The unquantified self

Beta metrics don’t hep us know ourselves, they merely provide us with known unknowns

One hundred years ago someone used a ruler and drew a line an inch long on a piece of paper. Yesterday, some found that piece of paper and, using a ruler, measured that line and found it to be an inch long. This didn’t really happen but the point stands: an inch is an inch.

Hypothetically, if a year ago, I had a Klout score of 50 and earned 2,500 Nike Fuel Points and today I have a Klout score of 55 and earn 2,000 Fuel Points, am I more influential and less active?

The correct answer is: I don’t know.

In that time both Klout and Nike have recalibrated how they calculate their metrics. Your scores from last year aren’t being measured on the same scale. A fuel point isn’t a fuel point. A Klout score isn’t a Klout score.

Now, of course, we want the most accurate metrics we can get. However, part of the appeal of metrics is that they help us understand how things have changed over time. Am I more influential? Am I more active? What is the trend? None of these questions can be answered if metrics aren’t consistent.

Wearable technology has emerged as the big trend at this year’s CES. These devices will capture a lot of data about us and a considerable portion of the captured data will be presented back encouraging us to improve ourselves but behind the hype many of these metrics will be no better than your own gut instinct.

So wear the bracelets, track your scores and enjoy the positive communities built around them, but remember that all you really know is that you don’t know. These beta metrics are Rumsfeldian ‘known unknowns’.

Reputation vs. Brand

Much is written about the rise and rise of reputation. I took a look at Google Trends to see how popular reputation was in relation to brand. It turns out brand is much, much more searched for.

The below chart shows the findings. I set the parameters to searches in the UK focused around business and industrial issues.

This isn’t an insight or a significant finding, but it is interesting and worth being aware of.

made with ChartBoot

A huge thank you must go out to @JrAthletics for helping set up the plugin for the above chart. Please do follow @JrAthletics on Twitter and check out the website juniorathletics.co.uk.

A tale of two retailers

As Christmas approaches and the nights draw in, families gather and stories are told. Well, gather round my digital kin and let me draw a scene in your minds of two iconic British brands with the help of two iconic British scribes.

Two retailers, both alike in dignity,
In wintry London, where we lay our scene,
For festive sales targets, break new advertising,

Where creative minds, leave creative egos green.

It is the best of times, if you’re John Lewis, it is the worst of times, if you’re Marks & Spencer.

These two titans of British retail are going through very different experiences. John Lewis continues to grow robustly whereas poor M&S, despite the strength of its food business, desperately needs to turnaround its declining, core clothing business.

In what has become an annual marketing tradition, both have released their Christmas adverts this week, hoping to lure shoppers into their stores.

The ads take strongly different approaches.

John Lewis features a single product in an ad full of emotion and heart-tugging narrative. Meanwhile, M&S sticks just about every last piece of clothing it stocks into a fairy tale fantasy that usefully has a supermodel in her smalls a couple of times.

The way their messages are delivered couldn’t be more starkly different but don’t for a second believe that one aims to sell and the other is brand building. Both seek to sell, sell, sell.

The difference is that John Lewis is confident in the knowledge that customers like its products. Indeed, the ad’s headline characters — a hare and a bear — are now products too; you can buy cuddly toy versions of them. So the message is, we know what Christmas is all about and we have the perfect presents for your loved ones. Buy them at John Lewis.

Marks & Spencer, or Magic & Sparkle as it brands itself in the ad, needs to change opinions about its clothing range. A clothing range that has seen sales drop for nine successive quarters. It’s not going to do that by saying it’s got the right presents for the people you care about. It’s got to demonstrate that it actually does have those products because the shoppers don’t think it does. So it spends the ad saying, ‘Look, this is nice. So is this. And this too. By the way have you seen this?”

Despite the different approaches, both ads are far, far better things that the retailers do, than their competitors have ever done.

NOTE: I apologise profusely to William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens

Who wants to be acquired?

Companies are increasingly sophisticated with their direct marketing. Personalised letters and emails arrive, the contents of which are often tailored based on some sort of segmentation. Then the message is ruined as someone you’ve never heard of, with a job title like ‘Head of Acquisition Marketing’ or ‘Senior Customer Retention Manager’, signs it off.

Now, these people are senior marketers within their organisations. They’ve worked hard, they’ve helped to create an advanced direct marketing programme. Why then, do they undermine their sophisticated marketing structure by signing it off themselves? Why not the ‘Head of Customer Service’ or someone else who’s actually customer facing?

No one wants to be marketed to, still less do they wish to be acquired. So build the systems, develop the segments, come up with really creative content, but then take a step back. Stand in the background and let client facing people step to the front. You’ll acquire more customers from the shadows.

Back in the day

electra-deluxe-right-side-black-motorcycle

The UK’s economy might be coming back to life but people are still feeling the pinch. Wages aren’t keeping up with prices, times are tough and people are hankering after ‘the good old days’.

