Keep Your Content Simple, Stupid

January 10, 2011 in Essays, Marketing

Gerard O’Neill recently pointed us to the ‘reading level’ feature in Google’s advanced search.

You can now use Google’s Advanced Search option to determine whether the content of a given blog or site has a reading level that is basic, intermediate or advanced. In the Reading Level menu select ‘annotate results with reading level’ and then enter the url of your preferred site in the ‘search within a site or domain’ box.

His post, titled “Where The Smart People Go,” showed a comparison of some of the reading levels of various Irish websites and the results were obvious – the more “high brow” or “niche intellectual” sites had a more advanced reading level than the sites with a more “mass market” audience.

Gerard found this search tool from Christopher Mims, who reviewed even more sites with varying reading levels. is “decidedly middlebrow”, but is the “Smartest” of the lot.

The consensus seemed to be that an Advanced reading level made for a “smarter” blog.

I think the opposite is true. If you want to write posts that spread, surely a simpler writing style is better.

I did a few quick searches and the results for Seth Godin confirmed my hunch.

His blog is one of the most popular on the web. He riffs on very intelligent concepts and shares groundbreaking ideas, but less than 1% is at an “advanced” reading level.

He packages powerful ideas in simple, readable and share-able posts.

The lesson from Seth is that simpler content spreads.

And, as we all know – ideas that spread, win.

My Two Wallets

March 30, 2010 in Economics, Essays, Marketing

In my professional life I often spend time thinking about how much people value a product or service in an effort to estimate the prices they might be willing to pay. One of the biggest mistakes I always make in these evaluations is that I put too much emphasis on money.

Lately I’ve been seeing other people make this same mistake all the time (much easier to spot the mistakes of others!) so I thought I might share this little analogy I use to help myself think about the problem.

I picture myself, a consumer, as having two wallets. One in my right pocket and one in my left. These wallets represent how I think about payments, rewards, prices and cost.

My Right Wallet

My right wallet is the money wallet. This is the fairly standard stuff. I’ll agree to work a job because it pays €x per hour. I’ll buy product A over product B because it’s €2 cheaper. I’ll buy this item because I think it’s worth the price.

When we think about consumer behaviour this wallet is easy to understand and easy to address:

“How do we get more people to buy our product?” – “Let’s reduce the price”

“How can we get him to work more hours?” – “Let’s increase his bonus”

My Left Wallet

The left wallet deals with all the rewards, incentives and prices that are non-monetary. Although most people understand it, it is often overlooked. Even when it is considered, it’s importance is usually underestimated.


Thinking about payments made from the left wallet can often help us understanding seemingly irrational behaviour.

Why have there been 10 billion song purchases on iTunes when they’re all available for free elsewhere online? Because ‘free’ is only the price for my right wallet, my left wallet is paying time to find them, guilt for not supporting the artist and fear of doing something illegal.

If I have money in my right wallet but no time in my left (i.e. I’m a working professional) I’ll get my music from iTunes. If I have no money in my right wallet but loads of spare time in my left (i.e. I’m a student) I’ll get it from Napster.


A similar divide exists when you’re paying people to perform an activity.

I saw Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, speak at the recent Dublin Web Summit and describe how his open source project is built and maintained by a legion of unpaid developers. He was asked how he manages to “pull this off” by an audience member, with the implication that this was exploitation.

On on the surface it seemed like a valid point. Who are these idiot developers and why are they working for nothing? But after one look at the platform they’ve managed to build, it’s clear that these unpaid developers are no idiots. The answer becomes obvious when we apply the two-walleted analogy – they are getting paid, just not into the most obvious wallet.

I’ve never been a developer on a project like this, so I can’t claim to know exactly what reward they feel, but the internet is full of Open Source projects created and maintained by tribes of workers – none of whom get paid money, but all of whom get some form of reward. The “payment” to the left wallet comes in many guises: happiness, accomplishment, social status, achievement, inclusion, belonging, recognition, reputation, pride.

There are many things we do in life just for the sake of our left wallets – friendship, community building, sport – so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that people will work for these rewards too.

