Category Archives: advertising

Google v Facebook – which contributes most to humanity?

Please don’t take this too seriously, it’s intended as just a bit of fun. All of it is subjective and just my personal opinion of the two companies.

Google’s old motto of ‘do no evil’ has taken quite a battering over the last few years, but my overall feeling towards them remains somewhat positive overall. Facebook’s reputation has also become muddied somewhat, but I’ve never been an active user and always found it supremely irritating when I’ve visited to change privacy preferences or read a post only available there, so I guess I am less positive towards them. I only ever post to Facebook indirectly via this blog and twitter. On the other hand, both companies do a lot of good too. It is impossible to infer good or bad intent because end results arise from a combination of intent and many facets of competence such as quality of insight, planning, competence, maintenance, response to feedback and many others. So I won’t try to differentiate intent from competence and will just stick to casual amateur observation of the result. In order to facilitate score-keeping of the value of their various acts, I’ll use a scale from very harmful to very beneficial, -10 to +10.

Google (I can’t bring myself to discuss Alphabet) gave us all an enormous gift of saved time, improved productivity and better self-fulfilment by effectively replacing a day in the library with a 5 second online search. We can all do far more and live richer lives as a result. They have continued to build on that since, adding extra features and improved scope. It’s far from perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than we had before. Score: +10

Searches give Google a huge and growing data pool covering the most intimate details of every aspect of our everyday lives. You sort of trust them not to blackmail you or trash your life, but you know they could. The fact remains that they actually haven’t. It is possible that they might be waiting for the right moment to destroy the world, but it seems unlikely. Taking all our intimate data but choosing not to end the world yet: Score +9

On the other hand, they didn’t do either of those things purely through altruism. We all pay a massive price: advertising. Advertising is like a tax. Almost every time you buy something, part of the price you pay goes to advertisers. I say almost because Futurizon has never paid a penny yet for advertising and yet we have sold lots, and I assume that many other organisations can say the same, but most do advertise, and altogether that siphons a huge amount from our economy. Google takes lots of advertising revenue, but if they didn’t take it, other advertisers would, so I can only give a smallish negative for that: Score -3

That isn’t the only cost though. We all spend very significant time getting rid of ads, wasting time by clicking on them, finding, downloading and configuring ad-blockers to stop them, re-configuring them to get entry to sites that try to stop us from using ad-blockers, and often paying per MB for unsolicited ad downloads to our mobiles. I don’t need to quantify that to give all that a score of -9.

They are still 7 in credit so they can’t moan too much.

Tax? They seem quite good at minimizing their tax contributions, while staying within the letter of the law, while also paying good lawyers to argue what the letter of the law actually says. Well, most of us try at least a bit to avoid paying taxes we don’t have to pay. Google claims to be doing us all a huge favor by casting light on the gaping holes in international tax law that let them do it, much like a mugger nicely shows you the consequences of inadequate police coverage by enthusiastically mugging you. Noting the huge economic problems caused across the world by global corporates paying far less tax than would seem reasonable to the average small-business-owner, I can’t honestly see how this could live comfortably with their do-no evil mantra. Score: -8

On the other hand, if they paid all that tax, we all know governments would cheerfully waste most of it. Instead, Google chooses to do some interesting things with it. They gave us Google Earth, which at least morally cancels out their ‘accidental’ uploading of everyone’s wireless data as their street-view cars went past.They have developed self-driving cars. They have bought and helped develop Deep-mind and their quantum computer. They have done quite a bit for renewable energy. They have spent some on high altitude communications planes supposedly to bring internet to the rural parts of the developing world. When I were a lad, I wanted to be a rich bastard so I could do all that. Now, I watch as the wealthy owners of these big companies do it instead. I am fairly happy with that. I get the results and didn’t have to make the effort. We get less tax, but at least we get some nice toys. Almost cancels. Score +6

They are trying to use their AI to analyse massive data pools of medical records to improve medicine. Score +2

They are also building their databases more while doing that but we don’t yet see the downside. We have to take what they are doing on trust until evidence shows otherwise.

Google has tried and failed at many things that were going to change the world and didn’t, but at least they tried. Most of us don’t even try. Score +2

Oh yes, they bought YouTube, so I should factor that in. Mostly harmless and can be fun. Score: +2

Almost forgot Gmail too. Score +3

I’m done. Total Google contribution to humanity: +14

Well done! Could do even better.

I’ve almost certainly overlooked some big pluses and minuses, but I’ll leave it here for now.

Now Facebook.

