TV Bundling

This is yet another blogpost to expand on a tweet I wrote yesterday.

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Last week we wrote about a new TRAI order about bundling of TV channels. Essentially the telecom (and broadcast) regulator in India has gone to great lengths to ensure that TV channels don’t get bundled in a way that makes it difficult for the customer to choose.

While the effect of this bundling order might be uncertain, one question needs to be asked to TRAI – why are they only concerned about bundling at one level (across channels) and not at the television channel level itself?

After all, television channels are also bundles.

For a fixed fee a month (and a willingness to see a certain proportion of paid content), subscription to a television channel gives you the opportunity to watch any of the programming that the channel offers. Let’s take a sports channel, for example (IMHO, live sports is the only reason you need cable TV. Everything else can be streamed).

Let’s say there is one Sony channel that offers live coverage of UEFA Champions League, NBA and cricket played in England (I know all these are part of the Sony bouquet, though I don’t know if they are regularly broadcast on the same or different channels here. Let’s assume there is one channel that shows all three).

Assume that I’m only interested in the football, but not in either NBA or cricket played in England. In order to watch my football, I’m forced to buy subscription to the entire TV channel (and thus pay for the cricket and basketball as well). Why am I being forced to do this?

Take any channel, and the outcome is going to be similar. You will subscribe to the channel only because you want to watch a few programs, but you are forced to pay for everything. Is this fair?

Let’s move beyond televisions. Consider the Times of India. I’m mainly interested in the local news and the bridge column (OK, my daughter has taken a liking for the cartoon page as well). Still I need to pay for the whole paper. Is that fair?

Essentially, bundling exists everywhere. And it is going to be incredibly hard to regulate it away. TRAI wants to reduce one kind of bundling (across channels), but its regulation seems  blind to in-channel bundling. Essentially it is impossible to regulate against in-channel bundling as well.

And in any case, there are clear benefits to customers from bundling, the most important of which is the elimination of “mental cost”. If some day I suddenly want to watch NBA, it’s already there on the Sony channel I’ve paid for, and I don’t need to rush that moment to try and buy subscription.

Yes, pay per view exists in certain markets, and it can be profitably offered for certain kinds of premium events whose viewership is so uncorrelated with viewership of other events that bundling is nigh impossible.

Also, isn’t your spouse or partner also a bundle? To quote Esther Perel:

Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?

I leave you with her TED TAlk.

 

Omnichannel retail

About 10 days back I decided that the number of covid-19 positive cases in Bangalore was high enough to recalibrate my risk levels. So I decided I’m not going to go to “indoor shops” (where you have to step inside the shop) any more.

Instead, as much as possible I would buy from “over the counter” shops (where you don’t have to step inside). This way, I would avoid being indoors, and as long as I’m outdoors (and wearing a mask) when I’m out of homeI should be reasonably safe.

However, over the years we have come to need a lot of things that at least in an Indian context can be classified as “long tail”. Over the last three months I’ve been buying them from the large format Namdhari store close to home. Now, that’s a large airconditioned shop which my new risk levels don’t allow me to go to. So I decided to order from their website.

Now, Namdhari is a classic “omnichannel retail” (the phrase was told to me by one of the guys who helped set it up). There is no warehouse – all customer orders are fulfilled from stores. You could think of it like calling your local shop and asking for delivery.

As you can imagine, this can lead to insane inventory issues, especially for a shop like Namdhari’s that specialises in long tail stuff. It is pretty impossible for a store to reconcile how much stock is there in the store with the website (even with perfect technology, you’ll miss out on what is there in people’s (physical) charts).

There is also the issue of prioritisation of customers that they are kept in the dark about. If the shop has a limited inventory of any item (and with long tail stuff, even a small spike in demand can make inventory very limited), how does it allocate it between people who have trudged all the way to the store and those who have prepaid for it on the website?

I wasn’t that surprised, I guess, when half the items that I had ordered failed to arrive. The delivery guy told me that the rest of my money would get refunded.

