The Complete “Visitors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information” Arc

Note: Another relatively short, three post arc, here in full. You may thank us later. PS) The ET aspect described in this arc is now in NextStage’s Veritas Gauge. PPS) We thought it was short. We didn’t notice all the files at first. This arc is really nine posts long. Typical of J…

Visitors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 1

I mentioned in Stephane Hamel, WASP creator, goes Freelance that I was taking a break from NextStage for a few years to pursue other things.

Of course, one never wonders far from what one loves, in the heart and mind if not with the feet.

Case in point, we’ve known for a while that NextStage’s Evolution Technology (ET) can determine if visitors to websites are behaving…umm…fairly(??) when they fill out forms, et cetera. We didn’t know how it could do it, only that it was in there somewhere.

Well, never give Joseph some spare time, he’ll find a way to fill it. Back on 18 Sept 07 some fellow KMMers emailed me Social networking sites: Almost two thirds of users enter false information to protect identity. This article starts with “London, UK – 18 September 2007 – Nearly two thirds (62%) of networking sites users say they are worried about the safety of their personal data held on these sites, reveals a survey conducted by email research specialists, emedia, using its RapidResearch service. The concern is so high that almost one third of users (31%) have already entered false information about themselves to protect their identity.”

This isn’t news to me or NextStage. One of the first things we told clients way back when was that — in general!!! — people will fabricate information on the web more often than they won’t because the social and cultural cues prohibiting “lying” aren’t available to them.

This same topic reared its head again during the recent XChange conference when we were discussing people in person versus online giving information necessary to receive information. I suggested that people will be more honest when providing health and investment information than, say, vacation information. There’s a higher psychological price (again, in general) assigned to health and investments than to vacations.

Anyway, I had a few days to spend analyzing the problem and finally figured out the math necessary to map online behaviors to which parts of the brain were active when information was being provided online. The rest of this post covers a seven day cycle, 27 Sept – 4 Oct 07, for several industries that NextStage monitors.

In all these images green indicates the number of visitors who respond truthfully to questionnaires, in chat sessions, etc., yellow indicates people who mix truth with non-truth and red indicates people who just make things up. Even when there’s nothing to fill out or form to fill in, these values indicate which parts of the brain are firing most actively. The question probably then becomes, “If there’s nothing to fill in, how can people be telling the truth or making things up?”

Deceitful behavior is both a boundary and defense mechanism. Think of a cat poofing its tale, a dog bristling it’s back, things like that. These mechanisms engage to make the animal appear larger than it is. It is, in a sense, being deceitful, making itself appear larger than it is, to protect itself or its territory. Thus, when there are no forms to fill out, et cetera, and ET is picking up fabricational behavior it is an indication site visitors are uncomfortable with the website they’re navigating. Similarly, truthful behavior is an indication visitors are comfortable with the website they’re navigating.

Let’s start with B2B sites shown above. Practically 2/3s of the people on all B2B sites NextStage monitors are comfortable enough with the site they’re navigating to fill out forms honestly and accurately. Probably a good thing in they’re making business purchases. It wouldn’t be good to order a skiploader one couldn’t pay for or maintain properly.

Visitors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 2

This is the second installment of Visitors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information. Interestingly enough, some of what this arc touches on was part of a conversation Paul Legutko, Semphonic’s VP Analytics, and Judah Phillips, Reed Business Interactive’s Director of Web Analytics, had last week at Bentley College’s Usability Labs with some graduate researchers. Many thanks to Paul and Judah for taking part in that discussion. I’ll be sharing the outcome of that discussion here once the results and finalized and made available to me.

This arc deals with Evolution Technology‘s (ET) ability to determine if visitors to websites are behaving…umm…fairly(??) when they fill out forms, et cetera. Some readers know I’m taking a sabbatical from NextStage and that means I get a chance to finish some projects that have been hanging over my head for months if not years now. One such project was the mathematics of truthtelling versus fabricating and how those two neural patterns are demonstrated when someone interacts with a website.

The rest of this post covers a seven day cycle, 27 Sept – 4 Oct 07, for several industries that NextStage monitors. The above provided a report for a general B2B sampling of sites NextStage monitors for clients. This post deals with B2C sites.


Compare the above image with its B2B cousin in the previous section and you’ll notice that more consumers tell the truth (green) or recognizable portions of it (yellow) than do businesspeople when navigating websites. I’m a little surprised by this finding and with a little thought it makes sense to me.

These charts determine truth v fabrication by determining how much territoriality and defense mechanisms become active in a visitor’s neural landscape when they navigate a website. Consumers — at least the vast majority of them in today’s eWorld — no longer fear that websites will steal their soul, hence the defense mechanisms and territoriality that are indications of truth v fabrication don’t become active. This ties well into something I mention in Reading Virtual Minds, that people are becoming more and more comfortable identifying with a projected online persona (doesn’t matter if that persona shows up in Second Life or in a “junk” email address). This ability to be comfortable with a projected persona won’t show up as a fabrication because the individual navigating a site or filling in information won’t differentiate between their real versus cyber self.

