I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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21 posts categorized "Viral Marketing"

June 27, 2009

Future Forward "What's Next In Tech": "DARC" Days Ahead

Thursday evening I attended Future Forwards' "What's Next In Tech: Exploring The Growth Opportunities of 2009 and Beyond" at the BU School Of Management.  The second of the evening's two panels (moderated with usual aplomb by Scott Kirsner) included Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan.  Brian described the criteria Hubspot uses as part of its hiring process using the acronym "DARC":

  • Digital natives -- active presences in a number of places on the Web
  • Analytic -- not just comfortable with, but passionate about data and the tools to play with them 
  • Reach -- their digital presences have a large number of friends and followers that potentially help Hubspot's viral marketing efforts 
  • Content creators -- their digital contributions provide signs of intelligent life 
Very useful and memorable.  Also, echoed the "Show, don't tell" philosophy we had at ArsDigita a decade ago.

Brian noted the emergence of Boston as a center of digital marketing thought leadership, citing (among others) local heroes David Meerman Scott, Chris Brogan, and Paul Gillin, and mentioning firms like Communispace and Crimson Hexagon (where my friend Ms. Perry Hewitt was the first CMO before leaving a few weeks ago to lead online communications for Harvard University).

So what did the panelists think would be the opportunities to track going forward (generally, and in Massachusetts in particular)?  My notes (please correct any inaccuracies and ommissions):

  • Tim Healy, (CEO Enernoc and our former landlord in Contact Networks' early days -- thanks Tim!) -- Water
  • Brian -- (seconding Michael Greeley) -- Connected Healthcare
  • Ellen Rubin -- Business Intelligence (naturally, I agree) 
  • Helen Greiner -- Cloud Computing 
  • Mike Dornbrook  -- Smart Grids (After my recent MITX judging experience I think there's lots of possibilities here too!)
  • Neal Sequeira (GC VC who backed video at network Scanscout, another piece of the ArsDigita diaspora) -- The "real-time web" (here's what I think that could mean)
  • Michael Greeley -- robotics specifically, "connected healthcare" via the intersection of robotics and healthcare digitization/ informatics more generally 
  • Bijan Sabet -- Education (specifically mentioned using online games to teach, citing 8D World as an example)
Pet peeve of the evening: student entrepreneurs who complain that VCs don't do enough to reach out to student entrepreneurs.  Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy if they keep at it, no?  "Capture-it-in-a-bottle" moment of the evening: Scott Kirsner disarming said student as "cranky".

March 25, 2009

MITX Measurement 2.0 Panel Recap

Yesterday morning I went to a MITX panel discussion titled "Measurement 2.0: How to Tell the Full Digital Story".  With 110 folks, it was SRO at Google's pad in Kendall Square.  Charlie Ballard from One to One Interactive (sponsor of other cool MITX panels) moderated, and the other panelists included Paul Botto , head of GA Enterprise Sales at Google, Morris Martin from Microsoft's Atlas Institute (that's him in the banner picture), Visible Measures' VP of Marketing and Analytics Matt Cutler, Mike Schneider from Allen & Gerritson, and my friend and colleague Ms. Perry Hewitt, CMO at the Cambridge-based social media measurement firm Crimson Hexagon.

Notwithstanding that it's so very 2004 to call anything "2.0" these days, Mike was correct to point out that before we can expect dollars to move toward "Web 3.0", we've got to get Measurement 2.0 right first.  Charlie usefully characterized that if "1.0" is about optimizing within channel silos, "2.0" is, in this context, about optimizing across them.  Whether you like the moniker or not, I agree (not uniquely) with his premise.  

Paul pushed the point further, arguing that to really understand a customer's experience, we need to move beyond a page-based measurement model to an event-based one.  This is especially necessary in a rich media world (think YouTube) where an experience spanning interaction across multiple rich media objects can happen within the context of a single page. (Whether or not you agree, it's provoking to think that while some pressures push us to think more macro (multi-channel), other technological developments push us to go more micro (intra-page).  Wonder if the same design concepts (pathways, handoffs) apply "fractally"?)  

However, Mike took the view that we should be careful about introducing new more exotic frameworks into a world where standards are such that we still can't agree on what defines a visit.  Matt pointed out that event tracking generates 10-100x the data, further complicating matters.  I'm in between: if you got a whole lotta Flash, you have no choice but to implement event-based measurement. Nonetheless, if we can't agree on standards, you give up benchmarking, because your own site (and perhaps others your agency has implemented) will be your only apples-to-apples point of reference.  (Paul indicated that event-based measurement is an invitation-only feature of GA.  I asked for one, and will report what I learn when I get to try it.)