I wondered why they wouldn’t try to fulfil my order the next day instead. This brings me to my next grouse – there is no real reasons sometimes to provide same day delivery. If you offer next day delivery then you know tomorrow delivery volumes beforehand, and it will be easy for you to stock up. These guys had this process, it seems, where you have to order for the same day and if the thing runs out you don’t get it at all.

In any case, three days after my half-fulfilled order had been delivered I got a mail that refund had been initiated for the items I had ordered but hadn’t arrived.

It was like writing a cheque. Cheques are inefficient because between the time it is written and encashed, neither the giver nor the receiver has access to the funds (online transfer such as IMPS, on the other hand, ensures that the money is in either the giver or receiver’s account at all points in time).

So my order which had been partially fulfilled was in a similar trishanku state – I didn’t know if it would arrive or if I should order the same items from elsewhere. In case I waited I would have the risk of getting the stuff even later (since I’d delay order from elsewhere).

It was only after it failed to arrive on Wednesday (and I got the mail) that I was able to place an order from elsewhere. Hopefully this one won’t get into trishanku state as well.

Advertising

When I first joined Instagram in 2013 or 2014, the first thing that fascinated me about the platform was the quality of advertisements. At that point in time, all advertisements there looked really good, like the pictures that the platform was famous for helping sharing.

It wasn’t like the clunky ads I would see elsewhere on the internet, or even on Facebook – which mostly stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of whatever content I was consuming at that point in time. Instagram advertisements looked so good that I actually paid them considerable attention (though I hardly clicked on them back then).

Over the years, as Facebook has gotten to know me better (I hardly use Facebook itself nowadays. But I use a lot of Instagram. For now I’ll believe Facebook’s claim that my WhatsApp information is all encrypted and Facebook doesn’t learn much about me through that), and the advertisements have gotten better and more relevant.

Over the last one year or so (mostly after I returned to India) I’ve even started clicking on some of the ads (yes they’ve become that relevant), giving Facebook even more information about myself, and setting off a positive feedback loop that makes the advertisements more relevant to me.

Over the years I’ve attended talks by privacy experts about the privacy challenges of this or that platform. “They’ll get all this information about you”, they say, “and then they can use that to send you targeted advertisements. How bad is that?”. If I think about all the problems with telling too much about myself to anonymous platforms or companies, receiving better targeted advertisements is the least of my worries.

As a consumer, better targeted ads means better information to me. Go back to the fundamentals of advertising – which is to communicate to the customer about the merits of a particular product. We think advertising can be annoying, but advertising is annoying only when the advertisements are not relevant to the target customer. 

When advertisements are well targeted, the customer gets valuable information about products that enables them to make better decisions, and spend their money in a better fashion. The more the information that the advertiser has about the end customer, the better the quality (defined in terms of relevance) the advertisements that can be shown.

This is the “flywheel” (can’t imagine I would actually use this word in a non-ironic sense) that Facebook and affiliated companies operate on – every interaction with Facebook or Instagram gives the company more information about you, and this information can be used to show you better targeted advertisements, which have a higher probability of clicking. Because you are more likely to click on the advertisements, the advertiser can be charged more for showing you the advertisement.

Some advertisers have told me that they elect to not use “too much information” about the customer while targeting their advertisements on Facebook, because this results in a much higher cost per click. However, if they look at it in terms of “cost per relevant click” or “cost per relevant impression”, I’m not sure they would think about it the same way.

Any advertisement shown to someone who is not part of the intended target audience represents wastage. This is true of all forms of advertising – TV, outdoor, print, digital, everything. It is no surprise that Facebook, by helping an advertiser advertise with better (along several axes) information about the customer, and Google, by showing advertisements after a customer’s intent has been established, have pretty much monopolised the online advertising industry in the last few years.

Finally, I was thinking about advertising in the time of adblockers. Thanks to extensive use of ad-blockers (Safari is my primary browser across devices, so ad blocking is effective), most of the digital advertisements I actually see is what I see on Instagram.

