Alex Steer

Advertising effectiveness, analytics and strategy / about

Theoretical languages and practical flaws

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Wired has a bizarre piece about some computer scientists who think they've invented a general-purpose programming language that overcomes the flaws of all the others:

Bezanson had recently made a study of [programming] language design, and had come to the conclusion that the tradeoffs inherent in most languages were avoidable. “It became clear that a lot of it had been designed haphazardly,” Bezanson says. “If you started from the beginning, you could recreate the things that people liked about those languages without so many of the problems.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Good to see contemporary computer scientists repeating the errors of 17th-century clergymen. Certainty can be a terrible thing.

# Alex Steer (19/01/2015)


The Times Unquiet Film Series

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Today's Campaign has a great profile of one of my clients, Nick Stringer at News UK, and the brand campaign for the Times, the Unquiet Film Series, that we've been leading the data planning on. (The strategy and creative is by Grey.)

The whole piece is worth a read for a glimpse into a brand that's firing on all cylinders. But I'm particularly proud of this, which comes from our work at Fabric, measuring the power of a brand campaign for a business that depends on subscriptions.

The films are designed to act as brand campaigns. Although they are just as likely to resonate with advertisers and readers, the primary objective is to help News UK attract subscribers by providing a flavour of The Times and The Sunday Times outside of the paywalls erected in 2010.

Response to the work is said to have been far better than anyone could have hoped for. It is claimed that people who arrive on the News UK subscription page after having seen the Unquiet Film Series are twice as likely to become members. Those who have watched two or more films are found to be about ten times more likely to complete the subscription process.

Take a look at the films - they're beautiful, powerful and effective - here.

# Alex Steer (15/01/2015)


Children's dictionaries are a lesson for us all

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Everybody is once again up in arms about the decision by the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to include a batch of new-fangled technology words, supposedly at the expense of good old-fashioned words from nature. This, from the piece linked above, gives a taste of the bile:

“A” should be for acorn, “B” for buttercup and “C” for conker, not attachment, blog and chatroom, according to a group of authors including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion who are “profoundly alarmed” about the loss of a slew of words associated with the natural world from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and their replacement with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

I disagree strongly with this as both an ex dictionary editor (disclosure: I worked on the OED) and as someone who now works in communications.

The point of a children's dictionary is to help children find the meanings of words that they encounter in daily life but whose meanings they might not know. The words are chosen using a corpus of texts, from books to blog posts, that children actually read. They are not designed to make adults feel warm and fuzzy, or to make political points about the nature of childhood.

Design for your audience, in other words, and be honest.

# Alex Steer (13/01/2015)


Products: be amazing or be unfinished

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Like others, I was sad to hear the news that Berg is shutting its doors. For as many years as I've been idly following their progress, the London-based data and product design studio have been making interesting and beautiful connected objects and experimenting with data in interesting ways.

I don't know the situation at Berg, but their final blog post struck a chord:

We've not reached a sustainable business in connected products. But... I'm proud of this British Experimental Rocket Group.

It's very difficult to make digital products work, sell and sustain. There's a very large graveyard of failed projects, because most are less useful than their inventors think. It's hardest of all to make those that are elegant, beautiful and a delight to use. The upfront effort - the sheer volume of educated guesswork you have to do - to produce something that is beautiful at its first version is almost impossible. It's why the world is littered with ugly, unrewarding software.

Being amazing is hard, and Berg tried to be amazing. The alternative, though, is not necessarily to be mediocre. There's a third option - it's to be deliberately, openly unfinished. Build products gradually, and involve the people that you want to use them regularly, and what you lose in awe you will gain in forgiveness and acceptance. Involve people who are good at design, to make sure you continue removing everything superfluous while you grow and change, and you may even end up with something that generates both amazement and love.

It's difficult to avoid the temptation to busy away behind the scenes, and launch with a flourish and a ta-dah. But most ta-dahs are damp squibs. The chances of you being amazing first time round are almost zero, so work in a way that lets you keep talking to people, make corrections, and get better in public. If the British Government can do it, you've no excuse.

