Marketing segmentation and the game of averages

26 07 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Back in March, a Hunch Blog post (“You’ve got mail: What your email domain says about you”) made some noise around the net, courtesy of Gizmodo, swissmiss, and hundreds of tweets and retweets, most likely by Gmail users, who are depicted very favorably compared to Yahoo!, Hotmail and poor AOL users. But how much of that is really “utterly fascinating psychographic analysis” – as described by some of the retweeters – and how much is just over-extending the concept of marketing segmentation? Is the average Gmail user significantly different from the average Yahoo! user?

This is how that post summarized its findings:

  • AOL users are most likely to be overweight women ages 35-64 who have a high school diploma and are spiritual, but not religious. They tend to be politically middle of the road, in a relationship of 10+ years, and have children. AOL users live in the suburbs and haven’t traveled outside their own country. Family is their first priority. AOL users mostly read magazines, have a desktop computer, listen to the radio, and watch TV on 1-3 DVRs in their home. At home, they lounge around in sweats. AOL users are optimistic extroverts who prefer sweet snacks and like working on a team.
  • Gmail users are most likely to be thin young men ages 18-34 who are college-educated and not religious. Like other young Hunch users, they tend to be politically liberal, single (and ready to mingle), and childless. Gmail users live in cities and have traveled to five or more countries. They’re career-focused and plugged in — they mostly read blogs, have an iPhone and laptop, and listen to music via MP3s and computers (but they don’t have a DVR). At home, they lounge around in a t-shirt and jeans. Gmail users prefer salty snacks and are introverted and entrepreneurial. They are optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the situation.
  • Hotmail users are most likely to be young women of average build ages 18-34 (and younger) who have a high school diploma and are not religious. They tend to be politically middle of the road, single, and childless. Hotmail users live in the suburbs, perhaps still with their parents, and have traveled to up to five countries. They mostly read magazines and contemporary fiction, have a laptop, and listen to music via MP3s and computers (but they don’t have a DVR). At home, Hotmail users lounge around in a t-shirt and jeans. They’re introverts who prefer sweet snacks and like working on a team. They consider themselves more pessimistic, but sometimes it depends on the situation.
  • Yahoo! users are most likely to be overweight women ages 18-49 who have a high school diploma and are spiritual, but not religious. They tend to be politically middle of the road, in a relationship of 1-5 years, and have children. Yahoo! users live in the suburbs or in rural areas and haven’t traveled outside their own country. Family is their first priority. They mostly read magazines, are almost equally likely to have a laptop or desktop computer, listen to the radio and cds, and watch TV on 1-2 DVRs in their home. At home, Yahoo! users lounge around in pajamas. They’re extroverts who prefer sweet snacks and like working on a team. Yahoo! users are optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the situation.

I’m primarily a Gmail user, and definitely not a young man under 34, not single, not thin. Maybe I’m the exception that confirms the rule, but looking at how the data was collected and how it’s analyzed, you start wondering about what they mean by “margin of error is +/- 1%”. First of all, the sample is composed of Hunchers (people who bothered to answer their 20 questions to build a taste profile). The majority of respondents use Gmail, and Yahoo! is not even the second largest contingent. Contrast that with other data showing that Yahoo! Mail may have three times more visits that Gmail, even though that advantage seems to be shrinking.

Of course, this is nothing new. A year ago, as the Hunch post acknowledges, the Oatmeal has done a similar, tongue-in-cheek, analogy (please do visit their site for a more readable image):

Oatmeal: Email Domains

Similar to the Mac guy vs. the PC guy, and all the generational stereotyping, these shallow interpretations of market segmentation carry some degree of prejudice behind their light-hearted approach. Of course, there’s no such a thing as the average person, which would be Asian, Christian, a Mandarin speaker, with no access to computers or the Internet and no University degree. Most of us would not fit that profile.

That’s not to say that market segmentation is not a useful tool, but a bare minimum quality to it is needed. The text book example of inappropriate use of that tool is to divide table salt buyers into blond and brunette customers and mistake the differences between those two groups as indicators of purchasing behavior. Useful market segments need to be measurable, substantial, accessible, differentiable and actionable (Kotler et al.).

