The Answer Is “What’s the Optimal Length of Spaghetti?”


I wrote in Eric Braden’s Intelligent Carpets about using the Chinese General Solicitation and a real world example. At the end of that post I invited readers to guess what we were really testing in the following:

We went to a suburban mall and invited people to sit down and try some spaghetti in red sauce. They were given small paper bowls of commercially available spaghetti in a commercially available red sauce and had to select plastic utensils — knife, fork, spoon — from some bins, along with napkins and drinks (two branded colas, two branded non-colas). They could go back through as many times as they wished. They were given US$5 for their trouble. Participants were told we were testing the sauce; would it be successful in that geographic market?

What we were really testing was the optimal length of spaghetti. Given that commercially available sauces and commercially available spaghetti were already established (branded) in the consumer’s mind, we were learning if the length of spaghetti affected how much people ate. Some people twirl their spaghetti on a spoon, some on the plate, some cut their spaghetti.

By the way, gender, age and ethnicity didn’t seem to matter. The winner was spaghetti that took 3-5 turns on the fork from plate to mouth with the big majority being 3½. Too many turns and people knocked spaghetti off and started again. Too little turns and they knocked it off and started again. Cutting spaghetti on the plate also occured but not enough to make that much of a dent or difference.

Sorry not to post this earlier, but you know it was worth the wait…

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Eric Braden’s Intelligent Carpets


You might have noticed that I’m continuing my quest for interesting blog content.

This time out, I found a post about intelligent carpets on Eric Braden’s blog. A company, Engadget, has a product which can determine age, weight and gender based on how people walk on it. A concern posted by Mr. Braden is privacy, something regular readers will recognize as an important topic to me.

NextStage has its own privacy and principles. We not only go by them ourselves, we monitor our partners and clients to make sure no abuses are taking place there, as well. Strangely enough, our principles also bring us clients and employees.

One of the things I find fascinating about Engadget’s Intelligent Carpet is that it is subtle, proactive, and doesn’t require the individual to do anything they wouldn’t normally do. This impresses me because it’s very much how NextStage’s Evolution TechnologyTM works. Any information gathered when the subjects know information is being gathered is tainted, period, and it takes incredibly skilled people to develop information gathering methods which sufficiently blind the subjects to what’s really being investigated.

The best method I found and the one NextStage makes great use of is the Chinese General Solicitation. In Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History Chapter 5 Section 3, “Internet Anthropology”, I explain that the Chinese General Solicitation is based on an old story in which the Emperor called all his generals together and said that the country was going to be invaded. Each of them was to explain to the Emperor why they were the best one to lead the troops into battle. The Emperor listened to each general separately and let them say any and every thing they wished. When they were through extolling their own virtues, the Emperor asked, “But if something happens to you, who would then lead my armies?” The individual whom the majority of the generals thought was second only to them was the one chosen by the Emperor to lead his armies.

Let me share a real world example of this method that I often use in our trainings. See if you can figure out what we were really testing.

We went to a suburban mall and invited people to sit down and try some spaghetti in red sauce. They were given small paper bowls of commercially available spaghetti in a commercially available red sauce and had to select plastic utensils — knife, fork, spoon — from some bins, along with napkins and drinks (two branded colas, two branded non-colas). They could go back through as many times as they wished. They were given US$5 for their trouble. Participants were told we were testing the sauce; would it be successful in that geographic market?
Can you guess what we were really testing?

I’ll post the answer in my next entry. Leave me a comment or send me an email if you think you know the answer.

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True Power of the Internet, Social Awareness and Fundraising

I’m on several lists (as is everyone, I guess). A request came through from one list that fits into the True Power of the Internet theme I published a while ago. I’m going to start by saying I know nothing about this fellow or the organization he’s with. His request is for help with fundraising for Meserete Kristos College in Ethiopia. As I wrote above, I know nothing about this fellow or the cause. I’ve navigated his site a bit (don’t expect knock out graphics or killer content, this is truly a homespun affair) and emailed him with some suggestions (there were spelling errors, minor things but things which would put people off more likely than not). The power of such a grass roots campaign was evidenced in the 2004 US Presidential elections section of Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History, where Howard Dean demonstrated raising money was a matter of such social campaigns.

