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The power of thinslicing applied to social media and community

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A hard problem to solve

One of the hardest problems faced by clients and agencies alike is how to match up social media activity with bottom line business results. Part of that is because you can’t always easily see a straight cause and effect between levels of engagement on Facebook for example, and numbers of purchases. But perhaps the reason isn’t for lack of effort. Perhaps it helps to think about how customers make purchasing decisions, and how best to capture that? Certainly that’s what I focused on at Sony EU and it led me to move away from the simple numbers game, to include the qualitative.

To explain why I like the term thinslicing to tackle this question of how best to connect with customers using social data first take a look at the cool piece about data interpretation written by Lithium’s Dr Michael Wu, including this neat illustration:

The power of thinslicing

Identifying the value of thinslicing lies in the elegant and powerful way the term thinslicing connects the approach to data analytics to the behaviour that creates that data – namely with the thinslicing of online consumers who “tend to ignore most information available and instead ‘slice off’ a few relevant information or behavioral cues that are often social to make intuitive decisions,” as Brian Solis puts it. 

In other words by thinslicing, rather than using intuition to make decisions, I mean adopting a strategy which is based on the understanding that by connecting the means of analyzing the data with the way the data is created by customers.

The question then is why? While it may be clever to see a way which logically connects the way to analyse data with the way it’s created, why is that potentially so useful to a business? Now there’s a good question! The obvious answer is that by aligning the analytic method used by your business, with the way the data is created by your customers, you are going to produce better results in terms of both better quality actionable recommendations which also produce an increase in ROI. How does that sound?

Less is more

National Express Victoria Coach Station

“Click which photo better represents this place” – foursquare allows people to rank pictures

Not surprising in the gaming world this understanding is already paying serious dividends. A leading example is gaming company wooga which has carefully built its business by monitoring the data gathered by user responses, to tweak aspects of its online games to help boost engagement and thus ROI. In effect they are able to leverage user behaviour to give them what they want. By thinslicing social data effectively, figuring out what matters by understanding what customers want and ignoring the rest, the same benefits are available to your online business too. So by reducing the amount of data provided, you’re actually able to make better decisions about your customers, and you’re able to better understand how they making purchasing decisions online. It’s as simple as that.

A quick example of thinslicing – to find the data and to act on the data

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1. Consider this excerpt from Wikipedia on the Friendship paradox, as way of a quick mathematical -based example of ‘thinslicing’, that helps predict disease epidemics:

The analysis of the friendship paradox implies that the friends of randomly selected individuals are likely to have higher than average centrality. This observation has been used as a way to forecast and slow the course of epidemics, by using this random selection process to choose individuals to immunize or monitor for infection while avoiding the need for a complex computation of the centrality of all nodes in the network.[5][6][7]

2. Then consider that this is probably what happened in one New York community, prior to the full impact of HIV, to quote one study from Dr Sam Friedman:

In the period from 1976 to the early 1980’s, seroprevalence in New York rose from zero to about 50%…The epidemic then entered a period of dynamic stabilization…Although mathematical models have suggested network saturation may have been an important part of the stabilization process (Blower, 1991), the sociometric analysis of drug injectors’ networks conducted during the research for this volume suggest that the extent of network saturation may have been quite limited.

Behaviour change probably made a major contribution to the stabilization of seroprevalence. In spite of a popular image that would suggest that either “slavery to their addiction” or “hedonistic, selfish personalities that ignore risks and social responsibility,” drug injectors in New York (and indeed, throughout the world) have acted both to protect themselves and others against the AIDS epidemic. Thus, by 1984, before there were any programs other than the mass media to inform them about AIDS or to help to protect themselves, drug injectors in New York were engaged in widespread risk reduction…Furthermore, observations on the street confirmed this by showing that drug dealers were competing with others for business by offering free sterile syringes along with their drugs as AIDS-prevention techniques.

BTW if you’ve stumbled on this post and wonder what it all means, join the club. I am still working on myself, but there’s something here about ‘thinslicing’ as an outsider – in this example finding who to immunize in an epidemic; and ‘thinslicing’ from an insider perspective, in this example, who with little information people figured out how to take precautionary measures.Hence the title addition – to find the data and to act on the data..

