Monthly Archives: April 2018

A.I. Aye Yi Yi

One of the hottest topics in business these days is artificial intelligence. One can hardly pick up a business publication of any sort and not trip over an algorithm. AI is being used to do everything from writing articles to running chatbots to protecting against fraud. There is one problem with AI, though, and that’s our topic today. 

You’ve probably encountered something that’s the product of AI. A fair number of game summaries one finds in the sports pages (physical or digital) are, in fact, written by machines. Same with many company summaries in the financial section. The main problem with these pieces is that they’re great at populating a template with all the facts and not so great at figuring out the “why.” You might also have used an online chat function to get some customer service support. More often then not, that’s AI at work as well. But that’s not the business problem I want to discuss.

The problem with most of the AI solutions I read about is that they’re all geared toward helping a business but they’re not focused at all on helping the customer. If you’ve ever wandered into an AI-driven customer support phone line you know what I mean. Get outside of what the algorithm can handle and your blood pressure is sure to soar. While the bot on the other end knows all about you if you’re able to identify yourself in the way the AI is designed (frequent shopper number, etc.), if you don’t know what phone number was used to create the account or you’re a frequent shopper without a frequent shopper ID (some folks don’t live being tracked, you know), it’s hard to get support. Humans are still better at solving many non-standard requests.

I get that sharing all your data – what you read, what you watch, where you go, what you eat, etc. – can help a company give you better recommendations. The problem is that many of the companies use that as a pretext to sell you products you might not really need. Can any of us really know how the data was used to create a recommendation? When a fitness app tells us we’re having sleep issues because our data says so and says we need to buy a new mattress, can we trust that or is it an affiliate deal that brings the fitness app a commission? Maybe we just ought not to have that nightcap instead if we want to sleep better?

I think the use of AI in some areas is fantastic. Fraud protection, for example. It’s easy for AI to spot something that’s out of place in your credit card use and send you an alert. That’s customer-centric. Using a bot to cut costs while providing a lesser experience isn’t and that’s my issue with much of the AI work that’s going on now. What’s your take?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Copycat Recipes

This Foodie Friday we’re contemplating the field of endeavor known as copycat recipes. If you read any food sites, at some point you come across recipes which attempt to replicate some of the more popular dishes from chain restaurants. Yes, you too can have unlimited Red Lobster Cheddar Bay biscuits and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at the same time!

There are books of these recipes and I’ll admit to having tried a couple over the years. While I’ve come close to duplicating a few dishes I’ve enjoyed in restaurants, the results were not exactly the same. One wouldn’t expect that though. I’m not using the same ingredients (the bacon I buy may not be what McDonald’s uses) nor do I have a commercial convection oven or deep fryer. Still, they were enjoyable enough and in a couple of cases, the experience inspired me to create my own variation that I liked even better.

I think these recipes can be fun for some but they miss a fundamental point. Making Girl Scout Samoas at home, besides being incredibly time-consuming, doesn’t support the Girl Scouts. When I want a “hot now” Krispy Kreme, I don’t want to wait a few hours for my homemade versions to rise and fry. What makes some of these dishes so good, in part, is that you don’t have to cook them. They’re risk-free, they’re ready when you want them, they’re always available, and they’re consistent. And of course, that’s the point today.

It’s quite possible that someone will try to copy what it is you’re doing if you’re doing it well. In the case of recipes, the cook can’t turn to the copyright law to protect the dish. Recipes aren’t subject to copyright. Mp3 players had been around for several years before Apple “copied” the recipe and improved it. One could argue that Apple was the victim when Microsoft “copied” the graphical interface that became Windows from Apple, who had “copied” it from Xerox. Sure, you can file a patent to protect you but that immediately makes how you’re doing what you’re doing available to anyone. They can then produce a variant on what you’re doing. Each of the folks in my examples made the recipe their own. That’s the point. You protect your secret recipe in either of two ways and the law has little to do with either.

The first is never to make the product public so no one has a chance to duplicate what you’ve got. Obviously, that’s not a great solution. The other way is to make sure that you produce the end-result to a consistently high standard which is risk-free for the customer, and that you provide that customer with an unrivaled level of support and service. That’s why copycat recipes will never be as good as what you get when you dine out. You copy?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Selling Sneaky Vs. Selling Right

I got called an idiot this morning. OK, not in those exact words, but I was reading an article on social media marketing and a pop-up asked me to download a whitepaper. The choices I was given via the two buttons were “YES, sign me up” or “No, I don’t want the latest research.” It’s a classic example of what is called “confirmshaming”. This is the act of guilting the user into opting into something. If you choose not to, the option to pass is worded in such a way as to shame you into compliance. You can see numerous examples of it here.

