I haven’t been very good about updating my blog over the past month. Turns out we have a big project we’ve been working on at New Kind. While I always try to set aside time for writing, this particular project is very important to the future of my home state of North Carolina, so I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can on it.
Yet the dark matter of organizations keeps on, well, mattering in the meantime.
Speaking of dark matter, my friend Laura Hamlyn recently pointed me to some interesting findings regarding the search for dark matter in the universe.
NPR has a great interview here with an astrophysicist named Andisheh Mahdavi, who was part of a team that recently observed a massive collision between two enormous galaxy clusters. According to Dr. Mahdavi, the dark matter in this particular collision acted much different than any collision that has been observed before, and in a way that doesn’t align with many of the current theories about dark matter. The scientists are so far at a loss to explain what is going on.
In completely unrelated news, WordPress.com recently launched a new feature that allows you to see a map showing where visitors to your blog are coming from. Here is what my map looks like:
I thought this was kinda cool. The darker the color on the map, the more visitors. So, no surprise, most of my readers live in the United States, but I also have quite a few visitors from India, the UK, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And I couldn’t end this post without a shout out to the folks who clicked on this blog from Kazakhstan, Qatar, Moldova, Guinea-Bissau, Cyprus, Bolivia, and Timor-Leste—I’m glad to have you here as well.
Such a small world. I’m honored to have anyone at all reading this, so thank you.
And don’t forget, if you live somewhere cool (or even not-so-cool) and are willing to take a picture of my book The Ad-Free Brand in your town, I’d love to see it and post it on the blog. Here are the full details of what I’m looking for.
Finally, I promise we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon!
Earlier this week, the New York Times published a disturbing piece entitled Gaming the College Rankings, exposing how Claremont McKenna, an elite college in California, had misrepresented data in order to climb up in the US News & World Report college rankings. By gaming the system, it rose to become the ninth-highest rated liberal arts college in the United States.
The most disturbing part of the article? Apparently Claremont McKenna College is not alone. Over the past few years, many leading institutions have admitted, been caught, or are suspected of gaming the rankings, including Baylor, Villanova, the University of Illinois, Iona, and even the United States Naval Academy.
Pretty depressing stuff.
So what motivates great academic institutions to risk their reputations to rise in a ranking from a magazine that only remains barely relevant? This quote from the article hits the nail on the head:
“The reliance on [the rankings] is out of hand,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president who oversees admissions at DePaul University in Chicago. “It’s a nebulous thing, comparing the value of a college education at one institution to another, so parents and students and counselors focus on things that give them the illusion of precision.”
The illusion of precision.
These top universities and colleges are risking their hard-earned reputations for an illusion.
Picking the right place to go to college is an excruciatingly difficult decision. I remember looking at these rankings when I was choosing a college too. Why? Those of us who did it were looking for any information we could find to help us ensure we were making a smart choice. These rankings gave us a quantifiable data point that we could use to validate our decision.
The problem is that the data we should be analyzing when making this decision is much harder to see and quantify. The dark matter of institutional brands resists easy measurement and the results of analysis are vastly different for each individual.
For example, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is #29 in the most recent US News & World Report rankings. But I grew up in Winston-Salem, where #25 Wake Forest University is located. Should I have applied there instead? Would I be more successful today if I had received a degree from Wake Forest?
Or what if I had made the decision to go to the University of Georgia (#62), where I was also accepted? Would I be living in a van down by the river because I gave up the opportunity to learn at a school ranked 37 spots higher?
The illusion of precision provided by the rankings may give someone peace of mind as they make their big decision. But at what cost?
The right college is different for every person. Some of us are better suited for big schools. Or small schools. Or nerdy schools. Or party schools. Or cheap schools. Or football schools. And how much does the college itself even matter? If your goal is to be a rich Wall Street banker, Harvard (#1) may have a program that will get you there. But if you want to be a marine biologist, Harvard may not be able to hold a candle to UNC-Wilmington (#11, regional universities in the South), and you’ll probably pay off your student loans faster.
Are the rankings actually harmful? I never thought they were—most people are smart enough to recognize that a degree from a high-ranking college is no guarantee of life success (and a degree from a low-ranking one is no indicator of future failure). The rankings were just one mostly-meaningless data point that gave your parents bragging rights when talking about your education with their friends.
But reading this article made me change my mind. If a great institution risks its reputation for the sake of rising a few spots in a mostly-meaningless ranking, what does this say about its culture? And is US News & World Report (along with others who do similar rankings) at all culpable for forcing colleges to worship a false god in the hope of building fast, cheap, and superficial brand value?
I’m certainly going to look at these rankings in a different light from now on… how about you?
Last weekend we stopped into Quail Ridge Books, a wonderful independent book store just down the street from where we live in Raleigh, NC. After browsing for a while and finding a few things, we went up to the cash register to buy them.