Today, some publication tried to block me from reading their article because I had my ad-blocker on. They made a sort of moral pitch that advertising is what supports them, and it’s not fair if I use an ad-blocker.

I think they should turn to banner ads. Yes. You read that right.

To the best of my knowledge, ad blockers work by filtering out links that come from the most popular ad exchanges. Banner ads, which are static and don’t go through any exchange, are impossible to block by ad-blockers. The problem, however, is that they are less targeted and so can have higher wastage.

But that is precisely how advertising in the offline versions of these newspapers works!

Something is better than nothing.

Fulfilling needs

We’re already in that part of the crisis where people are making predictions on how the world is going to change after the crisis. In fact, using my personal example, we’ve been in this part of the crisis for a long time now. So here I come with more predictions.

There’s a mailing list I’m part of where we’re talking about how we’ll live our lives once the crisis is over. A large number of responses there are about how they won’t ever visit restaurants or cafes, or watch a movie in a theatre, or take public transport, or travel for business, for a very very long time.

While it’s easy to say this, the thing with each of these supposedly dispensable activities is that they each serve a particular purpose, or set of purposes. And unless people are able to fulfil these needs that these activities serve with near-equal substitutes, I don’t know if these activities will decline by as much as people are talking about.

Let’s start with restaurants and cafes. One purpose they serve is to serve food, and one easy substitute for that is to take the food away and consume it at home. However, that’s not their only purpose. For example, they also provide a location to consume the food. If you think of restaurants that mostly survive because working people have their midday lunch there, the place they offer for consuming the food is as important as the food itself.

Then, restaurants and cafes also serve as venues to meet people. In fact, more than half my eating (and drinking) out over the last few years has been on account of meeting someone. If you don’t want to go to a restaurant or cafe to meet someone (because you might catch the virus), what’s the alternative?

There’s a certain set of people we might be inclined to meet at home (or office), but there’s a large section of people you’re simply not comfortable enough with to meet at a personal location, and a “third place” surely helps (also now we’ll have a higher bar on people we’ll invite home or to offices). If restaurants and cafes are going to be taboo, what kind of safe “third places” can emerge?

Then there is the issue of the office. For six to eight months before the pandemic hit, I kept thinking about getting myself an office, perhaps a co-working space, so that I could separate out my work and personal lives. NED meant I didn’t execute on that plan. However, the need for an office remains.

Now there’s greater doubt on the kind of office space I’ll get. Coworking spaces (at least shared desks) are out of question. This also means that coffee shops doubling up as “computer classes” aren’t feasible any more. I hate open offices as well. Maybe I have to either stick to home or go for a private office someplace.

As for business travel – they’ve been a great costly signal. For example, there had been some clients who I’d been utterly unable to catch over the phone. One trip to their city, and they enthusiastically gave appointments, and one hour meetings did far more than multiple messages or emails or phone calls could have done. Essentially by indicating that I was willing to take a plane to meet them, I signalled that I was serious about getting things done, and that got things moving.

In the future, business travel will “become more costly”. While that will still serve the purpose of “extremely costly signalling”, we will need a new substitute for “moderately costly signalling”.

And so forth. What we will see in the course of the next few months is that we will discover that a lot of our activities had purposes that we hadn’t thought of. And as we discover these purposes one by one, we are likely to change our behaviours in ways that will surprise us. It is too early to say which sectors or industries will benefit from this.

Rewarding Inefficiency

As the lockdown goes on and we have to spend tonnes of effort for things that we took for granted, there are some things I’m thankful I don’t have to spend effort for.

For example, ever since we returned to India a year ago, we’ve got milk delivered to the door every morning, and that continues. We buy our vegetables from this guy who drives a small truck in front of our road every other day (the time at which he arrives is less certain, but he maintains his thrice-a-week schedule).

For eggs, and as backup for vegetables, there is this “HOPCOMS” (a government-run fruits and vegetables shop) 100 metres from where I stay. The thing is so empty most of the time that I wonder if it would continue to exist if it had a profit motive.

