Are Online Reviews Making Brands Irrelevant?

My friend Nathan Labenz writes about the success of TripAdvisor (the leading review site of hotels) and what it means to the future of brands:

Historically, brands were built on the assumption of limited information. As mass production made it possible to sell soap and soup nationwide, companies developed brands to represent quality and cultivate product loyalty. Brands were a natural fit for radio and TV advertising, and brands thrived with the proliferation of cable channels, which kept advertising costs down while offering unprecedented demographic targeting.

Facebook and Twitter get most of the attention for brand disruption, but the biggest problems for brands are in search and e-commerce.

Take this Google search for Super 8 Motels, for example. On the front page, you’ll see ratings that hotel guests have written about particular Super 8s on TripAdvisor, Yahoo Travel and Yelp. Importantly, the reviews vary widely. When I checked, a New Mexico location was rated 4.5 stars, while a Los Angeles location was at 3.5 stars and one in British Columbia had only 2 stars. Such location-specific information undermines brands’ ability to affect consumers’ purchasing decisions with 30-second TV spots and gives TripAdvisor a powerful position….

For the Super 8 brand, the end game could be scary: as TripAdvisor accumulates more and more trusted reviews, the best-performing Super 8s, all of which are independent franchises, may eventually realize that their business is suffering from their association with lesser motels. At that point, we might see a “brand run,” wherein the best locations leave the chain, lowering the brand’s value and ultimately leading to its collapse.

It's a solid point and underdiscussed in the hoopla about social media and how it's affecting big brands.

An even better example than Super 8 might be Mariott as I'm guessing a large percentage of Super 8 rooms are sold on no reservation and reviews don't play as much a role.

In the case of Mariott, I'm likely to have reserved a room in advance. In the old days, perhaps I assume that all Mariotts around the world are good. Now, in conjunction with booking the reservation online, I can read reviews of individual locations. There's more variance in the quality of Mariott properties than Mariott HQ would like to admit (I've stayed in dozens of Mariotts myself), and that variance is now for all to see on sites like TripAdvisor.

The end game that Nathan proposes–the outperforming properties dissociating from the national brand because they're being hurt by the low performers–seems quite possible in the long run. After all, wouldn't you rather stay at a hotel you've never heard of (i.e., no national brand) but one that has hundreds of credible five star reviews over a Mariott location that has hundreds of two star reviews?

Eventually, the good franchises will recognize this. And Mariott HQ–whose business is premised on the benefits of a national brand uniting thousands of independent franchises in an information-poor world–will be hurt.

Randomness and Serendipity on the Internet

This is a short biography of a link, as it relates to the randomness and serendipity that drives conversation on the web.

A couple weeks ago Tim Harford, the Financial Times columnist and author of the stimulating new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, was in town on book tour. I've read Tim's stuff for some time but hadn't met him, so I went to his talk at the World Affairs Council and we grabbed dinner afterwards. We had a delightful chat, and later that night Tim linked on Twitter to an old blog post of mine, 50 Ways to Expose Yourself to Randomness.

Seeing that Tim is — according to the hottest economist in America — the best economist on Twitter, he has a strong following and the link got picked up a bit.

This morning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a noted foreign policy scholar and former Obama State Dept official, tweeted: "Someone that I follow sent out a great piece last week on ways of adding randomness to your life, but now I can't find it. Pse resend!"

An hour later, Michael Clemens, an economist from the Center for Global Development — who I randomly met at a conference in Miami on Latin America and who I've stayed in touch with online ever since — replied, "50 ways to expose yourself to randomness" from @BenCasnocha" Presumably, Michael remembered Tim tweeting about it and figured it was the link Anne-Marie remembered.

Shortly thereafter, Anne-Marie wrote a post for CNN's GPS blog about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and linked at one point in the piece to my post on randomness. It was cool for me to see this – I read Anne-Marie's book The Idea That Is America a couple years ago, and linked to her post on the development of China three years ago. Cooler yet, Fareed Zakaria just tweeted the CNN post on creativity and asked Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua for her reactions. And Amy Chua just replied.

I'm detailing the backstory here because it's fun to point out the random connections that gave rise to Anne-Marie's link on…cultivating randomness. Every day in the blogosphere and twittersphere these types of conversations happen; being able to trace the outlines of how ideas and memes come together is one of the unique joys of the online intellectual experience.

It's also worth pointing out that it was a year-old blog post that got picked up by Tim et al. Blog posts are easily searchable and archivable. It would have never happened with a tweet. It supports the point of my post (and Anil Dash's): Twitter, Transience, and Tempo.

