Ben Perreira

My head's dropbox.

Month: March, 2014

Muse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Students of elementary statistics learn very early on that correlation does not equal causation. Just because two things react similarly and predictably it doesn’t mean one is causing the other. The oft-cited (grim) example is that ice cream sales and drowning deaths are highly correlated. One is not causing the other; they both spike in the summer. 

Last summer my friend and I were discussing contemporary rock bands. He drew the conclusion that Muse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers must sound similar because a lot of people like both of them. Now, as a huge fan of the latter and not so much the former, I had to object. And as someone with some understanding of statistical interrelation, I also had to object. A lot of people like pizza and burgers, two foods that don’t taste very similar. 

But now, I realize he may have been onto something.

Over a decade ago Amazon figured out that there are patterns around which people purchase things. This breakthrough led to a significant enhancement of the recommendation feature that now accounts for a third of Amazon’s sales. As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger writes in Big Data, “the recommendation system didn’t actually need to compare people with other people, a task that was technically cumbersome. All it needed to do was find associations among products themselves.”

The people at Amazon* found that there was no clear causation available for why customers bought these different products, and they didn’t care! Causation became irrelevant to Amazon because the strong correlations provided them the information they needed to enhance their product and increase sales. They knew that someone who bought, say, a Muse album may also be interested in a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. I may owe my friend an apology.

(*Amazon is a unique case in that it does unbelievably high sales and unit volume, providing uncommonly rich data on which to do regression analysis. However, I’m fascinated by how setting causation aside to examine simple correlations between behaviors can be used create growth opportunities. More to come…)

Just Off Target

As marketers, the more we know about our customers (current and prospective), the more effectively we should be able to reach them.

Today I offer a counter-argument.

I have been surfing long enough that I have seen a glut of what I would describe as poor representations of surfing in TV, film and commercials. These depictions make me cringe. There’s one such example in this Android Wear promo at 0:20. Why do marketers continue to do this? Don’t they have people who know surfing at their agencies, or at least have them at their disposal?

Then, watching the Olympics this year, it all made sense. I ate up every story NBC put on the air about sports I knew little to nothing about. I began to love ice skating, curling, downhill skiing, luge, and more! And I began to love NBC for telling the stories in this way. With surfing I would have been picking the stories apart. But I didn’t really care if NBC’s representations were accurate of those sports.

Being culturally authentic is imperative for reaching fervent participants in endemic settings (e.g. Surfer Magazine), but considerably less effective when reaching those with less of an interest in the nuances of a given activity. This is also why brands market SUVs by showing the vehicles going off-road, something few SUV drivers do. The fantasy is more powerful than the mundane reality.

The best stories contain enough truth to be believable and enough fiction to create excitement. The core of participants is small. The next couple rings around the core leave much more room for storytellers to tell these widely relatable stories.

Reference Rich

When I was in high school a great surf magazine called Water came out. It was beautiful, semi-glossy and full of insightful editorial work. Its ads looked like editorial work at the demand of the magazine’s publishers. Today we would call it “native advertising.” In those days it was simply an unleashed dog gleefully wagging its tail.

At the time I was considering becoming a surf journalist and reached out to the editor, Steve Zeldin, about how I could hone my craft. His work was far and above what anyone else what doing at the time. His advice, among other things, was to “keep your references rich.”

This idea is not without peers when it comes to creative development, which is a term I use to describe the process of undertaking any endeavor that is uncharted (and which is essentially anything we do that is worthwhile).

I wrote about a similar concept a couple years ago when I recalled an undergrad professor telling the class about a “stimulus collage.”

In Buddhism there is the instructive construct of Indira’s Net. The net is imagined to be expansive, perhaps infinite, with diamonds hanging from every rope intersection. Because each diamond contains many angles, it is purported that every diamond contains the light (knowledge) of every other diamond.

This is not unlike the Network Effect, most commonly used to evaluate the usefulness or reach of an internet property, positing that its value is equal to the square of the number of nodes in the network.

And then there’s Jeff Bezos. His success has afforded him the supreme luxury of being able to see the world from a bird’s eye view. An engineer wrote about presenting to the Amazon CEO, “Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming.”

So keep your references rich. And think of shit no one ever saw coming.