Plausibility, and what marketers can learn from the Skywalker family

The world of science fiction writing can teach us a lot about just how much the human mind can accept – and the things it can’t.

Take Star Wars, for instance. Walking and talking robots? No problem, even in the 70s. Moon-sized space station with the power to destroy a planet? Great! The main villain actually being the father of the protagonist? Sure, I can go there. But the lead characters being brother and sister …. um, no (see image).

There are far worse crimes against credulity in the annals of sci-fi, but the Luke/Leia = brother/sister plot twist is one that stretches the limits. It shows a conundrum that all science fiction writers have to contend with – the need to create and blend fantastical ideas within a well-defined and consistent world. Push too far and the whole thing collapses, and you lose your audience.

It is a lesson that translates to the world of marketing through the concept of plausibility – a field of study currently under examination by Ujwal Kayande, a professor of marketing at the Melbourne Business School, along with various colleagues. It is also a concept  which I wrote about last year for CMO.  Basically, it is the idea that there are some claims that brands just can’t plausibly make – such as being big but nimble. If they are to make those claims successfully, there is a lot of ground work to be done to establish a suitable context in the mind of the receiver.

I recently caught up with Ujwal to discuss the relationship between science fiction and plausibility, and how some contexts immediately lend themselves to stretched imaginations – but still within limits. Unfortunately marketers have to ground their campaigns in the real world, although there is no end to the number of campaigns that suggest perhaps that grounding was forgotten somewhere along the line.

Plausibility is one of the topics I talk about in Storytelling with Intent sessions – the idea that few people will believe you if the claims you are making don’t sound achievable, regardless of whether or not they are factually true. It is an issue that I regularly see companies grappling with, particularly those that are trying to re-position themselves in markets. That doesn’t mean re-positioning can’t be achieved, but it takes a lot more work than simply making a bold claim in an ad campaign.



The future of work, and why its better to be wanted than needed

When it comes to the future of work, the key question that everyone wants the answer to is whether their work has a future.

Automation promises/threatens to make many roles that exist today unnecessary, leading to somewhat scary outcomes for a number of careers.

But perhaps there is a different way to think about the future of work – one that is based more on human preferences and behaviours rather than technical possibilities. And it might just help us find where the new opportunities will be, or at least evolve what we are currently doing into something that is a little more future-proof.

Let me start by first placing some definitions around two important words – ‘want’ and ‘need’.

Let’s say for example that I ‘want’ to go to London. In order to get to London, there are certain things I ‘need’. For starters, I ‘need’ a method of transportation. I also ‘need’ a ticket, a passport, and potentially a bunch of other things – just so I can get what I ‘want’.

Now consider what I would have ‘needed’ to get to London a couple of decades ago. Firstly, I needed a paper ticket. To get one of those, I needed a travel agent.

Thanks to the internet, all I ‘need’ now is few minutes online. The time and effort to get from what I desire to what I want has been compressed by the removal of that step. I still need a passport (for now) and a mode of transportation (at least until someone invents the Star Trek transporter). But any airline that still only accepted paper tickets issued through travel agents would not be long for this earth.

This pattern is repeating itself over and over again. Decades ago, if I ‘wanted’ a book, I ‘needed’ to go to a bookstore. I didn’t want a bookstore though, I wanted a book – cue the demise of many booksellers. If I ‘wanted’ to watch a movie at home, I ‘needed’ to rent or buy it from a store. I no longer need to do that. Cue the demise of the video rental industry. And so on.

That same logic is putting pressure on many other professions. If I ‘wanted’ investment advice I might have ‘needed’ to speak to an investment advisor. Now AI-based robo-advisors can play that role.

What this means for each of us is that even if we are currently essential to helping a person get what they want, there is probably someone, somewhere, working on a solution which will help that person get what they want without us.

And if they can do so at cheaply enough, you’re looking at a limited professional lifespan. Bye bye to the ticket issuing function of travel agents. Bye bye to investment advisors, accountants, lawyers, etc. etc. If we are not providing the actual ‘thing’ that the person wants – – advice, business compliance, legal advice – but simply providing them with something they need to help them get it – we could be in trouble.

That doesn’t of course mean that all bookstores have died. There are instance where I might ‘want’ to go wandering through a bookstore, perhaps simply for the pleasure of it, or for the serendipitous discovery that can take place. I might ‘want’ to talk to a travel agent about where to visit in London, rather than simply turning up. I might also ‘want’ to speak to an investment advisor because I value their specific experience, or feel more comfortable speaking to a person (at least for now).

Also, there are many tasks that are needed that may prove too difficult or expensive to eliminate – at least in the short term. Getting to London quickly without an aircraft is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, for instance. Unless perhaps I am happy to ‘go there’ in a virtual reality experience without even leaving my home …

To stay relevant in the future of work, you need to really think about whether you are giving your customers what they want, or just what they need. If you are in fact a ‘necessary evil’ when it comes to why your customers are spending money with you, there is a good chance you won’t be necessary forever.