# Alex Steer (10/01/2015)


Why standards beat processes

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Lots of agencies have processes for planning advertising. Often, they have extravagant adjectives attached to them. They are 'proprietary', 'unique', occasionally even 'groundbreaking'. They usually involve geometric shapes in unusual combinations, or carefully templated Word documents.

The distinctions between those processes are, as you'd expect, more or less meaningless. They typically involve understanding the challenges facing the business, the behaviours/needs/barriers of the users or audience, and the existing positioning of the brand in those people's minds, to arrive at some sort of imperative for the advertising. (Usual caveat: by advertising, these days, I mean any sort of branded communication or service.)

These reminders are useful, and they increase the chances of good work being done - but unique they are not, nor are any of them uniquely effective. This is because the most important differentiator in developing advertising isn't what the steps in the process are, but how they are carried out.

Small teams, working together, talking often, iterating every day, getting regular feedback, lending expertise, being honest, testing out ideas. The standards of collaboration we apply to each step. All the learning on effective delivery suggests that sometimes the best processes involve doing the same thing over and over in short fast cycles, together, getting it progressively more right.

But even more important than these are the things that happen between each step of whatever process we follow. The check-ins, the reviews and measurements that tell us whether we are on the right lines and whether the direction we're taking is worth pursuing. It's not easy to say 'no' to something you've all been working on, but sometimes it's vital. These standards of judgement stop us from going astray.

Together, standards of collaboration and judgement get work out the door faster, and make sure it's on track. They depend on co-operation, humility and generosity with ideas and time. That's a bit harder than pinning a Venn diagram above your desk, but a lot more rewarding.

# Alex Steer (10/01/2015)


Practise what you tweet

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Today I got a spam tweet from a company that does A/B testing. It read:

@alexsteer If you're interested in A/B testing, would you like to follow us?

I declined. Then I looked at their Twitter feed, and saw that they'd sent the same message to lots of other users.

Using the exact same words.

Surely, if you work in A/B testing, you mix it up a bit?

Branding consultants who talk in corporate speak. Social agencies who repost banal links. CRM companies who get your name wrong in the email. Weird how we drink our own kool-aid but don't eat our own dog food.

# Alex Steer (03/12/2014)


Black boxes

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This post by Faris Yakob got me thinking with this side thought:

My concern is that the advertising industry is in danger of being taken for a ride by the same people who have destroyed trust in banking.

I think the ad tech industry is currently repeating a lot of the mistakes that the financial industry made a decade or so back. And look how well that played out for us all.

It's hiring a lot of people with backgrounds outside of marketing, with specialist skills in statistics and software, and setting them interesting challenges around measuring and optimising the performance of ads and media bids. All of which, when done properly, makes the industry smarter and better informed. The problem comes when those skills aren't balanced with a knowledge of what that industry is trying to achieve in the world. Then you get what you saw in finance and what you're seeing in advertising - solutions that trend towards the things developers can do most simply, and the things they find most interesting, rather than what's most important. And you get a lack of proper oversight and understanding from the people who commission and sell those solutions. The result is a lot of black box algorithms and snake-oil tech that neither the buyers nor the sellers can explain. And that creates a classic market for lemons.

Advertising needs smart planners and smart technologists working together: using strategic thinking to understand what ads really need to achieve, data analysis to see if they're achieving it, and technology to help them achieve it better. And even if the 'how' of the details is specialist, the 'what' shouldn't be. No part of the process of making, distributing or measuring advertising is so complicated that you can't explain it to a moderately well-informed person.

You should know what you're buying, basically - what it's meant do, and whether it does it. Anything else is not just pointless, it's risky.

# Alex Steer (02/12/2014)


Making money on the Hype Cycle

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If you work in technology, you know the Gartner Hype Cycle - their superb rundown of what's hot, what's busted, and what's valuable in the field of emerging technology.

They've just released the latest update, and here it is:

Gartner hype cycle - technology

So how do I feel about the fact that what I do - big data and content analytics - is sliding down into the 'trough of disillusionment'?

I couldn't be happier.

