Monday, December 17, 2007

Why Testing is a Good Idea, but so is also Throwing Away the Results

Last week's Business Week included an article by Steve McKee warning that pretesting advertising campaigns can kill good ideas. ("Beware the Advertising Pretest" at ).

Many successful campaigns, argues McKee, would never have passed traditional pre-testing with focus groups. The reasons are not hard to find, but the most important is the disconnect between the real-life reaction of consumers and what they say when you ask for an opinion.

Predictably when you ask someone to look at an ad and comment they feel obliged to find some flaw; they feel that to say honestly that it looks ok is somehow not enough to pay for the free food and other considerations they were given. And in any case most people simply don't have the knowledge or the experience to provide meaningful comments.

You get the same problem when you test new brand names on non-professional audiences. Many now valuable brands would never have passed any systematic testing regime. Sony's Walkman, for example, was initially rejected in many countries and for a time it was called the "Soundabout" or "Stowaway". "Walkman sounds funny" was the complaint. But in the beginning all names sound funny. I am sure Coca Cola would have been rejected, too.

In my own experience I don't recall a single name that was ever accepted without comment from someone. In one case the name "Tosca" was opposed by someone whose explanation was that his customers were not fans of opera. By the same logic only an astronomer can drive a Saturn.

Testing new ads, new names and other ideas on samples of the public is not in itself a bad idea -- it can catch some potentially expensive errors -- but it must be done carefully. Your tests should try to capture a natural reaction and not some spurious comments motivated only by the desire to give feedback. And once you have the feedback you have to know when to listen to it and when to throw it away.

Friday, December 14, 2007

On the Meaning of Printable

My company's own modest website may not win any prizes, but I am pretty confident that if you try to print any page you will not be disappointed by the result. It is made deliberatley that way since i am routinely frustrated by unprintable pages.

Just to give one example, following up on the Beatrice Rose posting (see I googled Beatrice Rose and the first page I found is the profile of actress Beatrice Rose on You can test this page for yourself at

The standard page is beyond unprintable, it actually wedges my computer -- just a few months old and kept meticulously up to date -- so completely it took me some time to restore normal operation. And even the "printable" page simply prints the left hand side of the page, giving the ludicrous result of listing things like "playing range, height, wright, hair color, eye color and build" but the actual data is cut off. So all I have in my pocket is a piece of paper telling me that Beatrice has a range, a weight, a height and perhaps also colored eyes, but this is hardly enough to guarantee her a role anywhere.

In spite of this problem Ms Rose seems to have had no trouble finding work judging by her curriculum, but the way the page is printed all I can see without returning to the site is the name of the production, and not where it was made.

If there is a moral here for web designers and the people who pay them it is this. Sacrifice a few sheets of old paper -- use the backs of unwanted old prints -- just to see what happens when you print a page from your website. It takes just a few minutes but will boost your reputation for professionalism.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Faded Images of Beatrice Rose, London, 1930

Among the old cameras displayed by an antique trader in an open air market was a battered old folding Kodak that probably all the collectors avoided. Someone had scratched "Beatrice Rose" on one side and "B Rose, London, 1930" on the front in a childish scrawl, giving an already worthless camera -- folding Kodaks were always cheap and plentiful -- even less collectability.

But for me this was an extra special camera just because I knew who had owned it, when and where. You don't write Beatrice Rose, London, 1930 on your new camera if your name is Alan Gooseberry from Slough and you bought it in 1934. I have no love of antiques for their own sake but I am fascinated by how people interacted with objects from the past. Maybe Beatrice is no longer with us, but we still have her camera and I can imagine how she used it. Better still, I can put in a roll of film and try it myself.

I had already decided I wanted to buy it even before I noticed there was a film inside. Old folding Kodaks used 120 or 620 type film rolls, the kind where behind the film there is a roll of paper with image numbers and arrows marked on it. You could see these numbers through a little red window on the back and used them to advance the film after each exposure.

