Digital Darwinism by Tom Goodwin: book review

Digital Darwinism by Tom Goodwin

Digital Darwinism was published in April to some acclaim. Goodwin is Head of Innovation for Zenith Media, a master of the pithy aphorism and a twitter-era contrarian. My question on picking up the book was whether there would be depth behind the soundbites.

I’m pleased to say there is. It’s packed full of ideas to help us think about business in these ‘accelerated times’. Goodwin contextualises 2018’s digital world by looking at the past, drawing learnings from the adoption of previous ‘new’ technologies like electricity.

What is Digital Darwinism?

The core idea is that technology changed the parameters for business success:

  • The mass adoption of networked computing has supercharged competition: it’s never been easier to try a new provider in any category.
  • Companies are designed to evolve slowly over time, but the speed of technology means the background for business changes faster than any company can.
  • New players, defined by their tech-enabled customer centricity are like invasive species, quickly coming to dominate once stable ecosystems.
  • To survive, established players shouldn’t aim for incremental change, slowly breeding-in hybrid vigor. They need to look further ahead and get used to reinventing and re-reinventing what they offer.

Natural agility is not enough

Incumbents too often tinker around the edges, sprinkling a layer of tech on top of old problems (‘hey, let’s do something with chatbots’) rather than starting at the root of the issue, user needs. Indeed, when it comes to innovation incumbents are at a double-disadvantage. The incentives are misaligned. With success comes complacency:

“We live in the age of insurgents, who use last mover advantage to deploy the latest, best and cheapest tech and who take advantage of new behaviours… The insurgent isn’t bogged down with expertise. What in theory should allow dominant players to win easily often acts against them… you are so invested in the old paradigm, that you actively seek to combat change. Sony made too much money from selling music. Kodak from selling photo products.” 

Asking the questions no-one else is asking

Digital Darwinism is a mindset. The mega-cap tech firms re-imagined established categories by asking questions no-one else was asking, changing parameters of the design process. Goodwin cites the Tesla Model S by example: with fewer than 20 moving components compared to 1500 in a standard car, it takes a sixth of the time to assemble. We’re urged to learn from this audacity. Forget how you currently operate & consider what your company would be like if you started from scratch. Be hard on yourself. Would you do the same things?

Value is different in the digital age

We’re so overburdened with choice in every conceivable category that managing abundance and aiding discovery is what people really need. The consequence? The content gateway is more important than the provider. Examples abound. I shudder to say it, but I know people who know which playlists they like, but not which artists.

“Value is different in the digital age. I use a slower more expensive train to visit my parents because it has wifi and plug sockets. My time is most valuable.”

He’s particularly good on trends

In his view business success emanates from empathy and human understanding, not technology.  

“Innovation has always been misunderstood to mean more. We thought that Nokia was innovative because they made 72 handsets a year, until Apple made a single one and it changed the world. The collective goal of companies has to shift from doing extra, to work hard on doing less, better.”

Indeed, Goodwin urges us to think harder as we look forward. He is scathing about much trend prediction which he dismisses as chartism – the mindless extrapolation of existing trend lines. Assuming you are right because you have a lot of data is absurd:

“We think data will light the way but increasingly it is blinding us…”

“If you ask people about something that doesn’t yet exist, you get something worse than useless – you get something damagingly misleading…”

“Data does an excellent job of mapping the past and the current, but a terrible job for those who need to look ahead…”

I really liked his material on second & third order effects, which make the dance and interplay of trend and counter-trend much clearer. Craft beer makes sense when all the mass market wants to give you is Bud Light; farmers markets make sense in the era of stack it high, sell it cheap retail.

But… winners may not remain winners

The missing element may be a recognition that winners may not remain winners. Volatility is baked-into networked capitalism. As David Karpf writes in WiredIn the rush to identify the next industry that will be disrupted by the digital revolution, we underrate how fragile the business models of the disruptors themselves tend to be.”

Taking the long view from my research, in 2007 Bebo was the teen’s social network of choice; in 2017 the teens I researched only talked about Instagram. Facebook occupied the middle years. Envisage a world where Facebook’s success ebbs away because young people see it as something “for old people – like mum or dad…”


Goodwin comes across as a frustrated idealist, wanting us to do better. It’s an enjoyable read, and provides helpful context to think more clearly about the parameters of business success in 2018. But don’t expect a blueprint. Goodwin helps us map the terrain. The route we’ll have to plot for ourselves.


