Is More Data Always Better?

google think magazine data overload obesity information ideas processing analysisThere has been a discovery in the online marketing and data/statistics world in the last few years. We have had more websites, products and tools created online than we can possibly keep track of. The terms to describe this deluge of activity we have been hearing the most are “data overload” and “information overload” from both companies and consumers. This Google Magazine uses the term Data Obesity to describe this phenomenon.

They ask the question, why is more data always better?

I think the idea of “more data us better” is common from people who lived before the Internet was prevalent. We had to work hard to find data. Researching something meant going to a library and looking in a card catalog (or maybe something called Gopher) and then finding your way around the Dewey decimal system to find that book. And then sometimes they didn’t even have the book because it was checked out or possibly it was just filed wrong because nobody understood the Dewey decimal system.

On a related note recently we got invited to my cousin’s wedding in Santa Fe New Mexico. My dad promptly went to the library and checked out 3 books on Santa Fe and New Mexico. I cringed. He asked how to find out the flights to book something without a travel agent. I realized I have been traveling since 2000 this way and he stopped traveling about that time so he never has. I introduced him to Travelocity, it was mind blowing and a bit of data overload compared with the OAG book he used to use in the 80’s.

The point here is that finding data was really difficult. People had control over its distribution because it was in print. When it became more freely accessible due to Google and other companies efforts we assumed this would be good, because people could remember where to find it and use it whenever we wanted. We never thought it would get this big so fast. Now travel sites are overwhelming, they have too many choices and there are too many of them trying to get you to opt into something you don’t want while being over charged for bringing a suitcase on a flight. This is just one example of how data has gone exponential so quickly.

Others of us have come to a data overload conclusion when they have 200 emails in several in-boxes, 1000+ rss reader posts from feeds waiting, several work projects, 500+ Facebook wall posts in their feed and hundreds of tweets that have gone un-read. This is among a climate where you have to follow-up with projects 5-10 times to get things done, post blogs/tweets/FB status updates daily to keep on people’s radar, empty the DVR so it doesn’t get overloaded and auto delete something you really wanted, listen to the radio on the way to work just in case something big happens and still find time to scoop the litter box before it gets full and the cats poop on the floor.

And the real purpose in all those tweets/FB posts and feeds is that you business changes yearly and if you don’t know about the latest trend and some real insights about it before your boss asks about it, you won’t have a job for all that long. (in digital marketing)

Having data overload be a “good” problem to have from some people’s perspective (as in that it is growth oriented). The democratization of publishing combined with tracking methodology and databases have all contributed to this problem, giving everyone a voice, a potential following of readers, a data trail to analyze and method to say something important online 24/7/365.  And then we have an even bigger problem of processing what is being said, figuring out if it is important or not and sharing/processing/saving it in some way if it is. Acting on that data is way down the line and many of us don’t even get there.

And this isn’t even the big problem with data overload. Where will we store it all? Why do tweets disappear from search so quickly? Because there are millions of them and the failwhale is full. According to the ThinkQuarterly UK, there are 800 Exabytes of data/information created every two days. It took humans from the beginning of civilization until 2003 to create the first 800 Exabytes, and we’re on a roll now.

Where does all this seemingly random data go? How will we know what it says without having to go into a database table and read specific field information? Where are the software tools to manage all this and still give humans the ability to customize the out put in ways that match the behavior or business purposes that we really need? Does any of this stuff ever get deleted?

These are all huge questions we have to answer as more people publish, share, create, track and do business online. We also have to weigh the possibilities of sharing data openly and locking it behind walls as well as how will people comprehensively find what they need when they want to as well as gauge the validity/accuracy of the information presented?

I’m betting on paid services for personal and business data management/archiving & Analysis tools. We will pay for good analysis, good data access & processing and good reliability/backups when we feel the pain of missing good insight, losing good data and just too much happening. Both personally and professionally. But unless you know how to work with SAP, SPSS, SQL, Oracle or a bunch of other systems data management is largely out of your control at this point. They are the librarians of our digital data and they need to find a workable way to Dewey decimal system it back into order and allow us to use it as humans need to.

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Hallmark Keepsake Christmas Ornaments & Website Issues

I have been a Hallmark Keepsake Christmas Ornament fan since the late 1980’s when we discovered them. I was in Jr high at the time and the thought that a Christmas tree ornament could commemorate anything you want it to was liberating and fun. We ended up buying several ornaments each year until we had a full Christmas tree of just Hallmark Ornaments and white lights. We still buy hallmark keepsake ornaments every Christmas if they continue the series that we like. The classic cars, classic trucks and classic historic airplanes are three that my brother collects. He is determined to have a transportation only tree at some point, and after 15 years he is getting close to that. My mom and I prefer more winter and holiday themed ornaments and have bought some of the light and magic hallmark Christmas ornaments over the years.

