Category Archives: Writing

Hemingway (logo)

Do your headlines have a Beyoncé-level of engagement?

Like the lead para­graph in a news story or thes­is in an essay, your head­line is your one true sen­tence: the single most import­ant asset for cap­tur­ing atten­tion in the feed.

Hem­ing­way is Sharethrough’s new AI-powered head­line ana­lyz­er, an easy-to-use, pub­licly avail­able tool that puts a wealth of pro­pri­et­ary data sci­ence and lin­guist­ic ana­lys­is at your fin­ger­tips for the first time. This new tool is free for any­one look­ing to nav­ig­ate the new pres­sures and demands in con­tent mar­ket­ing, help­ing them ana­lyze and quickly improve the qual­ity of their head­lines, optim­iz­ing for both impres­sion and engagement.

Below are the intial res­ults for this art­icle’s head­line (pre-Bey­on­cé).

Hemingway (actual headline result)

Using this ana­lys­er, I was able to push my Head­line Qual­ity Score from 62 to 79%. I’m not sure adding Bey­on­cé improved your level of engage­ment after you arrived, but you clicked on the head­line though, did­n’t you? Appar­ently that’s 98% of the prob­lem solved.

How does it work?

The Head­line Qual­ity Score is based on a mul­tivari­ate lin­guist­ic algorithm built on the prin­ciples of Beha­vi­or Mod­el the­ory and Sharethrough’s neur­os­cience and advert­ising research. The algorithm takes into account more than 300 unique vari­ables, includ­ing EEG data and Nat­ur­al Lan­guage Pro­cessing, enabling your nat­ive ads to cap­ture atten­tion, increase engage­ment and deliv­er a stronger impression.

Basic­ally, it offers sug­ges­tions to improve click­throughs — but’s it not going to write bet­ter head­lines for you.

Back to work, you Hemingway-wannabe.


Chaos Theory (as a Management Style)

For generations, science allowed us to think we could control nature. Today we know better (thanks to Chaos Theory). How could this make us better managers?

Sir Isaac New­ton’s determ­in­ist­ic claim that we can pre­dict future events with abso­lute cer­tainty stood firm for 300 years — then along came Kurt Gödel’s Incom­plete­ness The­or­em and Wern­er Heis­en­ber­g’s Uncer­tainty Prin­ciple. Apply­ing this new sci­ence to the most widely used man­age­ment style (i.e. dir­ect­ive) and com­par­ing it to more empower­ing tech­niques, I look at how this could inform man­age­ment tac­tics (as well as social media policy and cor­por­ate social responsibility).

The boring science‑y bit

mathematical formula written in chalk on blackboardIn 1931, Kurt Gödel declared a form­al proof that every sys­tem (even the all-empassing Prin­cipia Math­em­at­ica) con­tains incon­sist­ency, and is there­fore incom­plete. In 1927, Heis­en­ber­g’s uncer­tainty prin­ciple declared that all phys­ics (when examined closely enough) con­tains a degree of chaos. This was in con­trast with estab­lished New­to­ni­an determ­in­ism that saw the uni­verse as a giant clock — if we could only see the cogs in enough detail, we could pre­dict future move­ments. When com­bined with oth­er the­or­ies (such as ran­dom Browni­an Motion, Lorenz’ But­ter­fly Effect and Schrödinger’s Quantum Mech­an­ics), a move­ment developed that came to be known as Chaos The­ory. This embraces the idea that we can nev­er truly fore­see an out­come, because small fluc­tu­ations can cause large long-term effects.

More recently, in books on macro-eco­nom­ics such as Freako­nom­ics and The Tip­ping Point, there has been an under­stand­ing that growth can­not be infin­ite (e.g. the occupy move­ment) and an aware­ness of wider sus­tain­ab­il­ity issues. This isn’t a hippy-dippy resur­gence of 60’s flower-power — it’s actu­ally a nat­ur­al res­ult of look­ing ever more deeply at what was pre­vi­ously only thought of in abstract terms. Rick Lev­ine and Chris­toph­er Locke dis­cussed the prob­lems of dir­ect­ive man­age­ment styles in their book The Cluetrain Mani­festo. In it, a major study showed that although bark­ing orders at employ­ees often gen­er­ated high­er profits in the short term, (when com­pared with the long-term gains of more empath­ic man­age­ment tech­niques) it is actu­ally unprof­it­able in the long-term — the man­age­ment equi­val­ent of King Canute dar­ing the tide to change.

