Dan Sweet

Quora vs. Namesake (Quora wins by TKO)

I’ve written glowingly about Quora before. I’ve since cut back on my Quora usage significantly. I think this is probably common and natural. I’d also “applied” for membership to Namesake.com months back, and just got invited to register today.

Quora won.

Originally the two sites had similarly strong buzz. Looking at the landscape today it looks like Namesake’s invite-only closed beta approach lost them the fight. No critical mass of users = no compelling content base = TKO. Still stumbling around, but it is obvious to everyone else you are done.

Quora is completely crushing Namesake based on my 15 min of browsing. Namesake seems like a ghost town compared to Quora. Activity levels and total membership both look low in comparison. With those initial impressions of the site, I’m not motivated to contribute. I work in finance, so lets take the Corporate Finance topic as an example. 7 people are following it and one conversation exists. The one conversation is basically this: “Demand Media’s IPO went well, don’t you think the market is overpriced?” First of all, it is the market. That is what it is worth. If you disagree, then go short it. This doesn’t sound like the place I am going to go for corporate finance advice. Additionally, if only 7 people are following the Corporate Finance topic, do I really want to start spouting my thoughts on corporate finance? I might get “endorsed” or become an “expert”, but that doesn’t jive with the real world. I know way more than 7 people at P&G that have much more sick finance skills than me. Pretending I’m a baller on the internet doesn’t seem like a value-added activity. At Quora, people throw out opinions that get vetted/validated by the crowd. You don’t need to claim any expertise to participate. Upvotes fly fast and furious to incent participation and the ranking of answers based on votes vs a chronological ordering seems to be a much more elegant and engaging solution.

It looks to me like Namesake lost this one. Worst of all, it looks like they did it to themselves with their choice of beta style. Alternatively, the alignment of their PR efforts and product readiness was just way off. That’s the only way I can explain this outcome.

How to succeed as a finance guy.

I’m sixth months into my first full-time role at P&G.  It is the proverbial drinking from a firehose that I was promised, hence no posting.  During my transition into the company I’ve been asking various folks around the company what success looks like for a finance manager at P&G.  The most compelling response I received is reproduced in the graphic below:

Innovative models, sophisticated analyses, and leading large-scale change.  These are the top of the pyramid elements that we typically associate with high caliber finance professionals.  However, without a firm foundation, the most sophisticated pieces of analysis will go nowhere.  Finance people without integrity aren’t worth much, hence the internal controls piece.  You also can’t make meaningful assumptions if you can’t trust your organization and the people in it.  Owning sound internal controls is the key to ensuring the numbers you work with can be counted on and will be taken seriously by others.  Delivering the business results is the other key piece of the foundation.  Finance managers at P&G are true business partners.  They aren’t just accountants and they don’t just “run the numbers” on ideas that get passed down the chain.  Finance folks are typically present early on  and have significant input at all stages of the planning process.  As a result, finance managers own the business results right along with the sales force, the marketers, and general management.  Once the foundation of sound internal controls and consistent business results is in place, then feel free to trot out your latest greatest data visualization techniques or sophisticated model.  Ignore at your own peril.

Social Media Tutorial – the why and how of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blog readers, and personal branding

This presentation is a good basic tutorial on social media. It covers the why and how of Facebook, Twitter, blog readers, and personal branding. I designed it for incoming Notre Dame MBA students but it has proven itself valuable for everyone from my parents, to executives, to my peers who don’t quite get why everyone is suddenly talking about Twitter. Basically anyone looking to understand what social media is all about.

Please share it with your friends, family, coworkers, etc.

Chuck D of Public Enemy on branding…a book review

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

Rob Walker’s book, Buying In, attempts to understand the interplay between our personal identity and our consumer culture. Walker’s background as a columnist for the New York Times Magazine and Slate has allowed him to get close to the consumer and many of the most popular brands of our times. He leverages his experiences as a journalist to take the reader to places as far ranging as behind the scenes at Apple HQ for a chat with an annoyed Steve Jobs, a bicycle messenger polo match sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon in a field outside of Portland, and to a Miami beach for a Red Bull-fueled kite-boarding trip to Cuba. Walker effectively debunks many of the popular stories that are used to explain consumer behavior and dives deeper. He challenges the reader to understand their own behavior and the forces that create our attitudes and actions. Walker concludes his book by contrasting mainstream “terminal materialism” with his vision for a consumption that flows from an individual’s true identity. I didn’t expect that a book about marketing could delve so deep into the individual’s psyche and still be so fascinating—but Walker pulls it off.