Addendum: other books worth reading about tech-enabled business  

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Thiel was co-founder of Paypal and is now a venture capitalist, famous for being the first outsider to invest in Facebook. He’s from what you might call the muscular individualist school of capitalism. Depending what you read he may also be a genius suffering from survivor bias and a lack of empathy. Zero to One is slim, crisp and highly readable. Like Goodwin he is no fan of incrementalism. The sections on how Paypal succeeded, power laws and his four scenarios for the future are all highly thought-provoking.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

Idealist, hippie sage Kelly takes us through 12 technological forces which will shape the future. Written in 2014 it feels slightly optimistic in the era of bot-created fake news, but his commentary on AI, “flows” and how screens affect our behaviour is superb.

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Market research and technology: the future

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We live in the era of Artificial Intelligence.

The payoff? Tech can free us up to think, not do. The future is about automating tasks, not jobs. You don’t need to be a techno-utopian to envision a future where drudge work is reduced and we have more time to reflect on our data and what it means.

The challenge? Our skillset needs to evolve to fit this new ecosystem

The World Economic Forum’s report The Future of Jobs highlighted the 3 skills most prized in modern workers: cognitive flexibility, critical thinking and creativity. In the future when inspiration strikes on the train to a briefing meeting you’ll be able to use a free AI tool to generate some hypotheses from a “big dataset”, then bang the results into software to create an animated visualisation of your viewpoint… all without breaking a sweat.

Good researchers will be specialists who have an understanding of related disciplines. Much has been written about “T-shaped people” – rightly so, because it’s a vivid metaphor. In my experience, clients want business solutions and trust you to combine the right tools and techniques to get there. I’m never going to grasp the finer points of algorithm design or boolean logic. But I might sit across the office from someone who does and chat with them over lunch. And they might provide a breakthrough on my project. Your collective mind works a lot faster.

Good researchers will be hyper-aware when automation starts to erode their skills. Because when systems fail, a skilful response is required. We should be conductors harmonising an orchestra of tech, unintimidated if required to turn our hand to different instruments. In the future I will set my research AI going to facilitate my desk research the day I am commissioned on a project. It will collate and theme sources, but if it fails I have the skills to explore not just Google, but my library, and can call in favours from my peers ahead of the deadline.

Good researchers will be stretched by the advent of AI. It has been 21 years since IBM’s Deep Blue first beat Garry Kasparov. As Kevin Kelly writes “The advent of AI didn’t diminish the performance of purely human chess players. Quite the opposite. Cheap, supersmart chess programs inspired more people than ever to play chess, at more tournaments than ever, and the players got better than ever. There are more than twice as many grand masters now as there were when Deep Blue first beat Kasparov.” Similarly the world’s best medical diagnostician is not a computer or a doctor, but a team of both. There’s a mutuality and complementarity here. Machines have unrivalled processing power. But lateral thinking and eureka effects do not reside in binary code.

Insight is a deeply human act

Human interpretation is art as well as science. Consider body language (like when a participant leans forward and their eyes light-up) cultural nuance (knowing the subtext when an Englishman says “I’m fine. Thanks.”) empathy (your niece’s crocodile tears sounding different to real tears) common sense (thinking ‘hang on a minute’ when Facebook claimed it reached more UK 15-24 year olds than actually exist) or even hard-won knowledge (having a feel for causality when considering feedback loops).

The upshot? Insight is a creative process. Your AI <> big data interface can explore ten thousand data runs a day, but it can’t and won’t tell you what it means, how to combine it with human data, or what to do next. Gut-feel, wisdom and working with clients to inspire cultural change aren’t going to be automated anytime soon.

Insight is a deeply human act. Or to put it another way, a hard AI problem.

Maybe that’s the same thing?

So in summary:

  • Let’s look forward to a future where we automate boring tasks, to focus on interpretation and meaning;
  • Researchers will be conductors of an orchestra of tech, weaving together a symphony of platforms in real time to create harmony;
  • Clients will be our patrons, commissioning each opus to their needs and preferences;
  • A data rich world requires more human contact – not less;
  • We’ll need to adapt our skillsets but we should relish this challenge.




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Market research and technology: past & present

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Out of the silence, a single word. “Idiot!”

Me: a fresh-faced grad. My accuser: a red faced SRE. My crime? Forgetting to check my data tables against the hole count*. Meaning the whole deck had to be checked and re-written on the day of the presentation. Not my finest hour.

It’s a reminder how much things have changed. Manual checking and verification of data used to be the norm. Quant used to be far more time-consuming and prone to error.

In my 17 years in the industry I’ve seen online data collection go from something clients viewed with suspicion to our primary means of quantification. Online quant is so prevalent many Research Managers I interview have never used CATI let alone F2F data collection.

Fast forward to 2018 and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to evaluate, commission & master MR tech platforms over the past 5 years.

The challenge: Imposing order on chaos

The proliferation of MR platforms and tools presents researchers with a new challenge: keeping pace with tech. That’s why help from trusted peers (like is invaluable.

