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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Data should be used as evidence and not illustration

I read the Guardian article on journalist’s struggles with “data literacy” with interest. The piece concentrates on inaccurate reporting through a lack of understanding of numbers, and the context around them. “Honest mistakes”, of a sort.

Taken more cynically, it is an example of a fallacy that I see regularly in many different  disciplines (I’m loath to call it a trend as, for all I know, this could be a long-standing problem) – fitting data around a pre-constructed narrative, rather than deducing the main story from the available information.

This is dangerous. It reduces data to be nothing more than anecdotal support for our subjective viewpoints. While Steve Jobs may have had a skill for telling people what they really wanted, he is an exception rather than the rule. We as human beings are flawed, biased and incapable of objectivity.

Given the complexity of our surroundings, we will (probably) never fully understand how everything fits together – this article from Jonah Lehrer on the problems with the reductionist scientific method is fascinating. However, many of us can certainly act with more critical acumen that we currently do.

This is as incumbent on the audience as it is the communicator – as MG Siegler recently wrote in relation to his field of technology journalism, “most of what is written… is bullshit”, and readers should utilise more caution when taking news as given.

Whether it is due to time pressures, lack of skills, laziness, pressure to delivery a specific outcome of otherwise, we need to avoid this trap and – to the best of our abilities – let our conclusions or recommendations emerge from the available data, rather than simply use it to illustrate our subjective biases.

While I am a (now no more than an occasional) blogger, I am not a journalist and so I’ll limit my potential criticisms of that field. However, I am a researcher that has at various points worked closely with many other disciplines (some data-orientated, some editorial, some creative), and I see this fundamental problem reoccurring in a variety of contexts.

When collating evidence, the best means to ensure its veracity is to collect it yourself – in my situation, that would be to conduct primary research and to meet the various quality standards that would ensure a reliable methodology, and coherent conclusions

Primary research isn’t realistic in many cases, due to limited levels of time, money and skills. As such, we rely on collating existing data sources. This interpretation of secondary research is where I believe the problem of illustration above evidence is most likely to occur.

There are two stages that can help overcome this – critical evaluation of sources, and counterfactual hypotheses.

To critically evaluate data sources, I’ve created a CRAP sheet mnemonic that can help filter the unusable data from the trustworthy:

  • Communication – does the interpretation support the actual data upon scrutiny? For instance, people have been quick to cite Pinterest’s UK skew to male users as a real difference in culture between the UK and US, rather than entertain the notion that UK use is still constrained to the early adopting tech community, whereas US use is – marginally – more mature and has diffused outwards
  • Recency – when was the data created (and not when was it communicated)? For instance, I’d try to avoid quoting 2010 research into iPads since tablets are a nascent and fast-moving industry. Data into underlying human motivations is likely to have a longer shelf-life. This is why that despite the accolades and endorsements, I’m loath to cite this online word of mouth article because it is from 2004 – before both Twitter and Facebook
  • Audience – who is the data among? Would data among US C-suite executives be analogous to UK business owners? Also, some companies specialising in PR research have been notoriously bad at claiming a representative adult audience, when in reality they are usually a self-selecting sub-sample
  • Provenance – where did the data originally come from? In the same way as students are discouraged from citing Wikipedia, we should go to the original source of the data to discover where the data came from, and for what purpose. For instance, data from a lobby group re-affirming their position is unlikely to be the most reliable. It also helps us escape from the echo chamber, where myth can quickly become fact.

Counterfactual hypotheses are the equivalent of control experiments – could arguments or conclusions still be true with the absence of key variables? We should look for conflicting conclusions within our evidence, to see if they can be justified with the same level of certainty.  This method is fairly limited – since we are ultimately constrained by our own viewpoints. Nevertheless, it offers at least some challenge to our pre-existing notions of what is and what isn’t correct.

