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April 6, 2010

Why Everyone Loves the Underdog & What Your Company Can Learn From It

Last night's NCAA basketball championship was a classic sports event. It had all the necessary ingredients. A big stage. A real-life match up of David vs. Goliath. A sports powerhouse against an up & coming private school. It was the film hoosiers come to life (minus the fact the underdog lost on the final shot).

While I was rooting for Duke, having been born and raised in North Carolina during the 1990's, almost everyone else was rooting for Butler. The reason is simple. Butler was the underdog, and humans have an innate love of the underdog.

Psychologists call it the underdog effect. They refer to is as the activation of the underdog schema. This occurs whenever we see a disadvantaged opponent. We root for the gazelle when it's chased by lions. Put simply, we root for anyone attempting to accomplish a difficult task in the face of low odds.

But why do humans have an underdog schema? The answer is two-fold. The first reason is: we strive to be unique, and who we root for sends a signal to the rest of the world. If the obvious choice is Duke, then it's best to root for Butler. After all, there's nothing really at stake in fandom. So the need to be different makes us more likely to root against the "popular" choice.

The second reason is that humans are naturally empathetic. It's a capability that allows us to live effectively as a social animal. Compassion is hard-wired into humanity. And empathy allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of the underdog. We identify with them, and seek to translate their accomplishments to our own. If David can beat Goliath, than I too can overcome impossible odds.

But, the underdog effect isn't limited to sports. We root for companies just like we root for teams. Apple, Dyson, Method, Virgin Airlines, Mini, etc. These brands are effective because they position themselves as challengers, not leaders. Choosing a product from one of these companies tells the world that you're not like everyone else (despite the fact 300,000 other people have the exact same iPad).

While people love underdogs, they never choose them in the face of their own self-interest. You never take a mortgage out with a struggling bank, and you never buy a house in a half-built community.

So how do the successful underdogs do it? They succeed because they create products that are superior when viewed through their particular worldview. Is Method's hand soap better than Dial? It's more expensive, but you probably wouldn't consider it better unless you have the same worldview as they do (sustainability=good & chemicals=bad).

Underdog companies don't compete on features. They compete by aligning with your worldview and creating products that fit your personal definition of a better product.

April 2, 2010

Shark Fins & Bell Curves: Why You Think You're Above Average

Most people think of their performance curve as a shark fin. They believe they do excellent work most of the time, average work sometimes and substandard work very occasionally.

However, this is a classic case of illusory superiority bias in action (it's the same reason 75% of people rate themselves as above average drivers).

The reality is: your performance curve is much more likely to resemble a bell curve than a shark fin.

But, this doesn't mean you can't improve. You can. Through deliberate practice (challenging yourself and gathering feedback), you can move the bell curve to the right. You're essentially changing the frame of reference that you use to rate yourself. By trying to make sure each subsequent performance is better than the last performance, you can slowly move the bell curve.

For example, you may think you're a great basketball player. But, compared to the average player in the NBA you're terrible. On their worst day they're still exponentially better than you are on your best day. The same holds for golf, marketing strategy or design.

You have to compare yourself to people that are better than you. This requires a humility that some people can't stomach. It's hard to admit that you're not as good as you think you are (or as good as you pretend to be). But, that's the only way you can move the bell curve to the right.

March 29, 2010

Attention Economy 101: Users Want a Journey, Not Just a Destination

Many businesses that have turned to things like contests or giveaways to reward consumer-attention have found an eerie silence in place of participants. The question hangs heavily in the air for them, are people even interested in participating with brands?

Thankfully, I've found they are. The problem isn't that people aren't willing to engage directly with marketers. Consumers are really quite okay with that; the problem is that many engagements provide a reward without providing a rewarding experience. They're all destination and no journey.

An example of doing it right, the video below summarizes a recently executed effort by the entertainment company Ubisoft. In preparation for the launch of the next game in their Xbox series Splinter Cell, Ubisoft launched an epic treasure hunt of a campaign, sprinkling rewards along the way. The campaign was quite successful, attracting 106,000 site visitors and generating 3,554 forum posts in roughly a month's time. You can read a more thorough analysis of the campaign at this blog.

Besides the epic scale of implementation (the campaign had users viewing source code behind web pages, watching videos, calling telephone numbers, and cracking codes in sign language and binary patterns), what I love most about this campaign is how well the team behind it understands the desires of their customers.