Four use cases to consider right now

Whilst online data collection and analysis isn’t perfect, it is easy to take things for granted. The life of a researcher involves less drudgery than it used to. Tech can extend your practice and make your projects easier.

How’s about:

Checking hypotheses on the fly

Data back in an hour? Tools like Toluna’s Quick Surveys provide mean you can check hypotheses before a pitch meeting then confirm product penetration rates in the cab home..

Qual at scale

Remesh demonstrated their tool at the Worldwide Qualitative Research Conference in May. It feels like a “real-time qual-conjoint” (!). Our demo sourced verbatim feedback on a topic for 30 seconds then got users to trade off the responses for 30 seconds, parsing the main themes instantly. One to watch.

Easier analysis of ethno & diary data

Tech for diary studies and auto ethnography has been embraced by quallies ever since smartphones became ubiquitous. There are loads of options. My initial criteria related to participant ease: the simpler the better. Having used a few, the back-end analysis capabilities are as important. They need to allow easy coding, analysis and reporting. I’ve heard good things about Ethos.

Remote qual analysis

Mural is a collaboration tool you might consider to help if you have to do qual analysis remotely. Think of it like a huge online flipchart that updates in real time. You can draw, use sticky notes, share links, images and videos. It allows you to work alone or together, even from a smartphone. Built-in templates like mood boards, customer journey maps & personas come in handy too. You can also vote on outcomes.

Part 2 of this post will examine the future of market research and technology

*For anyone aged 35 or under, a hole count is a read out showing you how many responses there are for each code, used to cross-check the base sizes on your data tables



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AQR Eyes Wide Open event: Human Packaging

The AQR’s Eyes Wide Open series brings together speakers from adjacent disciplines to examine a common theme. The most recent, on the evening of June 7th was on the subject of Human Packaging, asking the question what do we reveal by the way we present ourselves?

The evening left a marked impression on me. Partly because lineup was stellar; partly because the talks dovetailed so neatly, each supporting and strengthening each others’ themes; and partly because of the audience reaction and interaction. It’s hard to convey, but an engaged audience asking questions to generate a collective understanding is ephemeral, precious. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Photographer, documentarist and pioneer of participatory media Daniel Meadows started the evening. He spent a large part of 1973-4 driving around England, making a national portrait of the English. Years later he tracked his participants down to extend the project. His portraits somehow convey the unique spirit & personality of his participants. Accompanied by first person accounts of real, ordinary lives, they become ‘photography stories’ – moving, funny, and sad.

His work contains rare truth which I can’t quite put my finger on. “I’m interested in the felt life”, he said. “It’s about working with people, not ‘doing media’ to them”. Watch the video and I’m certain you’ll agree. 

Caryn Franklin’s talk came from a different angle, drawing together the evidence to enable all of us to reappraise fashion imagery. Image after image, a common trope emerged. Women were passive, subordinate to men. Insufficiently clothed, they are depicted as having low status, minimal agency or self-hood.

Her argument is both that society has become acculturated to this type of representation, and that unconscious social comparison has pernicious effects, especially on the young. Example after example built a visceral audience reaction. Everyone in the room could now decode the imagery. We all left thinking differently.

Dr Nick Gadsby examined impact of social media on how we present ourselves. His view: we used to live in an either/or era. The self used to be defined by you: it was private, internalised and authentic. Appearance was defined by social norms: it was public, external and constructed.

We are now in an era of and/also. Beauty doesn’t have to be something inherent, it is something we can all do. This is about bettering yourself. “The authentic resides in the journey. The self is about the journey to find oneself.” The and/also notion crystallises in the beauty transformation video (new to me I must confess) and is echoed by brands: AirBnB is home and away; Lululemon is athletic and leisure; Nak’d is healthy and tasty.

That left myself and Nikki Lavoie to riff on gender and clothing (I’ll follow up with the full deck). Our view? Identity is an ongoing & dynamic process: clothes have transformative power and people use them consciously and unconsciously to explore their identities.

Jobs which traditionally gave men masculine status have diminished steadily over the past 50 years. This masculinity gap has many consequences for how men feel, behave and dress. Several typologies become clear according to whether men express themselves either consciously (hyper masculinity) or unconsciously (ruggedness, competition and exploration).

Nikki focused on the feminine, particularly in relation to the workplace. Traits assumed to be feminine like empathy, sensitivity, and gentleness are seen to be make organisations perform better. Yet female leaders are often attacked if they are seen to abandon them (e.g. Clinton and Merkel). She explored how women have to navigate their clothing choices given femininity can be interpreted both as an asset and a flaw, exploring typologies like hyper femininity, the anti sex symbol and the tough gal.

