November 30, 2012
A little refresher:
Back in late 2005, the guys running a small San Francisco startup named Odeo were feeling desperate. They had planned to make it big in the podcasting business, but Apple had just announced that iTunes would include a podcasting platform built into every iPod.
So the Odeo group started scrambling to come up with a new plan. One of the employees, a guy named Jack Dorsey, came up with the idea of a system where you could send a text message to a number and it would be delivered to all of your friends.
Someone came up with the code name twttr–a takeoff on Flickr–and when they looked up twitter in the dictionary and saw that it meant 1) A short burst of inconsequential information and 2) Chirps from birds, they agreed, Dorsey recalls, that the name “was just perfect.”
Such a tool
This is just to remind all of us that Twitter was born not as a grand vision, but more an act of desperation. And that it was originally meant as nothing more than a cool way to send reports of your status to all of your friends at once.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that these days Twitter is being hailed as everything from a barometer of the nation’s emotional health to a conduit for the flow of linguistic invention to a tool for urban planners to map travel routes.
Oh, and earlier this week, a young mother reportedly named her newborn daughter “Hashtag.”
There are those, of course, who think way too much is being made of Twitter’s capacity for capturing the zeitgeist. But there’s no question that it’s gaining status as an analytical tool. Here are just a few of the ways it’s being taken seriously:
1) It’s not the tweet, it’s emotion: Last month tech giant SGI rolled out something it calls the Global Twitter Heartbeat, a Big Data analysis of 10 percent of the roughly 500 million tweets tapped out every day.
The tool takes geotagged tweets over a period of time and converts them into a “heat map” designed to show the tone and intensity of what’s being said where. It’s first big effort was during Superstorm Sandy.
2) Pocket of politeness? Or pool of profanity?: The company Vertalab created its own Twitter heat map a few months ago, but that one focused on the use of two particular phrases on Twitter. While many weighed in with a conventional “Good morning,” a surprising number posted a two-word phrase rhyming with “duck flew.” .
True to form, the well-mannered tweets tended to bubble up from the South, particularly parts of Texas and Tennessee, while the cursing flowed freely around New York, Toronto and especially Los Angeles.
3) I hear ya, bruh: Researchers at Georgia Tech analyzed 30 million tweets sent around the U.S. between December 2009 and May 2011 and concluded that new words, at least on Twitter, tend to first pop up in cities with large African-American populations, then spread.
One example they gave was “bruh,” a Twitter version of “bro,” that first appeared in several cities in the U.S.’ Southeast, then leap-frogged to California.
4) The roads most traveled: Data-mapping expert Eric Fischer tracked millions of tweets from around the world and laid them over maps of highways to get a sense of how many people are heading where. He thinks urban planners could use this kind of data to fine-tune existing transportation systems and figure out where new routes are needed.
5) Exit polls are so last century: Go ahead and scoff, but some think Twitter analysis can even help predict an election. Barack Obama’s victory in the recent presidential race didn’t come as a big surprise to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed 2,500 online conversations in the two months leading up to the election. It found that a much higher percentage–58 percent–of the comments about Mitt Romney were negative, while 45 percent of the tweets about Barack Obama were harsh.
At the same time Twitter did its own analysis of which tweets by both campaigns provoked the strongest responses in which states. One key indicator: Obama had a high engagement level in the key swing state of Ohio–determined by retweets and favorites–while Romney had only a moderate engagement level there.
6) When military intelligence is not an oxymoron: Three U.S. Defense Department units are field-testing a software called the Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA), to see how effective it is at gauging public opinion in political hot spots around the world. The software pulls in data from the public Twitter feed, then sorts it, live, by phrases, keywords or hashtags. The hope is that intelligence officers could use the software to understand people’s moods about a topic, or hopefully prevent or respond faster in any future U.S. embassy attacks.
7) I’m not a doctor, but I play one on Twitter: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were pleasantly surprised to see that people are using Twitter to share information on medical subjects that wouldn’t seem the stuff of tweets, such as cardiac arrest and CPR. Their analysis of a month of tweets found more than 15,000 messages that contained specific and useful information about cardiac arrest and resuscitation.