‘Thinslicing’ connects the data, to the behaviour that creates it

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If you’re here for the two examples of companies that improved customer service by allowing people (customers) to talk to people (employees), highlighted in red – and the 2nd example is in the 3rd comment. You can ignore the stuff about thinslicing:-)

To explain why I like the term thinslicing first take a look at the cool piece about data interpretation written today by Lithium’s Dr Michael Wu, including this neat illustration:

Then consider this, that my response to reading this blog post clarified a key thing I have been trying to say. Firstly, that I’ve come to term the business objective of finding the “interpretable, relevant and novel” in data as Michael terms it – through a combination of art and science – namely that of thinslicing.

thinslicing

But now I’ve made the next step. Identifying the value of thinslicing lies in the elegant and powerful way the term thinslicing connects the approach to data analytics to the behaviour that creates that data – namely with the thinslicing of online consumers who “tend to ignore most information available and instead ‘slice off’ a few relevant information or behavioral cues that are often social to make intuitive decisions,” as Brian Solis puts it. 

But perhaps it would help if I made clear what I don’t mean by thinslicing as a strategic tool, is that summed by nicely in these two paragraphs written by Bob Thompson on the CustomerThink community:

“Despite our best efforts to collect and analyze data, good business decisions will always include elements of judgement, intuition or just plain luck. Many day-to-day decisions are made with little or no thought, because the option selected just seems “right.” Gut-feel decisions might be examples of what Malcolm Gladwell called “thin-slicing” in his provocative 2005 bestseller Blink.

“However, the best decision can sometimes be counter-intuitive. For example, the financial services firm Assurant Solutions wanted to improve its “save” rate on customers calling in to cancel their protection insurance. The industry’s conventional wisdom, which resulted in 15-16% retention rates, was to focus on reducing wait time to boost customer satisfaction. But data analysis found a solution that tripled the retention rate: matching customer service reps with customers based on rapport and affinity.”

What I mean is the approach to data as you outline above which I categorize as thinslicing, coupled with the way consumers make purchasing decisions – which like good business “will always include elements of judgment, intuition or just plain luck”.

In other words by thinslicing, rather than using intuition to make decisions, I mean adopting a strategy which is based on the understanding that by connecting the means of analyzing the data with the way the data is created by customers.

The question then is why? While it may be clever to see a way which logically connects the way to analyse data with the way it’s created, why is that potentially so useful to a business? Now there’s a good question. The obvious answer is that by aligning the analytic method used by your business, with the way the data is created by your customers, you are going to produce better results in terms of both better quality actionable recommendations which also produce an increase in ROI. How does that sound?

Update: so there’s a nice response from Dr Michael Wu on that question of linking the too together, the way you approach the data, with the way its created, that connects the two ends of the spectrum together:

Good data scientists must know everything that happen to the data, from its creation, all the way to the point where they get their hands on the data. It is actually a pretty standard practice for hardcore financial/business analysts. Not only you need to “connecting the means of analyzing the data with the way the data is created,” you must know everything that happen to the data along the way, until the data reaches you (or the analyst). Only then can you be certain that your analysis is not biased or confounded by something before you get your hands on it. In statistics term, only then can you know the confidence interval of your result.

Bug finder general, eBay style

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I like to joke about my #thinslicing abilities, the idea I am good a finding a needle in a haystack. But it’s difficult scientifically to prove such a talent, as it so easily looks like luck/coincidence. For example I stumbled across a bug today trying to buy some earplugs on eBay which meant I was unable to pay for the item with PayPal, a real pain-point if it’s widespread. Then again I have done a little bug testing in-house for eBay before so maybe..

Peter Krantz 16:03:38
Welcome to eBay Live Help, my name is Peter. How may I be of assistance?

stuartg699 16:05:20
Hi yes I have a problem with payment – when I go to pay using PayPal I am returned to the review order page. I tried this twice and this happened twice.

Peter Krantz 16:07:31
Have you tried to clear cache and cookies to make sure that there is no outdated information in your account.

stuartg699 16:07:55
I will try that, thank you Peter.

Peter Krantz 16:08:41
Is there anything else that I can assist you with?

stuartg699 16:09:35
Yes, I tried that and got an error message on PayPal – Message 3005 – temporary difficulties are being experienced. I hope that was helpful:-)

Peter Krantz 16:11:30
I will just need a moment while I check this for you.

stuartg699 16:12:20
Thanks

Peter Krantz 16:12:54
I’ve looked into it and it looks like there’s a technical problem with our site right now. I’ve forwarded your information to our technical team so that we can resolve it as soon as possible.

stuartg699 16:14:38
OK, cool, thanks Peter.

Peter Krantz 16:15:01
Thank you for contacting eBay Live Help, have a good afternoon Stuart.

Thinslicing joke, otherwise lost to the world

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Phew, just found my  joke I contributed to the xs4all Science Jokes site wayback in March 2001. Now it looks like a joke about #thinslicing, in part because it includes concepts borrowed from my travels – heterogeneous organisation of data – comes from talking to a group of computer scientists at a First Tuesday meeting in 2000:

Q: How do you find a needle in a haystack?