Blog Visitors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 3

This section deals with blogs.

how truthful are people when they're reading and commenting on blogs?

The majority of blogs NextStage is monitoring are social in nature, not business or informational and Wow. Who knew the majority of people involved in social blogging were…umm…so good at…uhh…had such strong imaginations? Compare this image with its B2B and B2C cousins above and you’ll notice that consumers — both business and general — tell the truth (green) or recognizable portions of it (yellow) than do bloggers. This finding doesn’t surprise me at all in light of what I wrote in the first section of this post and the findings in Social networking sites: Almost two thirds of users enter false information to protect identity. I guess that shows up on social blogs as well.

General Visitors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 4

How many visitors are being honest on sites in general?Better than half the visitors to sites (in general) are providing honest and truthful information online and feel comfortable interacting with the site their navigating. This is shown by the large green chunk of the pie chart on the above.

It’s always interesting to me to see how truth and honesty demonstrate themselves across a variety of verticals and industries. We learned that B2B visitors are more honest online (in general) than B2C visitors. Social Bloggers, we learned, tend to be less honest and truthful when adding comments.

Online Insurance Vendors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 5


Just over two-thirds of the visitors to online insurance providers are providing honest and truthful information online and feel comfortable interacting with the site they’re navigating. This is shown by the large green chunk of the pie chart above.

Online Medical and Pharma, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 6


This chart shows that an equal number of people are either telling the truth and fabricating OR an equal number of people are comfortable and uncomfortable when navigating online medical and pharma sites.

It’s in situations such as this that a little postulating can be useful. What follows is an opinion.

I find it doubtful that people navigating a site that may help them cure a disease or understand what’s happening to either themselves or a loved one would fabricate information. Doing so only means they won’t get useful information and if getting information is what they came for, the more useful the information they receive the better they off they are, therefore fabricating and getting less useful information defeats the purpose of coming to the site.

Therefore (and without looking at other NextStage reports that would help make this determination with more precision) I’m going to assume (ASSUME) that visitors navigating these sites are uncomfortable, either physically or psychologically. Physically because and unfortunately they may be dealing with an illness. Psychologically because dealing with their own or a loved one’s illness takes a toll psychologically.

Online Vacation Sites, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 7

This section deals with visitor interaction with vacation sites. The vacation sites in our system tend to be high end type vacations (luxury hotels offering safari style expeditions in Kenya, for example) and that’s going to play into my end analysis of what we learned with this tool.

People tend to exagerate when planning for vacations

One of the first things I noticed about these results is that there kind of a polarity mirror of what we saw in Online Medical and Pharma, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 6. Basically more people are exaggerating or outright falsifying information on these sites.

It’s worth noting at this point that these charts and the equations behind them aren’t simply “Truth v Fiction” because the parts of the brain-mind system that register truth and fiction are also the parts that determine if we feel comfortable or uncomfortable in a given situation. I went with a “comfortable v uncomfortable” analysis of online medical and pharma sites because that interpretation made more sense in conjunction with other data we had gathered on those sites. Here, in high-end vacation sites, a “truth v fabrication” analysis makes more sense.

What we told the clients (the numbers varied across the sites so I’m being general here) is that lots of visitors might not be able to take part in their vacations and probably know this viewing the sites. However, these sites, their intense graphics, fluid narratives, videos of people taking part in arctic expeditions, hiking over glaciers, trekking in the Andes, whitewatering in who knows where, allow many visitors to dream and while I won’t debate whether or not dreams are truth or fiction, I will offer that dreams are wonderful ways to escape and seeing yourself in a given situation is necessary when deciding if an extreme vacation is for you.

In other words, people fabricating, imagining, dreaming, is probably a good thing on these kinds of sites. Fortunately and as mentioned before, it’s possible (with other NextStage tools) to zero-in a bit more and know if visitors are purely fabricating or merely allowing their imaginations to run wild.

Wiki Contributors, Truth, False Information and Personal Information, Part 8

This section deals with contributors to wikis. The wikis monitored in our system are mostly internal and corporate, in many cases the companies asking NextStage to monitor their inhouse wikis are exploring the use of wikis along with other new media methods of B2E interactions.

Do wiki contributors really know what they're writing about

I think an appropriate subtitle — at least something businesses wanted to know — is whether or not wiki contributors really knew what they were writing about when entering information into a corporate wiki.

I need to clarify at this point that NextStage’s tools don’t know if someone is telling objective truth or not. Our tools can only identify if the person entering the information believes the information is true or not. This is subjective truth. In other words, this tool can determine is someone is intentionally fabricating information. This is a similar problem that criminal investigators and forensics experts deal with routinely; the witness believes what they’re redacting is accurate even if there’s massive contrary information available.

Subjective truth is a valuable tool in a lot of instances. For example, one of the greatest problems facing lots of industries today has to do with whether or not their knowledge-base will be maintained as workers retire, move on, etc. This concern is one reason many corporations are studying wikis as tools for collecting, categorizing and distributing knowledge before it walks out the door and is lost forever.

