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The Netflix Prize & Modeling Influence

December 1st, 2008 No comments

Last week, the NY Times published a great article about the leaders in the almost 2-year-in contest to create a computer algorithm that improves upon the ability of Netflix’ Cinematch engine to make accurate recommendations of what you’ll like by 10%.   Competition is hot because the prize is a whopping $1million, but the progress of all of the teams seem to be stalled based on an inability to predict how you’ll like a small handful of polarizing indie movies – most notably Napoleon Dynamite.

So, what makes indies so hard to predict?   Influence!   While recommendation engines are built on the assumption that your taste stays the same, our “tastes” are constantly morphing based on the opinions and information we hear from those around us.

“…the reality is that our cultural tastes evolve, and they change in part because we interact with others. You hear your friends gushing about “Mad Men,” so eventually — even though you have never had any particular interest in early-’60s America — you give it a try. Or you go into the video store and run into a particularly charismatic clerk who persuades you that you really, really have to give “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” a chance.”

Not only do your friends’ recommendations encourage trial or purchase, they also change the way you judge or take in the information.  If I already know that someone I respect really loves a film (restaurant, book, whatever), I am walking in with a very positive inclination to also enjoy the experience.  M.I.T professor Pattie Maes, who pioneered one of the first recommendation engines in the early ’90s, believes that these sources of influence are the flaw in the Netflix contest (based solely on movie rating information).  She believes “culture isn’t experienced in solitude. We also consume shows and movies and music as a way of participating in society. That social need can override the question of whether or not we’ll like the movie.”

Our desire for conversational capital and the social connection it can create is indeed capable of overriding, or at least prejudicing, our individual tastes.  Maybe instead of longing for the demogrphic information of the recommenders in the Netflix contest, the golden ticket would indeed be a social graph showing the way various recommenders are connected and the order they have seen the various films.

Entrepreneurs: Find Your First Talkers

November 19th, 2008 1 comment

The economy may be down, but the entrepreneurial spirit is in full bloom.  Recently, I had the pleasure to catch up with 2 former colleagues in the midst of amping up their online businesses.  After both conversations, I realized that the first step in WOMM is different for new vs. established businesses.

The first T in Andy Sernovitz’ 5T framework (a worksheet for which can be found here) is Talkers.  Who is going to spread the word about you?  An established brand can do research to determine who is already talking, analyze what they organically talk about and use that as a good starting point for a word of mouth marketing program.  A new company, however, does not have that luxury.

New Site/Service Step 1: Identify which micro-audience will derive the most value from the differentiation of your offering. They will be your talkers.  They can be your beta testers and your product development focus group and your conscience as you make decisions about the business.

The challenge?  Like minoxidil that was designed for high blood pressure and now treats baldness or Dr. Martens shoes that were designed as gardening shoes for the elderly and became a symbol of the punk movement, sometimes your most valuable talkers are not the ones your originally had in mind when you went into business.  Here are some thoughts on finding them:

  1. Family & Friends – Ask family and friends (real and Facebook) to test the site, provide you some feedback, and suggest what THEY think the value of the site is and what the ultimate user profile would be.
  2. Research, ID and start to follow bloggers in all of the different profiles/specialties that your family and friends think might be your ultimate users to gain insights into their needs and desires.
  3. Ask a handful of bloggers to check out what you’re building and provide you with some feedback on your beta.
  4. Gauge which segment has the most significant need/value from your offering and prioritize their development requirements.
  5. Develop new features, and repeat from step 3.

As promised Sunday, this was the gist of my feedback for Recipecomparison.com.  What else do you tell the entrepreneurs who seek WOMM advice from you?  Do you have any other thoughts for this site in particular?

Recipe Comparison WOM Advice?

November 16th, 2008 3 comments

A friend and former colleague of mine has started a night and weekend passion project called RecipeComparison.

Recipe Comparison Header

In a nutshell, the site allows you to “search for, compare, and share recipes” from popular recipe clearinghouse sites.  The comparison is unique.  It is a side by side look – allowing you to compare amounts and varieties by type of ingredient – like you would comparison shop for appliances or cars.

