Remembering international advertising executive Shirley Young (1935-2020).

The World War II immigrant from war-torn Asia became a pacesetting executive in the New York ad world before shifting to the corporate sphere.

As we begin a New Year, let’s pause for a brief moment to remember Shirley Young, the successful New York ad executive who passed away in the waning days of 2020.  She’s a person whose life story is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

Ms. Young may be best-remembered as a noted advertising executive whose career included a quarter century at Grey Advertising.  As president of Grey’s strategic marketing division, one of Young’s clients was General Motors, a company she later joined to help spearhead GM’s strategic development initiatives in China. 

Ms. Young moved in the worlds of business in the West and Far East with equal ease and poise.  To help understand how she could do so, looking at her early life helps explain her success. 

Born in Shanghai in 1935, Shirley Young was the daughter of Chinese diplomat Clarence Kuangson Young.  The family moved to Paris in the late 1930s and later to Manila, where her father had been appointed consul general at the Chinese embassy there.

In interviews later in life, Ms. Young would recount how soldiers had came to their Manila home when the city was overrun by the invading Japanese army.  Her diplomat father was arrested — and executed, as she later found out.  The occupiers sequestered little Shirley, her mother and her two sisters in a communal living space with other family members of jailed Chinese diplomats.  There, Shirley and her siblings helped raise pigs, chickens and ducks to survive wartime conditions in cramped quarters that were frequently left without electricity and basic water supply. 

Speaking of these early experiences, “I learned that whatever the circumstances, you can be happy,” Young told journalist Bill Moyers in a 2003 interview.

Following the Second World War, Shirley Young and her family emigrated to New York City, where her mother worked for the United Nations and later married another Chinese diplomat — this one representing the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. 

Graduating from Wellesley College in 1955, Shirley had few concrete plans for the future.  Indeed, she considered herself more of a dreamer than a person whose heart was set on a business career.  But taking the advice of a friend to explore the emerging field of market research where she might be able to combine her natural curiosity about the world with gainful employment, after numerous job application rejections she finally landed an entry-level position in the field.

Learning the basics of market research at several New York employers, Ms. Young then joined Grey Advertising in 1959 where she rose steadily in the ranks.  As a senior-level woman in the then-male dominated world of advertising agencies, Young stood out.  In so doing during a time when major companies were just beginning to show interest in more diversified corporate direction, it’s little surprise that Young would be invited to join the boards of directors of several major companies.

Young’s field experience and keen strategic acumen drew the eye of General Motors, a Grey Advertising client that would go on to hire her as vice president of GM’s consumer market development department in 1988. It was an unusual move for a company that up to then had typically promoted senior managers from within the company’s own ranks.  Her key role at General Motors was in formulating and implementing the GM’s strategic business initiatives in China.

In the years following her retirement, Ms. Young slowed down — but only a little.  She founded and chaired the Committee of 100, an organization that seeks to propagate friendly relations between the United States and China.  Related to those Chinese/U.S. endeavors, a statement made by Ms. Young in 2018 was this memorable quote:

“We have to work together.  Given the intertwined relationship and globalization, it’s ridiculous to think we cannot work together.”

[These days, the jury may be out on that statement; the next few years will probably tell us if her view has actually carried the day …]

Looking back on Shirley Young’s life and career, it’s hard not to be impressed by her pluck and spirit.  A child born of privilege but who soon lost it all, she could easily have retreated into a world of “what might have been.”  Instead, she pieced together a new life that turned out to be “bigger and better” than she could have ever imagined in her early years.

One other facet of Ms. Young’s life and work is worth noting:  her love of the “high arts.”  She was a notable supporter of such musicians as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer Tan Dun and pianist Lang Lang, and was also a tireless promoter of artistic exchanges between the United States and China.  One could certainly say that she was a significant catalyst in the burgeoning interest in Western classical music that has developed inside China over the past several decades. 

Acknowledging her contribution to the arts, Lang Lang’s organization wrote this epitaph about Shirley Young following her death:

“The Lang Lang Music Foundation mourns the passing of our director Shirley Young, a remarkable woman, patron of the arts, and a dear friend … she was unique and can never be forgotten.”

I think that sentiment is spot-on.

Post-pandemic, will the office landscape ever be the same again?

