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Richard Feynman on marketing

"Cargo Cult Science" – by Richard Feynman.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

So, just because you copy the elements that apparently made something work before doesn’t mean that you’re going to be guaranteed that it will work again. In fact, given that we have no idea why some ideas spread and others don’t, the odds are that copying the headphones and the runways isn’t going to help you much at all.


So, what should Firefox do? Here’s an idea:

Fixing broken urls since 2006

Lots of people type the wrong thing into Firefox. When they do (like typing .con when you meant .com), they see this:

Oopstr can fix that. They can fix it by showing users a page with relevant recommendations and make it easy (with just one click) to find the thing they really wanted in the first place.

Lots of websites would like to reach people but are unable to get the right message in front of the right person at the right time. Well, the best time to give someone directions is when they’re lost. Make it easy for an advertiser to buy ads (through Google) or even better, to buy the whole page.

So, instead of seeing that useless error message, the surfer might see something like this:


THE THIRD THING: There’s a phantom net out there, an alternative reality that isn’t built around domain names. Instead, given the power of search and the browser, many organizations are profiting by grabbing traffic that isn’t heading for a specific branded URL. By leveraging the browser, Oopstr expands this opportunity dramatically.

For example, imagine a new virtual TLD like .safe. Type travel.safe and Oopstr takes over and suggests a number of relevant sites, all on a page paid for by a travel site.

The cool thing about this is that it can be organic and user driven. Once people start leaving breadcrumbs behind in Oopstr, other users can follow, seeing what the popular trails are.

THE TECHNOLOGY: Firefox knows what the person using the browser typed in that caused the error in the first place. They hand that information to oopstr, which compares it to a database of what previous lost searchers have typed in to correct themselves. They also use some common-sense algorithms—for example, replacing .con with .com.

Oopstr can quickly present the top seven matches, with the most common one set as the default. The user can click on any of them or type in a correction, which oopstr remembers and adds to the database.

This is the way computers are supposed to work. It’s not a test, after all. It’s a service, and if the computer knows what you want…

THE ADVERTISING: Every page carries Google adsense ads, which ought to have  higher-than-normal clickthrough and revenue numbers. Figure $2 per thousand as an average.

Each page is also for rent on a monthly basis. To rent a page, an advertiser gives oopstr a credit card and bids for the right to own all the ads in that column for a month. They set a minimum for each page based on what their Adsense revenue was in the previous month. Each month, the auction is redone, for each page. So, would you like to own traevl.com?

Once oopstr demonstrates the technology works, Firefox can add this option to Firefox preferences:

This will enable users to skip the page that oopstr runs with ads by permitting them to give oopstr permission to automatically take them where they want to go in the first place.

The upside to the user is one-click surfing.

The upside to Oopstr is that they can now create useful new TLDs and sell them. Things like .safe and .shop and others can bypass the existing systems.

Hey, it’s an idea. Have a nice weekend.


Today at the Union Square Market, the maple syrup guy was selling fiddlehead ferns. No doubt they were wild, a special treat you find in the forest for a week or two. They were $6.50 a pound.

Two booths down, there was a farmer, also selling ferns. For a little less, as far as I could tell (his were by the pint). You could guess that each guy was disappointed that the other one existed… obviously, they think, if the other guy wasn’t selling fiddleheads, I’d be doing better.

In fact, that theory applies to every person at the market. Every booth imagines that it would be a lot better if they didn’t have to share the crowds with all the other booths.

Probably the same way at the mall, now that you think about it.

And online too, I guess.

Of course, this reasoning is fallacious. Without all the other booths/stores/websites, there are no crowds!

The power of the mall is that your competition is right next store. The magic of the web is not that you can somehow bait people to your site and entrap them. What’s becoming more clear every day is that the more you send people out, the wider open your door to the mall hallways is, the better you’re going to do.

The freeloader problem

I wonder if there is one.

Here’s a guy at Starbucks who nicely consented to being photographed. You’ll notice that he’s eating a burger and fries and yes, a beverage, all from Mickey D’s. (that coffee cup on his table is a vestige from the last customer).

Except he’s not eating at McDonald’s. He’s eating at a very very busy Starbucks, a place where if the line is too long or there are no tables, people leave.

I asked him why he was eating at Starbucks, and he didn’t hesitate, "It’s way nicer here."

Are marketers  training an entire generation that there’s never a limit? That free music and free wifi and free ebooks and free lobby space isn’t just an inducement to pay attention, but is, in fact, a right?

I’m still betting that the busy people you want to reach will be appropriately motivated by free. But it’s a scary picture.

Do apostrophe’s matter?

You bet they do.

You might not care a bit about an apostrophe that modify’s the word incorrectly, but lot’s of people care. They care because it is an instantaneous method for determining whether the person writing is facile with the language and/or cares about doing things correctly.

Now that first impressions are as quick as a few letters in a blog post title (sic!) or a sign in a window, every character matters.

Stories and my back

A slow week for good posts, largely because I put my back into a week of spasms doing yoga (or as Fred would say: Yo! GAH!!.)

Some of you are already writing me mail, pointing out how great yoga is when done properly. You can stop. I know this. Of course, you are right. Of course it is also right that not all yoga is done properly, and that there is plenty within the canon that should probably be deleted.

What’s interesting is that the worldview of "yoga is good/cool/right/mysterious/worthy/interesting" is quite powerful. It’s ripe for storytelling, because so many people want to believe the stories. It’s a modern archetype, based on faith in a very old idea.

The easiest way to get a reaction is to tell a story that resonates with (for or against) a cherished idea. Change doesn’t always happen slowly. It tends to happen quickly in areas where people don’t care. In the areas where the worldview is widespread and the stories are durable, change is much more difficult.

Your new computer room

It’s in Kheri Kalan, an industrial town in India. Fifty street kids use it to learn every afternoon. John Wood and the Room To Read team built it with your Big Moo purchase royalties. Thanks.

Habits, making and breaking

Habits are essential to marketing and to profits.

Starbucks in the morning is a habit. So is having your law firm do a trademark search every time you invent a new name. Buying bottled water is a habit, but it didn’t used to be.

Making a habit is a lot easier than breaking one (ask a smoker) and habits often come in surprising ways (ask Jerry, who now has a manicure habit).

If you want to grow, you’re either going to have to get more people to adopt your habit, (which might require breaking a different habit) or somehow increase habitual behavior among your happy customers.

Free books (and the box too)

Thanks to Todd and Jack, there are 250 free cereal boxes with your name on it. After that, this special edition of Free Prize Inside is only $5. But only till they’re gone. (Actually, the free ones are here).

Have fun. It’s not X-ray specs, but it does stay crunchy, even in soy milk.