Left vs. Right

The interesting part of the analogy comes when we stop thinking about each wallet in isolation and start to look at how they work together. Specifically, when we look at the exchange rate between the two. I’ll explain what I mean by this with two real-world, offline examples:

The Day Care Dilemma

The first example comes from a study done at day care centres in Israel, recording the time of day at which parents collected their children. At the beginning of the experiment most children were collected on time, but naturally some parents were late on occasion. For the most part, parents made their best effort to be on time each day and few were ever more than 30 minutes late. There was a social cost associated with being late: feeling guilty, imagining that their children might get punished or just feeling embarrassed for being considered a bad parent. These costs were paid for from the left wallet.

A few weeks into the study, some centres began to fine the parents for being late – roughly €5 for every 10 minutes. Thinking about the effect this fine would have on the parents’ behaviour, most people would expect them to try avoid the fine. Therefore, one would expect the number of late collections might decrease. The complete opposite happened. Late collections rose, but not just by a small amount – parents facing the fine were almost twice as likely to arrive late as those who faced no punishment.

This is because parents don’t combine the payments from each wallet, they substitute them. Once they started paying in cash they no longer felt that they were paying in guilt or embarrassment. And the exchange rate was fantastic! When they make the mental conversion, €5 is a much lower price to pay than feeling like a bad parent.

The “punishment” implemented by the day care centres turned out to be nothing more than a discount.

Thanks at Blood Banks

A similar effect can be found with payments into the left wallet, as opposed to costs out. A great example of this come from studies on the economics of blood donations. The data shows that when blood banks switch from asking for voluntary donations and start paying donors, the total level of donations fall.

This again is because of the mental substitution of the left wallet for the right. In a voluntary system, the blood donor’s reward is a sense of civic duty, of moral good and of helping someone in need. In the cash-for-blood system, the cash payment replaces the social payment, and the exchange rate kills the service – no reasonable amount of money can equate to the feeling that you might save another person’s life.

Applications to Business

The applications to business, especially online business, can be hugely important – the blood donation principle in particular. When people suggest paying Wikipedia contributors for writing good articles we can now immediately see why that wouldn’t work – the monetary reward necessary to substitute for the social reward would just be too big for Wikipedia to afford. The same goes for the question posed to Matt Mullenweg about paying his WordPress developers. The answer is now obvious: they are being paid…. into their left wallet, and the exchange rate to switch to the right wallet is just too big.

This is why sites like Mahalo – that pay users low amounts of dollars for contributions – probably won’t work. This is why sites like foursquare and Digg– which pay users with social rewards like status, reputation and gaming achievements – will.

While we’re on the topic, the Irish blood Transfusion Service seem to understand these principles quite well – they offer different “rewards” for different levels of commitment, all of which are paid to the donor’s left wallet. For example, after 10 blood donations you get a pin and after 50 they take you out to dinner! Looking at their ads (below), they tackle both sides of the coin. One set attempt to increase the social reward (gratitude) and the other to reduce the left-wallet cost (fear, time).

Reducing The Social Cost Of Blood Donations

Nothing New

Of course, none of this theory is anything new. Behavioural Economics has been around for quite some time (Dan Ariely and James Heyman, for example, illustrated the difference between “Monetary and Social” payments in their 1992 paper “Effort for payment: A Tale of Two Markets”). The study has become quite popular in the last few years, with much of this post inspired by recent books like Predictably Irrational and Behavioural Investing.

The “new” bit that I hope to bring to the table is the Two Wallets metaphor. I’ve understood behavioural economics for quite some time, but I consistently neglected it when planning business decisions and thinking about consumer behaviour. So now I always imagine people as having two wallets from which they pay me, and two wallets into which I can pay them. This helps keep the behavioural science at the top of my mind, without having to remember all the science!

Advertising Is The Last Straw

January 26, 2010 in Essays, Marketing

Advertising is buying customers. Advertising is spending money to talk at strangers. 9 times out of 10 it should be your last resort.

Try this – If your business has a marketing budget to spend ask yourself two questions:

1. What do I want to achieve by spending this money? Earning more revenue? Keeping customers? Getting new customers?

2. Where in my business do bottlenecks occur that stop me from achieving these goals?

Imagine your budget in a pile of single euro coins on a table. Slide each euro across the table one by one and place it in one of several pots, with a pot for each activity you’ll spend it on. As you lift each euro ask yourself some more questions:

If you want to earn more revenue what is the most effective use of that euro right now? Taking care of existing customers? Could it be spent developing new products or services they’d like to buy from you? Or improving customer experience?

