Facebook, Textbook and Screens: A Paradox in Communication

So much has been written and said about Facebook, but we seem to have overlooked something rather significant about the popular social networking site: Facebook is really “Textbook” because it primarily connects people text-to-text. Granted, most social networking applications (sites) intend to and often do facilitate or enhance in-person communication. We’re all delighted when we hear the anecdotes about people who reconnect with estranged parents, siblings, and friends because of social networking. Great. But, the fact remains that nearly all of the communication is really just short bursts of text typed to and then read on a screen.

Screen. This is the word that really caught my attention while reflecting on the modern revolution in communication. There can be no argument that the primary technical interface for all of our modern communication is a screen. Screens abound, and they are multiplying in phones, e-readers, gaming, and more. Surely, these screens have vastly increased the connections between people. I’m in touch with hundreds of friends, and thousands of strangers through screens. Yet—a screen is a paradox. While it does make these connections possible, it also limits their quality. This should be no surprise: the word screen (prior to the technical revolution) was used to refer to a barrier. The definition of a screen is: “something that shelters, protects, or hides” (Merriam-Webster).

My primary profession is driving new business development through strategic relationships with different companies. What I know is that one of the most important aspects of my success in those efforts is that I emphasize actual in-person, face-to-face communication. While I believe remote video conferencing can be very useful in many contexts, there is no substituting the unique power of direct in-person discussions. It is easier to build trust, resolve differences, and creatively collaborate when people are sitting around the same table. There are subtle clues and signals that we each offer up, often unintentionally, that allow us all to adjust our tone, approach, and elocution to greatest effect.

Remote conferencing technology is still in infancy, in my view. And, it will advance considerably in the next 3 years. As the whole area develops, maybe Facebook will become less “Textbook”. I welcome all these changes, and I’ll adopt them as they help me become increase efficiencies and cut some costs. At the same time, I’ll patiently endure the indignities of the TSA, delayed flights, and hotel banality, because I know that one in-person visit with the executive team of a potential business partner will allow for efficiencies and trust that a screen inherently limits.

–John R. Durant © 2011



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Probabilistic Promotion

In a blog post on 12 Nov. Dan Ariely, popular evangelist of behavioral economics, advanced an idea to promote his latest book, “The Upside of Irrationality”. The idea is: If you were to buy the book in any version by Nov 20th you could be selected at random to have dinner with him (you need to register on a site with your receipt to be eligible). It’s a smart idea—especially (and only) if there are enough people who would like to watch you power down a few crab cakes while also asking you tons of questions. I suspect Dan was not worried about the size of his fan base, so his promotion is likely to be a success. He’s a true marketer.

This idea of probabilistic promotion is all about giving people an extra incentive to make a purchasing decision within some specific timeframe. There are, of course, a lot of ways to promote a product. Those of us in marketing become familiar with these. For example, typical sales promotion techniques include (these are just a few among very many):

  • Price reduction
  • Coupons
  • Rebate
  • Loyalty programs
  • Contest/Sweepstakes
  • Game

The “probabilistic promotion” that Dan employs is a type of contest or game (they are not always the synonymous). What Dan introduces is an element of chance that is, at least in my view, pretty enticing—you buy the book, but you might also get to have dinner with Dan as a “bonus”. Another type of probabilistic promotion that we are familiar with is the games that soda manufactures create. All you have to do to play is buy a soda and look at the printed “cap code”. Sometimes you instantly win. However, if you go to a Web site and input the cap code you become eligible for some big prizes (although it’s hard to imagine a prize bigger than dinner with Dan!). Marketers know very well the conversion rate on these cap code games/sweepstakes and their effectiveness in moving product.

As consumers, we tend to look at the “wins” in these probabilistic promotions as bonuses. But, how much is this really so? The question is not whether it’s a bonus to get a free soda, free Corvette ZR1 (very nice!), or the chance to watch Dan polish off some sushi is a bonus. Rather—what becomes interesting is finding out the extent to which the “bonus” enticement was what motivated the purchasing decision.

On one end of things, the consumer made the purchase solely to get the “bonus” item. It defies commonsense to think that many people would do this, but some actually do nonetheless. For example, most people who want dinner with Dan would find his book interesting (IOW: they didn’t just pick “having dinner with Dan Ariely” out of thin air as their pursuit). They arrived at that idea because they like his books and blog posts. We can imagine that this group is the largest population. On the other end of the spectrum are people who may win but could care very little or not at all about the promotion. Smart marketers will close the loop and determine how much impact the promotion had on the purchasing decision of a given population. Dan has announced the winner of his promotion and advanced some observations about its effectiveness.

–John R. Durant

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Rational Decisions & Elevators

In one of the buildings at Microsoft there are three elevator stacks. Two going from the 1st floor (or rez-de-chaussee as we say in France) to the 5th (top) floor, and one that goes from the parking garage to the 5th floor. If a person is on the 1st floor and presses the button to summon an elevator—the elevator that is closest to the 1st floor will arrive and open. In other words: all three are intended to be used from the 1st to 5th floors. But, if a person is in the parking garage (where elevator 3 can reach) only a person moving freight can use the elevator. The following sign is posted:


However, go up one floor, and the so-called “freight elevator” (it looks just like the other elevators but is slightly larger) is fine to use. Go to the parking garage and it’s off limits for nearly everyone.