A great evening. Thanks to Judy Taylor for curating and the AQR for organising.

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Book Review – The Elephant in the Brain

“The ultimate science is evolutionary psychology… the behavioural sciences provide you with the what and evolutionary psychology explains the why.” Rory Sutherland, Real Famous Podcast

 “Evolution is smarter than economists” John Kay, Nudgestock, June 8th 2018

Elephant in the brain

Like many, I’m on a learning journey with behavioural economics.

I try and keep up with the popular literature, follow what opinion formers are saying, and bring frameworks into my daily practice. Behavioural economics has shown us the power of our evolutionary heritage: its more nuanced account of human rationality has overwritten homo economicus, the Spock-like model which preceded it.

But just when I feel I’m making progress, pop. I start reading about “an important addition to the field of behavioural economics” which is opening up a new frontier in human understanding: evolutionary psychology. And I’m thinking: FFS! Is that another summer of reading? I was looking forward to the next Jack Reacher thriller.

Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson’s The elephant in the brain is about unconscious motivations in everyday life. It’s newly published & Ogilvy recommended. What’s apparent, reading it is that evolutionary psychology helps to reframe familiar questions, making them appear in a new light.

What follows is an potted overview of their arguments and some questions that spring to mind.

Simler & Hanson argue that hidden motives drive our behaviour

“This book attempts to shine light on those dark, unexamined social institutions in which almost all participants are strategically self-deceived, markets in which both buyers and sellers pretend to transact one thing while covertly transacting another. The art scene for example, isn’t just about appreciating beauty; it also functions as an excuse to affiliate with impressive people and as a sexual display (a way to hobnob and get laid). Education isn’t just about learning, it is also about getting graded, ranked and credentialled, stamped for the approval of employers. Religion isn’t just about private belief in God or the afterlife, but about conspicuous public professing of belief that help bond groups together.”

In this analysis, we are self-interested and self-deceived. What they call the elephant in the brain “is an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behaviour.”

Involvement in our institutions is driven by competitive signalling

“Our institutions do ending up actioning many of their official, stated goals, but they’re often inefficient because they are simultaneously  serving purposes no-one is eager to acknowledge.”

Our evolutionary heritage is responsible for this. In the hunter-gatherer era your survival was down to cooperation: if you were ostracised from your peer group you would die. Norms like fairness and egalitarianism emerged from this period. Crucially our brains evolved to get ahead socially, even if that meant being devious:

“Human beings are a species that is not only capable of acting on hidden motives – we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in self-interest while at the same time trying to appear unselfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us”, our unconscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our ugly motives, the easier it is to hide from others. Self-deception is therefore strategic, used by our brains to look good while behaving badly. The best way to convince other that we believe something is to actually believe it…”

Signalling is the book’s key concept. Simler & Hanson define it as “anything used to communicate or convey information.”

“There are good reasons to believe that our capabilities for visual art, music, storytelling and humour function in a large part as elaborate mating displays, not unlike the peacock’s tail.”

Theirs is a fundamentalist interpretation of signalling theory. Buying art says to the world: I’m so confident in my survival that I can afford to waste resources. Like the peacock’s tail it advertises a survival surplus: the easy assurance of an animal with more resources than they know what to do with.

In their eyes, we’re unaware of the signalling motive in our purchase decisions. They go further: riffing on Veblen’s concept conspicuous consumption they argue the very notion of individuality is a con-trick we play on ourselves:

“We’re locked in a game of competitive signalling… no matter how much the economy grows there remains a limited supply of sex and social status – and earning and spending money are  good way to compete for it.”

Readers may find the chapter on religion most contentious

Belief is a symptom of the underlying social incentives:

“We worship and believe because it helps us as social creatures. Religion is a team sport – communal practices resulting in a highly cohesive and cooperative social group…”

We signal loyalty to this in group to gain allies, comrades who could help us in the future. Having skin in the game enables trust:

“…sacrifices of time and effort implicitly show loyalty to you and congregants…Acceptance can make the difference between the warm embrace of fellowship and the cold shoulder of ostracism. These are powerful incentives to believe.”

The effort is the point here: it buys you access to the club. Social status is the prize.

The purpose of politics to express loyalty to a tribe

In their analysis, the purpose of politics is not to lobby and effect change. We don’t act rationally, undertaking a detailed policy analysis then picking a side ahead of an election. Terrorist groups don’t disband when they achieve their stated aims. Politics is about tribal loyalty and badges help us sort others into those with or against us:

“As arguments these slogans (‘black lives matter’ or ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’) radically oversimplify the issues – but as badges, they work great.”

