How can you be a better predictor? Get foxy.

Nate Silver, statistician, first became noticed in the political world when he correctly guessed the outcome of 49 out of the 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. This year, he topped his election record by predicting outcomes of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Needless to say, his book released in September 2012 about making predictions, The Signal and the Noise, shot up to the bestseller list for nonfiction and was named’s #1 best nonfiction book of 2012.

There are many different areas of life where accurate predictions come in handy: From the housing markets to political outcomes, from the weather to baseball, there are things that we want to be able to predict so we feel better equipped to handle the future.

When you’re listening to experts on the news, what should you be looking for to know for sure that they are a better predictor? How can you think to become a better predictor? Silver cites Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor in the 1980s, for the answer. Tetlock administered surveys asking experts to predict a variety of events between the 1980s and 1990s, and found he could divide these people into two distinct categories: hedgehogs and foxes.

Tetlock received this analogy from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who received the comparison from the poet Archilochus. The fragment of one of his poems says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehogs are generally the experts you see when you turn on your television. In politics, they’re interesting to watch because they stick with one candidate, even when the polls appear to be saying something different. They believe in big ideas and governing principles, generally using one or a few of these to explain everything that happens in society. Silver uses the examples of “Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the ‘tipping point’” (Silver, 53). While simplistic might not be the accurate term for them, hedgehogs do strive to tie in all of their guiding principles into one large idea, and reject any notion that doesn’t fit into their big idea of the universe. Because of their bias and mindset, they might ignore clues that would lead their predictions to become more accurate.

Foxes, in contrast, don’t get as much air time. They are more able to see complexities and nuances, and believe in a lot of little ideas and using as many approaches as necessary to solve a problem. Isaiah Berlin uses examples like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Balzac, and Joyce as thinkers that use their many and varied experiences to form conclusions, instead of focusing on one big idea. They are more comfortable adjusting their predictions if there is evidence that they should do so. Because of their thought process, they might raise doubt over political candidates and qualify their predictions with a degree of probability. In politics, this means they aren’t as interesting to watch.

Any time you are working to predict the success of something in your day-to-day work, think about how you’re approaching that forecast. Are you using one technique that you have used for years; one that doesn’t allow room for adjustments if it doesn’t work out as planned, or are you willing to try options, leave room for doubt, and adjust as necessary to more accurately foresee an outcome? If you are a fox, the latter will apply.

So, how should you think? Use information instead of ignoring what doesn’t fit into your main idea, change with that information, and make the best forecast you can today, every day. Just remember to stay foxy.

The Social Bucket List

Applications and social startups are born at a faster rate than babies in the boomer generation by hopeful entrepreneurs anxious to be the next Mark Zuckerberg and Biz Stone. The majority of these startups never get off the ground, but a tiny fraction of them have the formidable combination of – a smart idea, unmet need, monetary support and most importantly, the agility and wherewithal to adapt and evolve – that ultimately launches them into the arms of Early Adopters.

One startup that’s caught my attention is the freshly released social start up, WhereBerry. The brainchild of Nick Baum and Bill Ferrell, former Google techies, seems like it could have a fighting chance.

Most social networks capitalize on what we’ve done in the past or what we’re doing now. The logical next step is for people to share what they want to do in the future. WhereBerry, which opened to the public last week, allows people to post activities they want to do… someday – from restaurants they want to eat at, to movies they want to see, to places they want to visit – people can organize and store their desires in one convenient place, turning the familiar “bucket list” virtual, and most importantly, social.

As a society of “dreamers” it is in our nature to make plans and set goals. As a rising society of “sharers” it is in our nature to broadcast these plans to friends. WhereBerry seems to have what it takes to capitalize on these popular behaviors. But it is at a fragile and vulnerable state in its growth, where important decisions can either make or break its success. I believe that if they can successfully accomplish the following, they could in fact be the next big thing:

  1. Community & Groups: With the rising popularity of social networks, we not only want to share, we want to be part of a community or group. What users of WhereBerry are going to want next is the ability to join together with others around entertaining, thrilling, educational and delicious activities. Providing users the ability to share plans with smaller, private groups will not only be a feature users are interested in using, but will allow the application to spread virally as friends plan together.
  2. Sharing on Steroids: The sharing is currently very straightforward: add to your list, post to your wall, see your friends’ to-dos in your feed, etc. WhereBerry should evolve the “share factor” by using a more complex formula – connecting people who have similar interests, presenting users with to-dos that seem to match with their trends (and location), suggesting plans their friends have, and more. The key is, users want the service to do the work for them and provide them with value they wouldn’t have on their own.
  3. Competition and Achievements: Based on your bucket list and the items you accomplish, users should be able to achieve recognition or status for their completed tasks (e.g. Advanced Foodie, Dare Devil, Movie Buff, etc.). This brings a level of competition to the utility and drives participation, stretching users to try more and more – and therefore use the social network more.
  4. Businesses & Brands: Selling this idea to brands by presenting the benefits to their business and getting them involved will provide substance to network by providing users with recommendations, deals and rewards, and will be the push to eventually turning this start-up into a money maker.
  5. Continuous Evolution: WhereBerry needs to pay close attention to analytics, use, feedback, and the industry as a whole to learn what users want. They need to quickly evolve, adapt, grow, simplify, and integrate in order to meet users’ rising expectations.

