Forget Facebook, Pshaw Pinterest, Toodaloo Twitter: Bringing Social In-house

social media thinkingDespite the pithy title of this post, I’m not actually anti social media. Nor am I in any way predicting its demise. And while I’m disclaiming, let me also say that I don’t consider myself a social commerce expert. But I have been doing retail for almost 28 years and have been involved in e-commerce for about 15 years, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

And I don’t think we’ve been looking at social in the right way.

The numbers bandied about are spectacular and tantalizing. If Facebook was a country, it would be the third biggest in the world! Over a billion users! But if you think a little deeper about them, they don’t hold up as well. You hear over a billion users and you think that’s Super Bowl audience type numbers. But it’s really not. It’s actually more like 1 billion niche cable channels. You can’t really put a single message out and connect to all of those people in one shot.

There’s lots of talk about the average of 230+ friends each person has and an assumption that our customers will share their shopping experiences with their friends. And they do at times. But those  friends are not all equally influenced by those shares. A number of my Facebook friends are old friends from high school that I connected with once but am otherwise not highly connected. So how open are these types of friends to anything I might share?

Another of my favorites is “time on site.” The average time on Facebook exceeds Google. But what does that mean? And is that a reasonable comparison point? Google is actively trying to get people to click away from their site. That’s how they get paid.

Yet, still, there’s something there. Governments are being toppled with the aid of social media. That’s pretty powerful. So what can we do with it?

social revolution

Well, we retailers tend to be like hammers that see everything as a nail. So we want to figure out how to put a cash register on it. And we’ve seen some highly publicized Facebook stores like 1-800-Flowers and Best Buy’s various attempts. But so many of these have seemed to result in no sales.

OK. Maybe not a store. Then what?

We’ve been flailing about some trying to figure something out. We’ve asked silly questions, and people respond. We’ve tried to amp up our customer service in these channels, and that has been good for PR. We’ve tweeted lots of fun facts and tips. But Twitter is like a river, really. So much is flying past so often, I really have to wonder how much anyone really sees. We have videos on YouTube with some great content that’s fun to watch, and now we’re seeing decent action around shopping on Pinterest.

So some of the stuff we’re doing seems to have some branding value, but I’m not sure we’re making the most of it. For most retailers, orders attributed to social media as a last touch are basically non-existent. But maybe, you might say, click tracking might not really tell you about influence. OK, we asked our customers at Sur La Table. Their self-reported answers say they’re a little more influenced than click tracking would suggest, but it’s nothing to write home about.

Still, I can’t help thinking there’s a lot of power in the idea of bringing people together with the help of some social technologies.

I’m always thinking about what I call the customer engagement cycle. The last step, Referral, is really the Holy Grail. If we can get our best customers to be our best marketers and merchants, we can make that cycle much more efficient and effective. And our customers are WAY more credible than we are. A recent Gallup Honesty poll ranked Advertising practitioners BARELY higher than Members of Congress! Yikes!

Seth Godin gave an amazing speech to the music industry several years ago as the record labels were seeing their businesses tuned upside down by digital downloads – legal and illegal. People were freaking out. But he provided another avenue (one not really taken, but that’s another story) that was largely about the underlying principles of “social.”

He said, and I paraphrase:

“People don’t listen to companies, they listen to people. And, there is something magical about the connection between one person and another person.

There is a large number of people who want to be led…who want to connect…who want to join a tribe.

And you have the ability, from where you stand, to make some of those connections happen.”

So maybe the idea of social is right, but we’re just doing it wrong. Or at least we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If we want to use social to get cash flowing into the registers, I think we need to look at the opportunity differently.

context mindset purposeI think there are three specific conditions we need to be successful: context, purpose and mindset.

I think context becomes incredibly important. All the social media channels out there have plenty of value for branding, messaging, etc. We run into trouble when we try to make them transactional. Maybe that’s not the best way to use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. But that doesn’t mean the idea of “social” can’t benefit transactions. I think it just means we have to implement social capabilities in the right place with the right context. And our sites are different from our Facebook pages, which are different from our stores.

And that’s because each of these environments were constructed for different purposes and as a result customers have different purposes in mind when they visit each. On Facebook, it’s more about seeing what friends are up to and maybe also engaging with some favorite brands. So while people may see our new products or promotions, at the same time they’re also looking at cute babies, political rants, and embarrassing drunken photos that never should have seen the light of day. Our messages can get obscured pretty quickly.

