“I’m just so busy!” becomes the new social status signal.

In an era of almost constant “disruption” both socially and politically, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of people who devote their energies to thinking about the “larger implications.”

Author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss is one of those individuals whose writings about the intersection of technology and human behavior are invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

His latest theory is no exception.

In a recent column published in MediaPost, Hotchkiss posits that the social status hierarchy of people may be moving away from “conspicuous consumption” and more towards the notion of “time” as the status symbol.

Hotchkiss writes:

“‘More stuff’ has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption — a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen.  It’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. 

 The more stuff we had — and the less we had to do to get that stuff — the more status we had. Just over 100 years ago, Veblen called those who significantly fulfilled these criteria the Leisure Class.”

Gord Hotchkiss

Looking at how social dynamics and social status are playing out today — at least in North America — Hotchkiss paints picture that is quite different from before:

“A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate ‘busy-ness’ with status. Here, it’s time, not stuff, that is the scarce commodity.  Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our ‘summer on the continent.'”

Interestingly, the very same research methodology that uncovered this set of attitudes in the United States was conducted in Italy as well. And there, the findings were exactly the opposite.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 days of PTO per year, whereas in the United States the minimum number of legally required paid holidays is … zero.

Looked at from another perspective, perhaps today’s social status indicators in North America are merely the Protestant Work Ethic in action, but updated to the 21st century.

Either way, the residents of Italy probably see it as a heck of a way to live …

The ad blocking phenomenon: It’s all about human nature.

noadThe rapid rise in consumer adoption of ad blocking software is threatening the traditional advertising model for publishers. For some, it seems like a topsy-turvy world where none of the old assumptions or the old rules apply.

But author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss reminds us that the consumer behaviors we are witnesses are as old as the hills.

In a recent MediaPost column titled “Why Our Brains Are Blocking Ads,” Hotchkiss points out that the environment for online ads is vastly different from the environment where traditional advertising flourished for decades – primarily in magazines, newspapers and television.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

He notes that in the past, the majority of people’s interaction with advertising was done while our brains were in “idling” mode – meaning that they had no specific task at hand. Instead, people were looking for something to capture their attention within a TV program, a newspaper or magazine article.

Hotchkiss contends that in such an environment, the brain is in an “accepting” state and thus is more open to advertising messages:

“We were looking for something interesting, we were primed to be in a positive frame of mind, and our brains could easily handle the contextual switches required to consider an ad and its message.”

Contrast this to the delivery of most digital advertising in today’s world, which is happening when people are in more of a “foraging” mode – involved in a task to find information and answers with our attention focused on that task.

In such an environment, advertising isn’t only a distraction; often, it’s a source of frustration. As Hotchkiss notes:

“The reason we’re blocking [digital] ads is that in the context those ads are being delivered, irrelevant ads are – quite literally – painful. Even relevant ads have a very high threshold to get over.”

Hotchkiss concludes that the rapid rise of ad blocking adoption isn’t about the technology per se.  It has to do with the hardwiring of our brains.  New technologies haven’t caused fundamental changes in human behavior – they’ve simply enabled new behaviors that weren’t an option before.

adbAs is becoming increasingly obvious, the implications for the advertising business are huge:  Ad blocking software is projected to lower digital ad revenues by more than $40 billion in 2016 alone, according to estimates by digital data research firm eMarketer.

Looking back on it, actually it seems like it was all so inevitable.

Considering the Ramifications of the Emerging “Metaphysical Corporation”

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

The articles of business thinker and writer Gord Hotchkiss are some of my favorite “go-to” columns on the web because they’re invariably thought-provoking pieces to read.

In one recent column, Hotchkiss poses an interesting set of questions and points surrounding what he dubs the emerging “metaphysical corporation.” He notes that more business today is being conducted in non-physical markets.

As he points out, “Businesses used to produce stuff.  Now they produce ideas.”

To illustrate this claim, Hotchkiss cites a recent evaluation issued by intellectual property merchant bank Ocean Tomo, which reports that the asset mix of companies has undergone a massive shift over the past 40 years.

In 1975, tangible assets — equipment, buildings, inventory and land — made up more than 80% of the asset market value of the S&P 500 companies.

In just 35 years, that ratio has flipped completely. Intangible assets — patents, trademarks, goodwill, brand equity — now make up 80% of the S&P 500’s asset market value.

To Hotchkiss, this trend promised to have major implications on the future structure of corporations. He notes:

  • Historically, companies that made physical products needed a supply chain. Vertical integration was the common way to remove physical “transactional friction” from the manufacturing process. And vertical integration was best managed through hierarchical management styles.

 

  • On the other hand, companies that sell ideas or intangible products need to have a network. By their very nature, these networks don’t have physical friction, so supply chains aren’t required. In fact, attempting to control a network via a centralized organizational structure tends to be counterproductive, as branches of the network are prone to wither under such constraints.

Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy RifkinEconomic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin takes this point even further. In his new book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Rifkin contends that capitalism as we know it is dying a slow death, to be replaced by a new “collaborative common market” made possible by the shrinkage of marginal costs.

Building on this notion, Hotchkiss concludes:

“As we move from the physical to the metaphysical, the cost of producing consumable services or digital concept-based products … drops dramatically. Capital was required to overcome physical transactional friction.  If that friction disappears, so does the need for capital.”

Like other big trends, this transformation won’t happen overnight.  But it will happen by degrees in the coming years and decades, according to Hotchkiss.

… So much so that the corporates structure we know today will be all-but-unrecognizable to workers 50 years from now.

I find this theory pretty fascinating, and I certainly recognize the logic behind it. What are your thoughts about it?  Are Hotchkiss and Rifkin onto something?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Charting Social Media’s “Maturity Continuum”

Social Media lineupAs social media has crept more and more into the fabric of life for so many people, it’s only natural that social scientists and marketers are thinking about the wider implications.

One of these thinkers is someone whose viewpoints I respect a good deal.  Social media and online/search über-strategist Gord Hotchkiss has come up with a way of looking at social media vehicles that he dubs the “Maturity Continuum.”

According to Hotchkiss, the Maturity Continuum is made up of four levels of increasing social media “stickiness” — meaning how relevant and important the social platforms are to people’s daily lives and routines.

Specifically, these four levels are:

The Fad Phase — This is when people start using a social media platform because it’s the bright shiny thing … and “everyone else” in their circle is doing so, too.  This dynamic is commonly found among early adopters — you know, the folks who try out new things because … they’re new.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

Of course, early adopters don’t necessarily stick around.  A new social platform has to have some sort of “there there” – to deliver some measure of functional benefit – or else it won’t keep fad users around for long.

Also important at this early stage is the aspect of uniqueness and novelty — which is always important among this group of people who tend to be higher on the ego and narcissism scale.

Making a Statement — If a social platform makes it through the pure novelty gauntlet, it continues to be used because it makes a statement about the user.  In the case of social media, it’s often as much about the technology as it is the functionality.

Thinking about a platform like FourSquare, here you have social tool that’s probably at this level of maturity.  With FourSquare, there may be a few utilitarian reasons for using it — getting vouchers or other “free stuff” from restaurants and bars — but it’s probably a lot more about “making that statement.”

A Useful Tool — At this point on the Maturity Continuum, here’s where a social platform breaks into a more practical realm.  Going beyond the novelty and ego aspects, users find that the platform is a highly beneficial tool from a functionality standpoint — perhaps better than any other one out there for facilitating certain activities.

Thinking about a social platform like LinkedIn in this context, it’s easy to see how that particular one has done so well.

A Platform of Choice — This is the highest level of social media maturity, where users engage — and continue to engage — with a social platform because they have become so familiar with it.

At this level, it becomes quite a challenge to dislodge a social platform, even if “newer, better” choices come along.  Once social habits have become established and a large critical mass of users is established, it can be very difficult to change the behavior.

Facebook is “Exhibit A” in this regard:  Despite near-weekly reports of issues and controversies about the platform, people continue to hang in there with it.

Thinking about other social platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, SnapChat and Pinterest, it’s interesting to speculate on where they currently fall on the “maturity meter.”

I’d venture to say that YouTube has made it to the highest level … SnapChat is still residing in the early “fad” stage … while Pinterest and Instagram are transitioning between “making a statement” and being “a useful tool.”

Where Twitter resides … is anyone’s guess.  I for one am still wondering just how Twitter fits into the greater scheme of social — and how truly “consequential” it is in the fabric of most people’s social lives.

What are your perspectives on the Maturity Continuum in social media?  If you have opinions one way or the other about the long-term staying power of certain platforms, please share them with other readers here.

“Social Media Stress Syndrome”: Real or Fake?

Social Media Stress SyndromeThere’s no denying the benefits of social media in enabling people to make new friendships, reconnect with old acquaintances, and nurture existing relationships.

Facebook and other social platforms make it easier than ever to maintain “in the moment” connections with people the world over. 

Speaking for myself, my immediate relatives who live in foreign lands seem so much closer because of social media.

Plus, thanks to social media, I’ve met other relatives from several different countries for the very first time.  This would never have happened in the pre-Facebook era.

But there are downsides to social media, too – and I’ve written about them on this blog on occasion; for example, whether social media is a platform for narcissists.

Other negative consequences of social media have been noted by numerous observers of consumer online behaviors, including Canadian digital marketing company Mediative’s Senior Vice President and online marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

In a recently published column by Hotchkiss headlined “The Stress of Hyper-Success,” he posits that self-regard and personal perspectives of “success” are relative.  Here’s a critical passage from what he writes:

“We can only judge it [success] by looking at others.  This creates a problem, because increasingly, we’re looking at extreme outliers as our baseline for expectations.”