What keeps most people from getting involved in branded contests or activities isn't the quality of the prize. In fact, most companies go above and beyond on the final prize, but fall short all along the way.

What consumers are really looking for is an experience that is rewarding in and of itself. The prize, whether it be money, products or something else, is only a logical justification for the time spent.

The good news is that you don't have to fork over cash prizes or product grab bags every time you want to reward users for giving you their valuable time and attention. Often, the most valuable rewards you can create are psychological in design -- things like a sense of accomplishment, a status symbol, or a good laugh. These are the types of things that make a journey worth while.

Whether it's a Ford Fiesta movement, a Whopper Sacrifice, or something as simple as a photo contest, remember that when you're relying on users to power a campaign, the journey matters as much, if not more, than the destination. By embedding motivators throughout the process, rather than just at the end, you'll draw a much higher rate of participation.

March 20, 2010

Ever see one of Hitler's paintings?

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture.

Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement, but I'll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

March 19, 2010

The Little Search Engine That Could

If you ask an SEO specialist about Bing, you might detect just the slighted upturn of their mouth, the merest hint of a condescending smirk as they reply “What about it?” Indeed, the SEO community has not given Bing a warm reception. With an emphasis on marketing and less on, well, search, Bing is at best a second choice for search marketing professionals.

Unfortunately for Bing, this opinion is largely shared by their potential customer base. Despite impressive statistics, like a 10% month to month increase in search on Facebook, a Bing partner, Bing is still struggling to gain relevancy months after its release. Some specialists in the field argue that Bing will never succeed, but at NeboWeb we have found areas where Bing is already strong or even has significant opportunities to move in.

All of the things that draw consumers to Google, like its standardized interface, highly relevant results, and brand loyalty, are areas that Bing can probably never compete in. Coincidentally, the areas where Bing is at its best are usually areas where it doesn’t have to stand toe-to-toe with Google or are areas where Google is comparatively weak.

Bing's travel experience (even if it is a Kayak rip-off) manages to stand out from Google's, and their ever-changing background images mange to stand out from the drone-like experience of the Google homepage. Bing has also innovated with its maps interface by introducing a beautiful, enhanced maps option powered by Silverlight, and by adding photos, live videos, and their very own photosynth technology to their maps results. While the usefulness of these features is debatable, they are certainly impressive, which is where Bing's strength lies. While Google may only be concerned with serving the user the most accurate results, Bing is taking active efforts to woo users with impressive feautures.

But Bing's biggest opportunity could very well lie more in their branding and less in their feature set or design. In 1963, the rental car company Avis hired creative legend Bill Bernbach's agency Doyle Dane and Bernbach (DDB) to help them reshape their brand, and there's a lot that Bing could learn from the result. After months of meeting and research, the agency produced a series of advertisements that dramatically changed their business. Within a year, revenue was up by 4 million, and the company turned its first profit in thirteen years.

The advertisements rested on one simple, honest statement and its coinciding profound conclusion -- respectively, “Avis is only No. 2.” and "We try harder because we have to." Like Avis, Bing has an opportunity to embrace being the underdog and find a way to become the spirited, counter-cultural alternative.

However, in light of this opportunity, Bing is still trying to play both sides of the street. Their highly visible relationship with Microsoft is an aggressive attempt to capture more market share by not alienating the Microsoft-loyal, but it could end up hurting them in the long run by watering down their opportunity to be the underdog brand.

In addition to Bing's current opportunities in search experience and branding, a big bet on future growth seems to be Bing's best chance to please the execs at Microsoft. In this respect, Bing has two major opportunities: the youngest generation who have yet to establish brand loyalty, and mobile users who are looking for a more image focused search format. Neither group will come easily.

The young generation may not have a history with Google, but it’s likely that their parents do. In the coming years, it wouldn't be surprising to see a slew of Bing ads aimed at youngsters, trying to sway them from their parent's tradition. In the mobile search arena, Bing has a chance to move into a space that has yet to be claimed by Google, but a fight here will be toe-to-toe, as Google is also primed to take advantage of this opportunity.

If Bing plays their cards right, they could have a bright future ahead of them, but only time will tell if the little search engine that could actually does.