Monday, August 31, 2009

The Value of Making (or Baking)

We are all creators by heart (3-year old Ethan putting together a toy set)

Have you wondered why toys like LEGO, model planes and Play Doh have such a timeless appeal?

Or mused about the popularity of recipe books (and blogs) springing up everywhere?

How about the popularity of virtual worlds like Pet Society on Facebook, and MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Everquest?

Sure there are many cool reasons to explain why they are popular, and I am sure you can come up with many. The one thing in common though is that these items - toy bricks, clay, recipes, and virtual worlds alike - allow one to create and build.

Put it another way, we all like to play God (or CEO, ancient warlock, chef, or engineer) once in a while.

This urge to create, grow and develop is something that is inbuilt in all of us. It is human nature to plant, nurture, cultivate, build and make stuff, be it at work or at play. Nothing beats seeing the mango tree which you planted years ago bear sweet luscious fruit, or to enjoy the satisfaction of composing a new song on Garageband. While your knitted sweaters may not be quite haute couture, your loved ones will still wear them with relish while you beam with pride.

The next time you think about pushing out a new product idea, consider how your customers can also play a part in creating, nurturing and building something that they can also take pride in. The best brand image that a company can build is one that is not only respected by one's customers, but nurtured and developed by them with lots of loving care and attention.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Who's Your City - A Review of Florida's Book

I first heard about Richard Florida's ideas from a public sector conference back in November 2008 and was intrigued by his ideas on how the world isn't flat (ala Thomas Friedman) but is in fact spiky and dominated by mega-regions. Florida's earlier assertions about the rise of the creative class and their catalytic roles in urban regeneration have been so significant that they are often cited by cities around the world as reasons to invest in more heavily in cultural infrastructure.

Who's Your City was a highly ambitious undertaking by the urban theorist and economist Richard Florida to understand the importance of place in both economic and social spheres. Working with armies of researchers and statisticians from Gallup and various universities, Florida plowed through an impressive mountain of economic, social, geographic, psychographic and even cartographic (yes Florida is pretty big on maps) data to substantiate his findings.

In my view, the main thrust of Florida's book can be broken down into four main thrusts:

First, the world is spiky and concentrated in population, economic activity, innovation, creativity and scientific activity around a few cities. Using a rather unusual technique of equating a country's activity with the amount of light generated (what Florida termed as Light produced Resource Product or LRP), various maps showing the intense concentration of these activities were shown. Two examples can be seen below (all maps are lifted from Florida's website).

Population in a Spiky World

Economic Activity in a Spiky World

Second, much of the world's GDP is tightly focused around two to three dozen "mega-regions" The top 20 mega-regions in terms of economic activity account for 10% of population, 57% of economic activity, 76% of patented innovations, and 76% of the most-cited scientists. Examples include the Bos-Wash belt in the US (from Boston to New York to Washington) and Greater Tokyo (seen below).

Mega-Regions of Asia

Third, the Creative Class are exerting a disproportionate amount of influence in global economics and should be hotly woo-ed by cities wanting to leapfrog their economies. In his definition, they don't just include artists, performers and designers, but others like investment bankers, architects, lawyers, engineers, scientists and doctors. Generally speaking, the creative class are attracted to cities that can meet not just their economic and career aspirations, but can also promise a better quality of life in terms of cultural infrastructure and physical aesthetics, its incumbent population (like attracts like), intellectual hubs (universities, conferences etc), and a pulsating energy. A chart showing their influence is seen below:

Rise of the Creative Economy

Fourth, one should also look at how living in the right place affects one's own happiness. Choosing a city should revolve around variables like one's life stage (single and swinging, family with kids, retirees), psychological profile (yes cities have personalities too), and a whole host of variables like the city's physical aesthetics, basic services (healthcare, education, safety), social networks, job opportunities, and others. To help the reader along, Florida created a Place Pyramid (see below) and a multiple point checklist which helps one to make a considered and stepwise decision when evaluating a potential new home.

The Place Pyramid

Citing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the work of other human behaviorists, Florida heavily emphasised the importance of one's location as a pre-requisite for lifelong success (for individuals and cities alike). Three clusters of factors were deemed to be critical:

1) Things that make a community smart and vibrant - universities and colleges, arts and culture, vibrant nightlife, job opportunities, socialisation opportunities, intellectual exchanges.