Hotchkiss’ contention is that social media engenders feelings of stress in many people that would not occur otherwise.

Pinterest is a example.  A recent survey of ~7,000 U.S. mothers conducted by Today.com found that ~42% of respondents suffer from this social media-induced stress; it’s the notion that they can’t live up to the ideal suggested by the images of domestic bliss posted on the female-dominated Pinterest social network.

Facebook causes a similar reaction in many; Hotchkiss reports on a survey showing that one-third of Facebook users “feel worse” after visiting the site.

It may not be hard to figure out why, either, as visitors are often confronted with too-good-to-be-true photo galleries chronicling friends’ lavish vacations, social gatherings, over-the-top wedding ceremonies, etc.

Social Media EnvyIt’s only natural for people to focus their attention on the “extraordinary” posts of this type … and to discount the humdrum posts focusing on the mundane aspects of daily life. 

Just like in the national or local news, people tend to focus on personal news items that are exceptional – the activities that are set far apart from the average.

Wall Street Journal report Meghan McBride Kelly has come up with a pretty interesting way to address social media stress:  She quit Facebook earlier this year after a nine-year run.  McBride contends that “Aristotle wouldn’t ‘friend’ you on Facebook,” writing:

“Aristotle wrote that friendship involves a degree of love.  If we were to ask ourselves whether all of our Facebook friends were those we loved, we’d certainly answer that they’re not.  These days, we devote equal if not more time to tracking the people we have had very limited interaction with than to those whom we truly love.”

Likewise, Hotchkiss tries to head us off at the social media pass:

“Somewhere, a resetting of expectations is required before we self-destruct because of hyper-competitiveness in trying to reach an unreachable goal.  To end on a gratuitous pop culture quote, courtesy of Sheryl Crow:  ‘It’s not having what you want.  It’s wanting what you got.”

What are your thoughts about “social media stress disorder”?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Consumer buying behaviors: The power of choice … or not?

Toothpaste Aisle -- too many choicesIf you were to poll consumers, most would probably tell you that they love to be given many choices or options when it comes to merchandise and services.

And why not? Everyone recalls hearing about the “bad old days” of the Soviet Union and Communist China, when people had the choice of one type of bread or one color of clothing.

In the United States and other Western economies, we’ve long provided consumers a vast array of selection — sometimes with very little actual differentiation.  And those choices have proliferated all the more in recent years. 

[Take a walk up the toothpaste aisle at your local retail store and you’ll see “product choice, circa 2012″  in action – and on steroids.]

From the mundane to the important in goods and services, we have more choices today than ever before. But how well are we coping with having all of these options?

Not well at all, according to Barry Schwartz, the author of an important book on the topic. His book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, was published back in 2005 but is still quite timely today – perhaps even more when considering what’s happened in the ensuing years to things like the latest range of satellite television viewing package offerings from DirecTV.

Dr. Schwartz, who is a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, posits that people are often overwhelmed by everyday decisions that have become increasingly complex due to the burgeoning number of available choices and options.

This over-abundance of choice happens not merely in the realm of toothpaste, but also in big decision areas such as selecting a healthcare provider, making investment decisions, deciding whether to move to a new city or state, or selecting a college or other educational program.

According to Dr. Schwartz, this is what often happens when confronted by so many choices:

 People question their decisions before they even make them

 The myriad of choices can set up unrealistically high expectations

 Depending on the importance of the decision to be made, too many choices can actually lead to decision-making paralysis

At what point the lines of “too few choices à la Havana” and “too many choices à la Atlanta” cross, differs depending on the situation: What might be a beautiful array of options for one person may induce an unacceptable degree of stress for another.

Dr. Schwartz lays out a number of suggestions for people who find that the bevy of choices produces too much stress, too much anxiety, or simply too much “busyness” in their lives. In turn, Harvard Business Review bloggers Anna Bird, Karen Freeman and Patrick Spenner help by coming at it from the other side.

This trio of business writers tells marketers, “If customers ask for more choice, don’t listen.” Their advice, as paraphrased by search marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss, is this:

“The harder consumers find it to make purchase decisions, the more likely they are to overthink the decision and repeatedly change their minds or give up on the purchase altogether. In fact, regression analysis points to decision complexity and resulting cognitive overload as the single biggest barrier to purchase.

“Provide them with fewer choices, and make them as relevant and compelling as possible. Ease the burden of risk by providing information that reassures.”

Hotchkiss offers a few additional words of wisdom as well:

“Realize that one of the components of risk is the degree of bias in the information we’re given. If that information reeks of marketing hyperbole, it will be discounted immediately.”

So the bottom line for marketers could be this:  Simplifying product and service offerings may deliver just what consumers actually need (as opposed to what they say) … while also making employees’ lives in the product management department a whole lot easier.