Thank you, Clive James

Watching the crazy Yamasa soy sauce ad (see my previous post, The best TV ad in the world ever) made me think of Clive James.

As the man who made an artform of laughing at crazy oriental TV, I’m sure it would be right up his street.

It seems somewhat anachronistic in these modern times, particularly now UK television is swamped with gameshows every bit as inane as those he used to poke fun at, but as a kid in the eighties I loved Clive James on Television.

Millions of viewers tuned in each week to snigger at an assortment of funny and bizarre TV clips from around the world, like a curated version of YouTube before the concept of online video ever existed.

Clive James is much more than just a TV host though.  He is at heart a wordsmith; an acclaimed author, critic and poet.

He is also terminally ill, having been diagnosed with both leukaemia and emphysema in 2010.

Completely sound of mind, but with little physical energy and too ill to return to his native Australia, he has turned again to poetry:

“I have been quite ill for three years now but have found that when I have any energy and clarity of mind at all, poetry has been my first means of signalling how I feel. I don’t quite know what this says about how deep the instinct must lie to express oneself in verse.” 

Trapped in a foreign country, and trapped in his own failing body, he has employed his rare ability to ‘turn a phrase until it catches the light’ to create a series of beautiful, tender, and contemplative poems reflecting on his life and impending death.

A fuller collection of his work is available at clivejames.com, but as a starting point I’d urge you to read a couple of his more recent pieces, Rounded with a Sleep and Japanese Maple.

As Charlie Brooker pointed out in this 2012 column, reports of Clive James’ death are thankfully somewhat premature.  He’s been talking about popping his clogs for a couple of years now but remains resolutely alive, if not exactly well.

To quote the man himself though, “stop worrying – nobody gets out of this world alive”.

So while he is still around, and producing some of the finest work of his career, I’d just like to echo Charlie Brooker’s comments.

Thank you, Clive James; thank you.

Pollsters, bookies and Grindr users: who’s best at predicting the future?

Despite seemingly hanging in the balance for a few days, realistically the result of the Scottish independence referendum was never seriously in doubt.

The margin of the victory is perhaps something of a surprise, however.

Given how close the polls had it going into Thursday, a 55 / 45 split is a larger margin of victory for the No campaign than many were predicting.

It obviously wasn’t a surprise to the bookies though, who were offering odds of just 1/5 on a No majority, compared to a generous sounding 3/1 in some places on a Yes majority.

As the old adage goes, you never see a bookie on a bike, so with £50m being wagered on the result they must have been very confident of the outcome.

One guy who got the result pretty much bang on did so by the entirely unscientific method of asking 655 random Grindr users whether they thought Scotland should be an independent country.  His result was 54 / 46, just one percentage point out.

This was closer to the actual result than polls on Wednesday night from three separate professional polling organisations: YouGov, IPSOS-MORI and Survation:

Buzzfeed Scottish Referendum Opinion Polls

Obviously it could just be an amusing blip, but there might be more to it than first appears.  It seems there is a way to poll unrepresentative samples and get an accurate result.

This thought-provoking article in the New York Times suggests that polling representative samples of the population to ask how they intend to vote is a weaker predictor of the outcome than asking them who they think will win instead.

Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations  shows that asking people to consider their expectation of the outcome prompts them to mentally picture how 20 of their friends or family are likely to vote, which is ultimately a better predictor of the final result than only understanding their own voting intentions:

Surveys of voting intentions depend critically on being able to poll representative cross-sections of the electorate. By contrast, we find that surveys of voter expectations can still be quite accurate, even when drawn from non-representative samples. The logic of this claim comes from the difference between asking about expectations, which may not systematically differ across demographic groups, and asking about intentions, which clearly do.

This is fascinating stuff and potentially revolutionary for the research industry as a whole, not just within the world of politics:

Market researchers ask variants of the voter intention question in an array of contexts, asking questions that elicit your preference for one product, over another. Likewise, indices of consumer confidence are partly based on the stated purchasing intentions of consumers, rather than their expectations about the purchase conditions for their community. The same insight that motivated our study—that people also have information on the plans of others—is also likely relevant in these other contexts. Thus, it seems plausible that survey research in many other domains may also benefit from paying greater attention to people’s expectations than to their intentions.

This insight could surely be applied to the communication industry.