8) When short stories aren’t short enough: And finally, it is here at last, the first annual Twitter Fiction Festival. Since Wednesday two dozen authors from five continents have been posting their mini-stories in five different languages. The fare ranges from Iowa writer Jennifer Wilson posting photographs of gravestones, then writing “flash fiction” in response to epitaphs submitted by followers, to French fantasy novelist Fabrice Colin writing a serialized story of five strangers trapped on a bus. Stop by at the Fiction Festival website–it will be over before you know it.
Video bonus: Here’s another SGI heat map, this one tracking Obama and Romney-related tweets during election week.
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November 27, 2012
Black Thriday is over. So is Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Today, in case you didn’t know, is either Green Tuesday or Giving Tuesday, depending on whether you feel like eco-shopping or giving to charity.
Not sure what tomorrow may bring (How about Weird Relative Gift Wednesday?), but I suppose shopping does feel less chaotic if someone’s organizing it into theme days, although that doesn’t always stop it from devolving into a contact sport.
Can you imagine American shoppers embracing something like iButterfly, a mobile app popular in Asia where customers earn coupons by tracking down virtual butterflies with their smartphones? Me neither.
In the U.S., it’s about cutting to the chase and here the chase is after the sweetest deals, pure and simple, without having to bother with running after faux flying insects. And retailers have ratcheted up the competition, using the latest tracking technology to closely monitor their competitors’ pricing decisions and undercut them, in close to real-time, on their own websites. When Best Buy, for instance, published advertising saying it would be selling a $1,500 Nikon camera for $1,000, Amazon responded on Thanksgiving morning by cutting its price for the same camera to $997.
To know you is to lure you
No question that the big hook remains big bargains. But a lot of companies are also getting much more aggressive about mining data to tap into the power of personalization. The more they know about you and your tastes and habits and what you say on Facebook, the more they can press your buy buttons–but in a way that feels like they’re doing it all for you.
Now grocery stores like Safeway and Kroger have even started to customize prices in offers to loyalty cardholders. As Stephanie Clifford noted in the New York Times:
“Hoping to improve razor-thin profit margins, they are creating specific offers and prices, based on shoppers’ behaviors, that could encourage them to spend more: a bigger box of Tide and bologna if the retailer’s data suggests a shopper has a large family, for example (and expensive bologna if the data indicates the shopper is not greatly price-conscious).”
And RetailMeNot, the most popular coupon site in the U.S., has just launched an app that steers you to coupons you’re more likely to use based on your Likes and other personal info gleaned from Facebook.
But when does solicitousness turn creepy? Is it when you receive a pitch in your email for an outfit you pinned on Pinterest? Or when you start getting offered bargains from stores you happen to pass on the way to work every day?
If you believe a recent survey by Accenture Interactive, a clear majority–61 percent–of online shoppers in the U.S. and the U.K. are willing to give up some privacy if it means they can receive personalized offers from retailers.
And more than 50 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. said they’re comfortable with the idea of their favorite retailers tracking their personal data in order to fine tune recommendations for future purchases.
But only so comfortable. Almost 90 percent of the respondents said that’s entirely dependent on whether retailers offer them choices on how their personal info can be used.
As Kurt Kendall, a retail consultant, put it in a recent interview with Cox Newspapers: “People do not want to feel like they’re being stalked.”
I’ve got my fake eye on you
How about being watched? The obsession with gathering intelligence about customer behavior has reached the point where an Italian company is selling mannequins equipped with cameras to watch shoppers. This model, called the EyeSee, is being sold by Milan-based Almax for more than $5,000.
That’s a lot of money for a pretend person. But this one has a camera embedded in one eye that feeds data into facial-recognition software which logs the age, gender and race of passers-by. It’s all about collecting data–no video is actually stored.
Almax won’t reveal which of its clients have purchased EyeSee mannequins, but it has said that one added a children’s line of clothing when the camera observed that kids made up more than half its mid-afternoon traffic. Another, according to Almax, discovered that a third of its visitors using one of its doors after 4 p.m. were Asian, prompting it to place Chinese-speaking staff by that entrance.
But wait, there’s more. Almax is developing a model that will recognize words well enough that stores will be able to find out what customers are saying about the mannequin’s outfit–again without recording a thing.