Even if the film were quite recent it was still an exciting find, but when I carefully unloaded the film later I realized that the film type was consistent with it being an original from the Beatrice Rose era. Better still, at least one frame had been exposed. I know that with older films you have to extend the development time so I actually doubled the usual time in developing this film.
Looking at the negative it was clear that it was much older than I had expected and even with double development the contrast was very low. There was also some obvious signs of light infiltration. But you could still see quite clearly the picture of a young man standing on a street corner in a town, probably London.

Now I am curious to learn the rest of the story. Who was Beatrice Rose? Who was the guy in the photo? And why did she never develop the film? If you know the answers to any of these questions or think you might be related to Beatrice you can get in touch using the contact page from my website at
So what does this have to do with communications? Well not much really. It did warn you in the header that sometimes I may drift off topic and in the search for the truth about Beatrice and her faded friend I think I can spare one blog posting.
If there is a message, though, it is this: when you write something be concrete and specific, avoiding generalities. The magic of this otherwise value-less camera is that it is not just any old camera, it is The camera that belonger to Beatrice Rose. And not just any Beatrice Rose -- the one that lived in London in 1930.
(I have posted a message about this topic also on the message board for the Rose surname at

Monday, December 10, 2007

Defeating Stereotype Threat in Engineers

In the Mind Matters blog at Scientific American magazine there is an interesting review of studies about Stereotype Threat, where the performance of people is measurably affected by their own perceptions of stereotypes. Put simply, if you tell someone from a pink skinned race that his kind are not good at, say, break dancing and he will perform badly on any standard scientific test of break dancing ability. See "The Choke Factor, How Stereotypes Affect Performance" at

All this does is confirm scientifically what has been known to us all through folk tales since way back: people really do believe all the idiotic stereotypes about themselves and they let it hold them back. If you can find a way to break the spell and liberate people from their own stereotypes they can achieve much more than they ever expected.

There is actually a practical use for this knowledge and I have used it myself on many occasions. Just to give one example, a few years back I was asked to teach a bunch of engineers how to make presentations. The audience consisted entirely of people who were not used to making presentations, they were all terrified of the thought -- one even ran away during a break -- and they all believed the old folk legend that engineers can't communicate.

For an audience with some familiarity with presenting skills and basically lacking in technique the normal approach would be to ask them all to make a presentation then give feedback. Typically this feedback is to point out problems, flaws and errors, sometimes aided by a video camera to record and amplify all the mistakes. But with this group I sensed that the problem was not technical or strategic, it was overcoming the stereotype threat barrier.

To address this need I reversed the normal approach. I asked everyone to make a presentation but I secretly steered them onto the right path by making them choose from a list of topics that ensured their presentation would have a clear goal. Then during and after the presentations I pointed out no errors and made no negative comments, but I did look for at least one good thing in every presentation. This sounds like a risky approach for the coach -- you need to be very sure of your own presentation skills -- but in my experience there is always something good if you know how to find it.

My goal was to give people confidence and it worked very well. Afterwards one woman came to tell me that she had discovered for the first time that she knew how to present. And maybe it wasn't perfect but once you get past this barrier the learning curve is all downhill.

In performance improvement identifying the real problem is often the key to success. Just because someone has poor presentation skills does not mean that you need to teach them those skills. Sometimes it's enough to show them that the stereotype is wrong, and that they really can do it. After that they can quickly pick up the practical skills.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Media Literacy 101: Reflecting on *Why* Articles are Published

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s “Le Figaro”. Titled “Une Webcam chez la nounou pour rassurer les parents” ("A webcam at the nanny to reassure the parents") at, it tells the story of a professional child carer in the French town of Lyon who has installed a webcam so that her customers can monitor their children at any time of the day.

The “nounou”, Valérie Boccara, installed the camera on her own initiative. She told Le Figaro’s Delphine de Mallevoüe that she did it to reassure parents, pointing out that some parents are wary after a number of cases where other nannies mistreated their charges. It also provides a competitive advantage over other nannies, a fact that she cannot be unaware of. But the subject is highly controversial because some people consider it “spying” on someone in their own home, and some people fear that other nannies will be compelled to follow her example just to stay in business.