The peak of the cycle is where investor money pours in, startups proliferate, sales pitches are made, forecasts are inflated, and lies are told.

But the trough - where people are let down, angry and disillusioned - is where businesses grow, and where money is made.

If you survive long enough to make it to the point where people are fed up hearing about your industry, you've probably learned a lot along the way. About how to put yourself in your client's shoes; about respect for existing ways of working; about the limitations of what you can do; about the importance of a good team; about what really makes a difference to the ways a business operates. If you're still around once the hype money has flowed out, there's a chance you'll make it.

My bet is that the next year will see the quiet extinction of a lot of marketing data/analytics startups that never found a business model. The ones that survive will be the ones that spent the last few years doing more listening than talking, and that are now answering useful questions that businesses have been asking since before big data was a thing.

# Alex Steer (11/08/2014)


How to use Twitter's new 'impressions' metrics

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We published this update to clients earlier this week. I'm reposting it here in case it's useful to anyone working with Twitter data. If you have questions about this or want to know more, drop me an email.

Within the last few days, Twitter has released a major update to its analytics platform. One of the new metrics included is 'impressions' – a count of how many times a tweet was seen. This information was previously available only for promoted (paid) tweets.

Fabric's data science team has been analysing the new data for our clients' accounts. The result is striking: on average, only 16% of followers see each tweet that a brand publishes.

Why this matters

The update means that, for the first time, brands can compare the organic performance of their tweets against their other media – and particularly against Facebook.

Facebook has been widely criticised for the declining 'organic' reach of brand posts, which we have been tracking since Q4 2012 and which is now as low as 2% of the total fan base, for large brand pages. Twitter has largely escaped such criticism because there has, until now, been no way of knowing how much free reach a tweet gets. This means it's been impossible to quantify the media value of a Twitter follower.

This has led to some fairly wild assumptions. A common industry shorthand for 'Twitter reach' is the total number of a brand's followers, plus the total followers of anyone who retweets that brand's content. This is a hugely optimistic measure of 'opportunities to see' that doesn't stand up to scrutiny: we know that people don't spend all day glued to Twitter, and they don't see every tweet from every account they follow.

The average reach of a tweet

For the last two years, Fabric's data science team has used an algorithm to give a rule-of- thumb estimate of true organic impressions. We've suspected that the view count of a tweet is a low percentage of the follower count, just as it is on Facebook.

Over the last few days we have been digging into the new Twitter data for our clients. On average, we've found that an un-promoted tweet is only seen by 16% of a brand's Twitter followers. For 'reply' tweets, the figure is typically between 1% and 2%.

Retweets help improve organic impressions, of course – but not by the vast amounts assumed in many calculations. There is no significant relationship between 'favourites' and the impressions a tweet gets.

Two metrics that matter

Marketers should pay attention to the new 'impressions' metric. It shows how far a tweet really travels and will let brands do better optimisation of the best times of day and week to schedule un-promoted tweets.

The other metric worth watching is the 'multiplier' on promoted posts: organic impressions as a percentage uplift on paid impressions. This is the hard currency of social media – the extra reach you achieve as a brand because people chose to follow your account, and retweet your content.

# Alex Steer (18/07/2014)


What planning is for

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If you care about the question implied in the subject line, read Martin Weigel's speech to the APG, but especially this:

In a world characterized by constant change and innovation, planning will be knowledgeable about the fundamental principles of marketing and communications. It is breathtaking how little planning knows about how businesses actually make money, and how brands grow and are sustained. It is equally depressing how uninterested many planners appear to be in any of this today. Planners who find this stuff too tedious, or beneath them, would probably be better off advising production companies, than advising clients on how to address their business issues. In contrast, radical planning will take a keen interest in how our clients actually make money – in the business behind our clients’ brands.

There's so much wisdom in the whole piece, but I believe the root of it all is what's above. Planners should know how to use marketing communications to help increase an organisation's revenues, by reinforcing and changing perceptions in ways that reduce the cost of sales or justify higher prices. If they can do that, they will still be valuable to people who manage brands, regardless of the kind of organisation they work in.

# Alex Steer (18/06/2014)


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