Finally, I think it's relevant that in-person relationships played a role in how the link made its way into Anne-Marie's post. I met Tim for dinner, and afterwards he took a closer look at my blog and then felt compelled to tweet it out. I met Michael, the guy who responded to Anne-Marie's initial question, in-person in Miami and he started following me (and I him) after that. The internet does a marvelous job at connecting people from around the world. Even if I've never met a blogger or tweeter I follow, the connection I feel I have with them is anything but superficial. But it remains the case that an in-person interaction creates a unique bond. In my experience, even just one in-person meeting can enrich the online communications with the person for years to follow.

Twitter, Transience, and Tempo

Anil Dash notes the double edged sword of Twitter's transience:

Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won't see every message that comes along. There's no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.

However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there's also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.

He's right that the guilt-free nature of Twitter is a delight. You can go a few days without checking it and it's "okay." But the downside of such a set-up is captured in Anil's post title: If You Didn't Blog It, It Didn't Happen. This is not just about the 140 character limit of Twitter (though obviously that's a major impediment to conversations). Tweets come and go, and if it's gone, it's (basically) gone. As evidence of this, I'd link you to a "debate" David Frum and Virginia Postrel had last week on Twitter about health care policy, of which I read bits and pieces, but alas, it's too hard to find and impossible to reference in full.

Blog posts are easily linked-to, archived, tagged. Lengthy conversations can ensue in the posts and comments section. And an RSS reader efficiently captures everything (though it could do a better job at tracking multi-blog conversations). I'd give up Twitter without much of a fuss, whereas you'd have to fight me to death to take away my RSS reader and blogs. I'd miss Twitter, to be sure — it's fun to see an on-going stream of gestures from people I care about. But it's not core to my intellectual experience on the web.

Stowe Boyd concludes on a philosophical note:

Lurking behind Anil’s practicality are the more philosophical issues of time and transience. Yes, we don’t need to retain every tweet ever read or written. We can accept the fast and furious impermanence of most tweets, and the up tempo pace of the Twitter bloodstream. But we want to also operate at a slower pace, dealing with deeper and abiding interests, ideas, and connections. We need to be able to shift tempo without missing a beat.


Here's my post on the evolving uses of Twitter.

Zadie Smith on Technology and Philosophy

I love Zadie Smith, but her lengthy review of The Social Network movie is disappointing. She tries to do a macro cultural critique of the online social network phenomenon but gets lost pretty quickly. A sample paragraph:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Say what?

Most negative pieces like Smith's are premised on the idea that Facebook and the web are changing our lives in a massive way. Most positive pieces are similarly premised except instead they argue that everything is sweetness and light.

Someone should write an article that argues the total impact (good or bad) of social networking technologies on an individual's identity, philosophies, behavior, and relationships may actually be overstated by the legion of recent essayists and filmmakers. And that it may be especially overstated even by those who claim it's been life changing — i.e., the piece skeptically assesses first-person testimonies. I'm not saying I hold this view, but it would be a refreshingly different way to frame the conversation.


Here's William Gibson on related topics in a recent interview. One line on globalization:

I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.

The Wisdom of Your Former Self

Andy McKenzie quotes the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa:

I often find texts of mine that I wrote when I was very young–when I was seventeen or twenty. And some have a power of expression that I do not remember having then. Certain sentences and passages I wrote when I had just taken a few steps away from adolescence seem produced by the self I am today, educated by years and things. I recognize I am the same as I was.

Usually people shudder with embarrassment at the prospect of coming upon writings of their youth. It's the same logic techno-skeptics use when advising youth not to blog: Your adolescent riffs will come off as naive and immature to your wise, adult self.

Pessoa in adulthood found the opposite. His texts of 17 or 20 years old display insight of a caliber close to what he could have produced as an older man.

Isn't this prospect — that there's little significant difference between your youthful thoughts and adult ones — even more terrifying?

Since few adults today have records of their youth, it's easier for them to maintain self-serving narratives about how far they've come in adulthood. This will change, as more young people publish on Twitter and blogs. 20-somethings today will one day look back at those permanent and forever Google-able writings and either shudder in embarrasement as commonly presumed, or, like Pessoa, they will find them remarkably similar to their adult expressions. In the cases where there's no significant difference, the fact that one must work to become wiser will be unavoidable.

The Origins of “Think Different”

My sixth grade technology teacher changed my life.

He taught an early-morning elective class on computer repair in which we learned how to fix Macintosh computers. The curriculum covered how to take apart hard drives, how to re-install system software ("C is for CD and that's good enough for me" was the jingle to remember to hold the C key when starting a computer from system software), re-build desktops, run Disk Utility the right way, partition hard drives, and much more. In exchange for the free 7:00 AM class I had to periodically do maintenance and repair work on the school's computers. It was a hell of a deal: the skills I picked up continue to serve me well, and that class facilitated my burgeoning interest in software and the internet (with which I would soon become obsessed).