The shipping news
Here are more examples of how companies are using technology to build relationships with customers.
- Or simply “Clothes That Don’t Make Me Look Fat”: For those who know what they like in fashion, Shop It to Me has just launched a site called Shop It to Me Threads that allows you to create a customized page that’s updated daily with the latest news and deals on your favorite fashion trends, designers, types of items, or combination of elements, such as “Michael Kors Bags and Shoes under $250″ or “Pencil skirts under $100.”
- Pickie picky: E-commerce start-up Pickie has come out with an iPad app that builds a personalized shopping catalog for you, based on your preferences expressed on Facebook, along with suggestions from your friends. And you’re able to order items directly from your customized Pickie site.
- Do it for the children: To counter the trend called “showrooming,” where people check out products in a store and then go home and buy it from another company online, Target is encouraging shoppers to go online while they’re in its stores. During the holidays, the retailer is featuring 20 hot toys at the front of its stores next to signs with QR codes. Shoppers with smart phones can scan the codes, buy a toy and have it shipped free.
- What about Pop Tarts and headphones?: Amazon, through its subsidiary Quidsi, is sharpening its aim at moms who shop online. Last month it launched another narrowly targeted site called AfterSchool.com. It lists more than 70,000 of the sort of things kids need after school, from ballet shoes and shin guards to basketballs and jewelry kits.
- And if you’re really loyal, a greeter washes your car: Earlier this month Walmart, through its Silicon Valley operation @WalmartLabs, rolled out Goodies, a food subscription service. For $7 a month, people who sign up will receive a box of gourmet snacks, such as Dang Toasted Coconut Chips and a Nutella & Go snack pack. And if they’re active on the Goodies site by rating products and writing reviews, they can earn enough loyalty points to start getting their monthly goodies for free.
Video bonus: Based on this video from Comiket, the huge comic book convention held in Tokyo, the Japanese and Americans have very different styles when it comes to the surging crowd thing.
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November 9, 2012
This is what election night is like in America these days:
I had gathered with about dozen other people, ostensibly to watch the results on TV. But the TV received, at best, divided attention.
To my left, my wife Carol had fired up her laptop and was foraging for results on websites that might have vote totals more current than what was on the big screen. To her left, another woman was zeroed in on her smart phone and to my right, two more guests were doing the same. So was I, for that matter. I kept one eye on the TV so I didn’t miss any states changing color, but my good eye was focused on my smart phone, where I was following the running commentary of Facebook friends.
Of the people in the room, at least half were furiously working another screen.
And then, when NBC called the election for Barack Obama, our hostess jumped up and, with her smart phone, snapped a picture of the announcement on the TV screen, closing, for one fleeting moment, the screenfest loop.
Earlier that same day, appropriately, the Norwegian company never.no launched an interactive content tool called Sync. It’s designed to give advertisers the opportunity to jump on to the second screen so a commercial gets the attention for which the sponsor has paid. But we’re not talking about just showing the same ad at the same time on a smaller screen. That would be both lame and annoying.
No, Sync is meant to actually put an ad in play on the screen where the action is. You’d be encouraged to interact with it–answering poll questions, getting more info about a product, maybe even sharing a clip about it on Facebook and Twitter. And as this approach gets more sophisticated, the thinking goes, it will become possible to flip things around so that the audience can influence an ad in real time, perhaps by selecting an ending from several different choices.
For advertisers this would be a beautiful thing–genuine viewer engagement in an experience that makes an ad personal and extends its life beyond its 30 seconds on screen. All while tracking the behavior of all those people interacting with it.
Screen on me
Other companies have also been trying to master the two-screen shuffle, including Shazam, the outfit best known for creating the mobile app that can tell you the name of a song once it hears the music. Starting with the Super Bowl last February, when it worked with more than half of the event’s advertisers to steer owners of its app to bonus content, Shazam has been refining the process of using mobile phones to connect viewers in more personal ways to TV programs and advertisers.
It still follows its original concept of recognizing sounds or music to identify a show or sponsor, but now it takes the next step of actually providing opportunities to bond with a product.
The latest example rolled out in Ireland a few days ago, an ad for Volvo. Anyone with the Shazam app on their phone–and there reportedly are now more than 250 million people around the world who have it–can “tag” the Volvo ad when it comes on TV and that, among other extras, allows them to then sign up for a free test drive and get a chance to win an iPad mini.
