Aristotle on Digital Advertising

I’ve been thinking about the major players in the digital advertising space and it occurred to me that we’re going back to basics with the ancient greek science of persuasion. To convince an audience Aristotle believed there were three important types of rhetorical proof:

  • a reasoned argument (Logos), e.g. Huggies absorb up to 50% more liquid than other brands;
  • a recommendation based on personal or corporate stature (Ethos), e.g. the Stanford School of Medicine uses Huggies;
  • a metaphor, an appeal to the heart (Pathos), e.g. happy babies wear Huggies.

Most traditional advertising uses a combination of these methods – but you’ll quickly note that the third kind, the appeal to the heart, is the most common. Interestingly though, as you look into the digital space we’ve specialized..

Logos.. if I see it just when I need it, I’ll take a look.. it’s search, it’s logic, it’s Google.
Ethos.. if people I care about are interested, I’m interested too.. it’s friends, it’s trust, it’s Facebook.
Pathos.. if I want to be the kind of person that does that, I’ll do it too.. it’s feelings, I connect, it’s Yahoo.

Now these are not exclusive, you could argue that these companies overlap, and are of course complementary..

I’m reading Yahoo News and see a beautiful shot of a Hawaiian beach. There’s white sand, topaz water and a young carefree couple with a cocktail in a pineapple. I dwell on the ad, and see more of them over the next hour or two.

Later that afternoon I update my status from my phone. I need a holiday. When I login from my PC in the evening I see that Mike, Sue and Dave all “Like” the Tropical Sands Resort – it appeared on the right hand side of the page next to my news feed. I click and see that  Sue went last month, she loved it and posted pictures.

The next day, after talking it over with my wife, I search for Tropical Sands and click the link at the top to book. Superior Ocean View, 5 nights & flights. Perfect.

Sure, any variation of the above flow is possible but even using technology to optimize each stage of the proof we have barely scratched the surface. Digital advertising has a lot of growing to do and it’s great to be a part of it.


They all just sat there looking at me..

Soon after she left Yahoo! I asked Michelle how her first week at her new job was going. “It’s ok”, she said “but we had a big team meeting which was really strange. They all just sat there looking at me.”

“Well yes,” I pointed out, “you are their new boss.”

"We're going to do this as a team,and we're going to do it my way."

It’s natural to want to be one of the group. For a large part of your career you were either told what to do or you were given a broad problem and asked to solve it as a team. As you become a lead or manager you start to take on a different sort of problem: How can I organize the people I have so we can deliver this project successfully? What do I need to do to make sure they can get on with what they do best? Regardless of your role though, you are usually working with plenty of guidance inside a domain that you know well.

The next level is where it starts to get more complicated. As you become a manager of managers you are responsible for direction and results, not day to day deliverables. Your team looks to you to define the problem space and to set targets. Your business expects you to bring value – and to define what this means. You stop working in your team and start working on your team.

This can be daunting. Like a writer with a blank sheet of paper or an artist with a fresh canvas there can be immense pressure to deliver. It would be great to call a big meeting and ask everyone to help out, but designing by committee rarely works. You may find they just sit there – looking at you 😉

Look where you want to go..

Changing a business has a lot in common with rally driving. Let me explain.

Having dinner with a group of colleagues last night the conversation was jovial but when we touched on a project issue the comment was “Ah, well, that’s a typical Yahoo thing.” I’ve heard this again and again over the last year but I’ve had enough. It’s like the kids saying “but I can’t do it!” when presented with their math homework and me saying “Well yes, you can never do math.Why would we reinforce the behavior we know is wrong?

We know what we have to do, we know we can change, so let’s focus on where we want to be not on where we are today.

Nice Drift

We're not lost, it's just around this corner somewhere..

How is this like rally driving? I went on a course a few years ago where they put us in Mk2 Escorts and then took us on forest course. One of the most important things to learn was that you had to keep your eyes locked on where you wanted to be, not on where your car was actually facing. The first time I tried I was flying down a gravel track through the forest and a 90 degree hard left was coming up. The instructor yells the instruction “1/4 turn left, full gas!!” and we’re supposed to be sideways round the corner with gravel flying and a big smile on our faces. The problem is – if you look out the front window all you can see is the trees – giant pines literally a few meters in front of you on a direct collision course. Your brain is screaming at you to step on the brakes or to spin the wheel a full lock but this won’t work. What you have to do is look out of the side window at the road continuing off to your left, then calmly turn the wheel that quarter and put the pedal to the floor. If you get fixated on where you are heading right now, you are unable to execute on a course to get you where you want to be.