This NextStage tool allows wiki monitors to note that a given individual strongly believes the information they’re providing is accurate and actionable (a good combination in most instances).

All that offered, this chart indicates that across all wiki sites NextStage is monitoring contributors believe they are either telling the complete truth with their entries or are unsure. Nobody is fabricating information (also a very good thing to know when dealing with a corporate knowledge-base).

Truth, False Information and Personal Information Finale

I thought it might be useful to close out this arc with a review of NextStage’s findings across several verticals. Let’s start back with visitors to B2B sites. Across all general B2B sites in the NextStage system visitors are more truthful when entering information into the site and comfortable navigating the site than not.

Next up is visitors to B2C sites. As above, across all general B2C sites in the NextStage system visitors are not only more truthful than their B2B cousins, visitors are convinced they’re not fabricating information and are largely comfortable with the sites they’re navigating.

People seem to be either uncomfortable when commenting on blogs or fabricating information outright. I’m shocked, aren’t you?

We also considered a “glom”, meaning it covers all sites in our system. We analyze information from several sectors, verticals and markets, some with only one client and others with several, therefore this glom truly is a glom, an amalgam, of visitors. Think of a delicious stew that has great subtlety and is wonderfully filling and you have the idea.

Visitors to online insurers are incredibly truthful in filling out forms and navigating insurance sites. Good job and nicely done, online insurers (at least those in our system), you’ve managed to build rapport and create relationships with your online visitors that insures comfort and honest dealings. Hooray for you!

Online medical and pharma sites is where we recognize that these reports show more than just visitor truth and fabrication, they also display comfort and discomfort with the information presented on a site. Here we learn that many visitors to these sites are telling the truth when filling out forms and also uncomfortable, perhaps in a state of physical or emotional distress, with their need to be on such sites.

High-end vacation sites demonstrate one of my more fun findings to share with NextStage clients; those who offer high-end vacations. Why is this fun? Because while it might look as if most visitors to these sites are either uncomfortable or making something up, it’s more likely the case that they are imagining themselves taking part is some stimulating adventure scenario (I know I could use one right about now…) and that active imagination would be registered as fabricated information.

Our last chart dealt with people entering information into corporate wikis. The large majority of people entering data into corporate wikis believe they’re offering accurate information. More importantly, nobody entering information into the corporate wikis NextStage is monitoring believes they’re making up information.

This report is offered as NextStage Veritas Gauge. Hate to think I spent a month calibrating and verifying data from various sources, perfecting the math, so on and so forth, for nothing.

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What does NextStage do?

Once again I was asked “What does NextStage do?”

This is an agonizing question for me. People expect a short, quick, succinct answer. I give them what I believe is a short, quick, succinct answer, “NextStage does research” and the conversation spirals downward from there. This happens a lot, the spiralling. I described it in The NextStageologist on Mars and Second Life? I don’t find you interesting in Real Life

This time, though, I got a completely different response, “Very interesting Joseph, let me chew on this for a while and get back to you.” along with a description of the individual’s position in their company.

The funny thing is that my response was my usual response. NextStage does research, tool development, trainings, presentations, consultations. The overriding theme is “How do people interact with information?”

This means what we do today can be very different from what we did last week and will probably be different from what we’re doing next week. Do we work on websites? Yes, and not exclusively. Do we work with print? Yes, and not exclusively. Do you work with video? Yes, …

But if you ask “Do you work on how people interact with information? So you help companies figure out how to modify what they do in print from what they do on the web and TV?” Yes, very good. That’s it pretty much.

A client once told me we do market research. Not sure I agree, but there you have it.

What amuses me is that this blog is pretty much a synopsis of what we do. Branding studies, how to use online video to capture market share and drive business, when to use sound files and why, how and why do audiences segment the way they do, …, and it all comes down to “How do people interact with information?”

So bear with me for a paragraph or two…

NextStage researches “how people interact with information”, something that grew out of my 1991 thesis, “How We Learn to Learn”, basically a blend of anthro, linguistics, semiotics and half a dozen other major fields and about 120 disciplines. The reason the research set is so rich is because, when I couldn’t find an answer to a problem in one field, I started modifying the problem model until it had similar macroproperties to solved problems in at least one other field and usually several. The next step was to determine how the macroproperties translated between disciplines, apply the learning of the solved metaphor to the unsolved metaphor, experiment with the translated paradigm to determine what properties were extant between metaphors then solve accordingly.

Because of this, Evolution Technology borrows from fields as diverse as quantum-magneto-hydro-dynamics and immunoassay development.

Okay. So how do companies use our research, tools, and consulting to help them?

Well…this is where it gets pretty interesting.

Higher Ed uses our tools and consulting to help them capture more of a decreasing market; first time college students. We’re helping them on several fronts; marketing, social networking, social media, creating rich personae of their target audience, …

All of which, to me, is “how people interact with information”.

Event organizers use our tools and consulting to help them expand into other product offerings via understanding how to translate their existing successful brand into recognizable brands in other markets.

Again, “how people interact with information”.

An F500 used us to help them understand why their employees weren’t accessing their employee site, and what to do so that employees would access the employee site.


