Nathaniel Ward

Hey there! I’m a marketer and fundraiser in Washington, D.C.

I love understanding how and why people make decisions—why they say yes or no to an offer—and applying that knowledge, through effective marketing and technology, to the fight for freedom. Find me on or read more about me.

The future is going to be awesome, so let’s celebrate it

Charlie Warzel calls for an end to Apple product-launch events:

But what started as a Steve Jobs TED talk has become a parody — a decadent pageant of Palo Alto executives, clothed in their finest Dad Casual, reading ad copy as lead-ins for vaguely sexual jump-cut videos of brushed aluminum under nightclub lighting. The events are exhausting love letters to consumerism complete with rounds of applause from the laptop-lit faces of the tech blogging audience when executives mention that you (yes you!) can hold the future in your hands for just $24.95 per month or $599 with trade-in.

The entire event is at odds with our current moment — one in which inequality, economic precarity and populist frustration have infiltrated our politics and reshaped our relationships with once-adored tech companies. But it’s not just the tech backlash. When the world feels increasingly volatile and fragile, it feels a little obscene to gather to worship a $1,000 phone.

This is exactly wrong. The current moment requires more events like Apple’s.

John Gruber describes Apple events as escapism: “If anything, people look to them as relief from the current moment. Gadgets are fun.”

But they’re more than that. Apple’s events are celebrations of free enterprise and what it can achieve when unleashed.

In 2007, the best iPhone money could buy cost $740 in today’s dollars. Today’s base iPhone model costs $700, or five percent less than the 2007 model in real terms. For that price, you get a device that’s almost incalculably faster, more capable, and more useful.

Twenty years ago, a single album on CD might have cost $20 in nominal dollars. For half that cost every month, you can get unlimited access to virtually every song ever recorded through Apple Music.

These are achievements worth celebrating. These are reasons to be hopeful, not pessimistic, about the future.

If our moment is characterized by “economic precocity and populist frustration” there is no better antidote than a hopeful free enterprise. It is jubilant free-marketers, not dour scolds, who will solve today’s problems—and tomorrow’s.

What’s the value of buying local?

The independent bookstore up the street maintains a well-curated selection, especially of children’s books, and regularly hosts events with authors. I enjoy having a bookstore like this nearby, and I frequently browse.

Yet I find it hard to actually purchase books there. Why? Because it’s vastly more expensive than Amazon.

I went in the other day looking for a copy of Fall, Neal Stephenson’s latest book. The bookstore sells the book at its list price of $35. Amazon sells it for about $13.53.

Is supporting a local business worth a 160 percent premium?

Email is still marketing’s ‘killer app’

The “hot new channel” for marketers is email, the Wall Street Journal reports:

For marketers great and small, the algorithms that power social media represent the ever-rising cost of doing business on the platforms owned by the duopoly of Google and Facebook. Email allows authors to intimately connect with readers, lets brands address their most loyal customers and budding startups develop armies of influencers…

Email still has the highest return on investment per marketing dollar spent, according to the Data & Marketing Association. And while Facebook, especially, has whipsawed marketers with ever-changing rules about how to reach customers—and how much Facebook will charge for the privilege—with email, a company owns its own lists.

I’ve been saying for years that email is the “killer app” for marketers and fundraisers. It enables real, personal engagement with your customers in a way that social media simply cannot.

When data analysis goes wrong

Writing in Wired, Gary Smith explains the dangers of mindless data mining:

The Feynman trap—ransacking data for patterns without any preconceived idea of what one is looking for—is the Achilles heel of studies based on data mining. Finding something unusual or surprising after it has already occurred is neither unusual nor surprising. Patterns are sure to be found, and are likely to be misleading, absurd, or worse.

This approach can generate spurious correlations—patterns that are true but meaningless. More Smith:

In 2011, Google created an artificial intelligence program called Google Flu that used search queries to predict flu outbreaks. Google’s data-mining program looked at 50 million search queries and identified the 45 that were the most closely correlated with the incidence of flu. It’s yet another example of the data-mining trap: A valid study would specify the keywords in advance. After issuing its report, Google Flu overestimated the number of flu cases for 100 of the next 108 weeks, by an average of nearly 100 percent. Google Flu no longer makes flu predictions.

A better approach to data analysis, one that will return the most useful insights, starts with questions to answer and hypotheses to validate.

Fundraising short-termism

The nonprofits and political movements that endure are those that build meaningful relationships with their donors.

Yet the temptation remains to make decisions that are effective in the short run but catastrophic over time—to sacrifice long-term success for victory today.

This is particularly true in politics. For political campaigns, what counts is winning the election; considering a future beyond Election Day is just a distraction. This can lead political fundraisers to eschew meaningful relationships with donors in favor of gimmicks, misleading language, and constant shrill appeals for money.

The Washington Post profiles one firm, Mothership Strategies, that takes this approach:

The company’s profits are built on exaggerating fears, some fellow Democrats say, and could erode trust among small donors needed to help 2020 presidential contenders compete with Trump’s loyal base of contributors — and beyond…

The company’s three millennial founders are unapologetic about their tactics — so much so that one employee’s bio on the company’s website touts she has “mastered the ALL CAPS SUBJECT LINE.”

These shortsighted tactics, a bipartisan affliction, are justified as being effective. Indeed, this approach may work quite well in the short run, drawing eye-popping returns that exceed anything from a more durable approach.

Over the long haul, though, treating your donors poorly erodes trust. Donors will catch on eventually that the sky isn’t always falling. They will tire of the one-way relationship, disengage, and stop giving.