But if you can give a customer something they really want, they might keep you around a little longer.

How virtual humans could transform the brand experience – CMO Australia

Marketers often talk about brands having a ‘personality’ – effectively a collection of traits and attributes which are specific and potentially unique to the brand. Now the technologies of artificial intelligence and computer animation technologies are coming together to enable that personality to be centralised into a virtual persona – complete with its own face and voice.

There is great potential that in the near future we will no longer look at websites or interact with contact centres, but interact instead with virtual humans as naturally as we might interact with real people. That virtual person will have a record of all of your interactions, and knowledge of all of the offers and services its organisation can provide. Furthermore, that virtual person might also be a specific instance for you – tuned to your age, ethnicity, or any other known attribute that might serve to make it more useful to you.

It is an idea that has been promised for some time, but in this article for I explore how the necessary components are now falling into place to make this idea a reality.

Tech to the future: Reselling next-gen technology – CRN

Tech companies spend millions of dollars inventing and developing new technologies, but it’s all for nought if no one buys it. Crossing that chasm often involves a creating professional sales team – which can be an expensive proposition. So why not hire someone else’s?

Hence the global technology reseller  modelwas born. But resellers have a tendency to prefer selling those products which are easy to shift, with a sizeable and eager market (and one that is also willing to pay a decent margin). Much easier to sell something that people already want, than to convince them to buy something they only recently learned exists.

But for those resellers willing to make the leap into selling new and untested technology, the spoils can be great. There is the chance to get in early and build a market position long before a tech is commoditised. And of course there is all the learning that can be gathered along the way, and used to create additional value propositions.

In this feature article for CRN I was able to delve into the thinking of a number of Australian resellers and services companies and find out why it is that some companies are willing to take the plunge into the unknown, and how they avoid losing their shirts in the process.


Effective machine learning starts with considered human thinking – IAPA

Once technology is released into the world, it can be incredibly difficult to control. I suspect if you asked Tim Burners-Lee whether he is happy that his invention has become the most effective tool for the distribution of pornography ever invented, he’ll tell you that he isn’t. The Law of Unintended Consequences tells us it is impossible to foresee the full ramifications of any new technology from the point of its inception, but in an era where companies (and particularly startups) push to get new ideas out the door and into the hands of custoemrs as quickly as possible, the chance for measured reflection is limited.

The same of course is true with AI and data analytics moire generally. In my latest post ahead of next weeks IAPA Advancing Analytics conference I asked the speakers about the potential for negative consquences, and whether sufficient thought has gone into the ethical considerations of what AI might enable.

As healthcare data scientist Halim Abbas says: “We have built something, and it is turning out to be a very powerful driver in society, and we are not really sure how to best use it. It is like we have built a hot air balloon, and now we are in the air, asking how do we steer.”

Effective data outcomes require diverse human inputs – IAPA

Data is increasingly being used to make decisions that impact our everyday lives. But who is actually making the decisions, and are they truly representative of the people whose lives they are affecting?

In my latest post for the IAPA Advancing Analytics conference taking place in Melbourne on October 18 I had the opportunity to ask the speakers about the importance of diversity in data projects. One of the great dangers is that the people construcing the tools and programs fail to understand how they might impact specific groups in the community – especially those unintended consequences that mono-cultures design teams can fail to identify.

Looking beyond the hype: AI’s real potential as a transformative technology

There is nothing new about the tech industry overhyping its latest developments, as eager proponents seek to raise awareness, along with investment dollars and – ultimately – revenue. And in 2017 it has been AI’s turn to experience the hype treatment. But while hyping a new tech can lead to unmet expectations in the short term, it can also serve to overshadow some much-needed debates that might be vital in the long term. Such debates are likely to prove critical for AI, where the possible outcomes truly do lie in the realm of the unforeseeable.

Hype in AI has been the first subject for a series of blog posts I’ve been asked to create for Institute of Analytics Professionals Australia, in support of its upcoming Advancing Analytics conference, taking place in Melbourne on October 18. I’ll do my best to post the rest up online, but you can check them out here as they are posted online.

From Broome to Port Lincoln, the challenges for cloud in regional Australia: CRN

One of the reasons I was so enthusiastic about the NBN as it was originally envisioned was its promised ability to level one of the great inequities of modern life – that people in regional and remote Australia should be second-class citizens in Australia’s digital society. I’ve long believed that in a digital society no one should be disadvantaged simply as a result of where they live. At last a solution was at hand.

While the NBN will undoubtedly leave many regional Australians better off, the network has a lot of ground to make up before it matches the early rhetoric. Having spent time speaking to people in regional Australia about the ‘broadband drought’, through engagements in places like Longreach and through the Broadband for the Bush Alliance (you can read the communique from this year’s conference, which calls for the creation of a remote telecommunications strategy, by clicking here), it’s easy to see how a lack of digital connectivity has left many communities well behind their city-dwelling counterparts.