And me, well, I panicked and tried to turn the wheel as far as it would go. The instructor pulled on the handbrake and we just pirouetted on the spot. I got it next time though.

The two use-cases of mobile

When working on a product spec a few years ago it occurred to me that mobile use-cases fit into one of two broad areas. Since then I’ve heard a similar pitch from analysts, mobile strategists and product managers the world over. Here’s my definition:

a) You know what you want.
You pick up your phone with a purpose. You want to call your Dad, text your girlfriend, check if BA285 has landed, locate for a recipe for Strawberry Daiquiris or find out what gynophobia is an irrational fear of. You know which app you’re going to use and your aim is to get the task completed as quickly as possible. Search may be your friend, you may have an app for it, or perhaps you love the mobile equivalent of that desktop site you’re always using.

b) You don’t know what you want.
You’re bored and don’t/can’t smoke so you need something to occupy your hands. You confirm you still have no email, scroll randomly through your phonebook, play snake/tetris/bejeweled, check facebook for the 20th time, look up last nights soccer scores, browse the top 25 apps, watch some movie trailers, or find out which TV star has the worst hair. You might hit the carrier homepage, browse a portal (web or app), perhaps navigate directly to a popular news site.

So there you go. Do you know what your users look like and does your product deliver on one of these two cases? It fundamentally affects product value as in case (a) you need to deliver exactly on your promise; while in case (b) you just need to be fun. You’re striving for an excellent product either way, but fun does not solve that pressing need, and a white search box does not keep idle fingers entertained.


Progress, it’s about making life better in some way. For a product, that usually means your users lives, but bizarrely we seem to keep finding the opposite when companies release new upgrades. For example, the latest version of Microsoft Office totally broke the user interface I’d learnt to use over the last 15 years without giving me anything in return. It’s as if they felt they had to keep releasing things to show they weren’t dead.

Anyway, here’s an example that happened to me last week. I received my latest Comcast bill in the post a couple of weeks ago (which was odd, as I’m sure I opted for electronic billing) which looked a little high. As a satisfied Comcast Internet user I don’t find much opportunity to visit their site or support pages, but I remember logging in to setup the automatic payment a year or so ago. I tried to sign into my account and I was redirected to a Security Page which asked me to link my account to my COMCAST.NET account. There was an OK or Cancel, and as I had no idea what a COMCAST.NET account is I just clicked Cancel. This took me to their “customer central” portal, which told me my account was locked and I would need to update my security details to continue.

Yes, of course we are based in the USA. I am very much liking your apple pies and your college footballs.

Great. Clicking the link to update my security info I’m taken back to the page which asks me to link my COMCAST.NET account. I give up and try to contact the helpdesk, which conveniently I can do via online chat. The girl in the chat window takes my details and tells me that from now on I can’t log in with my own email address, I have to use my COMCAST.NET email address. But I don’t use Comcast email I tell her. “It’s ok,” she says, “one has been created for you.” I’ll just have to reset the password so that I can log in. To reset the password I need my COMCAST PIN that was sent to me in the mail when I first signed up for cable service.

Ack. As politely as I can I explain that an unsolicited PIN code I received in the mail over a year ago which was never required to use my Internet service is unlikely to be easy to locate. At this point I was expecting that they would want to send another copy in the mail and my case would be closed. But no, amazingly they have another service to reset your PIN. Which can be used to reset your password. Which can be used to revalidate your account. Blimey.

A charming gentleman with a refined Indian accent called me on my home number within 60 seconds and asked me to confirm my name and address. Once this had happened the girl in the chat window spilled the beans – out came my PIN, my password and my login details. Huzzah.

Good news: I can log in. Bad news: all the charges are valid. I owe them several hundred dollars.

And my experience of the all new “Customer Central” well, I used exactly the same function I did before – I checked my bill. I wonder how many Comcast customers are actually going to use any of the new functionality – online voicemail, DVR programming or ordering caller services? I suspect that most people will use their existing voicemail, program the DVR from the sofa, and stick with the caller services they have. In the meantime, every user of Comcast Internet who does not use them for email will need to spend a half hour with customer care before they can pay a bill online, likely costing Comcast between $30 and $100. Now that’s progress.

Why do they always say no?

No, I will not be able to develop a new API in time for your March release.

If you’re having trouble getting anything from another team there may be one fundamental point you’re missing. Let me explain.

Whenever you go to that other team with your request the one thing they are thinking is “What does this mean for me?” Every time you approach another person this is the question they ask. Your carefully crafted email or that little speech you worked on in your mind over lunch. “Good point,” they may think, “but what’s in it for me?