The tech world today is a rough one to survive in, and the get-rich-quick theory very rarely applies. In 3-5 years we may see WhereBerry checking “10 Million Users” off their bucket list. Or we may be asking, “What’s WhereBerry? A new BlackBerry device?”

PR 2.0: Working with the media

I recently attended a luncheon held by the Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter of PRSA. The event featured a panel discussion with Mark Kass, editor of The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, Jim Nelson, Politifact editor and deputy business editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Steve Jagler, executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

The well-respected trio participated in a great discussion on what lies ahead in 2011, how their respective publications are adjusting in an ever-changing media landscape and how PR professionals can more efficiently work with them.

This post will touch on a few highlights and how PR professionals can stay on the media’s radar.

My guess is the points below will ring true with a lot of you or serve as a reminder on how to conduct media relations 2.0, but it never hurts to have a quick refresher. They don’t cover the entire discussion but cover segments I found particularly interesting. Without further ado:

Embrace online exposure – The hard copies aren’t dead (publishers are nodding vigorously in agreement). But PR folks need to continue to counsel clients that online exposure is just as good as print coverage, if not better. Jim Nelson said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gets as many as 2 million hits a day. That’s a big audience. Compare that to the print circulation of 183,636 during the week and 331,171 on Sundays. Between online stories, blogs, e-newsletters and live updates, there are plenty of opportunities to garner publicity.

Think like a reporter, better yet a TV reporter – Think visually and for ways your story can have legs itself. How can you make this story more appealing, even if it isn’t for a TV station? Utilize those Flip cams and iPhones, and edit footage back at the office. Offer the footage to compliment your pitch or news release. Steve Jagler said it a number of times, “We’re a multimedia company now.”

Have a spokesperson ready 24/7 – News moves fast these days. Really fast. The news media world is a competitive business and PR professionals need to be able to act quickly. Have a spokesperson always ready to speak on breaking news. Work with the media. Mark Kass said, “Our story will run whether you comment or not. You have to decide whether you have your say.”

Look for unconventional opportunitiesThe Business Journal of Greater Milwaukee’sForty Under 40” annually honors 40 up-and-comers in the community under 40. It’s a great way to see who the new leaders are in the area. Mark Kass mentioned that they receive close to 300 nominations for the program. Tough odds, to be sure. However, he said they don’t just toss the 260 or so nominees that don’t make the list (yes, I can do basic math). He hands them out to his staff and has them hold onto them for potential profile pieces or to use as experts/sources down the road. Unconventional opportunity but a good one.

Engage social media – All three editors couldn’t stress it enough. It’s happening and it’s here to stay. Get clients involved or be left behind.

So those are just a few of the nuggets I found interesting. Please share ideas and input below.

Death Where is Thy Sting?

Dark thoughts started with e-mail from our executive producer in Chicago. He sent a link to a podcast called What’s Next for Advertising from National Public Radio (an ad free medium ironically).

Catching up after three days in the Chequamegon National Forest, this e-mail found me receptive to primal concerns. It was a slight adjustment from questions like, “Is that wolf poop?” to being in the right frame of mind to think about professional survival.

I just knew a show about the future of advertising had to have a Shakespearean plot to it. The final scene of Act III would end with the stage littered with bodies.

I listened and I wasn’t disappointed.

Mass media dies. The big agencies are next to go. After all, why would a consumer listen to an ad when a blogger can tell them what to buy? The podcast goes way beyond the killing of Madmen, too. It also predicts the end of mass marketing. Not even Proctor & Gamble comes out this story alive.

The argument goes that without mass media, mass-market brands can’t do the volume they require. Something about efficiencies getting lost. It’s hard to survive inefficiency. There is no known cure.

But then things get brighter. There are some Utopian speculations about how more “backyard” brands will pop-up and inherit the earth. I hear birds chirping and butterflies fluttering. As the media fragments, it gets more specialized, actually helping niche brands find niche markets.

For big brands life just gets a little more complicated. The challenge will be to partner with the media and create big audiences – more like the old days than the nowadays really.

What will remain a challenge for both large brands and small is to have ideas. They’ll need concepts around which to organize their marketing. They’ll need us.

Things aren’t as scary as they seem. Yes, it was wolf poop. Yes, my dog and I are still here.

Taking the Unthinkable for Granted.

A great tweet earlier this week from @davidwain re-focused me on just how much I take for granted.