But the biggest gift from that class and teacher had nothing to do with the nitty gritty of computer repair. Rather, it was the introduction of a certain kind of life philosophy. He forced all of us to memorize the text of the Apple "Think Different" television campaign. We had to recite the ad back to him word-for-word in order to pass the class. It was a profoundly inspiring message.

On our last day, he wrote each of us a personal letter, continuing the theme of the advertisement. Mine read: "If you continue to work hard and do well, you can acquire the skills needed to change the world. With education one can make great scientific or technological breakthroughs, curb world hunger and child labor, prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, promote peace, and have the power to bring about great change in the world. With education, you have the power to do nearly anything. If you don't change the world, who will?" Then, as a postscript, he added: "Be sure to back up your hard drive."

In the 10 years since, I have not forgotten a word from the advertisement and have recited it hundreds of times (no exaggeration!) to whoever will listen, in various venues. (And the short video series I did last year was called Think Different TV.)

For all these reasons, I was extremely intrigued to watch this six minute clip of a young Steve Jobs discussing the origins of the advertisement in the context of marketing, branding, and values. Highly recommended everyone in business.

(via TechCrunch)

The Feel-Bad Effect from Not-So-Close Facebook Friends

My good friend Stan James writes about how social networks amplify the feel-bad-in-comparison effect when you see people raving about how glorious their lives are:

In my trips back to Colorado, I have been struck each time by the discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private. On Facebook they have been on an amazing vacation to exotic beaches. In person they confess that the vacation was a desperate attempt to save a marriage. On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven’t been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company

What’s interesting is that this feel-bad Facebook effect seems to come from a distinct source: not-so-close Facebook friends.

In the case of true close friends, you know about all the crap that is going on in their lives. From deep interaction, you know the specific pains and doubt that lies behind the smiling profile picture…

Since TV was invented, critics have pointed out the dangers of watching the perfect people who seem to inhabit the screen. They are almost universally beautiful, live in interesting places, do intereseting work (if they work at all), are unfailingly witty, and never have to do any cleaning. They never even need to use the toilet. It cannot be pschologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms.

So it’s interesting that social networks have inadvertently created the same effect, but using an even more powerful source. Instead of actors in Hollywood, the characters are people that you know to be real and have actually met. The editing is done not by film school graduates, but by the people themselves.

In the end, my friend’s strategy seems to be the right one: don’t spend too much time purusing the lives of people who aren’t in your life. And spend more time learning about the uncut, unedited, off-line lives that your friends are actually living.

Very true when reading other people's public content. People tend not to share their warts in public forums. Keep that in mind if you feel shitty in comparison when reading about the apparent charmed life of a blogger you don't know well in real life.

Four years ago I wrote a somewhat similar post but from the perspective of a person who writes generally upbeat tweets and blog posts. When you know you are going to blog about an experience before you have the experience, you want it to be good so that you can write a positive post that's fun to write and read. It changes the actual experience to be more positive. After writing about the (positive) experience, it's in the historical record. When you read old posts to remember your past, you feel happy about all the positive experiences you accumulated and recorded. It's not just about whitewashing the past or selective memory (though this is part of it); there's an anticipatory effect of sharing the experience in a public forum that changes the actual experience for the better.


I just told a friend I was writing this post. She said, "This is a litmus test I use for how close I am with a friend. If s/he doesn't tell me anything bad about their life, I assume we're not very good friends."


Note to readers: Blogging will be light for the next month due to extensive travel, and probably more sporadic than usual for the rest of 2010. If you don't already use an RSS reader I encourage you to do so, and subscribe to this feed. You can also get my posts via email.

The Effect of the “Like” Button

The "Like" button on Facebook (and now all over the web) allows a user to indicate positivity about a piece of content without actually writing a comment. Millions of people have "Liked" status updates, notes, photos, bios, comments, and now external web pages. Similar one-click sentiment links ("Endorse," "Helpful," "Not Helpful") now exist on LinkedIn, Quora, and other social networking sites. And of course "Upvote" and "Downvote" arrows have driven sites like Reddit for a long time.

Like0 What is the effect (as I see it) of these type of one-click sentiment buttons? In a sentence: Overall engagement goes up, substantive comments / contributions go down.

Take a blog post. Historically, the only option for a user to engage was to leave a written comment. Suppose I write a post and five people leave comments. With the addition of a "Like" button I would estimate three people would leave comments, but four people would click "Like." Before sentiment buttons: 5 written comments. After sentiment buttons: 7 engaged users, 3 commenters.

