Webs of Influence, by Nathalie Nahai

Public Relations has been flirting with neuroscience for some time now, but although the attractions are obvious, it often seems that the relationship is still at the giggling and coy glances stage. 

For PR, the factors that prevent full on courtship include shame and lack of self confidence. Some in PR go to great lengths to promote their good intentions as communicators and information providers, and go all squeamish if it is suggested they might be trying to manipulate the way people think and behave. Studying the science of how people make decisions, and learning psychological techniques to trigger certain bahaviours is somehow cheating.... and bad PR for a discipline that is so sensitive to mentions of propaganda and spin.

More importantly, even those who are happy to accept that persuasion is integral to PR, fear the embarrassment of backing the wrong horse in a rather confused race. The challenge, and from where I stand it is a huge one, is to try and distinguish the serious science from the quackery. How does a beginner build a body of knowledge that is sufficiently robust to feel confident in one's judgments?

In Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, Nathalie Nahai (@TheWebPsych) makes an impressive stab at writing an accessible book that is full of useful insights, but not reticent with caveats and questions.

Nahai, who is billed as The Web Psychologist and clearly has a sharp eye for marketing and self-promotion, brings a common sense approach to some complex issues. It is not easy for a non-expert to assess how influential are the thinkers and theorists that shape her narrative, but her conclusions are sensible and carry the ring of truth. As she says: "When it comes to the art of persuasion, there is no silver bullet. There are, however, many principles that you can employ to significantly increase your chances of success."

The combination of new online technologies and new scientific understanding leads Nahai to predict: "We're witnessing the dawn of a new kind of business, one that utilises neuroscientific research to aid marketing, advertising and the film industries."

In ways which will be familiar to readers of Daniel Kahneman's big selling Thinking, Fast and Slow, she shows how few of the decisions we make are under our conscious control. There are three elements to the human brain, the primal brain, which deals with sex, hunger, motion, contrast etc, the emotional brain (empathy and storytelling) and the rational brain (gut instinct, authority), and that these processes can work in parallel. It follows that messaging that understands this multiplicity can be effective.

A few moments thought about our own individual behaviours will doubtless reinforce the insight that emotion often trumps reason, and that many, many of the "decisions" that feel natural are not necessarilly the most logical or even the most advantageous.

The online world, wherher through ecommerce of social networking, seems to highlight the link between behaviours thought to have had evolutionary benefit in the past and a virtual environment which presents few physical dangers but many distractions of pleasure and suffering.

For communicators, Nahai writes convincingly about segmenting audiences, the sue of Hofstede to provide insights into culture, and Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as well as pointing towards apparent gender differences in our approach to online environments.

Her discussion of self-esteem and self-actualisation rings true and present a useful framework to explain the power of sharing platforms, not least Flickr and Pinterest.

Likewise, her observations on symmetry, colour, simplicity and motion, will be of real value to webdesigners and content providers. Although most of us no longer hunt, we are evolutionarily primed to respond to motion, and this can either distract attention from the desired message or provide the contrast that highlights certain eleemts.

Arguing for simplicity and signposting, Nahai says: "The role of well-presented information is to reduce the the cognitive load that you place on your users when they visit your website.... but a break in flow can be used to dramatic effect."

She uses Picasso's Bull's Head to illustrate the njoyment we derive from discovering implicit, hidden similarities between seemingly disparate items. She show how aour barins are hard wired to identify and link related features, ie the yellow dots that are lions among teh trees), explains why we are drawn to high contrasts in images, which tend to be data richm and how we show an intense dislike of an unusual vantage point, which makes the brain work harder - and can if used properly, grab our attention.

Part 3 of Webs of Influence, titled Sell With Integrity, contains useful sections on influence and reputational capital, and further explores the tensions between cognitive and affective trust (information-based decisions versus the emotional).

Webs of Influence is very good when it seeks to deliver on its cover line, "The secret stratgies that make ius click" but, perhaps understadably, Nahai is a little less forthcoming with an exposition of what what it means to sell with integrity.

Overall, I found this one of the most interesting PR-related books I read in 2012 and am very much looking forward to welcoming Nathalie Nahai to Campus Helsingborg to lead a NEMO research seminar in March.

Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion (2012) by Natalie Nahai is published by Pearson 





It’s Boomsday!

It's Monday morning and the Great Academic War on 2013 is underway in earnest...

And what better way to limber up for the battles ahead than with a train read of Boomsday, by Thank You for Smoking author Christopher Buckley?

The intellectual adrenalin was already pumping as I pulled out of Malmö Central...

Cassandra Devine was not yet thirty, but she was already tired.

“Media training,” they called it. She’d been doing it for years, but it still had the ring of “potty training.”

Today’s media trainee was the chief executive officer of a company that administered hospitals, twenty-eight of them throughout the southeastern United States. In the previous year, it had lost $285 million and one-third of its stock market value. During that same period, the client had been paid $3.8 million in salary, plus a $1.4 million “performance bonus.”

