Posted by Jason and Mike

Alien Names

Aristotle called metaphors “alien names.” He meant that they are words reserved for one thing that are used to describe another. You know, like “all we are is dust in the wind.” Literally speaking, we’re not dust, and we certainly don’t act like dust in the wind. People are people, and they act like people. Dust in the wind is dust in the wind, and it acts like dust in the wind. But using that phrase in an alien way tells us something about the human condition. Like, we apparently all recognize Kansas lyrics. When used appropriately, metaphor is a way to approach ideas differently, to make complex ideas clearer, and to make unfamiliar ideas familiar.

Metaphors are also sneaky bastards. Plato, I think, said that one.

We tell stories here. B2B stories. The way a novelist sits down to plot a book is the same way we sit down and plot a corporate message (and although novelists don’t always have to do that first, we do). In fact, we incorporate a traditional story structure in our proprietary framework for corporate messaging.

Metaphor is something we’re constantly tangoing with. After all, B2B is still human-to-human, and humans think and speak in a constant flow of metaphors. On top of that, the types of clients that we serve, the products they sell, and the sales processes themselves are all highly complex and highly technical. So metaphors are extremely attractive to help create succinct, compelling messages.

But there’s a fine line between using and misusing metaphor, and with B2B messaging, a real danger to the brand in that latter. So we’ve put together three basic rules for using metaphor in business messaging:

1. The Metaphor Should Clarify the Story. The point of metaphor is to tell a commonly understood story that is more accessible than the story itself. In other words, to clarify. If the metaphor makes the story less clear than the literal story—say, by being too convoluted or too complex—metaphor should be avoided.

2. The Metaphor Should Be Contained. Even a great metaphor can become a liability. If it’s used throughout an entire story, the metaphor becomes tedious and eventually breaks down to irrelevancy in the details (because nothing is exactly like anything else). A metaphor is a plot device, not a substitute for the plot itself.

3. The Metaphor Should Elevate Your Brand. The metaphors used by a business should be appropriate to the brand and the message. The metaphor leaves an image with the audience and that image should make a brand cooler, better, and more relevant, and never less so.

So that’s it. Treat metaphors like dynamite: powerful and useful but often dangerous. Use them when it makes sense to, use them sparingly to make a specific sharp point in your story, and use them to elevate your brand.

Too bad Aristotle wasn’t a marketer. He would’ve have just laid all this out for us already.

In the previous Maark Blog post, we talked in general terms about how overlooked the software user experience is in the burgeoning world of the Internet of Things (or internet of things, according to the AP). I thought we should follow up on that and get more specific.

So let’s talk about stoves.

The one always setting off smoke alarms in my kitchen is a Maytag. For the rest of this post you’ll have to accept the hypothetical that I do a lot of cooking and care about what stove I use (when, in reality, I had to run into the kitchen before I started writing this post to see what brand it was).

I mean, I could have bought any stove. There are a lot of them out there and, as far as I know, they can all bake lasagna. So why did I buy a Maytag?

Because I like their stoves better than other company’s stoves that have the same basic feature set and cost range. More specifically, I liked the experience of their stoves better. The experience is what sets them apart from other stoves.

That experience includes everything from how well its adjustable-level self-cleaning works to the view through its extra large oven window to its cubic feet of capacity—all the features you see in its online listing.

But the experience is more than that. It’s the texture, shape, and give of the knobs, the configuration of the burners on the stove top, the sheen of the metal, all the elements that Maytag has industrially designed to try to make their stoves the easiest to use, the most enjoyable to use, and the most aesthetically appealing over, say, the jerks at Kenmore. Just kidding, I’m sure their stoves bake lasagna, too.

Again, these companies all sell stoves, but it’s the experience of their stoves that sets them apart (or doesn’t) from their competition. And now, in the nascent era of the Internet of Things, that experience is extended into the software interface on the stove, which makes software design as important a contributor to the user experience as the stove’s industrial design.

Actually, it becomes somewhat more so.

The software experience will subsume some of that industrial design. No more twisting nobs because you have screen buttons. No more bending over to look in the window because you have a camera relaying images to the screen (and your phone). In subsuming those elements, it will influence the industrial design. The ultimate smart ovens will look very different from conventional ones (they’re already starting to…see the above image).

Eventually, customers will interact more with the user interface on the stove and on their phone that is linked to the stove than they will with the physical stove itself. That’ll change the Thanksgiving dynamic a bit, I think.

And this idea doesn’t just apply in B2C settings. It will apply to B2B “things,” as well. Because it still comes down to the experience a person is having with your thing and how much better or worse it is than your competition’s.

The battle just moves to the screen.

The Internet of Things Has No Face

It’s fun to talk about the Internet of Things (IoT). Mostly because of, you know, the word “things.” But also because it has the potential to change every object we interact with in life and therefore the very way we interact with life itself. That’s a big topic, so it’s interesting to see where the current discussion around IoT hits and misses. I did a quick Google News search and, in the media, there are four basic discussion threads:

  1. What the hell is IoT?
  2. IoT is hard to accomplish/impossible to secure/transformative.
  3. Every company wants a slice of IoT, even when they’ve no execution strategy.
  4. Consumers are still slow in accepting proto-IoT devices in their home (Echo, Nest, Dax and Kristen’s refrigerator).

