Boring truths

In the 1980 science book Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote about how a newspaper asked an astronomer to write a five hundred word article on whether there was life on Mars. The astronomer dutifully replied through telegram: “NOBODY KNOWS”, repeated two hundred and fifty times.

It was the most honest answer possible, but people wanted answers nonetheless, and so in the following decades the media found yes’s and no’s from astronomers more willing to fray from their scientific correctness in reward for an answer, albeit based on the flimsiest evidence. There was either life on Mars or not.

This same thirst for exciting answers is visible everywhere. Politicians gain from exaggerating societal problems, sowing distrust and promising results. Consultants gain from claiming they’re the ones that can fix your business problem (and yes, with just a three-day workshop!).Crowdfunding projects, by their nature, gain hugely from overpromising, which in turn leads to massive underdelivering; projects like ‘Pebble Time’ are both Kickstarter’s biggest succeses and its biggest failures. (More on this in the footnote.) Trendwatchers would rarely admit it if generations are actually a lot like their preceding generation, or that the trends they describe are just fads. I’ve seen many articles on millennials and how they embrace the sharing economy; but see little words on how they’re afraid about their future. Or that they don’t care about Virtual Reality.

Once-respectable titles such as Business Insider simultaneously write ‘Casual dining is in danger — and millennials are to blame‘, as well as ‘Millennials eat at restaurants more than any other generation‘. It’s astrology at this point, while a more honest title for both would have been ‘Millennials are not that different than previous generations when it comes to eating out. (American president Harry Truman once demanded: “Give me a one-handed economist”, in frustration of the economists who kept being nuanced and saying “On the other hand…”.)

It’s perhaps part of our nature to want to be deceived. Our brain is lazy and is always looking for the most convenient and easiest way to come to its choice. We crave desirable and easy solutions, rather than realistic and boring ones. Who doesn’t want to get rich by sitting in a deckchair on the beach, rather than work eight hours per day in an office?

I see the same ‘get-rich-quick’ desire in companies, focussing on shiny marketing terms which no consumer cares about, rather than improving their customer service. In an article for The Guardian, Tom Goodwin wrote: “British Airways suffers from having its prices undercut by increasingly decent low-cost airlines, the deflationary effects of price comparison websites, and having the desperately crowded Heathrow airport as a base, not to mention having terrible customer support by phone. Given this context, I’m not sure how its admittedly clever ad campaign, using digital billboards in London, would have done much to change their sales or brand perception.”

I once wrote a marketing strategy for a struggling electronics company, who’s products were great but their awareness was lacking. They were trying very hard with some niche influencers and affiliate marketing. My paper said to stop that and focus on improving the website and filling the channels they knew that worked, such as their newsletter. It was straightforward and I was sure it’d help them massively. But the director just gave me a frown in return; “This is just basic stuff!”, to which I replied: “Yes and you’re not doing that properly!” What I wrote must have ended in either a drawer or shredder, as the company still struggling with their marketing, focussing on shiny marketing novelties, instead of getting their customer service right.

This is typical for many companies, who are experimenting with blockchains or virtual reality, when the login panel is just horrible in its usability, or their customers have to wait ten minutes in the queue to speak to its helpdesk. I get it; as a marketing manager you want to catch some headlines in trade magazines, and improving your base isn’t going to do that. It’s a boring truth. So are many things that are good for us.

I wish people and companies would focus on the boring and difficult and important topics, instead of the easy and not important. Because rather than false hopes or superficial novelties, people are often most helped by boring truths.

Render by Kevin Gill

The ‘Laser Razor raised $4 million, despite every showing a working prototype. With over $20 million raised in 2015, the smartwatch was an even bigger hit, but come 2016 the company ceased operations, leaving all their backers with products that are no longer updated. And with $13 million raised, the ‘Coolest Cooler‘ was one of Kickstarter’s biggest successes, while at the same time being one of its biggest failures. During its funding round, backers were promised their product by February 2015, but come April 2018, thousands are still waiting, as the company stated it first needs to sell more coolers through regular retail to acquire funds to compensate the backers. With over $20 million raised in 2015, the ‘Pebble Time‘ smartwatch was an even bigger hit, but come 2016 the company ceased operations, leaving all their backers with products that are no longer updated, losing their compatibility with newer smartphones. And the ‘Laser Razor‘ raised $4 million, despite every showing a working prototype, just like the ‘Ampy‘, which was supposed to be a wearable battery charger. Both products did nothing like promised.