It’s only for our staples, toiletries and other groceries that we have to visit organised stores, and in that too, I patronise this “independent supermarket” run by an enterprising bunch of Mallus rather than a chain. Plenty of other kinds of redundancy exists in the area where we live – there are a few family-owned grocers who don’t stock any “long tail stuff” but can supply the staples. And so forth.

This is very different from the situation in London, where I lived for two year, where for pretty much everything you go to the supermarket. If you are looking for “regular” stuff, you go to the little Tesco at the corner. If you want long tail stuff, you walk farther to the large-format Tesco. Bread, dairy, fruits and vegetables, groceries – for everything you go to Tesco. There were “unbranded” retail stores around as well (“off-licenses”, I think, they were called), but pretty much nobody ever went there.

It is the time of crisis when you start appreciating redundancy and inefficiency. All the “local supply chains” that we’ve relied upon continue to be reliable (the only exception being bread – all local bakeries are shut). It’s only for staples and toiletries that one needs to go to the supermarket.

Actually, not really, unless you are looking for long tail stuff. On my way back from the supermarket last Wednesday, I drove past one of the small family-owned groceries around here. There was a line one person long there. In other words, being a rather “inefficient” system around here, redundancy exists, and it is invaluable at crisis time.

Contrast this to a place like London, or even Gurgaon (or Gurgaon-like localities in other cities in India), where most shopping is done in branded chain stores. In that kind of scenario, at the time of crisis, there is no way out. The overoptimised and stretched (but “efficient”) supply chains mean that things come to a halt. You have no option but to regularly go to the supermarket and line up, and hope that their supply doesn’t run out.

My shopping habits apart, the larger question I’m wondering about is – once the crisis is over, how do we incentivise inefficiency? Clearly there are benefits to come out of inefficiency, in terms of slack in the system and greater resilience at the time of stress. However, these benefits are seldom seen in normal times, thanks to which businesses that push tail risks under the carpet can deliver super-normal returns and drive the more careful ones out of business.

We don’t know when the next such crisis will hit. It is highly likely that the next crisis will be nothing like this crisis, and we have no clue what it will be like. So how can we be prepared and have enough inefficiency in the system that when it comes around we are resilient?

Right now I have no answers.

Love and arranged jobs

When I first entered the arranged marriage market in early 2009, I had done so with the expectation that I would use it as a sort of dating agency. Remember this was well before the likes of OKCupid or Tinder or TrulyMadly were around, and for whatever reason I had assumed that I could “find chicks” in the arranged marriage market, and then date them for a while before committing.

Now that my wife is in this business, I think my idea was a patently bad one. Each market attracts a particular kind of people, who usually crowd out all other kind of people. And sort of by definition, the arranged marriage market is filled with people looking for arranged marriage. Maybe they just want a Common Minimum Program. But surely, what they are looking for is a quick process where after two (or maximum three) meetings, you commit to someone for life.

So in this kind of a market you want to date, there is an infinitesimal chance of finding someone else who also wants to date. And so you are bound to be disappointed. In this case, you are better off operating in a dating market (such as Tinder, or whatever else did its job ten years ago).

Now that this lengthy preamble is out of the way, let us talk about love and arranged jobs. This has nothing to do with jobs, or work itself. It has everything to do with the process of finding a job. Some of you might find that I, who has been largely out of the job market for over eight years now, to be supremely unqualified to write about jobs, but this outsider view is what allows me to take an objective view of this (just like most other things I write about on this blog).

You get a love job through a sort of lengthy courtship process, like love marriage. You either get introduced to someone, or meet them on twitter, or bump into them at a networking event. Then you have a phone chat, followed by a coffee, and maybe a drink, and maybe a few meals. You talk about work related stuff in most of these, and over time you both realise it makes sense to work together. A formality of an interview process happens, and you start working together.

From my outside view (and having never gotten a job in this manner), I would imagine that this would lead to fulfilling work relationships and satisfying work (the only risk is that the person you have “courted” moves away or up). And when you are looking for a sort of high-trust relationship in a job, this kind of an “interview process” possibly makes sense.