2) Things that revolve around aesthetics and liveability - parks, open spaces, playgrounds, trails, climate, air quality, water quality.

3) Things that look at equity - affordable housing, manageable traffic patterns, access, healthcare, shops etc.

Naturally, such ideas were bound to attract controversy, and they certainly did. Inhabitants of the flat, non mega-regions of the world may find it difficult to accept that their cities - and to some extent themselves - are doomed for the morass of mediocrity. After all, Florida claimed that the young, talented and upwardly mobile will flee these regions to gravitate towards the financial, scientific and cultural hubs. The advantage that these cities have are so enormous that it would be almost impossible to unseat them.

Florida's thesis are also overtly North-American and Western-centric in nature, and may not be equally applied to Asia or Africa. Notions of family, social cohesiveness, and behavioural patterns in the East are significantly different from that of the West. For example, most young adults in Asia continue to live with their family and parents after graduation, and only move out of their homes when they get married. Seniors and retirees also play a far bigger role in childcare here compared to the West.

In summary, Florida's book is a good read for anybody looking to understand the significance of place in determining a city and a society's competitiveness. Some of the facts cited are especially sobering, and they certainly helped to dispel any myth of a fairer and more globalised world. It may also be useful for anybody seeking to carve a better future for themselves through migration or relocation, providing information about the pluses and minuses of American cities.

However, one needs to embrace some of these concepts with a pinch of salt and consider them vis-a-vis one's unique circumstances. Some of the facts were also conveniently neglected in his analysis - for example that New York showed a high degree of neuroticity in its personality analysis (which is anathema to creativity), and yet leads the world as a cultural capital. Critics have also panned Florida for being elitist and condemning much of the unglamorous but necessary vocations.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sandy Beaches, Windy Cliffs and Artistic Rocks

One of the most amazing things about Kangaroo Island is its vastly varying landscapes and breathtaking environment. From one end of the island to the other (which is at least a two hour drive considering the distance), you can experience the South Australian wilderness in a wide spectrum of rustic surroundings - sandy deserts, craggy cliffs, luxuriant forests, sparkling rivers, to rolling hills and scenic bays. Drives along the winding roads of the island are always pleasant as there are very few cars around, plus the fact that virtually every square kilometre of the island is bursting with gorgeous scenery.

Our first scenic stop was the renowned beach at Vivonne Bay, which was once voted as the best beach in Australia in a survey of 10,000 beaches on the continent and its islands.

Here's Ethan digging his shoe into the shore, and trying to inscribe a mark of his own.

Ethan flinging some sand into the sea, while Tina basks blissfully in the Sun.

As we were leaving, I noticed this overflowing bin containing what visitors ate and drank at the beach. Well, at least they kept the bay spotless!

For our next destination, we were guided by this solitary lighthouse. Notice the grey clouds crowding around the sky.

Admirals Arch located at Cape du Couedic was where we went, located at the Western tip of the island, and part of the larger Flinders Chase National Park.

As you can see, it was pretty wet and windy that morning.

We spotted this sign depicting a sordid tale of a shipwreck. Hmmm... perhaps there could be pirate's treasure buried somewhere?

From far, this appeared to be just some craggy cliffs jutting into the sea. Until, we took a closer look...

...and saw that there were actually lots of seals! To be exact, New Zealand fur seals and Australian Sealions (more about these in my next episode)...

The wind was howling and so strong that it nearly blew us off the edge. Whooooosh!

A closer look at the waves cascading onto the rocky edges, aided by the strong winds and lashing rains.

A closer view of the cliffs beckoned as we drew nearer to the actual physical structure itself.

Ladies and gentlemen, here are the famous Admirals Arch of Kangaroo Island!

Our next stop was a short drive away, called the Remarkable Rocks. Here you can see the rocky outcrops in their entirety. Some have compared these natural formations to sculptures by renowned British sculptor Henry Moore!

What does this rock structure remind you of? Its probably a cross between a parrot and an eagle's hooked beak.

Here's Tina being helpful and taking a photograph of some visitors while I took a photograph of her. Another interesting rock formation behind her.

I thought that this one resembled a helmet of an ancient Roman or Grecian warrior. Notice the size of these rocks compared to us puny humans.

Captain caveboy!