Scientist says: One draws up a research and development proposal for a new
and improved device, costing $100m in budget and just under $200m on final
completion. The device can harvest for needles in any given haystack in any
terrain at any time, and operated by remote or even hands-on control.

Chaotician says: Faced with such a heterogeneous organisation of data you
assemble a bunch of friends (say ten or less, or maybe more if there is free
alcohol) and hold a party on the haystack. Someone will be bound to find the
needle by stepping or sitting on it. Or if they don’t something much more
strange + interesting will appear, so that the needle is classified as a
variant hay-straw. And the new discovery classified as the strange attractor.

 

Applying lean start-up principles and practice to building corporate communities

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On Monday evening I took the bull by the horns and jumped into the debate over how best to deal with building a successful corporate community at Cass Business School, organised by BrightLemon. And to give it some zip, some urgency, I based the story that was narrated with the help of some simple PowerPoint slides on my failure to create a successful online community at Shopping.com.

A confession first, being let’s say not one of the best public speakers (great to see that Cass was holding a Toastmasters event that same evening) I did my talk sitting down, and using a microphone, which was more fun and conversational in style. Anyhow in similar laid back fashion I have decided to publish my slides in text format, to add some reflective value (and pop in the occasion image now and then)..though I do relent at the end to include the clutch of slides with a lean start-up example.

My second slide was about the real subject of the talk, which is learning from setting up community to deliver to the Shopping.com mission, and how I might do it again differently with the benefit of lean start-up tools.

I also mentioned that my desire to talk about the value of start-up tools for building communities is based on discussions with community managers and entrepreneurs on the LinkedIn Community Roundtable Group and e-mint, who’ve shown support for the concept:

“I can’t say that I have really applied them directly to community building, but I certainly think that the approach makes sense. Since the fundamental tenet of the lean start-up is to be customer-focused and to continually seek actual customer validation for what you are creating, it seems to intuitively fit as a model for community development, agreed Terry Coatta.

“The biggest challenge I would foresee is critical mass. As a lean startup with a specific product/service you can engage in customer validation with a small number of customers — sometimes even just a single one. But in a community, you need to have interaction amongst the community members. So you clearly need to have more than one :-) The actual numbers are going to depend on how willing people are to contribute, but given the 90/9/1 rule of thumb, it would seem like you might need at least some tens of people involved in order to have even a minimal level of interaction.”

A little about my background experience in social media and community starting at Headshift at the end of 2005 (now part of the Dachis Group) and most recently working for eBay Inc’s Shopping.com.

Kilimanjaro

And as way of a sneaky-peeky into what I was up to at Shopping.com check out this quick overview of one successful social media campaign activity at the top price comparison site:

The original aim of Shopping.com mission was to be ‘best place to buy online when don’t know what to buy’ which was supported by a NPS led user value proposition (UVP) piloted in our German (DE) site with improvements to search, data, product selection, and community itself as the means to improve guidance for customers.

And by the 3rd quarter of 2010 our community strategy was starting to pay dividends in DE, with good quality customer conversations, leading to successful offline top contributor meet-ups.

While in the UK we did not take part in the UVP I did get chance to look ahead for 2011 and put together a top level plan which in retrospect had its simple merits as strategy for content and community optimization:

{1} SEO:
Better SEO content => new visitors; better member content => better SEO content (revenue)

{2} Community:
Better incentives/feedback => better community (cost)

{3} Conversions:
Loyal community members => increased conversions (revenue)

The obvious weakness was in failing to understand how to get a community contribute to revenue, except in terms of creating reviews and guides which would rank highly for SEO. But I only got to try that out with a social SEO approach with a test with user-generated 40 guides created at the end of my tenure.

What I did learn was the value of using social media channels to listen and learn from the customer, as with Google’s ZMOT’s observation that people will search for reviews on small purchases like Scotch tape, understanding that for the customer that the smallest issues had significance [Dec 2012: what I now term #thinslicing – the power of bringing together an understanding of how customers make purchasing decisions with little info, together with how to listen and help customers using your social & community manager supported with social tools & data].

But the strategy ultimately did not deliver the expected positive results, and community while remaining in place on the site was called off as a ‘key business driver’ for Shopping.com.

So with the benefit of this experience what would I do differently? And thinking about previous community building experience at ICAEW when we considered surveying members on the first iteration of IT Counts, maybe the answer is as simple as asking potential community members if it’s what they want.

In other words testing the assumptions with a basic ‘mvp’ which we could quickly validate and pivot from if necessary. To illustrate this I used the nice example from the Lean Startup Machine London event I attended recently, with an idea for a per-to-peer mobile dating app called appropriately ‘You Never Know’. There’s a full list of startup entries here.

