Archive for the uncategorized rants Category

Don DeLillo is an Important Writer Who Has Won Lots of Major Awards.

And he clearly is a master of his craft, for he has managed to make the single most profound event of the twenty-first century, the attacks of September 11th, into something as banal as conversation in a supermarket line.

The blurb on the back cover of DeLillo’s Falling Man, his novel about September 11th and its aftermath, highlights perfectly what is wrong with the book:

“These are lives choreographed by loss and grief, emotional landscapes reconfigured by the enormous force of history.”

It’s a book that strives so hard to say something important and profound, that it tells no story worth reading.  It’s hard to believe that any book could make the survivors of 9/11 look like entirely trivial and unimportant people, but this book does so.

Or at least the first 75 pages or so do.   I eventually gave up and stopped reading, and I have no intention to returning to the book.

If this book is, as Malcolm Jones of Newsweek claims in a testimonial on that back cover, “[t]he clearest vision yet of what it felt like to live through that day,” it says to this rural Midwesterner that … well, I’m not going to say what it says, for I do not want to think those thoughts even about New Yorkers.

I’m sorry, but these are not characters I can care about.

Give it a miss.

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Well, I’m on my way.  The Google PageRank of my blog has finally reached 1.

Okay, so that really means that not many people are reading us yet.  But it’s better than 0, where it has been since the blog’s inception back in May.

Thanks especially to David and Ina, and to others who have left comments. I’m no longer in the fourth subbasement!

Today, Page Rank = 1. Tomorrow, the world.

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I’m an educator and a marketer.

While there are some natural synergies between the two activities, practicing them both means I must be a bit schizophrenic.  Because they are in one respect very, very different activities indeed.

Both are persuasion industries.  Both involving convincing someone to take an action.  To “buy”.

But that which is being sold is very, very different.  When  I’m wearing my marketing hat, my focus must be centered on the customer’s values and interests.  When I’m plugging a product or service, even an “educational” one, I’m going to be trying to figure out what the customer wants.  I’m going to be digging as deep into that customer’s core emotions as I can, figuring out her hope and fears, dreams and aspirations.  And then I’m going to try to plug into those emotions.

I’m not looking at those emotions with an eye to changing them.   My product may eventually do that, but as marketer I’m not.  I’m just trying to hang my pitch on what already drives the customer’s happiness and sadness.

I’m going to be centered on the customer and her prejudgings.  I’m not looking to change her biases, I’m looking to use them and appeal to them.

(And because of the possibility for pandering that this involves, I need to be very careful upfront in deciding who I’m going to work for.  But that’s a topic for another day and another entry.)

But when I’m teaching, I’m not going to be centered on those prejudgings.  I need to be aware of them, of course.  But I cannot content myself with using them to sell my economic or historical ideas.

Because my job as educator is to not just to sell, but to change.  I’m trying to show the limitations of those prejudgings, and trying to convert the student into approaching a task differently, into performing different tasks, into thinking about problems in a way they haven’t thought before.

Many think of marketing as corrupting us.  But marketing — good marketing, effective marketing — doesn’t corrupt a thing.  It plays upon the corruption already there.

Education, on the other hand, is intended to corrupt the recipient.  Oh, I don’t think of what *I* do as corrupting.  But if I’m any good at what I do, I am not just convincing my students to do more of what they wanted to do anyway.  I’m convincing them to change their future decisionmaking.

And I can guarantee that there are going to be people who see those changes as corrupting.  Because if I do my job, my students are not going to act the same around the dinner table or in a committee meeting with the boss.  And others at the dinner table, others in the conference room, are not going to be happy with what I have “taught.”

But that’s part of my job.

And it ought to be part of the job of every educator.  Even — no, especially — of those like me who seek to participate in both fields.  If you are selling yourself as an educator — whether as the provider of a $150,000 liberal arts education or of a $1,500 online “how to” course — your job is partly that of a change agent.  You’re not just selling and pandering to core needs and values.  You’re trying to convince people not just to buy, but to change.

This, I believe.