Today’s management structure prevents information flow

So how do these sci­entif­ic and high-level math­em­at­ics the­or­ies apply to man­age­ment styles — what could they pos­sibly both have in com­mon? In each case, they listened to the details — instead of ignor­ing them (because they did­n’t fit the estab­lished pat­tern). This often a pre­curs­or of innov­a­tion — and why smal­ler com­pan­ies can do this bet­ter than lar­ger ones. Chaos The­ory demon­strates that, (as a man­ager) it’s sci­en­tific­ally impossible to pre­dict what will hap­pen. Dir­ect­ive, short-term man­age­ment pat­terns don’t listen for the details — they determ­ine large-scale changes from pre­vi­ous exper­i­ence. As glob­al weath­er will testi­fy — what happened yes­ter­day — or last year — isn’t neces­sar­ily the best indic­at­or of what will hap­pen tomorrow.

Intern­al com­mu­nic­a­tions with­in multi-level man­age­ment organ­isa­tions are not con­struc­ted to allow these details to be filtered upwards. In a typ­ic­al man­age­ment meet­ing, there’s only time for the lar­ger prob­lems to be dis­cussed, so smal­ler prob­lems must be ignored — until they grow large enough to be on the agenda (requir­ing more expens­ive solu­tions). This is also true for many effi­ciency and stream­lin­ing pro­cesses — man­agers spend so little time on the ‘shop floor’ that they are unaware of improve­ments that are sug­ges­ted by those who are closest to the prob­lem — the workers.

When the going gets tough, the CEOs get out

What appears to be a quick easy fix (such as clos­ures and lay-offs) can show as instant profit on this year’s bal­ance sheet — pay­ing for the expens­ive CEO’s golden hand­shake, but will typ­ic­ally back-fire. In addi­tion, it pro­poses a ‘boom and bust’ men­tal­ity that causes many CEOs to lose their jobs (as soon as the bust hits). High drama makes for great head­lines, but poor man­age­ment. As with cli­mate change, there may be no single rad­ic­al solu­tion that solves a major prob­lem com­pletely — but a large num­ber of smal­ler improve­ments (when added togeth­er) can pre­vent the need for dra­mat­ic action.

There are oth­er ways to solve this prob­lem more cre­at­ively — Dav­id Cote (Hon­ey­well)Dan Price (Grav­ity) and Bob Chap­man (Barry-Weh­miller) per­haps being the most fam­ous examples, but in recent times Fed­Ex, Hew­lett-Pack­ard, and The New York Times have all cut base pay (with most lower­ing man­age­ment salar­ies more than work­ers) instead of let­ting people go. Even Larry and Sergey at Google only take a $1 annu­al salary. In Japan, a pop­u­lar belief in busi­ness eth­ics is that busi­nesses (and people) who pur­sue money first even­tu­ally fail – most not­ably employed by Haruka Nishi­matsu, who humbly wait­ing in line for food with his employ­ees and took the bus to work when times got tough, as good lead­ers should fight along­side their troops. Simon Sinek used a sim­il­ar battle-based ana­logy (but the same fam­ily motif) as the basis of his book Lead­ers Eat Last.

Since the 1980s, much of busi­ness ideo­logy has been influ­enced by mil­it­ary tech­niques (e.g. goals, strategy, object­ives, tac­tics) — how­ever, the com­rade­ship factor has been con­veni­ently left out. This just does­n’t add up.