I have to admit, I always experience a little ounce of dread when I walk up to the counter at a bookstore. Most of this comes from my experiences at Barnes & Noble, where each time I approach the counter I’m alerted that I could save from 10-40% on my purchase just by joining their membership program and whatever else is in their rehearsed speech that has probably been tested to ensure each word helps optimize their chances of getting you to sign up so they can “capture” you.
I’m sure Barnes & Noble keeps detailed monthly metrics at their corporate office highlighting how many people sign up at each location due to this point-of-sale promotional technique. I’m also confident that there are incentives (either carrot or stick-based) that 100% guarantee that I’m going to not only have to listen to that speech each time I approach the counter, but also turn them down when they ask me to join. (By the way, I don’t have anything against these sort of programs, I just don’t need to join one for every single store I shop in.)
So I’m standing there at Quail Ridge Books, and I see the cashier reach for a yellow bookmark that I’m positive is going to be the entry point to Quail Ridge’s version of the membership club speech. Instead, the cashier simply says, “We have a membership program called the Reader’s Club. I’m going to put this bookmark in your book and if you like, you can look at the benefits there.”
Whoa. No speech, no sales pressure forcing me to say no. It was like a breath of fresh air.
I’m sure if the folks at the Barnes & Noble corporate office had seen this performance at one of their stores, they would have hit the ceiling. Multiply that approach all across the country at every Barnes & Noble and their point of sale membership spreadsheet would look atrocious. People would get fired.
The problem is, Barnes & Noble is only tracking the data they can see. They have no way of tracking the dark matter–the impact their membership strategy has on the experience of people like me, who now go out of their way to avoid shopping there.
I don’t expect I am the only person out there who is annoyed–not just at Barnes & Noble, mind you–but at every store that forces me to say no to a point-of-sale sales pitch… to give a dollar to this cause, or to join this program, or whatever.
Because the spreadsheets only track the revenue impact that come from these promotions and not the negative brand impact, they probably look stunning on paper. What’s the downside, right?
Well, the downside is people like me not wanting to ever set foot in a Barnes & Noble store.
Stores like Quail Ridge Books that don’t sacrifice the health of their brand community for the sake of hard numbers on a spreadsheet understand the importance of the customer experience in establishing brand reputation, loyalty, and even recommendation.
So next time, before you implement a strategy that is guaranteed to make the numbers look good, make sure you are also studying the dark matter impact to your brand experience and reputation at the same time.
Just because these impacts are harder to measure doesn’t make them any less powerful.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few people ask me why my blog is called Dark Matter Matters, and since I haven’t told that story in a while, I thought I’d share an excerpt from The Ad-Free Brand explaining it (and appending some more recent information). Here goes:
In late 2008, I was struggling mightily with the question of how you measure and quantify the value of brand-related activities. As someone whose father is an amateur astronomer, I’d long been intrigued by the concept of dark matter in the universe. If dark matter is new to you, Wikipedia describes it as “matter that neither emits nor scatters light or other electromagnetic radiation, and so cannot be directly detected via optical or radio astronomy.”
In other words, it is matter out there in the universe that is incredibly difficult to see, basically invisible, but that has a large gravitational effect. What’s particularly interesting about dark matter is that, apparently, there is a lot of it. Again according to Wikipedia:
“Dark matter accounts for 23% of the mass-energy density of the observable universe. In comparison, ordinary matter accounts for only 4.6% of the mass-energy density of the observable universe, with the remainder being attributable to dark energy. From these figures, dark matter constitutes 83% of the matter in the universe, whereas ordinary matter makes up only 17%.”
I find this fascinating.
And dark matter is still a theoretical concept. Again from the Wikipedia entry: “As important as dark matter is believed to be in the cosmos, direct evidence of its existence and a concrete understanding of its nature have remained elusive.”
But it was actually reading about all the problems with the Large Hadron Collider in 2008 (at the very same time I was having my own problems figuring out how to measure the value of brand-related work) that helped me make the connection between what I do for a living and this concept of dark matter.
The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest particle accelerator. It was built on the border of France and Switzerland and is about 17 miles wide. One of the things that particle physicists hope to prove with this enormous project is the existence of dark matter.
I’m no physicist, but as I understand it, the accelerator shoots protons at super-high speeds around the collider, and, if these scientists are lucky, the collisions eventually might produce a few particles that will exist for only a few milliseconds and then disappear again. And these particles might prove that dark matter isn’t just a theory.
Might being the key word. In fact, noted physicist Stephen Hawking bet $100 that they won’t find anything (a bet which he may soon win). The cost of building a collider to maybe prove the existence of dark matter? About $9 billion dollars. (And as of this post, written in September 2011, three years since its was first fired up, we are still looking for evidence.)