The article stimulated some discussion from the readers. One nanny suggested that they also put webcams in the homes of parents while most were broadly in favor of the idea. Another pointed out that she had actually done this a long time ago, and this reveals the interesting fact that readers will discuss and think about every aspect of the story except the most important: why is the article there. Let me explain.

Under the title is a revealing subtitle that should make everyone think: “C’est la premiere fois qu’une assistante maternelle accepte chez elle la presence d’une camera” (“It’s the first time that a maternal assistant accepts the presence of a camera at her place”). Now if you didn’t think about this before think about it now. How did Le Figaro know it is the first? Isn’t it more likely that it is the first that they have heard of?

And this leads us to the most important question. To understand fully the implications of an article you need to learn to read between the lines and to ask yourself why it is there in the first place. This is true for any article but I chose yesterday’s example from Le Figaro because it is a good example of an article where the origin is not clear at all, so there is plenty of room for reflection.

First of all, there has been no court case or other public event that could have put this information into the hands of Le Figaro. It is also not likely that the paper stakes out nannies everywhere watching for the installation of webcams and this fact is not something that even neighbors might see. What seems the most likely possibility is that someone has reported the fact to the paper, but who?

Without actually asking the people concerned we can only make a list of the possible suspects. It could be Ms Boccara herself. It could be one of her customers who happens to have contacts in the media/PR business. It could be some sort or professional organization that is preparing a debate to defend its members, or it could be a webcam vendor hoping to develop a market niche.

It is not actually important to me who did it in this case, but what is important is that everyone realizes that when a newspaper publishes an article there has to be a reason. Sometimes it is obvious, but in other cases you can and should reflect on this. For example, an article about the dangers of losing all your data in a disk crash might be inspired by a company selling backup solutions and an article about the danger of viruses in mp3 music files could have come from representatives of copyright owners.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Beware the Spam Trap

Recently I received an email from a major car rental company informing me that they would debit my bank account to pay for some vaguely defined « damage » to a car I had rented in August. Or at least I would have received it had it not been automatically swept away by the Gmail spam filter. I only discovered it during a routine check in the spam folder for “keepable” spams – I collect the more idiotic examples for posterity.

At first I thought it was a spam, too, since it looked like it had been written by a teenage hacker but then I couldn’t figure out where the trick was. So I checked the phone number and email address and to my surprise they checked with the official ones given on the company’s website. I even googled the author and not only did she turn out to be a genuine employee but Google even found an image of her. At this point I realized that it was a real message and to confirm it my bank reported the debit the next day. Since the charge was unjustified I contested the debit and the company has now returned most of the money, accompanied by a weak apology.

Today almost nobody reads unprotected email, so if a company is sending mails that look like spam they are going to have all sorts of trouble when they go astray. Projects can be delayed since key information does not arrive, and customers can get very angry – I can testify to that – and change to another vendor.

Nobody should be sending emails that look like spam, but since many companies still do this – even big ones -- I’d like to share with you some basic guidelines for avoiding this problem.

First, your organization has to be aware that the problem exists and that there has to be a clearly defined process to make sure that all emails sent by the company are spam filter-resistant.

Second, when the company’s main processes are designed or revised all of the standard message templates and procedures must be reviewed by a competent spam-literate expert, either in house or contracted.

Third, all employees who are authorized to send mails to customers should be given guidelines, training and suggested templates for messages.

Fourth, your IT department should set up a monitoring process that mails sample messages to email accounts protected by the popular filters to see if any get caught. If you have the resources you can offer an automatic Spam filter verifier for draft messages.

Fifth, recognize that there is an arms race between spammers and spambusters, so what works today will not work next week. Make sure that you don’t get complacent and review your spam trap program regularly.

Why bother doing all this? Well it might save you a customer. Our friends at the famous car rental company are not likely to see me again and this kind of professional attention to detail in their communications might have saved them a customer.