Charlie kicked off the questions for the panel by referring to the multi-channel-measurement tool ur-text, Suresh Vittal's (Forrester Research report "Defining The Online Marketing Suite".  Specifically he asked if the centralized, "command and control" notion of tracking folks through a purchase pipeline across multiple channels still makes sense.  

Matt's take was that the explosive rise of social media has pushed the centralized model toward obsolescence (so soon!). He argued that with the "conversation" happening in places that don't (yet) let you slip measurement tags into their "vessels", marketing needs to be more about tracking what's happening out there using tools (like Perry's firm's) that Suresh didn't then cover but since has.  "Today, the center of gravity has moved, and marketing is much more like portfolio management", said Matt.   He then pointed to a silver lining opportunity: getting value from what he called "big data".  He described how in some presentations, he's successfully used tagcrowd.com to crunch a big bolus of comments on a video to infer / visually convey their collective meaning.

One question is, if we take his comments literally, are we back to local optimization of social stovepipes?  And, "big data" is valuable if you've got big comments.  What if no one comes to your party? In Long Tail space, no one can hear you scream. (Aside: this puts a premium on understanding viral propagation of your social media efforts as part of your portfolio management.)

Morris argued that the central model's value is just beginning to be realized, as it enables us to better understand the value of "upstream" investments and slowly ease away from over-emphasizing the value of being (if you're a publisher) / spending on (if you're an advertiser) the "last click".  Setting aside that Atlas is a display ad network with a natural interest in making this point, others have confirmed that display campaigns lift searches 15-20%.  Knowing this value, I think the opportunity here is to do the math to determine the "effective CPA" of an extra dollar to search vs. an extra dollar to display.

Charlie next asked, "How do we move from measurement to optimization?"  

Morris asserted that you've got to be able to track everything first, and that you shouldn't try to retrain media planners to work with a different process -- it's just too hard.  He pointed us to Atlas' Engagement Mapping tool, (launched a year ago, here's a review) as one option for optimizing within existing constructs.

Perry noted that one client has told her that her thinking about optimization has shifted, from "measure twice, cut once" to "measure twice, cut fast" -- the point being that media usage patterns are shifting quickly enough that a rough optimum appropriate to today is better than a perfect optimum appropriate to patterns we saw six months ago. Perry continued, "agility is the core competence in optimization efforts today."

Picking up Perry's thread, Matt urged the audience to think carefully about what data to collect.  He distinguished between "just-in-time" versus "just-in-case" data collection efforts.  "A bigger regression won't help," he noted, observing that "Even if it's more accurate, if people can't understand it they're unlikely to be able to act on it."  He suggested focusing on a narrow set of metrics and trying to move the needle 10% first, then adding more complexity to your models.  And, as a way to avoid analysis paralysis, Mike advised starting with a likely story in mind to prove or disprove, rather than boiling the ocean (testing/ regressing everything against everything) to find "emergent stories".  Truly men after my own  heart.  

A logical extension of the points above, particularly Perry's, is to shift the relative importance of A/B testing and passive measurement, versus back-testing, for media mix modeling efforts.  Charlie moved to this question next, asking, "How far can it go?"

Paul pointed out great results they've had (using Google Website Optimizer, natch) optimizing the Picassa download page.  Testing 200 different versions, they settled on one that "none of us would have ever thought of" that drove downloads 30% higher.  Surprisingly, the words "free download" don't help.  And, for those who fear that testing curbs creative freedom, reducing us to no better than Shakespeare's Monkeys, Paul pointed out that ironically, the opposite has been true -- creative teams feel they don't have to "play it safe" and can explore more possibilities, knowing that testing will ultimately discipline the process.  (Of course, this is true when experiments are as small as having or not having "free" on your page, but gets harder as the creative execution gets more expensive.)

Charlie's next question: "What about brand-focused advertising measurement?"  Matt talked about how the emergence of online video and social media have brought the left and right brains together: in these media, it's now simultaneously possible to craft a story that traditional brand marketers love and to measure its impact at least better than before, if not yet well enough.  In particular, he told the story of a credit card company that syndicated a video widget and saw a big jump in applications from folks who viewed it.  Perry told the story of how semantic analysis of an online crafting community's conversations (about vinyl home decor -- go figure) is being recycled to shape creative execution of television spots for one of her firm's clients (Ahem Perry, interesting crowd you're hanging with).  Matt further pointed to opportunities for "viral packaging", like paying Blendtec $10k to ask "Will It Blend?" of your product after their clever YouTube experiment with the iPhone drove millions of views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers to Blendtec's channel.  Paul suggested folks try Google Insights for Search as a way of getting a better view of what's happening upstream.

