Mar 172010

Book Short: Gladwell Lite

Book Short:  Gladwell Lite

What the Dog Saw, And Other Adventures (book, Kindle) is Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book.  Unlike his three other books, which I quite enjoyed:

this was not a complete book, but rather a compendium of his New Yorker articles loosely grouped into three themes.

If you love Gladwell and don’t read The New Yorker, it’s not a bad read. He’s a fantastic writer, and his vignettes are interesting.  There are many “hmmm” moments as we learn why ketchup always tastes the same but mustard doesn’t; why Ron Popeil is a great salesman of kitchen gadgets; or why the inventor of the birth control pill thought the Pope would endorse it.  But it falls far short of his three books, which go deep into topics and leave a much more lasting impression/impact.

Nov 162009

Book Short: Sloppy Sequel

Book Short:  Sloppy Sequel

SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the original Freakonomics, either.  I always find the results of “naturally controlled experiments” and taking a data-driven view of the world to be very refreshing.  And as much as I like the social scientist versions of these kinds of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink (book; blog post), there’s usually something about reading something data driven written by a professional quant jock that’s more reassuring.

That’s where SuperFreakonomics fell down a bit for me.  Paul Krugman has described the book in a couple different places as “snarky and contrarian.”  I typically enjoy books that carry those descriptors, but this one seemed a bit over the top for economists — like a series of theories looking for data more than raw data adding up to theories.Nowhere is this more true than the chapter on climate change.  It’s a shame that that chapter seems to be swallowing up all the public discussion about the book, because there are some good points in that chapter, and the rest of the book is better than that particular chapter, but such is life.

As with all things related to the environment, I turned to my friend Andrew Winston’s blog, where he has a good post about how the authors kind of miss the point about climate change…and he also has a series of links to other blog posts debunking this one chapter.  If you’re into the topic, or if you read the book, follow the chain here for good reading.  My conclusion about this chapter, being at least somewhat informed about the climate change debate, is that the book seems to have sloppy writing and editing at best, possibly deliberately misleading at worst.  (Incidentally, the reaction in the blogosphere seems highly emotional, other than Andrew’s, which probably doesn’t serve the reactors well.)

But I’ll assume the best of intentions.  Some of the points made aren’t bad – there is no debate about the problem or the need to solve it, the authors express legitimate concern that current solutions, especially those requiring behavioral change, will be too little too late, and most interestingly, they show an interest in alternative approaches like geo-engineering.  I hadn’t been familiar with that topic at all, but I’m now much more interested in it, not because it’s a “silver bullet” approach to dealing with climate change, but because it’s a different approach, and complex problems like climate change deserve to have a wide range of people working on multiple types of solutions.  I met Nathan Myhrvold once (I almost threw up on him during a job interview, which is another story for another day), and it makes me very happy that his brilliance is being applied to this problem as a general principle.

As I said, though, beyond this one chapter, the book is good-not-great.  But it certainly is chock full of cocktail party nuggets!

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Jan 162006

Book short: Proto Gladwell

Book short:  Proto Gladwell

I’m sure author Robert Cialdini would blanch if he read this comparison, but then again, I can’t be the first person to make it, either.  His book, Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion, is an outstanding read for any marketing or sales professional, but boy does it remind me of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink (book; blog post).  Of course, Cialdini’s book came out a decade before Gladwell’s!  Anyway, Influence is a great social science look at the psychology that makes sales and marketing work.

Cialdini talks about sales and marketing professionals as “compliance practitioners,” which is a great way to think about them, quite frankly.  He boils down the things that make sales and marketing work to six core factors: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity.

Reciprocation – we hate being in a state of being beholden so much that we might even be willing to do a larger favor than the one done for us in order to remove the state.  Think about “free gifts” in merchandising as an example of this, or being in a negotiation where someone trying to make a cold sale on you offers a fallback, smaller sale.  For example, you don’t want to buy anything from the boy scout, but after you say no to the $5 raffle ticket and he asks about the $1 candy bar, you feel more obligated to buy the $1 candy bar because the boy scout has “given” on his initial request.

Consistency – once we have made a choice, personal and interpersonal pressures force us to back it up and justify our earlier decision – even more so when in writing or when declared to others.  This is why marketers love getting testimonials from customers; the testimonial locks the customer in emotionally, as well as encouraging others to buy the product.

Social proof – if others think it’s correct, it must be correct, especially if those other people are like us.  There are some scary examples in the book here, such as Reverand Jim Jones and The People’s Temple mass suicides.  Gripping, but creepy.