The first third of Buying In addresses what Walker calls the Desire Code. This code is the “complex of factors, rational and otherwise, that spark us to make particular purchase decisions.” Walker describes what he calls the “Pretty Good Problem” that exists when consumers face a plethora of pretty good solutions to any given problem. Referencing Seth Godin’s Purple Cow concept, he touches on the challenge of being remarkable. Walker says that the goal of branding is to create a “different kind of value” that transcends the material. Interesting back-stories of the founders of Ecko and Ralph Lauren debunk the idea that authenticity is all important to consumers. Hello Kitty is then used to counter the suggestion that a brand must “stand for something.” Walker argues that Hello Kitty has become so successful precisely because she lacks any meaning. Consumers can instead project whatever they want onto Hello Kitty and make her stand for anything.

Once the author’s street cred has been established by talking hip hop and Hello Kitty has been trotted out as the ultimate blank canvas, Walker gets down to what he calls “the fundamental tension of modern life.” Essentially, people want to feel unique, but also want to feel a part of something bigger. Our attempts to resolve the tension between these two diametrically opposed states play out visibly in our purchase behavior and hold the key to understanding the Desire Code. Walker uses the archetype of the skater as outlaw to illustrate how the desire to be unique plays itself out for some. In an ironic twist, the skater is also the example that disproves the argument that young people are opposed to “joining.” Walker uses the explosion of the skateboarding category as evidenced by skyrocketing revenues for skateboarding apparel and shoes, relative to the more modest growth of actual skateboarding equipment, to demonstrate that people who don’t skate still want to associate themselves with skateboarding and that by extension, youth have nothing at all against joining. In fact, in many cases, people are longing to join and belong.

Walker takes his examination of the individual’s psyche one step further when he introduces the concept of “the interpreter.” Citing Keech’s seminal work on cognitive dissonance, he argues that consumers are actually attempting to tell themselves a consistent story of who they are. Consumers don’t buy to keep up with the Joneses as has previously been thought. Instead we buy things in an attempt to construct ourselves a consistent story about who we are. The “interpreter” is an important concept to keep in mind and adds a new layer to our thinking about basic branding concepts like salience and relevance. The interpreter is a mechanism that consumers use to create a rationale as to why a particular brand or product has relevance for their personal identity. Previously it was considered the responsibility of brander to communicate the relevance of a product or service offering to consumers. Walker uses the examples of the yellow Livestrong bracelets and the iPod as illustrations of the power of a diverse group of consumers’ “interpreters” to determine personal relevance without regard for an officially sanctioned value proposition. Walker doesn’t buy “badge theory” and argues that Method, a household cleaner our neighbors will never know we own, demonstrates that we are consuming as we are in an attempt to tell a story to ourselves—not to others.

The majority of the book explores the emerging world of “murketing.” Walker invented this term as a joke to attempt to explain an emerging form of marketing that oversteps our traditional construct of marketing. He argues against the idea that the “click culture” created by Tivo has hurt the industry and provides numerous fascinating examples of ways that companies are transcending traditional advertising and are becoming a part of pop culture itself. He uses the stories of Timberland boots and Chuck Taylor sneakers to poke fun at brand managers who offer consumers the opportunity to co-create meaning for a brand. Walker argues that, in many cases, consumers have owned brand meaning for decades.

In an unexpected twist, Walker next brings up the topic of religion. Walker cites Rick Warren’s popular book The Purpose-Driven Life and argues that its thesis, “its not about you,” is a direct and compelling attack on our commercial culture. While academics, university professors, European philosophers, simple-living fanatics and fringe culture jammers have essentially been saying that our commercial culture can’t satisfy the soul for years, they have traditionally been dismissed as “out-of-touch elites.” Warren believes that life is about “serving God and serving others” and not “about having more and getting more.” In Christianity, Walker sees the “fundamental tension of modern life” resolved for believers. This was not a conclusion I was expecting to see drawn in a book about marketing and consumption.

Walker concludes by discussing the psychological study of “adaptation” and proposing a new way to view our role as consumers. He sees that the choices that “spark that anticipation of pleasure” are constantly unfolding in front of us. However, “we’re not good at judging the ‘intensity and duration’ of our feelings of events that haven’t happened yet.” “’Thus when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move onto the next thing or event, almost certainly making another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.’” This is the definition of “terminal materialism” and something I expect many of us can relate to.

Walker closes with a quote by Chuck D of Public Enemy and his vision for meaningful consumption:

Chuck D: “It wasn’t like a brand defined you, you defined the brand.”

Rob Walker: “Maybe then, the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are should go like this. You are only what you surround yourself with? No. You surround yourself only with who you are.” Imagine that.

All in all, a fascinating read that I would highly recommend to all.