We see it everywhere. In politics, UKIP are making the most of people’s yearning for a bold, ‘call a spade a spade’ Britain. Both Labour and the Conservatives are pushing policies that preach to the faithful. We’re back to the days of left and right. The third way has gone away.

Meanwhile in literature, we’re witnessing the continued rise of historical fiction with authors like Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory winning awards and having their books turned into hit TV dramas.

In terms of brands, we’re seeing some great old names return. The Truman brewery, originator of the IPA, is back in London pubs. Last week, it was announced that Royal Enfield motorcycles are coming back home to the UK, having sat out the past 30 years in India.

Other brands are drawing upon the past in their advertising. Notably, Coca-Cola’s ‘Grandpa’ healthy living advert seeks to push an old fashioned lifestyle as the solution to the very modern issue of obesity. We’ve also seen the return of the Tetley Tea Folk and NatWest piggy banks.

Even brands with little history, like cycling apparel maker, Rapha, and clothing firm, Jack Wills, are basing their growth on heritage values.

Like the tight economy, this trend isn’t likely to go away any time soon. So there’s no harm in digging into the archives and finding the warm, familiar signifiers of better days. People are grasping after comfort blankets, smart marketers will provide them.

A little less awareness, a little more call-to-action please

A couple of days ago, I tweeted the title of this blog as a thought for the day. It’s a thought that’s been circling in back of my mind for quite a while.

From the off, let me say that I think awareness is really important. People need to know your product or issue exists and what it’s for. But campaigns should be more than a public service announcement. They should make things happen.

I can see why communicators are drawn to awareness. It’s measured in surveys and clicks, RTs and likes. These are metrics that can be measured in different ways, aggregated, weighted and, dare I say, manipulated?

Increased sales. Legislative change. Altered business practices. These are all outcomes that are reasonably objective. You either achieve them or you don’t. Campaigns that make these things happen aren’t centred on awareness.

From staging post to destination

At some point awareness moved from being a necessary condition for achieving a campaign’s goals, to a goal in itself. It became an end point.

Anecdotally, I think a lot of it is down to the rise of engagement and conversations. There are countless papers and articles about the need to engage with consumers, to have conversations and build deeper relationships. Again, all of this is true. I have no quarrel with it. Yet, somehow the purpose of all this engagement and all these conversations has been lost.

What good are strong relationships and positive experiences if they are fostered and then left to passively convert themselves into sales? Campaigns should build on that positivity and then inspire people to a specific action. Those that do will always be more successful than those that stop at a good conversation.

All of this is blindingly obvious. It’s communications 101. Yet for some reason it needs restating. So let’s build awareness and have the conversations, and then let’s cap it all off by creatively inspiring specific, positive actions.

This article was also published here on Medium.

Values are the only constant in a world of permanent beta

I’ve been reading The End of Competitive Advantage, a provocatively titled book by Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School. It’s ideas should inspire anyone involved in marketing and communications.

The central idea is that companies can no longer depend on finding and locking-in a sustainable position of competitive advantage, so they have to move from opportunity to opportunity, constantly developing, always looking to enter and exit markets.

What on earth has that got to do with marketing and communications? Well, the transience of products and services and the need to shift resources and people around makes a company’s values and brand central to its success.

Well performing companies will be those whose values are strong and embedded within both their culture and practices. Reputation and brand, two sides of the same coin, also become more important. A strong reputation and strong brand are needed to help companies shift into new sectors and move out of declining sectors.

In my view, the killer insight is: if a company’s products and services become transient, then the real constants in its history, and its future, are values, brand and reputation.

If you work in a marcomms discipline, think about that for a moment. What you do is the constant. Your role is to maintain the golden thread that runs through the company. You build brand equity, champion values and protect reputation because those are the assets that will outlast the current product range or even the sector you operate in.

This article was originally published here on Medium.

Great expectations

There has been no shortage of landmark moments recently at Apple. In the past couple of years they have lost their talismanic leader, launched the (very poor at the time) Apple Maps, become the most valuable company in the world and have subsequently lost a third of that value. One thing they haven’t done though, is change the world.

We’ve all become used to a new iPhone being launched once or twice a year. We’ve been conditioned to expect a rolling six-month cycle of product upgrades, new features and, occasionally, a whole new, category-defining product.

However, after three years without launching a new product (iPad mini doesn’t count), people have become impatient. Apple watchers trawl through patent applications trying to guess what the engineers at Cupertino will come up with next. Others simply declare that Apple is no longer innovative.

Tim Cook needs a game changer

The oft-rumoured Apple TV set is still nowhere in sight. Talk of an iWatch seems to be the driven by little more than fanboy and fangirl dreams of what Apple could do to improve the Pebble. Meanwhile Google has stolen a march with Glass. It is becoming tech media consensus that Google is now the most innovative company around, some even say Google has the best designers.