However, what was never mentioned in the pages and pages of Google News that I swiped through, was the fact that IoT needs a face. And that’s not good. See, just as important as figuring out the practicals of adoption and security and monetization is prioritizing the user experience (UX).

Because, in the end, what IoT is really doing is creating a massive influx of new experiences, whether that new experience is with your waffle maker or across a fleet of trucks or embedded in the infrastructure of a city. That means the most common and most important interaction your customers will have with your company (and its brand) will be through an interface.

That interface will be your brand.

So the opportunity is huge for shifting and tightening the relationship with your customer, but the risk is also as great, since the dangers of a bad experience grow exponentially with every connected device and could wipe out all the success companies are looking for with IoT in the first place.

UX just can’t be ignored in IoT. It’s vital for adoption, for expanding your brand, for engaging customers, and for differentiating among competition. IoT doesn’t merely offer the promise of some new, better remote control. It offers the promise of a new, better experience. So you better have one.

This week, the results of a new study came out revealing that social media app usage for Android users was down 30% worldwide from this point last year. Also that social media app downloads and installations had dropped 9% in that same time period.

Why are we suddenly less social?

Unfortunately, nobody I was reading on the topic seemed to be drawing any conclusions other than that we’re tired of social media. And, sure, that might be enough. It’s as exhausting as it is addicting for everyone involved—content creators, content passers-along, and content consumers. Social media is one of those things that it’s a lot of fun to both love and hate. Like smartphones in general. But it’s also one of those things we can’t stop using even when we’re in a hate phase. Like smartphones in general.

Except that maybe we are. I man, 30% in a year is, to me, significant. I racked my brains (i.e., did a lot of Googling) to come up with a reason why. I mean, are smart watches both keeping our phones in our pockets and keeping us from staying on social media due to the tiny screens? Can’t be. That market has pretty much tanked, and any real progress it has made is in the Apple world, which wasn’t a part of the study, and is a minority on the international scene anyway.

I couldn’t come up with an answer, so I dropped the statistic on a colleague here at Maark. He immediately offered, “That’s weird. That just tells me we’re using smartphones less.”

And that…might be a bingo. I mean, what else do we do on our phones? The mobile web is still terrible, so we usually fill our many in-between times swiping through social feeds. I mean, we use them for email, but that’s always been the case. We’re not suddenly emailing more. I looked around for any stats about phone use being up or down in that same period, but naturally couldn’t find it (there’s never a good stat around when you need it).

When you can’t find stats, you find anecdotes, so I looked at my own data usage.

It turns out this month 42% of my data was bucketed as “Social Media and Networking.” The next largest bucket was 40%, which is “Web and Apps.” Verizon defines that category as “common destinations for Lifestyle & Interests, News and Media and Entertainment content.” And, honestly, I guarantee you a lion’s share of that content was accessed via social media. The next highest bucket for me was only at 10%. So I basically only use my phone (when I’m not on WiFi, at least) for social media.

I tried to compare it to the same time period last year for me, but Verizon only holds that information for 90 days. To protect me from the Feds, I assume. Still, if that’s any clue, if I ever have a drop in social media usage, it’ll actually be due to a drop in smartphone usage.

One of my data buckets got me to thinking, though. Is it because of the massive rise in podcasting? It wasn’t a big bucket on my usage stats, but that’s because I always download podcasts on WiFi. Podcasting has skyrocketed in the past two years, though. Maybe instead of checking our feeds on the bus, we’re keeping our phones in our pockets and listening to WTF and JRE on headphones?

I don’t know. But for sure I’m keeping my eyes on this trend to see if it continues over the next year. Because we can’t be getting tired of both social media and smartphones, can we? What kind of world is that to leave our children?

Photo credit: byronv2

You ever get that feeling, as you spin through vast libraries of media and information at the twitch of a finger, shuttling between the supercomputer in your pocket to the one on your wrist to the paper-thin one that hinges shut on your desk, that things just aren’t, I don’t know, better?

Well, according to The New York Times, things aren’t. At least not economically. From the article:

For several years, economists have asked why all that technical wizardry seems to be having so little impact on the economy. The issue surfaced again recently, when the government reported disappointingly slow growth and continuing stagnation in productivity. The rate of productivity growth from 2011 to 2015 was the slowest since the five-year period ending in 1982.

The piece contrasts two ideas. The first is that today’s digital innovations aren’t yielding the economic increases that the big-time inventions of yesterday did—electricity, modern transportation, medicine. The opposing idea is that the only thing we can blame today’s digital depression on is for making us more impatient since most industries have not fully embraced the transformation yet and will need to before gains can be realized. That’s the way all technology is, proponents of this side argue.

Meanwhile Silicon Valley continues to find investors and is every day closer to finishing that valley-sized spaceship so they can leave the Earth and all of us suckers behind.

Seriously, though, The New York Times piece is an interesting read. Although its hope vs. cynicism ping-pong tournament seems to fall a little more on the latter scale (cynical pieces always make for more interesting, more cathartic articles for some reason). But whether we haven’t fully committed to digital transformation or we are mistaken about assumptions of ever-marching technology progress, one thing is for certain…hold on, just got an app notification.

Photo credit: David Ingram