In some ways, you can think about getting a “love job” as following the advise Dale Carnegie dishes out in How To Win Friends and Influence People  – make the counterparty like you as a person and you make the sale.

The more common approach in recruitment is “arranged jobs” (an extreme example of this is campus recruitment). This is no nonsense, no beating around the bush approach. In the first conversation, it is evident to both parties that a full time job is a desired outcome of the interaction. Conversations are brisk, and to the point. Soon enough, formal interviews get set up, and the formal process can be challenging.

And if things go well after that, there is a job offer in hand. And soon you are working together. Love, if at all, happens after marriage, as some “aunties” are prone to telling you.

The advantage of this process is that it is quick, and serves both parties well in that respect. The disadvantage is that the short courtship period means that not enough trust has been built between the parties at the time they start working together. This means “proving oneself” in the first few months of getting a job, which is always tricky and set a bad precedent for the rest of the employment.

In the first five years of my career, I moved between four jobs. All of them happened through the arranged process. The one I lasted the longest in (and enjoyed the most, by a long way, though on a relative basis) was the one where the arranged process itself took a long time. I did some sixteen interviews before getting the job, and in the process the team I was going to join had sold itself very well to me.

And that makes me think that if I end up getting back to formal employment some day, it will have to happen through the love process.

News, Subscription, Advertising, and Bias

Dibyendu Mishra and Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan have some very interesting research out on the political bias of Indian news publications. Rather than do complicated gymnastics such as NLP, they’ve simply looked at the share of articles from each news publication that is retweeted by BJP and non-BJP publications, to draw out a measure of their bias (see link above for methodology).

They have made a nice scatter plot (the other axis is how “popular” these news outlets are in terms of the number of articles retweeted), and looking left to right, you can see the understood (by politicians) bias of various Indian news publications. As Helmet pointed out on Twitter, the most “centrist” news outlets seem to be the Times of India and the Economic Times, both from the Bennett, Coleman and Company group, who people crib about for “being too commercial” and “having too many advertisements”.

This reminds me of another piece of analysis that was in the news a few months ago, about how subscription-driven online news has led to news outlets being politically polarising. For example, Zach Goldberg did some analysis of frequency of words/phrases in the New York Times that are associated with the extreme left.

Note the inflexion point sometime in 2012 or so, around the same time when the NY Times put up its paywall.

David Rozado has a more comprehensive picture (check out his nifty tool here).

The idea is this – when newspapers depended on advertising for most of their funding, they needed to be centrist. Taking political sides meant that large mass-market advertisers wouldn’t want to advertise in this newspaper, and the paper would thus lose revenues. Hence, for the longest time, whatever the quality of the reporting and writing was, news outlets strove to be reasonably politically unbiased – taking sides would mean a loss of money.

Once digital took off, and it became clear that digital advertising wouldn’t really sustain the papers, they started putting their content behind paywalls. And subscription revenues meant two things – news outlets weren’t as beholden to advertisers as they used to be, and it was easier to get paying subscribers if you had a strong ideology. Moreover, online you can provide targeted advertising (rather than mass-market), so you can get away with being biased. And so with the coming of paywalls, newspapers started becoming far more political as the New York Times graph above indicates.

In India, there haven’t been too many publications behind paywalls, but media is evidently getting more and more polarised over time. Papers and channels are branding themselves (implicitly) as being pro or against a particular political party, and that is driving their viewership.

While these media outlets are good for fanbois (and fangirls) of particular ideologies, the ideological bent has meant that it has become harder to get objective news.

And that’s where money, and advertising, comes in.

The positioning of ToI and ET in the middle of the Indian media ideological graph is interesting because they belong to a group that is brazen about commercialisation and revenues (from advertising). And in terms of news objectivity, that’s a good thing. Since ToI and ET are highly money minded, they want to get as much advertising as possible, and in order to attract mass marketers, they need to not be biased.

