Sunday, October 9, 2011

Learning how to Learn

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Last week I drove two-thirds of the way through Massachusetts and back in the middle of a work week. My mission was for my son and me to take a non-credit workshop offered by Greenfield Community College. The topic was about using Facebook as a genealogical  tool -- certainly not what Facebook's forebears had in mind. Apparently that oversight was shared by the rest of the Greenfield community. Not only were we the only ones to sign up but no one informed us that the class was cancelled until we got to campus. In tough economic times we cling to the bedrock of family and to our own frugal resources. What could be a better match than social media for ancestors?

The gap between this proposition and the follow-through reminds me all too well of my own marketing efforts to teach Internet research tools and techniques -- something we all, few do well, and nearly all of us do alone. You know you've got a major rebranding effort on your hands when there's a gaping hole between an information surplus and a knowledge deficit. I say rebranding because the chasm represents both a black hole and a golden opportunity. When that deficit has a clear direction the answer can be engineered into a customizable package. In fact any binary problem is reducible to an "applification-in-progress."

The biggest riddle is not about the closest pizzeria for vegans or the cheapest flight out-of-town next weekend. It's about the trappings -- which data supplier dancing on whose interface and how to carve up the winnings at the close of each transaction. That's the information supplier tail wagging the market demand dog. It is a short tail and the dog needn't learn new tricks.

Wasn't it Steve Jobs who said: "It's not the consumers' job to figure out what they want."

That's certainly true when it comes to designing and perfecting elegant gadgets. We're no likelier to build the next killer smartphone than the market research rationale for keeping Apple one step ahead of a jittery market. We're consumers. As such our participation is limited to parting with our assets or squirreling them away.  When will the future arrive and what will it look like?

1. Dunno.

2. I'll know it when I see it.

Problem is ... the market has only half-spoken.

Social Problems without Business Models

Now what happens when a question runs on more dimensions than zeroes and ones -- an objectified and reproducible set of truths and falsehoods?The engineering math is less persuasive when responding to half-truths: What's the consequence if it is true? The severity if it's not? These are two-step problems that require a higher form of reasoning than shadowing a users' intention in a search bar. These questions are no less pressing if they don't map to the still-life webcams that play on beneath the skin of Facebook.

It requires that the user exists for more than click patterns and one-sided transactions involving word choice. But what if the model was reversed? What if those knowledge deficits were answered by an online republic of producers (who also happened to consume)? And they would use information -- not simply be used by it in the quest to plant a suggestion or prompt a purchase.

There is no obvious business model for solving abstractions that can't end up in actual inventories and find their way to literal doorsteps. Does the consumer still benefit from a passive acceptance of supplier-sided engineering?  Before the costs were driven out there was a direct line between higher consumer spending and a tighter labor market. There was originality to the questions forming before user curiosity was placated by Google Suggest. Nowadays shopping is feeling a lot less patriotic than in the wake of 9-11. There is no Peoria play here. The American middle-class has lost its credit line faster than you can see the swelling ranks of independent voters. Where is the next breadbasket of packaged fare? That's a supply problem (and it's a sack of rice).

The demand problem is that we need to teach folks how to looks after their own interests. That's the only way to dial back the simmering resentments which spark disenfranchisees in search of a franchise and a bargaining chip called name-your-price. In the Arab Spring it was political freedom. In the Bank of America fall the tipping point is ATM fees. But whether it evolves to a substantive movement or a meandering bitch list, one demand side factor is unequivocal: the power is ceded to noisy minorities. There is increasingly scarce upside to continuing along in the role of unquestioning consumers. That's the future nearly here where a once silent majority is on the receiving end of the predator drones released by Google | Facebook | Amazon | Apple: the four horsemen of the holy platform grail.

Can you guess the predators from the drones? Once you do I have a course I'd like to sell you. It's called self-education and it's being taught by the experience of doing your own homework. Otherwise I'm sure there's a search engine that will sell you the answers -- the ones which work for them.

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About attentionSpin

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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.