If you’re not familiar with the term “truthiness,” you should be. Coined way back in 2005 by Stephen Colbert, it’s a term that refers to
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the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.
It was meant to be a term of satire, generally describing a politician departing from an obvious set of facts to espouse something that seems like the truth but isn’t. A dozen years ago, that was a circumstance that was relatively unusual. Today, it’s the norm, both in business and out. If you’re reading today’s screed thinking that I have an answer, you can stop here: I don’t. There are way too many vested interests that have come to rely on truthiness as a way of doing business, and that’s a shame.
Facebook recently admitted that Russian agents used its network to distribute disinformation to roughly 10 million U.S. users in order to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They and other social platforms are trying to figure out how to readily identify “fake news“, all of which fits the definition of truthiness to a tee. To paraphrase Cassius in Julius Caesar, the fault, dear reader, is not in our stars or our social platforms, but in ourselves. We believe what we want to believe thanks to confirmation bias, and the explosion of content sources has made it possible for us never to hear a point of view to the contrary.
This is bad in real life and could be fatal in business. If we only pay close attention to evidence and arguments that support our own thinking on various business issues, and to toss out or ignore contradictory evidence, the odds are good that we’ll fall for something that’s truthy rather than true.
It’s 2017 and truthiness has won, or at least it’s holding the high ground and doing an excellent job of fighting off reality. Our job as business people is to win the battle and put truthiness back into the hands of the satirist from whence it came, both in business and in real life. Are you with me?
There has never been a time when it’s been easier to get information. If you don’t believe me, pick up that computer you keep by your side most of the time (that would be your smartphone), push whichever button activates either Siri, Google Assistant, or whatever flavor of virtual assistant you have installed, and ask what the weather will be tomorrow. Ask who the Prime Minister of Denmark is or a few ways you can cook a turnip. We have the world at our fingertips.
That can be true with business information too. Traffic to your media properties, interactions with your content, results of your ad and social media campaigns, and feedback on how your company or brand is interacting with the world at large are all readily available for analysis and action. So is customer data, market predictions, and just about anything else you’d need to know. Pretty awesome, right?
The problem is that not everyone wants to know the truth about these things. Take the manager whose staff is leaving in droves. They “hear” it’s because of a better offer but they don’t take the time to sit down and dig into if there is an underlying problem in their operation. They couldn’t handle it if the problem was really them and their management style so they avoid the question.
Then there is the web person who is under pressure to keep growing traffic and doesn’t bother to exclude the kinds of traffic that inflate the numbers. You know: your own internal use of your website, traffic from places where you don’t do business, referrer spam or other obviously fake traffic. They know the truth but their bosses can’t handle it.
The problem with having information is that it compels you to act. We can always deny there is a problem if we don’t know about it or if we think the information we have is inaccurate. As with the law, ignorance is no excuse in my mind. I’ve been in meetings where some excellent forecasting predicts a downturn in a company’s business but several members of the management team want to expand their spending. The forecasts are subordinated to the feeling that more spending will yield more revenue despite the fact that the company’s share of the market has been steady for years and probably won’t increase in a downturn (which is basically what the managers are predicting). They couldn’t handle the truth: they need to tighten their belts and ride out the next few quarters. They’re no longer in business, by the way.
We hear an awful lot about fake news and there certainly is some out there to be ignored. Your business analytics don’t fall into that category and you ignore them at your own peril. If you can’t handle the truth, you can assume that reality will handle you one way or another. OK?
As I mentioned in this space a while back, we sold Rancho Deluxe. The process of getting it ready for sale forced us to look at every single thing in the place. We made piles. One for stuff we’d keep and, therefore, have to pack and move. One for stuff we’d donate. One for stuff that was worthless and was trash. My old college papers fell into that pile, although I’m not sure my folks would agree with the categorization since they paid for the education. The last pile was for stuff we’d sell.
It was an interesting process since it forced us to really think about each item. What struck me was how little we actually kept and how much of what was in that house was just clutter. Of course, each of us has a ton of clutter in our lives, as do our businesses. I’m pretty sure that each of us could do with a decluttering as well.