It’s obviously a good social network site if you want that sort of thing. It lets people keep in touch with each other, find old friends and make new ones. It lets others advertise their products and services, and others to find or spread news. That’s all well and good and even if I and many other people don’t want it, many others do, so it deserves a good score, even if it isn’t as fantastic as Google’s search, that almost everyone uses, all the time. Score +5

Connected, but separate from simply keeping in touch, is the enormous pleasure value people presumably get from socializing. Not me personally, but ‘people’. Score +8

On the downside: Quite a lot of problems result from people, especially teens, spending too much time on Facebook. I won’t reproduce the results of all the proper academic  studies here, but we’ve all seen various negative reports: people get lower grades in their exams, people get bullied, people become socially competitive – boasting about their successes while other people feel insecure or depressed when others seem to be doing better, or are prettier, or have more friends. Keeping in touch is good, but cutting bits off others’ egos to build your own isn’t. It is hard not to conclude that the negative uses of keeping in touch outweigh the positive ones. Long-lived bad-feelings outweigh short-lived ego-boosts. Score: -8

Within a few years of birth, Facebook evolved from a keeping-in-touch platform to a general purpose mini-web. Many people were using Facebook to do almost everything that others would do on the entire web. Being in a broom cupboard is fine for 5 minutes if you’re playing hide and seek, but it is not desirable as a permanent state. Still, it is optional, so isn’t that bad per se: Score: -3

In the last 2 or 3 years, it has evolved further, albeit probably unintentionally, to become a political bubble, as has become very obvious in Brexit and the US Presidential Election, though it was already apparent well before those. Facebook may not have caused the increasing divide we are seeing between left and right, across the whole of the West, but it amplifies it. Again, I am not implying any intent, just observing the result. Most people follow people and media that echoes their own value judgments. They prefer resonance to dissonance. They prefer to have their views reaffirmed than to be disputed. When people find a comfortable bubble where they feel they belong, and stay there, it is easy for tribalism to take root and flourish, with demonization of the other not far behind. We are now seeing that in our bathtub society, with two extremes and a rapidly shallowing in-between that was not long ago the vast majority. Facebook didn’t create human nature; rather, it is a victim of it, but nonetheless it provides a near-monopoly social network that facilitates such political bubbles and their isolation while doing far too little to encourage integration in spite of its plentiful resources. Dangerous and Not Good. Score -10

On building databases of details of our innermost lives, managing not to use the data to destroy our lives but instead only using it to sell ads, they compare with Google. I’ll score that the same total for the same reasons: Net Score -3

Tax? Quantities are different, but eagerness to avoid tax seems similar to Google. Principles matter. So same score: -8

Assorted messaging qualifies as additional to the pure social networking side I think so I’ll generously give them an extra bit for that: Score +2

They occasionally do good things with it like Google though. They also are developing a high altitude internet, and are playing with space exploration. Tiny bit of AI stuff, but not much else has crossed my consciousness. I think it is far less than Google but still positive, so I’ll score: +3

I honestly can’t think of any other significant contributions from Facebook to make the balance more positive, and I tried. I think they want to make a positive contribution, but are too focused on income to tackle the social negatives properly.

Total Facebook contribution to humanity: -14.

Oh dear! Must do better.

Conclusion: We’d be a lot worse off without Google. Even with their faults, they still make a great contribution to humankind. Maybe not quite a ‘do no evil’ rating, but certainly they qualify for ‘do net good’. On the other hand, sadly, I have to say that my analysis suggests we’d be a lot better off without Facebook. As much better off without them as we benefit by having Google.

If I have left something major out, good or bad, for either company please feel free to add your comments. I have deliberately left out their backing of their own political leanings and biases because whether you think they are good or bad depends where you are coming from. They’d only score about +/-3 anyway, which isn’t a game changer.



Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.

Future Augmented Reality

AR has been hot on the list of future IT tech for 25 years. It has been used for various things since smartphones and tablets appeared but really hit the big time with the recent Pokemon craze.

To get an idea of the full potential of augmented reality, recognize that the web and all its impacts on modern life came from the convergence of two medium sized industries – telecoms and computing. Augmented reality will involve the convergence of everything in the real world with everything in the virtual world, including games, media, the web, art, data, visualization, architecture, fashion and even imagination. That convergence will be enabled by ubiquitous mobile broadband, cloud, blockchain payments, IoT, positioning and sensor tech, image recognition, fast graphics chips, display and visor technology and voice and gesture recognition plus many other technologies.

Just as you can put a Pokemon on a lawn, so you could watch aliens flying around in spaceships or cartoon characters or your favorite celebs walking along the street among the other pedestrians. You could just as easily overlay alternative faces onto the strangers passing by.

People will often want to display an avatar to people looking at them, and that could be different for every viewer. That desire competes with the desire of the viewer to decide how to see other people, so there will be some battles over who controls what is seen. Feminists will certainly want to protect women from the obvious objectification that would follow if a woman can’t control how she is seen. In some cases, such objectification and abuse could even reach into hate crime territory, with racist, sexist or homophobic virtual overlays. All this demands control, but it is far from obvious where that control would come from.

As for buildings, they too can have a virtual appearance. Virtual architecture will show off architect visualization skills, but will also be hijacked by the marketing departments of the building residents. In fact, many stakeholders will want to control what you see when you look at a building. The architects, occupants, city authorities, government, mapping agencies, advertisers, software producers and games designers will all try to push appearances at the viewer, but the viewer might want instead to choose to impose one from their own offerings, created in real time by AI or from large existing libraries of online imagery, games or media. No two people walking together on a street would see the same thing.

Interior decor is even more attractive as an AR application. Someone living in a horrible tiny flat could enhance it using AR to give the feeling of far more space and far prettier decor and even local environment. Virtual windows onto Caribbean beaches may be more attractive than looking at mouldy walls and the office block wall that are physically there. Reality is often expensive but images can be free.