Whereas people coming to our stores and our sites are purposely looking for products, whether to research or buy. They’re pretty open to learning about new products and they’d love to hear about promotions. They have a completely different mindset. And that attitude and inclination can make all the difference.

The mindset when using Facebook and other social media is largely about entertainment. Keeping track of friends, seeing photos, etc. is fun and entertaining. But there’s a lot going on there, and nothing really holds your attention for too terribly long. And even though there is interactivity, it’s still largely passive. But going to a retail store or site is all about shopping and checking out the products! When customers come to our stores, they are clearly much closer to a buying mode than we could expect when they’re just being entertained by social media.

So it’s that sweet spot where that the right context, purpose and mindset meet that we might have the best opportunity to unleash the power of social media. And really, we’ve already proven that some of our best conversion tactics are rooted in concepts of social. For example, customer reviews are a very effective way for people to connect to each other. According to a Nielsen study last year, 70% of people trust customer reviews, and that trust factor is on the rise. Even recommendations are basically a form of social since they’re based on what other people have done. They’re especially social and effective when we frame them as “People who viewed this also viewed” or something similar.

So how do we take these ideas to the next level?

How can we take Seth Godin’s sage advice and find ways to connect our passionate customers from across the country with each other under our brand umbrella?

At Sur La Table, we think we can do that with something we’re calling “My Collections.” The idea is that customers will be able to create – and share on SurLaTable.com – collections of our products. In a sense, it’s a bit like Pinterest on our site. We worked with our partner, 8th Bridge, to create this fun new feature that combines the credibility of customer reviews with the discovery elements of recommendations to take the power of social on our sites to a new level. And it’s really taking off. Customers have quickly created tons of collections to share with other customers, and they’re already demanding new features like the ability to comment more on their collections and the ability to more easily find other collection creators like them. Luckily, these are features we’re already working on!

We’ve also gotten our staff involved. We employ chefs in a lot of stores, and we certainly have them creating and sharing collections. We’re going to work to involve big name chefs we have relationships with. Certainly our store associates are participating. And not only do they create content, but they also benefit from the content created by others. It’s useful for them to learn how customers are putting our products together, and it helps them create ideas for their customers.

We’re really excited about where all of this is going, and I hope you are, too.

What do you think? How are your social programs generating value for your company? Have you tried anything that worked well? Did context, purpose and mindset play a role?

 

The 3 Levels of Metrics: From Driving Cars to Solving Crimes

Business-MetricsYou can’t manage what you don’t measure. That’s a long-time business mantra espoused frequently by my good friend Larry Freed. And it’s certainly true. But in an e-commerce where we can effectively measure our customers’ every footstep, we can easily become overwhelmed with all that data. Because while we can’t manage what we don’t measure, we also can’t manage everything we can measure.

I’ve found it’s best to break our metrics down to three levels in order to make the most of them.

1. KPIs
The first and highest level of metrics contains the Key Performance Indicators or KPIs. I believe strongly there should be relatively few KPIs — maybe five or six at most — and the KPIs should align tightly with the company’s overall business objectives. If an objective is to develop more orders from site visitors, then conversion rate would be the KPI. If another objective is about maximizing the customer experience, then customer satisfaction is the right metric.

In addition to conversion rate and customer satisfaction, a set of KPIs might include metrics like average order value (AOV), market share, number of active customers,  task completion rate or others that appropriately measure the company’s key objectives.

I’ve found the best KPI sets are balanced so that the best way to drive the business forward is to find ways to improve all of the KPIs, which is why businesses often have balanced scorecards. The reality is, we could find ways to drive any one metric at the expense of the others, so finding the right balance is critical. Part of that balance is ensuring that the most important elements of the business are considered, so it’s important to have some measure of employee satisfaction (because employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction) and some measure of profitability.  Some people look at a metric like Gross Margin as the profitability measure, but I prefer something deeper down the financial statement like Contribution Margin or EBITDA because they take other cost factors like ad spend, operational efficiencies, etc. into account and can be affected by most people in the organization.

It’s OK for KPIs to be managed at different frequencies. We often talk about metrics dashboards, and a car’s dashboard is the right metaphor. Car manufacturers have limited space to work with, so they include only the gauges the most help the driver operate the car. The speedometer is managed frequently while operating the car. The fuel gauge is critically important, but it’s monitored only occasionally (and more frequently when it’s low). Engine temperature is a hugely important measure for the health of the car, but we don’t need to do much with it until there’s a problem. Business KPIs can be monitored in a similarly varied frequency, so it’s important that we don’t choose them based on their likelihood to change over some specific time period. It’s more important to choose the metrics that most represent the health of the business.