Data literacy is an important skill to have – not least because, as Neil Perkin has previously written about, it is only the first step on the DIKW hierarchy towards wisdom. While Sturgeon’s Law might apply to existing data, we need to be more robust in our methods, and critical in our judgements.  (I appreciate the irony of citing an anecdotal phenomenon)

It is a planner trope that presentations should contain selective quotes to inspire or frame an argument, and I’ve written in the past about how easily these can contradict one another. A framing device is one thing; a tenet of an argument is another. As such, it is imperative that we use data as evidence and not as illustration.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/etringita/854298772/

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Google Firestarters #2 – Design Thinking

The second Firestarters event, hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, was an excellent evening – probably even better than the first evening. There were lots of interesting people to speak to and debate with in the break-out session and afterwards, while the Google catering is unrivalled. I’m amazed the staff aren’t twice the size they are, given the volume of cupcakes around.

The primary reason for the quality of the event is the speakers. Both were very interesting.

Tom Hulme (IDEO)

Tom talked about design thinking as a set of beliefs. He advocated it as a form of divergent thinking. Strong companies that perform well tend to be good at optimising and being efficient in their areas of expertise. Creativity in opening up new avenues can bring in new aspects to a business, which they can subsequently optimise and renew the cycle. Traditionally these would be have been consecutive but with things moving so quickly they should now be concurrent.

Tom’s 8 steps for design thinking are

  1. Challenge the question
  2. Be user-centred (and do so in context. Focus groups are not the place to introduce ideas)
  3. Look to extremes
  4. Messages or experiences? The answer is both – they are coherent.
  5. Be holistic – the business model and marketing model are now indistinct from one another
  6. Value diversity
  7. Launch to learn – prototyping is now redundant as it is so cheap to launch and run A/B tests
  8. Stay in beta

Tom is a very charismatic speaker and came up with wonderful examples – from Sneakerpedia being an example of message and experience combining, to Steve Jobs’ calligraphy course as an example of diversity to his open document containing useful tips for start-ups.

He also ended with a great quote: “Looking at why people really hate stuff is wonderful inspiration to come up with new ideas”

John V Willshire (PHD)

John is well-known for his unique analogies, and he didn’t disappoint with a seamless weaving of Bad Religion and Adam Smith.

John was a counterpoint to Tom, in that he argued the case against process. Channelling Bruce Nussbaum, he said that companies are only comfortable with design theory when it is packaged as a process. And then they are principally purchasing the process, rather than the idea or outputs themselves. Real work, in other words.

Process might make bad things good, but it also makes great things good. It levels things out into mediocrity.

When Adam Smith discussed the division of labour, he noted that the benefits to industry would be in dexterity, time and technology. However, he noted that this process wasn’t applicable to agriculture due to its unpredictability and variety. As John noted with regard to marketing agencies, “The sell is industrial. The work is agricultural”.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dunechaser/3339729380

The dimensions of influence

I recently discovered that I had made the inaugural version of The Br200 – Brand Republic’s list of the web’s most influential bloggers. Leaving aside the fact that it is a) industry specific and b) English language, it is still an achievement I’m surprised at and proud of. As more blogs get submitted, I’ll inevitably slide down the list to somewhere approximating my Ad Age Power 150 position, and so I’ve taken a screen grab to prove I once reached the giddy heights of 113.

The Brand Republic top 200 influential bloggers

There are a couple of reasons for my surprise.

Firstly, I’ve never considered myself as influential. I’ve always been open with saying that I started this blog primarily to formalise my own thoughts. The feedback I’ve received and connections I’ve made as a result have been very gratifying, but this wasn’t what I set out to achieve.

The second – and more important element – is the nature of influence and what it actually means.

Wiktionary defines it as “the power to affect, control or manipulate something or someone”.

It may be me being semantically pedantic, but I don’t agree with this. Outside of mind control, it isn’t possible. David Armano has his six pillars of influence but these still require receptive agents. And ultimately, people are autonomous. They can choose to be influenced, but I can’t automatically influence them.

As such, influence has to be derived, rather than measured directly. If ten people have been influenced by me, that can be converted to saying that I have influenced ten people. But it cannot be initially assumed that I am an influencer of ten people.

This leads onto the major question within this blog post – what is influence?

