The Blackfriars Blog

Friday, May 06, 2005

Appeals court upholds the right of citizens to bear TiVos

The US Court Of Appeals decided today that the FCC doesn't have the authority to dictate and enforce the broadcast flag for television. That decision is probably comparable to the Supreme Court decision that allowed the VCR industry to prosper: it upholds the right of citizens to bear TiVos.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Researching market research

BtoBOnline's Kate Maddox has an interesting article on the current prospects for market research. One of our favorite tidbits comes at the end, though, where one of her interviewees talks about the challenge more data poses to researchers.

"Almost every market research technique involves going out and talking to customers, but response rates are going down like a rock," [Don Schultz, professor emeritus-in-service of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University] said. "You can build a very sophisticated sampling technique, but if you can't get anyone to respond, you have a problem."

Schultz said another problem is data overload. "Organizations have huge amounts of data and they don't know what to do with it," he said. "Most market research activities focus on getting more data, but what we really need is better analysis."

We couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Economist notes the rise of online advertising

The Economist commented today on Google's introduction of new forms and types of online advertising. They spend a lot of the article talking about the new types of advertising Google is allowing, but never quite gets to one of the most important differentiators of online: it's a measurable medium. With our latest data showing the marketing measurement increases executive satisfaction by 10%, to say nothing increasing average budget sizes, it's no wonder online advertising is getting traction.

Monday, May 02, 2005

An amusing comment about OS naming

Rob Enderle in TechNewsWorld is doing a quick and dirty comparison between Linux, Tiger, and Microsoft's Windows XP 64-bit Edition". His best moment is when he compares the names:

Tiger vs. Windows XP 64-Bit Edition

If this were a competition based simply on names Tiger would get my vote. The Microsoft product name is almost a sentence and the acronym WXP64BA looks like a password I would quickly forget. I don't know who is responsible for naming at Microsoft these days but he, or she, seems to be working way too hard to validate my old axiom: 'The only thing people will agree on when it comes to a new product name is that the person who came up with it is an idiot.'

I guess we could make it worse bay calling it the 'Windows XP 64-Bit Addition with SP 2 and knock three times on the ceiling if you want me Edition,' but I'm hoping coming up with names like that doesn't become the next big thing in Redmond."

The Globe complains about careful messaging and good marketing

The Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray complained today that Apple allowed the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to publish Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger reviews a day earlier than the Globe. He implies had he known of that two-tiered approach, the Globe might have been more reluctant to review the product. He goes on to run additional notes about how Apple likes to control its message.

Blackfriars thinks this is just a case of not understanding basic marketing. The two-tiered approach to reviews and publication is called an exclusive, and it has been a tool of public relations for decades. And it is not like Tiger had not been reviewed prior to last Thursday -- every major computer publication had seen betas and written articles on the features and benefits.

And control of the message? Yes, Apple likes to control its message. Frankly, we believe that most companies should exercise more message control, not less. Why? Because brand is made up of the public perception of corporate messages and products. Companies that let just any message out into the market end up with brands that are mush. Apple, on the other hand, just finished the year as the highest-rated global brand, and continues to garner value for its tight messaging. The buzz and brand value that Apple is generating far exceeds that of any other high-tech company at present.

Yes, Apple has been heavy-handed about suing Web sites who spread rumors about its new products. But Mr. Bray's prior columns opposing file sharing indicate he is in favor of companies controlling their intellectual property (and thereby their messages to the market), even to the point of allowing lawsuits against innocent users who have not broken the law (as some of the RIAA's lawsuits have turned out). But because Apple isn't Intel or Microsoft, Mr. Bray feels that such actions by a smaller competitor imply excessive control.

Apple is one of the very few companies to create must-have consumer electronics in the last ten years. We wish more companies were as careful and focused about marketing and communications as it is. As it is, it will be years before anyone else in high-tech -- with the possible exception of Google -- can catch them.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Five installs of Apple's Mac OS X Tiger

I have now done five home installs of Apple's latest Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger." on a variety of machines (the Family pack is handy, since it includes licenses for five machines) from an iBook G3 to a dual-processor G4. The only problem I've run into is that an old GPG package for encrypted email crashed the new Mail 2.0. But once I uninstalled the encryption stuff, it has all worked like a champ. My favorite parts so far: the ability to create smart email boxes like "Today's email" in Mail, and being able to track flights and weather from Dashboard.