Media buyers, media planners and some SEO firms use our tools to determine where to place ads online and in print so that the ads will have the greatest impact.


Companies use us to help them develop successful WOM and viral campaigns, …


Most engagements begin with conversations (a discovery process). Is the potential client having a recognizable problem? Can they explain the challenge? How is this a challenge? To what? In what way? What would be the best possible outcome? What would be the best possible solution? What would be an acceptable solution? What would be a horrible solution? … I’ve been told that I can be both intimidating and frustrating, but companies still come to us (we don’t advertise and have been reactive for a while now).

NextStage is blessed with being in a position to focus its attention on whatever catches my interest. I’m blessed with being interested in things that most people won’t care about for several years yet. Another thing that grew out of my thesis is NextStage’s proprietary Evolution Technology. Most of our tools are based on various models inherent in the technology.

I hope this helps. I much better talking on the phone. I’m much better answering questions, otherwise I tend to ramble (you couldn’t tell, I’m sure).
Also, my apologies if this seems glib. That is not my intent. I simply don’t know how to answer the “What does NextStage do?” question quickly and succinctly.

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Creating Value in Wikis and Blogs via Viral Marketing

Note: This case study is based on research which appears in
Measuring Value in Wikis and Blogs
Social Networks and Viral Marketing
Why Some Viral Marketing Doesn’t Work
Yes, You Can Predict Viral Marketing
Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation [[we hope it’ll be on Amazon soon!]]

The Client was a small New England university that was having difficulty attracting promising students and students with high academic standing.

The Problem was that the university had not kept up with changes in student habits and was not well equipped to teach students educational disciplines (such as the Socratic Method) for understanding and solving problems via the students’ new habits. The college did recognize that many of their students spent a great deal of time online and, although the college had its own internal and external web sites, student use of these tools was negligible.

The question which was asked had two components:

  1. Is there a way to increase visitor access, usage and appreciation of specific material on web sites?
  2. Is there a way this material can be designed to increase cognitive skills?

The Solution involved what NextStage calls site determinants.

This project was taken on before the concepts of wikis, blogs and viral marketing campaigns were lingua franca in the web world. That stated, NextStage’s proposal was to create a website with the following aspects:

  1. Content would be specifically designed to meet the non-conscious mindsets of the visitor (student) population
  2. There would be a free trial period followed by a monthly charge for site access
  3. Visitors would be given an alias and an email account on the system by which to contact each other
  4. Visitors would be able to post comments about the content and each others’ comments which would be available to all others visiting the site
  5. There would be no censoring of posted material
  6. Repeat visitors were given more and different content
  7. “Super” repeat visitors were given semi-administrative roles within the website
  8. All growth would be organic
  9. A core group of 20 students were given access and told they could direct others to the website only after they had created their own account (visitors who came to the site from other than a site-sponsored email account were not allowed access)

The site and the content contained therein was not affiliated with the college in any way other than being created and maintained by an associate professor. The core group of students were culled from one of the professor’s classes. Initial motivation for visiting the site was to critique design elements for extra credit. The website would be available for the duration of the course and three months thereafter, although visitors were not informed of this. The payment system (for monthly access) was designed to fail and not accept payments — hence terminate subscriptions with no financial liability to visitors — at the end of the experiment cycle.

The Solution (Goal Determinants)

The entire student body was some 2,000 individuals, about 70% of which were undergraduates. The success metric was determined ahead of time as getting some 600 regular visitors to the site. This is about 30% of the entire student population and about 43% of the undergraduate population. However, as part of the goal was to learn how to attract promising students it was recognized that not all of the end population would necessarily come from within the student body. The experiment was also limited in time-frame, although part of the research was also to determine if the site would be a visitor focus. From initial deployment to end of experiment was a total of six months.

The Result

Visitors and subscriptions increased over time

The figure above compares the Weekly Site Visitors (as determined by unique login ids) to paid Total Subscriptions over the fifty weeks the experiment was active. What is clearly obvious from the chart is that the addition of new, relevant content caused an increase in visitation. Worth noting is the large uptake in visits in week 28 (93 to 122 visits/week) compared to the smaller uptakes due to the addition of new content on week 10 (34 to 51 visits/week) and week 17 (63 to 71 visits/week). Content was determined based on TargetTrack analysis of visitors’ postings (blog- and wiki-style entries) to the site in the form of content commentary. TargetTrack analysis was made of visitor commentaries to determine various communication and cognition styles. Content was then selected which encouraged activity of these communication and cognition styles with the end goal of answering the two questions which precipitated the experiment:

  1. Is there a way to increase visitor access, usage and appreciation of specific material on web sites?
    The increase in traffic to the site demonstrates the increase in visitor access and usage of the site. An increase in blog- and wiki-style entries demonstrate an increase in activity (hence interest if not exactly “appreciation”) on the site.
  2. Is there a way this material can be designed to increase cognitive skills?
    A maturation of writing and communication skills is shown over time in visitor entries to the site. (An example anecdote is worth noting here; One of the assignments was to learn about the Socratic Method, the students had a difficult time completing the exercise. One student, in particular, left the class in tears. This same student, in a later conversation with the instructor, offered that she had taken what she’d learned and applied it to another class, achieving her best grade ever. This same student became one of the most prolific and insightful contributors to the experiment site)

The site content achieved these goals by promoting more commentary and causing visitors to suggest non-visitors go see the content and the visitors’ associated commentary. This element of the experiment was intended to increase traffic and viral marketing, both of which did occur as shown in the chart.