Panelists suggested the following additional resources:


  • I asked about whether the assembled players had explored allowing members of social media services like FB and LinkedIn extend their member profiles to include "analytics tracking tags" fields, so members could track visits and interaction by others in content the members publish or syndicate there.  It seemed to me a win-win all around for advertisers, members, and social media platforms.  Answer, good idea in principle, but social media platforms still guard that data jealously and there are privacy concerns that folks like Google and Microsoft in particular are sensitive to.  Paul did note though that YouTube provides some of this data to branded channel customers today.  My view is that if I can track you, dear reader, in GA using the tag embedded on this page through the Typepad template that wraps this content, it won't be long before Facebook makes the same thing happen, since advertisers want/ will pay for that (indirectly via CPMs), and who knows, they might be able to get a buck or a few each month from publishers to whom that information is really valuable.
  • Another person asked about the validity of the "view-through" as a metric -- that is,  what credit do you give to display ads that aren't clicked on?  Here's an article that describes the issue further (I love the author's concluding sentence: "Something between 0 and 100 percent credit is appropriate, depending on the advertiser's unique environmental, programmatic, and analytic profile. Each advertiser has to find its own answer.")  Morris referred folks to the Engagement Mapping research cited above, noting that "You can't grow search from the bottom of the funnel."
  • A third question was about the degree to which marketers should try to identify "emergent" funnels from the data versus operate/ test "pre-defined" purchase funnels.  The panelists were pretty much aligned in their responses about the practicality of focusing on the latter.  Matt said, "we're reinforcing for advertisers the importance of stories -- as humans we're tuned to listen to stories deep in our DNA, and it's much harder to infer them from oceans of data and analyses."  (From my end, I see an opportunity here -- services that collect stories as hypotheses, so that you can test the fit between stories and stats, mad-libs style.)  Charlie told a story about how they had tracked anonymous user 110135 through this cookie ID, and used this journey in a presentation to a cable company CEO, to huge effect.  Mike put it beautifully: "No story, no value."

June 14, 2008

Re-Imagining Social Networking

Yesterday, Om Malik posted on the apparent plateau we've reached in the growth of social networking as a business.

My read:

  • For social networking to be really valuable, it's got to be really relevant to and really usable by a large number of people.
  • Today, these two conditions are true only for 15-25 year olds and for tech early adopters and evangelists (of all ages).
  • The way forward for relevance lies not in thinking "social-networking-out", but in "high-value-use-case-back".
  • The way forward for usability lies in "opt-out" vs. "opt-in" interface engineering.

Continue reading "Re-Imagining Social Networking" »

June 09, 2008

Zembly: Wild About Widgets

I signed up for Zembly's public beta, and built this widget (with appropriate permission). (Renders best in Firefox -- no scrolling):

Postscript June 2009: With the acquisition of FAO Schwarz by Toys R Us, the "gift finder" application on fao.com, off which my widget is based, has been retired.  I'll look for a suitable app on another site and reimplement a widget as and when time permits. 

Here's the embed code:


Cool service; easy to use, you can build versions of this to run on FB and other social networks. Took me less than an hour, most of that time spent getting the widget reduced to its essential elements.  Figuring out how to use Zembly took 5 minutes, and I didn't even need to RTFM.

(Sadly, I haven't yet been able to figure out how to track traffic to and from the widget with my Google Analytics account (since it's not accepting the Zembly url for the widget I'm offering), advice appreciated; I might try this.)

Broader point:  application widgets like this one (along with mini-games) are the future of the display ad business (in particular a good chunk of the rich media unit segment of that business), which has been criticized for skewed CTRs ("Natural-Born Clickers"), and which is trying to work out appropriate engagement metrics with the advertisers and media companies on either side of it.  Services like Zembly that make it easy to author such units will become this generation's Frontpage.

April 22, 2008

Picked Up On MITX Exchange

Octavianworld is now a featured blog on MITX Exchange.  (Thanks to MITX for the privilege, and especially to Dean Whitney for all his hard work building that site.)  I'm honored to be there, in good company, and hope to put back even a little of the lots I've learned through MITX people and events.