Taking a political stand means pissing off people belonging to the opposite political persuasion, and that means less readership, which means less advertising revenues. And so if you read the editorials of these newspapers (I read ET everyday), you see that they maintain a careful balance of not appearing too biased in favour or against any party. And you see them raking in the advertisers while more biased (and “ideological”) competitors are forced to request for donations, or put up paywalls restricting their readership.

Putting it another way, there is no surprise that ToI and ET are not biased in their news, and are retweeted by politicians of all persuasions. It is the classic money-driven media model, and that is the one that is capable of providing the most objective news.

The Cost of Customer Acquisition

A couple of days after I abused Cred on twitter for having “mostly useless” rewards and switched to paying my credit card bills using BBPS, I decided to see if I could make use of whatever points I have on Cred.

I saw that they had some offers on the Olive group of restaurants. Paying “5000 cred coins” ( I don’t even know how many I have, and don’t care since I’m exiting the app) would entitle me to a 20% discount on some of the Olive group restaurants (Olive Bar, SodaBottleOpenerWala, Cantan, etc.).

I happened to casually mention this to the wife, and she immediately suggested that we go to Olive Bar for dinner last night. And so we did, and had an amazing dinner, funded partly by the discount coupon from Cred’s app.

This got me thinking – why has a premium restaurant brand like Olive partnered with Cred to give these discounts? For example, we had only been to Olive once before, and had become instant fans of the place. In that sense, Olive really didn’t need to entice us with discounts – the brand awareness was already in our heads.

So I initially started out thinking that at least part of the money Olive had spent in this partnership with Cred had been wasted – marketing to us who already knew (and loved) the brand.

Then again, the discount coupon had an immediate impact – without having any plans of eating out last night, the coupon immediately spurred us to go to Olive and spend some money there. So while Olive didn’t need to target us for the brand, their discount meant that they got one extra “unplanned” visit from us.

As it happened, this was on a mid-week evening, and we were the first guests in (the place opens at 7, so we had to already delay the daughter’s bedtime for this outing), so they had a low real estate cost of hosting us (the discount is applicable on all days, not just weekdays).

And by giving us excellent food once again, they have reminded us of how strong a restaurant they are, and we might increase our frequency of visits there.

OK I guess I try to over-analyse everything in life.

But then, isn’t that the whole point of this blog?

Management Gurus

A few years back, one of the professors from my wife’s business school had come to London, and had given a talk to the alumni of the school. He was a professor of Operations Management (IIRC), and had given a talk about the Toyota Production System or some such.

At the time, my wife was working for Amazon and was completely unimpressed by the lecture. “This guy is 20 years behind”, she claimed, as she gave me a review of the lecture the same evening. The processes the professor had described were apparently extremely primitive compared to what Amazon was following at that time (I believe that).

So this got me thinking about management academia as a profession, and what value they add apart from teaching and preparing MBAs. I’ve sort of worked as one, though my position as Adjunct Professor at IIMB meant that I only taught and didn’t do any research. I did talk to some of the professors there during that time and tried to figure out what they were working on in terms of research.

Putting all this together with material I’ve gathered from Clayton Christensen’s obituaries, I think I’ve recognised a pattern that connects management research – it’s all about looking back at business over the last few years, deciphering patterns about them and then theorising about them.

In a sense it reminds me of second and third order levers. Scientific academic research is usually (though not always) cutting edge, with new science being created in the academic laboratories and then engineered in industries which then go on to commercialise this research.

Management research, on the other hand, is flipped. The true cutting edge in management happens at businesses, where the experimentation is relatively easier than experimenting with scientific stuff. Once some experimentation has happened at the business level and successes and failures have been observed, the academics get into action.

They look at the experiments that the industries did, meticulously collect data that documents the success or failure of these experiments (along with the external factors that might have affected the success or lack of it), and then theorise about the costs and benefits of these experiments, and the situations where they work (or not).