Even fashion offers a platform for AR enhancement. An outfit might look great on a celebrity but real life shapes might not measure up. Makeovers take time and money too. In augmented reality, every garment can look as it should, and that makeup can too. The hardest choice will be to choose a large number of virtual outfits and makeups to go with the smaller range of actual physical appearances available from that wardrobe.

Gaming is in pole position, because 3D world design, imagination, visualization and real time rendering technology are all games technology, so perhaps the biggest surprise in the Pokemon success is that it was the first to really grab attention. People could by now be virtually shooting aliens or zombies hoarding up escalators as they wait for their partners. They are a little late, but such widespread use of personal or social gaming on city streets and in malls will come soon.

AR Visors are on their way too, and though the first offerings will be too expensive to achieve widespread adoption, cheaper ones will quickly follow. The internet of things and sensor technology will create abundant ground-up data to make a strong platform. As visors fall in price, so too will the size and power requirements of the processing needed, though much can be cloud-based.

It is a fairly safe bet that marketers will try very hard to force images at us and if they can’t do that via blatant in-your-face advertising, then product placement will become a very fine art. We should expect strong alliances between the big marketing and advertising companies and top games creators.

As AI simultaneously develops, people will be able to generate a lot of their own overlays, explaining to AI what they’d like and having it produced for them in real time. That would undermine marketing use of AR so again there will be some battles for control. Just as we have already seen owners of landmarks try to trademark the image of their buildings to prevent people including them in photographs, so similar battles will fill the courts over AR. What is to stop someone superimposing the image of a nicer building on their own? Should they need to pay a license to do so? What about overlaying celebrity faces on strangers? What about adding multimedia overlays from the web to make dull and ordinary products do exciting things when you use them? A cocktail served in a bar could have a miniature Sydney fireworks display going on over it. That might make it more exciting, but should the media creator be paid and how should that be policed? We’ll need some sort of AR YouTube at the very least with added geolocation.

The whole arts and media industry will see city streets as galleries and stages on which to show off and sell their creations.

Public services will make more mundane use of AR. Simple everyday context-dependent signage is one application, but overlays would be valuable in emergencies too. If police or fire services could superimpose warning on everyone’s visors nearby, that may help save lives in emergencies. Health services will use AR to assist ordinary people to care for a patient until an ambulance arrives

Shopping provide more uses and more battles. AR will show you what a competing shop has on offer right beside the one in front of you. That will make it easy to digitally trespass on a competitor’s shop floor. People can already do that on their smartphone, but AR will put the full image large as life right in front of your eyes to make it very easy to compare two things. Shops won’t want to block comms completely because that would prevent people wanting to enter their shop at all, so they will either have to compete harder or find more elaborate ways of preventing people making direct visual comparisons in-store. Perhaps digital trespassing might become a legal issue.

There will inevitably be a lot of social media use of AR too. If people get together to demonstrate, it will be easier to coordinate them. If police insist they disperse, they could still congregate virtually. Dispersed flash mobs could be coordinated as much as ones in the same location. That makes AR a useful tool for grass-roots democracy, especially demonstrations and direct action, but it also provides a platform for negative uses such as terrorism. Social entrepreneurs will produce vast numbers of custom overlays for millions of different purposes and contexts. Today we have tens of millions of websites and apps. Tomorrow we will have even more AR overlays.

These are just a few of the near term uses of augmented reality and a few hints as issues arising. It will change every aspect of our lives in due course, just as the web has, but more so.


A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in:

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.


In a networked age, nice guys win

A wide variety of marketing tools have been developed to fool customers into buying products that are more expensive than they need. A huge volume of psychology research has created departments of precision marketing staff whose main skill is tricking customers. Coupled with accounting trickery, pricing, packaging and phantom special offer tricks are often used to disguise price hikes or pretend something is a bargain when it simply isn’t.

This is not clever. It is dumb. It reaps an apparent short term gain at the expense of overall customer spending and customer loyalty. If you want proof, Tesco is proof. Even the dumbest Tesco customers eventually noticed that the company had changed from one that was looking after their interests and giving excellent service and excellent prices to one that seemed to be trying hard to trick and fleece them at every opportunity. Since marketers share ideas, the other big supermarkets used many of the same practices, with the same result. When new entrants arrived that didn’t try to trick people, customers walked and profits dived.

Using the very latest psychology and neuroscience is not the problem. Nor is honing marketing and sales tools to the Nth degree. It is using those top level skills while forgetting the basics that is bad, or worse still, using them quite deliberately to abuse customers.

Customers like to feel they are getting genuinely good products at genuinely good prices. If they are used to that in a shop, they come to feel safe there and more willing to spend. They don’t feel on their guard all the time, feeling they have to do hard sums to work out which one is the least rip-off, and buying only what they need, saving the rest for elsewhere. When they feel safe, they spend more, they buy things they might not otherwise have bought, and they’ll come back again and again, so your profits will be sustainable. They take far more notice of your marketing too. They won’t look at something and then go and shop around for it online. They come to trust you, and they’ll do more business with you. That is so simple and obvious it doesn’t need years of training to learn. Being simple doesn’t mean it is untrue. Basics are easy, but still important.