A shot from the top of Remarkable Rocks, with several rocks dotting the landscape leading into the blue ocean. Its actually much steeper than it looks.

Natural installation artworks by the best artist of all - God!

Finally, a sign to warn us not to feed the wildlife here... Now, where exactly are the kangaroos on Kangaroo Island?

Well, as they say, stay tuned for our next exciting episode...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Skittles & Social Media - Success or Scuttle?

There are almost 20,000 photos tagged with "Skittles" on Flickr (courtesy of PaPeR.cLiP)

First made in 1974 as a hard shelled candy, Skittles is part of the MARS stable and is easily recognisable for their multi-coloured sugar shells with the letter "S". The candy brand shocked and awed the world back in March this year when they transformed their corporate website into a real-time social media portal. The new website also incorporates a floating widget pulling in content and inputs from Youtube, Flickr, Wikipedia and Facebook. To get onto their home page, all content producers - photos, videos, tweets - need to do is type the word "skittles" or tag them and Voila!

Skittles was able to initially generate a huge amounts of traffic (more than 1332% in a day) by people who were simply curious to see their own "skittles". It also generated a tremendous amount of publicity and buzz online.

Ordinarily, one would think that this was a phenomenal social media success for the artificially coloured sweet brand. Unfortunately, the efforts of the rainbow-coloured candy makers snagged some hiccups in the form of flamers who posted numerous offensive, incendiary, homophobic and racist remarks online with the "Skitters" tag. This got so bad that they have locked their account. What you now get is a cat avatar on their Twitter page.

Will Skittles succeed in the long run?

Well, it certainly managed to build a tremendous following on its Facebook fan page (with more than 3.4 million fans as of this posting), and their Twitter feeds are still trending. As of now, their website still links to their various online and social media properties (their "home page" is now a Facebook page, which is "safer" than Twitter). I also see lots of fan-made photographs on their Flickr page, which is a good way to generate online communities.

Skittles has also left an indelible mark in the social media landscape, as the candy brand that made a difference. It defied conventional wisdom, made a candy brand a buzz topic (both good and bad), and is the first major consumer brand that has embraced social media in such a huge way.

Naturally, there are sceptics about whether their endeavours can lead to long-term success in sales. For a start, social media users on Tweeter do not necessarily belong to their principal target age group of 18 and below (although others have responded that it may be a strategy to reach a more mature market). The candy maker has also been lambasted for creating a website with poor user experience. Others feel that there is only this much you can talk about candy, and that Skittles isn't really interacting with its users or participating in the conversation.

Personally, I am not sure if reading about people's experience with Skitter or glancing at their tweets will necessarily encourage me to reach for that bag. After all, one doesn't date a bag of candies (or cookies). However, what the brand has successfully done is to get their name into a huge base of social media users. This has its merits. As one blogger has put it, "Buying a piece of candy is an impulsive thing. You’re not buying a car or a house or something that you will need a lot of information on about the product and the price."

By gaining mindshare, heartshare, and top-of-mind-recall, Skittles has improved their brand recognition without incurring significant expenditures in advertising. The answer now is whether this will lead to long-term sales and profits for the brand.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Addressing the Absence of Attention

I love this pie chart! (Courtesy of Creating Passionate Users)

One of the most prominent phenomena in this present age is its move towards slicing and dicing everything down to its simplest and most fundamental parts. This relish for reductionism has resulted in an ever increasing number of people who acquires information in a vast number of areas without ever dipping below the surface.

The latest I read was that mini-MBAs are now growing in popularity. Who has time to spend 1 or 2 years of their lives pursuing a fast ubiquitous qualification these days - other than the few oddballs like me?

This atomisation of attention has also seen the growing popularity of social tools which are increasingly productive in reaching the greatest number of people with the least amount of effort. Just look at how increasingly efficient social networking tools like Twitter, Plurk and Facebook are displacing older and less efficient ones like forums, blogs and mailing lists.

With Facebook's new interface - which I personally love although I know many hate - you can immediately sense what your friends are doing and respond or interact almost immediately. Twitter's power lies in how it can disseminate in real time the shortest amount of information which can still be coherent.

The shorter attention spans of practically anybody who is plugged into the digital and mobile world has resulted in a few trends.