2. Supporting Metrics
I call the next level of metrics Supporting Metrics. Supporting Metrics are tightly aligned with KPIs, but they are more focused on individual functions or even individual people within the organization. A KPI like conversion rate can be broken down by various marketing channels pretty easily, for example. We could have email conversion rate, paid search conversion rate, direct traffic conversion rate, etc. I also like to look at True Conversion Rate, which measures conversion against intent to buy.

Supporting metrics should be an individual person’s or functional area’s scorecard to measure how their work is driving the business forward. Ensuring supporting metrics are tightly aligned with the overall company objectives helps to ensure work efforts throughout the organization are tightly aligned with the overall objectives.

As with KPIs, we want to ensure any person or functional area isn’t burdened with so many supporting metrics that they become unmanageable. And this is an area where we frequently fall down because all those metrics and data points are just so darn alluring.

The key is to recognize the all-important third level of metrics. I call them Forensic Metrics.

3. Forensic Metrics
Forensic Metrics are just what they sound like. They’re those deep-dive metrics we use when we’re trying to solve a problem we’re facing in KPIs or Supporting Metrics. But there are tons of them, and we can’t possibly manage them on a day-to-day basis. In the same way we don’t dust our homes for prints every day when we come home from work, we can’t try to pay attention to forensic metrics all the time. If we come home and find our TV missing, then dusting for prints makes a lot of sense. If we find out conversion rate has dropped suddenly, it’s time to dig into all sorts of forensic metrics like path analysis, entry pages, page views, time on site, exit links, and the list goes on and on.

Site analytics packages, data warehouse and log files are chock full of valuable forensic metrics. But those forensic metrics should not find their way onto daily or weekly managed scorecards. They can only serve to distract us from our primary objectives.

—————————————————–

Breaking down our metrics into these three levels takes some serious discipline. When we decide we’re only going to focus on a relatively small number of metrics, we’re doing ourselves and our businesses a big favor. But it’s really important we’re narrowing that focus on the metrics and objectives that are most driving the business forward. But, heck, we should be doing that anyway.

What do you think? How do you break down your metrics?

 

Employee Satisfaction Leads to Customer Satisfaction (and Big Profits)

“Companies with strong consumer branding outperform Standard & Poor’s index.  It’s a lesser known fact that companies with a high rating from both consumers and employees double that return.”
Carol Parish, Enterprise Global Brand Agency

Employee Hierarchy of Needs

Employee Hierarchy of Needs

I actually considered calling this post, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In the same way that mothers are often the key connector in familial relationships, employees are the key connector in the relationships between a company and its customers. As a result, if our employees aren’t happy, our customers won’t be happy with our companies and our companies won’t be happy with the business results.

For some reason, the topic of employee satisfaction has come up in a multitude of conversations I’ve had lately. I recently had a great one with my most excellent colleague at ForeSee Results, Maggie Kalahar. Maggie had this to say:

“Employees shape the experience a customer has with your company each time they have contact, making employees the most memorable voice of your brand as they constitute the actual brand Maggie Kalaharexperience.  It’s people who ultimately deliver your brand promise.  It does not make a difference what you tell your customers about your brand if those who actually encounter the customer don’t deliver the values consistently.  For example, one poor experience with a rude sales associate at Retailer X can undo millions of dollars of brand advertising touting “The Friendly Faces of Retailer X”.  On the other hand, when employees deliver a positive experience consistent with your brand promise, your customers will in turn become stewards of your brand as well, translating to dollars for your company.”

Given the huge importance of satisfied employees in the overall success of a company, it’s surprising that more attention isn’t paid to employee satisfaction as a key financial driver. (And by the way, I’m certainly not guiltless. Sadly, it’s taken me way too many posts about other topics before getting to this important topic.)

All too often, we take our employees and their job satisfaction for granted. We focus all the power of our Type-A personalities on achieving financial results, acquiring new customers, launching new businesses, and driving customer satisfaction, but too often we forget about the people who actually turn all those action verbs into real-life actions.