In summary

If we misunderstand our own motives to this degree there are troubling implications. Does it trivialise our efforts? Do we just find ourselves in an arena (business, academia, art) and start playing? Do we just want to belong to something, anything, competing to develop social bonds in order to feel worthwhile? Does queuing overnight outside the Apple store or putting on a Corbyn badge amount to the same thing?

It would be easy to overextend these arguments. Distal explanations for behaviour work when the level of analysis is the species; proximate explanations for individuals are more problematic – and risk being accused of being reductive and unfalsifiable. As zoologist John Krebs said in 2014“Biology is not pure, not simple – it is not physics!…there are huge cultural overlays to behaviour.”

Things I’ll be thinking about

  • A thought experiment: if (X domain, Y behaviour or Z context) was just a status signalling competition, would it explain and predict the participants’ actions more fully than any other framework?
  • How is advertising preying on our signalling instincts?
  • Our evolutionary heritage makes us crave the nutrition of social life, yet we binge on the sugar high of social media. It can never be a substitute, only a supplement.

Postscript: how about sport?

To an outsider there isn’t much to separate rugby union or rugby league: it’s scrum pass tackle and ruck. Yet the audience for each code doesn’t really overlap. Seeing poetry in an 8 man scrum and barbarity in “M62 rugby” is about geography, identity.

Competing to show loyalty to your team takes many forms.


F.T.M or “F#ck the Mags” – Photo credit:


  • Does this badge signal commitment better than mere words?
  • Is this about social status: prestige, glory and the admiration of one’s fellows?
  • How much of this is context dependent?
    • How many minutes per week is his shirt off? How does his Saturday 3pm self align with his Monday 9am self?
    • “…each of us is a member of many overlapping groups… context matters…” If he was supporting England at the World Cup in Russia, and found himself sat next to a Mag… would that be OK? How about if they felt compelled to defend England’s honour in discussions with another country’s fans?
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Nudgestock 2018

Rory Sutherland Nudgestock 2018.jpg

It’s my first time at Nudgestock, Ogilvy’s behavioural science conference.

I’m in a room with 450 people, a lucky dip of marketers, academics, researchers, students, brand and operations peeps from the private, public and third sectors.

We’ve all travelled to Folkestone, which is sleepy, welcoming. It’s a 10 minute amble through the faded Victorian grandeur to Leas Cliff Hall. Beyond the stage and I can see the sea, which is unexpectedly turquoise.

Today is about the cross pollination of ideas. The presentations reach across industries and disciplines. Our job is to laterally apply these, to connect the dots. Rory Sutherland is the host and compere, his charisma contagious. We sip our coffee and try and take it all in.

Here are my takeaway ideas:

1) Big data contributed to Nokia and Hillary Clinton’s failure

Management need generalities to survive. The context-free certainty of a spreadsheet is alluring as it offers illusory control. “No one gets fired for being logical”

But big data is backwards looking, extrapolating from the past. Cost benefit analyses by McKinsey were behind Nokia’s strategy to focus on the featurephone rather than the smartphone. By comparison, an anthropologist seeing refugees sacrifice half their income to get hold of a smartphone pointed to its game-changing potential. But McKinsey had more datapoints: they won the argument. As Sutherland pointed out “’Iceberg! Dead ahead!’ is one data point… but an important one!”

Similarly, Bill Clinton suggested the Hilary campaign team visit the Midwest to take the mood of the people in 2016, as something felt not quite right. The request was rebuffed by a strategist with the line “my data beats your anecdotes.” We all know how that turned out.

2) Don’t look for rules, look for patterns

Common patterns that make sense in one context can be used to understand others.

There is no grand theory which explains all human behaviour. For the management cadre a set answer based on a mathematical model is more pleasing than stitching together lots of subjects to try find the truth. John Kay pointed out, when you hear economists  say it is “The fault of the world, not of the model” you know you have a discipline in turmoil. We should embrace a wider spread of models to explain why people do what they do. Sutherland and Kay are keen on evolutionary biology (see #9).

“The drive to be rational has led people to seek to find political and economic laws which are akin to the laws of physics — universal, unchanging over time and applicable at any scale. Experts love such universal principles — as they allow them confidently to pronounce on things of which they have no direct experience.” Rory Sutherland, Spectator, 9 June

3) Context & scale often determine how people think, feel and act – not the rational if/then rules modelled by economists

This is best summed up by a quote from Vincent Graham to explain his view of politics:

At the federal level I am a Libertarian. At the state level, I am a Republican. At the town level, I am a Democrat. In my family I am a Socialist. And with my dog I am a Marxist — from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’

4)  Real world social networks have huge power: what your friend’s friend’s friend experiences will affect you

Nicholas Christakis (Director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale) summarised 30 years of research into 40 minutes. His research provides evidence to show if you put something in a network it will make more of it – whatever it is. Love, kindness ideas – or ebola, fake news or hate. But it has to be seeded – need to start the thing off.

