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.