Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Arbitrary targets, arbitrary decisions [GIGO is alive and well]

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about goal-oriented behaviour and its pros and cons in marathon running and personal finance. It’s a good piece. But this line, toward the end, really grabbed me:

Goals can be useful when they motivate us to perform better, but they’re harmful when focusing on arbitrary targets leads to arbitrary decisions.”

Does that seem obvious? Well, yes. But think about it for a minute. We see this kind of behaviour all too frequently in the startup world, where companies habitually spend more money on marketing (to acquire enough users to meet a relatively arbitrary target number) than on designing a great experience. At a startup scene party last summer, a friend of mine overheard one founder boasting that he “decided not to waste any money on design.” I’ve heard similar dismissals more often than I care to count.

One recent survey found that while 78% of mobile app users will give a disappointing app a second chance, only 16% will go back a third time. And according to Localytics, 22-25% of all downloaded apps are only ever used once. So it would seem that no matter how many people your marketing attracts, it’s the experience that keeps them around long enough to contribute to your bottom line. And lest you think, ‘Oh, whatever, my app is paid, this doesn’t apply to me’ – those disappointed people have no qualms about telling everyone they know (and everyone they don’t, via the magic of Twitter) that your app sucks and not to buy it. Conversely, people who love a product become advocates. Advocates are free marketing.

So that guy who didn’t want to waste any money on design? That’s his prerogative, but it seems pretty shortsighted.  People will pay for what makes them happy, whether the payment is in attention, personal data or cold hard cash – so making them happy should be priority one, then numbers.

A similar problem arises when the goals we strive toward are not so much arbitrary as outdated. Media, particularly broadcasting, has a habit of clinging to old ways of thinking that grow more and more problematic with each passing year. Many broadcasters remain myopically focussed on trying to push everyone, including digital natives, to the traditional television-in-the-lounge setup (which many some don’t even have), rather than investigating and investing in new ways to monetise their content in the digital domain. Their litany, their refrain: “There’s no money online.”


Granted, broadcast advertising sells for more than online advertising. A lot more. Sometimes exponentially more, depending on the online property and the programme being broadcast. Still, last year, Vice was valued at 1.4 billion. Whatever we might think of their more recent claims of $28 billion, $1.4 billion is definitely not “no money.” And Vice is an internet-first content creator – sure, their stuff has aired on HBO and MTV, but most of it lives firmly in the digital sphere. And ads on their online properties bring in a lot more revenue than videos on YouTube.

How have they achieved such success? They focus on what matters: making consistently high-quality content that appeals to their audience. They do whatever it takes to connect with those people, and they’ve got no time for old-school conventions that don’t contribute to that goal. In a panel I moderated at MIPTV earlier this month, Keith Hindle of Fremantle Media told a story about a meeting at Vice to discuss a new set of content. When he asked how long the individual pieces would be (because linear television is all about 30, 60 or 120 minute blocks of time), the Vice team looked at him like he was nuts and said, “It’ll be however long it needs to be to tell the story.” And it’s working – Vice viewers apparently regularly watch 20+ minute videos. The national average in the USA for online video viewing is just over 4 minutes.

To put it back in the terms of the quote up at the top, instead of aligning with a framework that’s ‘just the way it’s always been done,’ Vice based their targets, and their content strategies, on their audience.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people will pay for what makes them happy. If you’re a media company, make or acquire good content, tell stories that interest the audience, and the audience will love them, watch them, pass them around. They might even pay you, if you give them a chance to.

This applies no matter what you’re doing – making apps or designing retail environments or opening a restaurant. Whatever you’re doing, it’s people who will make or break you. Their money, their attention, their affection, their hard work is what makes your business go. So instead of focussing on arbitrary targets, figure out how to measure how happy you’re making them and focus on that. Numbers are important, but make sure you’re looking at the right ones and seeing them for what they really mean.