Another attempt to prove the existence of dark matter used the Hubble Space Telescope. This image below (which I also used for the header of the blog) was taken by Hubble and first shown by NASA in May, 2007.
In this picture, you are looking at many galaxies a really, really long way away. But you can also see fuzzy gray areas all over that look like clouds. When the astronomers first looked at this photo, they thought the fuzzy areas were a problem with the image. But after analyzing it for over a year, they realized that the fuzziness might actually be evidence of dark matter.
Their reasoning? The fuzziness is actually a gravitational distortion of the light rays from distant galaxies that are being bent by dark matter on their way to Earth. The effect you see is kind of like looking at the bottom of a pond that is being distorted by ripples on the surface.
So finally, scientists had discovered some real visual evidence of dark matter.
I believe the type of activities I talk about in the book and on this blog—those related to building brand, culture, and community—are the dark matter within organizations. Often brand, culture, and community are extremely difficult to measure well, and sometimes accurate measurement is simply impossible.
That’s not to say we don’t try anyway. I’ve seen and even tried many formulas, processes, and products that attempt to measure the value of brand, community, and culture-related efforts. Some of them can provide valuable information.
Others, not so much.
Yet here’s the kicker: brand, community, and culture are having a huge impact on your organization, whether you can effectively and cost-effectively measure that impact or not.
Just as dark matter is a strong gravitational force within the universe even though it is notoriously hard to see and measure, so are many of the things that will lead to the long-term success of ad-free brands.
So that’s how the blog got the name.
One last thing: I’ve been toying with the idea of changing the name at some point down the road, perhaps re-naming it The Ad-Free Brand and simplifying things. If you have any thoughts on that, or if you like the dark matter analogy and think I should keep it, I’d love your opinion. Feel free to comment below or send me an email at chris(at)newkind.com.
While we here at Dark Matter Matters continue to investigate the dark matter of corporations (brand, community, and culture), the physicists at CERN are making great progress in their search for dark matter as well.
Earlier this week, the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion underground supercollider under the Swiss-French border, set energy and speed records while colliding two proton beams to create 3x more energy than scientists have every seen before (7 trillion electron volts). The search for dark matter is one of the key drivers of the the Large Hadron Collider experiment.
As I’ve mentioned before, the LHC has had all sorts of problems over the last few years, so it is great to see it is finally working correctly. Better stay on your toes, dark matter!
In other related news, the Hubble Space Telescope, which was responsible for creating the image that appears in the header of this blog, has also been hot on the trail of dark matter and dark energy.
According to an article posted earlier this week on the Popular Science website, Hubble tracked 446,000 galaxies in one part of the galaxy, taking 575 images over the span of 1,000 hours. Astronomers then used the data from these images to pull together the composite image you see here, which uses gravitational lensing to identify places where there may be high concentrations of dark energy in the universe. It also makes for a pretty picture.
That’s the big news for now. We’ll continue to report from time to time on the search for dark matter and dark energy, so stay tuned.
I’m not usually a germophobe, but the last few months I’ve been walking around opening doors with my elbows and washing my hands constantly. I’ve been freaked out by the constant updates on Facebook about what my friends/friends’ kids have come down with now. So far, my immune system has held up pretty well, but I always worry that H1N1 is only a doorknob away.
These are trying times for corporate immune systems too. The economic meltdown has exposed corporations to all sorts of risks they don’t deal with in the regular course of business. Many corporate immune systems have failed, putting millions of people out of work. It begs the question: how resilient is your company? And how can you make your corporate immune system stronger?
I got to thinking about this corporate immune system concept after reading the new book The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. In this fantastic book, Ramo (former foreign editor of Time Magazine, now a foreign policy/strategy consultant at Kissinger Associates) offers his thoughts on what we as a society need to do to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Ramo talks a lot about the idea of creating a stronger global immune system. Here’s what he means:
“What we need now, both for our world and in each of our lives, is a way of living that resembles nothing so much as a global immune system: always ready, capable of dealing with the unexpected, as dynamic as the world itself. An immune system can’t prevent the existence of a disease, but without one even the slightest of germs have deadly implications.”
Ramo presents this in idea in the context of how we protect ourselves from a scary world– terrorists, rogue nations, nuclear proliferation, and all that, but the concept applies well to the corporate world as well– tough competitors, fickle customers, shrinking budgets– we corporate folks have our own demons.
So how do we shore up the ol’ immune system? Ramo refers to the philosophy of building resilience or “deep security” into the organization. Continue reading
As people who’ve been reading this blog for a while know, it’s called Dark Matter Matters because I see some similarities between the struggle that physicists and astrophysicists are going through attempting to find and measure dark matter and dark energy in the universe and the struggle among marketing and communications professionals trying to quantify and measure the value of their investments in brand, culture, and community. Read more in my intro article here.