February 28, 2008

DylanMessaging: Viral Genius

This viral messaging campaign by Ten4 for SonyBMG's release of a collection of Bob Dylan's music last fall was enormously successful.  I've always loved the original video, and harbored ideas of recording my own version of it at home to kick off various presentations I've given in the past, but hadn't pulled the trigger.  Then I saw this (via Scott Kirsner -- thanks Scott!) and was really impressed.  The mind races to all the other similar possibilities, though doubtless there are intellectual property issues that weren't a problem here.

Reminds me of another viral favorite, Mr. Picassohead

February 03, 2008

A Struggle for the Soul of Viral Marketing

I caught up with my former colleague Shiv Singh last week in new York.  Shiv is now leading Razorfish's social media practice initiative. 

We got to talking about Duncan Watts' research on how trends spread through social networks.  Watts argues that they spread randomly, and that it's the predisposition of the network to "catch" the trend that matters most.  This, of course, flies in the face of conventional thinking on the topic, starting with some of the conclusions that flow out of Stanley ("Six Degrees")  Milgram's work, and more recent books like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Keller and Berry's The Influentials. These latter two argue that some people matter lots more than others in propagating ideas, and that these people can be pre-identified.

Watts' credibility stems from analysis he's done, both of large email archive data sets and through large-scale simulations in virtual world social networks.  And his conclusion, if you agree, would of course be a bummer for the budding industry of folks trying to help marketers influence social media.

A great article on the topic runs in this month's Fast Company.

My take is that as a practical matter, both sides have a point.  I do believe some people, even if just through more numerous interactions, are likelier to spread ideas (though not necessarily yours), and Watts does not completely discount the role of influencers.  And, as I wrote earlier in this post, simply spreading your message through an influencer will be futile if it doesn't "tune in" and extend in a useful way what's already going on in the "conversations" a particular network is having.

(See also Shiv's article in Boxes and Arrows, and this earlier post I wrote on Marketspace Advisor summarizing some of the research on social networks.)

June 29, 2007

LinkedIn: Facing Reality

Many of us have been wondering for a while when LinkedIn would get around to opening up its API so others could take advantage of its networks of registered users to build applications  that could be spread virally through those networks.  Facebook has stolen a march on LinkedIn, first by allowing anyone to create a group, and most recently by exposing an API to allow others to develop applications that use its registered user base and networks -- or what they call the "social graph". 

Facebook applications have taken off like wildfire, and with this initiative Facebook has raised the "platform ante" beyond where Google, Amazon, and Yahoo had it (i.e., rich APIs and data sets to query through them, but limited networks of users) for anyone aspiring to build a large-scale web presence.  My favorite Facebook app, which I think best (most simply) demonstrates what Facebook has made possible, is the "Friend Wheel".  When I look at mine, I realize how many friends I still have to introduce to each other!  (Maybe what I need is a Facebook app that implements "graphic friendship" ideas...)

Now there's speculation about LinkedIn getting with the program.  Folks fret about whether the LinkedIn UI could handle the weight of a bunch of apps.  That's a red herring, IMHO.  Based on the relative rate of connection requests I've been getting in the last few days (4 or 5 to one in FB's favor), it would seem LinkedIn has no choice. 

But what's even more compelling about what Facebook's done, and why the imperative for LinkedIn is even more urgent,  is the economic opportunity it creates.  Everyone in the network can now make informed choices of apps to place on their profile pages, and a smart platform player will ultimately do a three-way rev share -- some for the member, some for the app developer, and some (ok most) for itself.  It will be interesting to see how soon Facebook gets around to this.

May 07, 2007

The Great Click Rush of 2007

Ad networks are hot, and in many cases highly-profitable businesses right now.  On the heels of Google's snapping up DoubleClick for $3 billion, Yahoo! bought (the 80% it didn't already own of) 4 year old  online display ad exchange Right Media last week for $680 million.  So, a logical question to ask is, who buys whom next?

Continue reading "The Great Click Rush of 2007" »

April 29, 2007

Think Viral, Act Tribal Part III: "Dissecting Numa Numa"

Last Thursday morning I attended a MITX Digital Marketing Series presentation titled "Dissecting Numa Numa: A Critical Analysis of Viral Video Content", given by Jeremi Karnell of One to One Interactive, Professor Jeffrey Bardzell of Indiana University's School of Informatics, and Dr. Carl Marci, Chief Science Officer at Innerscope Research.  The questions considered (my version):  why did this amateur work go as "viral" as it did, and how (well) can neuroscience help us predict viral media propagation?

Continue reading "Think Viral, Act Tribal Part III: "Dissecting Numa Numa"" »