Take this personally
Okay, but how many of us really want to engage with a commercial? Don’t we do just about anything to avoid watching them? People in the multi-screen business acknowledge this. They know people tend to resent the intrusion of ads into the personal space of their phones and that many would much rather play Words With Friends during commercials than get all chummy with a bathroom cleaner.
And yet while recent research found that at least three out of four TV viewers say they use some other device while watching, a nice chunk of them–more than a third–say they’ve used their cell phone or digital tablet to browse for products spotted in a show or ad.
So the inclination is there. The key for advertisers is learning to create true value for viewers in the experience they provide on the small screens, a real reason to interact, not just some shrunken message of what they put on the TV screen.
Which brings me back to the election. There’s already talk that four years from now, political advertising will need to move into the multi-screen world of the 21st century. It will need to evolve beyond the thinking that volume is everything, that the days are over when the winner invariably was the side that could hammer home its message most often.
A case in point: An analysis of Super PAC spending published this week by the Sunlight Foundation found that American Crossroads, which spent more than $100 million on campaign advertising this year, had a success rate of just 1.29 percent.
Here are more recent developments in efforts to reach people on multiple screens:
- Life imitates TV: NBC will begin using a social TV app called Zeebox, which not only allows viewers to converse in real time with friends watching the same show, but also now will provide them with info on how they can purchase items in shows, particularly clothing and kitchen products.
- When you wish you were a star: A live ad for the recent launch in Great Britain of the popular Xbox video game Halo 4 featured a “roll call of honor,” a display of the names and pictures of randomly selected gaming fans who opted in via Facebook. The ad also showed, in real time, the number of people playing Halo 4 on Xbox Live.
- You make the call…in 140 characters or less: Also in the U.K., a recent campaign for Mercedes-Benz allowed viewers to vote on Twitter to determine how an ad featuring a chase scene should end.
- Will only redheads see ads for ginger snaps?: Earlier this fall Allstate worked with DirecTV and the Dish Network to target the audience so that only renters saw an ad for renter’s insurance.
Video bonus: Here’s a taste of the Mercedes-Benz ad that viewers controlled through Twitter.
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October 1, 2012
With the first presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday night, we’re about to hit the whitewater of the campaign, the time when any slip, any rock beneath the surface, can turn the boat over.
And though it doesn’t seem possible, the political advertising will shift into an even higher gear. Last week alone Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and outside political groups spent an estimated $55 million to drum their messages into the minds of voters.
But whose minds might they be? Must be the undecideds–that 2 to 8 percent of American voters who remain uncommitted and, it turns out, are largely uninformed.
It couldn’t be the rest of us, right? We’ve made up our minds, we know what we believe, right?
Change is good?
Well, maybe so. But perhaps not as much as you think. A new study of moral attitudes by a team of Swedish researchers would seem to suggest that our minds are considerably more changeable than we imagine.
Here’s how the study worked: Subjects were asked to take a survey on a number of issues for which people are likely to have strong moral positions–such as whether government surveillance of e-mail and the Internet should be allowed, to protect against terrorism. Or if helping illegal aliens avoid being sent back to their home countries was commendable or deplorable.
Once they assigned a number to each statement reflecting their level of agreement or disagreement, the participants turned to a second page of the survey attached to a clipboard. And in doing so, they unwittingly mimicked an old magic trick. The section of the first page containing the original statements lifted off the page, thanks to glue on the back of the clipboard. In its place was a collection of statements that seemed identical to the ones on the first list, but now each espoused the direct opposite position of the original. For instance, a stance deemed commendable in the first list was now described as deplorable.
On the other hand
The numerical values selected by those surveyed remained the same, but now they were in response to the other side of a moral issue. When the participants were asked to explain their responses, almost 70 percent of them didn’t realize they had performed one fine flip-flop.
Okay, let’s cut them some slack. It’s easy to miss the change in one word, even if a statement said the exact opposite of what they had responded to. But here’s where it gets interesting. More than half, about 53 percent, actually offered arguments in favor of positions that just minutes before they had indicated they opposed.
