Another Marketing Conference, part one – the best morning sessions.

Yesterday I went to Another Marketing Conference. I honestly can’t tell if the title is just tipping over into smug, but in the balance of things that doesn’t matter, because it was a good conference.

There was an enjoyable blend of theoretical and practical, and enough inter-disciplinary spread to keep my inner dilettante grinning from ear to ear. Sure, there was a bumpy bit in the middle, with two back-to-back sales pitches and a rather thin overview of the state of the web. But the signal:noise ratio at AMC2012 was impressively high.

Here’s the first part of my write-up of the sessions. It’s a bit of a mammoth. It’s also a bit of a mash-up of what was said and what I thought about it. I’ll add links to the videos and slides from the sessions as they become available.

You can find the write-up of the afternoon sessions here.

Although it was in the morning session, I’ve not included Vanessa Northam’s session on the power of internal comms to build brand ambassadors. It’ll be in the next roundup, as this is already pushing 2.5k words.

First, the important stuff. I was keeping a tally, and nobody said “synergy” or “leverage”. I did, however, hear the term “marketeers” six times. Shame on you – you know who you are.

1 – Branding in a post-digital world, Graham Hales

Slides are here

This initially looked like being a sales presentation for Interbrand, but Graham pulled it out of the bag a few minutes in. He introduced a model for brand management that was essentially Plan >> Do >> Check >> Act, with Do and Check rolled up together, and went on to stress that this looks like on overall business management model for a reason. Brand has to be part of your overall business strategy and metrics if you’re going to care about it at all.

This was the first iteration of what proved to be one of the event’s emergent themes: do it throughout the stack or don’t bother.

Graham went on to remind us that brands, in so far as they are owned at all, are owned by and co-created with our customers. Advertising can offer a message to customers, but they provide the expression of a brand. This was a preface to talking about an increasingly chaotic marketplace, with increasingly hard-to-manage purchase processes.

Services like Amazon reviews and TripAdvisor (four presenters would make this point) saturate customers with information, and give them a kind of vigilante power to comment on and define brands. Consequentially, they experience a number of “moments of deflection” in our sales funnels. Our control is lessened, and failure to engage can negatively-impact buying decisions increasingly poorly.

The clearest example given was the failure of NatWest’s “caring bank” campaign, where staff in branches, customer support, and online presences didn’t align. A discontinuity of experience basically made the campaign worthless, and disgruntled customers talked about it loudly on social media. This in turn presented an opportunity to engage and show caring, but that wasn’t taken.

What I took away was that brand (co)creation is ongoing and needs monitoring and metrics. But reciprocally, given you get what you measure, strategy and metrics must include brand if any kind of branding is to work at all. Campaigns and messages must permeate product and service design.

What that doesn’t mean (and Graham didn’t say it did) is putting Marketing at the top of the pyramid, and having them bawl demands at Product Management, Support, and Development like an entitled toddler. It’s going to have to be collaborative, and session 6 on internal comms handled this really well.

The main thing missing here was substantiating data, and the main question I found myself chewing on was: if we’re building brands collaboratively and in the open, what about the cultural politics of trolling?

2 – Challenging our core beliefs about human behaviour, Mark Earls

This was definitely the best show of the day. It was also some of the best content.

Mark talked us through nudging, behavioural economics, and some key misconceptions around decision making. Basically, people aren’t rational, they’re petty, reactive, emotional sacks of meat, and they’ll go where they’re led. Comforting stuff.

Examples given were the spread of the London Riots and the “discovery” of the mountains of Kong, and the popularity of Susan Boyle, which, in turn made me think about Per Mollerup’s concept of “social wayshowing”.

Mark boiled his thoughts down into four key points which I completely failed to write down word for word:

  1. People do, then think – Changing minds to change behaviour doesn’t work. Post-rationalization rules the day. See also: mere exposure effects.
  2. Spock < Kirk – Emotional/intuitive comes first, then we rationalize impulses. The non-thinking, emotive, reactive processes run much faster than the deliberative ones. People are not really rational decision makers, so intervening with information may not be appropriate.
  3. Maximisers or satisficers? – Related to the last point. People do not consistently, rationally, maximise. When faced with an abundance of choice, they prefer to satisfice than evaluate, and will often follow social leads rather than think.
  4. Things tend to converge – Behaviour trends to a consensus normal. When faced with choices people overwhelmingly just do what they see others doing.

Humans are extraordinarily good at mirroring behaviours and receiving influence. People “outsource the cognitive load” of choices to the crowd.

Mark’s headline quote was probably “the real influence happens at the table next to you”. Reference examples, word of mouth, and social influence are tremendously important, and so talking about product experiences may be more important than talking about products.

This reminded me of Kathy Sierra’s “creating bad-ass users” concept of designing to make people more awesome rather than products they like. If we can expose user-awesome, and make sharing easy, we can normalise the behaviours we want. If we normalize the behaviours we want, people should make and post-rationalize the buying decisions we want.

Where we need to be: “A bigger boy made me do it”

Where we are: “a wizard did it and ran away”

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that some purchasing decisions are personal and informed rather than social and reactive. There’s a quadrant diagram, in fact.

What was really interesting, though, towards the end of the talk, was some advice for working out how social your products might be. The standard technology adoption lifecycle graph is essentially about social product diffusion. So this idea isn’t really new. Geoffrey Moore’s “chasm” idea may not strictly apply. However, his concepts of beachheads and reference segments are exactly what is required to normalize and thus enable purchase decisions (behaviour change).

The final thing is that in only very few categories does a better product actually affect purchase decision. Where the choice is personal and informed, this is true. But where it’s personal and impulsive, or in any way social, “better” is trumped by popularity, endorsement, or “point of sale salience”.