Note also that there is a steady increase in total subscriptions from weeks 6 through 39 with a sharp increase after. This is attributed to the main viral marketers — the student body — returning to campus after summer break and communicating the site to new students.

The goal of 600 regular visitors was realized in week 29 of the experiment.

Also noteworthy is the psychological characteristics of individuals who recruited new members to the site (ie, spread the virus most effectively). These characteristics included and are not limited to:

  • the most successful recruiters were the most active contributors
  • successful females recruiters engaged females more often than they engaged males in posting-exchanges by a ratio of 3 f-f postings to 1 f-m posting
  • off-site social recognition (via sports participation, bands, club affiliations and extra-curricular activities in general) contributed to the recruiter’s success by a factor of 2 to 1 (as measured by total social activity hours/week to successful recruitment of new visitors to the site)
  • regular contributors’ contributions were read more often than contributions from casual contributors
  • recognizable social hierarchies (dominance, gaming, fool/clown/crone archetypes) evolved with the time period of evolution dependent on traffic load

Two final notes to this section:

  1. the online success of individuals (as determined by recruitment and contributions) increased their likelihood of offline social recognition, willingness to take risks and be successful (as determined by follow up conversations, etc., with participants in the experiment) and
  2. the site is currently offline and still receives some 15 unique visits per day even though no marketing is being done.


This experiment — recognizably bridging from a small world model to a large world model — clearly demonstrates the power of viral marketing to promote a product which is intentionally designed to appeal to a specific audience. NextStage contends although can not currently validate that a larger seed audience (more than 450 unique individuals) and more highly refined product would cause an even greater uptake in the use of the such a site. [[We can validate this now.]]

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Measuring Value in Wikis and Blogs

Note: Elements of this post also appeared in “A Little About Cookies“.


I’m going to start this paper off by sharing some personal history. My job function is as a researcher, not in a single field but many, and often researching in these several fields as close to simultaneously as a single person can. [[Back in Mar ’06]] I’ve had twenty-two books published in five fields of expertise and over 200 articles in more topics than most people care to count. I’m currently finishing my 23rd book and already have my 24th mapped out. I’ve held professorships and been a guest lecturer at several institutions of higher learning. My writing and work is referenced worldwide and I’m invited to speak at conferences both scientific and business, on topics ranging from “Linguistic and Cultural Migration of the Gaelic Language and Peoples” to “Six Web Techniques that Get New Business”.

This information would be a shock to people who knew me in high school, college and my early professional life. In high school I was labeled a chronic underachiever — I was always distracted by this or that and couldn’t focus where my teachers wanted me to. I graduated somewhere close to the middle of my class, was told by my guidance counselor to prepare myself for a life of stacking cans at the local grocery, did poorly in college, and had trouble holding down a job for longer than a few months at a time. Job reviews cited my inability to focus or complete projects assigned to me.

Mislabeling is Dangerous

The discrepancy between then (unfocused, an underachiever) and now (CRO and Founder of an international company, patents, publications) can be attributed to two basic items; one is that I didn’t accept the labels given to me and the other is that the world and the market that drives it changed. Today the knowledge and skills exist to recognize that I wasn’t distracted nor did I lack focus, I was bored. My lack of focus was actually my search for something to interest me. Today I make a living by grabbing pieces from one field and pieces from another field to create solutions in a third field not normally associated with the other two. Currently, for example, I’m studying how the behavior of pulleys is similar to the responsibilities of the Plunge Protection Team (,,,,, This might fall into the field of econophysics (,, it might not. I never know where my explorations will lead me, I only rejoice in discovering where I’ve gone. [[Anyway…]]Between then and now I’ve also learned mislabeling is dangerous.

Just as I rejected the labels given me, so can people either accept or reject the labels given things around them. Labels serve a good general purpose gone bad. The good general purpose is to quickly identify something. Most people don’t have to think twice about what’s shown in the picture below.

Most people know that the proper name for what is shown below is “that thing doctors use when they whack your knee” (it’s a “percussion hammer”). Labels add definition out of context — the image above left isn’t a just a “hammer”, it’s actually a “rip claw hammer” — but in a doctor’s surgery with a patient on the examining table a doctor asking for a hammer probably doesn’t have to specify a “percussion hammer”. The context adds definition to the content.