Connections and the structure of network matters. Take graphite and diamonds: these are just carbon atoms with different arrangements. Connected one way they are soft and dark (graphite) or hard and clear (diamond) – but crucially, these are properties of the connections not the atoms themselves.

It is the same with human social groups. In one context you can connect in positive manner and achieve good. Or vice versa. Good or bad outcomes however can be seen as emergent properties of the network, not properties of individuals. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In this conception innovation and other positive outcomes come from ties not the people themselves. Our experience of the world depends on connections!

5) There are 3 strategies to affect a social network

  • Connection – re-structure the wiring diagram, who is connected to who;
  • Contagion – changing the flow (e.g. seeding an idea);
  • Position – changing the location (e.g. using the existing structure & ensemble of individuals, can we reposition people to maximise benefit – like a seating chart)

6) The adoption of new products/services is non-linear, and often follows an S shaped curve

Network modelling shows the diffusion of innovation follows an S-shaped (“sigmoid”) curve (see pic):

Nicholas Christakis Nudgestock 2018.jpg

  • In the beginning no-one you know is using a product/service;
  • You see others using it so you try it;
  • Suddenly everybody is using it;
  • Growth plateaus.

In other word, social proof accelerates growth.

Q: If the adoption of a new product or service is non-linear, how should we phase marketing budgets? There is a danger investment is pulled too early.

Christakis went on to describe his current field experiment: using real world interventions to accelerate adoption of neonatal health behaviours in Honduras. A successful intervention would shift the S-shaped curve on the X axis. His 8×2 experimental design is described in the BMJ here – fascinating.

7) Tinder’s rise was exponential

The rise of tinder_market share_Pic courtesy of 7 Park Data

US dating app market share 2013-2014: data courtesy of 7 Park Data

Eliding nicely with Christakis’ themes, Mark Brooks gave us a 10 minute presentation covering the 20 years he has worked in the online dating business. Tinder was a game changer because swiping is fun, automatic, a game – system one all over. When you think about it, the paradigm shift it introduced is obvious: almost overnight, completing a profile feels like writing your UCAS form, system 2, yawn. He flicked past his market share chart so I googled this one. Wow.

8) Facebook dating is the next game-changer

Facebook are launching a dating service imminently. It can prevail because it addresses the three prevailing challenges dating sites face.

  • The feedback problem: sites don’t know when they have been successful. People just leave the site. Facebook will know who, when, and how long resulting relationships are.
  • The limited information problem: matching based on what people say they want rather than what is important. Facebook has every conceievable attitudinal, behavioural and psychographic dataset.
  • The continuity problem: you do a good job and you lose your customers. A peverse incentive. Brooks thinks the future of dating sites is to move from helping you “keep it together” not just get it together – helpful nudges and relationship support (like “it’s your anniversary, why not try this place she likes…”)

9) Human intelligence is collective, not individual

John Kay discussed evolutionary biology, giving us comparative insights into our species. Consider the comparative development of primates: two chimpanzees don’t do so much as carry a log together. Humans can build Airbuses: coordinating tens of thousands across continents in an act of decentralised wonder. No single person could achieve this, only the collective working together. That is the nature of human intelligence, not found in any other mammal species. It is what makes us different. A conference is collective intelligence in action.

10) Business coaches are using behavioural science to help people in the workplace

Caroline Webb, author of the bestselling How to Have a Good Day discussed how under stress you switch to a mode of selective attention. Information automatically and unconsciously gets filtered. We’re not aware of this process by definition (that’s the whole point – it’s a survival mechanism!)

The kicker: under stress you notice things that are already top of mind for you: so if you are in a crap frame of mind, you’ll not be picking up positive cues. This is confirmation bias writ large.

You can solve this by consciously resetting your perceptual filters, boosting your sense of competence and control:

  • What do I know for sure? (e.g. I have speaker notes for my talk)
  • What can I shape or control? (e.g. my attitude)
  • What are some ‘no regrets’ actions? (e.g. I can still make my train if I leave now)

11) You can hack your future memories: apply the peak end rule

The peak end rule says we tend to remember an experience according to its most intense moment and the way it ends, rather than the experience in its entirety. You have control over how your day ends: just think about 3 good things that happened that day to manufacture your memories. In Webb’s words: “The way you remember your days is the way you remember your life” What could be more important than this?

Takeaway: why not apply this at the end of a workshop or debrief: what are the 3 things you have learned today?

All great stuff. Thanks to Ogilvy for organising. Time for a lie down.


Folkestone’s faded Victorian grandeur

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Takeaway ideas from day 2 of #wwqual

Here are my highlights from day 2 of #wwqual, along with some takeaway ideas.