But hey, we go to great pains when we make a real product to answer this for our customers. We think about how our product makes their life better – how they are going to use it and what segment they are in – then we package it accordingly. We think about the place, the price and the promotion as the means to convey the messaging of the product.

By the time they see our ad, click the link, or lift the box from the shelf they are getting the full experience. They can imagine their teeth so white and clean, that new iPod shining in their hand, or that breakfast cereal smothered in cold milk so delicious and crunchy. It’s a great product, the price is right, and it’s available today.

So, that’s how we get our customers to do what we want. Why is it that when we go to ask another team to do something we would expect any less? When you have that meeting where you present a few PowerPoint notes (the modern equivalent of the back of the envelope) and make that critical request I can imagine how the conversation goes.

It’s in the interests of the company. Says you.

It’ll be easy. Doesn’t sound like it to me.

Won’t affect your existing project. I think it will.

These are exactly the same kind of objections your customers have when faced with a purchase decision. If you offered a new type of vacuum cleaner by writing down a couple of notes on a flyer and sending it in the mail I’d by amazed if you sold any at all.

So then, when you’re asking another team for something remember that they’re thinking just like any other customer. They want to know what’s in it for them. You need to make a fully rounded pitch. You need to think about all aspects of your request, technically, visually, commercially. If applicable you should already have outline technical designs, or at least know the full scope of the changes. You should have mocks or UED which are final, not a few suggested ideas. You should know how the changes affect both you and the other team commercially – does it affect sales, partners, regional teams?

Sound like a lot of work? It might be, but if you don’t do this work, then how do you know if your request is actually any good? Will it affect revenue? Will it actually make the product worse? Answering these questions up front is always going to save time in the future – just like getting an architect to draw up some plans will save you a lot of time and money if you do it before the contractor starts building the house.

So then, get what you want by knowing what you want. That means you pitch a request like any other product – with the technical, visual and commercial details through through before you even approach the other team. This way leads to virtuous cycles and great products, the other way leads to political strong-arming and constant mediocrity. I know which one I prefer.

Do you know what business you’re in?

Love the books..

It’s impossible to turn around your products if you don’t really know what business you’re in. Here’s an example.

I went to Barnes and Noble in San Mateo the other week and was confused by their attitude. I wanted to get a book about a particular topic, also a Spanish textbook, and Christina wanted to look for some gifts so the outing seemed ideal. As I wandered around the store the majority of the display material seemed to be about becoming a member of their club. It extolled the benefit of saving 10% on all purchases, but didn’t go into any detail. I, comfortable with my reasons for choosing a bricks and mortar store, ignored them to the extent I could and thumbed through books, had a coffee and a slice of cake, compared the content of the different Spanish-English dictionaries and generally enjoyed the smell of print.

An hour or so later, having chosen 4 or 5 books, a few gifts and some cards I queued up for the checkout. When I got to the register the guy scanned my basket and announced I would save $9 if I was a member of the club. “Are you a member?” he asked. By now I was sick of hearing about it. When I asked what it was, he told me that if I paid him $25 I would be able to save my $9 today, and 10% on every visit from now on.

By this point I was getting really confused. I had chosen to get my entire family in the car, drive several miles to a bookstore, all to browse a much smaller selection of goods than would be available online. Did he really think that the price of the books were my primary concern? So now that he had gone to the trouble of pointing out I was paying more than I needed to (and no, I don’t want to pay you $25 to save $9) I was pretty much ready to tell him to stuff his books and I’d go home and buy them on Amazon.

The problem seems to be the assumption that I had gone there because my only goal was to buy a book. Wrong. I had gone because I like the indulgence of a bookstore – I don’t know exactly what I want, so I go to look at the covers, flick through the pages, pile up a few and sit down to drink coffee while I choose. And I’m happy to pay a premium for that kind of experience.

How about a parallel. I want a new camera, so surely I just buy one online? Well perhaps, it would certainly be cheaper – but I don’t really know what I’m getting. Better that I go to the camera store where knowledgeable, polite assistants who understand photography select the best camera for my personal needs – and yes, it’s more expensive – but I’m happy to pay for the service that I get.

How about the time the chairman of Rolex was asked about the state of the watch industry? “Rolex is not in the watch business.” He replied, “We are in the luxury business.

Time after time we see schizophrenic businesses deliver products or experiences that don’t make any sense. Barnes and Noble should be in the business of getting me to pay a premium for a great experience – something that Amazon cannot match. Electronics stores should select sales reps because they are knowledgeable and helpful, not because they’re cheap. So come on guys, figure out what business you really are in, not what business you used to be in, and deliver your product accordingly.