Social media — “The Truth Will Out”

Tax avoid­ance schemes even­tu­ally come home to roost. Get­ting the state to pay for Wal­mart’s employ­ee bene­fits (while the com­pany makes record profits) is just not sus­tain­able — and the new-found power of con­sumers in social media is the best place to dis­rupt this sort of care­fully-planned (and determ­in­ist­ic) mar­ket­ing plan. Social media closes the feed­back loop, allow­ing inform­a­tion to freely bubble to the top.

From Wil­li­am J. Conaty, who ran human resources at Gen­er­al Elec­tric (GE) for 14 years:

“People have long memor­ies. They’ll remem­ber wheth­er they think they were dealt with equitably.” 

CSR and fair compensation

Man wearing suit and tie stares into camera, as dirt road recedes into the distanceWhat, then is the most sci­en­tific­ally accur­ate man­age­ment style that best depicts a mod­el of real­ity? How can we take advant­age of broad advance­ments in sci­ence and math­em­at­ics to be more effect­ive, bet­ter under­stood, with more cus­tom­ers, and achieve high­er profits (with hap­pi­er and more motiv­ated staff)?

Simple — be more humane when man­aging fel­low humans. This is the use of sup­port­ive instead of dir­ect­ive man­age­ment tech­niques. In a busi­ness sense, it leads to more profit. For employ­ees, they are hap­pi­er and feel val­ued. Cus­tom­ers bene­fit through a bet­ter level of service.

This is why Henry Ford doubled the min­im­um wage in 1914, why the Cad­bury broth­ers cre­ated the town of Bourn­ville for their staff and pion­eered pen­sions in 1879, and more recently Face­book have cre­ated their own com­pany town — these (even­tu­ally) lead to high­er profits. Fair com­pens­a­tion (and recog­ni­tion — which is free, after all) is often all that employ­ees ask for. These are some of the earli­est examples of Cor­por­ate Social Respons­ib­il­ity — which seems these days to be com­pletely divorced from employ­ee bene­fits, and has turned into a form of cor­por­ate phil­an­thropy (i.e. for those out­side the com­pany) instead.

Typ­ic­ally, smal­ler fam­ily-run busi­nesses sup­port their employ­ees, and listen to cus­tom­er and pro­duc­tion’s poten­tial prob­lems — and are thus able to fix them while still in their infancy. This long-term approach is often lam­basted by more ‘profit-driv­en’ man­age­ment exec­ut­ives — but we should be think­ing in terms of being in sync with our cus­tom­ers, cli­ents and col­leagues for dec­ades — not try­ing to rip them off as quickly as pos­sible and hop­ing there’ll be a new suck­er born every minute.

Business relationships are a conversation (not an argument)

By free­ing up the inform­a­tion flow, respect­ing each oth­er­’s prac­tic­al, man­age­ment, and user exper­i­ence, we can cre­ate highly-optim­ised yet flu­id and respons­ive solu­tions that evolve organ­ic­ally over time. By listen­ing to our col­leagues, we learn to embrace chaos — and respond quickly to the unknown because we knew it was always there.

In our new know­ledge eco­nomy, thought­ful applic­a­tion of new sci­ences and tech­no­logy using the above tech­niques will inev­it­ably lead to brand loy­alty, less employ­ee churn, deep­er cus­tom­er engage­ment and high­er profit margins.

Isn’t that what we all want?

But how?

The best way to go with the (chaot­ic) flow isn’t to throw your hands up in des­pair — roll up your sleeves, use good judge­ment and demon­strate lead­er­ship. It’s best encap­su­lated by Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince) in this TED talk by Julia Galef about the ‘Scout Mindset’:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up your men to col­lect wood and give orders and dis­trib­ute the work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and end­less sea.” 

Million Dollar Homepage

IAB: A U‑Turn on the Ad-Blocking Superhighway?

Ad-blocking is the new normal. With the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) having launched its LEAN Ads program worldwide, I look a little closer at the initiative — and what it implies for the future of online advertising.