This year might be the one exception to the rule, and it is mostly Hallmark’s fault. For some reason they don’t carry hallmark Christmas ornaments at Jewel food stores anymore. Maybe they aren’t as popular anymore? Maybe people have gotten tired of collecting them? Anyway there are also no Hallmark stores in downtown Chicago where I work and none in Oak Park where I live. So, trekking out to get these is getting more complicated. I wanted to order them on the Hallmark Website and in addition to the site being horribly organized and impossible to finding things THEY DON”T EVEN SELL THEM ONLINE!!! (what kind of organization system classifies ornaments by which series is starting and ending when everyone else just knows them by the cars theme? or their subject matter)  WTF? Why wouldn’t a site like Hallmark have an ecommerce site? After all they have done to promote their brand they use the website just to drive people to an offline store? Have they learned nothing about the Internet since 1996??

I am an internet marketer so this is my business to know how people use the internet and what they want, and I can tell you for sure they do not want to have to shut off the computer, find their car keys and drive an hour to a flipping store. It is called point and click buying and last year more than 31 BILLION dollars were projected to get exchanged for goods online at Christmas. Why would Hallmark not want a piece of the pie? I think old people making risk averse decisions like this for a large company (who don’t know how or want to spend money to develop a website) end up screwing the company in the long run as they totally alienate the younger demographic. I can’t see the myspace or facebook generation being lured to a store to buy something when they twitter that they have to go to the bathroom online. I wish Hallmark would wake up and smell the propane and get with the way real people do business and shopping online.

Email management for overloaded email boxes circa 2008

I have noticed I spend a lot of time sifting through email these days. I have several accounts for different purposes and they fill up quickly with both subscriptions I have started and a lot of spam I never requested. I know that spam is just the price we pay right now for an app like email, but I hope that someday the spammers are put out of business because of the awful things they do stealing identities and personal information.

Anyway, my post wasn’t supposed to be about spam. It was about email volume circa 2008. I do get a lot of spam, and because one email address I have dates back to 1996 that one gets about 50% spam.  The spam filter I have does catch about 80% of it but the other 20% is annoying and dangerous.

The other 60% of that old email address mail is a lot of subscriptions since I am more likely to read an email than go find a bookmark of a blog every few days. The web based email is about 25% spam and the work email is maybe 1% spam, they are pretty good at blocking it.

I found this feedblitz and email update technology immensely helpful in the beginning since I check email anyway and it was a way to kill 2 tasks with one stone. Now though, things have gotten out of hand. I estimate that I get about 200 emails per day between 3 accounts. That is a bit more than I intended. True, it may be time to unsubscribe to some newsletters and updates but then it might go down to 150. Knowing this, you might understand why I gave up on RSS feeds in 2004.

Email is just too ingrained into our business and consumer culture as a communication medium. Or at least it is for Gen-Xers like myself. I do feel the pressure of the millennials and Gen-Yers to go to a social networking communication platform and I have profiles on all the major sites with plenty of contacts/friends but it’s just not home base for me. For a while one circle of people I knew were using MySpace as a hub for communication, but they were in the Arts, as many MySpacers are. Now that I no longer have time for extra cirricular activities I have lost touch with them and my MySpace page. I also have an online client email I use for personal stuff and of course the ubiquitous work email. I also have a 4th email that I don’t use because 3 is really enough.

I was reading this article today about how people manage their emails and BAM it was exactly how I managed them without me even really thinking about how I categorize things. Literally things just evolved the way they worked best over the past 10 years. The old old email became a place for all the sign ups you had to complete for one reason or another, login info for registrations and updates and such but not time sensitive stuff because I moved my most critical emails over to the web based email when it got too cluttered and I wanted to be able to access it anywhere rather than just at home on my computer in outlook. The second web based email also became a place to move personal communication off the work email account since in the beginning there was no line between them and then there suddenly was one day in about 2004. The work account also gets some alerts and such but only work related. (yes, that’s a blurry line since its online media and marketing that I work in)

Overall, I was surprised that I fit their archetype “to a tee” and that I evolved this way without even thinking of it. The gen-x and gen-y people have a hard time separating work from personal (especially if you work in onlinemedia, its all online anyway at the click of a mouse, it only takes a second!) and this will only provide harder in the future as more is expected of us as we balance family and work all in less time. I hope this setup satisfies the need for different urgencies, disclosures and personalizations of emails as well as productivity and time management. All this digital overload is consuming in a very empty way really. I feel like I must look through all this and read it every day yet very little is really going to impact my work or my life. I am mostly off email on weekends and I find it not that different but I have more time suddenly. Hmmm…must pare down email newsletters soon.