It is a tricky area.

One company that has done a lot in this area is Klout. I’ve read various discussions (notably the Bieber furore) where they have been very open in saying it is still a work in progress. I agree. For instance, being labelled a “celebrity” while having a Klout score of 41 seems somewhat contradictory. But can the definitions ever get adequately resolved?

I consider there to be five distinct dimensions of influence, which can be combined to infer an overall influence level.

Of course, I haven’t magicked these up independently. In addition to Klout, my primary influences have been:

Furthermore, I’m positive there are many other sources that I’ve absorbed over the years. I’m also positive that I will continue to be influenced by the many writers far more intelligent than I am.

Obviously, these dimensions come with the caveat that they are working definitions and ripe to be amended, altered, ripped apart, iterated and improved upon.

The five dimensions of influence:

  • Direct reach – how many people have been influenced directly
  • Total reach – given follow-on word of mouth (through social media or otherwise), what is the total reach of your message (“true reach” according to Klout). You could reach ten people who do nothing with the message, or a single person that passes on the message to thousands
  • Identity of influenced – how powerful (and “influential”) are the people receiving your message – is it a chief executive who might tell five equally powerful and affluent people, or someone who might tell twenty people – none of whom find your message relevant
  • Direction of influence – influence is assumed to be positive. This is a fallacy. If a divisive entity endorses something, it could actively turn others away. An additional dimension that can be wrapped into dimension is how aligned the direction is – for instance if I make a recommendation in sector A but it is made in sector B.
  • Outcome – it could be an action (e.g. purchase, viewing), discussion (recommending, promoting, a factual statement) or a thought that is stored in the subconscious

These five dimensions can be combined to infer a level of influence. The big question is how – which factors are more important, and to what extent?

I’ve attempted to display these dimensions graphically to illustrate this difficulty.

Consider these two examples (click to expand):

Dimensions of influence

In the above Example 1, only one person is being influenced. However, that person has a wide reach, is influential themselves and has been strongly positively influenced to take an action, Compare this to example 2.

Dimensions of influence

Here, many more people have been influenced but the pattern is more mixed. Some people have been negatively influenced, while some of those that have been positively influenced haven’t been prompted into an action.

Which example is better? Honestly, I don’t know. And this partially illustrates why the concept of influence is fascinating and frustrating in equal measures.

sk

Spreading birthday cheer

Yesterday was my birthday. Among the birthday messages I received was an email from Stick Sports.

This is an online game that I hadn’t thought about for a while, let alone played. Yet they used the information I provided in my sign-up, to send me a message. This in turn has reminded me of the site (I haven’t gone back to play Stick Cricket or Stick Baseball yet, but I’m writing about it).

Some people might consider this an invasion of privacy since I didn’t give explicit permission for them to contact me. But it is an innocuous yet relevant message to me, that is extremely simple to administer. As such, I’m amazed more companies don’t do it.

For instance, the majority of emails in my inbox yesterday were Facebook notifications, informing me of friends writing messages on my wall. Although personal information is becoming more private, many people do have their birthdays visible. There is a great opportunity for brands or celebrities to send birthday messages to their fans, either to show they are there and listening, or to inform them of a special birthday-only offer. A simple, but effective means of communicating with supporters.

This is a ploy that can also be used for research panel respondents. For instance, why not give them additional tokens for prize draws on their birthday? It doesn’t cost anything and has the potential to improve their engagement with the panel.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gizzypooh/539662773/

The Brand Gym: A Practical Workout to Gain and Retain Brand Leadership

the brand gym coverI’ve just finished reading the second edition of The Brand Gym: A Practical Workout to Gain and Retail Brand Leadership by David Taylor and David Nichols.

DISCLOSURE: The book was a free copy I received after responding to a request for reviewers on their blog. I have no affiliations to the brand gym, and the below is my honest opinion.

The book positions itself as a guide to brand building, where the ultimate goal should be becoming market leader. Thus the book is a counterpoint to Eating the Big Fish.

However, this goal isn’t as focused or didactic as it might appear – since market leader can refer to audience segment, price point, situation or any other differentiating factor, rather than overall category leader.