Oh, one other glitch; I needed a new copy of eMacs for my Web page and statistics program editing. If you are wondering what eMacs is, you probably don't need it.

On the upside, the multi-threaded kernel makes the system feel much snappier. And Safari, the native Web browser, is much zippier as well. All in all, a delightful and relatively trouble-free upgrade.

Next week: upgrading the 10.2-based laptops my partners are running when their copies arrive.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Infoworld comments on the tyranny of too much

Tom Yager posted a great column on how Apple's value is throwing away the 99% of software and features that you don't need. He definitely gets the tyranny of too much.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Blackfriars new favorite tool for crunching statistics

Blackfriars is currently in the process of analyzing all the survey returned from our new, larger marketing survey. But as we got into the analysis process, it became clear that Excel really wasn't the right tool for this job. After all, not only do we need to do tests on 300 answers to each question, but we also have to look at industry specific slices of the data, compare responses of B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, and also analyze the effects of company sizes on the responses. Frankly, the possibility of being afflicted with the strain of staring at Excel for days on end was too much for us.

We were considering buying either the SAS or SPSS tools when we stumbled across
The R Project for Statistical Computing. This open source statistics analysis package is actually a clone of the S language developed at Bell Labs. As a former Unix afficionado, I have the greatest respect for the work done at Bell Labs, so we decided to give it a try. The results have been wonderful.

Now we will say that R is not for the faint of heart. Unlike a lot of systems that are presentation systems that know how to read databases, this is really a programming language that knows how to do scientific and statistical plots. That said, it provides us with powerful automation for crunching data, and the speed that that automation gives us is worth the steep learning curve. For Blackfriars, it is the right tool for the job.

Clients won't see the R graphical output in our published research; we publish using the Adobe Creative Suite, and that isn't going to change because of the page and color control needed for professional publishing. But we do believe that clients will see more insight in our published research because we are now spending our time thinking about what the data means instead of fighting with Excel. Pictures communicate better than spreadsheets any day of the week; R is letting us see pictures in minutes instead of days. We can't say enough good things about the package.

A humorous take on a real issue

Alex Beam writes in today's Boston Globe about attending a course on how to deal with difficult people. Blackfriars actually offers a course with a similar title, but a different emphasis. The one Alex talks about is more about tact and empathizing with the other person's personality style. Ours is much more about purposeful communication and why what you think you are saying isn't what the other person hears. Regardless, Blackfriars wishes more people would take courses like these. With the deep divisions in politics and dialog nowadays, if we don't do something soon, we might be assaulted by the likes of Unitarian Jihad.

Monday, April 25, 2005

At Microsoft, a Smart Guy Has His Hands Full With the Smart Phone Business

The New York Times today had an article on the new head of Microsoft's Mobile software business, Ya-Qin Zhang. I give him credit for the point he made in the article:

Magneto will test what Dr. Zhang said was his attempt to create a new focus on quality software - a break from the Microsoft practice of emphasizing a cascade of new features in each successive product release.

"Now the first thing is quality," he said, adding that his second priority is building partnerships for the Windows Mobile business, which has so far failed to replicate Microsoft's impact in the desktop computer world

Quality will definitely help. But Microsoft has never had any shortage of smart people working there. Their challenge ahead is actually much more one of marketing and communication as noted by an analyst.

"In the cellphone industry, success has more to do with market structure than technology," said Michael Kleeman, a telecommunications industry consultant who is a policy researcher at the University of California, San Diego.

And the telecom companies, having seen what happened to IBM in the computer industry when it engaged Microsoft, isn't about to hand over power to Bill Gates. Good luck, Mr. Zhang.

The value of Longhorn is a new user interface?

The Wall Street Journal says Microsoft is now touting its new Avalon graphical user interface as the answer to user's challenges.