We spend lots and lots of time considering our brand messaging, and we even spend a lot of time teaching our brand stewards (our front line employees, in particular) how to message our brand. But how much time do we spend ensuring our employees have the tools and the environment they need to effectively deliver our brand promises (as well as the actual desire to deliver the brand promises)? Sure, HR probably talks about it all the time, but this is not an HR issue.

This is really about the basic service every manager in an organization should provide to his or her staff in order to achieve those financial goals.

I previously mentioned putting employees first (even before customers) as one of the keys principles of a customer centric organization. The base principle is really the same as when flight attendants advise us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before assisting our children. If we don’t provide a productive, positive environment for our employees, how can we expect them to provide the right environment for our customers?

But, man, satisfying employees is hard!

Providing the type of consistent environment required to really satisfy employees is actually a lot harder than providing the type of experience that satisfies customers. The reality is employee relationships are more interdependent, frequent, intense and intimate than the relationships we have with even our best customers. And we have so many more interactions with employees, any one of which can potentially derail the relationship if we don’t handle it correctly.

So what do we need to do to satisfy employees?

In my experience, the things that make the biggest differences are not parties, free lunches or even bonuses. Those things, while good and worth doing, are fairly temporary. They come and they go and they can be quickly forgotten if there are problems in the basic working environment.

I think the tenets of great working environments are really more akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s pyramid starts with physiological needs and progress through safety, belonging, esteem and ends with self-actualization.

The Employee Hierarchy of Needs, if you will, contains a similar progression to ultimate satisfaction:

Basic tools
Certainly, a company’s employees need to have the basic tools to do their jobs. Those tools could be computers, uniforms, office supplies, etc. I don’t think many companies have big problems at this level. I would even add being paid a fair wage here. There can be little question that pay is an important aspect of any job. But getting the pay right is part of the very basic level of the working environment.

Trust and Respect
Trust and respect are the foundation of pretty much all successful human relationships, and it’s certainly no different in employee relationships. One of the best ways to assess the levels of trust in an organization is to examine assumptions regarding intentions. Do policies and procedures seem to assume the employees act on their best intentions or their worst intentions? In other words, are the policies in place mostly to ensure employees don’t do things they shouldn’t do, or are the policies in place to ensure employees have the right environment to do the things they should be doing.

Respect can certainly be gauged by how we treat each other. Do we follow the Golden Rule? In the workplace, one of the best ways to test Respect is in how input is heard from various members of the team. Are people’s ideas, when presented with thought and backed with supporting evidence, taken seriously? For the record, I don’t think “taken seriously” necessarily means the ideas are always accepted and implemented. However, if the idea is ultimately rejected, it should be rejected with the same or better level of thought and supporting evidence. To me, that’s taking an idea seriously and respecting the generator of the idea.

Matching the “A”s
This one is critical, and a mismatch here is often the source of some of the biggest problems I’ve seen during my career. The “A”s are Accountability and Authority. Many positions have job descriptions, but I’m talking about something a lot more specific and meaningful. I’ve found it’s critically important to be very, very clear about what each and every person in the organization is accountable for. This takes a lot of careful thought. Once we’ve defined those accountabilities, we have to ensure each person has the authority to deliver those accountabilities. This is hard. Accountabilities will inevitably overlap in some areas, particularly in hierarchies in the organizational structure. So the accountabilities need to be defined specifically and conflict resolution paths must be predefined. (Frankly, this could be a whole separate blog post…and maybe it will be.)

All of this is made much easier if the company has the types of vision, values and objectives frameworks I discussed in a recent post. Such a centrally defined framework provides the types of guidelines for decision-making that, while not eliminating conflicts and disagreements, at least provides a solid basis for debate and resolution.

Confidence
With a solid framework for decision-making, clear accountabilities and matching authority, employees can begin to make decisions about their daily work with confidence. As those decisions become more and more effective, employees become more self-confident. I’ve always found that self-confidence is the key to success in all aspects of life. Self-confident staff find it much easier to do what’s right for customers and for the business.

Training/Knowledge/Growth
The final layer of employee satisfaction is all about growth. Companies that invest in their employees’ growth will not only have happier employees, they will have more productive employees who generate better and better ideas for improving the company. This means mentoring employees, training them in areas even beyond their current scope of responsibilities, being more transparent about aspects of the business that are interesting to particular employees and more. Creating more skilled and more knowledgeable employees has an extremely high ROI.

—————————————–

Focusing and delivering on all layers of the Employee Hierarchy of Needs can lead to the type of employee satisfaction that leads to customer satisfaction and big profits (investor satisfaction?). But there’s no question that it takes constant focus and a lot of hard work.

Behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely, in his excellent book The Upside of Irrationality, ran some interesting experiments around meaningful working conditions. He found that “if you take people who love something…and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. However, if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can very easily kill any internal joy they might derive from the activity.”

We’ve all encountered employees of various establishments who’ve had their joy killed. They’re not productive and they don’t provide great experiences. We certainly want more for our teams and our companies. The alternative of course, is joyful employees, customers and investors. That’s a happy world I want to live in!

What do you think? How would you describe the Employee Hierarchy of Needs? What have you seen work and not work in your organization?

My Favorite Business Books of the Year

“I am learning all the time.  The tombstone will be my diploma.” ~Eartha Kitt

“Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.” ~James Russell Lowell

And my all-time favorite quote about reading…

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” ~Groucho Marx

I love to read books and absorb new information and ideas. In this final post of the year, I thought I would share some of the books that most inspired me this year. I hope you might also get great value from them. Some of them aren’t exactly business books, but I got business value from them and I thought you might benefit similarly.

Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my favorite books of the year:

Customer Culture bookCustomer Culture: How FedEx and Other Great Companies Put the Customer First Every Day
by Michael D. Basch

This one was recommended to me by Anna Barcelos after I wrote my post on the 4 Keys to a Customer Centric Culture. Luckily, I think I was largely on the same page as Michael Basch, but I learned so much more about company cultures after reading his tome. Basch was a co-founder of FedEx and their initial SVP of Sales and Customer Service. He relays plenty of his learnings at FedEx, but he also relates the stories of other customer focused businesses small and large. He even covers an incredibly innovative Australian dentist office! Many of the stories sparked plenty of ideas in my mind, and I even excerpted one to highlight in my blog post on the power of naivete. Basch gives some very specific and easy-to-follow advice on creating the types of customer-focused cultures that drive businesses that simply succeed more because of their focus on their customers.

Why Can't You Just Give me the Number

Why Can’t You Just Give Me the Number? An Executive’s Guide to Using Probabilistic Thinking to Manage Risk and Make Better Decisions
by Patrick Leach

Every manager and executive should read this book. Patrick Leach does an excellent job explaining the concepts of probabilistic thinking and decision making, and he does it in everyday language that is easy to consume for business people who don’t necessarily have advanced degrees in mathematics. He makes a very compelling case for using probabilistic thinking to greatly improve the bottom line. This book, more than any other, was the inspiration for some of my posts on Monte Carlo simulations.

Hidden BrainThe Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Brains Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives
by Shankar Vedantam

This is a book that I actually didn’t love immediately after reading it. However, the concepts I got from it kept creeping back into my brain, and maybe that’s an even better way to value a book. I excerpted a bit of it in my most recent blog post on the power of our hidden brains to dominate our decision making in ways we don’t consciously realize. Author Shankar Vedantam deftly manages to explain complicated brain inner workings through easy-to-read stories that illustrate the concept and leave lasting memories.

Upside of IrrationalityThe Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
by Dan Ariely

I included Dan Ariely’s first book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, as an all-time favorite in last year’s list of best business books. While the experiments and ideas in that book were probably more useful in the marketing and merchandising functions, I would say this book is much more about human interactions and general management and leadership. Ariely focuses on topics such as the effect of pay on performance, the motivational value of creating things, and the high addiction of our own ideas. As you might guess from the title, Ariely’s conclusions are not often what we’d expect but extremely beneficial.

SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
by Dan and Chip Heath

Anyone who’s attempted to implement major change in an organization knows how difficult it can be. This book is an excellent guide for how to implement and encourage change in business and in life. I loved not only the tips but the explanations about why we humans have such a difficult time with change. The Heath brothers use a metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant to describe the rational and emotional parts of our brains that are so fundamental to accepting and embracing change (and making decisions of any kind). It’s an excellent way to visualize the concept and a concept that I’ll not likely forgot.

ClickClick: The Magic of Instant Connections
by Ram and Ori Brafman

I actually dedicated a post to this book. This is a fascinating look at the reasons people click with each other. The authors really break it all down and in the process provide an excellent roadmap for creating better connections between people. Used in a business environment, this knowledge can help up create better functioning, happier and more productive teams.

design of everyday thingsThe Design of Everyday Things
by Don Norman

This is not a new book by any means, but I somehow never read it until this year. I found this book to be extremely eye opening and completely fascinating. Don Norman spends a lot of time talking about the design of objects like doors and faucets, yet the design principles he discusses and the human psychology learnings that go into those design principles are absolutely relevant to usable designs of things that didn’t even exist in the time he wrote this (the ’80s) — like websites. I explored just a couple of these concepts, and how they apply to retail websites,  in a post earlier this year.