I have a compulsion to keep my email boxes cleaned out once a day and reply to anything that needs it from work or personal in 24 hours. I wonder if I will be able to keep that up in the future and if I will have to integrate more mandatory social networking at some point to keep up with those 10 years younger than me? 

I also recently started using the rescue time application to log and review where I am in a day and how much is actually spent on email and work. I have since cut my work email time in 1/2 and ditto for the personal email also. It’s a good application for self time management, but I wouldn’t want to use it for work purposes officially. I like that I have control over it and am not evaluated based on it since I have my days where I am not as productive. But the application helps me get back on track and out of the funk quicker.

As a consumer do I like being emailed by companies? Sometimes yes. If I opt in to your email I may be marginally or really interested in hearing from you depending on how much your product fits my life and work. If the emails provide no help or relevance whatsoever, they will get deleted and unsubscribed within a few months. If you send me discounts, new product info or other locally relevant information or content I am really into that helps me do my job, I am happy to read and click to help your ROI. I think email is better than direct mail because of the targeting and the lack of paper it uses. (save the trees) I would much rather an email from most companies than a flyer in the mail box. Plus it gives me the control to turn it off when it’s no longer relevant. Trust me, I will re-subscribe if the situation changes, I am a newsletter nut, that is for sure. And I think my generation is in general. But don’t expect us to buy-buy-buy stuff just because you emailed it to us. If we don’t need or want it we just consider the offer and decide no this time. It’s ok, we will find you when we need it, even if it is a month or two from now. And frequency is an issue. I am annoyed by some weekly emails because how often do you really need to know about the same product over and over again? Monthly is fine, or how about every other week?  

So, all of this is kind of my unwritten rules of email, work and business, and I hope that we continue to figure things out to make communication and information finding more efficient and less time consuming while still productive. Now if I could only find a way to maintain 3 blogs more efficiently too.

Why FriendFeed is no big deal

I am so lost on why so many people are gaga about friendfeed. Of all the web apps that have come out this one has the least technical savy and is not at all new in function. Is it useful? Yes, but has it been around somewhere else since 2002? YES!

I started using Livejournal in 2002 and one of the things that hooked me about it was that all my friend’s LJ blog feeds were listed in reverse cronological order on a friends page. This was great. I didn’t have to go to each blog individually to read them and I could scroll and scan through a day’s worth of posts in a few minutes. Later they added the ability to add other RSS feeds into LJ for reading as a friend. I added everything I was watching at that time. I fed everything from fickr feeds to blogs like Scoble into the mix. They even allowed you to categorize your friend feeds into different groups for more organized reading commenting was also possible direct from the feed although if it was not an LJ blog the comment would not be submitted back to the original site, just on LJ.

All this was great but almost too great. I stopped using RSS all the time in about 2006 because there were too many feeds to read and too much information to process. I couldn’t keep up. It was taking hours to get through everything even just scaning and skimming. I pretty much abandoned the feed page there even though I still post occasionally.

So, basically I am not excited about FriendFeed since it is just another incarnation of something I already have and there were limits to how much information and how many feeds and posts I could reasonably process a day. I have actually gone backwards in tech terms now and I use link buttons in my browser for the blogs or sites I read daily and I know that when that row across the top of the browser is full, one has to go if I add one. It’s is kind of a limit to how many I can monitor and keeps it under control. I also use the feedbliz email subscriptions a lot too. It creates a lot of extra email, but it is easy to scan and delete if it isn’t pertinent info and if there isn’t good info for a month I unsubscribe.

Anyway, maybe some day soon people will come to their senses and find a way to balance being aware and alert of what is happening on the net but not wasting an entire day following blog posts and feeds. It is a huge hit to productivity in America because the discovery process is buzzy and addictive when you find something huge and you always think it will be there and then your day is lost.

Hippo – the highest paid person’s opinion in Marketing

I am not a huge fan of AdAge since it seems to revolve around old advertising techniques/media and big behemoth brands and agencies that I don’t work with, but this article about why most company websites suck was very interesting and very true. I believe that the highest paid person’s opinion (hippo) is what drives the development and makes decisions on what happens with most products and web sites. Even in a web site company.