Of course, there is probably some merit in the domain comparisons with regard to AOL users. Because AOL was extremely popular as an Internet service provider in the 1990s and almost insignificant now, it does serve as a marker of a given segment of the population who remained loyal to it. Other than that, most of the attributes linked to the other major mail domains are likely to not be substantial, differentiable and actionable. Discarding Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail users as not being computer savvy or career-focused or “plugged-in” may be a major mistake in one’s online marketing strategy.


The conversation I never had: a belated Valentine’s Day tale

15 02 2011

In the early 1990’s, I was just starting in my first real job at Unisys in São Paulo, Brazil. One of my first assignments was a visit to the data processing centre of a government agency, an impressive facility in the outskirts of São Paulo:


PRODESP Processing Data Centre in Taboão da Serra, São Paulo, Brazil (Source: Google Maps)

The person giving the tour was proudly describing the place as state-of-art, from the façade made of concrete-based frames that ensured efficient protection from sunlight, to the internal sound-absorbing panels that allowed you to have a private conversation standing a few meters away from the next person. Many years later, I learned that the two architects responsible for that project were Pedro Paulo Mello Saraiva and my future father-in-law, Setsuo Kamada. It was quite a surprise to me back then, but a bigger one was still about to come.

I married Setsuo’s daughter in 1999. As it’s common among new comers to Canada, our wedding ceremony was at the Toronto City Hall. It was a simple but unforgettable event in our lives, and my in-laws came from Brazil to attend it, along with a close circle of friends.

Sadly, in 2005, he passed away, and I still sorely miss his calm demeanour, his wisdom and his never-ending pursuit of knowledge. An accomplished architect, he was a bit of a geek at heart: I recall him trying out solar panels much before they were fashionable, and was an early adopter of webcams, digital photography, and one of the first people I saw to connect his cable TV to a computer. I used to have these long conversations with him about everything from biology to technology to world cultures to language oddities.

Roughly two years after his death, my wife and I were spending a few days in São Paulo, when she accidentally found this postcard, sent by him to my mother-in-law in 1974, while on a long work trip to North America:


The message, in Portuguese, reads:

Toronto, May 27, 1974

Dear Y.

The United States, not so much, but Canada, I would like you to get to know. One day, we will come together. Be sure about it.


It took him 25 years to fulfill that promise. In 1999, he finally came back to Toronto for the first time since writing that card, to attend the wedding ceremony of his only daughter with lucky me. In the same place depicted in the postcard, the Toronto City Hall.

It was mind boggling. That is the conversation I never had with him that I’ll regret forever. That postcard for me will always be the definitive Valentine’s day card.

On erasing tweets and writing your biography in real time

11 01 2011

Research on Iran. by Negar Mottahedeh Social M...

Image via Wikipedia

As previously seen in Biznology:

As Twitter and Facebook have come to the front row of the Web in the last few years, a few have hinted that, by posting frequent status updates, in practice people were writing their autobiographies in real time. That’s dandy and catchy, but an often neglected aspect of it is that this online biography is not only being written by the main agent, but by many others sharing the social media space with the author. Doing it online also means no edits, as the backspace key might not be as effective as it used to be with the good old word processor. In that light, when posting status and photo updates, be ready to have those re-interpreted by others based on future events. Furthermore, be aware: the misinterpretation can happen with quotes that are not even yours.

A few years ago, Bernie Michalik from IBM and I were chatting about the “original” architecture profession and the IT-related one, when he brought up a nice metaphor comparing the design of actual houses with the IT architecture for security and privacy. We typically project houses with front and backyards, verandas, doors, windows, and curtains so that we can set distinct levels of security and privacy for different parts of the property or or for different times of the day and the year—overnight, weekends, when away on vacation, etc.