Would we understand more about a campaign’s chances of success if we stop asking people if they like the ad creative and ask them instead whether they think their friends would like it?

Would it be a better indicator of sales success if we ask people to predict whether a campaign would be likely to make other members of their family buy the advertised product?

Are any researchers out there currently using this technique?  Anyone willing to give it a go?

I’d love to know the outcome.

Reflections on the Scottish independence referendum

As Scotland goes to the polls to vote on independence, it’s worth reflecting on a couple of ‘human truths’ this referendum campaign has brought into focus.

1. The Power of Positive Thinking

Throughout the run-up to the election the Yes camp has continually painted a positive image of an independent Scotland.

By contrast the Better Together campaign has been widely criticised for taking a defensive stance, preferring to rationally address the uncertainties in the Yes campaign’s arguments.

If the No vote is ultimately victorious they may argue this was the right strategy, but by conceding the emotional territory to the pro-independence lobby, Better Together has seen momentum swing against it in the last few weeks, with recent polls much closer than they previously had been.

In this interesting article, Sir John Hegarty frames the problem in advertising terms – challenger versus brand leader – concluding that the unionists should have campaigned on a ‘Vote No Borders’ platform to frame their side of the debate in positive fashion.

It could be said that politics should be about people and ideas, not brands and consumers, but I think Hegarty’s human insight is absolutely true.

Even the most rational arguments need to be allied to an emotional hook for them to be truly persuasive.

2. People Get Involved When It Matters To Them

The voter turnout in the 2010 general election was just 65%.

In the 2012 local elections the turnout was only 32%, leading to calls in some quarters for voting to become compulsory.

And that’s before we consider the Police & Crime Commissioner elections, in which only 15% of people voted (and there were rumours of one polling station in Gwent that received no votes at all!).

Turnout UK National Elections

Regardless of the result, this Scottish referendum is truly exceptional in the way it has captured public opinion.

97% of the eligible electorate has registered to vote, and the number of people claiming they would definitely vote in the referendum has steadily increased over the last couple of years, rising from 65% in January 2012 to over 90% this month.

Whatever the result of this referendum, neither side will be able to claim it doesn’t reflect the will of the Scottish people.

Image credits

The image accompanying this article was created by Surian Soosay.  View the original on Flickr here.

The election turnout bar chart was taken from the Full Fact website.

Why I value randomness over relevance on Twitter

Twitter went into meltdown recently over rumours it is looking to replace the current chronological timeline with an algorithmically driven content feed.

(If you didn’t see this news, you obviously weren’t logging into your Twitter account at the right time…)

These rumours were driven by Twitter’s CFO Anthony Noto stating publicly that the current method of organising the newsfeed “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user”.

I worry that Mr Noto understands the technology, but doesn’t understand his users.

I love Twitter precisely because it doesn’t give me ‘the most relevant experience’.  I love the random waterfall of tweets tumbling through my timeline in completely unstructured fashion; the juxtaposition of serious political arguments with silly jokes, news with opinion.

I make a point of following people I don’t necessarily agree with, just to get an alternative perspective on things (much like a fiercely liberal ex-colleague who would religiously read the Daily Mail every day, because it’s important to “know your enemy”).

I would hate to lose that.

This article in Medium does a great job of articulating the concerns of Twitter users.

For me the key element is this:

“An algorithm can perhaps surface guaranteed content, but it cannot surface unexpected, diverse and sometimes weird content exactly because of how algorithms work: they know what they already know.”

Algorithms already have enormous influence on all aspects of our lives.

If you’re in any doubt as to the importance of ‘big data’ in monitoring and predicting human behaviour, take a few minutes to watch this fascinating Ted talk by Christopher Steiner, author of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World:

Never mind that the bots control the financial markets and know more about our personalities than we do though, they already control the Top 40 goddamit!

In 2011 scientists (I would call them boffins if I worked for one of the red-tops) claim to have found the ‘Hit Potential Equation’ that can determine if a song will reach the top of the charts.

And it was an algorithm that identified the hit making potential of Maroon 5 and Norah Jones, by analysing the musical structure and patterns of their albums.

But as Christopher Steiner puts it in his Ted talk, “would the algorithms find Nirvana?  Would they find the Beatles?”

Please Twitter, let me control my own feed.