Good marketing lets customers know about your product and its relative merits. It can even be honest about its limitations. Good marketing is that which customers would seek out themselves if you didn’t deliver it to them already. Bad marketing is trying to fool someone into buying something they otherwise wouldn’t. You can fool someone once, maybe twice, but in the end it is you who loses a good customer. Social media exposes trickery quickly and effectively and tricksters lose. In the networked age, nice guys win.

If you use sophisticated marketing to fool customers, the fool is you. If you want a friend, be a friend.

More future fashion fun

A nice light hearted shorty again. It started as one on smart makeup, but I deleted that and will do it soon. This one is easier and in line with today’s news.

I am the best dressed and most fashion conscious futurologist in my office. Mind you, the population is 1. I liked an article in the papers this morning about Amazon starting to offer 3D printed bobble-heads that look like you.


I am especially pleased since I suggested it over 2 years ago  in a paper I wrote on 3D printing.

In the news article, you see the chappy with a bobble-head of him wearing the same shirt. It is obvious that since Amazon sells shirts too, that it won’t be long at all before they send you cute little avatars of you wearing the outfits you buy from them. It starts with bobble-heads but all the doll manufacturers will bring out versions based on their dolls, as well as character merchandise from films, games, TV shows. Kids will populate doll houses with minis of them and their friends.

You could even give one of a friend to them for a birthday present instead of a gift voucher, so that they can see the outfit you are offering them before they decide whether they want that or something different. Over time, you’d have a collection of minis of you and your friends in various outfits.

3D cameras are coming to phones too, so you’ll be able to immortalize embarrassing office party antics in 3D office ornaments. When you can’t afford to buy an outfit or accessory sported by your favorite celeb, you could get a miniature wearing it. Clothing manufacturers may well appreciate the extra revenue from selling miniatures of their best kit.

Sports manufacturers will make replicas of you wearing their kit, doing sporting activities. Car manufacturers will have ones of you driving the car they want you to buy, or you could buy a fleet of miniatures. Holiday companies could put you in a resort hotspot. Or in a bedroom ….with your chosen celeb.

OK, enough.



The future of ‘authenticity’

I recently watched an interesting documentary on the evolution of the British coffee shop market. I then had an idea for a new chain that is so sharp it would scratch your display if I wrote it here, so I’ll keep that secret. The documentary left me with another thought: what’s so special about authentic?

I’ll blog as I think and see where I get to, if anywhere.

Starbucks and Costa sell coffee (for my American readers, Costa is a British version of Starbucks that sells better coffee but seems to agree they should pay tax just like the rest of us – yes I know Starbucks has since reformed a bit, but Costa didn’t have to). Cafe Nero (or is it just Nero?) sells coffee with the ‘Authentic Italian’ experience. I never knew that until I watched the documentary. Such things fly way over my head. If Nero is closest when I want a coffee, I’ll go in, and I know the coffee is nice, just like Costa is nice, but authentic Italian? Why the hell would I care about my coffee being authentic Italian? I don’t go anywhere to get an authentic Danish pastry or an authentic Australian beer, or an authentic Swiss cheese, or an authentic Coke. What has coffee got to do with Italy anyway? It’s a drink. I don’t care how they treat it in any particular country, even if they used to make it nicer there. The basic recipes and techniques for making a decent coffee were spread worldwide decades ago, and it’s the coffee I want. Anyway, we use a Swiss coffee machine with Swiss coffee at home, not Italian, because the Swiss learned from their Italian sub-population and then added their usual high precision materials and engineering and science, they didn’t just take it as gospel that Mama somehow knew best. And because my wife is Swiss. My razor sharp idea isn’t a Swiss coffee chain by the way.

I therefore wonder how many other people who go into Cafe Nero care tuppence whether they are getting an authentic Italian experience, or whether like me they just want a decent coffee and it seems a nice enough place. I can understand the need to get the best atmosphere, ambiance, feel, whatever you want to call it. I can certainly understand that people might want a cake or snack to go with their coffee. I just don’t understand the desire to associate with another country. Italy is fine for a visit; I have nothing against Italians, but neither do I aspire in any way to be or behave Italian.

Let’s think it through a bit. An overall experience is made up of a large number of components: quality and taste of the coffee and snacks, natural or synthetic, healthy or naughty, the staff and the nature of the service, exterior and interior decor and color scheme, mixture of aromas, range of foods, size of cake portion, ages groups and tribal ranges of other customers, comfort of furnishings, lighting levels, wireless LAN access….. There are hundreds of factors. The potential range of combinations  is massive. People can’t handle all that information when they want a coffee, so they need an easy way to decide quickly. ‘Italian’ is really just a brand, reducing the choice stress and Cafe Nero is just adopting a set of typical brand values evolved by an entire nation over centuries. I guess that makes some sense.