That’s just one of the sneaky things marketers do. The worst, of course, is tracking you without your permission. Did you ever hear of a company called InMarket? Me neither, but if you installed one of 800 apps, they’re tracking your every move without your permission. You can read a very well done piece about it in Adweek. Is it legal? No one seems to be sure. Is it ethical? Oh hell no, not in my book. 

Marketing has never really been held up as a paragon of ethical behavior but I’m not sure why many of the folks in the field decided to head for new lows. Maybe it’s because digital tools have made it all much easier, maybe it’s because there aren’t enough grown-ups in the room when these decisions are made, maybe it’s because the drive for money has overtaken common sense. Witness the ongoing effort to force “influencers” to disclose when they’ve been paid to say nice things about a product or service. Besides that requirement being the law, it’s also the right thing to do.

Some more examples? Designing a website or email to focus your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from something else such as an opt-out button. Asking you to upload your contacts to give you some sort of social or informational benefit but using your address book to spam your friends. Not posting all of the charges and fees until the very last step in checkout or, even worse, hiding them in such as way that they’re hard to find. I think I’ve seen examples of those things just in the last few days. They’re not rare.

Why is there an aversion to the truth? Why can’t we call advertising by its name rather than some misleading name such as “sponsored content” or “special section”? Why can’t we treat consumers as we would a family member rather than a mark?

I’m not naive and I realize that this is about selling stuff. Given the high cost of getting caught, both in dollars (millions of dollars in fines!) and in reputation (check out the latest 20 Most-hated companies and why), those sales derived from the methods described above and others probably aren’t worth it in the long run. That’s my take – what’s yours?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Touch Me, Feel Me

I was cleaning out some old stuff on my computer this morning when I came across a receipt for something I had purchased online in 2005. I knew I had been an online shopper for a long time. I can’t recall the last holiday season during which I stepped foot into a retail store. I mean, I don’t like to so shop for anything on the weekend due to crowds and lines so I’m rarely in a physical store between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Given the explosive growth of online commerce, apparently many other folks prefer not to hit the stores either. I mean, the share online represents of global retail sales has almost doubled from 2015 to 2018, and is projected nearly to triple by 2021. It’s booming! That said, online is still less than 15% of retail and will be less than 20% even 5 years from now. There’s a reason for that and it’s not just shipping costs or the difficulty in finding a product.

Most people – almost 75% according to a recent study – visit stores to touch and feel products. If you’re browsing and come across an unfamiliar brand of shoe or clothing, how comfortable are you buying it without examining it for quality and fit? I’m certainly not, and I share that feeling with the vast majority, apparently. Sure, the return process isn’t as difficult as it used to be with many online stores, but who wants to deal with it? I want to see the product, which I can do on or offline, but I also want to feel it, touch it, and check it for quality.

That’s a significant advantage that brick and mortar stores have, one that they should exploit to keep market share. They can merchandise product in a way that online stores can’t. They can use in-store displays. More importantly, as we’ve said many times here on the screed, they can offer a level of personalized customer service that no online store can offer.

Try it yourself. Before you go on a shopping trip, hit the store’s online presence first. See if the two experiences are equal. If the retailer’s physical presence is doing things right, there won’t be a comparison. Shopping for a golf club or a bat or a racquet online at Dick’s Sporting Goods is nothing like going to my local Dick’s store and swinging it. I can browse through a lot more books in a shorter time at my local Barnes and Noble vs. their online store. I’m on my own online. There are pros in golf and tennis to help me in-store.

I don’t think brick and mortar is dead, not by a long shot. I do think stores will fail if they don’t take advantage of the built-in advantages they have. Cutting staff, not investing in merchandising, and simply becoming warehouses where people pick up their online purchases won’t cut it. Does that align with your thinking?.

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

NECCO Wafers, Sky Bars, And Misplaced Effort

Sky Bar

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our topic this Foodie Friday is the plight of The New England Confectionary Company, makers of NECCO wafers (did you know the name was an acronym?), Sky Bars, and Sweethearts, among other well-known candy brands. There is a fair chance that the 120-year-old company will soon be out of business. Their factory was sold and the company is actively looking for a buyer. The company has notified the city and state that layoffs may soon be coming. The situation is pretty dire.