People are looking for causes, for things to believe in, for connections beyond the casual “hi, how are you?” they experience more and more in life these days. One of the easiest ways to get people to interact with you in a positive manner is to simply say “Hello” and smile at them when you do so, but how many people requesting your time, money, attention or help do so? What is true in interpersonal communication is true on the ‘net; a nice, friendly hello draws people in. Anything else pushes them out.

What good causes have you found on the ‘net, causes which are either at the grassroots stage or slightly further along? I’d be interested in learning about them, and thank.


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More on The Village

I wrote in 90% to 1%: The Reluctant Blogger, Part 2 that I’m on a few email lists. The list I’ve been on the longest is for the users of a certain software product, a word processor known as Nota Bene. Calling Nota Bene a word processor doesn’t do it justice and that’s what most people think of when they see me use it (although the rest of NextStage’s staff constantly remind me that the symbols that appear in my papers aren’t on their keyboards). By it’s own admission, Nota Bene is “Software for Academic Research & Writing”. I’ve been using Nota Bene since 1984, when it was called XyWrite (and that’s another story).

This post, though, isn’t about Nota Bene per se, it’s about the community which has built itself up around Nota Bene and how they are another demonstration of True Power of the Internet, The Village, and Being Careful What You Wish For.

Nota Bene users are a highly varied, truly eclectic and highly international group. This is reflected in the posts to the Nota Bene list. Like all software user lists, the Nota Bene list is where users gather to share questions, concerns, get help, and sometimes this has nothing to do with Nota Bene products. Let me give you some examples;

  • A long time contributor to Nota Bene mailing list, Dorothy Day, developed a terminal illness. She continued contributing to the list until the end. What follows is an excerpt from a file which is now part of every Nota Bene product release:
    Dorothy Day led an extraordinarily rich and varied life combining a generosity of spirit, an abiding patience, good humor, and a deep concern for humanistic values with a high level of technical expertise and uncompromising standards in every task she undertook.
    “She is particularly remembered in the Nota Bene community for her generosity in sharing her considerable technical expertise, and for the unique blend of kindness and wisdom that she brought to e-mail discussions on everything from the use of Nota Bene to world affairs.
    “After her death, a group of Nota Bene users felt that some lasting memorial should be made. The suggestion was made that a font should be named in her honor and included in future releases of Scholar’s Workstation and Lingua Workstation. With the full cost paid by contributions from Nota Bene users, a font was licensed and named NB DayLight in Dorothy’s honor.

  • This holiday season a regular contributor to this list from South Africa sent pictures out on the list of his family gathering with some friends. The responses so far have been warming reading. They’ve come from Barcelona, Miami (FL), outside London (GB) and now from New Hampshire on my way to Nova Scotia.

What brings us together? What keeps us apart? It’s no longer distance for the latter. It’s no longer mother’s holiday cooking for the former.

If you’re reading this, Welcome. There is always room for more people in The Village.

And Happy Holidays, All.


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The Complete “What’s the best use of Sound files Online” Arc

Note: This is the complete “What’s the Best Use of Sound Files Online” arc

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 1

Regular reader Susan Prager and some others emailed me questions about using music online, something I alluded to in Music Use on the Web (again). Let me sum up the concerns and questions of these readers the best I can:

  • Autoloading a music file on page load
  • Is there a difference between autoloading music versus other kinds of sounds?
  • Do people respond favorably to “…those terrifying floating and talking heads that are supposed to pass for inventive advertising”?
  • ditto for the video ads that start talking to you on page load. (“Nothing makes me flee a page faster.”)
  • What are best practices for presenting music clips today if you’re not iTunes?
  • If you’ve got a show to promote and it uses some swell music, is it a better to us highly visible link that says, “Hear our swell music”? Or does the music just start on page load (autoload) and
    then there’s a highly visible link to turn it off?