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In a comment on “Auto-responders (part 1),” David points out that it isn’t just legitimate marketers who fill our mailboxes. He’s correct. Spam remains a problem — no matter how good your filters are, the bastards out there stay at least one step ahead of them.

And John Wilson, responding to the same post, points out how legitimate marketers not only use double-opt-in on the front end, they include an unsubscribe link with each message. He also points out just how cheap and easy it is for an auto-responder user to do the correct thing. John is correct, too.

Both of them are correct.

And therein lies the source of a real problem those of us who want to use auto-responders are going to face more and more. We marketers are going to need to deal with that reality of inbox clutter in new and creative ways if our babies aren’t going to be thrown out with the sewage.

To date, marketers striving to get heard among all the inbox noise have focused on one or both of two approaches: (i) focusing on the technology of spam filters, and (ii) changing the frequency of their auto-responders. To deal with (i), for example, the seller instructs its recipients to “white list” the sender’s e-mail address.

Being knowledgeable about the basics of spam filters is essential. As the spam protection experts get better at helping delete pornography and Viagra ads before your prospect ever sees them, they unfortunately are also getting better at deleting your autoresponders in the same way. And that means we marketers must do everything we can to prevent our messages from getting caught by the spam filters, from little things like asking the recipient to “white list” our e-mail address to big things like taking special care with subject lines and the body copy we put in our messages.

But don’t convince yourself that writing to the technology is going to be anything approaching sufficient. Because the biggest spam filter you need to worry about isn’t whatever software the recipient or his webhost has installed.

The biggest spam filter is the one between your recipient’s ears. The one that he or she uses to click through the 100 messages that made it past the spam filter.

And that’s why the second approach to getting heard — send more stuff more often — is a dangerous one for many sellers. The more often you send stuff — especially the more often you send new and “unprecedented’ and “first time ever” and all the rest — the more that recipient sees you as a shouter.

And shouters get redirected to the trash. Because no matter how much you play by the rules of opt-in and opt-out and providing products/services with real economic value, the more the recipient of your message sees you as just another obnoxious spammer.

Shouting louder and more often does improve the odds that you will get heard. But it also improves the odds that the recipient’s general pissed-off feeling toward the clutter in her in box with get transformed into a specific pissed-off feeling toward you.

By all means pay attention to the response rate when you write your auto-responder copy and when you decide on the frequency of auto-responders that you send.

But pay attention to the piss-off rate, too.

Think about it. Suppose you find a way to change your autoresponders in a way that doubles your response rate, from 1 percent to 2%, or 5% to an amazing 10%. Do that every day, right?

Well, no. What if that same change triples or quadruples your piss-off rate? If you’re getting 5% positive response, that means 95% of the people are doing something else.

What’s the something else? If they still like you, but just aren’t interested in the particular product being sold, you’re okay. You still have a warm, if not hot, prospect for future sales efforst. But if you’re starting to annoy them, you make any future sales effort more problematic. Or worse.

Because remember that many of your prospects don’t limit their Internet life to their inbox. They surf, they blog, they network, they rant to complete strangers about the latest bastard that’s been bothering them.

When you look at your auto-responder use, should you focus just on what might be happening in the mental filtering by those who buy? Or should you spend some serious effort thinking about what might be happening to the filters of the bigger fraction of your recipients. Those who don’t buy.

Auto-responders are good. I’ve no plans to stop using them or to stop pointing out their benefits to my clients.

But don’t forget about the methods by which your recipient filters annoying information, either.

And, especially, don’t forget that a reaction of “decides not to buy” is not the same as on of “gets pissed off.”

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I’ve never met a teacher who wants to do harm.  Other than the occasional predator that served as a basis for a Law and Order episode, people don’t teach – or do much of anything else – because they are seeking to do harm.  People may be fallen.  That doesn’t mean they are evil.

But we also know what road gets paved with good intentions.  Though no teacher intends to do harm, the opportunities for us to do so are big.  Scary big.

Here are just three examples:

1.  Telling the student he is doing well when he isn’t.   This is the real problem with grade inflation.  Employers and grad admission committees have plenty of techniques for discounting your student’s grade evidence.  But if you’re not careful, your students won’t.  It’s too easy for them to equate grade with accomplishment.  You’re saying “grades aren’t everything” isn’t going to convince them otherwise.  (Ask any instructor of college first-year students how often high-GPA students over-estimate their performance.)