Nearly every business or organization, regardless of thee industry segment in which it operates, has been at least somewhat impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Existential forces have been responsible for quite a few businesses having to reduce staff working hours, either as a mandatory or voluntary measure. In a world of tough choices, often that action was the most reasonable way to cut costs while preventing redundancies and furloughs.

Months into the pandemic and with more restrictions being put in place again for the foreseeable future at least, what began as a short-term fix to weather the economic pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak now has some employers rethinking the possibilities of how they can restructure jobs to “work” effectively outside of the traditional work-week model.

In doing so, employers are responding to a growing appetite for part-time and flexible working as people re-evaluate their own work/life balance situations.

The economic benefits of allowing a higher proportion of staff to choose reduced hours on a more permanent basis could be beneficial for companies already operating on historically thin margins.  While it’s too early to see widespread policy changes happening, some companies are already actively planning to offer more part-time and flexible work to meet the desires of those who no longer wish to work a traditional 8-hour day/40-hour work week.

Among the numerous repercussions of the “coronavirus economy,” one may be the growing realization that office employees actually can take back some control of their time – that they can still do good work while structuring their work days, weeks or months differently. 

Any lingering stigma once associated with working fewer hours, working from home, or leaving the office early to pick up children has pretty much disappeared.  Employees doing any of those things are no longer the exception – and hence there’s no longer the guilt associated with bending or breaking the rules of attendance at the office.  And that’s before factoring in the economic attraction of saving thousands of dollars per year in commuting and other travel-related costs.

One chief marketing officer, Amanda Goetz of Teal Communications, goes so far so to declare that the 40-hour work week won’t exist in 10 years.  “The way companies operate now, there’s no need to ‘own’ someone’s calendar as long as you know they have very clear metrics and can hit their goals,” this manager emphasizes.

What are your thoughts?  How much will the recent changes be permanent going forward … or will we soon return to the paradigms of the pre-pandemic office world?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Tesla gets taken to task by Consumer Reports.

The Tesla Model Y SUV

Getting decent ratings from Consumer Reports is an important achievement for any product – particularly high ticket-items such as large home appliances and motor vehicles.

Many consumers consider CR to be the Holy Grail when it comes to its product evaluations. Indeed, weak comparative ratings is why so many American car makers have suffered greatly when attempting to compete with their Asian and some European counterparts.

And then we have Tesla.  This American car (and solar panel technology) company is different in that the Tesla product line doesn’t include any traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles.  The company has suffered for that in Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings, as its electric car technology isn’t fully mature – and hence subject to some rather gnarly quality control issues.

Actually, the company had been making some pretty steady progress on the product quality front – until the new Model Y mid-size SUV model hit the market earlier this year. Some of the common complaints about that new Tesla model have been eyebrow-raising to say the least – including some very basic and distinctly lo-tech problems like misaligned body panels and mismatched paint colors. 

As it turns out, the knocks on the Model Y have sent Tesla’s brand reputation plummeting in the CR reliability ratings.  The company now ranks an abysmal 25th out of 26 auto brands.  Ouch!

The Model Y has garnered Consumer Reports’ embarrassing designation “much worse than average.”  But Tesla’s more established vehicle models aren’t perceived to be that much better, actually.  CR rates both the Model S sedan and the Model X SUV as “worse than average,” meaning that only Tesla’s Model 3 is currently holding an “average” rating and the commensurate “recommended” status from CR.

Clearly, this company has substantial work left to do to convince a skeptical public of the quality of its automotive lineup.  Considering how quickly electric cars are being adopted now, it looks like the company will need to clean up its act within the next 24 to 36 months, or risk becoming one of those early pioneers that flamed out — just like happened to many of the early entrant motorcar companies a century ago.

What are your own thoughts about the promise – and pitfalls — of Tesla and its products?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Is automated copywriting the next big innovation in email?

Perhaps — with some caveats.

Considering the rapid pace of innovation in communications broadly, the email sector has remained surprisingly little-altered over the past 25 years.  But maybe that’s about to change.

We’re now seeing developers building tools that can create email copy using text-generation technology.  This past June, artificial intelligence research lab OpenAI unveiled a language model known as GPT-3, which has quickly led to several automated writing tools being developed.

Just what is GPT-3?  Here’s a definition according to The Great Book of Wikipedia:

“Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 is an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. It is the third-generation language prediction model in the GPT-n series created by OpenAI, a for-profit San Francisco-based artificial intelligence research laboratory.”