Close up comparison

So…what audience is going to find this feature the most valuable?  As a non-foodie, it is very easy for me to see the value beyond folks who spend hours trying to make sure they are optimizing their pumpkin pie recipes (in all honesty, I actually HAVE gone through this process to find the ultimate macaroni & cheese recipe and it was pretty painful without this tool).   What about people trying to lose weight and find lighter versions of their favorites?  Or heads of household who are cooking for families with food allergies who need to make substitutes?

What would your advice be to the founders of RecipeComparison.com on how to get the word out about the site and its unique features (others include being able to keep a record of searches cross-recipe sites)?  Where would you start?

On Wednesday, I’ll post the advice that I gave to the founders, but in the meantime, I know they would appreciate collecting ALL the best practices and suggestions they can.  Bring it on!

WOM-Worthy STAY-FIT @ Hyatt

September 16th, 2008 No comments

I am writing this in the Denver Hyatt Regency.  I had not looked forward to staying here one way or another because, like my rental “oldsmobuicks”, a Hyatt = a Marriott = a Hilton for me.  It’s all basically the same satisfactory experience.

The time change, however, has provided me with enough time to work out before my nutty day here.  So, at 4am, I looked in the guest services for info on a workout room.  Here’s what I found:

“The Stay Fit concierge is available 24 hours a day to assist you with your quest to “stay fit” while traveling.  Our Stay Fit concierge can arrange to have fitness apparel, including workout shirts, shorts, socks, and even shoes delivered to your room.”

This OFFICIALLY takes away any excuse you might have come up with to stay in bed.  And when you get to the gym?  Big, modern, clean, loaner headphones, nice fluffy towels – the works.  The result for me is that if I am in a city where I can not stay Kimpton, I may look for a Hyatt instead.  This expereince has changed my brand impression more than any combination of ads could.

World of Warcraft’s WOM Techniques

August 20th, 2008 2 comments

ZhevraThis morning on Wired, I read about a new referral bonus for World of Warcraft players who successfully recruit new players. The genius of it? The referral bonus is specifically tailored to their target audience. If you bring in a new player you get, to quote the Blizzard support site, “an exclusive in-game zhevra mount“. WoW Wiki describes a zhevra as a unicorn-like , zebra-hybrid equine beast. How fun is it that they have to specify that this will be “in-game”? Heck, if I could win a zebra with a horn in real life I would quit my job to recruit Warcraft players.

Because I am a WoW virgin, I reached out to the esteemed Mike Nels to comment. Mike is my only friend who has been able to manage a long term relationship with Warcraft – others have tried and become so engrossed that they needed to go cold turkey. Mike manages a busy technical job, brilliant wife, 2 kids under 4, a single-digit golf handicap, and his WoW identity.

So, what does this brand evangelist think about this newest referral marketing execution?

Mike NelsBlizzard has done a great job with Warcraft because they continue to display mastery at converting real life friends into crack whores.

Step 1: Convince WoW players that playing the game with their real life friends/girlfriend/spouse is a great way to spend quality time with them. Throw in a stylish mount at the referring friend and you increase allure.

Step 2: Create 70 levels (soon to be 80) of eye-popping content and status so instead of playing with your friends, you are “coopeting” with them to see who can get to 70 fastest.

Step 3: Throw a myriad of powerfully sexy gear at those that reach 70 so that the race to 70 soon becomes a competition about who has the best gear.

Step 4: Guard your eyes from the pasty white boys that used to be friends, but now never see each other’s real faces or the light of day because they need to take down this one last ogre/dragon/demon/ghost to get the best piece of gear. Only give the gear to one of them and force them to repeat step 4 until every player has the gear. Oh, and did I mention that each player wears about 16 pieces of gear. So repeat this once for each friend and once for each type of gear.

Step 5: Introduce more levels, monsters, gear into the next expansion pack and toss out some referral bonus. Repeat process starting with Step 1.

I’m exhausted just reading it, but I do understand that this cycle, with its interdependencies and intricacies, is a sustainable way to grow a community and identify new potential members. Are there other examples of brands that market through “Coopetition“?