But of course there’s plenty to consider overall to make sure your community is a success, as this expert blog post from Dachis which I used in one of my slides highlights 13 high-level points to consider, including those which relate to testing with your customers/community. Clearly lean tools apply to tasks such as building to solve both a customer and brand problem, but don’t forget the value of applying a metrics led approach to validation, as outlined in the concluding slideshare below from one of the Lean Startup Machine London presenters.

I hope that’s inspired some interest in the use of lean start-up tools to validate your community proposition. But it’s also worth adding the point made to me by Rosie Sherry, that these tools aren’t just for pre-launch validation – but can add value throughout the business cycle when used with an existing community of customers:

“Another angle to look at it is how lean startup methods + communities can help build a product/business.

“In my situation, for example, I started an online community that has grown to be something special. As a consequence, it takes much more effort than an odd hour here or there to maintain. As a result, we are trying to figure out ways to create it into a sustainable business – in a lean startup kind of way. We hadn’t, when we started it, thought it would turn into what it has today. But in order to maintain it, we do need to figure out how to make it work financially.

“One advantage, is that we can reach out quite easily to people to get feedback. The community members are also not shy in saying if they think what we are doing sucks!”

Lean startup metrics

Hardest-to-find problems – intuition & the web

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Having just read Nielsen I was truck by his words: “some of the hardest-to-find usability problems are found by evaluators who do not otherwise find many usability problems”. Reason being is that I seem to have a knack of spotting usability/system problems, (while sometimes missing the easier ones!) To be good at this I feel you need to have worked at the bottom of organisations as well as at the top in order to see problems the top-down mentality misses.

It also reminds me of the concept of  ‘wicked problems’ which I came across recently on Johnnie Moore’s Weblog: “A wicked problem is an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. A linear approach to solving a wicked problem simply will not work.” What complicates the issue is that simple linear problems are not so easily divisible from ‘wicked problems’ and vice versa (and here an understanding of complexity can be helpful).

Secondy, that on Johnnie Moore’s posting there is a comment basically saying ‘hey, that’s what agile software development is for’. My contention is that by their nature, such ‘techniques’ are at root just that – techniques. And the problem with techniques is that they all share the same ‘fat fingered’ weakness – the division between the system and the user. And it itself is ultimately inherently limiting. Going beyond technique is the ultimate goal to discover ‘hardest-to-find problems’.

And that in turn involves a challenge to the individual usability guru which forces him or her to move beyond that traditional technique way of thinking/acting, based on emotional intelligence (or what I called – seeing as I had the idea to present at Berkeley – the ‘non-linear science of empowerment’) not simply traditional IQ-based capability. Full 1999 Chaos Society Berkeley paper here. They’ve got a nice swimming pool at Berkley, btw.

Anyhow, technique is not without its profound uses. At a deeper level it’s also useful for a tester to understand the concept of a system’s ‘dynamical key':

“An attempt to control a complex system, perhaps through natural selection or an organizational or political policy by operating on only one feature of the system, will not eradicate or otherwise nullify the system. The system will mutate and evolve to compensate for the environmental assault. The secret of real system change is to locate the dynamical key that supports or unravels the entire system. The next policy would be to guide the reorganization of the entire system around a new dynamical key (Hubler, 1992).”

So a very brief light-hearted example. Six years ago while working for an award-winning ski holiday company I was presented with a problem. Twin sisters I thought I had booked into a twin room were now told that they would have to share a double bed, as no twin was left. The sisters were not happy at this prospect. So I asked the operator I had booked the holiday with to stand by the confirmation of the twin bed booking. They refused, they said as I had made the booking on the phone rather by the preferred electronic online system (which was down at the time) that they would not honour it.

I asked the company directors for guidance and they were also baffled, suggesting that I might throw human rights at the holiday company to get them to budge. After sleeping on the issue I came back the next morning – and drafted a fax to the company. I asked simply if they therefore regarded the telephone booking and the online booking as two separate distinct systems. A few hours later, they had a ‘surprise’ change of mind, and the twin sisters got their twin hotel room.

PS: I guess it just comes down to recognising the value of intuition in hard usability problems. Which could explain why “some of the hardest-to-find usability problems are found by evaluators who do not otherwise find many usability problems”. [Update, Dec 2012: I now understand this uncommon ability as #thinslicing]

Funny, I was at a BBQ in Berkeley, CA back in 1999 and got chatting to a woman who said she’d just written a book on intuition. But that’s a whole other story about how to develop intuition in the first place, referenced in recent UCL research.