In a nutshell, automated writing tools built on GPT-3 send bits of keyword text provided by an author – otherwise known as “prompts – to OpenAI’s cloud service, which instantaneously sends back full-flowing text that’s deemed appropriate and accurate based on the statistical patterns it recognizes in the online text.

Even though GPT-3 technology accesses a vast information bank of training data comprising nearly 500 billion tokens in cyberspace to “derive” the copy, there’s always the possibility that the results could end up like the early attempts at automated language translation at the start of the 21st century – garbled and awkward.  However, with more AI “practice” and crowdsourced feedback, we’ve seen an established service like Google Translate deliver excellent translations for most commonly used languages like German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. 

Languages such as Hungarian, Turkish and Lithuanian are another matter – presumably with more seasoning needed to get those more esoteric tongues in ship-shape for AI translation.

Facebook, which has developed its own “walled garden” automated translation app, appears to be lagging Google considerably in the quality of its output – even when working in the most common languages like translating from French to English.

For now, the most practical applications of the GPT-3 language model look to be in the realm of business email writing, rather than for long-form business thought-pieces or most forms of creative writing.  In email communications, the author can jot down three or four key points and let the writing application do the rest. In this manner, instead of having to craft a memo completely from scratch, authors can provide key snippets — then take a moment or two to edit the proffered text before sending the email on to its intended recipients.

For those of us who write for a living, such a procedure might not seem particularly attractive. But for the many people who dislike the task of writing business communications — or find it laborious and too time-consuming — the new AI-powered writing may well be a welcome tool.

OpenAI’s automated writing service is on the pricey side today, but we can expect that it won’t take long before costs borne by end-users start to drop precipitously — no doubt due to the proliferation of free services subsidized by the same monetization model that now supports Google Maps and Google Translate.   

And this brings up a question that people should start to think about sooner rather than later:  Who will own the copyrights to the automated texts generated in this manner? 

For the many people who will undoubtedly choose to use freeware, the freeware’s terms of use may explicitly override the provisions of most copyright laws that vest ownership with the party who hires the ghostwriter.  In other words, if someone wishes to keep the copyright, then he or she has to pay for the writing service; otherwise, the service retains the copyright.

It’s only a matter of time before the leading purveyors seek to leverage their ownership of the freeware and the licenses they grant to use it – thereby giving them the ability to promote or censor whatever information they please.

The social acceptability of this medium could also be eroded when the volume of ghostwritten email masquerading as personalized communications begins to overwhelm people’s inboxes. At some point, email recipients will come to realize that any message that doesn’t include a disclaimer such as “I am the author; please disregard all spelling and/or grammatical errors,” can be marked as spam and routed automatically to the recipient’s junk email folder.  In such an environment where we’ll have a perceived quality demarcation between “real” and “manufactured” writing, we may find ourselves in the same place as we are today with tweets — that is, weighing if they are the work of humans or bots and judging their worth accordingly.

In other words, the new “next thing” in email communications won’t be happening without its share of issues and controversies – along with more than a little disruption.  It will be quite interesting to see how it all unfolds in the coming years.

What are your thoughts on the role of AI in writing?  Is the technology poised to become mainstream quickly, or will it remain more of a curiosity for a good while longer?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Fair weather friends? Consumers tie loyalty programs to getting discounts and freebies.

As more consumers than ever before have gravitated online to do their shopping, loyalty programs continue to grow in importance.

But what do consumers really want out of these loyalty programs?

The short answer to that question is “freebies and discounts,” the Loyalty Barometer Report from HelloWorld, an arm of Merkle, makes clear.

Of the ~1,500 U.S. consumers polled, ~77% of the respondents said they expected benefits for their loyalty to be in the way of free products, and an almost-equal percentage (~75%) expect to be offered special offers or discounts.

As for the most important reasons people participate in loyalty programs, the Merkle survey reveals that most people take a purely “transactional” approach to them.  Discounts and free products far outweigh other considerations:

  • Participation to receive discounts or offers: ~43% of respondents cited as the most important reason
  • To earn free products: ~27%
  • To gain access to exclusive rewards: ~10%
  • To receive members-only benefits: ~9%
  • To stay connected to a “brand I love”: ~6%
  • Other factors: ~5%

Notice how far down the list “brand love” falls.