I’ll happily wade through the crap in the hope of unearthing the next Nirvana or Beatles.

I’ve already got Facebook if I want a sea of mediocrity soundtracked by Maroon 5 and Norah Jones.

Guardian Membership: can newspapers build profitability without paywalls?

The Guardian yesterday announced details of its new membership programme.

As a milestone in the evolution of newsbrands it is an intriguing move.

Other newspapers already have membership schemes, but they are generally built around a paywall model in which subscribers pay for access to editorial content, with a few extras goodies such as competitions and ticket offers thrown in for good measure.

The Guardian on the other hand has placed a large bet on its ability to build a sustainable revenue model based on its readers’ willingness to pay for a) access to exclusive live events and b) patronage of its journalistic ethos.

The question is whether the bet will pay off, and in doing so potentially also pave the way for other newsbrands to build profitability without building paywalls in a digital future.

Clearly, the Guardian was never going to introduce a paywall.

Its commitment to open journalism has helped it build a huge online following, with over 100m browsers worldwide.

This makes the Guardian the third largest English language newsbrand in the world (behind the New York Times and Mail Online), despite selling fewer than 178,000 print copies each day in the UK.

The problem Guardian management faced was how to translate this influence into revenue, without abandoning their principles or alienating their readership.

To my mind they have come up with an elegant solution, which has the potential to deliver on all fronts.

They have created a free product, which will allow them to gain a better understanding of a large proportion of those 100m online browsers, with all the attendant benefits this will bring to their CRM and ad sales programmes.

And they have created paid products which will generate income whilst simultaneously allowing their most loyal followers to build a closer connection to the brand.

Those closer connections will be forged primarily through Guardian Live, a series of live events covering a wide array of topics, to which members will get priority access to tickets.

The centrepiece will be Guardian Space – a dedicated events space housed in a huge converted goods warehouse opposite the Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross.

Both the location of Guardian Space and the initial list of events give the impression of this being a very London-centric affair, but if Ken Doctor’s analysis for the Nieman Journalism Lab is correct this is just the tip of the iceberg, with “hundreds of events each week across Britain” the ultimate aim.

If true, the huge scale of the ambition is admirable.

For me it’s not just the events strand that is interesting though.

I like the overall manner in which Guardian Membership is being pitched, and how far it differs in tone from other newspapers’ loyalty schemes.

The language employed is striking – friend, partner, patron.

Guardian Membership

You are not being asked to merely subscribe, to take part in a cold financial transaction.  You are being invited to join an exclusive club; to contribute your cash, ideas and energy towards the cause of progressive liberal journalism.

This is an important point.

In its excellent summary, The Media Briefing quite rightly points out that on the face of it the membership options don’t seem to represent great value for money.

But this isn’t being pitched at the rational consumer.  The whole idea of patronage brings to mind somebody who is happy to subsidise the arts, either because they believe in a particular cause or for the personal kudos that comes with it.

Will people be prepared to pay £15 or even £60 a year for the privilege of becoming a “card-carrying Guardian reader”?

Many will scoff at the suggestion but initial signs are that some people will, as shown by (comedy writer & director) Graham Linehan’s tweet yesterday:

Glinner Guardian Tweet

With an existing universe of 100m people to talk to, the Guardian only needs a small percentage of them to convert to paid membership before the sums start to add up.

I believe many of its readers may well look upon a Guardian readership as they do a trip to a museum. It’s free to enter and have a look around, but you also feel morally obliged to contribute something to its upkeep.

It’s interesting to note that despite the economy enduring a long period of recession, the amount of money raised by UK cultural institutions over the last 5 years through donations, sponsorship and memberships has continued to increase, reaching a total of £293m last year according to DCMS (see Figure 3 here).

So whilst it’s a different category and context, there is a precedent for people to put their hands in their pocket to support institutions they perceive to be culturally valuable.

If the Guardian can position itself in that same bracket with enough of its readership it will be well on the way to success.

What do you think? Will this approach work?

Will enough people sign up as partners, patrons or event attendees to generate sufficient income?

Or is the battle for paid online content already lost, and will Guardian Space ultimately be viewed as an expensive folly?

I do hope not.

For my part I applaud the Guardian’s innovative thinking and the boldness of the execution.

I wish them the very best of luck with it.