But not all that much sense. The Italian bit is a nice shortcut, but once it’s taken out of Italy, whatever it might be, it isn’t in Italy any more. The customers are not expected to order in Italian apart beyond a few silly words to describe the size of the coffee. The customers mostly aren’t Italian, don’t look Italian, don’t chat in Italian and don’t behave Italian. The weather isn’t Italian. The views outside aren’t Italian. The architecture isn’t Italian. So only a few bits of the overall experience can be Italian, the overall experience just isn’t. If only a few bits are authentic, why bother? Why not just extract some insights of what things about ‘Italian’ customers find desirable and then adapt them to the local market? Perhaps what they have done, so if they just drop the pretense, everything would be fine. They can’t honestly say they offer an authentic Italian experience, just a few components of such. I never noticed their supposed Italianness anyway but I hate pretentiousness so now that I understand their offering, it adds up to a slight negative for me. Now that I know they are pretending to be Italian, I will think twice before using them again, but still will if it’s more than a few metres further to another coffee shop. Really, I just want a coffee and possibly a slice of cake, in a reasonably warm and welcoming coffee shop.

Given that it is impossible to provide an ‘authentic Italian experience’ outside of Italy without also simulating every aspect of being in Italy, how authentic could they be in the future? What is the future of authenticity? Could Cafe Nero offer a genuinely Italian experience if that’s what they really wanted? Bring on VR, AR, direct brain links, sensory recording and replay. Total Recall.  Yes they could, sort of. With a full sensory full immersion system, you could deliver an experience that is real and authentic in every sense except that it isn’t real. In 2050, you could sell a seemingly genuinely authentic Italian coffee and cake in a genuinely Italian atmosphere, anywhere. But when they do that, I’ll download that onto my home coffee machine or my digital jewelry. Come to think about it, I could just drink water and eat bread and do all the rest virtually. Full authenticity, zero cost.

This Total Recall style virtual holiday or virtual coffee is fine as far as it goes, but a key problem is knowing that it isn’t real. If you disable that by hypnosis or drugs or surgery or implants or Zombie tech, then your Matrix style world will have some other issues to worry about that are more important. If you don’t, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, then knowing the difference between real and virtual will be all-important. If you know it isn’t real, it pushes a different set of buttons in your brain.

In parallel, as AI gets more and more powerful, a lot of things will be taken over by machines. That adds to the total work pool of man + machine so the economy expands and we’re all better off, if we do it right. We can even restore and improve the environment at the same time. In that world, some roles will still be occupied by humans. People will focus more on human skills, human interaction, crafts, experiences, care, arts and entertainment, sports, and especially offering love and attention. I call it the Care Economy. If you take two absolutely identical items, one provided by a machine and one by another person, the one offered by the person will be more valued, and therefore more valuable – apart from a tiny geek market that specifically wants machines. Don’t believe me? Think of the high price glassware you keep for special occasions and dinner parties. Cut by hand by an expert with years of training. Each glass is slightly different from every other. In one sense it is shoddy workmanship compared to the mass-produced glass, precision made, all identical, that costs 1% as much. The human involvement is absolutely critical. The key human involvement is that you know you couldn’t possibly do it, that it took a highly skilled craftsman. You aren’t buying just the glass, but the skills and attention and dedication and time of the craftsman. In just the same way, you will happily pay a bigger proportion of your bigger future income for other people’s time. Virtual is fine and cheap, but you’ll happily pay far more for the real thing. That will greatly offset the forces pushing towards a totally virtual experience.

This won’t happen overnight, and that brings us to another force that plays out over the same time. When we use a phrase like ‘authentic Italian’, we don’t normally put a date on it. Do we mean contemporary Italy, 1960 Italy, or what? If 1960, then we’d have to use a lot of virtual tech to simulate it. If we mean contemporary, then that includes all the virtual stuff that goes on in Italy too, which is likely pretty much what happens virtually elsewhere. A large proportion of our everyday will be virtual. How can you have authentic virtual? When half of what everyone sees every day isn’t real, you could no more have an authentic Italian coffee bar than an authentic hobbit hole in Middle Earth.

Authenticity is a term that can already only be applied to a subset of properties of a particular component. A food item or a drink could be authentic in terms of its recipe and taste, origin and means of production of the ingredients, perhaps even served by an Italian, but the authenticity of the surrounding context is doomed to be more and more limited. Does it matter though? I don’t think so.

The more I think about it, the less I care if it is in any way authentic. I want a pleasing product served by pleasant human staff in a pleasant atmosphere. I care about the various properties and attributes in an absolute sense, and I also care whether they are provided by human or machine, but the degree to which they mimic some particular tradition really doesn’t add any value for me. I am very happy to set culture free to explore the infinite potential of imagination and make an experience as enjoyable as possible.  Authenticity is just a labelled cage, and we’re better if it is unlocked. I want real pleasure, not pretend pleasure, but authenticity is increasingly becoming a pretense.

Oh, my razor sharp idea? As I said, it’s secret.



Pull marketing and new product launches

My recent post about marketing futures

resulted in a request for more detail on pull marketing’s use in the context of new product launches. How can a customer find out about new products if they aren’t being pushed?

Firstly, I don’t think push will become extinct, just be substituted by pull a lot, so there could still be limited use of traditional techniques. Substitution rarely reaches 100%. A regular customer might be happy to be told about new products if a company is very careful not to bombard them with too much junk mail. But that doesn’t duck the question. New products can come from a new company. How does that work with pull?