Most people park in the garage (one of the great designs on the Microsoft campus is that the vast majority of parking is underground, so it is a more attractive campus as seen below), and they either walk around and take the stairs to the 1st floor or disobey the sign and take the 3rd elevator that is supposedly off limits.

A lot of people disregard the sign. Why? Probably, because most people see the lack of logic in the directive to not use this elevator. By walking up one flight of stairs, the same elevator can be used for non-freight conveyance.

The real intent of whoever posted the sign was probably a sensible desire: keep the freight elevator available for freight when it is needed (which is quite infrequent throughout the day compared to the normal trips the elevator makes).

To solve the problem, I recommend an idea that will fulfill these two requirements:

1) Make the freight elevator as available as possible for freight. For example, corporate movers do not want to be dramatically slowed down as they wait repeatedly for people to stop using the freight elevator from any floor.

2) Allow normal passengers to use the freight elevator as much as possible while also allowing them to avoid the delays that occur when the elevator is being used for freight. They would rather just take the stairs and go to the 1st floor and use one of the other elevators in this case. It speeds their trips in all cases.

To do this, the solution is simple but two-fold:

1) As it is already—people who are not visitors in a building have to have a special card to gain access to the building. As a person who wants to haul freight approaches the elevator and scans the card, the elevator goes into “freight mode”. The elevator is then reserved for some special period of time, configurable on a keypad, just for the freight purpose. People moving freight here will then have exclusive use for a period of time. In summary: To enable the scenario just put a small piece of info on the card of class of employees who would need to move freight.

2) Have a small light that signals to normal passengers that the freight elevator is in use for that purpose (maybe a countdown clock that signals how much time is left in the reserved period). That way, if a person approaches the elevator, he or she will know that it is probably just better to walk up to the 1st floor and catch another elevator.

It’s a low-cost and simple solution mostly leveraging a system that’s already in place. It also maximizes the usage of all elevators (gets people to work more quickly, saves time and frustration). It’s also logical!


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Irrational Decisions in Disasters: The Behaviors of Evacuation

Watching the news, there seems to be a cataclysm in play somewhere any day of the week. Among them are the wildfires scorching parts of California. News reports often feature people in evacuation who are scrambling to fetch personal items from their homes as the danger creeps closer to home. I’m rather intrigued by what people grab from their endangered home in this context. I am unable to find a deliberate study of this emotionally charged decision scene. It strikes me as a valuable scenario to understand the role of emotion in forced decision situations.

Usually, evacuees have little control over the following parameters in responding to request to retrieve personal items before vacating. For example, the event that triggers the entire scenario is out of anyone’s control as the is the announcement of the  impending evacuation. Added to that, an official from law enforcement or the government establishes the deadline for vacating one’s home, and evacuees will only be allowed to return at some unknown future date. Unless there is no place to which they can return.

All of this adds up to an emotionally charged situation, and some key decisions must be made. Adding to the difficulty is that residents are usually learning all the rules of disaster response while in the disaster. They’re among the primary actors, but they are also learning their part in media res. Ultimately, people must quickly decide what to retrieve from their doomed home. Logic would likely lead one to fetch the following items:

  • Immunization Records and Medical History
  • Copies of Recent Medical Tests
  • Passports
  • Medical Directives
  • Living Will, or Last Will & Testament
  • Power of Attorney
  • Financial and Investment Paperwork

    The loss of these items will surely create tons of chaos in a persons life, potentially even causing the loss of life (eg: a person is injured while at a temporary shelter, but the lack of quickly accessible medical information from home causes confusion).

    But, are these the items most people think to grab first? While I have no empirical data (as I noted at the outset), I would wager that most people would feel compelled to rescue family photos, their 12-year old dog, or some treasured family heirloom first. Let’s assume for a moment that this is so. The reasons why are less about cold logic and have more to do with matters of the heart—but this does not make them any less important or measureable.

    Marketing experts have long known that people behave differently (make different purchasing decisions) depending on their mood the state of their emotions. One of the goals of marketing is to create an environment wherein the consumer feels good and can link, often subconsciously, that feeling to a product or service. For example, a marketer for an automobile manufacturer will want a so-called “soccer mom” to link the emotional attachment and devotion she has for her family to a mini-van. The message: “This car will help you have memorable and cherished experiences with your kids. You’ll be a better mom.”

    As I watch fires, floods, and f5 tornadoes cause people to scramble back to their homes to save what they can I wonder how different their decisions would be if the circumstances were presented differently. Is there a way to decrease the role of emotion in this decision scenario? I think so. For example, what if all people who own homes in wildfire-prone areas were required to have fire-proof safes in order to purchase homeowner’s insurance? What if communities and industry worked harder to leverage central, secure, and redundant storage of all medical and other official information so that personal soft-copies were no longer necessary? What if communities had better and more fully embraced disaster plans so that evacuees were not given the crash course on Evacuation 101 the day of the disaster? These questions, when answered with concrete plans, can go a long way toward a better evacuation experience, an experience that affects millions of people each year.


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