While I agree with the the­ory of the LEAN ini­ti­at­ive (which stands for light, encryp­ted, ad-choice sup­por­ted, and non-invas­ive), the imple­ment­a­tion leaves a little to be desired. Less place­ment oppor­tun­it­ies for pub­lish­ers and more con­straints for dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms seem an Orwellian reac­tion to an industry still reel­ing from the arrival of HTML5.

pagefair-mapToday, almost one in five Inter­net users in the UK (and rising) have an ad-block­er installed. Advert­ising rev­en­ue is being wasted on unseen ads, ad fraud and ‘bots, while scripts, videos and bloated band­width are inflat­ing mobile data plans. The tar­get audi­ence and brands are cry­ing ‘foul’. And although LEAN addresses some of these tac­tic­al con­cerns, it fails to address the broad­er problems.

For­tu­nately, there are ways through this thorny prob­lem but, much like glob­al warm­ing, we’re not going to like it; agen­cies, dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms, pub­lish­ers and cli­ents are all going to have to work togeth­er if we’re to move forward.

Firstly, as always, we need to get cre­at­ive. Take the humble 200kb online ad; often del­eg­ated to art­work­ing teams, many with mea­gre budgets, fast turn­around times and low expectations.

Incor­por­at­ing digit­al innov­a­tion, such as dynamic/rotating con­tent; lever­aging speed using Con­tent Deliv­ery Net­works as well as pro­gram­mat­ic and oth­er user-tar­get­ing tech­niques; and devel­op­ing con­tent-led cre­at­ive — instead of just con­tain­ers for con­tent deliv­ery — may even­tu­ally endear the user to brands and increase engage­ment. This approach will cre­ate ads that evolve and can last an entire cam­paign — sim­ul­tan­eously redu­cing media spend while increas­ing click­throughs. Block­ing ad-block­ers is a road to nowhere.

Secondly, lead­ers in this area (such as Guard­i­an Labs) are invit­ing users to become part of the equa­tion. An exten­sion of the IAB-approved ‘AdChoices’ concept, Google’s Con­trib­ut­or plat­form for Double­Click (which is yet to roll out to the UK), allows ‘sub­scribers’ to pay a monthly fee to remove ads. How­ever, this will only work if all ads are removed in the sub­scrip­tion, and the profit mod­el replaces the rev­en­ue stream (and doesn’t increase it). If there’s one thing online busi­nesses should learn, it’s that trans­par­ency is key to success.

crystal_page_load_timesLastly, pub­lish­ers, cli­ents and media plan­ners seem to have opted for quant­ity, not qual­ity. Those that work harder with their part­ners, lever­aging brand depth instead of reach, to gain the first-mover advant­age (redu­cing impres­sions and incor­por­at­ing native/sponsored/branded con­tent) will be the first to reap the low-hanging fruit; leav­ing com­pet­it­ors, pay­walls and ad block­ers scram­bling in their wake.

There has been some size­able changes in the digit­al dis­play industry in 2015, but for a long time users have always wanted the same thing from advert­ising: make it use­ful.

Show me what I need, just before I need it. 

Most users don’t want to block all advert­ising; they just want to see advert­ising that is appro­pri­ate to them (by defin­i­tion, ads not inten­ded for them are — at the very least — poorly tar­geted). We have many more cre­at­ive digit­al tools to enable this to happen.

The industry has ali­en­ated our cus­tom­ers with irrel­ev­ant advert­ise­ments force-fed to them en masse — let’s work hard (and togeth­er) to get them back on board.

They’ll thank us for it.

“Mil­lion Dol­lar Homepage” © 2005 Alex Tew
“Ad Block­ing Usage by Coun­try”© 2015 PageFair/Adobe
“iOS Page Load Time in Seconds” © 2015 Mark Wilson/Beta News

Fire & Brimstone at the Buncefield Oil Depot, Hemel Hempstead

0520 GMT: Cal­cu­la­tions show that Tank 912 would be com­pletely full and start­ing to over­flow. Con­tin­ued pump­ing causes fuel to cas­cade down the side of the tank and through the air, lead­ing to the rap­id form­a­tion of a rich fuel/air mix­ture that col­lects in bund A — the low enclos­ure sur­round­ing 912 and neigh­bour­ing tanks.