A long time ago I used to work in computing, doing systems performance analysis, round about the time object oriented programming was becoming fashionable. One of the ideas already well established was the remote procedure call, RPC. A device somewhere, anywhere, could offer a service. Any program running anywhere could call on it using an RPC. The device new the service was available because it was noted in a directory of services. The service didn’t advertise itself, it was just listed on the directory. Programs needing it would check the directory for the type of service they wanted, essentially pull marketing. Phone directories (remember them) used to work the same way. Open source databases of products could simply mimic that. There is no need to pay for ads that way, and no need for an intermediary other than the database itself.

Directories are useful and are a big part of pull. You only see stuff when you are looking for something in the same genre. We are used to search, but using something like Google only works if you can manage to wade through a million intermediaries clogging up all the pages before you get to the provider you want. Lifestyle directories work far better, being provided by magazines or organisations or people you trust.

But perhaps the best form of pull directories for new products are shops, very familiar indeed. A shop has what you want to buy, and while you are buying it, you might see many other things you never knew even existed, some of which you then can’t resist. It is serendipity that makes the shop profitable, and that makes the outlet for new products.

So there is no new magic needed to use pull techniques to launch new products, it is just relying more on the well established channels we already have. And the best thing is that most people enjoy the shopping process when it presents new and interesting products alongside what they went out for.

I do feel that web shops like Amazon could do a great deal better in showing you other things you might be interested in. The ‘other people who bought this also looked at this’ is useful, but it isn’t very serendipitous. The filed of variation needs to be bigger. When we first considered internet shopping even before the web was here, we imagined virtual shopping malls. The graphics didn’t allow that for many years but now that the graphics is there, the shops and the malls still aren’t. OK, they are in virtual worlds, but not properly for the real world. It would be a prefect way of doing it on games consoles where pseudo 3d environments are the norm.

Will marketing evolve from fiend to friend?

Let’s start with a possibly over-critical view of marketing today, to emphasise the problem that I think needs solved.

Marketing helps to make us aware of new products and services we might want to buy, and provides some well paid jobs. That’s the good side. But marketing saps a lot of money out of the system, skimming off money as it helps move it around – like banking, or car parking fees for shoppers, without giving much back to GDP. It helps companies sell things, but adds costs to the customer that could have been spent on other products and services. We basically pay companies to tell us to buy their products. Of that money, marketers spend far too high a proportion on advertising, which is basically the lazy marketing option. They waste our time as we watch TV, cold call us, send nuisance texts and automated calls, fill our data quotas with video ads, delay downloads, force installation of applications to block them, which all requires extra computer power and maintenance. In short, we pay them to waste a significant proportion of our precious lifetime as well as our money. In fact the financial cost added to every product is dwarfed by the costs of the extra time consumed. All the extra energy used to broadcast ads on TV or the net or the extra paper and bleach and ink to put them in magazines has an enormous environmental impact too. Advertising consumes a huge amount of resources but on a per-advert basis is very ineffective at making us buy. Google makes a fortune from UK companies for its adverts but by diverting the ad sales through Ireland, manages to avoid paying UK tax, therefore pulling off an excellent vampire impression, dressing stylish and looking cool while sucking the lifeblood from industry. By using up so much air time and online bandwidth advertising directly impedes productive uses. On current form, because of excessive reliance on the lazy option, marketers are more fiend than friend.

Marketing has almost become a one-tool profession, too willing to annoy a lot of people to get a few sales. Other components of marketing such as launch events and trade shows are effective and very effectively target those who are likely to be interested, but advertising dwarfs them. Surely there has to be a better way. How do we get marketing to go from fiend to friend?

There is. Pull marketing (if done properly) gives people what they ask for, in the right form, on the right platform, when they ask for it, not what they don’t want, in their faces, all the time. Marketing will evolve from push to pull. However much the marketing industry and advertisers don’t want it to go that way, the potential value for a given spend via pull marketing is so much higher that it is inevitable. Think about it. Only an idiot would employ someone to stand in a doorway blocking the entrance, jumping up and down screaming messages at customers that are actually trying to squeeze past into the store to spend money. That is the difference between push and pull. Unfortunately for marketers, pull needs different skills, so if they don’t have them, they need to retrain or they will eventually be made redundant. They can hide and massage performance figures for a while to hide the ineffectiveness of throwing money down the drain on advertising, but not forever.

People want to know what is available that might be of interest to them. They also want clues to help filter the vast number of potential products down to a manageable choice. They don’t want silence from suppliers, but appropriate and timely information. Branding is aimed at this of course. So is PR. Marketing should be better integrated into ongoing background brand management and public relations, with excellent web sites to provide information when people want it. In that way, people will think of them when they want something, and be able to find the most appropriate product easily.

The task of providing a good website is often allocated to other groups in the company. This is a mistake. The website needs to be extremely well integrated with marketing, PR and brand. In many companies, only the brand people get a strong influence. A potential customer coming to the site from any angle of approach should be faced with extremely easy navigation, immersed in the values and styles they already associate with that brand and assisted as far as possible in what they are trying to do. They should not be bombarded with waves of ads, popups and guano that prevents them from finding what they want. Even if a customer wants to cancel a service, it should be very easy to do so. They are far more likely to come back than if they had to spend ages finding their way through a maze and over barriers to do so.

One way of keeping customers aware without ramming branding message down their throats every day is to integrate into target communities as useful members rather than just seeing them as potential sales. People will always favour their friends, so actually being a friend is a good idea. That shouldn’t be any great revelation. Big companies recognise their relative inability to engage with local communities across their range and harness an army of resellers who can better achieve this local involvement. Social networking provides a good alternative channel to local resellers, but not by using the wasteful and annoying blanket broadcasting that we usually see. It needs to be focused. A reseller wouldn’t waste time cold calling every resident in an area just in case. They focus efforts on targets that are likely to buy. They do the customer’s work for them, identifying those for whom a product is suited and then making contact. Being friends also means giving genuine discounts or exclusive deals to regular customers. It doesn’t mean using them to palm off products that you can’t shift through normal channels.

Lifestyle is an easy route too. Everyone lives differently, but many people reveal their lifestyles via magazines or newspapers that they buy, the places they visit, the things they do, and indeed the products and services they buy. These are obviously high value marketing hooks. People like their existing opinions and attitudes to be reaffirmed. Letting them know they have made a good decision buying your product makes them feel better about the spend. It takes skill to package such affirming in a way that it doesn’t come across like the lazy ‘congratulations on buying this’. Providing favourable reviews, news links and ongoing support would soon become spam if used too much, but sparingly and with appropriate products, it can be useful.

Handled properly, excluding employees with deep staff discounts, the most likely person to buy is someone who has bought from you before, then in second place, someone who has bought equivalent products from a competitor, then someone who has a strong proven interest in that field. Much further away is someone with a casual unspecified interest in the area who just happens to have chosen a particular keyword in a search for any reason whatsoever, and in the very far distance, a total stranger. Yet those last two are where most advertising revenue is spent.

Magazines are an excellent platform to reach targeted groups, but they still need the right approach. An advert in a magazine is more likely to be read than one in a newspaper, but is still likely to be ignored. An article by a trusted writer will be read, and if it mentions your product favourably, the trust in the writer transfers to your product. If they already have it, it builds the feel-good factor. Strongly themed magazines form an important part of the self-selected lifestyle choice, especially since people can only buy a few each month, and this trust and identification with its writers can go far beyond the magazine itself, into their social media and blogs, and soon, into their augmented reality as they wander around. As social media continues to expand into the high street with location-based services, that relationship will grow and winning the favour and approval of writers will become a more important part of marketing. Care is needed of course. Writers will not want to appear partial since that would compromise their trust and their following, but providing exclusive information to them and being honest about defects wins support without threatening impartiality.

As we move into the era of augmented reality, companies are already discovering how to use precise location. Today, location doesn’t just rely on GPS or mobile signal strengths. Image recognition can identify a customer and also exactly where they are, what gestures they are making, even the expression on their face. From those and various other contributing factors is evolving the huge technology field called context. Context is very important in knowing whether to give marketing information at all and if so, how and what. It helps make sure that efforts are spent to make customers want to buy rather then to make them avoid you. A family might be interested in meal vouchers when lunchtime is creeping up. If they’ve just eaten (and paid), the same vouchers may be very unwelcome. If I have just bought a car, the last thing I want is proof that I could have got it or a better one cheaper or had some extras thrown in!

As context technology develops in parallel with positioning, image recognition and augmented reality technology, we will see the air around us essentially digitised, context-sensitive messages pinned to every cubic millimetre of the air. Digital air, or virtual air, will be a major new marketing platform that will offer hugely more potential and value than advertising, with far less cost and customer annoyance. It also offers the potential to bombard customers with unwelcome blanket ads too, so it will be easy for the industry to shoot itself in the foot. Not just easy, but probably inevitable in an industry with some players who think it is smart to deliberately offend people. If that happens, spam filters will block such ads and the potential will be damaged irreparably for everyone.

Word of mouth is one of the best forms of marketing. It is free and natural and goes to companies who provide good products or services. In its simplest form, it is like ebay’s  reputation score on Facebook’s ‘like’ button. At a higher detail level, companies such as Trip Advisor make good income by harnessing the desire people have to tell others about their experiences, good or bad. People will often take guidance from strangers when there is no better alternative, and even though everyone knows some reviews are by friends, competitors or by people who have never even had any experience of the supplier, if there are a lot of strangers giving reviews, the assumed probability is that most will be telling the truth and any bias will be reduced.

Even so, these sites don’t reach the same level of trust that people have in their friends and colleagues. We should expect that to be harnessed far more in the next few years. Innovative Amazon is among the leaders as always, trying to harness this with its ‘I just bought’ social network button. However, I’m not at all interested what my friends have bought. I am far more interested in whether it turned out to be a good or a bad buy, and then only if I am looking for something similar. I certainly don’t want spam every time anyone I know buys anything. A service that lets people review stuff and then allows people to see the reviews, sorted according to social proximity of the reviewer would be far better. If such a site already exists, as it may well do, I am not yet exposed to it, so it has its own marketing to do. So what is needed would be a site like Trip Advisor, but with a social proximity selector that strips away reviews from friends and competitors, restricts to those who have actually purchased, and then sorted according to social proximity with the reader. By linking to your other social network sites, and identifying your friends and colleagues, it would be able to show you any reviews from that group.