Is your business media of some sort? My guess is that revenue pressures have forced a tremendous amount of clutter into your content. The commercial and promotional load (non-program material) in TV is damn near double what it was years ago. Websites are unusable due to pop-ups, pop-unders, autoplay videos, and other crap that generate minimal revues and maximum anger. The clutter of on-screen graphics has grown to obscure important parts of news, sports, or entertainment programming. The sports business is adding more logos and signage everywhere, ala NASCAR. While I know NASCAR fans are incredibly brand-loyal, I also wonder if there is a certain amount of brand blindness that occurs, much as ad banner blindness is something researchers have found to occur on cluttered web pages. No one watches anything (maybe other than the Super Bowl) for the ads.
Look at your inbox. How much email is newsletters you don’t read or email from companies from which you bought something five years ago? How much of your social news feeds is clutter? How about unsubscribing from the former and using mute on the latter?
How many companies or people with whom you do business are jerks? How about decluttering and finding alternatives? How many things on your calendar are obligations that aren’t of interest? Maybe decluttering them from your calendar will give you the time to pursue what you really love?
I’m still working on this. My fridge is often full of random bits of food that have seen better days and there are clothes in my closet with holes and stains that I keep because of an emotional tie of some sort. Still, I tossed an awful lot of junk and am selling off even more. I’m using the money to buy things I really want (and I know I really don’t NEED much of anything). Worth a try?
If you’ve spent any time reading this drivel, you’ve probably seen my constant nagging to provide value by solving problems. No, I’ve not changed my thinking about that, but I’d like to put one stipulation on the statement: make sure that the problem is real. I’m thinking specifically of those people who have hero syndrome. Not the seriously ill type such as the firefighter who is also an arsonist, lighting fires so they can save the day. I mean the people who are constantly solving problems that don’t exist.
I used to work with someone who would stick their head in my office and report that some client or partner was having an issue. They also told me not to worry – they were on the case and would handle it. Phew! Of course, it was rather odd when I mentioned to one of the “saved” partners that I was happy that my team member was able to solve their issue and the partner had no clue what I meant. Fortunately, the “hero” in question moved on not long afterward.
The other side of the equation is also true. There are people who are the “go-to” people in various areas and who become indispensable, so much so that their mental and physical health can suffer because they don’t want to disappoint anyone. It’s another aspect of hero syndrome. They feel as if they won’t be appreciated if they ask for help. Instead, they often become bitter, burnout, or both.
How do we handle people with hero syndrome? First, make sure the problems they are solving are real and are worth solving. Not everything is a crisis, you know. Second, make sure that they have the resources to solve the problem quickly, efficiently, and completely. Sometimes for those of us who were higher-ups, it means getting your hands dirtier than usual, often doing work for which you’re overqualified. I always felt as if I was paid to be everyone’s safety net, so if it was a job I could do, I did it. I have plenty of paper cut scars from making last-minute copies and assembling binders when I was needed. Finally, pay attention to the folks who are constantly being heroes. Make sure they’re not lighting the fires they’re busy extinguishing. Make sure no one is constantly backlogged with work and everyone knows it’s OK to just say “no” when they’re overwhelmed. Those times are when those of us in management earn our pay.
Way back when in 1995, I was working at ABC Sports as their VP of Marketing. My job entailed meeting with advertisers and constructing packages of media and on-site benefits. We’d collaboratively design in-program elements, popularly known then as “enhancements”, to capitalize on the marketers’ involvement with a sport or an event. These things all took place on-air or on-site. The other big “on” – online – didn’t exist.
One day the president of ABC Sports walked into my office and asked me if I knew anything about computers. As a user of AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and other early services, I replied that I did. He informed me that I was in charge and was to attend a meeting. ABC corporate had made a deal with this little start-up of under a million users called America OnLine and I was now to provide sports programming on behalf of ABC.
That was my pivot into digital. I didn’t realize it at the time, but saying “yes” to my boss’ question and being willing to take on some new, different responsibility had changed my life forever. None of us knew at the time that digital was going to disrupt the television business. We certainly didn’t think of it as anything other than an interesting sideline. But we began to see a little money coming in based on what we were doing, and once in a while, I could add some online stuff to the broad package of rights and benefits I was offering in my “real” job. Less than 5 years later, my job had become fully centered on digital, as I was now running a division of the NHL that didn’t even exist when I entered the digital world.
