Yearly Archives: 2009

Of Ants and Elephants

anantIt’s safe to say that since the dawn of the personal computer industry, tech marketing has been modeled after the theories of generalized technology adoption. The advice: one should market to the early adopters and grow into the early majority of the bell curve of adoption over time being ever cognizant of the chasm between the two.

More recently folks like Malcolm Gladwell and others have gotten us to focus on the long tail, outliers and the edges of markets to find the connectors, tipping points and influencers. Much of this work has celebrated social media and networks as proof these trends theories are correct and sound.

I’m beginning to believe we may have missed something in our rush to anoint the latest round of social scientists and their approach to using new media for marketing: ants. Or should I say more specifically the immense size of small numbers. So here’s a tangent. Some time ago I read that ants make up the largest cumulative biomass of species that walks the earth. The problem with looking for the connectors makes us elephant hunters when maybe we should consider what would happen if we leveraged the strength of the ants.

Could it be that 1,000 complete nobodies impact a market more than one somebody in the age of new media? Have we devolved to the rule of the mob? Let’s assume I have 150 friends on Facebook and 50 followers on Twitter and I decide to compose a glowing post about a movie I just saw. Judging by what I’ve seen on these networks 3-4 people will comment on or like my post and then if flows out of sight in the stream of news for my friends. What’s interesting is the 3-4 people’s comments will show up on their newsfeed which means their 150 of so friends will have access to my post. In the end I can see that from my one post there’s the potential of nearly 500 people hearing my voice.

So what? Newspapers land on millions of doorsteps each morning. Get to an editor, the elephant, and you’re home free. Or maybe not. If I go back to my previous story and use the 500 viewers of my comment and multiply that by the other 999 complete nobodies that made a similar comment we can see that 500,000 viewers have seen a similar post. Yes, the paper gets delivered and you can use the old school “impressions” metric but in the end we all know a small percentage of those who get the paper will ever see a particular story.

I haven’t been able to mathematically prove it but I’m beginning to think all the latest thinking on new media hasn’t deeply internalized how it actually works in the wild. How many people are influenced by one person’s comment on a social networking site? I don’t think the math is simple; rather I think it’s quite nuanced.

In my day job I’m going to test the idea of marketing to the middle. We are going to test the strength of ants. I’ll keep you posted on the outcomes.

Incredible India

mm_women_communitypoint1The local tourism slogan here is “Incredible India”. It would seem to do a fair job of helping to inspire travelers to explore the deep richness and variety of Indian history and culture. While it is not tourism per se that brings me to India, it is to sample in the incredibleness that is India.

Home to over a billion persons, India is one of the more densely populated countries in the world to still maintain a traditional rural and bustling urban life. I am here to learn about the water crisis. I suppose most westerners would be surprised by this, since many consider the water crisis only an African issue. It is profoundly not. In fact nearly two-thirds of those who lack access to safe water live in south Asia. And to my surprise, the number of Indians who lack access to improved sanitation is nearing double the number of people on the entire continent of Africa that lack these basic services.

But like anything, to really understand an issue, you have to peer behind the numbers and walk the streets to see it first hand.

Just yesterday, I visited four different urban slums here in Trichy, India. The conditions are visibly harsh, but the people I met didn’t seem troubled by their station in life. Here, many families will earn the equivalent of USD$2-3 per day, ususally for jobs such as loading trucks, working lower-end retail positions, selling small items, or providing other services or manual labor. This level of wealth will put these families in the “middle third” of the world’s poor and well ahead of the 10 percent of Trichy residents who live below these means. Many have bank deposits, and surprisingly, some own property – be that as it may. Most of the residences I visited were barely the size of a suburban American bedroom; five, seven or eight people, their belongings, and their entire livelihood fit inside this residence.

The water crisis here is unique. Over the past decade, municipalities have constructed massive water towers which are filled with river water and then redistributed to community water points throughout the slums. Usually 50-60 families will share a single water point – a single tap. We arrived early this morning to see water collection; as often is the case, water is only available from 6:30 a.m. to around 8 a.m. every morning. Women are only allowed to take three vessels for their family’s needs. If they don’t arrive early enough to take their place in line, they will go without for the day. Women here will spend two hours a day collecting water. These are actually comparably favorable conditions, considering what many others in India and other developing countries must endure.

Sanitation in the slums is what one might expect. There are community latrines which charge a one-rupee (about two-cent) use fee; however, every latrine I visited was without customers. I did see open defecation and other sewage flowing through the “gutters” of the slum into a nearby stream. So, I am unsure of the logic of charging people for latrine usage.

On the edge of town, water is provided via water tower or water lorry, the latter being a large tanker truck that delivers water on a set schedule to neighborhoods. We visited one such place today but discovered water is delivered only every other day, not this morning as expected.

Finally, I did see families enjoying the convenience of household water connections and latrines in the slums. These were provided through our WaterCredit initiative here in India. They still have schedule limitations but the convenience can save them hours a day compared to their fellow neighbors.

Given the nature of construction in these villages and the need for water pressure, the water connections are normally 1.5 to two meters below street level. As I visited these families, I was proudly ushered to a step-down cement area, normally just inside the front door, where women were happily filling water vessels. In groups of 12-15, these families (or, more accurately, these women) borrow money through microfinance institutions to finance a water connection. The terms are favorable and are often repaid prior to the loan term which is normally 12-18 months.

India is most certainly incredible.

Chapter Next

riverAs many of you know, for the past 20 or so years I’ve been enjoying an nice career in the technology industry. Nice stops at the Bluetooth SIG, Apple, Intel, Iomega, iModules and few other startups along the way. It has been a fantastic time and I have been fortunate to have a knack for something that also pays relatively well.

Since I was in my late 20’s I had always dreamed of my turn as the founder of a high-tech startup. It was going to be my fast ride on the big IPO/buyout fantasy of “never having to work again” – unless I wanted to. Over the past 4-5 years I have come to the conclusion that this dream has passed me by while also growing disillusioned with the “toys for boys” mantra of new technology. Lord knows I love new gadgets, but catching the next big thing, in my analysis, has become little more than catching the wind. It is nothing.

About a year ago I was introduced to WaterPartners (water.org) through a good friend. During a laid back casual lunch we talked about the state of technology, social networking and the direction of online engagement. It was a good time and led to a fun proof of concept consulting project this past summer. I didn’t realize it would open a new chapter for my professional, and hopefully personal, life.

On 13-Feb I will be starting a new position with WaterPartners leading their marketing and individual donor engagement efforts. I am humbled I’ve been given the opportunity to help them and terrified by the challenge. The folks there do fantastic work – my job will be simply to focus a lens on their accomplishments and energize a community to support the effort. If you haven’t heard of them, WaterPartners delivers clean water projects in the developing world. We in the western world might find it difficult to imagine how desperate this issue is in places like Eastern Africa and rural India but it very tragic. As I learned more and more about their mission and philosophy, I could see how helping them would not only provide me new challenges but could also reshape my perspective on myself and others by doing something that matters.

Please don’t mistake my story as being judgmental. We all have our life journeys. It is only because of my years of work in the tech market that I’m able to consider such an opportunity and certainly living in the midwest eases the transition. I’ve also been very lucky to work on some very cool products and technologies over my career so in hindsight I really didn’t miss a thing. It’s just time to start the next chapter of my life.

Keep an eye open to water issues over the coming few years. If I’m up to the challenge you won’t have to look very hard, it will be coming to you.