Luke Perry, from Jigsaw took us through The Importance of Moral Intuitions in Qualitative Research. This explored a framework of moral foundations from psychology which can be used to understand how people interpret the world. The perennial “better deals for new customers” relates to the “loyalty / betrayal” paradigm for example (see below).

Perry_6 moral foundations.jpg


Takeaway idea: Use this framework to step outside your own moral domain in analysis.


Sarah JayKym Loeb from Acacia Avenue were joint winners of the best presentation award with their paper Shifting Sands? Why Times Change But People Don’t. This lively pair gave made us laugh (and scream) with a wide ranging session on evolutionary psychology, exploring its explanatory power in relation to behaviour and cognitive biases.

Jay_Loeb_Belonging.jpgTakeaway ideas:

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is of course too simplistic, and ignores how we DON’T prioritise safety and security above all else. Belonging is a meta need. People frequently face danger in pursuit of this higher order goal.
  • Kendrick and Griskevicius’ 7 fundamental motives provide better explanation. These are our conflicting distal causes of behaviour (disease avoidance, status, mate acquisition, mate retention, affiliation, self-protection, care of kin). Again, a useful analysis framework. Kendrick and Griskevicius’ book is worth a read too, if only to find out why three out of four professional football players go bankrupt (hint: being inculcated into fast/slow success strategies).


Alex Gordon from Sign Salad talked at speed about an understanding of the culture surrounding consumers can generate fresh opportunities for business growth in his session Culturally Driven Brand Thinking as Insight Imperative. His view: “In a world that is highly irrational, there is a danger brands seek highly rational answers, focussing on the easy to measure rather than the important.” He urged us to conceive of brands as cultural totems which serve deeper needs. My brain is just about catching up!

Takeaway ideas:

  • Late capitalism: bloated corporations more concerned with themselves than consumer, interchangeable brands which offer no real choice, accompanied by a fractious political deadlock
  • Quallies need to be comfortable asserting why people think the way they do – not just what people they think. He set us 4 tasks before every project (see pic):

Gordon_4 steps to culturally driven brand thinking.jpg


Roben Allong from Lightbeam Communications described how brands can better understand and harness the current culture revolution in her session How the Language of Culture and Community is Reshaping Research. Social media has made the world small: people from all over sharing common experiences and cultural references. Minorities are setting the tone here: the mainstream is becoming transcultural. Brands want the cultural understanding as well as the research. But culture is a hard thing to understand.

Allong_cultural context.jpg

Takeaway idea: We don’t know what we don’t know. Cultural context is important because the same things don’t mean the same to different people. An example? For African American women, the princess emoji signifies achievement, empowerment, & strength. For Caucasians it connotes being spoilt (see pic).


Tom De Ruyck from Insites Consulting talked about insight activation. His view? 10% of client budgets should be spent on getting research acted upon. He used a host of examples. As well as Virtual Reality to bring the consumer to life in a debrief (10 customers from 10 countries in 10 minutes), I liked his example of doing a debrief with his Heineken clients at 9pm then going bar hopping at 10pm to see examples of the issues this in real life.

Takeaway idea: to inspire change our efforts should focus on memory & empathy.


Andrew Konya, from Remesh.AI took us through his vision of the future in his talk How the Future of AI Makes Moderators More Important
Andrew made us all think. Talking to a qual audience about machine learning and neural nets is like being a flamingo in a flock of pigeons. Kudos to him for being a joint winner of the best presentation award. His argument: AI is changing the value of labour. Tech changes what the market rewards. Take driving: being able to drive was a prized asset; this becomes immediately less valuable once driverless cars are adopted. He defined four stages to the evolution of labour distribution within research. You can tell he’s young because this starts in around the millennium (!)

  • Survey monkey, powerpoint – easier to collect and analyse data
  • Online qual, mobile data, smartphones, text analytics sophisticated multivariate analysis
  • The era of intelligence (narrow AI): automated sample by API, quant research in box e.g. zappistore
  • The era of AI: generalised artificial intelligence

Takeaway ideas:

  • Don’t worry, we’re not all doomed – this is about getting tools to help us achieve more
  • Machines will not replace humans fully when it comes to data collection or interpretation/reporting: these are the last vestiges of humanity.
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Takeaway ideas from day 1 of #wwqual

Summarising a conference is a challenge.

You can’t cover everyone. And you certainly can’t convey the speaker’s topic with as much nuance as they would. With these caveats in mind, some highlights from day 1 of #wwqual, pulling out takeaway ideas from 8 of the sessions.