The book is structured around eight “workouts”, that flow from one to another. The solutions to branding issues are:

  • Follow the money
  • Use insight as fuel
  • Focus, focus, focus
  • Build big brand ideas
  • Grow the core
  • Stretch your brand muscles
  • Amplify your marketing plan
  • Rally the troops

Overall, I’d recommend the book. It is short but breezy, with the key points well signposted. Being picky, it could have done with having an editor, but the overall content of the book is very strong. It flows very nicely, with headlines, case studies and practical exercises well-integrated alongside the core content.

The messages of the book are common-sensical, but worth re-iterating. The authors warn against preoccupation with fame or awards, and remind that the core objectives of marketing should always be business-based. This, ultimately, comes down to increasing sales.

This book was very relevant to my studies, since my current module focuses heavily on branding. But with a chapter on insight, it also piques my interest as a researcher.

The authors define insight as “the discovery of something enlightening about your customer that leads to action”. It should display the FIRE properties

  • Fresh
  • Inspiring
  • Relevant
  • Enduring

Although there is nothing directly covering uniqueness or competitive advantage, I like this mnemonic.

The authors also list a range of sources that should be used for insight generation across the company. In addition to qualitative and quantitative research, they suggest using the following methods of collection across the different aspects of branding

Competition

  • Landscaping – what do they do and why do consumers choose them. Are their innovations that can be copied?
  • Brand peer group – this is brands outside of the category but appealing to the same target audience e.g. Lynx annual “album launch” of new scents inspired a juice company to change flavours
  • Retail visits – including product siting, new private label offers, point of sale, promotions, packaging, and shopping behaviour

Brand

  • Tracking – consumer panels (which can be large panels or small communities)
  • Fan clubs – to build empathy
  • Customer feedback forms

Culture

  • Semiotics – decoding communications and broader cultural codes e.g. Castrol oil turned away from engine specific comms since people talked about their love for their car, not their engine
  • Trends – trend decks should evolve each time they are presented, otherwise they will inspire only the same ideas

Consumer

  • Ethnography and immersion – first hand experiences as evocation of idea. Following people in situ to see what they do, rather than what they say they do
  • Fringe consumers – get new ideas from people who don’t fit the current target, as this can stretch the appeal
  • Expert interviews

Company

  • Core competences
  • Senior stakeholders – interviewing those that (should) have a nose for what works and doesn’t
  • R&D treasure hunt – crazy ideas can be seeds for innovation. Understand what it is and what it does – don’t use technical terms

This is solid advice. Formal research should only be one element of brand understanding. When undertaken, it should be designed to support and augment other information – not only from the above sources relating to branding but also the other elements of the balanced scorecard.

sk

Disconnected cinema thoughts

I go to the cinema on a frequent basis. But particularly over the past month, I’ve been thinking about several aspects of the medium.

They are all random thoughts so, rather than flesh them out over a series of posts, I’ve listed them below in a single (rather long) entry. Several, if not all, have been more than adequately covered by people with far more expertise in film than I, but nevertheless…

My motivation to attend

My frequent cinema attendance is behavioural economics in action.

I have a Cineworld Unlimited card, which I have just renewed. Across the 12 months of my first card, I saw 80 films. Yes, more than one a week. Across the previous 12 months, I saw one film – at my local Odeon.

This is a relationship of mutual benefit. Rather than pay £8.50 to see a film, I paid an average of around £1.50. I benefit from cheaper entertainment.