0538 to 0546 GMT: CCTV foot­age shows vapour of escaped fuel start to flow out of the north-west corner of the enclos­ure, towards the west. The vapour cloud thick­ens from 1m deep to about 2m deep and soon flows out in all directions.

0550 to 0600 GMT: The pump­ing rate down the pipeline to Tank 912 gradu­ally rises to around 890 cubic metres an hour, and the vapour cloud starts flow­ing off-site.

0601 GMT: The first explo­sion occurs, and fur­ther explo­sions fol­low, even­tu­ally engulf­ing more than 20 large stor­age tanks.

Terror in the subway

Don’t pan­ic — I nar­rowly missed being on one of the trains attacked in the Lon­don bombs yes­ter­day. The only day I decide to ven­ture into Lon­don, just my luck…

So, it’s 9:00am and I’m on the under­ground train from Epping to Liv­er­pool St sta­tion, where I was due to catch anoth­er under­ground on the circle line. Then I hear it’s not stop­ping until two stops later. “Great”, I think — anoth­er brit­ish rail dis­aster. I get off, mildly con­cerned at the num­ber of people, and make my way along The Strand, towards Buck­ing­ham Palace. I notice a bunch of people inside an elec­tron­ics store (Dix­ons), star­ing at a TV. Pretty weird, so I walk in to see if it’s related to my missed stop. That’s when I real­ise there’s at least two fatal­it­ies, and pos­sibly a bomb. I con­tin­ue walk­ing, and the ICA (Insti­tute of Con­tem­por­ary Arts) is closed due to a secur­ity scare, so across the road I go to St James’ Park for the Liv­ing Museum (yeah, not a big war fan, but the Bletch­ley Park Trust — i.e. cryp­to­graph­ers dur­ing the war — had a stand). Very bizarre, police with Uzi’s out­side, search­ing every­one. Start to get a bit weirded out, but hey — per­haps that’s life in London.

All the war pro­pa­ganda was get­ting to me, so I left to see if the Tate museum of mod­ern art was open — on the way, stop­ping at the Lon­don Eye (closed), Dali museum (ditto), and by this time get­ting a little wor­ried. So, into the pub at the Namco museum (it had a videowall), where I felt increas­ingly sur­real. Looked around to see who I would be stran­ded with if all trans­port was out for the day. Tried for the ump­teenth time to get a text mes­sage to my uncle, who was (I thought) the only one who knew I was in Lon­don. Tony is a bit of a wor­ri­er, and had vir­tu­ally organ­ised my trip to the last detail — includ­ing the trip on the circle line — and so would be out of his tree with worry. Finally man­aged to get a mes­sage through, by this time my broth­er Lee and moth­er (as well as a friend in Ire­land) had seen the news and wondered if I was ok.

I am.

Spent the next few hours wan­der­ing aim­lessly around cent­ral Lon­don — it was hon­estly like A Quiet Earth (with Bruno Lawrence) or 28 Days Later — no cars at all, no buses — until the early after­noon not even many people. When I real­ised it might take quite a while to get back, I made my way to Fen­church St sta­tion, where about 2000 people gathered in front of the build­ing — it was going to be hours before I even got inside.

The weird­est thing about the whole exper­i­ence was the jungle grapev­ine — every­one had cell­phones stuck to their ears, and all you had to do was listen to snip­pets of con­ver­sa­tion and you would be instantly updated, without even hav­ing to speak. That’s how I learned Liv­er­pool St was still open, so I blindly made my way there (half the time walk­ing with the throng, the oth­er half try­ing to go against the flow).

Made my way to Liv­er­pool St, and pretty much straight away got on the first train that looked like it was head­ing back towards Epping — which turned out to be a first class express ser­vice. All the trains were free at this stage. Texted my Uncle to pick me up from Har­low, how­ever I soon found out there was a secur­ity alert there, so could­n’t get off until Stansted Air­port (more armed police). Finally man­aged to meet him at the arrivals ter­min­al, where many stran­ded trav­el­lers could­n’t get back into Lon­don because all the trains were cancelled.

All in all, a very event­ful day.