As for negative aspects of reward programs, it turns out that there are a number of those.  The following five factors were cited most often by the survey respondents:

  • It takes too long to earn a reward: ~54% cited
  • It’s too difficult to earn a reward: ~39%
  • Receiving too many communications: ~36%
  • The rewards aren’t very valuable: ~32%
  • Worries about personal information security: ~29%

[For more details from the Merkle report, you can access a summary of findings here.]

The results of the Merkle survey suggest that rewards programs may be more “transactional” in nature than many brand managers would like them to be.  But perhaps that’s happened because of the very way the loyalty programs have been structured. When loyalty marketing is focused on discounts, it’s likely to drive transactions without necessarily engendering much if any actual customer loyalty.

On the other hand, if we define customer loyalty as when people are willing to pay a premium, or go out of their way to purchase a particular brand’s product or service, that represents a significantly smaller group companies than the plethora of companies offering loyalty programs to their customers.

Which brands do you consider to be true loyalty leaders?  A few that come to my mind are Amazon, American Express and Nike — but what others might you posit?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Brand statements get a real workout in 2020.

The bigger the company, it seems, the heftier the brand statement documents are that are associated with it.  And it’s gotten even more so in 2020 with several consequential current events being added to the mix – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest.

Unfortunately, these new challenges have come with their share of socio-political ramifications.  We’re dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, after all, and there isn’t really a “one size fits all” response that will work for many brands.

Companies are having to address two aspects, actually.  One pertains to internal (employee) audiences.  To build and maintain trust, employees and others who represent a company’s brand need to be briefed on the brand implications of the events in the news.

What to communicate depends on a variety of factors – and it’s also prone to mid-course adjustments in rapidly evolving environments.  (We’ve certainly experienced numerous twists and turns with the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest over the past six months.)

What’s most important is for internal messaging to assure employees that the work environment will be supportive when it comes to issues of physical (and mental) health, instances of alleged racism or discrimination, and the like.  And beyond this, to assure that employees have options and avenues to raise concerns, and that those concerns will be considered on the merits.

Some aspects of internal messaging may be uncomfortable to address, but keeping silent on the issues isn’t usually a practical option, considering the intensity of the current environment and how it has affected so many aspects of our daily lives.

As for what to say to the outside world, many companies and brands have released public statements as well; my inbox has been positively stuffed with them over the past months.

On the other hand, other companies have remained quiet.  Should they be doing so?

The answer to that question begins with the company’s own “DNA.”  What has its public face been over the years?  Has it been in the forefront with public statements in the past?  For some brands, any such statement will feel like a normal, regular extension of the brand as it’s been perceived — par for the course.  But if this hasn’t been the “culture” of a company up to now, to make a statement now might come across as insincere.

A company is an amalgam of the people who make up the organization.  That makes it wise for corporate leaders to trust their own instincts.  If their gut tells them it isn’t the right time to put certain public-facing content out into the world, such discretion is probably warranted.

But even if the decision is to remain mum, this is as good a time as any to consider if the “quiet company” approach might need to change going forward.  More than a few organizations are undertaking some form of “genetic re-engineering” to bring their brand DNA in line with modern expectations.  That’s probably a good thing.

Change agent: COVID-19’s ripple effect on BtoB marketing and sales.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world of business (and nearly everything else), marketing and sales in the BtoB realm had already undergone some pretty big changes in recent decades.

Historically, B2B sales were primarily a matter of face-to-face, physical contact. Often, the “road warriors” of those times would spend the majority of their weeks traveling to visit with customers and prospects at their places of business, or meeting them at trade shows.

But the turn away from that traditional model began in the 1980s and 1990s with building security concerns. Then along came 9/11 …

Technology has played a big part in the evolution — and has actually helped accelerate it with e-mail, database management, digital advertising, online RFP pricing/bid systems and other innovations affecting the nature of customer engagement.

Let’s not forget social networks, too — with LinkedIn being a particularly lucrative tool assisting many sales and marketing professionals in finding and nurturing prospects.

Somewhere along the way, the functions of marketing became much more than merely branding, advertising, and lead generation. Today, BtoB marketing is involved in every stage of the customer relationship.

Along comes COVID-19 in early 2020, which seems certain to drive further change. For one thing, virtual engagement has become a necessity instead of a merely an option.