Even though most of their brands are not really great candies (Sky Bar being the exception in my book), panic has ensued among fans of NECCO wafers. An article on Grubstreet highlights how fans have responded to  one candy-selling website:

The site says that during the month of March, after the panic began, it received 253 emails and 167 phone calls from customers looking for Necco-brand candies. Twenty-nine people offered to pay at least double the going bulk rate, and three reportedly said they’d perform free labor in exchange for priority treatment. One woman wanted 100 pounds of Necco’s glorified Tums, which she planned to vacuum-seal to keep her prepper stash fresh “for years.” (A standard 24-wafer roll weighs 2.02 ounces, so she was requesting about 800 packs.) Another woman said she’d trade her late-model Honda Accord for all of CandyStore.com’s remaining Necco candy.

There is a lesson in this for any business since these hard-core fans seem to be preparing for a funeral rather than figuring out how to cure the disease. All of their panic buying is misplaced effort since what they should be doing is trying to get the company the capital it needs to continue operations. While 420 people may have asked how to buy candy, only 73 people have donated to a GoFundMe campaign the CEO has organized. He, by the way, is apparently clueless about the difference between donation crowdfunding and equity crowdfunding since he had to amend his campaign to say he can’t offer stock:

We have been informed by several people that we cannot offer shares in the company in return for your donations. We are sorry, we do not know if they are right or wrong but we can’t take the chance . If you would like us to return your donation just let us know.

He is apparently in panic mode too and hasn’t sought advice from anyone who is familiar with equity crowdfunding or maybe even an initial coin offering.  Running scared will do that to you, although I know $20 million isn’t just laying around the street anyplace. I’d rather find customers than investors.

Worrying about the symptoms instead of the disease is generally a futile exercise in the long-term. I recognize that when someone is bleeding out you have to staunch the flow before you can worry about what caused it, but in this case, the efforts that have been made by fans of the company (buying up all the product) won’t be as effective as sending the money directly to the company. The company, for its part, hasn’t been very proactive. The factory was sold a year ago and this situation has been coming ever since. I don’t know how they involved their supply chain and their customers in stabilizing the situation, but the fact that they’re down to asking for money on GoFundMe (and it would be among the largest non-blockchain crowdfunding projects if it works) tells me that a lot of time was wasted.

Stay tuned!

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Filed under Consulting, food, Huh?

Flying Blind

I almost called this post “Nobody Knows Anything” but that might have been overkill. I’ll say what I have to say and let you be the judge. Let’s say that you buy a friend’s newborn a gift. You have it shipped to your house. The data says, correctly, that you bought an infant gift. That might also lead to an inferred piece of data that places your household into the “presence of infant” bin, leading to you seeing lots of ads for diapers. If you’re the one placing the ads for those diapers, you’re wasting money.

Lots of the data marketers routinely use is of that sort. It’s inferred. You can see that some thinking at work if you’re a Netflix user: the recommendation engine infers what you might like based on your past viewing. Of course, if your kids or someone else in the house watch something in which you have no interest, the accuracy of those recommendations is diminished (which is part of why there are separate profiles available when you log in). Inaccurate data is, sadly, more the norm than an aberration. Since this data is really what’s behind personalization and targeting, that inaccuracy is a big problem. Any business that buys data from third parties – and an awful lot do so – may be putting garbage into their system. Unfortunately, most don’t know that because there is little transparency in the data business and it’s impossible to verify what’s good and what’s not.

What should you do? Invest in collecting your own, first-person data. You can also demand transparency in any other data you use (good luck with that) with respect to how it was gathered and what it really represents. Is it inferred or does it come directly from consumers (did someone tell you they had a baby in the house or did you guess they did because they bought one infant item?). Who owns the data and was it gathered with the consumer’s permission?

When Facebook tells its customers (marketers) that they have data on 41 million adults aged 18-49 in the US and there are only 31 million of those adults living in the US, you know much of the data is inferred and also that we have a problem. A recent study that found that 70% of marketers believe that the customer data their organizations are using for marketing is low quality or inconsistent. Why bother to market at all when you’re just flying blind?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

Tribute Bands And Your Business

Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.

I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?

I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.

What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.

Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?

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Filed under Consulting, Music, Thinking Aloud