A modern take on peoples valiant attempts to get attention

Facebook Newsfeed Algorithm Equation

A really well written story in Techcrunch today, which relates the ever increasing difficulty of getting a message you publish in front of people you know. Well worth a read if you have a spare 5 minutes: http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/03/the-filtered-feed-problem/

The main surprise for me is that if you “Like” a particular vendors Facebook page, the best historical chance (from Feb 2012) of seeing one individual post from them was around 1 in 6 – 16%. With an increase in potential traffic to go into your personal news feed, it is (in March 2014) now down to 1 in 15 – 6.51%. So, businesses are facing the same challenges to that of the Advertising industry in general, even on these new platforms.

Despite the sheer amount of signal data available to them, even folks like Facebook (and I guess the same is true of Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc) have a big challenge to separate what we value seeing, and what we skip by. Even why we look at these social media sites can be interpreted in many different ways from the get go. One of my ex-work colleagues, at a s Senior Management program at Harvard, had a professor saying that males were on Facebook for the eye candy, and females to one-plus their looks and social life among their social circle (and had a habit of publishing less flattering pictures of other women in the same!).

The challenge of these sites is one of the few true need for “big data” analyses that isn’t just IT industry hype to sell more kit. Their own future depends on getting a rich vein of signals from users they act as a content platform for, while feeding paid content into the stream that advertisers are willing to subvert in their favo(u)r  – which is a centuries old pursuit and nothing remarkable, nor new.

Over the past few weeks, i’ve increased the number of times per week I go out for a walk with my wife. This week, Google Now on my Nexus 5 flashed this up:

Google Now Walking Stats Screenshot


So, it knows i’m walking, and how far! I guess this isn’t unusual. I know that the complete stock of photographs people upload also contain location data (deduced from GPS or the SSID of Wireless routers close by), date/time and readily admit the make and model of the device that it was taken on. And if you have a professional DSLR camera, often with the serial number of the camera and lens on board (hence some organisations offering to trace stolen cameras by looking at the EXIF data in uploaded photographs).

Individually identifiable data like that is not inserted by any of the popular mobile phones (to the best of my knowledge), and besides, most social media sites strip the EXIF data out of pictures they display publicly anyway. You’d need a warrant to request a search of that sort of data from the social media company, case by case. That said, Facebook and their ilk do have access to the data, and also a fair guess at your social circle given who gets tagged in your pictures!

Traditional media will instead trot out statistics on OTS (aka “Opportunities to see” an advert) and be able to supply some basic demographics – gleaned from subscriptions and competition entries – to work out the typical demographics of their audience you can pay to address. Getting “likely purchase intent” signals is much, much more difficult.

Love At First Website Demon Ad

When doing advertising for Demon Internet, we used to ask the person calling up for a trial CD some basic questions about where they’d seen the advert that led them to contact us. Knowing the media used, and it’s placement cost, we could in time measure the cost per customer acquired and work to keep that as low as possible. We routinely shared that data every week with our external media buyers, who used the data as part of their advertising space buying negotiation patter, and could relate back which positions and advert sizes in each publication pulled the best response.

The main gotcha is that if you ask, you may not get an accurate answer from the customer, or you can be undone by your own staff misattributing the call. We noticed this when we were planning to do a small trial some TV advertising, so had “TV” put on the response systems menu – as it happens, it appeared as the first option on the list. We were somewhat bemused after a week that TV was our best source of new customers – but before any of our ads had been aired. So, a little nudge to our phone staff to please be more accurate, while we changed every ad, for each different media title we used, to different 0800 numbers – and could hence take the response readings off the switch, cutting out the question and generally making the initial customer experience a bit more friction free.

With that, our cost per acquired customer stayed around the £20 each mark, and cost per long term retained customer kept at around £30 (we found, along the way, some publications had high response rates, but high churn rates to go with them).

Demon Trial Postmark

The best response rates of all were getting the Royal Mail franking machines to cancel stamps on half of all stamped letters in the UK for two two-week periods – which came out at £7 per acquired customer; a great result for Michelle Laufer, who followed up when she noticed letters arriving at home cancelled with “Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat”. Unfortunately, the Royal Mail stopped allowing ads to be done in this way, probably in the knowledge that seeing “Demon Internet” on letters resulted in a few complaints from people and places with a nervous disposition (one Mental Hospital as a case in point).

The main challenge for people carrying a Marketing job title these days is to be relentless on their testing, so they can measure – with whatever signals they can collect – what works, what doesn’t and what (from two alternative different treatments) pulls better. Unfortunately, many such departments are littered with people with no wherewithal beyond “please get this mailer out”. Poorest of Amateur behaviour, and wasting money unnecessarily for their shareholders.

As in most walks in life, those that try slightly harder get a much greater proportion of the resulting spoils for their organisation. And that is why seminal books like “Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing“, and indeed folks like Google, Facebook et al, are anal about the thoroughness of testing everything they do.