I saw this happen at my last job, and the decisions were so contrary to what should have been happening that it nearly drove me mad. I left thinking I would find a better place to work and I did, but the rule still applies here to a lesser extent. The subtle difference is that I am higher paid now, so I have somewhat more say and my data and research disprove a lot of bad ideas from the start. 

In the interest of getting things done quickly and quietly without any discussion or debate, management usually critically limits the decision makers in most every decision to less than 3 people who share the same brain. (epic fail!) One, (a hippo) to make the decisions, and two others to say “yes” and find a way to justify it with data, research and sell it to everyone else. This may be the entire reason that the newspaper industry can’t make any money on the web.

The article points out that these hippos are the people least in contact with the customer and therefore have the least information possible about what the customer needs, thinks and wants. Golfing at country clubs and jetting around to accept awards does not put you in contact with customers or vendors or really at all with your company’s processes. This kills me. I can’t resolve how this happens and people get away with it except that once you have gained the trust of the upper management they pull you further and further away from your purpose with bonding exercises and sporting events. Management should be hands on without micromanaging and still interact with the finite details of the day to day operations. Without this you get one hand erasing what the other has accomplished, opposing directions for initiatives and a general clusterfuck in processes. In general this also plagues most of American businesses and I think contributes to our crap economy not evolving fast enough.

/end rant

How to keep learning new skills as we get older

I used to think that it was weird to not be learning all the time. You spend 9 years in grammar school, 4 years in high school and if you are lucky, 4 years in college. All total,  that is 17 of your first 21 years in school with daily lessons, lectures, homework, required reading, tests, quizzes, projects, essays and exams. Then you have to make the jump to the working world whether it is in business or other areas and you still have to learn, but it is everything not included in your schooling. How your company works, how people work, what is required there and all their multitude of processes and products.

At that point you usually meet someone much older than yourself that has no idea what is happening in technology. And not just high technology, they don’t get basics that most people use just to function daily like email, pivot tables or search engine optimization. What you don’t know is that they are the future you. They don’t want to change because they say they have just done things this way all these years and it has always worked with paper files, binders, phone messages and post it noes. You look at them and their outdated clothes and rows of beanie babies around their cubicle like they have 3 heads. How can they work this way? How do they get anything done? How can a company value someone antiquated like this over me who has all this knowledge and ability (yet with 0 experience). 

Then time marches on. You become acclimated with the business environment and get promoted or jump to a better job a few times. You balance social, personal and work life stuff and think wow it’s a lot to manage and are always tired. Then some of you have kids and are even more tired. Then you wake up one day and realize that you have become that antiquated person you ran into years ago because they hired some younger workers that are all gung ho about getting ahead and talk about things you don’t understand. Now all college grads come to work knowing how to build databases and web sites even if they got a degree in English? How can they know so much so fast? 

You wonder how 10 years flew by and you haven’t really added anything new to your skill set because you work 50 hours a week, have a relationship on weekends and laundry/dishes/cat/cleaning/reading/few social things weeknights. (you don’t even watch TV for god’s sake) How can you go to school at the same time? If you have kids, how can you exist on less than the 4 hours of sleep you get now just so you can spend time learning? And when will you ever get around to painting the garage? How is this possible when some mornings you come to work 1/2 asleep with 2 different shoes on?

Are companies going to only hire new youngsters for all the positions because they make less money and have more tech skills? How much does experience matter?  Why did it piss me off for weeks when the new wordpress.com backend system was launched, and nothing made any sense anymore? I didn’t have time to spend looking for hours for where everything had been moved to and was just mad that it wasn’t where it was before and it took forever to post. And there was no communication from those adsense loving wordpress people about where everything had been moved to. They thought this was self explanitory? (Not!)

I think I started to recognize some of these changes happening to me in the past few months. I never planned on stopping learning and the things I chose to learn about in my spare (and fleeting) time were never really panned out useful things. So, back to the drawing board. I feel like I need a lot more technical skill to remain ahead of the curve in my job and be able to keep finding great work over the decades to come. And I want to do that along with have a family and marriage and the whole kit and kaboodle. I don’t think this is a women’s issue anymore either really. Men face the same questions as they get off the fashion bus and start looking, sounding and working more and more like their fathers.

Another thing I realized the other day is that I may try and shop at more contemporary stores, but I basically dress exactly like my mom. And she is 67 and I am 32. I used to hate how my mom dressed, and now I am her?  Is this just the arrival of the long plateau of middle age? Are the middle ages of me going to be anticlimactic and uneventful? Or how can you bridge multiple generations, technologies and social groups all at the same time while still getting 8 hours of sleep at night? 

