On engagement

Engagement is perhaps the industry term of the last decade. To me, engagement has always been about keeping the conversation going, about understanding needs, and above all else relationship building. Lately, it is clearer than ever that I have misunderstood. Engagement equals addiction. Measured in so-called impressions, repeat clicks, total time spent, with the ultimate goal of converting your attention into cash. I do not own a pair of rose colored glasses. I always knew this was about moving folks through a hypothetical pipeline, strike deals, and make money. What I was blind to see is how aggressive everything has become — or been — and just how manipulative things are.

When it came to fundraising, I would run reports and look at the overall numbers, e.g. thousands of alumni. But the next step was always to drill down to specific names, actual human beings. Now, it seems data sets are reported in the aggregate only.

Companies harvest data to see what folks are clicking on, as if what we click on is tantamount to our interests. CTR equals relevant content, which in turn means companies should put out more of the same thing to this group. It’s no wonder there are those of us constantly in search of something different, artisan, authentic.

When I first saw artificial intelligence (AI) as a way to help manage this engagement process, I thought I was staring at the answer to one of my [on-going questions]: what is the role of technology to the sale process? AI would give us the tools necessary to take data and put it into action. (“Actionable insights”, another piece of [jargon] folks are eating up these days.) As it turns out, it may be the first real effort to transform the humanity in our work to an artificial one. Are we asking ourselves what we lose as we switch to AI when it comes to human-computer interaction? Merriam-Webster [defines engagement] to include “emotional involvement or commitment”, but how will this be if it is administered via AI? Will that be meaningful?

If we define engagement as the interactions that lead towards a developed relationship, what of current marketing practice does and does not adhere to this definition? What can we stop doing in favor of customer experience and customer retention? What CLV are we sacrificing if we continue down this current path?

Why “ask questions”?

The slogan or subtitle of this site is “Ask questions. Observe more”. I suppose I could have included “challenge assumptions”. It’s all in a similar vein. While in engineering school, a big overarching theme was understanding our assumptions and to accounting for them. If that seems like a simple thing, often it isn’t due to our inability to see what is sitting right in front of us. They are called assumptions for a reason. This is where “observe more” comes from, to remind me to take time to look and listen.

Observation feeds curiosity. Curiosity leads to more questions. Asking questions leads to more discovery and more information. It’s all a vicious cycle, really. But observing more requires empathy, perspective, and sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism. Not an easy feat.

So to conclude this moment of pontification, I say “ask questions” because it’s the only way we learn anything. It’s the only way we challenge the status quo. To reference Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas in their article:

Think back to your time growing up and in school. Chances are you received the most recognition or reward when you got the correct answers. Later in life, that incentive continues. At work, we often reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them. Questioning conventional wisdom can even lead to being sidelined, isolated, or considered a threat.

Since then, there have been other articles discussing the power of asking better questions rather than focusing on seeking answers. It turns out proper questioning can be a very advantageous thing to do.

If you’ll spare me an anecdote: freshman year of college I had a Turkish roommate from Istanbul. Alican was a very kind man and it’s always a pleasure when I bump into him. I was always fascinated with cultures and languages and I remember there were moments when he would point out words in Turkish that simply did not exist in English. (Of course I cannot think of one, but perhaps something to do with sneezing or apologizing? Gosh, it’s been too long.) My point is, the limitation of our language is sometimes the limitation by which we can observe or articulate. Do you remember the first time you learned a new term or phrase for something you’d thought of, but didn’t know how to express it? Asking questions, in my view, is an extension of this. If we cannot ask it, how can we answer it? If we ask an inaccurate or inconsequential question, how can we expect a useful answer?

Avoid asking “what do you do?”

I cannot recall where I first saw this, but be it known that this is not my idea, but something I’ve taken up as a challenge. The author essentially avoids asking people what they do, as a conversation starter. He pointed to the emphasis it places on our careers and how it is not a terribly good at getting to know the person. (I searched “avoiding the question what do you do” and got a few search results that more or less echo whatever it is that I read before.)

The challenge here is to see how long you can go without asking the question “what do you do?”

The question is an unfortunate one in that it is rather vague. If you really want to ask someone about their career, it makes more sense to ask it more directly. This begs the question, what do we really want to know when we ask the question? One writer suggests the question “what excites you?” as an alternative. It’s a bit awkward, but their point is well taken. Asking something less typical can elicit a more meaningful response and it might even catch the person off guard, requiring them to actually consider the question.

I catch myself asking this and realize it’s mostly out of laziness or simply a lack of focus in the moment. Surely there is a more intriguing question or a basic starter question to engage with someone. It reminds me of those times when people start talking about the weather. (I am guilty there too, but in the case someone brings up weather I try to connect it to something else. “Yeah, that was a miserably cold day, but it sure does help keep the ski slopes from melting away. Do you ski at all?)

Methdology vs. ideology.

I was reviewing my “about me” page and my professional profiles (e.g. LinkedIn) and I noticed a word I frequently use: methodology. It’s something I focus on, in contrast to focusing on so-called “best practices”. Something in the news caught my attention though. In politics, we often hear of a person’s ideology in the context of how or why someone voted or leans a certain way. I began to wonder if their ideology is my methodology? What is the difference between these two concepts? Are they related in some way?

Could it be said that ideology drives decision making in a single direction, while methodology drives us to make a decision based on inputs?

Ideology creates a static outcome. “I believe in x…” and “x” is what you shall have. Methodology creates a dynamic path to your outcome.

Does it stand to reason that ideology drives methodology?

If so, what’s your ideology?

Controlling demand demands a big shift

In the last three weeks, Ben Thompson has been hammering away his point about the past advantages of controlling supply and the future advantages of those who control demand, e.g. Facebook, Google. Not since reading Stratechery or listening to Exponent on a regular basis have I considered this shift in focus.

Just a few days ago, I read this from John Gruber, citing an article from The Hong Kong Free Press:

The US-based global tech giant Apple Inc. is set to hand over the operation of its iCloud data center in mainland China to a local corporation called Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD) by February 28, 2018. When this transition happens, the local company will become responsible for handling the legal and financial relationship between Apple and China’s iCloud users. After the transition takes place, the role of Apple will restricted to an investment of US one billion dollars, for the construction of a data center in Guiyang, and for providing technical support to the center, in the interest of preserving data security…

When we talk about Google or Facebook controlling demand, what happens when that is an entire government? Is this what being a competitive country will mean for the 21st century? Is this ultimately a fight between open and closed society?

Gruber finishes his commentary with:

…I don’t know what Apple could do other than pull out of the Chinese market entirely.

This sentiment echoes those who feel compelled to advertise on Google, publishers who provide content or parish, and those who do not delete our accounts for the fear missing out. We either play by their rules or go home and most of us are unwilling to go home.