Clif Notes: Keeping it in Context

One of the few things I find useful about LinkedIn anymore is their weekly collection of interesting articles that they email to me. A few weeks ago I spotted an article about the topic of context. Actually, it was an article about an article on the topic. Kind of.

In 2007 the Washington Post decided to do an informal experiment about context, priorities, and perceptions. They talked a highly acclaimed virtuoso violinist (Joshua Bell) into participating. One morning during a rush-hour commute, posing as a street musician wearing jeans, tee-shirt, and a cap, Bell stood in a Washington DC Metro station playing classical music on a Stradivarius violin. The goal of the experiment was to see whether or not, "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

The Post asked a symphony director what he thought would happen. He guessed that even if Bell were not recognized, if 1,000 people walked past, he would still draw a crowd of about 75 to 100 people. Think about it for a moment. What do you think happened? Did he draw crowd? How much money do you think was tossed in his violin case?

I suspect that most of us are more in tune with the crowd psychology of the unwashed masses, most of us belonging to that category, than the symphony director. And I bet that your predictions were closer to what actually happened than his.

Bell played for almost 45 minutes and performed six pieces of classical music. 1,097 people passed by. 27 of them tossed some money into his case. Only seven of them stopped for at least 60 seconds to listen and appreciate the music and his skill. He made a whopping $32.

Like me, I'm sure that you see all sorts of problems with this experiment. Who in their right mind would expect to get commuters rushing to catch their train on their way to work (no doubt after having hit the snooze button on their alarm clock three or four times that morning and running late) to stop, gather around, and take in an impromptu classical music concert.

"You're an hour late, Sid! We had an 8 o'clock presentation for our largest client, and you missed it. What the hell happened?"

"Sorry boss. I had to stop and get a classical music fix. It won't happen again. At least not until the next time something beautiful comes up."

Oh, right. I think you'd find more sympathy from the boss if you told them that the Starbucks kiosk at the Metro station had burned down and you had to get off at each one of the next five stops to find one that was open. At least the Boss can probably relate to coffee.

Still, I found this article interesting and very well written. I would recommend it. (intl-spectrum/s1064)

The LinedIn article that led me to this was written by a business professor at the Harvard Business School and was about the lessons she thought this experiment had to teach her MBA students (intl-spectrum/s1065). Now we all know that business professors are extremely good at finding object lessons in things that bear little if any resemblance to their own field of endeavor. (Second only, perhaps, to two-bit writers desperately searching for column fodder.) Nevertheless, I think she did make a couple of good points. And, of course, I will proceed to extrapolate from them to the MultiValue world.

She points out that having a great product is not enough. Just because Joshua Bell is great didn't mean that he was going to "sell." You can have an outstanding product that beats your competition hands down, but if it's not packaged correctly and marketed appropriately, it is basically worthless.

She then goes on about it being a failed marketing plan because it had no strategy to truly compete for people's attention.

"It was the worst marketing strategy imaginable: the wrong location, the wrong time, and (with his street clothes) the wrong image. If the goal had been to attract attention, even a few little adjustments would have gone a long way: picking a place in the station where commuters naturally stand still, placing a banner displaying his name, or hiring a few fans to serve as his cheering section, to name just a few examples. In many ways, everyone who is competing for attention in the workplace needs a strategy, too — even paying attention to seemingly minor details can go a long way."

Some of the comments her article received opine, perhaps correctly, that she missed the point. The goal was not to figure out the optimum way of attracting attention during rush hour in a busy Metro station. Nevertheless, her comments did get me to thinking.

We in the MultiValue community know that we've got a great product. It is robust, less expensive than the alternatives, runs rings around the competition performance-wise, and has a much lower Total Cost of Ownership. And, unfortunately, we know from painful experience that doesn't get us much. Go to any user group meeting, mailing list, Google or LinkedIn group, and you are sure to hear a number of people grousing like a bad Rodney Dangerfield imitator, "We get no respect."

And we do seem to have a problem getting attention. But I think that there is another element that needs to be considered. Although the good professor did not explicitly mention that, it is implied in the first sentence of the paragraph I quoted. Wrong location, wrong time, wrong image.

The term that I use is "context." It sums up not only what the professor said, but it also takes into account several interesting psychological phenomena, which I won't go into now (you're welcome). I have often told the story of my first experience with Context when a business colleague and I who had known each other for years shared a three seat row with the middle seat empty on a flight to a conference we were both attending. Because we were both dressed radically different than we had ever seen each other in the workplace, neither of us recognized the other until we were greeted by a mutual friend at the baggage claim. (Embarrassing, and then hilarious.)

Context is not only about location, timing, and image. It's also about the recipient's mental state, expectations, and receptiveness to what they are seeing or hearing. I think that a lot of the discussions we see about making MultiValue more successful fail to take into consideration context. Trying to market it directly against products like Oracle and DB2 as a database is the wrong context, and I don't think will ever be successful. At least I can't remember it ever being successful in the last 30+ years of my involvement with it.

MultiValue has never been seen in the context of a database. Its success came from VARs using it to quickly craft sophisticated, high-performance for the buck, solutions to application problems. So I think that if MultiValue is to not only survive but thrive, we need to concentrate on getting the message out about its ability to solve problems. That's its context. Not a feature to feature comparison with other database products, not in trying to claim that it is something that it is not (true multidimensional or noSQL comes to mind), but rather a more cost-effective way to quickly solve business problems in an ever rapidly changing world.

That's my take on the lessons that we can learn from the professor's take on the lessons from the experiment that she was talking about.

Maybe next time we'll talk about failed MultiValue marketing campaigns and what we can learn by comparing them to studies of why dolphins beach themselves.


Sep/Oct 2013