Digital connectivity is not just about having access to the world’s information, commerce, entertainment and education services. It is about building up capabilities in local communities such that local service providers can retain their relevance to those communities. Businesses in towns that have been slow to get decent internet find themselves not only having missed out on the advantages that come through access to the network, but they have also missed out on years of learning on how to make that network work for them.

It’s an issue that is in part reflected in this story for CRN, where I look at the impact of the data drought on the utilisation of cloud services by regional businesses.

Being a student is not something you were – it is something you are

I went to university for a very simple reason – to get a better job than I thought would be available to me if I tried to get one straight out of high school. My first choice – electronic engineering – was not a good one for me, and by the middle of my first year I was looking for a major change.

Thankfully I went to a uni that had a strong course in a totally different field that interested me – journalism – and I was able to transition across. But even in my new course, I was thinking mainly about getting a job, and the experience and grades I’d need to land one.

At no time did I really think about the skills I was acquiring, or how I’d use them. And I definitely wasn’t thinking about the future skills I’d need after I left uni. That was something I figured my career would provide for me.

That thinking could have been a big mistake.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the AFR Higher Education Summit, as a guest of TechnologyOne  (thanks Bridget Wyber and the team for inviting me along). My presentation revolved around how technology is changing consumer expectations, and therefor how higher education facilities need to ensure they have flexible underlying systems to respond to these changing expectations.

But that is only one form of flexibility that unis – and students – need to embrace.

For all the talk of the many jobs that might be automated and therefor abolished as a result of automation, there is little concrete evidence of where the replacement jobs might come from. I’ve been involved in a few projects which have sough to speculate and extrapolate from existing data, but even many of the fields where we think job growth might be strongest (such as data analytics and cyber-security), these are also targets for automation.

Whether you believe that technology will continue to create more jobs than it destroys or not, the jobs that will be created are likely to be very different to the ones we have today. Yet we are still training students for jobs that may not exist, or where supply well outstrips demand. Of greater concern is the problem we seem to have when it comes to thinking about retraining those people who currently have jobs, but thanks to automation, soon won’t.

Unfortunately our education system has been based around the idea that students are recruited, trained, and let loose into the world, at which time their economic value to their place of education is pretty much exhausted, barring that small number that go onto do Honours, an MBA or a PhD.

But what if we rethought the relationship between the education provider and the student. What is it was based it on the concept of life-long customer value, so the uni became the student’s lifelong partner in education and career development?

The model might run something like this:

  • You graduate from uni. The uni has already worked with your to facilitate internships and placement services, and checks in regularly to see how your job hunt (or your nascent startup business) is working out.
  • A year later you are contacted for a more in-depth conversation. Have you found work or not? If not, why not? If so, are the skills you have acquired suitable for the workplace? What skills do you wish you had, but uni didn’t give you? This conversation is used to provide feedback into the course design, to improve its suitability for future graduates. If you’ve not found work, the university might invite you back to complete a bridging course to bring you up to speed on the skill sets that employers are now demanding, to ensure you remain fresh.
  • Every year hence your university contacts you regarding the outcomes of these graduate surveys, along with its own employer engagement programs, to inform you of what skills are in demand, and forewarn you of any speed-bumps that might lie in wait thanks to technological changes. It also keeps you abreast of new courses and materials to help your professional development. Some of these are formal learning. Others are casual MOOC courses.

The model might be one where you pick and choose what ongoing education you want and pay on an a la carte basis, or it might be something you subscribe to (education-as-a-service).

Journalism was an early victim of digital disruption, and I have constantly added new skills to enhance my career – from journalist to professional writer to trainer to researcher to author to speaker. While these transitions will be increasingly common for any profession that faces disruption, it is not something that the graduate should have to navigate on their own. For education providers, there is a potentially lucrative economic model that can emerge from staying close to graduates.

Some of the universities I have spoken to recently are developing elements of these kinds of programs, but generally our universities are not great when it comes to alumni programs. That might be in part because students have never seen the need for them.

While any discussion of the future of work is inherently bound up in uncertainty, we nonetheless have to ensure that as professionals we have the capability to cope with that uncertainty. The more skills we acquire, the more flexible and valuable be become. And the only way I know to achieve that is to never stop learning. And there is no reason why the higher education sector shouldn’t be our partner in that.

(Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash)

What data-driven thinking is doing to help LifeSpan save lives – CMO

I have spent a fair chunk of the last few years writing about how Big Data analytics can be used to influence consumer behaviour, such as by encouraging us to open electronic mail or buy things we didn’t know we needed. So it is nice everyone once in a while to write an article on how these same technologies can be used to perform a social good – such as savings lives.

Suicide is an increasing problem in Australian society, with rates on the rise. Rachel Green and her team at LifeSpan at the Black Dog Institute are determined to do something about that, and have been using data analytics techniques (and some help from SAS Institute) to create a program they believe will do something about it. Their goal is to reduce rates by 20%, using a combination of evidence-based programs applied in areas of highest need.

You can red more about LifeSpan and its work in this article for