What working in Design taught me about doing online marketing and advertising.

First published on Clickz Asia October 2013

My name is Carl and I used to work in design.  There.  I’ve said it.

SIDTSpecifically I worked for Philips Design for nearly 5 years in Singapore with a couple of short stints in Amsterdam and Eindhoven.

It’s easy to mock design, of course, and the industry frequently finds itself the subject of parody. We’re all familiar with the turtle neck sweaters and thick black-rimmed glasses – the ones who look a lot like advertising CDs – and familiar too with the hipster-types and those without socks or with a pair of sneakers paired with a linen suit.

Yeah, it’s easy to mock, and the industry probably gets more than its fair share.  Some of it, as with any industry is justified because there are some characters lurking in the design industry who don’t seem to be able to offer much beyond their quirky dress habit and a hugely inflated sense of self importance but look beyond and around the edges of the squirming oversized egos and there’s an awful lot of great processes, ways of working and approaches to thinking about things from which any business or industry would benefit.

In this series of articles I’m going to talk about the notion of Design Thinking – a broad business approach – and, in this first article, focus on one of its three central tenets – that of customer-centricity. (I’ll move on to discuss the others over the coming two articles).

Design Thinking is a concept or approach that has been popularized over the last few years by people like Tim Brown of Ideo and is described on its Wikipedia page as, design thinking is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.

It can seem obvious to talk about the importance of thinking about and understanding the customer when designing a product or a service or when looking to engage an audience with an idea or communication.  And many companies and people do but normally in a very cursory way – a way where most of the understanding is concentrated around a demographic perspective or a process driven perspective.

In working with companies over the last few years it’s been interesting for me to ask them what they know about their customers.  The answers are invariably very similar and take the form of percentage splits by gender, age group and location. – “Oh, I know a lot: 37% are male, 35% live in Thailand, 22% are in this income bracket etc.”  Like I said – almost always the same answer and almost always about demographics.  And these people really think this data gives them enough to connect well with their customers.  They may also talk about a process – we need to provide them this, this and this.  In already thinking about the thing they want to give their customers, they’ve failed to dig deeper into the underlying need.  Thinking you need to give someone a pen because you’ve assumed they want to write something down may be missing an opportunity.  That person may not wish to write – they may simply want to record something for later retrieval.

Since beginning to write this article I’ve met with a friend of mine who works for Ideo.  We talked about advertising and he comes into contact with many advertising companies and, in doing so, finds he can really relate to some of the strategic planners.  That doesn’t surprise me and I find myself regularly engaged in my own office with my planning colleague with both of us passionately vocalizing on subjects, ways of approach and practices that I, at least, was very exposed to during my design days.

Only yesterday we talked about Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus notion and how customers’ behavior is proportional to their motivation. (It’s a lot more involved than that but let’s leave it there for now).  If we think back to our typical business’ idea of understanding their customers through their (almost exclusively) demographic data, whilst allowing business to conveniently compartmentalize and segment their customers, in reality it reveals very little about their customers’ motivation.

Knowing customers is more important now than it’s ever been and tomorrow it’ll be even more important.  To speak about the ubiquitous internet and always online consumer just in terms of convenience and amount of time people can now be online is to fail to understand the reality of what we now face.  Whereas conversations in advertising years ago were largely limited the post purchase phase and generating brand awareness and consideration, we now live in times where we are able to touch our consumers constantly – before, during and after purchase. And the again – before, during and after.  We need to always be considering their motivations as they move through the brand engagement cycle.

Not only are we now potentially with them ALL the time we are with them everywhere they go.

When people tell me the demographics details about the customer base I tell them it’s not enough.  “Tell me who these people really are.  How do they get to work?  What keeps them up at night?  How do they want to be perceived?”  And then, when they might think about buying our product. “What questions do they have about the product or service?  What might stop them buying? What worries them?”

Knowing all this allows us to create our opportunities.  We can’t (generally) do much about motivation – we just need to understand as much as we can about it – where it happens, why it happens, what can stop it etc.  Understanding this means we can look at all the possibilities digital now offers us and deliver appropriate and relevant engagement channels based on a real understanding of people – not just about what they want or what might turn them on but in tune with where they are in the buying cycle and whether they’re sat on a train, stuck in traffic or at home lying on the sofa with an iPad.

Every company thinks they need a website.  But understanding where your website might sit in the customers’ journey is key in determining its content and architecture.  I remember talking with a chap who’d told me that, on visiting the local bus company website he’d been able to read all about the senior management but unable to find anything that would help him know if he could make a particular journey using one of their buses.   It’s way too easy for companies to think they know what stuff to push to their customers.  Asking them to take a couple of hours to imagine the needs and motivation of those visiting their website and asking them to imagine ‘why’ and ‘when’ might make for a different result – bus info, for example, rather than senior management bios.

When you really know people you can be more intimate with them and they begin to recognize and appreciate your understanding.  They begin to invite you in because you’re relevant and interesting – a bit like a good friend.  And people don’t generally have that many friends.  As with our own motivation there are limits to how many messages and communications I will let in.  You need to be relevant to be in my attention stream.  Just think of a Facebook wall – it’s a beautiful virtual manifestation of a stream that people let in to their consideration.  If you’re not relevant or meaningful because you fail to understand the nuances if your customer’s motivation at that point you’ll (in the case of the Facebook wall almost literally) be switched off.