If you need more customers you could spend the euro on making your sign-up process easier, or converting more casual visitors into paying users. You could make it easier for customers to tell their friends about you or improve your service so that they’ll want to tell their friends about you.

If you get to the end of that thought process and have no money in the advertising pot it’s not a bad thing!

If you can’t see any room for improvement in these other areas then it might make more sense to advertise. Only when you have your sign up process running smoothly does it make sense to spend money getting people to visit your site.

The problem is that many businesses decide on an advertising budget at the start of the year and then wonder how they can effectively spend it. A better approach is to ask how effectively they can use their marketing budget, realising that advertising is only one of the many possible answers.

Or am I being too hard on advertising?

Video Killed The News Story

January 13, 2010 in Essays, Marketing, Technology & Science

Here’s some recent headlines from a few technology and marketing websites. Both are about different stories, but the headlines all effectively say the same thing.

Online video more popular than blogging and social networking

Video Marketing Tops Search Marketing as a #1 Priority for Brands and Agencies in 2010?

A lot of stories like this pop up around the web and although they can be quite interesting to read, the underlying trend is nothing new. An offline equivalent might have a headline like:

Watching a documentary is quicker and easier than reading a book

In this hyper-connected world we’re all starting to realise the power of interactivity (or it’s evilness), but let’s not underestimate the power of the lazy person inside all of us that just wants to sit back, relax and passively consume.

This Just in: Watching stuff is easier than reading stuff! A couch potato is lazier than a book worm!

Leave a comment…. if you could be bothered typing 😛

Content is the Advertisement

July 15, 2009 in Essays, Marketing

This is an idea I touched on in a previous post called signs. The post was about a nice short film, which centred around a guy and a girl falling for each other through a series of short messages (it’s well worth the watch).

I suggested that this kind of short film could have been a great advertisement for Twitter (a TV ad in the YouTube age). It was very enjoyable to watch, it showed the importance, benefit and joy of communication and how it can be incredibly rich even if constrained to short bursts. This kind advertisement, which creates a branded, emotional connection, is one that companies have been trying to perfect for decades, but unlike most of their previous 30 second efforts, this YouTube short movie was very enjoyable to watch!

Had this work been commissioned by Twitter and uploaded to their YouTube channel (not even necessarily branded as a Twitter short movie), this is what I could call Content as Advertising.

This is different to content as marketing. An example of content as marketing would be a company blog, which offers advice to small business on it’s field of expertise, which generates word of mouth about this company and gives it a great reputation, which in turn generates more sales leads. Content as marketing is something most people reading this blog will be familiar with. Advertising as content is something different. It’s not quite as blunt as product placement, and it’s deeper than just having your own jingle.

Last week I saw (on Christian Hughes’ Digitology blog) one of the best examples of content as advertising that I’ve come across so far. It’s a series of short web episodes, and is incredibly brave for the company behind it (Proctor & Gamble), both in it’s concept and it’s content. It’s the story of a boy who wakes up with “Girl parts…. down there ” and it follows his journey, almost as if he’s a young girl discovering puberty/her body/herself. Now, because the product is Tampax, and I’m a 24 year old lad, I’m not really in a place to comment on the advertisement’s effectiveness, or how relevant it is to their target audience, but I do admire what they’re doing – or at least trying to do.

The first video has close to 40,000 views at the time of posting. Hopefully the story line is compelling enough for them to draw a good audience and connect with a lot of new customers. I also hope to see more companies exploring and trying out this genre as I think it could be beneficial to both advertising and the arts.


March 16, 2009 in Marketing, Videos

I found this video today (via MJ). It’s one of the nicest short films I’ve seen in a long time, and is well worth the 12mins of your time. (click if you can’t view the video below).

One of my first thoughts for the video was “this should be an ad for Twitter”. Is it wrong that my first thought about such a lovely short film was business related? Probably. But I still think it was an important one.