Being willing to pivot is a critical thing. Many businesses would be long gone if they were unwilling to do so. Foursquare, for example, pivoted their business from a consumer product to a B2B product, providing “location intelligence” to marketers. 90% of their revenue comes from that change. YouTube started as a video dating site. Nokia was a paper company. Twitter was a podcasting network. None of those businesses would be as successful, or maybe even exist, if they hadn’t been willing to shift their business paradigm and pivot.
I’d love to tell you that I saw the digital tsunami coming and got out in front of it on purpose but that would be a lie. I was lucky enough to ride the wave once it did show up because in my mind we were just doing what we’d always done – making great content and deriving value from the attention users gave it – albeit through a very different channel. The pivot was allowing my mind to be open enough to make that connection and to take the risk that it would be a rewarding road. Is your mind open to things like that?
I’m not sure if the story is true (historians disagree), but back around the time of The American Revolution, Russia had fought a war to annex Crimea (talk about history repeating itself!). The governor of the region, Potemkin, was trying to impress the empress and the ambassadors from other countries as they toured “New Russia.” Although the region was devastated, Potemkin set up “mobile villages” which were populated by his men dressed as peasants. As the barges with the VIP’s passed by, they’d be impressed by how lovely it all seemed. Once they were gone, the villages would be dismantled and moved to the next location. The term “Potemkin Village” has come to mean any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it is.
The term (as well as a key plot element in Blazing Saddles!) came to mind as I read an article about a new app that allows businesses employing it to summon “its ideal crowd and pay the people to stand in place like extras on a movie set. They’ve even been handpicked by a casting agent of sorts, an algorithmic one that selects each person according to age, location, style, and Facebook likes.” Presumably, when you see the line, FOMO kicks in and you are overcome by an insatiable desire to join the crowd.
I’m not naive. I worked in TV for a long time and know how laugh tracks are used and how stage managers will fire up a crowd to applaud as a show goes to and returns from a commercial break. I get enough press releases to recognize hyperbole and the need to surround something very common with an uncommon sense of excitement. The use of this app by a business, however, reeks of opacity when transparency is a critical element in marketing these days. In my mind, it’s as bad as any other kind of “fake news” that is manufactured out of the air to advance an agenda.
How would you feel if you found out that most of the other people attending a party were paid to be there? Deceived, I’ll bet, and that feeling generally leads to anger and a determination never to go back. Is that how you want your customers to feel?
I’m going to start the week by running the risk of bumming you out. At least we’ll have the rest of the week to recover, right? I was looking at some analytics data this morning and as I looked at it, I realized that much of it is wrong. So is a lot of the other information this client is using to make decisions. Yours is too, by the way. I’ll explain why but along with the realization came an insight that I think will be helpful to your business.
When I began in digital we used server logs to track traffic. They were pretty accurate although pretty limited as well. Web analytics came along and the quantity and quality of the information we got about who was coming to our web sites, how they got there, and what they were doing improved quite a bit. As business people, we were able to make content and marketing decisions based on the data we were getting.
Things have grown quite a bit more complex over the last 20 years and that complexity has obscured much of the good, useful information. Anyone who knows analytics will tell you that much of the referral data you see (where traffic comes from) is wrong. “Direct” traffic is way overstated. “Referred” traffic is encumbered by referrer spam. A lot of so called direct traffic is really dark social traffic (I send you a link). Transfers from HTTPS to HTTP sites report as direct as well. Keyword data is “not available.”
I’m not trying to make your head hurt nor to get really wonky. The point is that if you’re relying on that data to make decisions, you’re really just guessing. It’s the same with much of your ad data. I’ve written before about the lack of transparency in the programmatic ad markets and that opaqueness obscures the validity of the data as well.
I can add search data, email data, and more to the list of what probably isn’t what you think it is, but all of this fostered a thought: what do we really know that’s truly actionable?
I can answer that. We can know how our products and services are really differentiated and how much better we are at solving peoples’ problems. We can know (yay review sites!) how good our customer service is. We can know how our revenues and costs and changing and we can ask why.
I’m the last guy to say we should ignore that large and growing amount of data every business gets each minute. But maybe the time has come to act on what we KNOW and less on what we really don’t. What do you think?