And you’ll need to know more about them than just their age and gender.

In my next 2 pieces I’ll discuss the other two central tenets of Design Thinking: ‘The appropriate use of technology’ and ‘Business objectives consideration’

What working in Design taught me about doing online marketing and advertising. Part 2.

First Published on Clickz Asia October 2013

In this, my second piece in a series of three, I’m going to talk about a second tenet of Design Thinking – ‘The appropriate use of technology’.

design-thinkingIn generic ‘design thinking’ terms this technology tenet is often articulated in terms of feasibility.  i.e. the question is expressed something like, ‘for that thing we want to do, is there a feasible technology?’

When it comes to advertising and marketing I like to express it another way and ask myself, ‘for those people with whom we are trying to engage, and in this specific context, what is the most appropriate channel and does it make sense?’

We are living through times with unprecedented speeds of change and development. People are already talking about version three (even four) of a technology that wasn’t even in the hands of most people until half way through my life.  And whilst exciting, this speed of development nurtures demons of which we need to be aware – demons in the shape of rigid orthodoxies.

For those of us who have lived through the various iterations of the ‘internet’ the problem is only multiplied.  Many of us, for example, see mobile as an extension – as and add-on – to what we had before.  It’s another channel isn’t it?  For many of us it was (and still is) a case of ‘we can now put all that desktop stuff on mobile devices’. And recently I’ve seen multi-million dollar brands with QR code scans leading mobile users directly to desktop web pages on their phones.  We suffer from the legacy of yesterday when grappling to exploit and leverage the technology of tomorrow.  Or as Marshall McLuhan rather more poignantly put it, ‘We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future’.

It is no coincidence that developers in emerging markets manage to see mobile for what it is – stripped bear of the clutter that our desktop legacy -tinted glasses impose over the top.  They didn’t have desktops – mobile is the only internet some of them have seen and they see it for what it is, not for where it came from.

Being able to recognize the most appropriate channel for the most appropriate content is challenging and our history and experience is often conspiring against us.  In addition to the new technology channels provided by devices themselves they come too with their own sub-channels, technologies and applications.  With over the top messaging applications, GPS and the whole mess of generic mobile applications, the temptation for digital marketers and advertisers to jump all over these is compelling.

It is no surprise then that we have seen thousands of early adoptions of these opportunities in countless guises almost every one of which is now defunct or absorbed into something else.  I even wonder about the longevity and continuing stickiness of some of the most successful applications like Foursquare.

I recently held a workshop where we were considering the potential for mobile technology payments and here I suspect that in order to innovate and create real value and change we need to let go of the legacy of the past.  It’s too easy to think of swiping a phone instead of a card.  This isn’t good enough.  We need to understand the essence of the behavior and look at mobile and at the pure potential of what it offers.  Seeing mobile as something else that can be swiped is to entirely miss the point.  In a great piece in Wired from a couple of years back, a guy and his company doing stuff in Russia with 4G networks articulated the disruption in an interesting way: “[With this project] we are redesigning money, rather than banks,” Oskolkov-Tsentsiper says.

An openness to look at the very essence of the thing rather than the contrived tools and processes that we have as a legacy is where the real excitement is.  But being less abstract for a minute our selection any application of technology must always go back to the needs and desires of people and their context when and where we are trying to engage with them.

And because these things haven’t fundamentally changed in years any technology that attempts to create a new need or desire should be viewed with suspicion.  It’s unclear to me if Foursquare, for example, attempted to invent something in me (some kind of excitement around checking into places).  All I can say is that whilst it had my attention for many months I recently realized that I’d stopped using it and my life is still pretty much ok.

This whole area of embedding and creating behavior in and around new and appropriate technology and making it stick is tough when you really look at it.  It’s very tough.  Despite our living in times when technological evolution is advancing at speeds most of us will never really appreciate, it is testament to how hard it is that I still do my shopping today the same way I’ve been doing it for years.  Just look at all the technology our there and the potential it affords us and still, when it comes to the supermarket, not a lot has changed.  I’ve been hearing about technology initiatives in the high street and malls for years – location sensitive apps, in-mall mapping, magic shop windows and all the rest.  And how has my mall experience changed over the last few years?  About as much as yours I‘d guess.

The ‘appropriate’ in ‘the appropriate use of technology’ can be interpreted in many ways.  When starting this piece I used the word feasible and when it comes to engaging with people making something ‘feasible’ means addressing and ticking off a number of pre-requisites.  Invariably this will involve addressing an existing need or desire.  It will almost certainly mean making something easier or quicker or a lot more fun.  It may mean addressing the very essence of the thing rather than substituting one process for another (swiping a phone v swiping a wallet).

When it comes to advertising and marketing we need to strive to engage people in meaningful and relevant ways and a key component of this is the technology.  And evidence would suggest that it’s tough.  Very tough.