Saturday, May 28, 2011

Google, Marketing, and the Environment

How could these three words possibly be linked?

Watching a commercial for nappies, it struck me.  Yes, really: nappies.

The commercial was offering a product that saved the consumer from at least one confusing choice when purchasing nappies.  “Is there really a difference between nappies for girls and nappies for boys?”
The solution was to have a nappy with a longer absorbent strip inside that covered the areas that both girls and boys would wet.  A nappy just for girls would not suit boys because of the limited coverage of the absorbent strip, and vice versa.  So they made a nappy to suit both.

The problem that occurred to me was that a combined nappy would be inefficient in it’s use of material.  Further to that, all of these little inefficiencies in life could add up to a huge impact on the environment.  

Issues of disposable nappies versus the environmental consideration of water cost of cleaning reusable ones aside, it occurred to me that if we had enough information about the required application of out limited resources our problems would be solved.

If we knew exactly the amount of absorbent strip required for each child, along with other relevant manufacturing details with enough precision, then we could make a product so personalised that there would be zero wastage.

So that’s the environment link.

Now Marketing
One of the biggest problems in marketing is knowing who to target your product towards.  The best advertisers know a lot about their target audience and about the products being advertised.  The closest match between a product and a consumer will result in the most sales, and the most people being happy with their purchase.

There is no point in marketing nappies for boys to people who don’t have a baby boy.  If, by some trick of manipulative marketing, a company manages to sell some boy nappies to someone with a baby girl, then they wouldn’t be happy with the outcome.  And if it was through a genuinely deliberate act on the part of the nappy seller, they would lose repeat sales and would probably have to waste resources on returns.

It is hard to fake a genuine interest in the consumer.  Once again, the best marketers and advertising companies will try to best serve the consumer and the product or service provider.  Leaving aside the further complexities of marketing, such as showing people that they have needs that they don’t know about and building their desire so that they wish to have that need fulfilled - something morally questionable but frequently done.  Leaving those extras aside, perhaps we can learn from the best advertisers (information collectors).

There is no question that the environment is an issue of great importance.  The information we need can be looked at from a marketing perspective.  The environment is the consumer and the people that want to interact with the environment are us, the people who want to profit from our interaction with the consumer.  In an ideal transaction, both the environment and ourselves will prosper.  In a less than ideal transaction one party will be worse off.  The better we know what we want from the environment and the better we know how the natural resources available to us can meet those desires, the happier and healthier we all are in the process.

So that’s the marketing part.

Now Google
In our everyday use of the Internet giant, we might easily forget that the main business of Google, and how they make their money to sustain their enormous web presence, is through highly tuned and effective advertising.

Whenever you search for nappies on Google, you might notice (unless you have tuned yourself to ignore them) that there are advertisements surrounding the search results.
Through various practices of data collection, about you, and the products available that you search for, Google seeks to provide the best results.  The money making part of their company seeks to link businesses to the consumers who want those links just as much as the businesses.

We tend to forget that advertising is a two way street.  Perhaps because in the past we have been exposed to the “shot gun” style of advertising through “old” forms of media such as TV, radio, and paper sources.  These targeted (and still target) a wide range of people because they didn’t ultimately know enough to tailor make their advertising to the viewer.  So we patiently sat through a bunch of irrelevant adverts that were sometimes humorous enough to captivate us, even if the product was totally irrelevant to us as a consumer.

Nowadays we don’t have to be interrupted by marketers and advertisers for them to do their business.  They can use the interactive power of the Internet to advertise alongside of our activities and we can have a look at the adverts when we feel like it or if we can’t find a product or service we are after.

That’s a little off the track.

The main thing we can take out of it is that Google is a company (one of several) with the resources to advance our information gathering needs.  If you take a look at recent news releases, you can see that many companies are taking an active interest in the environment and working towards the goal of having as little negative impact on the natural world as possible.  It should be a relatively small step of getting companies like Google to share their technology in order to benefit the “green” goals of the global community.

The current methods of marketing are easily missed because of the ways they enormously benefit the consumer.  It almost seems as if they are serving the consumers more than the businesses.  Facebook gets you to “like” comments, but they also get you to “like” celebrities, charities, products, and other groups.  Amazon started with book sales and each consumer gets to rate and write reviews.  It’s a concept that is quite far spread and the more the consumers have a say, the better the system benefits both the consumers and the sellers.

The final step in the chain is to have some way to link reviews, and other personalised information, to individuals.  Their preferences can then be used to personalise products and offer recommendations uniquely suited.  This could seem invasive but is a necessary trade-off for excellent service.  

My only personal concern in this (because the privacy issue is a deliberate trade-off for me - though still keeping some in check obviously) is the concern that what was once done by personal brokers, real people who would get to know you as an individual, can now be done by computer software on a server across the other side of the planet.  

I worry that people might feel more disconnected, despite being better connected.  That seems to be the biggest challenge in meeting people’s needs.

Putting it all together
I’m sure you are beginning to see how advertising strategies, of getting to know the consumer, can help provide favourable outcomes for both sides of the sales transaction.  Let me try to present a larger view that applies these principles to environmental concerns, and even more.

World domination can come about through the one who offers you everything you need and want, while at the same time taking everything from you that you don’t need or want.  These resources that are surplus to your requirements can then be supplied to others who don’t have them but want them.

“World domination” is a bit of an attention grabbing phrase but I use it to draw your attention to the power of these principles.  The concepts exist, but the weakness is in the details of the information that can be collected.  

If we consider shoes, and the incredible number of factors that lead to the “life-cycle” of a pair, then we hit some issues that force us to overcompensate and waste resources.  The purpose for the shoes (sports, fashion, protection) will affect the materials used.  Work boots need to be more sturdy than slippers but they don’t need to be made of titanium.  Individuals will need different shaped inners and might prefer different coloured laces.  Many shoes are sold with two pairs of laces, with one pair that is totally wasted.  Other wastage could be in the extra thread used to double or triple stitch to meet the individual usage requirements of the most extreme situation when the average user might be fine with just double stitching.

All of these things are such small details that they are too hard, currently, to collect and use to plan for production and marketing.  Even with the vast range of shoes available, there is still a large element of “shot-gun” marketing and product design.  While it might not seem too bad, considering the millions of units produced, it will add up to tonnes of wasted materials and energy in producing those materials.

This is an impact on our environment that we would rather not have.  Every resource taken from the earth adds to depletion and potential scarcity.  We have to put back everything that we take, in some form or another, so that we don’t lose out in the future.  Both sides of the transaction have to benefit for the process to be sustainable.  So our detailed knowledge of what to take and what to give back will be beneficial for everyone.

Now apply this to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the social contacts that we enjoy, the technological devices that we use.  If we had a way to measure our personal requirements down to the finest detail, then we could provide for those so that we fit these details of our lives like a glove.  When everything fits and functions for us perfectly, then we will be happier, and our efforts to reach this happiness will be minimised.

The next step is to use the technology to predict what you will need for the future.  This is where is gets really tricky.  As far as I know, there is no system out there that makes complex calculations leading to recommendations of what you are going to need.  Simple predictions yes, like growing up and needing bigger clothes, but complex predictions no.  

We know that, given enough detailed information, it is possible to give you everything you need in as efficient a manner as possible.  Is it possible, though, for a computer to predict how your personal tastes will actually change in the future?  Maybe.  But that will involve an even more open disclosure of personal information that people are unlikely to be comfortable with.  It might take some careful marketing to convince people en-mass of the benefits.

So there you have it.  Saturday evening’s musings on Google, marketing, and nappies.  

It’s never quite what you expect is it?