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Top 4 takeaways from Mumbrella MSIX 2017

The MSIX conference worked to prove that ‘marketing science’ is no oxymoron. Here's what we learnt.

The very best geeks assembled in the chilled lower chambers of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum for the 2017 Mumbrella MSIX conference. Marketers, academics, psychologists, comedians and even a collaborator of Jane Goodall’s (aka the chimp whisperer) stacked out the program. Here’s what we learnt.

The MSIX conference was a thought-provoking day of diverse ideas, out on a mission to prove that ‘marketing science’ is no oxymoron. Hosted by Adam Ferrier (a familiar face from ABC’s Gruen, who we learned used to trade stock market shares during school lunch) and rounded out by The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel, it showcased speakers of many stripes. Insights were shared by some, success stories gloated upon by others and despite Ferrier’s promise, nobody got cash prizes at the end for asking good questions.

Here, we present the learning we took home Friday evening (that survived the complementary post-conference drinks, anyway).

1. Byron Sharp is nobody’s tool

Slick, self-possessed and with a rather arresting sarcasm (and equally arresting Martin Short smile), Byron Sharp was the hot marketing icon to open the Mumbrella MSIX conference. Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute – the world’s largest centre for research into marketing – the Adelaide professor is renowned for his tussles with colourful contrarian Mark Ritson, and for his divisive if well-articulated views in How Brands Grow.

Sharp used his time (and 45 minutes over it) to elaborate these views, and despair that modern marketers continue to ignore their empirical, real-world weight in the manner of “medieval doctors”. Central to his argument is this: segmentation, hypertargeting, loyalty programs and the like are total wastes of money if your business objectives are around growth. To get the edge over your competitors, he said, you have to quit fracking your existing customer base and look beyond the over-tightened scope of your buyer personas.

As we’ve touched on previously, we at Mahlab aren’t 100% sold on Sharp’s views (and, judging by the #MSIX17 tweets, nor were some others in the crowd). While we do think allowing for a flexibility and space in brand messaging is important to speak to those outside the bubble of the ‘ideal buyer’, as content marketers, we’re of the opinion too that people genuinely appreciate personalisation. We also think ‘right people, right message, right time’ is a pretty good marketing mantra, overused though it is.

One thing we did agree with Sharp on though: lovemarks – a concept made into a book by Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi – is a neologism for the cringe bin (incidentally lampooned by The Marketoonist in July). And not only because it sounds like the name of a vampire romance tween movie. In a clip Sharp played for us, Roberts talked openly about the origin story of Lovemarks: “We backfilled all the data into a concept!” he explained eagerly – drawing forth from the audience a well-deserved, explosive guffaw.

2. Data presentation don’t have to be boring

Big data doesn’t always appear as beautiful data. The methods used to represent it to either company decision-makers or the public is far too often ugly, intimidating and resistant to comprehension. This doesn’t make it easy to act upon.

Deb Verhoeven, Associate Dean of Engagement and Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, wants to change this. She specialises in the creative translation and transmediation of numbers into compelling stories that inspire enriched ways of understanding. Pie charts be damned.

One project she rolled out to illustrate the point was (after a coerced singalong to Max Merritt and the Meteors) The Ultimate Gig Guide (TUGG), which traced the flow of gigs through Melbourne suburbs over time. Rather than lump everything on a map, the TUGG team ‘songified’ each band’s data set into a unique track. Listening, you could tell where a band played relative to how far they were from Melbourne’s CBD (which became pitch) and the amount of time between gigs (the time between notes). It was pretty neat.

A more sobering picture emerged from data around gender representation in the Australian screen and research industry. In a swirling, schizoid spider cobweb of an image, we saw in a glimpse how many male producers would work only with men – somewhere in the area of 40%, with 75% having zero to one women on their team. This is “the shape of patriarchy”, said Verhoeven.

Data can tell a story, the lesson was here. And like with any story, it’s not just what you say, it’s how. If we can step outside the rigid traditional formats and think creatively about communicating data, we have a better chance of getting our messages across.

