In praise of fake profiles

If you are in sales or marketing and above 25 years of age, you are probably wrong.  The assumptions you base your decisions on are severely limited.  We often thank our kids for ideas, for keeping us “in touch”, but it is much much more complicated a matter.  And extremely important.   I have hundreds of fake profiles.   Not sure if “fake” is the correct term.  I pretend to be someone I am not as a form of market research.  In fact it is often the first thing I do when presented with a new project.

It starts with a fake Google account.  This is vital.  Search results are personalized.  You will never get it all perfect, but if you at least persuade it that you live wherever you are researching and then make sure you do Google searches logged in from this fake Google profile, the world you are seeing will be a little more like your target.  Sign up for whatever products and services you are looking for from this signed in Chrome browser.    You have to try and live the part.

With Facebook things are even more dangerous.  That person in marketing you think is “up to speed with all this new stuff”, well, just isn’t.   If I have a really successful Instagram account, or a very active personal Facebook profile I only see what that particular profile’s take on the world is.   Some days I might whiz through multiple profiles to check up on them, just housekeeping.  Hard to describe just how different it feels to be in each newsfeed.  Some are simply based in different locations, with friends from a particular island or city.  Age differences are even more stunning.  The same political event which fills your friends’ timelines when you are 50, doesn’t even appear when you are 16.

It isn’t fashionable anymore, but I always make sure my fake people have a website, blog or other public trove of information on whatever topic I am researching.   This gives me unique insights into what people are looking for.   It is the “honeypot” approach.  In content marketing it is easier to just start testing ideas like this.  And when the first organic google searches land my way, it is like Christmas day!  Somebody wrote what they wanted to know in Google and came to me, fake me, this particular person.  Why?  How?  What cyberspace hole did I fill with what I just did?

If anything, building a fake profile is a humbling experience.  Because you realize just how complex a web social beings like humans create.  We earn trust.  Slowly.   A “follow” by a 13 year old is a very, very, very different action to a “follow” by a 60 year old.  He then posts what he just had for breakfast without thinking about it, while the senior citizen is carefully crafting a comment as if he is writing to the Economist.

Marketing people are often fooled by their own brand.  In the case of social media they are also sidetracked by their personal profiles and habits.  These are extremely dynamic, immature new mediums, still jostling for position, changing architecture and interfaces.   There is no agreed way to assess them, no specific assigned meaning to what we all do with them.  So get off your high horse and mingle with the natives.

The Asian Toad and Google research for business

My friend James is probably the smartest person I know.  Whether he is teaching himself music in order to do the soundtrack to an amazing documentary of his, building innovative mammal free zones in New Zealand, riding a motorbike or in Madagascar fighting the Asian toad.

The what?  When a modern human comes across something unknown, we Google it.  Just like that.  Which means that billions (3.2 billion) of searches a day globally can tell us a lot.  People in the UK search for “toad” more than other countries, but of course there are toad in books, children’s series, music band and all sorts of other things.   Maybe there are opportunities in those for some sort of co-promotion.  The English are followed by Ausies, Americans, Canadians, NZ and …Nigeria?  Following Google searches is a bit like the dictionary game.  I just spent five minutes learning about “The Grasshopper and the Toad”, a short story by a Nigerian, as well as the use of the word “toad” in Nigerian politics.  Which is exactly the sort of peripheral knowledge you need as a business when researching your topic.

For example searches for “toad” have seasonality.  Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be because of some amphibian habit.  For example in the UK, October seems to be the main month for “toad in the hole”, a popular local dish, comfort food for many.  By contrast in the America, searches for “toad” peak every year at May and Arkansas is the state leading in interest.  If you are planning a campaign for the Asian toad, maybe do it in the winter when people so you don’t compete with all the people asking “what is the difference between a toad and a frog?”    In Australia searches for toads are in the Northern territory, don’t waste any ad money elsewhere.

Of course Google “normalises” the data.  Which means they try and mess it up enough so you can’t reverse engineer it, or use it to compete.  Still, with time, even without numbers, you can see that there are more searches for a “horned frog” than an “asian toad”.  You can follow that path too and look for promotional opportunities if you want to.

I picked the example of the Asian Toad on purpose.  If you are using a business problem you are often too close to the topic to explore.  For example searches for “toad” correlate in seasonality in the U.S. with searches for “vinyl siding”, “house paints”, “insects” and “utility trailer”.  Each of these terms merits some online detective work.  Working around the limitations of data provided by Google is actually inspiring.  Searches for “frog” correlate mostly with “garden clogs” in America but while checking this out I discovered “save the frogs”, a poetry competition in Australia which made quite a digital dent in terms of stats.

Searches for “toad” in Australia correlate with the term “religious”.  The search to figure out why this occurs won’t fit in a blog post.  But you see the point:  playing around with Google search data brings new ideas to your project.  It changes priorities by giving new angles.  Something you consider secondary might be a huge business opportunity in a specific segment.    New ideas are born, old ones improved.  We are all essentially trying to build a model of how things work.  Use Google’s model to tweak yours.

It is a big and complex world.  Don’t let your assumptions narrow things down too quickly.  Oh, and check out – tell people about the Asian toad and let’s all do something about it.

Will this idea work?



Some time ago I sat in a school committee meeting.  As usual they were wasting time talking too much.  For about half an hour they were discussing what to do about the graffiti on the wall.  I calculated that in that time we could have actually painted it over at least twice.   By doing we would have solved the problem we were thinking about.  It wasn’t about consensus, it was just that everybody was playing with “what if” scenarios instead of “just do it” solutions.

I have done the same in big business meetings though too.  All too often you come out of a meeting with an idea.  The problem is that the idea that seems better has no data to back it up.  There is no way to differentiate between ideas when they are just blah blah over coffee and stale biscuits at a Monday morning meeting.  That to me seems like a big waste.  If I have spent an hour getting excited about an idea, why leave it to die?

Business is essentially a series of experiments.  Every day you look for “solutions”.  Which means that essentially you are testing a hypothesis.  “Here is a situation we need to change.  Will this work?” is something I just started to help you with that.  How to test ideas quickly, cheaply and with little or no risk.  (Depends how you do it and what “it” is.)  I come out of that meeting and start the project.  That simple.

Anyone who has commissioned a panel knows how frustrating it is.  8 or 10 people carefully selected and coordinated by specialists end up giving you pretty bad data.  You have no idea how accurate or useful it is really.  And it is way too expensive.  Instead of talking about “social media”, I think of them as cheap experiments.  There are ready made tools and keen audiences wanting to partake in your tests.  At worse you get a lot of feedback, maybe some new ideas.  At best you have launched the idea in a spectacular way and proved it works.

It is pretty addictive.  Having done it thousands of times I have remnants of old ideas all over the place.  That product launch page which is still counting down to a launch that never happened.  That other site which just republished content but got us more than twenty thousand unique hits and saved the day with the search data it provided.  The other software idea which seemed fantastic but a month down the line seemed less fantastic as it would cost way too much.  Some of these ideas didn’t even wait until the meeting ended.  I have automated the procedure so much now, I can launch an idea website within five minutes of thinking of the idea.

It’s not always that simple.  So has just started from phase one, all rough and ugly right now as it is going slowly so I can explain some of the challenges at every step.  Try it out.  Just do it.