In the marketing world, as the transition is being made from TV ads to online videos, the trend has been to make snappier, shorter, “more viral” videos. While this has worked well in many instances, I don’t think it’s the only way that online video can be best used.

If you have a product as good as Twitter, something that is unique and enriches peoples lives, then I see no reason why you couldn’t use an artistic short film similar to the one above to convey the value your service can bring to people.

There’s a lot of talented filmmakers and film school students out there thirsty for projects to work on (and for budgets!) and it would probably work out much cheaper than a TV campaign. It’s just a thought.

Finger on the Pulse

January 19, 2009 in Marketing, Technology & Science

I just watched another one of Niall’s great videos in which he shares a great tip on how to increase sales on Twitter. I want to expand on his tip with a few handy pointers on how I use Twitter search to do business and find and interact with customers.

In his video, Niall uses the example of Pat Phelan searching for potential Max Roam customers talking about cheap roaming. This is simple enough to manage as there tends to be about one tweet per day. But what if Pat wants to have a look at all people complaining about their phones? That search has a new tweet every second (and has 5 new results in the time it took me to write that sentence!).

Here’s what I do to keep my ear to the twitter ground more effectively:

Location, Location, Location

A very handy thing you can do with twitter searches is append a location to the end of them. So for me, because all my customers are in Ireland I add “&geocode=53.344104,-6.2674937,100mi” to the end of a search it will show me only the results within 100 miles of that location (which is Dublin, but maybe I should change it to Athlone). Using the same example as above, that search for phones becomes much more managable with about 10 tweets per day.

For an easy way to do this for the coordinates and distance (e.g. within 2km of your shop/business) use the search bar at the top of


Feed Me

Now that you’ve narrowed down your location you can easily manage more keywords that are relevant to your business. This leads to the problem of remembering all these key words and constantly checking them all, which is where RSS steps in. On the right side of the results you should see a link to the feed.


If you have a feed reader (I use Google reader) you can add this feed and the search results will pop straight into your reader. I have all mine organised in a Twitter folder and check on it a few times per day. There is a slight delay of an hour or two between when a tweet is posted and when it appears in my reader. I use it for work and personal – e.g. I have a “leaving cert” alert set up for




One evening a new entry appeared in the feed for the term Leaving Cert:


(bonus: I’m now even more “hip” with the youth of today after learning that WDF stands for What Da Fuck?)

From the Zulunotes twitter account I offered some help


And I had one happy user in less than 5 mins effort.


Other uses

Of course this isn’t only useful for businesses finding and engaging with customers or prospects; It can be used to find people tweeting about things you’re interested in, or for journalists keeping an ear out for discussion on certain topics or breaking stories.

Cheat Sheet

For a search for a word being mentioned in Ireland:,-6.2674937,100mi

Or for a two word term (e.g. “Social Media” = social+media),-6.2674937,100mi

Or the link directly to the feed:,-6.2674937,100mi

Wants, Needs and the Spectrum of Desire

December 4, 2008 in Economics, Essays, Evolution, Marketing

I enjoy reading Seth Godin’s blog. He often has really clever insights and ideas about marketing and business, and his books are very good too.

Recently he wrote a post entitled Hungry. An excerpt:

By any traditional definition of the word, she wasn’t actually hungry. She didn’t need more fuel to power her through an afternoon of sitting around. No, she was bored. Or yearning for a feeling of fullness. Or eager for the fun of making something or the break in the routine that comes from eating it. Most likely, she wanted the psychic satisfaction that she associates with eating well-marketed snacks.

It got me thinking about the distinction we draw between needs and wants. From a practical point of view I can see the difference. We all know the definition of the two: Food, shelter and water are items that we cannot live without, they are necessities, they are needs; wants are anything above and beyond this.

But from a biological point of view, I wonder do our bodies draw as clear a line in the sand? Evolution teaches us that organisms that felt the strongest compulsion to survive and replicate would be the fittest. Survival of the fittest ensures that after many generations the only organisms that are left will have strong compulsion to do/get/eat/drink/find that which helps them survive.