This is insane – type in literally anything and hit return – watch what happens 7:14 PM Aug 24th from Tweetie

And then I saw this video. Itʼs about the future of newspapers on your home computer. And itʼs absolutely surreal. There are ideas that are surprisingly right and so much that is really wrong. But it made me think. As we look out to the horizon, what inconceivable concepts (that need to be introduced with the words, “Imagine if you will…”) will we be taking for granted next?

Increasing Your Odds by Rethinking The Rules

David v. GoliathA great Malcolm Gladwell article titled How David Beats Goliath references a study done by political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft. Toft studied 200 years of “asymmetric conflicts” on the battlefield. As a lifelong fan of the underdog, I
was curious about the numbers behind the “itʼs why they play the game” adage. It turned out David may just be the new Goliath. Three things jumped out:

Power is good, but itʼs no guarantee. Davidʼs odds werenʼt as bad as youʼd think. Of the 200 conflicts studied between 1800-2003, David won 28.5% of the time.

The times (and odds) are changing. Between 1800-49, the stronger side won 88% of the conflicts studied. That number dropped to 80% between 1850-99 and dropped (again) to 65% between 1900-49. Between 1950-99, it dropped, wait for it, to only 49%. Now, on average, the strong side possessed ten times the power – where “power” is measured in terms of armed forces and population – than their adversaries. And between the years 1950-99, they lost more than they won.

Itʼs about making your own rules. Why would you play by the rules that Goliath has already won on (see: Google)? When a David wins, it tends to do so by changing the rules. In his study, Toft found that by choosing an
unconventional strategy, the underdogʼs winning percentage went from 28.5% to 63.6%.

Whether you are a David or a Goliath, these are points worth noting.

Don’t Lose The Trees Through The Forest

facebook_demographic_growth_2009In our ongoing pursuit of actionable insights, we track trends. Like the fact that in the last month, the 55+ crowd on Facebook increased by about 76%. That’s staggering for one month. It’s led to a tectonic shift. There are now more people over 35 on Facebook than under 24. Let’s hold on while all the college kids reading this immediately shut down their Facebook accounts. Okay, ready? Back to it.

Huge, big, cultural-shifting numbers are great. But the promise of tracking – particularly when it comes to social media – is that we can pinpoint… people.

So, headlines-be-damned, we can learn things like: There are 3,100 people in Portland, Maine who “like coffee” enough to make it a part of their Facebook profile. And that number jumps to 10,920 people for Portland, Oregon.

For a brand that understand where it’s going and how to get there, the possibilities – and opportunities – are endless.

How To Get People Talking

Social media is great because it gets people talking. And talking is good. We want people to talk. We design our products and plan our events to encourage it. We make sure our website experience is pass-on-able and that our in-store experience is worthy of a recommendation. Anything to get those moms / tweens / boomers talking.

And while each of those is a valuable tool towards generating talk-value, there is a tactic that is often – surprisingly – overlooked.

A new study, co-authored by Ed Keller (who also wrote “The Influentials”) finds that 22% of word-of-mouth conversations were sparked directly by… advertising. Further, the study found an even higher proportion of online buzz – 30% – generated by ads. Important to note: those numbers may in reality be higher, as they do not account for
the indirect influence of advertising.

Of the potentially important implications to walk away with, the big one to me is this: The 22% of conversations sparked directly by advertising were “much more likely” to include brand recommendations than the remaining 78% of brand-related conversations.

So if you want to get people talking about you – in a good way – thereʼs an often overlooked tool you may want to consider. Itʼs called breakthrough advertising creative.

Lies, Damn Lies and Click-Through Rates

Lies_damn_liesStatistics are good. No, statistics are great. The ability to quantify actions and reactions? Powerful stuff. Especially in the world of marketing. But as the amount of data at our disposal grows daily, understanding its context is becoming even more essential.

Our latest reminder comes from iProspect. Theyʼve been studying the relationship between display advertising and search engine marketing. Spoiler alert: When done well, they both work. But the statistic that caught my eye

While 52% of consumers report actively responding to display advertising, only
31% do so by clicking on the ad itself.

Thatʼs 31%. Thirty. One. Percent.

What are the “other” actions taken? 27% reported searching for the product, brand or company using a search engine. Another 21% reported typing the web address into their browser and navigating to the site. There are many implications from this single graph. But letʼs start here.

We have often said that display advertising gets you more than click-through rates. Brand awareness, for starters. But, if these numbers are to be believed, click-through rates only tell about half the story. Or, more accurately, about a third.

The Medium is the Message

Coined by Marshall McLuhan, the phrase was meant to suggest that there is a “symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.” A recent study suggest another possible meaning. Being “on air” – in paid or earned media – is a message in itself.

This morning, Emarketer, reported that 48% of Internet users who noticed a decline in ads from a bank believed the bank must be struggling. 12% believed it might not be in business much longer. Similar perceptions were identified when judging retailers – at 56% and 15%, respectively.

There is no doubt, times are tough. But doing nothing sends a message, too.