That conversation led me to see Philip Johnson’s Glass and Brick Houses in Connecticut from a different perspective. Johnson actually lived in his Mies van der Rohe-inspired Glass House, depicted here:

Glass House, Philip Johnson, exterior – by Kathia Shieh, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

While some may feel comfortable with how open the living room was designed, I would suspect that very few would have a sound sleeping night at the totally transparent bedroom:

Glass House, Philip Johnson, living room and bedroom – by Kathia Shieh, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

On the other side of the privacy spectrum, and in the same property, you’ll find the Brick House, with barely any windows to the external world:

Brick House, Philip Johnson, by Staib, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Thinking further about this metaphor, and about Clay Shirky’s quote in the opening image (“Social Media: it’s like the phone turned into a radio”), I see both comparisons as useful and bright but still incomplete. The missing piece is the traceable tracking record aspect of the Internet. In a world of, Google-cached pages, RSS readers, Twitpics, and retweets, you write once, and it’s cached everywhere. So yes, online privacy is like a house, but with surveillance cameras owned by third parties, and social media is like a radio, but with a full podcast archive available to everybody. And often, you are not in the driver’s seat to determine when to close and when to open the curtains.

It’s useful, thus, to compare blogging or microblogging frequency with the fossil record from Biology books:

Some of us are like Twitter machines, logging dozens of times a day our actions, thoughts, and events, while others do that very rarely. Most users of social media are probably in between the two extremes.

If you never use social media and think that makes you safe, think again: others might be digitizing your actions in your behalf. It happens all the time in Facebook and Twitter: people will post pictures with you, and will talk about the coffee or dinner you had together. And it definitely happens in the corporate world too. The HBR article “What’s Your Personal Social Media Strategy” tells the real world story of the CEO of a global technology firm, with no active social media presence, having his semi-private comments entering the public realm via a student attending a presentation of his.

From the CEO of Best Buy having his Twitter account hacked (his disowned tweet is still available if you know where to find it) to all the discussions around whether or not Sarah Palin erased her controversial tweet stating “don’t retreat, instead RELOAD!” to Obama quoting The Untouchables, our social media record is there to stay – even when it’s not ours.

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A Time to Meet: The Book

22 12 2010

The first “serious” book I read in my life was a Portuguese adaptation for young readers of “Sans Famille” (“Nobody’s Boy”), by Hector Malot:

Not the best choice in the world, I admit, but hey, I was 9 or 10, and was influenced by my dad and my sister, who were both avid readers. If they could read “Ulysses”, I could certainly start my reader list with the thickest book in that 50-volume “Youth Classics” collection. Silly ambition: to this date, that’s the saddest book I ever read, a 19th century precursor of “The Kite Runner”. Not for the faint of heart for sure.

After that, I have read my fair share of books until my early 20’s, but not so much since then. Professional life changed my reading pattern abruptly from “Animal Farm” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to “The C Programming Language” and “Design Patterns”. In retrospect, perhaps “Sans Famille” was not that bad 🙂 . In the last few years, my leisure reading has been pretty much restricted to vacation time. Back in the fall, instead of going for some new material, I went for more homey fare.

Even after all these years, my favorite book is one that I read for the first time in my teens: “O Encontro Marcado” (“A Time to Meet”), by Brazilian author Fernando Sabino:

Most people would probably find this a very average book, and even a disappointing one, as it does not actually have an ending, it just vanishes at some random point in the storyline. Note that I’m not saying that this is the best book in the world, I’m just saying it’s the book I liked the most: it has to do with a time in my life, and reading it again is a travel back on the memory lane. I usually see it as a Brazilian counterparty to Huckleberry Finn, with the difference that you follow Huck until his 40s.