Unfortunately, we already see a rising barrier to this kind of development. Too often, companies want access to our social networks to do push marketing to a broader community of relevance, to make personalized ads, and essentially to use our contacts to abuse us even more efficiently. That is an industry destroying its own future prospects. By misusing the potential to do its push marketing today, it is destroying the potential to do far more effective pull marketing tomorrow. It gets a tiny benefit today at the expense of a huge one tomorrow. Most of us have already become wary of allowing access to our contacts lists because we already assume for good reason that they will be abused. Spam filters quickly remove any short-term benefit they may have won, and prevent future mutual benefit.

Most of these areas of future potential share the same threat of destruction by the very industry that can benefit most. Marketing will move from push to pull whether marketers want it to or not. By trying to force the worst practices from the push era onto the areas that offer the best potential in the pull era, they will only ensure that marketing will remain an underachiever. Sadly, a few players today can and probably will ruin it for many tomorrow. The result is that marketers will marginalize themselves, making themselves relatively powerless in a world where they could have been powerful.

People will find what they want, and what their friends think of things, but they will do so via sites and intermediary companies who respect them, respect their privacy, and give them what they want, not what they try hard to avoid getting, not via push marketers. Pull marketing done well will go to new players who have no time for the old practices and values, to people who want to improve the lives of others by helping them make the right purchasing decisions, not trying to make them buy the wrong ones.  The likely mechanism for this is use of social networking sites that have a different business model than selling adverts – perhaps even ones with the primary purpose of helping the community and improving quality of life rather than making money.

Marketing will evolve from fiend to friend. Hopefully it will be by the fiends reforming, rather than simply dying.

Drone Delivery: Technical feasibility does not guarantee market success

One of my first ever futurology articles explained why Digital Compact Cassette wouldn’t succeed in the marketplace and I was proved right. It should have been obvious from the outset that it wouldn’t fly well, but it was still designed, manufactured and shipped to a few customers.

Decades on, I had a good laugh yesterday reading about the Amazon drone delivery service. Yes, you can buy drones; yes, they can carry packages, and yes, you can make them gently place a package on someone’s doorstep. No, it won’t work in the marketplace. I was asked by the BBC Radio 4 to explain on air, but the BBC is far more worried about audio quality than content quality and I could only do the interview from home, so they decided not to use me after all (not entirely fair – I didn’t check who they actually used and it might have been someone far better).

Anyway, here’s what I would have said:

The benefits are obvious. Many of the dangers are also obvious, and Amazon isn’t a company I normally associate with stupidity, so they can’t really be planning to go all the way. Therefore, this must be a simple PR stunt, and the media shouldn’t be such easy prey for free advertising.

Very many packages are delivered to homes and offices every day. If even a small percentage were drone-delivered, the skies will be full of drones. Amazon would only control some of them. There would be mid-air collisions between drones, between drones and kites and balloons, with new wind turbines, model aeroplanes and helicopters, even with real emergency helicopters. Drones with spinning blades would be dropping out of the sky frequently, injuring people, damaging houses and gardens, onto roads, causing accidents. People would die.

Drones are not silent. A lot of drones would make a lot of extra ambient noise in an environment where noise pollution is already too high. They are also visible, creating another nuisance visual disturbance.

Kids are mischievous. Some adults are mischievous, some criminal, some nosey, some terrorists. I can’t help wonder what the life expectancy of a drone would be if it is delivering to a housing estate full of kids like the one I was. If I was still a kid, I’d be donning a mask (don’t want Amazon giving my photo to the police) and catching them, making nets to bring them down and stringing wires between buildings on their normal routes, throwing stones at them, shooting them with bows and arrows, Nerf guns, water pistols, flying other toy drones into their paths. I’d be tying all sorts of other things onto them for their ongoing journey. I’d be having a lot of fun on the black market with all the intercepted goods too.

If I were a terrorist, and if drones were becoming common delivery tools, I’d buy some and put Amazon labels on them, or if I’m short of cash, I’d hijack a few, pay kids pocket money to capture them, and after suitable mods, start using them to deliver very nasty packages precisely onto doorsteps or spray lethal concoctions into the air above specific locations.

If I were just criminal, I’d make use of the abundance of drones to make my own less conspicuous, so that I could case homes for burglaries, spy on businesses with cameras and intercept their wireless signals, check that an area is free of police, or get interesting videos for my voyeur websites. Maybe I’d add a blinding laser into them to attack any police coming into the scene of my crime, giving valuable extra time without giving my location away.

There are also social implications: jobs in Amazon, delivery and logistics companies would trade against drone manufacturing and management. Neighbours might fall out if a house frequently gets noisy deliveries from a drone while people are entering and leaving an adjacent door or relaxing in the garden, or their kids are playing innocently in the front garden as a drone lands very close by. Drone delivery would be especially problematic when doorways are close together, as they often are in cities.

Drones are good fun as toys and for hobbies, in low numbers. They are also useful for some utility and emergency service tasks, under supervision. They are really not a good solution for home delivery, even if technically it can be done. Amazon knows that as well as I do, and this whole thing can only be a publicity stunt. And if it is, well, I don’t mind, I had a lot of fun with it anyway.