And just for kicks, since I’m a music nut, here are my top 10 albums of the year:

  1. Trombone ShortyBackatown
    A great combination of jazz, funk, hip-hop and rock. Trombone Shorty rips on both the trombone and the trumpet. Standout track: “Hurricane Season.”
  2. Florence + the MachineLungs
    Technically, this record came out in 2009, but the Grammys have nominated them for Best New Artist this year I think I get to include the record in my list. Great vocals from Florence and the drums in particular are amazing on this record. The sound is powerful, a bit dark and different from anything I’ve ever heard. Standout track: “Dog Days are Over”
  3. Grace Potter & the NocturnalsGrace Potter & the Nocturnals
    Grace Potter can flat out sing, and the songs on this record are top-notch. This is just good, ol’ rock ‘n’ roll and a rollicking good time. Standout track: “Paris (Ooh la la)”
  4. The Gaslight AnthemAmerican Slang
    Gaslight Anthem are kind of a Green Day meets with Replacements and (not surprisingly since they are from New Jersey) jams with Bruce Springsteen. Standout track: “The Spirit of Jazz
  5. Mumford and SonsSigh No More
    The bluegrass tinted pop from British newcomers Mumford and Sons is highly infectious. Very impressive vocal harmonies as well. Standout track: “Winter Winds”
  6. Sons of SylviaRevelation
    A band of brothers (I assume their mother is named Sylvia), these guys have put together what I guess could be called an alt-country record because it’s basically pop music with country instruments. Lead singer Ashley Clark can flat out wail, and the band certainly holds their own. Standout track: “50 Ways.”
  7. Sharon Jones and the Dap KingsI Learned the Hard Way
    Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are the best of the new wave of R&B retro, and this record does not disappoint. Standout track: “Money”
  8. OzomatliFire Away
    I’ve been an Ozomatli fan for a long time, but I think this is their best record since 2001′s Embrace the Chaos. Great combination of Latin, hip-hop and rock, and the songs are lots of fun. Standout track: “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”
  9. Aloe BlaccGood Things
    I suppose Aloe Blacc is a bit of an R&B retro artist, but he’s got a sound that feels both contemporary and throwback at the same time — and he’s very smooth. Standout track: “I Need a Dollar”
  10. SantanaGuitar Gods: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All-Time
    Carlos Santana teaming up with a bunch of guest vocalists to record some of rock’s all-time great guitar songs (sort of — I’m not sure Dance the Night Away would be my choice for a Van Halen song). Artistically, this is not particularly impressive. However, it’s a lot of fun to just listen to Carlos Santana wail away — even when he’s stepping all over the melodies. Standout track: “Back in Black”

What were your favorite business books of the year (and music, too)?

Do we really need the frying bacon close-up?

bacon fryingThe scene opens with a wide view of Owen leaning over the stove. Next is a close-up of Owen’s face peering down at the skillet, a bead of sweat dripping from his forehead. For two seconds we see a close-up view of sizzling bacon before returning to a wide view of Owen scooping the bacon out of the pan and carefully placing it just so on a plate of eggs and French toast. Cut to a scene of Owen bringing this newly prepared breakfast to his bride in bed.

”Happy Anniversary, honey.”

The budget conscious movie producer drops the script on the table and stares at the director.

“Do we really need the close-up of Owen’s face? The set-up for those shots adds a ton of extra cost. And the bacon close-up? Really? Does that really add anything to the story? Are we going to sell even one less ticket if that shot is not in the movie?”

But the director insists, “Yes, we have to have those scenes. They add the emotion and visceral impact that is required to tell the story, to let the audience feel Owen’s love. They are as essential to the story as the dialogue. Those shots are the difference between a professional film and a home movie, and no one will pay to see a home movie. They may not list the close-ups as the reason they don’t like the movie, but trust me, they’re a much larger factor than you think.”

The director is right. (And don’t worry, this post will eventually get to the retail relevance.)