Translating excerpts from the book to English to include in this post turned out to be an impossible task for my poor literary skills. Luckily, over the past weekend, while casually browsing the net, I found a company in South Africa selling a rare English translation of that book (by John Procter, published in 1967), making me buy my first paper book since I started using the Kindle and the iPad. I’m looking forward to seeing how good that version is. You can find some quotes from that edition in Wikiquote:

  • Dante would not have forgotten: they say that when Dante was a boy, he was asked: Dante what is the best food? to test his memory. Eggs, replied Dante. Years later, when Dante was a grown man, he was asked only: how? and Dante replied: fried. p30
  • Gide says the hell of this life is that between a hundred paths we have to choose only one, and live wih nostalgia for the other ninety nine. p51
  • Conmigo se hay vuelto loca toda la anatomía. ¡Soy todo corazón! p64
  • writers without books, poets without verses, painters without pictures p198
  • the circle of politicians which surrounded him–flatterers, eventual profiteers, chaged ideas and convictions like changing a shirt, followed the expediency of the moment. p245
  • The other passengers gazed at each other and there was established that silent solidarity of those who secretly hope to God that the plane will not fall. p264
  • Everything one sees is merely a projection of what one does not see, its true nature and substance. p315
  • I was going to tell you something very important. But it is so important I’d rather not say it. Only that which is not said is sincere… Only silence is sincere. The silence of someone who is sleeping, for example. How sincere is a sleeper! Sincere as a flower… It is in sleeping that everyone reveals themselves, because of the silence.

To finish this post, this is what the book author, who passed away in 2004, had written on his epitaph, attending his wish (and reminding me of the Benjamin Button movie):

Aqui jaz Fernando Sabino, que nasceu homem e morreu menino.
(Here rests Fernando Sabino, who was born a man and died a boy.)

If you get that, you get the essence of “Time to Meet”.

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Vestiges of Life: Blogging and Tweeting

18 12 2010

Last week, four different people from my post-IBM world told me in person that they read my blog regularly. While tempted to reply, “do you mean that abandoned thing that’s collecting virtual dust somewhere in WordPress land?”, or “oh, you are that one weekly hit I get in the stats”, I actually feel that I’m the one missing a lot by not blogging, even if nobody else ever reads a line of it.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Bamboo Raft”, with the high hopes that the posts here would be “floating around freely through places and thoughts”. Then, as always, reality sets in, and I found myself blogging very rarely over the last 2 years. Looking back, there’s a clear pattern where the blogger in me wakes up every 6 months or so with a renewed intent of doing it more often, as you can see in “Blog, Interrupted” and “The Bamboo Raft is a submarine”. This post is probably just the latest installment of that series. In my attempt to rationalize my poor blogging and twitter efforts, I’m resorting to a common theme here at this Raft: calling Darwin to my rescue.

Darwin and gradual change
Parody of the Shepard Fairey Obama poster
by Mike Rosulek (Feb 2009)

One of the main arguments used against Darwinian evolution is that the fossil record shows no evidence of the gradual transformation that is supposed to take place according to that theory. The counter-argument, of course, is that circumstances that allow fossilization to occur are extremely rare. Thus, trying to understand the history of life on Earth based solely on the fossil record is like trying to understand the original version of “The Brothers Karamazov” when you know only a half-dozen words in Russian.

As you can see in the diagram above, the fossil record does not register every single event that took place on Earth. That’s for computer logs:

Computer logs: definitely not like the fossil record

Over the last 5 years or so, several folks referred to blogging, then Facebook, then Twitter as tools that allow people to write their autobiographies in real-time. Some people are actually very good at that. Some have even been logging actions and thoughts ages ago, using the ol’ and good pen-and-paper. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau kept very detailed journals that resemble to some extent Facebook status updates or tweets, and used those to feed their more formal work. I love this excerpt from “Autobiography in Real-Time: The Journals of Emerson and Thoreau”.

Emerson used his journal, as Thoreau used his, primarily as a means of facilitating more finished work. It was where he both developed ideas and stored information; it was a place where entire phrases and sentences—sometimes even entire paragraphs—were preserved until the appropriate time for their removal and transfer into essays and lectures. But that’s not to say that there aren’t moments here that are not entirely fresh. Actually, all of it’s fresh. It’s the essays that are borrowed from recyclable material, and there are, of course, plenty of readers who would prefer to receive their Emerson in this form. To call these journals unselfconscious or uninhibited would be to demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of their circumstances; but to call them spontaneous and unimpeded would not be. At their best—at their most mature and august—they are Emerson’s stated alternative to the meek young man in the library—they are “Man Thinking.” The same goes for the journals of Thoreau, too, of course. These are two men of unsurpassed perception and eloquence who made it their life’s mission to look and see, and then to record and share what it was they saw.

