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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Dec 112006

Book Short: A Primer on Viral Marketing

Book Short:  A Primer on Viral Marketing

“People talk about Andy,” writes Seth Godin in the foreward to Andy Sernovitz’s new book, Word of Mouth Marketing:  How Smart Companies Get People Talking.   “He’s a living, breathing example of the power of word of mouth.”  Andy’s the CEO of WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and a former colleague of mine.

Ever since reading The Tipping Point, I keep looking for the secret sauce around viral marketing.  What is it that makes something cool enough to buzz about?  My conclusion from reading Andy’s book is that secret sauce doesn’t exist.  Like everything else, being buzzworthy comes from hard work, being inherently good, AND using the techniques and understanding in Andy’s book.  Tables like “The Three Reasons People Talk About You” and “The Five T’s of Word of Mouth Marketing” are worth the price of the book in and of themselves, as they explain how to manage, handle, and drive viral marketing — once you have your own secret sauce down.

Andy’s wanted to write a book for a long time (in fact, he got us started on ours), and I’m glad he finally did it.  If you’re interested in an easy-to-follow, practical, hands-on guide to viral, or word-of-mouth marketing, this is the book for you.

Nov 162006

Counter Cliche: Connected at the Top

Counter Cliche:  Connected at the Top

Fred hasn’t written an official VC Cliche of the Week for a while, but his post yesterday on Connectors is close enough — in it, he talks about how he likes to be a good Connector between people and thinks it’s a quality of great VCs.

First, we should give credit to Malcolm Gladwell for a great definition of Connectors in The Tipping Point.  Gladwell not only defines Connectors as Fred has but also defines two other types of people who are critical in the social networking/buzz building arena:  Mavens and Salesmen.  I’d argue that a great VC has to have a bit of all three!

But in terms of entrepreneurs (the point of the counter cliche series), is being a Connector a prerequisite for success?  I think the answer is nuanced, but it’s probably no.  I’ve met great CEOs who are fairly introverted and whose brains don’t work in the Connector kind of way.  And they can be great at developing product, even running operations.  But if you’re an entrepreneur and not a Connector, you’d better have one or more of them on your management team (think sales or business development or marketing) to make up for that missing piece of the equation to make sure your company is connecting the dots outside the corporate walls.  Otherwise, you’re sure to miss out on opportunities.

The one area where I would say that being a Connector is critical for an entrepreneur is internally within the company.  If you’re going to lead the troops effectively, you do need to be able to make Connections between people within the company, especially as the business grows.  And off-topic a bit (literally if not figuratively), you also need to be able to connect with your staff members on a personal level and make sure that people are connected to the company and its mission.  I’m not sure these are things that an entrepreneur can delegate as long as he or she is CEO.

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!

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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