Percussion Hammer

Labeling’s good purpose goes bad when

  1. exact labels don’t yet exist for what is being labeled
  2. the exact nature of what is being labeled is misunderstood
  3. labels are used out of context, causing confusion
  4. those applying the labels don’t apply sufficient rigor in the labeling process to understand what they’re labeling

Seeking Definitions

Web analytics, behavioral analytics and their kin is an area where labeling’s good purpose has gone, if not bad, into some decidedly gray areas. Not all web analytics methods and packages work equally well for all companies, and the behavioral field is so nascent that it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about behavioral marketing, analytics or targeting because exacting definitions don’t exist yet. The analytics tools which are the best for company A might be the worst for company B because companies A and B have different business models (item 4 above), have different KPIs (items 1 and 2 above), define “standard” metrics differently but use the same terms in their definitions (items 3 and 4 above), use a label in a way it was never intended (item 3 above), … Companies need to determine what they really want to measure before they can decide the best way to measure it.

The most basic metric in web analytics, the conversion, can be likened to a body count, and all metrics beyond that standard are some variation of people as numbers; be it a sales funnel or page requests per user IP. Get a group of web and behavioral analysts together and ask for thoughts on how to accurately measure PagesViewed [[In Apr 2006 NextStage was testing a “Pages Viewed” report for web traffic that went beyond the standard (surprise!) analysis. The standard analysis indicates that a page was opened and perhaps a link clicked. NextStage’s PagesViewed report, now complete and in operation for several years, accurately determines that a given page caught and held a visitor’s attention, specifying how and why their attention was caught and held, regardless of any subsequent action.]]— a measure of how many requested pages visitors actually focused their attention on regardless of any subsequent action taken — then sit back and watch the fun [[(The question appeared in an online forum at with a responses given.)]].

As useful as the metaphors of conversion, sales funnel, page requests et al are, they don’t allow for an understanding of the community that is created when consumers interact with information.4,6Some analytics firms create behavioral trees in the hopes of understanding what consumers want. Those trees are firmly rooted in the beliefs of those creating them, not consumers who are suppose to climb them. To paraphrase Frantz Fanon, a community will evolve only when both sides agree on a common means of communication, and that requires that both sides agree up front what the goal of the communication is going to be. This mutual agreement isn’t going to be reached in the current best practices of analytics as long as the communication is one-sided and one-handed.

Yet it is consumers, not companies, with the most interesting stories to tell if analytics is going to climb out of its historical ghetto and take its place as an evolutionary force in understanding consumer motivations and behaviors. Consumers, for their part, want to tell their stories. That’s what people do, they tell stories to each other, some true, some not. It’s how people create communities; we share experience, we seek to touch each other with words if not our hands, and all people do it. Even people who push others away need something to push against, to touch, until the distance is a comfortable one.

Listening to consumer stories and creating a true and natural dialogue isn’t difficult. There will be many people with many different stories. Once it is learned that companies are listening, more consumers will come wanting to tell us what they have to say. Getting them to share their stories will be easy. Convincing them they need to be heard, that what they have to say matters, that their words will become the industry’s actions, will be difficult. The world of consumerism is not a trusting world.

Searching for Measures, Finding New Values

How do we create this dialogue? Focus groups are a start. It would be a challenge to get a dialogue going with a sufficiently large population to insure that patterns in consumers’ storytelling both emerge and are statistically valid, although prediction markets do this in a limited way. The problem with both focus groups and traditional prediction markets, however, is that those participating are vested in the outcome. Traditional storytelling’s vesting doesn’t come from economic gain, however. Storytelling’s vesting comes from giving people a recognizable and honored place — people stop what they’re doing and pay attention for some period of time — in an immediate social setting. Case studies — an obvious form of business story telling — give a company a recognizable place in the company’s immediate market setting. 10Qs — another form of business story telling — give that same company a recognizable place in that company’s immediate investor setting.

What kind of social setting can we create to allow storytelling as a consumer exercise? Let me share some personal examples.

  1. We found a wine bottle opener which is both elegant and simple; put the opener on the top of a wine bottle, press the lever, open the bottle and eject the cork. One move and we’re sipping our favorite chianti. We were so pleased with this gadget that we went out and bought several to give as gifts to friends. We gift wrapped the wine bottle openers along with some bottles of wine for each, and each gifting was a presentation which all parties enjoyed and delighted in.
  2. We purchased a truly universal remote; a single device which can control (apparently) infinitely many devices. I had it controlling our DVD player, a stereo system, TV, VCR and cable box in about an hour. Now I can press a single button on the remote, “Watch TV”, and the device turns on the TV, turns on the cable box, turns on the stereo, sets the stereo to the TV input, and allows me to control the stereo volume and the cable box tuner with a single control and without needing to respecify which piece of equipment I want to control each time I want to control it. The same is true for listening to the stereo, playing a CD, DVD, or tape. I started telling our friends the next day.[[This post was originally written in Mar ’06. The remote of which I wrote so wonderfully died within a year and the manufacturer no longer supports it. It cost about US$100. We did find a universal remote that cost $10. No idea who makes it. It’s lasted three years so far.]]

Both of these items share a commonality which might not be intuitively obvious. The key to the commonality is the question; “What were we sharing with our friends?”