Corporate Crime Scene, the prime-time investigative television program, was doing an exposé and had requested an interview. In her negotiations with the show’s producers, Cass had learned that they had footage of him boarding the company jet ($35 mil) wearing a spectacularly loud Hawaiian shirt and clenching a torpedo-shaped—indeed, torpedo-size—cigar in his teeth while hefting a bag of expensively gleaming golf clubs. Unfortunate as it was, this footage was only the appetizer

I think I am going to enjoy the company of Cassandra and her boss, Terry Tucker:

Terry Tucker had built a successful PR firm, Tucker Strategic Communications, on the premise that those with a debatable claim to humanity will pay through the snout to appear even a little less deplorable.
Terry had represented them all, from mink ranchers to toxic waste dumpers, dolphin netters, unzipped politicians, makers of obesity-inducing soft drinks, the odd mobster, and pension fund skimmers. Terry had apprenticed under the legendary Nick Naylor, at the now defunct Tobacco Institute....



Learning PR lessons from Robots

Rest of robots
As more and more crucial processes move online, we are all being asked to place increasing trust in mechanical devices. The internet of things sounds wonderful, but if you can hack a PC, what is to stop an assassin attacking a heart pacemaker?

Technophobia has been a staple of science fiction since Frankenstein created his monster. What if it gets out of control? What if this new device turns on its creator?

Such fears were grist to the mill for classic sci-fi writer, Isaac Asimov, who in 1941 laid down the Three Laws of Robotics that went on to underpin a whole genre of speculative fiction.

Despite the Laws being hardwired into their positronic brains, people in Asimov's world were still scared of robots, so much so that they were banned from operating on Earth. This is, of course, rather bad news for monopoly supplier, United States Robots and Mechanical Men, IncRobotics. They are confident they have a good product, but somehow they have to build trust in a technology that spooks the ordinary person.

It is an interesting PR conundrum, and one, Asimov addresses in several of the stories contained in The Rest of the Robots. Take this, from Lenny, which was first published in 1958:

(Research director) Lanning grunted. The idea of public guided tours of US Robots was a fairly recent origin and was supposed to serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, the theory went, it allowed people to see robots at close quarters and counter their almost instinctive fear of the mechanical objects through increased familiarity. And on the other hand it is was supposed to interest at least an occasional person in taking up robotics as a life work.

Classic tactics that many a PR would recommend now. Immediately, however, Lanning raises an equally familiar line - ROI.

"Once a week work is disrupted. Considering the man-hours lost the return is insufficient."

"Still no rise in applications?"

"Oh some, but only in the categories where the need isn't vital. It's research men that are needed. You know that. The trouble is that with robots forbidden on Earth itself, there is something unpopular about being a roboticist."

"The damned Frankenstein complex," said Bogert.

By framing the debate in terms of a cultural icon, opponents make it even harder for the pro-robot lobby.

In Galley Slave, from 1951, two scientists at a prestigious university are discussing the merits of accepting a robot proof reader offered to them at a cut rate by US Robotics (again, a classic PR tactic).

"The question in my mind, Dr Lanning, is why we need a robot at all, with all the difficulties in public relations that would entail."

Unfortunately, the robot, Easy, tries to protect an academic by correcting an error it fears maybe damaging, leading to an acrimonious court battle.

Robertson mangled his sandwich. The corporation would not founder for the loss of three-quarters of a million, but the loss would do it no particular good. He was conscious moreover, that there would be a much more costly long term setback in public relations."

Inverse sponsorship: Quantifying Self for Charity

One of the reasons I am becoming increasingly interested in the Quantifed Self is that brings together mechanisams for changing behaviour (that thing some people call PR) and concerns about privacy and constructed personality.

It so getting to the time of year that people make resolutions (which usually means less of the things we like). We all know that New Year resolutions seldom make it to the end of January, and that will power alone is not enough for many people (i.e. me).

One of the motivating factors can be visualisation, linked to tangible reward or disincentives.

The game plans for fitness and weight control businesses such as Withings and Fitbit draw on the benefits of sharing motivations and success. One of the areas that is likely to see a growth in the near future are aggregators which bring together results from QS devices, and Beeminder offers an interesting model.

I like the carrot and stick idea of a Yellow Brick Road showing a desirable path, and could sign up for mild punishments if I break my resolutions, but I don't really want to my penance to enrich a commercial organisation.

It is so obvious that many others must have proposed this, but wouldn't it be great if Withings used the model to bild a charity app, rather like Just Giving? It would be an sort of mirror image of charity - instead of being sponsored by the mile to run a marathon, I would pledge to make a smallish payment to a charity of my choice every week or month I didn't hit a weight reduction/drinking/smoking/book-buying goal?


Some LeWeb links….

Proving it: How Charity:water uses Google maps to show how it sends donations

Whatever 2 Whatever sen.se

At Sen.se, we believe there is no such thing as the Internet of Things.

We rather believe in an Internet of Everything where Humans, Nature, Machines, Objects, Environments, Information, Physical and Virtual spaces all mix up , talk, intertwine, interact, enrich and empower each other in all sorts of ways. This is what we are building and we think that we are not alone

Twiplomacy: Burson-Marsteller research into marketing a country on Twitter. 


