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Sometimes logic is tough

. Pete

First, a video:

President Bartlet, being a nerd.

"Well, we find that customers who engage with the experience, use filters on the search results and subcat pages, tend to convert more. If we find a way to increase engagement with the filters, I think we can up conversion. Let's take a look at that."

This snippet overheard recently on a phone call for the Conversion Task Force I sit on. My ears perked up. As a child I'd had a Jesuit education, and logical crazytalk tended to remind me of stern looks, and brandished rulers.

I was disappointed by the choruses of "Definitely!" that came next. Visions of raised wooden rulers followed, and I thought I heard someone mutter a Hail Mary.

Post hoc ergo proptor hoc


The above is a bit of Latin that described a logical fallacy; translated it comes out to be 'After the fact, therefore -because- of the fact." It's the idea that just because something follows after something that came first, that first something caused the following occurrence. It's crazy talk, of course. Ask any Jesuit.

I have a teacher friend of mine that recently pointed out another instance of this. Apparently, kids that take AP Physics do better in college. So in an effort to help more kids do better in college, my friend's school was trying to shoehorn as many kids into AP Physics as possible, adding extra sections.


AP Physics probably doesn't cause better grades, and shooting kids through high-end physics classes if they shouldn't be there is probably no way to move the college GPA ball.

Similarly, I'm not sure people convert because they diddle with our filters, or convert less because they don't. I think it just as likely that people who come tothe site looking to convert readily make use of the filters to narrow their choices, whereas peeps who had no intention of converting didn't touch the filters because they really weren't so invested.

I am assuming some things myself, here. And I think our filters do need a bit of tweaking, and ironically conversion would probably go up if we made them easier to use. But "getting more people to use our filters so that they'll convert" sounds wrong to me. There's also some thought around the idea of putting these filters up higher in the visual hierarchy, moving them from the left up to just under the header.

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Could we make a zillion dollars by offering less?

. Pete

The long tail sucks, if your search can’t find what you’re looking for.

A few quick orienting thoughts, here. “The Long Tail” was brought ( relatively ) mainstream by Chris Anderson in an article he wrote for Wired in ’04. It’s a term that describes a graph of the distribution of ( among other things ) products that make you money. A few products make most of the big money, then all the other products in your selection all make you a little bit. The graph of this looks like a long animal tail. In aggregate, the stuff in the long tail is really valuable, but only if your customers 1. Like the more obscure stuff and 2. They can find it using your site.

Both points are important. There’s a maxim in retail that if you have more items to show, you make more money. A lot of assumptions underlie this point. Also, there’s an idea that choice can be demotivating. Iyengar and Lepper pointed this out in an elegant study entitled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” This is the study that talks about how offering 24 different kinds of jam sells no jam, but offering 5 different kinds makes them go like hotcakes. Some people like to, need to research and pour over stuff. Finding the best price, the exact match, the most elegant whatever to buy. For these people, the long tail is golden. Provided of course they can find what they’re looking for. In some cases, this is a big If.

Enter a radical idea: let’s offer less. Like, a lot less.

I do a fair amount of experience design work for our social site, where we pile on goals like fluffy pancakes at a fundraiser. We’d like people to find stuff and buy stuff, but we’d also like them to “like” or “dislike”. And register. And leave a comment. And get a friend to register. And browse our new doodad and share out how cool it is. And ignore things when they’re slow. And become an expert on something we sell, and blog about it.

Please pass the maple syrup. We have 28 106 kinds, and adding more all the time via our Local Marketplace, so please be prepared to sort through them all to find just the right one.

I wonder how it would go if we offered less. Maybe set aside a site ( or maybe it’s just a filter? Hmmmmm I’m not so sold on the filter thing ) where we have all our categories and subcategories of stuff, but each subcat only shows the top 3 sellers from our “main” site.

You could tweak this idea a bit. Only offer one item per subcat. Or even one item per –category- if you were feeling libertine.

This site wouldn’t be for the researchers and the gluttons and the peeps that immerse themselves in all the joy that is sorting through 106 different hits for “maple syrup”. It’d be for the folks with not-so-much time or inclination to research, the ones who just know they need a bottle of maple syrup.

From a selling point of view, this kinda touches on the Woot and Groupon and even Twitter idea of offering more by really offering less. The one jar of maple syrup might not be the cheapest or even “The Best” ( whatever that might mean ), but then again, I’m sure it’s perfectly serviceable for pancakes. The smart designer might make sure that it’s the best selling maple syrup the larger site has. Or the highest rated. Or the one with the highest margin. Or the most customer-generated content. Whatever. Tinker a little. Maybe one type is right for consumables, another for hardlines ( what we call most everything that doesn’t have different sizes, like shirts or maple syrup ), and still another for clothing.

But yea, offer less. Our main site www.sears.com right now offers something like 15 milliion products.


I mentioned the social site a little earlier. That’s the place where we try to encourage as much customer-generated content ( reviews, wiki entries, commentary, questions & answers, etc ) as we can. This content helps customers find what they want and make purchase decisions, it also helps us because it provides a bit of credibility and yummy SEO goodness.

On our current site of 15 zillion products, we’re having a little trouble getting an appreciable amount of content from our customers. Lots of reasons for this, a whole other blog post, probably.

But on my microsite, I suspect customer generated content is a bit more easy to come by. There are still a couple thousand categories out there, so maybe we don’t include –all- the categories… just the ones that are most trafficked.

More and more, this is starting to sound like a good idea. At least to me. Not only because I have a thing for reducing the site, but I’d also reduce the pages we have. It’d be nothing to search a site with so few items, so search would be awesome. Promos are kinda focused, buying guides very relevant ( do we even have them, here? ) And a lot of the glut on the various pages could come off, too. This would “facilitate engagement” and I suspect a site of this kind could be fertile ground for a community… the people trying to figure out which item on the small site should be promoted up to The Show.

That’s my working url. http://theshow.sears.com. But yea, that link doesn't work, because this is just an idea I have, that we're sitting here talking about. At least at this moment.

Double hmmmmmm.

Crazy talk? UX genius? Let me know, I’d love to hear.

Also, after much deliberation and wrestling with slow search, long descriptions, and lots of pictures, my choice for maple syrup: Spring Tree Pure Maple Syrup.

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FTW - zombie vertical post-mortem ( ha )

. Pete

Yesterday at the SHC Social Media Summit, kudos were given to the Zombie vertical effort pulled off by a rogue splinter faction of UX zealots. Let's talk about that for a moment.

First, some history. By some accounts, Sears is an international retailer with a rich history, but not as much modern zing as a brand might want. At least a brand who's stated goal is to sell lots of stuff to lots of people. We -do- all sorts of innovative things online, but that's probably not the public perception.

To lots of peeps Sears is still where you might go to buy your dishwasher, or where your mom goes, if your mom is as old as my mom. Which let's be honest is kind of old. "They've always been wonderful to me, Peter. Did you know that during The War they were the only place I could get kerosene?"

"The War"? Kerosene?

Anyway. Just before Halloween UX Sears released a little gem, a zombie vertical page aimed at servicing the zombie demographic for all their shopping needs.


Image-wise, this was kind of "a departure from the brand message" of the company that was able to bring you petroleum distillates during the Big One. It was also crazy successful. It's early in the day here, and I can't seem to find anyone here yet to get me some numbers, but with no advertising, on our test-test server that we're having "engagement challenges" on, no budget, and no work done during normal work hours, the effort had about a zillion media mentions... mainstream, web-nerd, and advertising industry venues.

Like I said, -crazy- successful. Why? Let's take a look.

7 Reasons the Zombie Vertical rocked

1. First: zombies Topically, this was a win. It's still a win, months later. The zombie thing still has juice. Lots here for everyone- the gaming enthusiast, the political satirist, the survivalist. Sometimes the stuff you sell lacks a certain panache... but who doesn't love zombies?

2. Soooooooo different. So different This is where a lot of the Magic Happened. "Zombies? Sears??" The incongruence of the brand and the idea, what was expected on the web and what we actually did and put out there for real normal people to see, this had a powerful effect. Word spread like, ahem, a virus. A zombie virus.

3. We weren't selling anything What? Nothing? Counterintuitive, but still kind of a wicked-powerful idea when used correctly. We didn't try to really sell anything on the page; it was clearly just for fun, and to play around with engagement ideas. This earns us a little buy in ( heh ) and credibility.

4. It was produced by a small group of zealots It seems like it's easier for a small, motivated group of slightly-off people to do amazing work than it is to get similar results from a humming, well-running and benefit-laden corporate organization. The people that did the zombie vert were on their own time, with their own equipment, and had only one ( albeit key ) executive champion. They weren't told to do this; it was an idea that some people came up with it and were allowed to run with. That authenticity came through at every level of the experience. The team was definitely "well versed in the vernacular of the genre," this burned through in every bit of the experience, and the people who were into zombies loved it, and helped carry word of it forward.