3. There are many ways to kill innovation

Every day, in businesses across the country, the neck of innovation is being stamped upon by a well-meaning boot. And, what’s more, most of us are owners of that boot. If you’ve participated in ‘blue sky thinking workshops’ there is no doubt. Have you no shame?

So argued Dr Amantha Imber in probably the most warm, witty and refreshing talks given on the day. An innovation psychologist and Founder of Inventium, Imber sent to the stocks all of our sombrely stupid ideas about innovating well.

The first: putting out a call for ideas. Doing this, said Imber, is only going to depress and discourage the people who asked. Employees are not likely in these questionnaires or forums to miraculously shine a light on how a business can self-disrupt to transcend its current state. Instead, they will more often use the opportunity to gripe, with responses like “innovation means installing a second company bathroom” or “if we want to succeed, we should be able to have more coffee breaks”. The high bar of what innovation could mean gets progressively lowered.

The second: we are way too full of ourselves when we try to innovate based on what ‘inspires’ our audiences. Don’t listen to the praise of your brand evangelists. Innovate around what you (or your competitors) are doing to piss your other customers off.

Another vital tip, worthy of a Business Insider article, is that one should never make any important decisions after lunch. This is no reflection of the lunch itself, a noble meal. It’s more that as the day marches forward and the number of decisions we make accrues, cognitive fatigue sets in. We become very poor at expending mental energy well.

What does this mean? Full-day workshops – where participants brainstorm in the morning and ideate in the afternoon – are for schmucks. Do yourself and your business a favour, advised Imber, and run it over two mornings.

4. When making a chatbot, presume nothing

Nothing beats banter as a way for humans to connect. But are we ready for a bantering chatbot? Not yet. Not if you’re listening to Douglas Nicol, anyway. And as founder of The Works and On Message, Australia’s first messaging specialist agency, you probably should be.

For years now, said Nicol, marketers and developers have assumed that customers want the human/bot interaction to resemble the human/human interaction as much as possible. They do this through working with what’s known as Natural Language Processing (NLP), an AI field that dates back to Alan Turing, which in this application has the machine mimicking a free-flowing, natural, down-to-earth repartee.

The result is often impressive, but ineffective. This is because these marketers are more likely to be indulging their tech fantasies than thinking about what their customers actually want. As Nicol pointed out, the average person doesn’t use a chatbot for engaging conversation. They’re using it for utility. They want a guided set of choices that will let them quickly satisfy a problem or need.

“The world of chatbots is the world of being handy in a consumer’s life,” Nicol said. “Don’t make it marketing froth.”

He also advised that going too hard on promotion might work against you when it comes to managing audience expectations. Undersell what your product/service can do, he said, and when your customers find out for themselves it’s more than you said it would be, that thrill of discovery, gratification and surprise is unmatchable. Like buying a vanilla ice cream and sinking your teeth into a Lindt chocolate ball at the centre.

Bonus: MSIX had some odd moments

The following may not be ‘top event takeaways’ but they are, in their own ways, noteworthy. We present them here as an addendum for the curious.

  • For reasons that went unexplained, the MSIX audience was divided in the first session into men on one side of the room and women on the other. We were also encouraged to divide ourselves into “those who make over and under 100k” in the second bloc of talks. This time (Ferrier complained), few obliged.
  • There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Fifteen minutes of empathy’. After which, presumably, everyone went back to being selfish prats. When the question was asked “How do you test empathy?” from an audience member, this writer was a little disappointed nobody dropped a Blade Runner reference.
  • eHarmony’s Nicole McInnes is angry at Todd Samson after he said that their couple matching algorithm is ‘pseudoscience’ on Gruen. After playing the clip with the offending claim, “the only thing pseudo here is your celebrity claim” she shot at his frozen image on the screen.
  • According to Andrew Keeffe, Director of Hardwired Humans, we can learn a lot from chimps when it comes to building professional relationships and changing behaviour. Their ‘grooming’ (ie picking lice of each other’s backs) is the equivalent of our having a chat, he explained.
  • Replying to an audience question with: “Read my book” did not endear Sharp to event tweeters.
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