The rise & rise of A1 (internet fuelled) Journalism

Newspaper Industry RIPThere’s been a bit of to and fro about the future of Newspapers and Journalism in the last week, where both bundling of advertising and editorial content is being disaggregated by Internet dynamics. Readership of newspapers is increasingly a preserve of the old. Like many other folks I know, we increasingly derive a lot of our inbound content from online newsletters, blogs, podcasts and social media feeds. Usually in much smaller chunks than we’d find in mainstream media of old.

Ben Thompson (@monkbent) wrote a great series of pieces on Journalist “winner takes all” dynamics, where people tend to hook primarily onto personalities or journalists they respect:

I think he’s absolutely correct, but the gotcha is that they all publish in different places and among different colleagues, so it’s difficult (or at the very least time consuming) for a lot of us to pick them out systematically. A few examples of the ones I think are brilliant are folks like:

  • John Lanchester – usually on the London Review of Books and talking about the state of the UK economy (“Let’s Call it Failure“), the behaviour of our post-crash Banking Industry (“Let’s consider Kate“), and about the PPI scandal (“Are we having fun yet?“)
  • Douglas Adams – now RIP – on how people always resist new things as they age or where things work differently to what they’re used to – in “Stop worrying and Learn to Love the Internet
  • Tim Harford – mainly in books, but this corker of an Article about “Big Data: are we making a big mistake“. There is a hidden elephant in the room, given “Big Data” is one of the keystone fads to drive equipment sales in the IT Industry right now. Most companies have a Timely Data Presentation problem in most scenarios i’ve seen; there’s only so much you can derive from Twitter Sentiment Analysis (which typically only derives stats from single percentage figure portions of your customer/prospect base), or from working out how to throw log file data at a Hadoop cluster (where Splunk can do a “good enough” job already).
  • The occasional random article on Medium, such as a probably emotive one to the usual calls of the UK press: “How we were fooled into thinking that sexual predators lurk everywhere” – suggesting that Creating a moral panic about social media didn’t protect teens – it left them vulnerable. There are many other, very readable, articles on there every week across a whole spectrum of subjects.
  • The Monday Note (www.mondaynote.com), edited by Frederic Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassee (JLG used to be CTO of Apple). The neat thing here is that Jean-Louis Gassee never shirks from putting some numbers up on the wall before framing his opinions – a characteristic common to many senior managers i’ve had the privilege to work for.
  • There’s a variety of other newsletter sources I feed from, but subject for another day!

The common thread through what appears to run here is that each other can speak authoritatively, backed by statistically valid proof points, rather than fast trips to the areas of Maslow’s Hierarchy that are unduly influenced by fear alone. I know from reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions book that folks will, to a greater or lesser extent, listen to what they want to hear, but I do nevertheless value opinions with some statistically valid meat behind them.

There was another piece by Ken McCarthy (@kenmccarthy), who did a piece shovelling doubt on the existence of Journalism as a historical trade; more as a side effect of needing to keep printing presses occupied – here. He cites:

Frank Luther Mott who won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for “A History of American Magazines” described the content of the newspapers from this era thusly:

  • 1. Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  • 2. Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  • 3. Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  • 4. Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  • 5. Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system

Besides the fact that this sounds an awful like like TV news today, where in this listing of the characteristics of turn-of-the-last-century newspapers is there any mention of journalism? There isn’t because there wasn’t any.

I’d probably add a sixth, which is as a platform to push a political agenda to the more gullible souls in the population – most of whom are opinionated, loud and/or old – or all three – but have a tendency to not spend time fact checking. And amongst the section of the population who still buy printed newspapers and who have a tendency to turn out on election day to vote in large numbers, which is an ever aging phenomenon. Very susceptible to “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story”, rather than the younger audience that relies instead on a more varied news feed from the Internet at large.

We were treated to a classic example last year. The Sun reported news of the latest “Eastern European Benefits Scrounger”, milking the UK economy for all it’s worth while those who’ve worked hard for years suffer. The responsible government minister, Ian Duncan-Smith, weighs in with a paragraph to be appalled by the injustice. This is followed by over 800 replies, the tone of which (post moderation) is heavily “Nationalistic”:

The Sun - Headline "You're a soft touch"

So, who is this single Mum from the Baltics? She was, in fact, a Russian model hired for the role:

Natalia - Russian Model for Hire

Meanwhile, all comments pointing out the hypocrisy of the paper on the associated forums, or to fill in the blanks on the missing facts, got conveniently deleted. Got to stir things up to sell the papers, and to provide a commentary to victimise a large swathe of the population while greater wrongs elsewhere are shovelled under the carpet.

At some point, the readership of the main UK newspaper titles, owned as they are by six organisations, will ebb away into obscurity as their readership progressively dies off.

I sincerely hope we can find some way of monetising good quality journalists who are skilled in fact finding, of conveying meaningful statistics and to tell it like it is without side; then to give them the reach and exposure in order to fill the void. A little difficult, but eminently possible in a world where you don’t have to fill a fixed number of pages, or minutes of TV news, with superfluous “filler”.

A consolidated result, tuned to your interest areas (personal, local, national and beyond) would probably be the greatest gift to the UK population at large. I wonder if Facebook will be the first to get there.