The obvious answer might be “some gadgets” and, while accurate, the single element which exists in both anecdotes is this: “we were successful in a way we had not been successful before.” The wine bottle opener allows us to open wine bottles easily and without having to sift out cork particles while pouring. The universal remote allows us to control all our electronics with a single button on a single device. We weren’t sharing devices, we were sharing successes. Sharing each device entailed demonstrations, laughter, anecdotes and, of course, the transmission of success. The wine bottle opener and the universal remote were the vectors, the message was “Look at us! We’re being successful, and we’re going to help you to be a success!” Count how many infomercials there are claiming the exact same thing and you’ll begin to appreciate just how powerful and intoxicating the transmission of success can be.

But the dialogue on the infomercials or between our friends isn’t about devices, it’s about success with devices. The device which made me successful is just an element of the story. I share myself and by doing so make myself vulnerable to you, hence triggering a “trust” response in you. I used a similar storytelling technique in the opening of this paper; I shared about myself, and the success I’ve experienced in my life is just an element of the story. It is doubtful many people who read this paper would pay attention to wiki and blog analysis presented by someone stacking cans on the 3rd shift of the local grocery. But from a recognized researcher with a publishing history in business and science? That person will be listened to.

The value in storytelling, then, is communicating personal success (the anthropologist [[, folklorist]] and mythologist in me also knows that lots of storytelling deals with “cautionary tales”, those that deal with bad outcomes for the story’s protagonist. These are still success stories because the storyteller’s hidden communication is “See? This didn’t happen to me and if you listen to me it won’t happen to you.”). The measure is how actively (speed and distance) that personal success is shared with others (and the goal is to have that personal success so overwhelming that person A must share their success with person B).

Success and storytelling are new values and measures in the field of analytics, so how do we measure them?

Wikis and Blogs

A recent development in online cultures are wikis and blogs. Wikis and blogs evolved from bulletin boards (BBS) and chat rooms. Both BBS and chat rooms have long been known for the social information they provide. Sociologists and criminologists who have actively studied BBS and chat rooms are now recognizing postings and interactions in wikis and blogs as valuable portents of criminal activity. The phenomenon of criminals using wikis and blogs has become so predominant that NHPR did a talk show on the topic to bring information to parents and others:

  • Blogs, chat rooms, online journals, picture posting sites…the list of places children and teenagers visit on the Web is endless. Young people may share personal details of their lives with their computers, but not necessarily their parents.
  • A reason chat rooms, blogs and wikis are popular with youth and a hunting ground for criminals is due to the nature of the society they create; you are valued and trusted by your peers and others. There is a dark side, though. Should a child be ostracized from the online society the child knows it is being ostracized but has no knowledge of who is ostracizing them therefore no one can be trusted.)

Calvin Andrus, head of the CIA’s Office of Application Services, published “The wiki and blog: toward a complex adaptive intelligence community” in which he argues that wikis and blogs are necessary for intelligence workers to share information and experiences in order to improve overall intelligence responsiveness. The science and research communities have also embraced wikis and blogs as valid publication arenas as noted in Nature (see any of The expanding electronic universe, Science in the Web Age: Joint Efforts, Science in the Web Age: The real death of print and Science in the Web Age: Start your engines). Wikis and Blogs are starting up among all socio-economic groups, some fostered by commercial concerns and others growing from personal curiosity to international concerns. Wikipedia is an example of this.

What all of these have in common is that they are communities where storytellers gather to tell their stories. What determines “success” varies from community to community and is usually based on a personal concept rather than a standardized factor. In some cases success is determined by the number of entries made into the venue. In others success is measured by the number of comments made in response to a single posting or entry. Others count success by the number of times an entry is referenced elsewhere. This latter metric is an element of Google™ and other search engines’ ranking mechanism and is a critical factor in scientific and academic communities where it is known as “impact factor“.

An example of impact factor and social recognition being equated in an individual blogger’s psyche can be seen in the following:

My first post to my blog was a little paragraph about my obsession with cycling, and I remember feeling a little … let down. Sure, it was remarkably easy. Write. Click a button. Reload. Cool! But then what? It wasn’t until someone left a comment that I was hooked. An audience! Someone is reading!

I have to admit I’m addicted now. I bet I check my stats a half-dozen times a day, anxious to see if anyone has linked to me or see what posts are most popular today. Our users agree — whether their audience is just friends and family or thousands of readers — they’re having more and more fun with their blogs and investing more time in them. And that means content across the web is getting better.

I started researching the social interactions of BBS in the early 1990’s and allowed the research to grow over time to include chat rooms, forums, email lists, wikis and blogs (the type of BBS, chat rooms, email lists, blogs and wikis included (alphabetically) adult content, company focused user group, dating, educational, hobby, news, personal interest, product focused user group, professional (association, development and organization), research, science and virtual reality). NextStage now carries much of this research forward. One thing learned is that the characteristics described in the previous paragraph

  • are most evident in electronic venues which are started and maintained by interested individuals
  • are not as evident in electronic venues which are started and maintained by corporate concerns
  • recognizable and enforced policing and posting standards negatively impact the amount and quality of communications that occur (Quality of information was determined by an algorithm involving the number of subsequent communications generated by distinct individuals. Amount of information was determined by an algorithm involving semantic complexity of all communications generated starting with the zeroeth communication)
  • electronic venues which are self-policing have greater quality and amount of communications.
Some information has value long after direct interest in the information has waned

At close to fifteen years of observation and research, the pattern which has emerged plays well into the concepts of success and storytelling as new, recognizable and valid value measurements in the virtual world. What grew out of the above and ongoing research is a recognition of the importance of emerging social networks as the basis for the transmission of success through storytelling.