My friend Dario Abramskiehn asked me awhile ago why certain of my posts receive more comments than others. I follow Chris Yeh's theory on comments: the less serious / difficult / lengthy the blog post, the more comments it will have, assuming an average level of interestingness. I chalk this up to the law of reciprocity: if you take the time to crank out something really thoughtful and original, readers feel like they reciprocate the effort in a comment. So many, naturally, abstain. By contrast, if you post something provocative and short, it's easy to leave a quick comment and feel square with the effort of the blogger.

With a "Like" button, readers who would have previously abstained can now indicate passive positive sentiment. Some readers who previously left a comment but did so half-assedly would now click "Like."

The generic, safe nature of "Like" also increases total engagement when difficult topics would otherwise deter readers from chiming in. A friend recently posted a status update on Facebook about a relative's fight against cancer. It was a positive update — i.e., one that warranted congratulations or encouragement — but, given the sensitivity of illness topics, given the fear of offending someone — the status received quite a few "Likes" and almost no comments. By contrast, a message that's more straightforward — such as my tweet about how many libertarians are religious — received several comments but no "Likes."

Bottom Line: The "Like" feature and other passive sentiment links next to content on the web show that the way users engage with content will continue to change, and that the way to measure the vitality of an online community continues to be more complicated than raw numbers such as unique visitors or numbers of comments.

(thanks to Steve Dodson for helping brainstorm this. P.S. "Like" buttons coming to this blog soon.)

Age Matters to Multitasking and Information Diets

Tyler Cowen continues the discussion about internet information culture and multitasking:

Do law partners and top investment bankers multitask?


I won't quite write "end of story" but…

Of course top CEOs don't multitask all the time, they multitask selectively, combined with periods of extreme focus.  Still, I would say that multitasking is passing the market test… It's one thing to think that a seventeen-year-old teenager will multitask too much; it's another thing to make the same claim about an extremely valuable executive, surrounded by assistants, time management specialists, and so on. [BC: Emphasis mine.]

It's true that virtually every high-performing CEO I know multitasks. To the extent they are as effective as ever, and I think they are, who's to tell them to stop multitasking?

The harder question is about the 17 year-old. Arguably, the over-30 CEO has developed a "foundation" of focus — by that I mean he has experience from pre-internet pre-iPhone life of not multitasking as much and thus he knows when to turn off the background noise and do the extreme focus Tyler mentions. The 17 year-old, by contrast, has no such experiences. Multitasking is all he's ever known and all he's ever doing even as he is "immersed in a developmental stage where impulse control is dangerously weak and the brain is at a peak of malleability." Will he be able to do extreme focus when he must?

A different but related issue is about information consumption in the age of the web. Some of the most successful consumers and producers of intellectual bits on the Internet — guys like Tyler and Andrew Sullivan — spent 30-plus years pre-Internet reading long books and establishing the foundation of knowledge upon which their bits sit. Me? I've grown up on the web. I haven't read all the Great Books. My model is more a mix of books and bits. I do believe the bits will cohere in the long-run into a kind of foundational knowledge of the sort Tyler got from books, but perhaps the books/bits ratio for me should be different than his at this stage.

What the Net is Doing to Our Brains

The conversation is back with the release of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I haven’t read it yet but you can get the gist by perusing the reviews, following Carr’s blog, or reading RSSted Development where I briefly contrast Carr and Cowen. To see some back-and-forth on what the studies actually say about technology and distractability, read the comments section of Jonah Lehrer’s post.

I continue to try to figure out how I can improve my ability to concentrate, and I worry about how the internet is adversely affecting that mission. In the end I fall into the pro-internet camp, if such a crude distinction can even be made, but I do not think this is mutually exclusive with whole-hearted support of the broader conversation Carr has ignited or this Alain de Botton quip:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is how we can relearn to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything.

Recent steps I’ve taken to improve my ability to concentrate: a) track my time more rigorously, b) use self-control to block access to twitter, facebook, and other time sink sites; c) turn off email for hours at a time, d) don’t use mobile email, e) wear Bose headsets to block out noise and to remind myself I’m supposed to be working.


  • Speaking of books I haven’t read yet, The Authenticity Hoax sounds interesting.
  • Here’s a clip showing what not to do if you’re a PR person faced with an inquisitive reporter via SF’s Laguna Honda hospital.
  • AEI crunches the numbers on how much money U.S. airline consumers would save if Open Skies were global.
  • Colin Marshall asks how much human energy is wasted on personal relationship re-engineering (aka therapy).