From time to time I like to keep all the marketing folks up to date on how their colleagues in physics are doing on the whole dark matter thing, and there’s been some interesting news over the past week.
First, there was an article in the New York Times on Saturday saying that scientists have discovered a mysterious haze of high-energy particles at the center of the Milky Way. Some think these particles may be the decayed remains of dark matter. From the article:
At issue is the origin of a haze of gamma rays surrounding the center of our galaxy, which does not appear connected to any normal astrophysical cause but matches up with a puzzling cloud of radio waves, a “microwave haze,” discovered previously by NASA’s WMAP satellite around the center. Both the gamma rays and the microwaves, Dr. Dobler and his colleagues argue, could be caused by the same thing: a cloud of energetic electrons.
The electrons could, in turn, be the result of decaying dark matter, but that, they said, is an argument they will make in a future paper.
Clearly the authors of the research are still hedging their bets, and other scientists apparently believe the findings are inconclusive. There will need to be still more research before anything gets proven for sure.
Meanwhile, our good friends in charge of the Large Hadron Collider, which has been out of commission for the last year, are about ready to roll again after the massive failure last September that caused catastrophic damage. The Large Hadron Collider is an enormous, multi-billion dollar supercollider built underground beneath France and Switzerland by physicists trying to prove, among other things, the existence of dark matter (funny side note, read this article about how the collider might be being sabotaged from The Future). Good article in The Guardian yesterday here on the current status. From the article:
Cern scientists have begun firing protons round one small section of the collider as they prepare for its re-opening. Over the next few weeks, more and more bunches of protons will be put into the machine until, by Christmas, beams will be in full flight and can be collided.
The LHC will then start producing results – 13 years after work on its construction began.
So stay tuned. The physicists are getting closer– if only we marketing folks were doing as well!
On Tuesday I’m heading up to New York to share an open source perspective with GE marketing executives at the legendary GE leadership center in Crotonville. I wrote a post a few months ago praising GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt’s compelling new vision for corporate America, and I have an enormous amount of respect for GE as an innovation engine. I’m excited about the opportunity to exchange ideas with the smart folks there.
In 2009, Forbes ranked GE as the world’s largest company, so I’ve figured before I went up to Crotonville it’d be a good idea to do some homework and see what elements of what we call the open source way are already in practice within one of the most successful companies in history. I’ve found some interesting stuff in my research.
One piece in particular grabbed me. Sitting on the beach today over the holiday weekend, I finished the 2001 biography of Jack Welch (the legendary predecessor to Immelt as Chairman of GE) entitled Jack: Straight from the Gut. I thought I’d share a Jack Welch prediction (written almost ten years ago) that fits right in with our open source view of what the 21st century organization looks like.
The horror! A few days ago, in a study released in one of my favorite light reading mags, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two mathematicians proposed that dark energy might simply be an illusion we observe from our spot in a massive space-time expansion wave. There’s a nice writeup of the research in National Geographic here.
Does this mean the entire concept of this website, that brand, culture, and community form the dark matter and dark energy of organizations, breaks down too? That all this hippie brand-building, culture-growing, community-creating stuff is also an illusion, and the traditional visible mechanics of business alone are the stuff of which great companies are made?
I know. I know. It rocked my foundation too. Well, as my favorite fortune cookie fortune once told me, “all is not yet lost.” It is just a theory.
And it turns out that for the theory to be true, for the math to work, we must be at the center of the universe, a caveat that one physicist describes as “unusual.” I’d say so. Didn’t Copernicus have something to say about that in, like, 1543?
If you are still concerned and want to learn more, go read the abstract of the report. I’ll give you a taste to whet your appetite:
We derive a system of three coupled equations that implicitly defines a continuous one-parameter family of expanding wave solutions of the Einstein equations, such that the Friedmann universe associated with the pure radiation phase of the Standard Model of Cosmology is embedded as a single point in this family. By approximating solutions near the center to leading order in the Hubble length, the family reduces to an explicit one-parameter family of expanding spacetimes, given in closed form, that represents a perturbation of the Standard Model.
These guys seem pretty smart, and it sounds like we stand to learn a lot from their findings. And what’s good enough for the National Academy of Sciences is good enough for me.
As for our little Dark Matter Matters website, I’m no mathematician, but I see a lot of prominent mathematicians and physicists calling these results controversial. For now, I’m still thinking dark matter and dark energy might matter, people. Carry on.
Finished some cleanup work on the site tonight, adding new pages compiling all of the brand positioning tips in one place. Also added a page called books where I combined all of my lists of books and book reviews/commentary in one place. Hope this makes things a bit easier to find from the homepage!