LeWeb Paris: The Internet of Things

Just back from three very full days at LeWeb in Paris. It was my first time, and it was impressive.

The theme was The Internet of Things and it was interesting to see how the focus has shifted from traditional communication in the form of sharing words and texts to the we-are-all-cyborgs-now emphasis on the ever-blurring boundaries between technology and people.

I am not quite sure about either the Internet of Things or Brian Solis's version, the Sentient World, as labels - neither, I think, have a life expectancy that will exceed 'the information superhighway" but it is part of a process that will change the world.

LeWeb have done a useful job in bringing together videos of various presentations, from the inspiring to the little more than a commercial product pitches, but trying to catch hold of the abundance of new ideas shows quite how hard online curation really is.

There were some good storytellers, not least Benjamin Cichy, Chief Software Engineer, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, who gave a masterclass in "goodwill and understanding" PR. 

I was also very impressed with Tony Fadell's presentation of the Nest. OK, you are off to a good start when you are introduced as the man who invented the iPod and iPad, but at the end of the day he was still talking about a thermostat. Not a very sexy product... except when you present it with the product values of Apple, and are able to show how it bring imeasurable energy saving benefits.


It was also interesting to see the glint of steel that occasionally flashed from the apparently laidback entrepreneurs who had created hugely influential platforms and devices, and to hear how some of them are putting something back with philanthropic projects.

I am sure I wasn't the only person who ordered a Fitbit during LeWeb and I am sure I will be thinking more and more about the Quantified Self during 2013 - with much of this thinking being concerned with privacy and ethics.

Livetrekker-FrontPage-mapI enjoyed discovering LiveTrekker, which does a brilliant job of linking photos, sounds and GPs trails, but was horrified at the notion of somebody wearing a sensor which could tell them if the person nearby was running a fever. I suppose there is no difference between using technology and moving away is a stranger is snuffling and sneezing but I still find it objectionable.

So what is PR, anyway…? (Remake/Remodel)

OK, yesterday's post How PR works was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I don't really think PR is merely the process which encourages me to see a link, read an article, watch a video interview, then buy a Bryan Ferry album with just one click.

But it was part of the battle to complete Online Public Relations 3rd ed - the really difficult bit when the book is close to sign off and I suddenly start asking myself "What is PR?"

On one level I am trying to assess to what extent online interactions influence my behaviour (and whether my behaviour is in anyway typical!). In terms of consumer activity, the Bryan Ferry example was misleading - I didn't need much persuading to buy the album and my long if troubled relationship with Bryan is too deep for me to be much influenced by one interview. I did, however, genuinely buy an album last week purely because I read an article in the Guardian, "It was a tragedy we didn't stay together" (iPad edition, of course).

I had all but compleetly forgotten 10cc, but something about the interview aroused my curiousity. I wanted to know if they really were the missing link between Abba and Frank Zappa. (Oddly, a social media friend who I like a lot but who has very different tastes to me, tweeted a link to the same interview and, if anything, that made me less likely to buy...).

Anyway, this line of thinking very much frames PR as 'part of the marketing mix', the bit which is categorised as earned media. Conceivably, the article contributed to an increase in my goodwill towards and undertanding of 10cc.

What it doesn't do is make me part of a "public." I was not mobilised into action by any shared ambition or response. 

I was part of a distinct market segment - of an age to have grown up with 10cc singles (and they lived nearby), and Guardian reader down to my beard and sandals, etc. Should a similar article have been published in the Daily Mail it would have triggered a whole different range of responses and I wouldn't have bought the album. 

It is down to perspective and values. I share some of my perspective and some of my values with other readers of the Guardian piece. An article in the Guardian is still a reasonable way of reaching me, and reaching me in a way that goes beyond alerting to me to new Bryan Ferry album I would bought as soon as I was aware of it, to creating an interest in 10cc that I didn't know I had. The Daily Mail could have done the first part, it couldn't have done the latter.

Exploring the concept of semantic analysis, David Phillips explains:

What is evident is that the technologies we are deploying (based on semantics) provides us with this new type of constituency segment:  ‘community perspective’ segment. 

It is sensitive to the values of the people who are engaging at the time and it is sensitive to the values in on-line and offline conversations of the minute.

Not publics, not stakeholders, not socio-economic and cultural demographics but people with a community perspective expressed in some words they have in common.

This constituency does not have to be very engaged but does have similar values:


 Giving a tantalising glimpse of what he calls The Lisbon Theory, David goes on to argue:

A new theory is emerging based on the idea that the perspectives of people evident in their values. These are evident in what they are interested in and look for and are made available to the practitioner by application of Big Data semantic applications.

Historic segmentation theories such as Grunig and Hunt's publics, Freedman's stakeholders and the marketing approach of social and economic demographic segmentation models need to be re-cast to accommodate the new reality.

Most notably, we now have considerable evidence of people commenting about organisations and brands with little of no reference to the organisation or brand (often no experience at all). They are part of an eco system of brand values that are not much influenced by organisations but are (often if only by sheer numbers) influential. 

Organisations, in many instances have lost control of the brand. It is owned by what can be regarded as the community perspective

Anyway, simply alerting people to new products is marketing, isn't it.