2.  Replacing one set of bad writing habits with another.  Academics by and large are awful writers, and it shows … in the writing of their best students.  I’ve read thousands of student papers over the years, and it is amazing how often students you have as a first-year student write worse when you meet them again as a senior.   Their spelling may be better, but their sentences will be longer than a tapeworm and more passive than Casper Milquetoast.

3.  Hypocrisy.   If you are going to hammer at students for punctuality and making deadlines, don’t be late to class or break your promises about turning papers back.  If you are trying to teach the importance of “being open to other points of view,” watch very carefully how you reject opinions from students at odds with your “superior knowledge.”  Giving mixed messages does great harm.  It doesn’t make the students better thinkers.  It makes them cynics who think everything’s a question of power.  People who grow up to be cynical politicians and tyrant CEOs.

In economics we love to talk about the unintended consequences of choice.  And, sad to say, the unintended consequences of our teaching choices can be bad indeed.

Pointing out that the student has ultimate responsibility for his education doesn’t remove the teacher’s obligation, either.  Sure, it’s ultimately the student’s choice whether they study hard or not.  Sure, it’s their choice whether they do what you suggest they do or not.

But liability is joint and several here.  The teacher shapes the choice set available.   And the teacher, most importantly, shapes the way the student sees the alternatives available.   The teacher makes some choices more likely than they’d otherwise be, and other choices less likely than they’d already be.

And that imposes an obligation.

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And teachers aren’t the only ones with that moral obligation.  Anyone with expertise in language has it, as George Orwell pointed out sixty-plus years ago in “Politics and the English Language”.  And in particular, those who are expert in copywriting and marketing have it.

Because, like the teacher, marketers have an incredible ability to influence the course of people’s choices.

And with influence comes responsibility.

Does this mean the marketer must watch out for the customer, first, last, and always, like an overprotective mother who won’t let her child go outside because the child might fall and hurt herself?

No.  Of course not.

No more than the teacher should hold the coddle the student out of a mistaken over-protectiveness of the student’s self-esteem.

But just like the ability to teach brings with it moral responsibility, so does the ability to convince people to buy.

And the better at it you are – and the best marketers are far better at it than the average teacher (or their pay would be no higher) – the more responsibility you have.

I’m a libertarian/anarchist.  But I’m not a social Darwinist.  Believing in individual freedom is not belief in a license to take advantage.  Human beings are not cancer cells.  Human beings have a responsibility to do no harm.

A responsibility that increases as the ability to do harm increases.

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[Copy, more or less, of something I just posted on a slashdot thread. For the entire thread, click here: Are academic journals obsolete?]

The internet has made the transmission and distribution of information cheap. I would go so far as to say nearly free.

However, there remains one very large barrier to the use of that information: each recipient still bears the burden of evaluating and interpreting it. Access is cheap. Assessment is still expensive. Search engines, broadband, all the amazing technology of my MacBookPro and its software haven’t solved the real problem: How the heck do I decide which information matters?

In fact, if anything, the glut of cheap information makes it harder for effective assessment, not easier. Ever try to concentrate when fifty people are shouting at you?

Where does this leave the academic journal? I’m not sure, but I’m not particularly optimistic for its future. The academic journal and, more importantly, the institutions of the larger academic system which use it as an indicator of intellectual worth, are profoundly limited.

Every discipline I know has examples of what would eventually become foundational articles that get rejected over and over again by the arbiters of mainstream intellectual and scientific fashion. More seriously, thousands of valuable assistant professors have likely had their careers and ideals misshaped by the pursuit of publish-or-perish. And perhaps most importantly of all, there is the real problem of timely responsiveness.

When the world and its needs are changing, and accelerating, as fast as today’s, institutions of interpretation — must move and adapt fast.  And quick adaptation is not something that the academic world is at all good at.

