Book review: Shel Israel’s Lethal Generosity


Shel Israel’s latest book (Lethal Generosity – Contextual Technology and the Competitive Edge) builds on his earlier collaboration with Robert Scoble (Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data & the Future of Privacy, which I’ve not yet read) but takes a more personal walk towards the near future.

It’s a future in which technology and business common sense have combined (for those clever enough or lucky enough to make this happen) to create new ways to keep customers and do so profitably.

His thesis touches a number of just-launched prototypes and near-launch likely products to create an accessible summary of what these myriad product and technology types offer, and mean.

He does so with some conviction. For a CEO or CMO seeking a manageable narrative in business terms, this is a useful book.

For technologists wondering where the next competitor or partner might lurk, it provides a mid-2015 overview.

Even for venture capitalists (even in Australia) it should set agile minds thinking about new opportunities.

At its core, the book sets out the concept of delivering on customers’ declared preferences, seeking to engage rather than interrupt.

Israel focuses throughout on hardware devices and web sites tuned to customers’ needs, and hooked to smart phone apps.  The social web is left slightly at arm’s length – an area of special interest to the company I work for here in Australia. The themes though are consistent: organizations which will succeed in the future are those which listen to customers, whether via beacons in retail stores, preferences loaded into apps, or comments freely made in social media.

From on-line optometrist Warby Parker to campus coffee vendors Tapingo, and all points in between, he describes how companies have worked out how to deliver what he chooses to call lethal generosity – a customer engagement so compelling that it proves ultimately lethal to competitors, simply because customers return for more.

As Shel Israel succinctly puts it, customer become marketing campaign, not the targets of marketing campaigns.

He’s a fan of in-store beacons. What better moment, he argues, to engage a customer than when they walk into a store, and what better moment to engage rather than interrupt?

But this thinking can fail when technology execution and engagement become dissonant, when they fail to mesh, citing an experiment in London’s Regent Street where the missing element was awareness (and some technological glitches) that meant the customers tramping some of the world’s most desirable retail real estate simply didn’t know what offers lay just a few steps away.

My favourite example is that of the Magnum ice cream vending machines in which NewAer’s app spots two customers in the vicinity of the same vending machine and suggest they rendezvous at the machine for an ice cream. NewAer had won a Unilever hackathon competition to create a new, meaningful app (Unilever owns the Magnum brand). I like the essential simplicity and relevance of the app, but I also like it that a colossus like Unilever seems to get that new ways of creating new value are actually worth time and investment. (I’ve worked with companies for which the phrase ‘hackathon’ means ‘run for the hills’.)

Lethal Generosity is not a term I especially take to (nor is Uberizing, from Robert Scoble) but Shel Israel brings all of these entwined strands together in his final chapter, one in which he reminds us that the application of technology is a means to an end, and that the development of technology almost always accelerates and refines ways of connecting a customer and an organization with something of value to offer. The near future will, in his view, see those who get this pull ahead rapidly from those who don’t. His final words are therefore a gentle warning to us all:

“Those who follow the conventional route can and will use the new tools to accomplish the same old things in the same old way, and that will work for a while, but I believe it will be for a relatively short while. I believe that in the case of this fork, in this particular path, conventional wisdom can guide you down a road that grows narrower and curvier before bringing you to a dead end.”

Shel Israel points out, in a manageable 220 pages, where to look and what to think, about what we all need to consider about our futures, and the decisions that are ours to make about how we want to play this game.

The least we can do is read and ponder.

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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