Cineworld benefit in several ways

  • Space capacity – of my 80 visits, only 3 or 4 screenings have approached full capacity. This improves their efficiency
  • Atmosphere – More attendees creates more of an atmosphere – This can be good or bad (see below)
  • Associated revenues – My tickets show a value of £3, rather than £8.50. Film studios take around 70% of box office revenue. Cinemas make their money from the refreshments. Bringing in more viewers extends their ability to sell highly profitable salty and sugary snacks. Though in my case, it is the neighbouring Sainsbury’s that benefits from my regular Dr Pepper and Minstrels.
  • Market share – I am travelling a slightly longer distance to go to Cineworld, rather than the more convenient Odeon. They are also able to influence the choice of film I see – because of my Unlimited card I am wary of paying to go to another cinema to see a film that Cineworld isn’t carrying
  • Growing the market – Cineworld aren’t just in the cinema business but the leisure business. By spending more time in cinemas, I am spending less time (and money) on other leisure and entertainment activities. Two notable examples are that I now go to far fewer music concerts than I used to, and also buy fewer DVDs

In conclusion, the Unlimited card is a fantastic business model.

The experience

The impact of crowds

As mentioned above, a more crowded cinema creates an atmosphere. This can be both good and bad

  • The more people, the “bigger” the experience – for good or bad. According to this, we tend to view experiences better than products, since they are harder to judge and compare.
  • Some genres, such as broad comedies and schlocky horror films, really benefit from the laughs and screams surrounding you. Drag Me to Hell is a great example of my enjoyment of a film being amplified by the people around me
  • However, crowds can also lead to disruptions. In a few screenings I’ve been to, a group of teenagers have been compelled to share their pearls of wisdom to the entire room. At least until they were kindly asked to leave by the security guard.
  • And, every so often, there will the misfortune of sitting next to or near to a person that fidgets, eats and slurps loudly, talks to themselves or kicks the nearby chairs. Or, in a recent example of my own, all of the above

3D and Imax screens

3D and Imax are evidently attempts to combat piracy by trying to convince people that the cinema will offer a unique experience. I’ve had negative experiences with both

  • Imax is only impressive if you are sitting in the absolute centre of the cinema. Sitting to one side means that you will retain your peripheral vision. Cinemas should offer variable pricing depending on the placing of seats to reflect this
  • Avatar is now the highest grossing film of all. It wouldn’t have achieved this in 2D – not only because 3D films cost more to see, but also because many people went as a novelty to experience 3D for the first time. This will have diminishing returns. In my view, 3D doesn’t enhance films. Terminator 2 and The Matrix succeeded in 2D – they had amazing special effects but also an immersive storyline. Ultimately, it is the storyline that is immersive and not the visuals. 3D done badly can be distracting; I think it only works in gimmicky films such as My Bloody Valentine 3D or Tinto Brass films.

The marketing around the film

Orange Spots

The Orange Gold spots featuring Mr Dresden, Eliot and the Film Council have ended. Despite some people not liking them, I on the whole enjoyed them even though the more recent ones (Sigourney Weaver and Danny Glover) were pretty poor.

They have been replaced by spoof trailers – the first of which being the A Team. I have reservations about using proper forthcoming films for these spots

  • There may be issues regarding favouritism to certain studios
  • It can saturate the impact when the proper A Team trailers are released
  • Continued exposure could actually have a negative effect in putting people off the film once it comes out, since they might get sick of the characters

The trailers

I generally like seeing film trailers, though there are a couple of problems I’ve noticed

  • It’s quite annoying when a cinema shows the trailer, but not the actual film. Surely they can plan for this? For instance, the Cineworld I regularly attend had heavily trailed Case 39 but on its week of release opted to show the similarly poor-performing Legion instead. Additionally, why on earth would they show Mesrine Part 1 but not Part 2? Defies logic.
  • Films get delayed. This can mean that you either see a trailer that piques your interest but then hear nothing about it for the next 9 months (as is the case of Salt), or the trailer ends up getting repeated constantly over a period of several months (as is the case of Cop Out)

The marketing within the films

Product placement

The James Bond franchise often gets labelled as the biggest perpetrator of product placement. However, Iron Man (and its sequel) seems to have taken it to a new level

  • Audi got a spot on the film poster (NB: This isn’t the poster I saw, but acts as an example)
  • Burger King was central to a minor plot point in the first film
  • The sequel has 11 marketing partners, with the media buys valued at $100m

Despite the overt marketing, the gestural interface of his technology (something Faris Yakob has talked about recently) was pretty cool.