I’ve been reading a lot about how our brains make decisions. Books such as How We Decide, The Hidden Brain, and Switch all explore the two parts of our brains that combine to formulate our decisions. Scientifically, those parts of the brain are the neocortex and the amygdala. In Switch, the Heath brothers call them the Rider and the Elephant; others call them the rational brain and the lizard brain. Whatever we call them, our decisions are the combined effort a conscious part of our brains that control our rational thinking and an unconscious part of our brains (the Hidden Brain) that controls our emotions.

Think you don’t make emotional decisions? Think again.

It turns out that without our emotional brains, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions at all. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer recounts the story of a man whose brain injury caused his amygdala to stop functioning. As a result, he was utterly incapable of making even the simplest decisions in life. Without an emotional brain to push him toward a decision, his rational brain simply went into analysis paralysis.

Our brains are extremely powerful, but they’ve got a lot going on. As a result, they basically compartmentalize processing power and take shortcuts when encountering situations that seem similar to past situations they’ve encountered. While this compartmentalization is generally very efficient, it has its drawbacks. Here’s how Shankar Vedantam explains it in The Hidden Brain:

The conscious brain is slow and deliberate. It learns from textbooks and understands how rules have exceptions. The hidden brain is designed to be fast, to make quick approximations and instant adjustments. Right now, your hidden brain is doing many more things than your conscious brain could attend to with the same efficiency. The hidden brain sacrifices sophistication to achieve speed. Since your hidden brain values speed over accuracy, it regularly applies heuristics to situations where they do not work. It is as though you master a mental shortcut while riding a bicycle—bunch your fingers into a fist to clench the brakes—and apply the heuristic when you are driving a car. You clutch the steering wheel when you need to stop, instead of jamming your foot on the brake.

Now imagine the problem on a grander scale; the hidden brain applying all kinds of rules to complex situations where they do not apply. When you show people the faces of two political candidates and ask them to judge who looks more competent based only on appearance, people usually have no trouble picking one face over the other. Not only that, but they will tell you, if they are Democrats, that the person who looks more competent is probably a Democrat. If they are Republicans, there is just something about that competent face that looks Republican. Everyone knows it is absurd to leap to conclusions about competence based on appearance, so why do people have a feeling about one face or another? It’s because their hidden brain “knows” what competent people look like. The job of the hidden brain is to leap to conclusions. This is why people cannot tell you why one politician looks more competent than another, or why one job candidate seems more qualified than another. They just have a feeling, an intuition.

This same “leap to conclusion” occurs when people visit our websites. They come to our sites with a preconceived notion about what a quality website looks like, and many times those preconceived notions have much to do with the types of design elements that many “rational” thinkers would equate to the frying bacon close-up described in the movie scenario above. It’s hard to imagine how a rounded borders versus straight borders might effect someone’s likelihood to convert, but it will because the hidden brain is making lightning fast decisions about a site’s credibility based on everything it sees and how closely what it sees matches up to its past experiences with what it found to be credible websites. A customer will not likely point to border type as a reason she didn’t buy; she’ll just feel uneasy enough about the site that her ultimate decision to buy will go negative.

Conversely, the right design can play a huge role in increasing a site’s credibility and turning that decision to buy in the right direction. For example, there have been numerous experiments conducted over the years that show how the price of a bottle of wine can genuinely affect people’s taste. In his blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the wine experiments and “The Essence of Pleasure” and shows how paying close attention to the “essence of a product” or a site, like “Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps” can actually lead to a change in sensory perception. This, of course, is what good branding is all about and it can absolutely make the difference between new customers further engaging with our sites or bouncing off to another site.

Since customers won’t generally be able to tell us about specific design elements that are causing them discomfort, we need to use various techniques to help us get to the heart of the truth. Multivariate testing can be a great way to understand the immediate value of different designs. Combining multivariate testing with a predictive voice of customer methodology like the ACSI methodology used by ForeSee Results (shameless plug) can really help us understand the long-term brand impact in ways that simply multivariate tests alone cannot. It’s critically important to understand our customers’ perspectives on design in context with their overall future intentions in order to get to a truth of design’s impact that even the customer could not tell us directly.

Metrics and methodologies can point us in the right direction, and then we need to hire and trust talented, professional designers to do their thing. In the end. high-quality, professional design speaks well to the hidden brain and leads to enhanced credibility. Enhanced credibility facilitates a better selling environment. So, yes, we really do need the frying bacon close-up.

What do you think? How is design treated in your organization? What tips do you have? Or are you not buying it?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


Home | About