Plants don’t have brains. They can’t decide or know what they want or need. They have instead evolved tropisms which ensure that each plant “desires” or “wants” those things that make it survive, but in a very mechanical way. Geotropism involves anti-growth hormones in the stem, which are pulled to the bottom of the cell by gravity, ensuring the plant grows upwards. Phototropisms are chemical reactions to sunlight, spurring the plant to grow towards the sun. Were we to personify plants, could we describe these physiological reactions as needs or wants?

Evolution has resulted in similar mechanisms in us animals. To be a successful animal, our ancestors would have had to 1) survive to reproduction age and 2) reproduce!

For the part 2) we all understand sexual desire, and how important it is in the survival of a species and the passing on of genes. We also understand that there’s a spectrum of desire involved here. There are ranges of emotion we can feel: Having a crush, a fantasy, a sexual encounter or falling in love. Do we need a relationship but want sex? (Or vice versa!?)

And then when we look at part 1) – surviving – I don’t think our bodies have evolved to distinguish a clear cut distinction between a need or a want. Biologically speaking, our reactions are based on a spectrum of desire.

The reaction process (e.g. a plant growing, a dog eating, a human wanting) has been fine-tuned by evolution, so that the intensity of the desire is matched by it’s benefit. Think of it as an algorithm of sorts. This is why we feel thirst as a more intense desire than a hunger for chocolate, or sexual desire more intense than the desire for friendship. I think of it like a mental tropism – the stronger the sunlight the more a plant grows towards it – the greater the benefit to my survival, the more I subconsciously desire it.

The way we use language always gives us a good insight into the working of the mind. The fact that we use terms like “she had a thirst for knowledge” or “he had a hunger for results” are great examples of how our mind processes this spectrum of desire. Even though hunger and thirst are supposed to be for food and water, our mind can instinctively understand what is being said. This simple sentence construct is further support for the theory that our mind treats desire as a spectrum. There is no cognitive leap that the mind has to make between understanding hunger for a need (food) and hunger for a want (results).

Which brings me back to Seth’s post.

People don’t need Twitter or an SUV or a purse from Coach. We don’t need much of anything, actually, but we want a lot. Truly successful industries align their ‘wants’ with basic needs (like hunger) and consumers (that’s us) cooperate all day long.
yet most of them aren’t needs at all. That’s because the industries that market these items have done a brilliant job of persuading us that they are needs after all.

A lot of people make the claim that Seth is alluding to here, that marketers make needs out of wants. That they exploit basic needs such as hunger and thirst, and build new wants around them.

I wouldn’t give marketers that much credit! Something like that sounds difficult to do, and yet millions of products are successfully marketed, and not all these marketers can be way above average ability, right?

The reason this is so do-able, I suggest, and the reason that there are thousands of new products each week which attract customers’ desire, is because us consumers don’t mentally divide every purchase into a need or a want. We operate based on our spectrum of desire. And just as it’s possible for me to tell you that “Jane had a thirst for knowledge” without you having to make a cognitive leap to understand it, so too is it possible for a marketer to position a product so that you subconsciously desire it almost as much as something else you consciously define as a need.

As a marketer I don’t try to create new needs, or trick people into needing something that they barely even want. That sounds complicated, elaborate and quite frankly not something I have a desire to do. As a marketer I try understand what people desire and I try create products and services to satisfy those desires. Advertising shouldn’t be used as smokescreen or a ruse to con people into thinking my product will meet a desire that it won’t, or a need that they don’t have. Advertising should be a display, a way to demonstrate how it can satisfy their desires. Branding can be used to help my product meet multiple desires, and move it up along the spectrum. Sure, Nike fill their customer’s desire to be clothed, but also to feel cool, to feel athletic, to express something about themselves etc.

Are these needs? Or wants? Or wants in needs clothing? I don’t know, but they’re definitely desires and meeting them as best they can should be every marketers goal.

The Means are Not the Ends

November 24, 2008 in Economics, Essays, Evolution, Marketing

The thoughts behind this post have been inspired by reading the comments and reactions to Damien Mulley‘s blog post about the Pat the Baker Bebo campaign. Most of the intial reaction to Damien’s post seems to all be based on a logical flaw, (and one that I notice frequently in arguments), that when a certain “means to an end” becomes quite successful or popular, we tend to glorify or pursue the means as if it were the end. We forget that it’s value lies in what it delivers and not what it is.