UX, UCD, and e-commerce know this to be true. A better (and easier) experience will always beat “more features”. Easy to use, and easy to observe being used will beat “what the user says they want”.

This made me think about the astounding stickiness of rational fallacies, “common sense” and the pathological willful simplifications of the media. Rational fallacies seem like they’re basically the heuristics we use for post-rationalization. If I were profoundly grimy and cynical, I’d suggest deploying a boat-load in our messaging, to see if they’re really as sticky and appealing as they look.

4 – Changing behaviour through communication, Stephen Donajgrodzki

Slides are here

This was a fantastic follow up to Mark’s session. Stephen basically talked us through some tactics used in public information/health comms that implement the kind of behavioural theory Mark introduced. The session was largely about how to get people to do (good) things they’re predisposed not to do, and how communication can (and can’t) make positive interventions.

A couple of things stood out, in particular “implementation intentions” and how they can be linked to goals. For example, in order to get people to check and test their smoke alarms (a goal intention, rarely actualized an information campaign will attempt to link this activity to the clocks going back or forward (a strong implementation intention, well-actualized).

The talk reinforced the idea that making behaviour changes easy and visible normalizes them and makes them more likely to succeed. To do this, they have to be embodied throughout a product and service cycle. Experiential disconnects undermine the normalization.

So campaigns, products, and customer interactions must be aligned.

This is underscored by the second section of the presentation, which talked about interventions and pre-conditions for change. Taking the examples of drug addiction and stopping smoking, Stephen showed us a framework for attempting (and succeeding or failing in) behaviour change. He noted that when the change is something people fundamentally want to do, and that is easy, this gets a to simpler.

  1. Coordinated, easily-observed environmental pressures create preconditions for change and build motivation. (price, pub smoking ban, ad campaigns, friend quitting, declining social acceptability)
  2. A triggering even leads to a change attempt. (getting a cold and panicking about how bad the cough is)
  3. Interventions can be made to enable an attempt (NHS services, public information, nicotine patches)
  4. If it succeeds – yay. If it fails, there’s strong negative enforcement.

Triggering events seem largely personal, but messaging can intervene in the creation of preconditions and in supporting decisions.

Stephen talked more about systems of thinking and “bounded rationality”. The idea being that to enable change you need to break through “automatic” thinking into “reflective” thinking. Disruption and emotion are great tools for this, but that is only the start of the process.

It occurs to me that a great deal of market research is focused on determining triggers rather than analysing necessary preconditions. Although they are presumably related.

The final section talked about setting goals.

Marketing goals are often seen as deriving directly from business goals. However, marketing may be unable to deliver on these directly where decision and behaviour-change processes are involved. In those cases, marketing and communication goals should be to create preconditions. They should also consider priming and norms.

Content marketing and brand awareness are good first steps here, as brands can be heuristics in decision making for choice-saturated consumers, or those seeking education.

5 – The power of engaged communities and how to build them, Harriet Minter (the Guardian)

The meat of this was that you need to let communities define and establish themselves, and be quick to react to their needs.

Harriet had been in charge of building the Guardian’s community sites, and learned a lot about how they come together, stabilize grow, and react. Crucially, they can’t be about sales or push messaging. A community is not just an audience. It’s essential to start with what this particular segment or tribe are interested in, then what they want to hear. Eventually you can consider – in light of this – what they might want to buy, but you can’t start with the product. A community won’t cohere around one you’re pushing.

Her tips for community building were (again, sorry, not verbatim):

  • Set goals Have some targets. Community building sounds vague and fluffy, but you can have (and adjust) concrete goals.
  • Think like a start-up This is the “lean” stuff. Try things, fail quickly, respond.
  • Don’t restrict platforms Let the audience choose them, and be aware of their differences. For example, LinkedIn is very different to Twitter.
  • Track your stats Related to the first point. Keeping an eye on the numbers lets you respond. They should be qualified, however. If you want a community of enterprise decision makers, headcount alone may be a bad metric – have you got CIOs, or just people who want to get jobs by mingling with CIOs?
  • Build brand advocates Do things to involve people and make them awesome, and they’ll cheer-lead for you.

The last part really got my attention. Little bits of drive-by kindness go a long way. But more than that, genuinely helping people turns them into powerful advocates. Harriet gave an example of the Guardian engaging with an aspiring journalist on its Q&A forums. Through a series of serendipitous encounters he became a BBC producer, and now enthusiastically speaks up for the Guardian community sites.

Cultivating many small, authentic, influential voices may have a better pay-off than schmoozing the big guys.

This could be particularly important in the context of Mark and Stephen’s models of social, endorsement-led, and example-led decision making.

There’s a lot here I haven’t covered, and it may be worth some follow-up on community building.


I was quite sceptical of nudge theory and behavioural economics. First off it sounds too good to be true, and second it sounds too sinister to permit. But I haven’t done the background reading. So I’m going to, and if it seems to hold real water, and if it’s possible to do it ethically (Stephen’s presentations suggests it may be) then it’s probably worth exploring.

The message seemed to be: change what people do, and they’ll work out why afterwards. Moreover, the people around them will do it too. Make the things you want them to do extraordinarily easy and very, very visible. Normalize and support the decisions you want them to make, and they’ll make them.

In practice this means not talking about the thing, but showing the user-awesome.

Glib? Perhaps. But it feels worth considering.

Also, if I ever run a marketing conference, I’m going to ban speakers from using examples from Apple. Quite apart from not being consistently generalizable, it’s becoming an irritating cliché.

Part two

Update: you can find the write-up of the afternoon sessions here