These are excellent questions that go beyond the use of music and touches on using sounds in general.

Sounds and how our minds respond to sound events is a rich field of study. What makes something too loud? What makes something too quiet? Why do some people refer to quiet sounds as being “soft” but not loud as “hard”? What frequencies are irritating, which are soothing and why?

And we haven’t begun to get into gender, age and ethnicity factors, all of which contribute mightily to how people respond to sound events.
My response is going to be intentionally general. Ms. Prager suggested I write a column about the best use of sound events and I think that’s a good idea. In the meantime, I’ll offer this:

Believe it or not, we’re still discussing elements started in Behaviors and Engagement Mechanics, Part 1 because autoloading sound events, etc., has to do with how people respond (behave) to such events. Whether or not to autoload sound events and how to encourage site visitors to favorably respond to them involves engagement mechanics.

The first part of using sound events well is to appreciate what visitors are coming to your site to do, ie, what is their expectation. A reader mentioned iTunes. Well, anyone going to iTunes should know ahead of time that music is going to be there and that listening to music is part of their expectation and desired experience. What about a site that offers several things, some of which are sound events such as music?

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 2

Note: We’re not completely sure this is Part 2 and we’re going for it.

The ‘net is still a visual medium and much like driving a car, you need to keep your eyes on where you’re going in order to get what you want. A good use of RIA (Rich Internet Applications) would be, for example, on a page with a bunch of CD covers on it. Hover (as opposed to just cursoring) over any CD cover and the music from the CD starts playing. Users might not expect this at first so the experience has to be a pleasurable one. That could be done by having the volume over time (less than a minute) follow the curve shown at right.

Volume%20over%20time-blog.jpg

You’d want visitors to hover so that the music doesn’t just cue up due to simple navigation. This also gets them to participate in the experience. Even if leaving the mouse over a specific CD wasn’t their intention, they soon realize that behavior A triggers activity B, and you have them engaging with the page, staying on the site, and as Brian Tomz, Director of Product Strategy for Coremetrics points out, a trackable hence measureable event.

More on the use of sound on the web to follow, as well as information on behaviors and engagement mechanics.

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 3

Is autoloading a music file on page load a good idea?

I’m going to start by once again expanding the metaphor from music to sound event (something readers have already written to me that they appreciate). By expanding the metaphor from music to sound event we open ourselves up to a much wider range of possibilities, and what I’m thinking of is jingles (so seasonal pun intended) and more exactly, what the industry knows as earworms (U of Cincinnati’s Marketing Professor James Kellaris has done some interesting work on earworms).

A good use of autoloading sound files is to push an earworm when a site visitor loads a branded site or mouses over a brand. Some earworm examples are:

  • “I’d like to teach the world to sing” – Just that, nothing more, and softly. You want to bring a smile of memory, not a drop off of annoyance.
  • “Can you hear me now?” – Again, nothing more.

One is musical, the other not and both are sound events which are branded.

These types of branded sound events are acceptable as autoloads because most visitors will already associate the sound event with the site their browsing or the product image they just hovered their mouse over. This type of autoloaded sound event can be used because visitors already familiar with the brand will accept the sound event as part of the brand experience and an integral part of their browsing experience rather than an interruption.

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 4

Do people respond favorably to ‘…those terrifying floating and talking heads that are supposed to pass for inventive advertising’?

Regular readers of this arc know we’ve expanded the metaphor from music to sound events in general. Thus, the earworms answer the question about autoloading any kind of sound file and not just a music file.

This expansion of the metaphor also allows us to consider something which encompasses both auditory and visual stimuli, or, as one reader put it, “…those terrifying floating and talking heads that are supposed to pass for inventive advertising”?