First, people are spending less time creating their own original content, and more time repackaging (retweeting, sharing) other people's content, occasionally peppered with their own observations. This applies equally to both thought leading white papers and the latest celebrity gossips.

Second, people are now attracted to sensational headlines more than ever before, judging the worth of a tweet, blog post, or Youtube video's content before even laying eyes on the actual stuff. In other words, they are judging a book by its cover, and unabashedly so!

Third, people are having difficulty focusing on any endeavour which requires one to still one's heart and to concentrate. Anything that requires them to read, listen or view for 10 minutes or longer will result in a quickening of heartbeats, nervous shifting of the eyes or twiddling of blackberries.

Fourth, people are becoming less forgiving of badly produced content, awkwardly constructed conversations, or abysmal and illogical prose. It is no longer just love at first sight, but loathe at first sight too.

What are the implications of these trends for today's marketer?

For a start, one has to cut to the chase quickly. People don't have enough time to listen to a slowly unfolding tale, chapter by chapter. If you don't hit me with the punchline within a minute or two, you would probably lose me forever.

Spread your eggs across different baskets, but make sure you know which ones hatch first! With the fragmentation of media channels, one needs to have a finger in every pie or at least a sense of what's happening. This is where social media intelligence players like Brandtology and JamiQ come in, with their abilities to seive out web sentiments relevant to your enterprise.

The one thing which beats mass communication hands down is personal communication. Sending a nameless and faceless email, blogpost or Facebook update targeted at everybody is like firing a shotgun at lala land. What you should do instead is to write personalised emails, SMSes, or tweets targeted to the customer segment of one. A purposeful and sincere request is far more effective than one that is focused on everybody - and nobody.

One needs to make it easy for one's customers and clients to transact or interact with you. Don't make them fill out a 10 page form with their entire life histories, nor to register on your custom-made, proprietary, all-in-one super social software. Instead, go and suss them out in the alleys and streetways, registering them on the spot wherever opportunity arises.

Finally, the one way to grab attention by the busloads is to be remarkably interesting, creative (but not offensive) and to inspire curiosity. I love this quote cited by the Creating Passionate Users blog: "The secret is to be more provocative and interesting than anything else in their environment." (from David Lichman).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Clay Shirky on The Future of Organisations

Broad and sweeping, yet detailed and penetrating, Clay Shirky's volume "Here Come's Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations" is a tour de force of how technology influences group activity and organisation. Shirky skillfully blended social sciences like psychology, sociology and anthropology with elements of the social web - mailing lists, forums, blogs, Youtube, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter.

Weaving his words into an easily digestible narrative, Shirky isn't afraid to borrow theories and concepts to back up his claims. A notable example is the Coasean Theory, which states that high transaction costs make hierarchical organisations more efficient than individuals striking agreements with each other. Shirky's argument is that the lowering of coordination costs to practically zero through social tools like forums, emails, and blogs make it possible for new loosely structured groups to form outside traditional organisations. Hence the Coasean Floor of transactional costs are lowered, making it efficient and cost effective for such groups to form.

Another example frequently cited by Shirky is the now ubiquitous Power Law or Pareto Principle (80/20 rule), which explained why a tiny group of Flickr users, Wikipedia contributors, or Twitterers contribute a disproportionately large amount of content while the majority provides just one or two contributions. The most famous example of this is Chris Anderson's Long Tail which describes (according to Wikipedia) that "given a large enough availability of choice, a large population of customers, and negligible stocking and distribution costs, the selection and buying pattern of the population results in a power law distribution curve, or Pareto distribution". You can see an example of this below:

Effects of the Long-Tail (Courtesy of Hay Kranen)

Covering the various dimensions of group formation from sharing to cooperation, collaboration and ultimately collective action, Here Comes Everybody provides a useful insight into the human psyche and how the availability of social tools help to accelerate latent behaviours.

Unlike other purveyors of social media snake oil, Shirky doesn't merely offer the positives, and was quite unabashed in proclaiming that the majority of groups will fail. However, because the cost of failure is now free (mediated by the plunging costs of social technologies), one could now embark on "riskier" experiments without having to sell house, home or factory.