At the same time, one could posit that customer retention has taken on more importance than ever before. It’s no wonder we’re hearing the phrase “retention is the new acquisition” stated with such frequency at the moment.

Roger McDonald

International strategic business advisor Roger McDonald believes that business has come full circle, returning to Peter Drucker’s classic maxim from more than 30 years ago: “Business has only two functions: marketing and innovation. These produce revenues. All others are costs.”

In McDonald’s view:

“Perhaps we are at a tipping point, where senior management will move beyond metrics of lead generation to nurture marketing’s evolving role as an organizer of systems, IT initiatives, and salesperson engagement for both acquisition and retention.”

One thing seems quite clear as we emerge from nearly three months of mandated COVID-isolation: We won’t return to an “old normal.” Those eggs have already been broken and scrambled.

What are your thoughts on which BtoB marketing and sales fundamentals have changed in light of the coronavirus disruption? Please share your thoughts with other readers in the comment section below.

As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.

 

Contact Tracing: The giant obstacle smack in the middle of the road to COVID-19 recovery.

… But we’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

In recent days, news reports about the coronavirus pandemic have gravitated from a shortage of ventilators and possible overcrowding in the nation’s hospitals to how best to reopen the economy (and society).

The challenge, of course, is how to “reopen” in responsible ways that don’t result in a new flare-up of COVID-19 cases.

Governors, medical professionals and governmental personnel have been cogitating about this issue for a number of weeks now, and it appears that some “baby steps” are starting to be taken in some states, with other jurisdictions to follow in the coming days and weeks.

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of bringing the economy – and life – back to some semblance of “normal” is being able to know who has, or has had, the coronavirus — and beyond that identifying who the people are that each affected person has interfaced with in the previous weeks.

There’s the old-fashioned way of doing contract tracing: undertaking in-depth interviews with patients to learn who they have interfaced with for 15 minutes or longer over a period of 2-3 weeks … and then interviewing those persons plus the people they’ve interfaced with … and so on down the line.

Those suspected of being exposed can then be directed to quarantine themselves for the requisite two-week period so as to arrest the spread of the virus.

This is a hugely costly undertaking.

Moreover, it’s labor-intensive — to the tune that a state like Massachusetts is attempting to hire 1,000 new workers to undertake these duties. And that’s just to get through Phase 1 of the recovery effort.

The other challenge with traditional contact tracing is that the data being collected is based on memory and recollections, which as we all know are prone to fallibility.

In our tech-savvy world, some giants are “on the case” – entities like Google and Apple that have teamed up to use cellphone tracking technology to “keep tabs” on people’s movements and thereby know what people may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Of course, this solution is also prone to gaps in coverage, as phones aren’t turned “on” at all times, not to mention that significant swaths of the population – particularly the elderly – aren’t using cellphones equipped with the types of location information functionalities that can be tracked.  (Surprisingly perhaps, smartphone penetration worldwide still languishes at only around 45% of cellphone users.)

And then there’s always the issue of “privacy” lurking the background – a factor which can’t be ignored in a world where many people are already suspicious of governments snooping into their private lives.

But there could be other methods to employ by which contact tracing can be made more efficient, and more accurate – and at a more reasonable price tag.

Recently my brother, Nelson Nones, whose company, Geoprise Technologies Corporation, specializes in encrypted data management, outlined just such a practical solution that can accomplish this trio of disparate-yet-important goals.

His article on the topic, titled “Call to Action: Recovering from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” has been published and can be read here.

I find the article as persuasive as it is understandable to a technology layperson like myself. Moreover, it seems as though the solutions proposed could become an essential software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution not just for government agencies but for private business organizations, too.

Action is already happening, but so far, the results have been somewhat mixed despite strong support from governments, private businesses and end-users. Functionalities need to continue to build.

But it looks like we may be on our way … and that’s extremely good news for anyone who has an interest in reopening the economies of the world – and going back to living life the way humans were meant to live it.

A small silver lining in the big, black Coronavirus cloud? Robocalls fall off a cliff.

There isn’t much positive news at all for businesses and consumers coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic — which makes one appreciate any glimmer of good news all the more.

One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this.  My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon.  And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:

Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline. 

I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:

What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website. 

As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.  

That’s almost a 90% drop. 

Is this just a happy coincidence? 

At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.  

If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.  

Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).  

But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.

As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.

The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.  

In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds. 

[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.] 

As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:

I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running. 

We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.