Answering this question actually causes us to bump into age-based marketing. Consider that sites dealing with the 15-24yo market experienced (in some cases) 90% growth in two years time. Facebook and MySpace, for example, are being used as college recruitment tools with great success based on the research of Dr. Martin Moser at UMass Lowell. There are several reasons for the rapid adoption of such social networking sites with this market and anybody who’s got kids in the 12-19 year old age bracket will understand it in a heartbeat; Popularity isn’t home-based, it’s externally-from-the-home-based.

Ouch!

Yes, this is an oversimplification (how many simultaneous arcs would you like me write about?) and it’s a worthwhile one; The younger market’s focus isn’t internally motivated. They’re exploring, investigating, expanding themselves and their horizons. Readers familiar with NextStage’s research know this is the period with Stage 3 Learning is in effect. Personalities are being tested and defined by interacting with others and, like a blade on a grinding wheel, the more turns the stronger and sharper the personality becomes. In social terms this means the more someone interacts with others, and the broader that spectrum of others is, the more that personality becomes defined.

How does this need for whetstoning demonstrate itself? Via social interaction. How does one get the opportunity to interact socially? By looking and listening for others who want to interact.

And if I fall into that market segment overly simplified above and there’s a talking, moving avatar on the webpage I’m browsing? Well, then, I basically have no choice but to pay attention. I may not pay attention for long, but pay attention I will and that focusing of attention is branding whether it’s online or off.

Taking all of the above into consideration, do people respond favorably etc. etc.? Yes, some do. Not all do, and the difference has to do with advertisers and marketers knowing who’s browsing a given property and why.

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 4a

Fellow IMedia contributor Rob Graham, Principal of LearningCraft, is someone I often cite as an excellent marketing teacher. I wanted to share some of what he taught me because it finishes the above thought nicely.

One time when Rob was over our house he picked up one of my science journals and began skimming the ads, chuckling as he did. “If you really want to know who a property thinks its audience is, look at the ads they’re selling.”

I had never thought of it that way and he’s correct. It doesn’t matter if the property is a website, a print magazine, a TV spot, …, look at the ads and you’ll know who they think their audience is. Forget the content as being indicative of audience because the content wouldn’t be there without the ads to fund it.

This realization brings us back to “…the difference has to do with advertisers and marketers knowing who’s browsing a given property and why” and the original reader’s comment that got me there, “Do people respond favorably to ‘…those terrifying floating and talking heads that are supposed to pass for inventive advertising’?”

Don’t like the advertising that’s on some property you’re interacting with? The first question is, “Are you in that’s property’s market?” This was something I touched on in When Advertisements Crash and in Usability Studies 101: Redesign Timing. The worst case scenario is that the individual is debranded, definitely a no-no for marketing and advertising. The best case scenario is that the individual ignores the information (something very difficult to do at a non-conscious level which is where most decisions are made).

But what if you’re sure you’re in that property’s market and the advertising still puts you off? Then someone wasn’t doing their job either buying for or selling to that property and you, as the consumer, have room to complain.

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 5

This section will address “Do people respond favorably to those video ads that start talking to you on page load. (“Nothing makes me flee a page faster.”)

The answer to this builds on the floating and talking head response above. Different generations will respond to this type of presentation differently; that’s a basic rule. It’s also true that this type of event will play differently between men and women. The greatest rule is very simple, though, and once again comes back to understanding the market to which this method is being applied. Let me give you an example.

The image above is a NextStage “Tirekickers to Buyers” Breakdown. The specific activity being shown here is where visitors were in their decision making process regarding converting while on a site (this chart is an amalgam of some 30 sites in our system). As I wrote in Listening to and Seeing Searches, “Grazers are people who found your site by accident, although a search might have been involved. In traditional parlance, grazers are the people walking through the mall, looking in different windows but never going into any one store.

“Tirekickers are walking through the mall and going into all the sports stores, gathering information about golf clubs. They might not really want golf clubs, but they’re looking at them anyway. …”

Grazers, Tirekickers and other traditionally low-quality site visitors aren’t in a rush and they aren’t looking for anything in particular. Like someone walking through a mall and stopping to view a presentation at a kiosk, they’re willing to spend some time listening to and watching an autoload video.

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 5a

Somewhere in the middle of the chart are people doing research, talking themselves into or out of a purchase (conversion), and the like. Here’s where it gets a little dicey, in my opinion.

Is the visitor talking themselves out of a purchase? Then perhaps a video extolling the virtues of a conversion is a good thing. Are they doing research? Then maybe they want to the information the video provides.

At the high end are those visitors who’ve already made the decision and are on the site for no other reason than to convert. Then, by golly, get everything but the “Buy” button out of their way.

The response “Nothing makes me flee a page faster” is indicative of someone who (probably!) comes to a website in an “action” state of mind, ie, a buyer. Nothing will infuriate a buyer faster than something stopping them from doing what they’ve already made up their minds they want to do, so get that talking head/video/whatever off the page and put a big, fat “BUY” button there instead.

This begs the question, “How do you know if someone is a buyer, a tirekicker or what-have-you?”

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 6

This section discusses “What are best practices for presenting music clips today if you’re not iTunes?”

I kind of almost covered this above by writing “…anyone going to iTunes should know ahead of time that music is going to be there and that listening to music is part of why they’re going to iTunes, hence it’s part of their expectation and desired experience.”

This is the whole key to best practices for presenting music clips if you’re not iTunes and once again, it goes back to knowing your audience before you design a site. Does your audience expect music will be playing when the page autoloads? Then better give it to them. Does your audience expect to find music they want to listen to or purchase? Then best let them decide which music should autoload on their next visit. This can be done with a “customize” option on the page, something so common nowadays on so many sites. Best practices for using this type of option to promote branding and return visits can be found in Reading Virtual Minds.

You can get visitors to select music for autoloading using the RIA technique I described (and which Coremetrics folks told me is already being done by their clients) above.

If the question is “How do I design a webpage to best present music clips online?” the answer is “Contact NextStage”.

What’s the best use of Sound files Online, part 7

This section discusses “If you’ve got a show to promote and it uses some swell music, is it a better to use highly visible link that says, ‘Hear our swell music’? Or does the music just start on page load (autoload) and then there’s a highly visible link to turn it off?”

The answer to this question builds off the discussion of best practices above as well as the previous entries listed at the bottom of this entry.

A highly visible “Hear our swell music” link is a good idea, again supposing that visitors are coming to your site to learn of, search for or find music. If your site is a place visitors come specifically to listen to music — perhaps then to purchase — then music should be autoloaded. Visitors should then be given the option to select which music is going to autoload the next time they visit.

A similar option was given in section 2 above. There the suggestion was to use RIA to play small snippits of music as visitors hovered their mouse over some graphic or similar identifying screen element.

The key concept to the questions discussed in this post has nothing to do with music or sound events, however. The key concept is highly visible link. The reader who emailed me this question is probably already aware that whether you autoload some sound event or not, you must must must give visitors a choice in the environment they’re navigating in because — at least with the present state of web development — visitors are still bringing your environment into their environment.

In other words, your webpage is being viewed by someone who has several thousand other distractions competing for the attention they’re giving your webpage. Those distractions are in their real environment. Your webpage exists in their virtual environment. Which of the two do you think they can control most easily? Does the child, dinner, the pet needing to go outside, the parent demanding chores be done, the phone, …, have an on/off switch or does the computer in which your webpage’s virtual environment exists?

You can create the most inviting virtual environment imaginable but if visitors can’t control it, modify it, adapt it so that it integrates with their real environment, your environment gets shut off.


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