As I’m light-years from having “unsurpassed perception and eloquence”, my blogging and tweeting objectives had to be much more modest. Instead of running a play-by-play narrative of what I do and think, I’m settling for just capturing vestiges of life: random glimpses of what’s here, there, and everywhere. Like this Toronto scene that caught my attention Thursday morning on my way to work:

Glenn Gould statue holding a Calla Lily in front of the CBC building

Thus, I see my irregular social networking activities as the fossil record of a regular person’s real life. It’s incomplete, uneven and full of gaps, driven more by serendipity and entropy, and less than by direction and discipline. A bamboo raft may, after all, be an appropriate name for what this blog has become.

Twitter and Politics

14 12 2010
Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931 

Image by National Library NZ on The Commons via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology on Nov 9, 2010:

Back in the summer, I wrote a pair of posts about Social Media and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and Mike Moran talked about reaching your audience during that big event. Well, one can argue that elections and politics can generate passionate discussions that rival or even surpass those by soccer fans, and last much longer than the 30 days of the popular tournament. Following a Twitter list of World Cup players is entertaining, but a list of actual head of states can give us a unique glimpse on how diplomacy is shaping up in the Social Media space. If you want to know which heads of state are using Twitter, how active they are and their following/follower patterns, you came to the right place.

In the past month, I had the unusual experience of being in Brazil during the first round of the general elections (October 3), then back to Toronto during the mayoral election (October 25) and the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections (October 31). On top of that, the US midterm elections were a hot topic around the globe last week, making it almost impossible for me to ignore politics for the last 6 weeks or so. Naturally, politics is a hot topic, and not one that I’m particularly keen in discussing in this blog. Having said that, I find fascinating to analyze the social media layer that is permeating the political scene globally.

Inspired by a TechCrunch article on Twitter diplomacy prior to the G20 meeting in Seoul this week, I used the @davos/g20 list curated by the World Economic Forum as a starting point to visualize how the heads of state are using Twitter. Being from Latin America, I supplemented that list with a few other verified accounts to have a better view of regional politics as well.

I tend to write long and convoluted posts, but in this particular case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words. So, instead of a navigating the troubled waters of political analysis, I’ll just leave you with a number of visualizations covering different aspects of the Twitter social networking dynamics among this very select group, courtesy of my niece, Gabriela Passos, who’s visiting me this month.

Some points to consider when looking at these charts:

  • They don’t show a complete picture: there might be more heads of state using Twitter, but I preferred to use a curated list from a reliable source as my main reference
  • The number of people followed by these accounts is relevant in at least one subtle, but important way: you can only send direct Twitter messages to people who follow you. By following a large number of Twitter users, these leaders open a private channel that may reveal interesting insights that they would not have access to otherwise.
  • The number of Tweets shown below is a historical cumulative total as of this writing, a metric that favors early adopters. A more interesting metric would be the frequency of tweets over time, but this would be too time consuming for me to get. I bet there will be some online tools covering that aspect some time soon.

The first infographic shows how active each of these head of state Twitter accounts are. It’s interesting to note that @whitehouse (1.8 million followers), @PresidenciaMX (150 thousand followers) and @Laura_Ch (11 thousand followers), despite being order of magnitudes apart in the attention they get, all tweet a lot. On the other side, @JuliaGillard, Prime Minister of Australia, only has 166 tweets, but a considerable number of followers.

Number of Tweets
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

The second set of charts reveals the followers / following pattern. France and Turkey tie on the low end, both of them not following anybody at all, while @Number10gov and @BarackObama follow over half a million people.