All this puts into context the importance of yesterday’s Apple developer conference. Tim Cook needs a game changer, he needs an iPod, iPhone or iPad equivalent. And he needs it yesterday.

So what did we get? We got a very thorough, thoughtful redesign of an operating system. From colour palette to logic, iOS7 at first glance seems a very well designed upgrade. Crucially, it signals a new design direction.

Under the guidance of design-lead Jony Ive, Apple’s software design is becoming as simple as its hardware. We also saw the launch of a completely redesigned Mac Pro, out with the old clunky box and in with a new, much leaner cylinder.

Simplicity is the new watchword. And everyone knows that creating things that are simple to understand and simple to use takes time.

Expectations had clearly become so great that Apple could no longer deliver; no company could. When this happens, brands tend to falter, some brands fail entirely and collapse. Despite the conjecture about their ability to innovate, one thing Apple clearly has not lost is its confidence.

Tim Cook and Jony Ive have seemingly set out a new strategy. Apple is backing away from the tech trend of having products in perpetual beta that are continually updated. The pace of product launches will slow but development will not. Each new product is likely to see a thorough reworking, not just a better camera or faster chip. Yesterday Apple took the first step in resetting our expectations.

This article originally appeared here on the Huffington Post.

Marketing in India Today

Whenever a friend or family goes abroad and asks if I’d like anything, I always cheekily ask for a magazine or newspaper. This is partly because I like reading about news from a fresh perspective and partly because I like to know what the ads are like.

I was recently given a copy of India Today, a weekly topical news magazine. The Indian perspective on the world is nothing new to me, but the advertising has moved on somewhat since I last really looked at it.

The immediately noticeable innovation is that the front cover is less wide than the rest of the magazine. This allows a thin strip from the advert on the first page to be present on the cover. It’s a clever way of giving advertisers greater exposure without compromising the cover.

India Today

As you move through the magazine, there’s a definite sense that the ads are there to drive sales and only drive sales. There’s little or no advertising that focuses on brand positioning. There’s certainly nothing that tries to make you feel warm and fuzzy or capture the feeling of a particular moment.

This Volkswagen advert (below), for example, tells you the product’s stylish, throws some features at you and then tell you to text a number to arrange a test drive.

Volkswagen ad

The call to send a text message recurs throughout the ads in the magazine. From test drives to paint colour charts, all can be arranged by sending a text. There’s also a whole host of QR codes.

Essentially, where marketing teams in the UK put social media information to build engagement. Marketers in India put direct links to sell. Both sets of marketers are taking advantage of new technology, but the Indians are bypassing the sophistry of relationships in favour of building revenue.

Train punctuality: Are we measuring the wrong thing?

Commuters constantly complain about how awful British train services are.

We complain about ticket prices but are told that the increases are needed to pay for better services in the future and to offset reductions in government subsidies (the jam tomorrow argument).

Commuters also complain about capacity: there are never any seats available, if you manage to get on a train at all. This issue is often met with the dual refrain of suggesting we work more flexibly and that capacity is being increased (using those record increases in fares).

Most of all, however, we complain about delays. Whether it’s signal failure, leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow, there’s always a delay of some sort to contend with. The response is often that we’re wrong. That services actually run quite well, some lines are among the best in Europe for train punctuality.

Here’s a question that’s not often asked: what if train punctuality is a false measure? Perhaps commuter punctuality is what we should really care about? Instead of the number of trains getting to stations on time, perhaps we would get more useful information if we tracked the number of people being delivered to stations on time.

The majority of rail journeys occur in two bands during the day, when people are travelling to and from work. If a problem happens in rush hour, it’s possible that the majority of journeys that day will be delayed, this could be true even if the majority of trains are not. Yet we only publically measure train punctuality. Regarding passengers, we have statistics measuring kilometres travelled, the total number of passengers and capacity.

Presumably, there already exists some method of collecting data about the volume of passengers travelling at different times of the day – train operators, Network Rail and others must use such data when planning train timetables and scheduling maintenance. Such data should be made public. There is a push by government, Passenger Focus and the ORR to make more rail data available and make it available in easy to analyse formats, so change is coming on this front.

Overlaying estimated passenger volumes onto train timetables would give an initial, and fairly reliable, idea of how many people were being delayed. Such a move would switch the focus from trains to people.

It’s perfectly true that it’s easier to accurately measure train punctuality but the current measure underestimates the economic cost of rail delays. This means that train operators, Network Rail and government all make suboptimal investment decisions about rail and related infrastructure projects.

This blog post is not meant as a dig to train operators, Network Rail or any other group. Indeed, any analysis that demonstrates that delays cause higher economic costs than previously thought, might reasonably be used to argue for more funding for rail.

This idea is very simple and I cannot be the first to propose it, although searches via Google and within the ORR and Passenger Focus websites found no reference to the concept. Simple though it is, the idea is compelling. It captures lost economic output and focuses rail network performance on people not rolling stock.

This article also appeared here on the Huffington Post.