Derived Demand
In economics, we used the term derived demand to explain this concept of means and ends. The demand I have for a brick is a derived demand. I don’t want a brick; I don’t get satisfaction or happiness from having it. But I do want a wall, or a house, or a new BBQ in my back garden. These are things I value; they provide me with satisfaction (economic utility). With the rare exception of Fr. Jack, I don’t think anyone would want a brick just to have, and would only go out and by one (or many) if they had some building to do.

Free Market Capitalism
I read a brilliant blog post in a similar vein to this by Alonzo Fyfe over at Atheist Ethicist, but can’t for the life of me find it to link to. He argued that many Republicans in America make a similar logical flaw in their adoration of “The Free Market“. Capitalism has created more wealth and lifted more people from poverty than any other economic system in human history. However, Mr. Fyfe is quick to remind us that we should be supporters of the free market because of the value it creates and not because of the system itself. Although it is the best system we have come up with it so far, the value it produces, it’s “ends” are far from perfect.

Without getting too deep into this topic here, in many regards I would see free market capitalism as almost perfect. It is immensely efficient and is flawed, in my opinion, only because humans are not always rational, we are an emotional animal. The caveat here is that I’m praising the means as a beautiful system, and not the ends that it produces. In fact, it is so effective at encouraging survial of the fittest, innovation and wealth creation through economic incentive, that it will almost certainly always create a huge wealth gap between the rich and the poor. When we idolise the means, raise “the free market” on a pedestal, and treat is as something of worth rather than the tool it is….. well I guess one look at any of today’s newspaper headlines will show you the result of that loss of perspective.

Evolution by Natural Selection
Although evolution doesn’t fit this template 100%, I feel it’s still worth a mention in this context. That humans are “the most evolved” animal is a statement that I often hear, and one which is borne out of misunderstanding. We, like all life that exists today, are the best adapted to our current environments. We come from descendants who were each the best adapted to their environments at the time. We are not something that evolution tried to make, evolution doesn’t have forethought. For the most part, we have been fine tuned by evolution and are better off as a result. But there are many ways in which natural selection works against us, fine tuning viruses that infect us, other humans that can take advantage of us, or animals that can kill us. Evolution by natural selection and the free market are wonderful and elegant systems, but neither are working entirely “for” us. Richard Dawkins explains this to us wonderfully in The Extended Phenotype, and we must always remember to be aware that our love of them should be a derived demand. Just as all things natural are not always the best for us (and so we get vaccines, use contraceptives etc.) , so too the free market must be regulated to ensure it’s in the best interest of all people (e.g. regulating the banks!)

Customer Engagement
And so, after a bit of a meander, we return to the original point. To paraphrase the question I took from Damien’s post “What is the NPV/ROI of the Bebo campaign to Pat the Baker?” The NPV, the profit, the extra customer, the revenue, the extra loafs of bread sold. These are all the ends in this equation. And Damien is right to point out that this is the value, this is the deliverable any company should be seeking. But the responses are all classic examples of “means worship“:

Philip MaCartney from Bebo wrote:

200 poems written about Pat The Baker in two weeks. That is brilliant engagement in any ones book. I have quoted these figures to a number of marketing professionals and all have been impressed so I fail to see how these figures should be considered a failure?


If the brand thinks it is a success and the Bebo audience obviously love it, how can it be a failure??

Another commenter said

Having all those people singing your theme tune [……], writing poems, wearing the tee-shitrs [….] is bound to be worth a lot in subliminal or secondary advertising too.

All in all, while the success of the campaign is still being debated, I felt that some of the responses, especially from the Bebo representative, are good examples of means worshiping, and I think it’s something that all of us, especially people who work in marketing (like me!) , need to be aware of. A brick can be as cool, or as shiny or as engaging as you want, but if it can’t be used to build a wall it’s not worth a damn to me. As I commented myself in response to Mr. MaCartney: Poems don’t put bread on the table!

So next time I hear a civil servant explain the purpose of a terrible process as “because that’s the way it’s done”, or when the success of a product is measured/presented only in customer engagement, all I’m going to hear is….

“I love my brick!”