Sometimes the academics supplement their data gathering of the experiments and situations with experiments of their own, and some interviews, and then apply their deep academic and theoretical knowledge on top of it to create theories about them. And once the academic theoretical peer review process has taken place, the idea can get better traction in parts of the industry that have not already figured it out.

The competitive advantage that management academics have is that they sit an arm’s length away from the industries that they study, and they are able to gather data from large numbers of companies in order to build their theories. They may not be the originators of the ideas but their value addition in terms of synthesising ideas generated elsewhere is significant.

The Base Rate in Hitting on People

Last week I met a single friend at a bar. He remarked that had I been late, or not turned up at all, he would have seriously considered chatting up a couple of women at the table next to ours.

This friend has spent considerable time in several cities. The conversation moved to how conducive these cities are for chatting up people, and what occasions are appropriate for chatting up. In Delhi, for example, he mentioned that you never try and chat up a strange woman – you are likely to be greeted with a swap.

In Bombay, he said, it depends on where you chat up. What caught my attention was when he mentioned that in hipster cafes, the ones that offer quinoa bowls and vegan smoothies, it is rather normal to chat up strangers, whether you are doing so with a romantic intent or not. One factor he mentioned was the price of real estate in Bombay which means most of these places have large “communal tables” that encourage conversation.

The other thing we spoke about how the sort of food and drink such places serve create a sort of “brotherhood” (ok not appropriate analogy when talking about chatting up women), and that automatically “qualifies” you as not being a creep, and your chatting up being taken up seriously.

This got me thinking about the concept of “base rates” or “priors”. I spent the prime years of my youth in IIT Madras, which is by most accounts a great college, but where for some inexplicable reason, not too many women apply to get in. That results in a rather lopsided ratio that you would more associate with a dating app in India rather than a co-educational college.

In marketing you have the concept of a “qualified lead”. When you randomly call a customer to pitch your product there is the high chance that she will hang up on you. So you need to “prime” the customer to expect your call and respond positively. Building your brand helps. Also, doing something that gauges the customer’s interest before the call, and calling only once the interest is established, helps.

What you are playing on here in marketing is is the “base rate” or the “prior” that the customer has in her head. By building your brand, you automatically place yourself in a better place in the customer’s mind, so she is more likely to respond positively. If, before the call, the customer expects to have a better experience with you, that increases the likelihood of a positive outcome from the call.

And this applies to chatting up women as well. The lopsided ratio at IIT Madras, where I spent the prime of my youth, meant that you started with a rather low base rate (the analogy with dating apps in India is appropriate). Consequently, chatting up women meant that you had to give an early signal that you were not a creep, or that you were a nice guy (the lopsided ratio also turns most guys there into misogynists, and not particularly nice. This is a rather vicious cycle). Of course, you could build your brand with grades or other things, but it wasn’t easy.

Coming from that prior, it took me a while to adjust to situations with better base rates, and made me hesitant for a long time, and for whatever reason I assumed I was a “low base rate” guy (I’m really glad, in hindsight, that my wife “approached” me (on Orkut) and said the first few words. Of course, once we’d chatted for a while, I moved swiftly to put her in my “basket”).

Essentially, when we lack information, we stereotype someone with the best information we have about them. When the best information we have about them is not much, we start with a rather low prior, and it is upon them to impress us soon enough to upgrade them. And upgrading yourself in someone’s eyes is not an easy business. And so you should rather start from a position where the base rate is high enough.

And this “upgrade” is not necessarily linear – you can also use this to brand yourself in the axes that you want to be upgraded. Hipster cafes provide a good base rate that you like the sort of food served there. Sitting in a hipster cafe with a MacBook might enhance your branding (increasingly, sitting in a cafe with a Windows laptop that is not a Surface might mark you out as an overly corporate type). Political events might help iff you are the overly political type (my wife has clients who specify the desired political leadings of potential spouses). Caste groups on Orkut or Facebook might help if that is the sort of thing you like. The axes are endless.

All that matters is that whatever improved base rate you seek to achieve by doing something, the signal you send out needs to be credible. Else you can get downgraded very quickly once you’ve got the target’s attention.