Ian Leslie, Keynote: Curious

  • Leslie’s talk was based on his book of the same name: “A fascinating multi-disciplinary analysis of why curiosity makes the world go round.” His jumping off point was the increasing returns to knowledge in the knowledge economy. His view: curiosity has an important role to play in a world of easy answers. But it needs to be actively cultivated: resist the certainties of age and “be interested in what can’t be measured.”
  • Takeaway ideas:
    • There are 3 types of curiosity: diversive (attraction to novelty), epistemic (a deeper exploration for knowledge) and empathic (putting yourself in another’s shoes).
    • The cognitively rich household: rapidly diverging outcomes in educational attainment exist for those who arrive at school with small initial advantages vocabulary & exposure to ideas at home


Lydia Fuller, Full Colour Research: Finding Your Tribe

  • In 2018 public trust in institutions and corporations is at an all-time low. Fuller spoke about the role researchers have to play in helping brands understand and connect with their audiences, especially those beyond the mainstream.
  • Takeaway ideas: Stalk your prey & reach the unresearched. Consider pen portraits for recruitment not a rigid screener. Use a paid pre-task to video audition participants for ethno projects.


Rachel Cox and Rebecca Harrison, Relish Research: There’s Method in the Insight: Unlocking Next Level Understanding of Consumers’ Lives

  • Cox & Harrison showcased their “Method Insight” approach: in their view a way to “achieve a true connection and empathy, leaving all preconceived ideas behind.” An example: the real triggers to action within a category may be small, fleeting moments not in the places or times you assume. In reality people may spend a tiny sliver of time thinking about the category – let alone the brand.
  • Takeaway idea: Mystery living (as opposed to mystery shopping). Setting clients a mission to perform the participant behaviour: e.g. budget, shop for and create the child’s party.


Sarah Jane Johnson, Athena Brand Wisdom: What we can learn from Other Experts Who Talk to People for a Living

  • Quallies are a magpies, forever picking up tips and analytical frameworks to improve their practice. Johnson focussed on the strategies of other “interviewing experts” (Journalists, Psychotherapists, Anthropologists, Litigators and Philosophers) as they attempt to uncover participant thoughts and feelings
  • Takeaway idea: Watching and listening can be more important than asking.


Daniel Berkal, The Palmerston Group: From the Triforce to Bermuda: Why Triangles are More Powerful Than You Think

  • In a highly engaging and amusing session, Berkal explored the idea of triangulation for methodology design, and gave us loads of practical tips.
  • Takeaway ideas:
    • Build rapport in an observational interview through changing locations (two locations allows the informality of a car journey, and a new comparative perspective), changing topics (leaving time for unstructured small talk) and role reversal (what’s important that I’ve missed? what would you ask if you were me?).
    • Walking alongside someone can help catalyse a conversation. Planes are revealing environment because you are faced away from the person next to you, the focus is not absolute – and due to anonymity there is “equal opportunity for deception”.


Alice Salisbury, Inkling London: Standout Doesn’t Mean What You Think

  • I was reading my notes with a furrowed brow during Alice’s session as my presentation followed hers. It was full of good stuff. Her focus: a model for achieving cut through in a world of clutter and over-communication.
  • Takeaway idea: A model for understanding what drives standout: expectations (understand when to disrupt and when to conform), missions (think about the context and the goal of your audience) and triggers (consider 4 types of salience – personal, cultural, social & situational).


Lucia Neva, Visual Signo – UK and Ann Menard, Nestle: Curiouser and Curiouser: Design Semiotics Opening New Paths

  • Neva and Menard showed how design semiotics helped Nestlé Professional Beverages reach an optimised design for a new range of coffee machines.
  • Takeaway idea: semiotics is uniquely powerful when working across cultures, prioritising design elements and avoiding “design by committee”. Getting to agreed visual codes provides focus: when a stakeholder from one territory is adamant “putting gold on it” is the key to being premium you will have the evidence to rebut them!


Oana Popa Rengle, Anamnesi: The More Beautiful Story – How to Get to the Consumer Stories You Have Always Hoped For

  • Rengle helped unpack, explore and elucidate a hot topic in research: storytelling. Her session provided two story elicitation processes that would be really useful in the early stages of creative development. The first: careful recruitment and task design to create an online storytelling community. The second: convening a F2F workshop to prioritise and summarise core “story fragments”/ “story igniters” using creative techniques. Rengle referred to’s story arc (below) which provides a great visual anchor for the topic.
  • Takeaway ideas:
    • A good insight is nothing else but a good story.
    • The elements of a good insight are: tension, solution, end-benefit.
    • Optimise a narrative by collating “story igniters” relevant to your theme e.g. “With them, I am always my true self” / “My friends were there for my every ‘first time’”. These fragments can help people optimise the story arc.
Oana Popa Rengle_Storytelling.jpg

Oana Popa Rengle’s storytelling arc



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