Yet, the marketplace of ideas does still require filters. I have a great deal of faith in markets, especially as the cheap information of the Internet age makes those markets more and more responsive to people’s desires and needs. Yet the effectiveness of markets remains constrained by the limits of those very desires and needs. Deference to peer review when all of your peers are sophomores (“sophisticated morons”) is not going to help very much. Ignorance shared is still ignorance.

In its editors and referees, the current journal system has a group of people with very high level filtering expertise. Whatever new institutions that replace the academic journal must replace that filtering expertise. Search engines, etc., can’t do that. Sophomores can’t do that.

I don’t mean to deify those editors and referees. They aren’t the only ones with the expertise, or even necessarily the ones with the most expertise. But its sometimes hard for people outside the system to understand just how much of their time and effort those editors and referees have to allocate, to do that filtering, to to develop the skills that make their filtering expert, and to assess and evaluate their fellow filterers.

True “deep” peer review requires all these three things, and all three things take a lot of time and expense. Time and expense that aren’t significantly reduced just because the cost of information transmission has started to approach zero.

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Information is cheaper than it has ever been. And it’s going to be even cheaper tomorrow. Indeed, for many kinds and quantities of information, the cost of transmitting or acquiring that information is effectively zero. The Internet and other rapidly morphing communication technologies ensure that most of what isn’t “free” today, soon will be.

The paradox of all this really cheap information, however, is that the two absolutely critical determinants of its effective use — figuring out what to listen to, and interpreting what has been listened to — are both becoming increasingly expensive.

So much so that people may be listening less to the important stuff AND getting less out of the important stuff they do listen to.

Information gets translated into value only when it is used, and it gets used only if people listen to it and correctly perceive its value.

But when we are getting bombarded by more and more information every day, what do we choose to listen to? If I spend some of my 86,400 seconds today listening to you (by reading your blog, or letting you contribute to our conversation over a six pack of Leinies, or processing my statistical evidence on your spending patterns), I can’t spend those seconds any other way. I can’t spend them watching TV or trying to pick up the cute young woman in the black dress or calling my sister on the phone. And as the cost of putting information in front of me, the more work it is for me to choose who to listen to.

So who or what do I listen to?

Now the economist in me thinks in terms of weighing costs and benefits, and says, “listen to the stuff that you think yields the greatest net benefit.” But, unfortunately, time spent weighing costs and benefits can’t be spent doing anything else either. The more cute young women in black dresses that the inundation of information is presenting me with, the less I want to waste my time doing cost benefit analysis.

I decide to listen to the stuff whose benefits are most obvious. And decide not to listen to the stuff that takes more work to figure those benefits.

An example: Two people ask me to invest in their company. One tells me, in very brief words on page one of their solicitations, that I will get revenue of $500, the other promises revenue of $200. Both are telling the truth. But if I listen to a bunch of the details, I find out that to get the revenue of $500 will require me to do other stuff that cost $450 (for a net profit of just $50), whereas the $200 option requires a total outlay of just $500 (for a profit of $150).

Now, you say, and Economics 101 suggests this, too, a rational investor will choose the second option. Right?

Well, it depends. It depends on how much it costs to figure out all those details. Suppose the key details about the $450 costs and $50 profits are buried somewhere in one of those really-small-print prospectuses? Do you really spend time reading the prospectus for every $500 investment you make?

Now I probably will — because information about available beautiful young women in black dresses is in really short supply in my life.

But for most people, that glut of information out there means that they are less likely than ever to read the prospectus or otherwise do the work that ensures they make the right information choices. And because they are less and less in the habit of exercising their judgment (i.e., thinking about things), they never develop the quality in their judging abilities that they might otherwise develop.

It’s no small irony. The glut of information means we must develop better judgment about information than we have ever had before. But that same glut of information means the actual costs of doing the listening work needed to improve our judgment are getting bigger.

So how do we convince ourselves to pay those extra costs?

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You have reached the newly-formed blog of Wade Shilts, associate professor of economics at Luther College, and listener-in-chief at the copywriting and economic consulting company, Iterative Listening, LLC.

This blog will be focus primarily on issues of listening, with special attention to the problems of business, education, and technology in the 21st century.

When I’m not going off on some other rant, that is.

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All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts