In my last post I imagined a world in which large data-driven platforms like Amazon, Google, Spotify, and Uber are compelled to share machine-readable copies of data to their users. There are literally scores, if not hundreds of wrinkles to iron out around how such a system would work, and in a future post I hope to dig into some of those questions. But for now, come with me on a journey into the future, where the wrinkles have been ironed out, and a new marketplace of personally-driven information is flourishing. We’ll return to one of the primary examples I sketched out in the aforementioned post: A battle for the allegiance – and pocketbook – of one online shopper, in this case, my wife Michelle.
It’s a crisp winter mid morning in Manhattan when the doorbell rings. Michelle looks up from her laptop, wondering who it might be. She’s not expecting any deliveries from Amazon, usually the source of such interruptions. She glances at her phone, and the Ring app (an Amazon service, naturally) shows a well dressed, smiling young woman at the door. She’s holding what looks like an elegantly wrapped gift in her hands. Now that’s unusual! Michelle checks the date – no anniversaries, no birthdays, no special occasions – so what gives?
Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs – they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society – Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption – and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.
This is often a good thing – an efficient way to get to an answer. But it can also mean we fail to imagine a better solution, because our own biases are obstructing a more elegant path forward.
The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.
Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lotofcompany).
Algorithmic merchandising leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Slowly but surely, it will erode trust for all the tech giants.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
To fix our society, we have to reimagine the role of government in our lives.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? We’re in the midst of the most significant shift in our society since at least the Gilded Age – a tectonic reshaping of economic systems, social mores, and political institutions. Some even argue our current transition to a post-digital world, one in which technology has lapped our own intelligence and automation may displace the majority of our workforce within our lifetimes, is the most dramatic change to ever occur in recorded history. And that’s before we tackle a few other existential threats, including global warming – which is inarguably devastating our environment and driving massive immigration, drought, and famine – or income inequality, which has already fomented historic levels of political turmoil.
Any way you look at it, we’ve got a lot of difficult intellectual, social, and policy work to do, and we’ve got to do it quickly. Lucky for us, two major political events loom before us: The midterm elections this November, and a presidential election two years after that. Will we use these milestones to effect real change?
Given our current political atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that we will. I fervently hope that the midterms will provide an overdue check on the insane clown show that the White House has delivered to us so far, but I’ve little faith that the build up to the 2020 Presidential election will be much more than an ongoing circus of divisive theatrics. Will there be room for serious debate about reshaping our fundamental relationship to government? If we are truly in an unprecedented period of social change, shouldn’t we be talking about how we’re going to manage it?
So first the news. To celebrate the company’s eight birthday, Cloudflare is announcing the launch of a domain registrar. And because the company operates at massive scale, and can afford to do things most companies simply can’t (or won’t – looking at you, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – the company is offering domains *at cost.* In other words, Cloudflare isn’t making one red cent when you register a domain with them. What they pay to register a domain (and yes, that number is fixed, and the same for all domain registrars), is what you pay to register a domain.
If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?
Seven or so years ago, a famous VC penned a manifesto of sorts. Writing at a time the world was still skeptical of the dominance to which his industry has now ascended (to think, such a time existed, and so few years ago!), Marc Andreessen had a message for the doubters, the naysayers, and the Wall St. analysts who were (credibly!) claiming that his investments amounted to not much more than a bubble:
Seven years later, no one can dispute Andreessen’s prescience. The man was right: If you had purchased a basket of his favorite stocks back then – he name-checked Apple, Amazon, and Facebook directly – you’d be up at least 10X, if not more. Software, it seems, has indeed eaten the world, and those smart (and rich) enough to put money into technology, as Andreessen has been, have done very, very well for themselves.
Simply put, Products are Conversations. How you orchestrate conversations with customers and cross-functionally in your organization is what makes great products. To set the right strategy, align the team, and execute to the delight and fulfillment of customers.
Agile was supposed to bring product creation closer to the customer. But there is too much distance, data, organizational complexity.
Great products are made of conversations. With customers. With leadership and PM direct reports. And with stakeholders. The conversations that form the strategy. The conversations that align the strategy. The conversations drive and iterate execution.
Here’s 3 reasons we’ve lost our way in Product Management.
Reason #1: The Path to PM
Tech Product Managers who develop their skills as Engineering Leaders. This path to PM is all about the How, and many have good people skills to relate requests to the How.
A second path to PM is people who develop their skills as Project Managers. This is again about the How, but with less CS education and typically from marketing. And in marketing they found great success in the quantitative practices of lead generation and growth hacking.
There’s a third path to PM, rising in reflection of what has made great products in more competitive markets, which comes from Design. Less about the How, more about the Why, with deeply rooted user empathy.
Problem #2: Data-driven
Using data to drive product decisions is particularly great for finding things that don’t work. But usage data is just one factor for decision making, and because in PM meetings it’s something you can point to as evidence to support an argument, it’s often overweight (particularly when the presenter has good persuasion skills).
The Lean Startup movement put particular emphasis on throwing out hypothesis to test with data. Thank goodness Steve Blank evolved it with Customer Development. Which involved actually taking that hypothesis out in the world talking directly to customers about problems and solutions. And there’s wisdom in talking to customers as a non-scalable activity, and focusing on a few that can love you. So more startups are ramping up the sales learning curve. But too many tech founders prefer to cast out artifacts and measure reactions at a distance.
Reason #3: Alignment is Hard
Even in a well-oiled machine with clear strategic direction, awesome talent and culture, aligning PM stakeholders is hard.
The PM as the CEO of Product is dysfunctional myth. The PM may have the decision rights for product, but her stakeholders have decision rights for organizational functions, and their goals, objectives and resources may run counter. Some product leads like Matthew Mahoney have found greater success sharing control to create value. By sharing decision rights with your CTO you may find yourself making plans based on more realistic effort estimates and a collaborative vision set with both the Why and How.
This isn’t to say that the CPO shouldn’t be the Directly Responsible Individual for product decisions, but don’t mythologize Steve Jobs for either vision unbound from users (the first version of the iPhone was visionary, but sucked, and iteration with user and market feedback made it a success under his stewardship) or might that’s right.
The PM function has more stakeholders than any other in today’s organization. Customers, Leadership, direct reports, design, development, QA, DevOps, Support, Customer Success, Sales, Marketing, BizDev and Backoffice. And I’m probably missing some. Because stakeholders enable the product, and the product enables stakeholders. How you gain customer and market insight, plan your strategy and roadmap and execute all depends upon alignment.
Products are Conversations
The clueful will recall that Markets are Conversations. Customers are empowered and authentic voice cuts through all the noise in today’s marketplace. Your customers want to talk with you, the PM. They want to be heard and want you to understand their needs. It’s your job to enable these conversations, and figure out how to have them at scale.
The right customers for you will understand your tradeoffs, validate and support your decisions, and align. They will value the experience you are creating for them, and progress in a longer term relationship, not a transaction.
Rather than see the Head of Product as the CEO of Product, the PM is put as close to the customer as possible to make decisions on their behalf, and plays the role of Information Hub to align stakeholders through effective conversations. Your stakeholders want to have these conversations, and it’s your job to make sure they happen.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. “
In today’s product companies, the team is more connected and engaged through Slack and other group messaging apps. Conversations are happening, but it takes additional practices and tools for them to be effective. Across the company you need practices for what should be read and replied to, how decisions are documented, knowledge is captured and tasks are tracked.
And for Product Management, how to:
Turn conversations into insight
Turn conversations into plans
Turn conversations into actions
Turn conversations into continuous improvement
Product Managers, if you takeaway one thing from this post — get out of your spreadsheet and make time for more customer conversations, and think through the cadence of conversations with your stakeholders.
Why would a god descend from the heavens to participate in the turmoil of politics? It wasn’t to ‘stand for something’ as a brand, it’s because large scale attention can no longer be bought.
Technology has made our attention discretionary and the world skippable. Brands can no longer just buy the massive amounts of cheap, forced attention they are used to. The effectiveness of controversy in gaining attention has changed the outcome of elections and it’s starting to change the nature of marketing too.
This is not how brands behave.
The Kaepernick campaign has been hailed as brave and a smart bet. The scale of their wager should not be underestimated. Doubling down on a growing customer segment while openly turning your back on less appealing one — is not just brave, it goes against the nature of brand building.
Brand building has its moments of bravery but much to the frustration of ad agencies everywhere, it’s largely about risk aversion and playing the long game. It’s Roger Federer not Colin Kaepernick.
Brands constantly have to balance growth and remaining relevant with protecting the $28 billion value of their brand. Brand managers lean to Warren Buffet’s advice, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” They are careful and calculated.
Nike has done such a great job of this over the decades that they have what most other brands can only dream of. They transcend politics and petty factions. They are for everyone. To be for everyone while managing to be cool is the unicorn status of brands.
Perhaps backing Kaepernick’s bold protest could have slid by in the past, but by taking a side in today’s toxic political climate, they have done what mega brands don’t do — they have said “we’re not for you” to a large portion of society. More people identify as conservative in the USA than any other political view. Nike has chosen to distance themselves to some degree from 100 million of the most valuable consumers in the world, Americans, and wagered their ‘for everyone’ status.
Nike’s own mission statement declares that they are for everyone: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
What could be worth taking such a risk? Attention is the lifeblood of brands, and the traditional ways of getting it are in decline.
Earned attention is becoming the only attention and everything else is becoming wallpaper, thanks to a number of compounding factors.
The gearing of sharing
Social media loves to magnify what’s being magnified. This leaves less room for things that are not viral or at least topical. Winners win big and losers don’t even exist. Attention has transitioned from a sliding scale to being virtually binary.
The power of sharing is twofold. Firstly, it increases reach. This is the quantitative side of the equation. Secondly, it’s an endorsement. This is the qualitative and vastly overlooked side of the equation.
Sharing something online is often more about signaling than anything else. It means I approve of this and I think you should see it. It gives messages instant credibility within social networks, opposed receiving something cold. It’s especially true of controversial subject matter. Donald Trump’s election victory is less confounding when you consider the qualitative side of the massive media he earned.
The stopping power of controversy
What stops people from scrolling past? Mild issues aren’t particularly arresting. Traditional ads with memorable mnemonics and polite payoff lines are too easy to skip. They don’t work at scale on skippable media and the environment where they do work, linear tv, is losing its potency and cost effectiveness.
Two days ago the world marathon record was not just broken but smashed by Eliud Kipchoge. He’s a Nike sponsored Athlete and they are all over this.
Nike should take some of the credit for the record time too. Their Breaking2project set out to break the sub 2 hour marathon barrier, that many said is beyond what’s physically possible.
The huge margin Eliud shaved off the world record (1m17s) makes one feel that it is only a matter of time until the 2 hour barrier is broken. What could be more aligned to the essence of Nike than this belief? They developed a shoe specifically to achieve this feat. They have assembled the best experts to plan and coach the athletes. This is the perfect intersection of innovation and athletic performance. This is the god of victory.
On the other hand Colin Kaepernick is a good athlete but not the best. He’s definitely got an iron will but this is the muddy water of politics, not the god of victory.
Kipchoge’s world record is a feat so great, it deserves the world’s attention and should echo for years to come, yet it is overshadowed by the tail end of Nike’s Kaepernick campaign:
Similarly, Serena Williams’ controversy at the US open final will likely be a bigger media event than when she finally gets that 24th grand slam victory:
The interconnectedness and immediacy of technology has magnified our collective attention. It’s not just controversy that has become more captivating though.
Strong emotions, by definition, trump mild ones but the gearing of technology has exacerbated this to the point that mild emotions don’t get their fair share of attention, even if you pay for it.
This is why, through the lens of social media, the world appears to be constantly melting down and why issues are becoming so polarized.
Perhaps it’s because fear and anger are such visceral emotions that social media is better suited to politics than selling boxes of cereal.
Brands are slowly being suffocating by the new economics of media
The long term outlook for brands that rely on mild manners and traditional advertising is grim.
Firstly, attention is a zero sum game. People only have 24 hours a day. The three-plus hours of attention people give to their phones comes with a withdrawal from other areas where brands have traditionally bought media.
Secondly, even the media you buy now guarantees little. Skippable videos only work if they hook users from the outset. Fewer eyeballs are watching linear TV as viewing behavior shifts toward platforms like Netflix. The quality of attention TV ads get is also declining as viewers reach for their phones during ad breaks. While the quality of TV viewing is decreasing the price of TV ad real estate is increasing as desperate media owners try make their numbers with fewer buyers… in a kind of death roll.
The world has become skippable but most brands were brought up to be polite, and still make traditional ads that assume captive audiences. The entire advertising industry is wrestling with this change.
Nike wins this race.
To be swept up in the shared media psyche is to captivate the world’s imagination. While Nike is basking in a torrent of global attention, we have forgotten their competitors.
What prize could be worth a god’s fall from grace? When Nike tied themselves to the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick they got the biggest hit of attention they have had since Google has been recording (2004), by a huge margin and possibly the biggest spotlight they have ever had:
There can be no bigger prize.
Nike are boldly blazing a trail that others will follow. Just as Donald Trump has shown how the momentum of controversy can steamroll the mildness of logic in politics today, Nike has shown how controversy can fuel brands.
The recent spike in online sales and the sneaker burning protests will probably cool off but a shift to bolder, more controversial brands and advertising is just beginning.