Shirky was forthright in declaring that while social technology tools can bring out the best in us, it may also bring about the worst in us. For example, terrorist cells can now form and disband easily without leaving a trace online. This reminded me of A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Examples of group collaboration are plentiful. They range from the tagging of photographs on Flickr for New York's Mermaid Parade, contribution of articles on Wikipedia (eg Asphalt, which started with a seven word sentence and ended with two fully developed articles), the use of Twitter by political revolutionaries in Egypt, and how forums and blogs help passengers to how Meetups are especially popular with Stay At Home Moms (SAHMs). It was interesting to read that mobilised group actions like flash mobs could be used not only for trivial reasons but rather serious ones too - for example in overthrowing the Belarusian government by eating ice cream! Many of the stories were inspirational and spoke of the promises rather than perils of the social web.

The core of Shirky's ideas on group forming can probably be boiled down to three simple steps - Promise, Tool and Bargain.

The promise creates the basic premise for one to participate in a group activity, and looks at issues like interests, values and some degree of specificity.

The tools are the platforms, electronic or otherwise, which help to grease the group forming machinery, and they provide the means for one to reach and communicate with another.

The bargain asks the question "What's In it For Me?" and identifies the social contracts - whether written or unwritten - which underpin such relationships. If this understanding is breached, the end result could lead to the deterioration and destruction of the group - what Shirky termed the Tragedy of the Commons where individuals act on their own self-interests leading to the destruction of a shared limited resource.

In conclusion, I would say that the book provides a useful glimpse of the myriad possibilities in group action presented by the social web and mobile technologies. While it isn't prescriptive, it does open up one's mind on the opportunities which exist in leveraging on social technologie to further an agenda.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Feeding Frenzy of Feathered Friends

From the busy buzzing bees at the apiary at Kingscote, we next ventured to the Penguin Centre of Kangaroo Island which was located just around the corner to catch the feeding of the pelicans. Unlike other more docile Australian creatures like kangaroos and koalas, pelicans are fairly gregarious and sociable birds. They can often be found flocking next to each other and either swimming or flying close to each other. Well, it was pretty fun for us to catch them fobbing each other off in their attempts to stuff their face - or bills rather - with fishes!

Here's our story told in pictures for your viewing pleasure.

The setting at Kingscote Wharf was serene, placid and picturesque as we approached it, with the Sun low in the horizon at 5 pm.

When in doubt, just follow the crowd and we decided to make our way to the rocky outcrops here, joined by both people and pelicans alike.

"Smile and say cheese!"

Slowly, the crowd gathered and so did the feathered fisher-birds. The guy in the funny hat, red shirt and jumpers at the bottom is called John, the resident pelican feeder.

I believe that this friendly dog named Roy belongs to John. They came together in the same pick up truck.

As the excitement mounts, these pelicans (and humans) appear to be focusing their attention on the right. Something is obviously happening there.

Yes, there certainly is. John begins by introducing us to the world of the pelicans and their behaviours, as well as how he has to spend his own money to purchase the fishes to feed them. I suppose this is why each of us should pay A$3 to participate in this spectacle.

As John begins to dig his glove hands into the blue box of fishes, you can see the anticipation of the birds surrounding him, poking their long beaks in his direction.

The feeding has begun, but wait, that isn't a pelican that John is feeding but a skua or a petrel (I think). Anyway, the airborne avian was perched comfortably on John's hat. Now we know what that is for!

This pelican here got the biggest mouthful of fish, stretching the lower part of its bill beyond belief. It must be gloating with pelican glee. However...

...its moment of feeding glory did not last very long. Before you know it, he spilled that catch of sashimi, and this resulted in a feeding frenzy amongst its friends and family members.

Here's a video showing you some of the action which I managed to capture that day:

Now you know what Charles Darwin meant by survival of the fittest!

After the show was over, members of the audience made their way back to their lodgings.

The pelicans also decided to swim and fly back home, looking peaceful, innocent and unperturbed. "Me greedy? Nah, I am just swimming around minding my own business..."

Inspired by the spectacle of seabirds, we decided to "catch" some fishes of our own at the Kangaroo Island Fresh Seafoods.

The chiller was full of delectable ocean favourites from the seas around the island and further away like crabs, lobsters, crayfish, prawns...

P1050788 well as fillets of fishes like flake, kingfish, snapper, squid and others.

Here's Ethan and myself enjoying a delicious home-cooked (by Tina) meal of pasta with freshly pan-fried fillets of fish caught off the waters of Kangaroo Island. Bon appetit!