Depictions of marketers

The Joneses is a high concept dramedy about four stealth marketers that pose as a family in order to sell goods. Predictably, elements of the story are pretty ludicrous (how do they measure sales uplift? Do people not shop over the internet?) and the ending is predictable, but one of the central premises of the film is that marketing is ultimately dangerous

  • It promotes short-term spending over long-term stability
  • People think they need to buy into a lifestyle
  • Luxury goods are only important in the signals they convey; the product itself is almost incidental
  • Marketers inherently lie – not only to prospective customers but also to themselves.

Evidently, the film concentrates on exaggerating the negative aspects of marketing, but it is another example of the negative perceptions the marketing industry promote within wider society

The films

Franchising

Studios appear to have gotten so risk averse that only auteurs (or, at minimum, “name directors”) are able to attract big budgets for original ideas. Otherwise, it seems big budget films have to be based on an existing property. Recent or forthcoming examples include comics (Scott Pilgrim), books (Twilight), toys (Transformers), computer games (Prince of Persia), legend (Robin Hood) or sequels to previously original ideas (Wall Street 2)

Remakes

In addition to the above, there has been a proliferation of remakes. Michael Bay, a perpetrator of numerous crimes against cinema, has been remaking several classic horror films – the most recent of which is A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Of course, these remakes completely miss the point. The original films succeeded because they were well made, and entered the cultural consciousness far beyond their initial release. In the case of Nightmare, the core concept is compromised all memorable surrealism is removed; all that is left is an overbearing score, fast cuts designed to manufacture cheap shocks, and some gore. Unlike the original, it will be quickly forgotten.

The need for a cinema release

Even the most artistically bereft films, seemingly guaranteed to lose money, get a full cinema release. Losses are exacerbated due to the need for a heavy marketing campaign.

Is this an investment for long-term success? While films are perhaps not as critic proof as they used to be, a cinema release still provides name recognition and a sense of legitimacy that straight to DVD titles don’t get. So, even if a film released in cinema gets terrible reviews, it might still be assumed to be better than a straight to DVD title and thus stands a better chance to make money through rental, purchase and syndication. And I don’t see how moves to downloads would change this.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/biblarte/2687947869/

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Criteria for agency selection

According to my CIM coursebook, the following criteria should be used to shortlist agencies

  1. Area of expertise
  2. Quality of existing clients
  3. Reputation of principals and experience of staff
  4. Agency fees and methods of charging/payment
  5. In-house resources
  6. Geographical cover

While the selection of the agency should be based upon

  1. Credentials – track record and feedback
  2. Creative techniques – evidence of creativity and innovation
  3. Staff – number, tenure and experience
  4. The agency – resources, objectives, service level agreements
  5. Specialism – focus
  6. Price – clear and reasonable structure
  7. Legal – methods to ensure compliance with regulations
  8. Pitch – whether it met the requirements of the brief

The list isn’t fully comprehensive, but it acts as a reasonable guide – assuming you want to ignore slightly shadier aspects like favouritism

It can act as a useful checklist when pitching for new business. Of course, this only considers absolute performance/measures. When in a competitive pitch, the relative strengths become most important as pitching agencies are traded off against one another.

With open pitch processes, comparative advantage can be identified and relative strengths can be focused upon. With closed/opaque bids, this isn’t possible. So an agency will need to estimate where its relative and absolute strengths lie.

A good agency will have the relevant market intelligence to make a decent stab at this. A bad agency won’t. (Though of course industry fragmentation and lack of market definiton makes the potential competition so broad that it may not be possible/efficient to undertake)

Incidentally, the book also lists five key roles for an account planner (derived from Yeshin).

  1. Defining the task and bringing together the key information
  2. Preparing the creative brief
  3. Creative development, including being the “custodian” of brand values
  4. Presenting to the clients to convey concepts and defent rationale
  5. Tracking performance

The focus of this can be adjusted so that it is also applicable to researchers – on the assumption that planners/researchers play a central role throughout the project or campaign. Some people might disagree about that.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mistersnappy/2282846520/