Legend for Twitter charts below
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

North America (Canada, U.S. and Mexico)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Central and South America (Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Europe (UK, France, Russia, Turkey)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Oceania (Australia), Africa (South Africa), Asia (South Korea)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Finally, the last diagram shows that, even among the head of states, you following your peer is not always reciprocated in kind. Cristina Kirchner, president of Argentina, follows a considerable number of her Latin American colleagues, but only two of them follow her back.

Cristina Kirchner follows / followers
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

One interesting side note: Seeing my niece creating all these infographics by hand, it became painfully clear to me that, despite all the efforts to develop better Social Networking visualization tools (Mashable has a good list here), we still have a long way to go to get the most from the information hidden under the surface in Twitter and elsewhere in the social media landscape.

After seeing the finished product, you can’t help but conclude that politics is but one more area where social media (and Twitter in particular) has become the place for activity that would have happened elsewhere, and has spawned activity that would not have happened at all.

On Leaks, Privacy and Social Media

13 12 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks

Image via Wikipedia

As previously seen on Biznology:

Last week, we learned more about world leaders and diplomacy than some of us would care to know – with revelations about Gaddafi and his nurse being the front-runner candidate for the most TMZ-like material made available, courtesy of Wikileaks. All the buzz and panic that ensued following the release of the US Embassy diplomatic cables motivated a colleague of mine to ask me: are social media’s mantras of transparency, information sharing and digitization of conversations, relationships and activities saving us or are they dooming us all?

Even though Wikileaks have been called “social media journalism” by some, the seeds that enabled their model were planted much before the age of Twitter or Facebook. Clay Shirky had already stated in his book Here Comes Everybody:

(…) in an age of inifinite perfect copyability to many people at once, the very act of writing and sending an e-mail can be a kind of publishing, because once an e-mail is sent, it is almost impossible to destroy all the copies, and anyone who has a copy can broadcast it to the world at will, and with ease. Now, and presumably from now on, the act of creating and circulating evidence of wrongdoing to more than a few people, even if they all work together, will be seen as a delayed but public act.

A clever Venn diagram was circulated over the Internet in late October, suggesting that nothing in the Internet is actually private. The picture below was based on that diagram:

“A helpful Venn diagram” – derivation work

I would argue that the Internet is not the culprit either. I still remember a good friend of mine saying in the early 1990s: “the only things that are really private are the ones you never shared with anybody”. Thus, a Venn diagram depicting privacy vs. the Internet would look more like this:

A relatively recent case of private information leaking to the general public corroborates that point-of-view: Tiger Woods’ challenging year started with verbal accounts of marital infidelity and a phone voice message. No email, no tweets, no Facebook status updates took any part in it. In fact, the now number 2 golfer in the world has finally turned on his Twitter account, seemingly to restore his public image. Ironically enough, by checking the Wikipedia entry on this subject, I learned that Woods and his former wife own a 155-foot yacht called Privacy!

Any concern that by adopting social media practices a company or person will be more vulnerable to this kind of exposure is not well supported by actual evidence. By adding transparency to conversations, relationships and activities, the use of social media may actually contribute to reduce opportunities for doing the wrong or the hidden thing in the first place. Furthermore, it puts you on the driver seat – the remaining question being how much of a good driver you are.

Perhaps we are taking ourselves too seriously here. To keep all this in perspective and also for a good laugh, I highly recommend you to read Julien Smith’s post, All social media experts “are actually the same person,” Wikileaks documents reveal. Here’s a sneak preview:

“Paul from Miami,” as he is identified in Wikileaks documents, appears to be the source of an entire industry of Twitter experts who seemingly give the same advice and yet somehow all have over 20,000 Twitter followers each. (…) Meanwhile, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange suggested more bombshells might be on the way. Speculation was rampant that “SEO experts” and “marketing gurus” might also all be sourced from a single individual, or worse, be “Paul from Miami” as well. Paranoia is on the rise.

Anyway, this is Aaron from Toronto, who I promise is not the same person as Paul from Miami, but on the Internet, I guess you would never know.

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