The true use of success and storytelling as value and measure takes into account the ways social networks evolve through time, and especially how they evolve through internet time. Internet time itself takes several things into account; what is shared today might be irrelevant tomorrow, but what is shared might also be referenced repeatedly through time, or cyclically depending on information content. Consider the chart on the previous page which shows the number of additions to a series of threads over time (red) and the number of reads the same series of threads received during that same period of time (green). The number of additions (red) alone might lead one to think the material’s value has run it’s course. The number of reads (green), however, shows that this material is still valued even though no new information is being integrated into the thread. Other elements which came from this study demonstrate that the social networks of the web aren’t tremendously different from non-web social networks. For example, in web based social networks with both genders present

  • males more often initiated or led discussions in mixed gender groups
  • females more often offered or sought advice in female dominated groups
  • expertise was most often assumed among males
  • expertise was most often recognized among females
  • age and gender were most often equated with expertise in scientific/academic groups
  • only individuals who were regular contributors were assumed to be contributing valuable information
  • recognizable social hierarchies (dominance, gaming, fool/clown/crone archetypes) evolved with the time period of evolution dependent on traffic load
  • policing most often occurred with two polarized extremes (group ignoring the offender, group rejecting the offender). The exception was moderated groups where offenders which publicly remonstrated for their behavior which, of course, demonstrated group ownership and continuity of defined purpose.
  • new comers were most often welcomed and went through a period of time learning the rules of the society and creating alliances/friendships. Individuals not allowing for this adjustment period (required for both the group to grow familiar with the newcomer and for the newcomer to learn the rules of the group) tended to be publicly “talked to” by group selected “elders”
  • in scientific/academic groups senior members often took on the roles of parents stopping children’s squabbles and offering definitive “last words” on contentious subjects

All cases of the above are demonstrations of what is becoming known as “Web 2.0”, a transition of the internet from its present state of information silos to a highly interactive social setting. It is interesting that what some are calling Web 2.0 is what Berners-Lee, whom many credit with the creation of the world wide web, originally envisioned the web to be.

An Example of Success and StoryTelling

Several companies recognize the power of social networks as relevancy and credibility channels for products and services. One such company, DelahayeMediaLink, used a similar methodology with both humans and computers; scanning through the press to determine if DelahayeMediaLink clients are receiving good press or not. NextStage demonstrated the power of StoryTelling and Success as a measure and value of how a product and/or service is actually perceived by a given population by taking a DelahayeMediaLink press release and following comments on key features of the press release through time (the original Delahaye’s Media Compass Press Release 101303DMC.HTML is shown below). This project was taken on for research purposes and grew out of delivering (what was then) a NextStage TargetTrack (A description of current NextStage product offerings can be found at NextStage Tools Explained) report on this same material to David Cappuccio, then Delahaye Sr. VP and COO. NextStage determined the standard TargetTrack™ factors at that time (Gender, Age Group, Comprehension, Messaging) and then tracked how content elements were redistributed by the media through time. What was quickly recognized by analyzing StoryTelling and Success features was that the MediaCompass concept was intriguing but was not forward-thinking enough for many in the target community. Necessary features for the MediaCompass service to be accepted included

  • a greater recognition of the nature, transmission and proliferation of information in the digital age
  • a pro-active capability which allowed clients to put their own spin on potentially damaging media content
  • a need to be aware of “impact factors” globally and not just regionally or even super-regionally regardless of client business size and reach
The DelahayeMediaLink 101303DMC.HTML page. Content elements were tracked through time to determine this service's StoryTelling and Success values to its target markets.

These factors were borne out in the evolution of the MediaCompass product as documented in a Delahaye case study:

“Media intelligence is no longer just about reporting and analyzing press coverage after an event or a financial quarter. This case study shows that media evaluation now reflects real-time as well – tracking the world’s 24 x 7 news media. Delahaye evaluation tools play a vital role in keeping global communication professionals ‘on message,’ ‘informed’ and ‘up to date’ – helping them make day-to-day decisions in real time.”


What has been discussed and described in this paper is

  • the evolution of the internet from a commerce metaphor to a social metaphor,
  • and that as web technologies advance new measures and values need to be in place to determine economic worth and collateral.

NextStage’s suggestion is that StoryTelling is a measure and Success is a value which can be used to accomplish these goals, especially in wikis and blogs.

It is likely that these and future developments in collaborative internet communications will closely involve the evolution of elaborate and extended social networks. Examples of StoryTelling and Success being used to determine economic predictability are available [[in several NextStage tools, trainings and consultings]].

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