Long a flash point in competition with Apple Computer Inc., the "GUI" is emerging as perhaps Microsoft's key selling point to Longhorn, scheduled to be released in a test version this summer and to customers late next year. Beyond just changing the look of the software, the interface is designed to work closely with technology that makes it easier to find information on a PC. Microsoft is attempting to use the combination to reduce the complexity of personal computers that now store a growing amount of files and information.
Files and documents can be arranged in stacks of different heights that give a rough visual cue as to the number of files in a group. In the demonstration, a group of sample files organized under "advertising" are easily seen to number more than "legal" files.

Other tricks to improve organization include the ability to add identifying keywords to files, including photo files, Word documents or other data -- manually or automatically as a feature in new application software. Each file has a pop-up window that displays basic information about the file such as author, keywords and other comments that can be used to search for the file.

We are all in favor of adding visual cues to help users understand what is happening on computers. But Microsoft has a history of focusing on features instead of usability. For example, one of the features currently on Windows that many users find frustrating is menus that continually rearrange themselves to put the most recently used items first. That sounds great to a computer scientist, but ask an ordinary person about the feature, and they'll tell you it makes them feel as if they don't know where to find things. It also creates uncertainty for most users instead of the "I know where to find that" effect that most users actually desire.

And manual tagging of files through info boxes? Who has time for that?

All we can say is that we hope Longhorn goes through a whole lot of usability testing before it hits the streets. Meanwhile, we'll let you know how the competition does -- we're upgrading Blackfriars to Apple's Tiger next week.

Google to Sell New Types Of Ads

The New York Times noted today that Google is expanding into awareness advertising from its base of text-based ads. I think Google had an interesting insight here: the value of their ad system comes from allowing customers to quickly create ads that will be displayed automatically in the right contexts. There is no question now: Google is quickly moving into other types of ad-supported media. Don't be surprised if you see them attack the cash cows of other media companies as they fight for more than their share of ad dollars.

Does watching TV make you smarter?

The New York Times Magazine argued Sunday that today's TV plot lines on the top dramas put more cognitive load on viewers and therefore improve their thinking. It pointed at the fact that most modern dramas such as "24", "Alias", and even "The West Wing" now have so many story interwoven story lines that they could be considered calesthenics for the brain.

Now Blackfriars knows that entertainment is a different animal than our work in business communications. Great art does not have to be simple and clear; the musical works of Bach and Mahler are good examples of very complex structures that have great emotional impact. But we do see a danger in this author's hypothesis that we don't have to design and tell stories well. And while the shows cited are all quite good, many of them don't do nearly as well in attracting viewers and selling advertising -- the goal of any commercial TV show -- as single story line shows like the "C.S.I" series of shows. And lets face it: if intellectual challenge were ne plus ultra of TV, PBS would be the top rated network, and Fox would be dead last. TV reality is otherwise.

Blackfriars is all in favor of great and challenging programming for TV and other performance media. But producers have to recognize that the harder you make viewers work, the more comfortable they are going to be changing the channel. Look at shows like "Arrested Development" that may win critical acclaim, but struggle to win ratings. Producers should be careful to challenge viewers when it is appropriate, but not to view the technique as a panacea for poor (and expensive due to maintaining all the characters and plot lines) story-telling. The proof? None of the challenging shows the author cites are in the top 10 rated shows today.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Translation From PR-Speak to English

Daring Fireball has done a brilliant job of translating the usual corporate doubletalk of press releases into more direct statements. After you've had a few laughs, ask yourself how many of those Adobe/Macromedia phrases you've seen in your press releases.

The Birth of Public Relations -- Via Freud

NPR had a great piece on this morning about Freud's Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations. Edward Bernays was the first PR person to move away from the rational argument approach toward more emotional and needs-based marketing. It's a good foundation for why Apple's marketing works so well compared to more traditional "look at all the great features" PR more commonly done in high tech.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A stupid Apple marketing stunt

Let you think we only say good things about Apple, today's Washington Post is running a story previously broken by the Wall Street Journal noting that Apple Computer was among the firms who paid tech editors to praise the iPod. With the iPod riding high with consumers, the value of this pitch was certainly not worth the negative publicity that will undoubtedly come from it. Just shows that even good marketing firms sometimes ignore the first law of business: never do anything you wouldn't want publicized on the front page of the New York Times (or in this case, the Washington Post).