TV show can be conceived of as the following:

  • 22 minute long-form show
  • 2 minute clip for mobile video
  • 30 second recap for social
  • GIFs
  • Stills
  • Etc. etc.

Publishers need creators who understand each of the relevant mediums in order to create compelling content for each format. And they must not be married to particular formats at particular moments in the creative process. For example, a great creative idea might be better suited to a gaming environment than to a long-form TV show (or vice versa), but if it comes from the mind of a TV producer who knows no other media, then a TV show it shall be.

The Advertiser’s Challenge: Formats PLUS Curation

Advertisers also face the format challenge: their content must connect with audiences on different platforms, each with their own unique formats.

But advertisers also face a curatorial challenge. Not only must advertisers produce multi-format content and campaigns, they must curate an ever-expanding universe of properties within which to feature their content. For example, imagine a situation in which the right editorial properties combined with the right mobile game and the right YouTube channels make for a successful campaign that reaches the target audience at scale. But now imagine that a poorly curated selection of properties means that the campaign, no matter how bold, falls on deaf ears.

This has always been the case in media; I am simply claiming that fragmentation has exacerbated this challenge. It’s not simply about picking the right demographics. Media buyers have done that for years. The scale of fragmentation we’re seeing today means thinking about much deeper preferences, tastes and psychographics that fit with a certain creative.

Advertisers will need to develop new curatorial abilities to cope. And these abilities will come from two sources: human experts and data. Regardless of the mix one chooses, I’m fairly certain that professionals at every stage of the value chain from creators to media buyers will need to at least have access to effective curators.

Free VR?

I am NOT giving it away, but it seems many other folks are.

I’ve been struck over the past few months by how many companies are not only willing, but eager, to produce VR content for celebrities FOR FREE. High-quality production for linear content is expensive; high-quality production for VR content can be even more so.

The firms and studios that have offered their services at no-cost have generally done so for one or more of three reasons:

  1. Eagerness to showcase their capabilities (in the hopes of future, paid business)
  2. Desire to build up exploitable IP
  3. Development of content that serves a clear IRL or brand marketing objective (since distribution isn’t yet large enough to generate meaningful reach)

These are generally good reasons when applied correctly (BTW – I have many thoughts about #3 – will come back to that in a separate post).

But I have a hunch that there is a bad reason driving this glut of production as well: too much money.

We’re on the verge of a VR gold rush. Don’t get me wrong, I am bullish on the format (in its many varieties). I am a staunch believer in the many ways it is going to totally reshape everything from gaming and entertainment to public safety and warfare.

That said, it seems as if there is a rush of investment capital and brand marketing budgets to fund anything with the label “VR” attached. I’ve seen some bad VR experiences – those that were poorly produced, as well as those that simply didn’t add anything cool to what could easily have been regular video pieces.

None of this is really surprising, since, as with many new technologies, there just isn’t enough compelling creation taking place to support all the dollars flowing in, so some money inevitably flows to projects that will turn out to be bad investments. Like all gold rushes, some folks will get really, really rich. Some will lose their shirts.