I don’t know how this is all going to work. I suppose many people don’t write about it on blogs, or maybe even recognize the change until they can’t find bleached jeans and high tops at Kohl’s anymore. But it bothers me because I don’t want to stop learning and get left behind. Especially when the economy keeps changing so much every year and the jobs go with it. How do you not get outsourced when literally everything can be outsourced today? How do you keep going to school when most universities require full time attendance of a degree program and not piece mail courses as you need them? How do you find time to do homework when you have bills to pay and garbage to take out and emails from your boss? Even reading was hard to get back into after years of not focusing like that for an extended period of time.

Here is what I have been doing about it and working on over the past years and what I would like to continue to work on:

1. About 2 years ago I started reading books again. I read TIME every week, but that is pretty short. I found it hard at first to just read for an hour at a time because I had gotten so multitask happy with the internet and channel flipping.

2. I also decided it was time to start pushing back sometimes at work and saying No. You literally can’t do that when you start out, and sooner or later you have to set limits and not do everything for everyone else when you have a limited time to do it. The whole idea of urgency and priority come into play and they shouldn’t be anyone else’s priority or urgency but yours. People will negotiate and try and get as much from you as possible but it’s not in your best interest if it’s not really in your job description.

3. The last year was one where I decided it was time to have a self hosted blog. Everyone and their sister had one but me, and it wasn’t supposed to be impossible or anything. So, I bought a url and went to town for about 2 days straight truing to figure out how this wordpress thing worked, researching themes, plugins and all the possibilities and building it. It was a great learning experience although it has nothing to do with my work.

4. This year I had a client that insisted on a different data process than what we usually provided and I had to learn Pivot tables. I still don’t know them to the extent I need to probably, but it helps immensley. I still have more of the high end Excel stuff to learn.

5. I also had to learn Access. I guess 2 days in a class can’t really teach you everything though so I should either retake the class or take another one because my skills there still don’t match what I need them to.

6. I also wonder about math and statistics. I should really go back, take the prerequisites and then statistics. This is what I get for not taking it initially because I didn’t want to work in business. Sheesh. This is by far one of the hardest things to do because, I am not fantastic at math, it has been about 14 years since I have taken a math class and it means driving back to the community college I attended a million years ago. It also entails weekly classes and weekly homework. This could be 10 hours a week or more. Where am I going to find 10 hours a week? Where do people who have kids find that time?  Is sleep allowed?

7. I also think it is time I got better at this friends/networking thing at work and outside it. I have never been that great at the social stuff, but I am meeting more and more people who weren’t necessarily either, but because there are some ground rules in business and no need to act like Jr High kids anymore, they are pretty good at it now. This helps get things done faster when they need to be, and it makes work and life generally more fun. It also helps not to work with assholes.

8. What I would also like to do more of is learn about web pages and building them, coding and sleuthing out issues with them. This comes up with work and would be an asset.

9. Long term I have to get into databases and SQL. I have no choice. It will mean more classes and more time than I know I can find and afford, and that isn’t even the expensive part like tuition.

But what is the alternative? To be outsourced in a few years? To be relegated back to the minimum wage jobs that we had back in college but would be even more difficult to get since they would rather hire energetic young people now, with better tech skills?  The way I see it, the only way to survive is to go onwards and upwards. I have to keep learning things whether I have time for it or not.

Google offers new exclude features in adwords

Google has been innovating how yor ads get displayed and un in adwords for about 4 years now. They have given you control over the matching, the timing, the budgeting, the creative serving, the site targeting, excluding sites and now apparently excluding certain pages on sites.

What I want to know is how detailed are these adwords campaigns? How detailed of knowedge do you have to have about every media property these ads run on in the content network? Seriously, if you have a company or client that runs over 500K worth of these ads, there isn’t enough time in the day to spend targeting each keyword. It would take months to build.

I fret about the lackluster results of the campaigns I see here and worry that our lack of detail and optimization will come back to bite us at some point, (even though I don’t work on them myself) but I also know with this many clients and that many words to manage, we can’t possibly spend the detailed time that someone could if that were their job in house.

So, I guess the lesson here is that you keep the ad campaigns small and mainstream termed if you use and agency and if you want to chase the long tail and control your ad serving like a hawk, hire someone internally to manage it and give them all the tools they need to build out a detailed campaign and monitor and optimize it daily.