Liking – we listen to people we like, and we like people to whom we’re similar or who are physically attractive.  This section was especially reminiscent of Blink, but with different and more marketer-focused examples.

Authority – we have an extreme willingness to listen to authority, even when the authority isn’t quite relevant.  This is why celebrity endorsements work so well.

Scarcity – we have a extreme motivation of fear of loss, either or something, or of the opportunity to have something.  Who doesn’t like to keep doors open as long as possible?

The one place the book falls down a little bit is in the sections at the end of each chapter talking about how to resist that particular technique through jujitsu – the art of “turning the enemy’s strength to your advantage.”  While nice in theory, Cialdini’s examples aren’t super helpful beyond saying “when you think you’re getting suckered, stop — and then say no.”

Overally, though, the book is well written and choc full of examples.  Thanks to marketer Mallory Kates for sending me this great book!

Aug 082005

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

As an online marketing professional, I’ve long understood intellectually how e-commerce works, how affiliate networks function, and why the internet is such a powerful selling tool.  But I got an email the other day that drove this home more directly.

When I started my blog about a year and a half ago, I set myself up as an Amazon affiliate, meaning that any time someone clicks on a link to Amazon from one of my postings or on the blog sidebar, I get paid a roughly 4% commission on anything that person buys on Amazon on that session.

According to the email report I just got from Amazon on Q2 sales driven by my blog, I am responsible for driving traffic that buys about $2,500 worth of merchandise from Amazon every quarter, which yields about $100 to me in affiliate fees.  All I really link to are business books that I summarize in postings, although people who click from my blog to Amazon end up buying all sorts of random things (according to my report, last quarter’s purchases included a Kathy Smith workout DVD and a new socket wrench set in addition to lots of copies of Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

This is a true win-win-win — Amazon gets traffic for a mere 4% of sales, a relatively low marketing cost; I get a small amount of money to cover the various fees associated with my blog (Typepad, Newsgator, Feedburner), and people who read my blog pay what they’re going to pay to Amazon anyway – and maybe get something they otherwise wouldn’t have gone out to get in the process.

My blog is certainly not a top 1,000 blog, or probably not even a top 10,000 blog in terms of size of audience.  This is merely a microcosm that proves the macro trends.  If I’m driving $10,000 per year of business to Amazon, now I REALLY understand how there are now approximately 500,000 people who make their LIVING by selling goods on eBay, and how probably another 500,000 people are making good side money or possibly even making their living by running offers and affiliate marketing programs from their web sites.  I’m like a little ball bearing in the finely tuned but explosively growing wheel of e-commerce.

If my quarterly affiliate fees keep growing, I’ll find something more productive or charitable to do with them than keep them for myself.  But for now, I am covering my costs and marveling on a personal level at how all this stuff works as well as it does.

Jul 062005

Book short: Blink

Book short:  Blink

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a must read for marketers, entrepreneurs, and VCs alike, just as is the case with Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point.

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

Blink for Entrepreneurs/CEOs:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to entrepreneurs/CEOs?  It’s about bias in hiring.  Most of us make judgments about potential new hires quite quickly in the initial interview.  The symphony example in the book is the most painfully poignant — most major symphony orchestras hired extremely few women until they started conducting auditions behind a screen.  It’s not clear to me yet how to stop or even shrink hiring bias, but I suspect the answer lies in pre-interview work around defining specific criteria for the job and scoring all candidates on the same set of criteria.

Blink for VCs:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to VCs?  It’s about picking companies to back.  Even VCs who are virtuosos, as Gladwell would call them, can make poor judgments on companies to back based on their own personal reaction to a company’s product or service, as opposed to the broader marketplace’s reaction.  Someone poured a whole lot of money into Webvan, Pets.com, eToys, and the like.

Blink for Marketers:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to Marketers?  It’s the importance of multivariate regression testing.  No, really, I’m not kidding, although there’s no doubt a less math-y way of saying it — “test everything.”  The Coca-Cola Company thought they were doing the right thing in creating New Coke because they were losing the Pepsi Challenge.  But what they didn’t realize was that Pepsi (unintentionally or not) had suckered them into believing that the single-sip test was cause for reengineering a century of product, when in reality Coke was probably just being out-advertised.  Christian Brothers Brandy was going out of its mind losing market share to competitor E&J until someone realized that they just needed to change the shape of their bottle.

If you haven’t yet done so, go buy the book!  It’s a very quick read and incredibly thought provoking.  And if you haven’t yet read The Tipping Point, it’s a must as well.

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