5. Word of mouth only We didn't put up a banner ad. Didn't get space in the circulars, or TV ad time. We really didn't tell the public at all. But we sure as hell told our friends. All of them, on Facebook and Twitter, and some other places. The singularly powerful sentiment of "hey, check this out..." from a loose-tie-friend echoed thousands of times is more effective than the most expensive advertisement campaign. People turned the downside of having no budget on its ear.

6. Smart, shareable, discoverable content Give people interesting stuff, stuff -designed- to be shared and talked about, and you have so much more of a chance of that actually happening. The idea "of course our stuff is awesome" generally, sadly, isn't enough... it has to actually -be- awesome. Also, within the zombie vert experience there was discoverable content, "easter eggs". This is huge, and is a technique for growing engagement that makes a lot of traditional marketing people nervous.

7. Management didn't kill it Not that they could because, well... ( wait for it... ) they're zombies! Bazinga! Very few people knew about this little opus before it exploded onto the interweb, but when it did the suits were calling and people started to get Very Nervous. But cooler heads ( or just Heads with More Political Clout ) prevailed and when traffic spiked and people we ( meaning SHC ) couldn't control were saying all these ( almost entirely positive ) things about our brand, we let it go. And go it went. Or something. It did well, and brought in a lot of traffic, and piqued a lot of interest.

Some interesting tidbits to consider:

Everyone loves a success If this failed to win, or worse brought some sort of negative attention to us, it'd be harder to leverage it FTW in the future. The fact that the zombie vert did so well went a long way to build a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of a "web experience that is decidedly off brand message an potentially harmful to us in the marketplace" go down.

Some business units were a little miffed "Why weren't we told?", "Why didn't we have input?", "Why did you feature -that- particular product?" and so on. Much win pretty much silenced these voices, but some of the risk in a project like this is that if you don't pay homage to the usual stakeholders and something goes well, they might be a little raw they didn't have input, or that you dared to do something without consulting them. If your effort tanks, these are the people who dance and pass out 2x4s at the ass-whooping party. In high school, they were the hall monitors, people who got perfect attendance, and ran for student council.

Followup would be cool. Engagement would be cool. A permission asset would be cool. I'm definitely not saying we should do another zombie thing. I -am- saying that it'd be cool to retain the eyeballs of the interested people who rushed to our site to see what was done, so that next time we can help make them part of the fun. I don't mean collecting their names to spam them, or send them a "heads up" to watch for something "new and exciting"... I mean make them part of it. Actually talking to these people, the ones that opt in somehow, is pretty important.

Train this team, for the Next Thing And there will be a Next Thing. The very net one might not be as popular, but developing this kind of skillset on your team is golden.

To sum up:

* Your subject matter might not be exciting, but you can talk about it in a sexy, exciting way. Do so.

* Do something people don't expect; play against your brand perception

* If your job is to sell something, take a break from that, and just give something away.

* Nurture the small band of zealots you have

* Don't advertise. If your idea is cool, it will fly on it's own. "Advertising" is lame.

* Design your content to be sharable; technically and with compelling excellence

* Give things room to breathe. when you have that first urge to take it down, don't.

And remember, when everyone else is out of kerosene, try Sears. It's a great tool for fighting zombies.

; )

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On innovation, and not stagnating

. Pete

Sitting in the Social Media Summit, listening to Brian Solis talk.

Due to the fruit-fly lifespan of even the best twees, Solis implied Old Spice dropped the ball by not continuing to milk their idea of having The Man Your Man Could Smell Like do more viral vids for release on YouTube.

Andrew leans over and whispers "But that's not what they were for."

"You don't do the last job, " I reply, nodding and verbally retweeting master criminals everywhere. "You do the next job."

That's why we learn from the Zombie thing, and continue to practice that kind of awesomeness. But we don't do another Zombie Vertical thing.

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The New Rules of Retail and Creating Shared Value

. wandereye

My awakening began while reading "Punk Marketing" a while back. The first sentence read "There's a revolution brewing." You wouldn't think it but Sears is at the cutting edge, the peak of the wave, in this revolution in commerce, society and retail. Revolutions begin with hearts and minds. Some are bloody while others border on reactions to external force evolutions. 
The evolution of retail also paralleled what many economists cite as one of the most important economic shifts in history: a century long power shift from producers to consumers—from those who make and sell to those who buy.

Three Waves of Evolution of Commerce in America

Wave 1 (1850-1950), known as the "era of producer power" characterized by demand being greater than supply and limited distribution of products and services (production-demand driven markets).
Wave 2 (1950-1980's and 2000), the post WWII era of economic growth of massive product, retail, brand, distribution expansion. This expansion of choice for consumers required businesses to create demand for there offerings marking a shift to a marketing-and-distribution economy from an economy of production and scale. 
Wave 3 (now into the future), consumers have unlimited choices and access to goods and services. This has lead to a demand shift from stuff to experiences, customization and personalization of products, immediate availability, and most importantly, product providers who value community interests over self-interest (see shared value creation). 

Wave 3 is where we are now. Companies must go beyond simple clear value creation, cost-competitiveness, efficient production, superior supply chain management to clear engagement and rapport with their customers over longer periods of time.

Shared value... Recognizes that societal needs, not just conventional economic needs, define markets. 
"The days of trying to get a consumer to come to you are over. You really have to be in the consumer's world, wherever, whenever and however." — Mindy Grossman, HSN
The winners hold two distinctions:

  1. they understand their customers and have systems and processes in place to continually learn about and from them to develop a deeper emotional (empathic) connection with them in the creation of experiences; not just product lines and distribution channels. 
  2. they understand how to be there when needed as opposed to attempting to create a need and be there. Context and relevancy are the new content is king mantra. 

There are three steps any company should take in attempting to achieve the winning edge:
  1. Define what customers expect and desire beyond the brand or products or services. This is done by continually re-conceiving products and markets.
  2. Develop value from primary, contextual research analysis and synthesis coupled with insights gained from secondary research and analysis. A company not in control of the value chain at all stages will not be able to value from this step. Redefine productivity in the value chain both externally and internally.  
  3. Deliver precise and perceptual experiences that form neurological connections with human beings. Creating shared value through local cluster development facilitation. The best companies once took on a broad range of roles in meeting the needs of workers, communities, and supporting businesses.

This is where "Creating Shared Value" comes into play. 
Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth.

The competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined. A business needs a successful community, not only to create demand for its products but also to provide critical public assets and a supportive environment. A community needs successful businesses to provide jobs and wealth creation opportunities for its citizens.
A big part of the problem lies with companies themselves, which remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has merged over the past few decades. They continue to view value creation narrowly, optimizing short-term financial performance in a bubble while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their longer-term success. 
[For the past two decades] Firms focused on enticing consumers to buy more and more of their products... The results were often commoditization, price competition, little true innovation, slow organic growth, and no clear competitive advantage.
(The New Rules of Retail: Competing in the World's Toughest Marketplace)
The challenge in this revolution is not technology or infrastructure but harnessing both to shift perspectives and cultures within and outside corporations towards longer-term sustainable thinking and human-centered design approaches over short-term growth. This also means that companies must become local as they expand globally through community involvement and outreach that goes beyond sponsorship or fundraising. 

Problem Understanding vs. Solution Formulation

. PeteW

The Winter 2009 issue of Rotman's journal from their school of management is dedicated to 'Wicked Problems'--and building shared understanding around them.

In an interview, Jeff Conklin, of the CogNexus Institue, explains why a new approach to problem solving that is built on a foundation of shared understanding is required.

Rotman: Discuss the relation between ‘problem understanding’ and ‘solution formulation’.

Conklin: When I first started out, the implicit assumption was that problems were stable and well defined, and most of the work in any major project involved coming up with the solution. The process of working out a solution was understood to be fundamentally linear – a sequence of steps which, if followed, would result in a successful outcome. Today, there is increasing awareness that a shared understanding of a given problem cannot be taken for granted, and that the absence of buy-in about a problem’s definition, scope and goals can kill a project just as surely as faulty implementation. Organizations are beginning to embrace the idea that these two aspects of projects – problem understanding and solution formulation – are not distinct phases, but rather different kinds of conversations that must be woven together from beginning to end. Problem structuring is a critical aspect of the design process that takes into account the diversity of goals, assumptions and meanings among stakeholders. At the heart of this new understanding of organizational life is the recognition that project work is fundamentally social, and that communication among stakeholders must be managed and nurtured in order for the social network to cohere into a functioning entity. What is missing from our ‘social network tool kit’ is an environment or ‘container’ in which stakeholders can collectively step back to see the big picture.