I know what you’re thinking–you’d never do that. Maybe you wouldn’t. But the best conclusion the researchers could draw was that many of us just might not be as locked into our beliefs as we like to think.
Me, my bias, and I
If you want to see how flexible your political principles can be, consider downloading a plug-in developed at the University of Michigan called The Balancer. It’s designed to track your online reading habits and then calculate your political bias.
Researcher Sean Munson created The Balancer because, as he told NBC News’ Alan Boyle, he wanted to see if “having real-time feedback about your online news reading habits affects the balance of the news that you read.”
By matching your Web activity to a list of 10,000 news sources and blogs–each with a ranking on the political spectrum–The Balancer, through a button on your browser bar, lets you know how unbalanced your choices are. Depending on where you get your info, a stick figure will be shown overloaded with either conservative-red blocks or liberal-blue ones.
The plug-in, which works only on the Google Chrome browser, also suggests websites to visit if you don’t want your stick figure to tilt too much to one side.
Says Munson, who was surprised at the degree of his own bias: “Even self-discovery is a valuable outcome, just being aware of your own behavior. If you do agree that you should be reading the other side, or at least aware of the dialogue in each camp, you can use it as a goal: Can I be more balanced this week than I was last week?”
Stalking the vote
Here’s more recent research on what shapes and sometimes changes our political beliefs:
- That does not compute A study published last month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that people are reluctant to correct misinformation in their memories if it fits in with their political beliefs.
- You like who?: According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, almost 40 percent of people on social networking sites say they’ve been surprised by the political leanings of some of their friends. Two-thirds say they don’t bother to respond to political posts from friends with whom they don’t agree.
- Facebook made me do it: A message on Facebook on the day of the 2010 congressional elections may have been responsible for an additional 340,000 Americans voting, concludes a study published in the journal Nature. They were most influenced, say researchers, by messages that their closest friends had clicked an “I voted” button.
- No, my parents made me do it: Research published recently in Trends in Genetics, based on the political beliefs of twins, suggests that your genetic makeup can influence your stance on issues such as abortion, unemployment and the death penalty, though children tend not to express those opinions until they leave home.
- It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to: A study at Washington State University posits that a “belief gap” has replaced the “education gap” in American politics. Positions on many issues–and how much someone knows about an issue–no longer are largely determined by how much education someone has, but rather with what party they identify.
- Funny how that happens: Late-night comedy shows, such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” can actually spur political discussions among friends, according to a new study at the University of Michigan.
Video bonus: In case you missed it, check out out the “Saturday Night Live” take on undecided voters.
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May 14, 2012
Today Mark Zuckerberg turns 28. Friday, he turns billionaire.
That’s when his creation, Facebook, is scheduled to go public, a move that, by some estimates, will make Zuckerberg worth about $19 billion. Not a bad week, eh?
But with all that fortune comes some pain. Soon every move he makes will be subject to Wall Street’s unsparing scrutiny, every misstep analyzed as more proof that he’s still closer to his Harvard dorm room than a CEO suite. He sought to reassure the skeptics and rouse the boosters at a pre-IPO roadshow last week, starting on Wall Street and ending in Silicon Valley.
Zuckerberg told potential investors that the company’s top priorities will be to improve the Facebook mobile experience–its members now average seven hours a month checking updates on their smart phones–and to develop a model for mobile advertising so each of us sees only the type of ads for which we’ve expressed a preference.
But Zuckerberg also mentioned another big Facebook frontier, one that could be just as big a part of our daily lives. It’s what’s become known as social TV–basically using social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to connect people viewing TV shows, even though they’re watching on different screens in different zip codes, sometimes on different continents.
People have been talking up social TV for a few years now, but no question that it’s moving mainstream. Next week the first social TV “world summit” will convene in London and last week, at a social TV conference sponsored by Ad Age, network execs, such as Bravo EVP Lisa Hsia, suggested that all the the social chatter before, during and after programs is being seen as actual content and not just promotion. On Bravo, for instance, a new series, “Around the World in 80 Plates” was kicked off with a contest on Twitter and this summer a Facebook game tied to “Real Housewives of New York” will roll out, with top online players getting shout-outs on air.
But Facebook’s immersion in our TV-watching could go well beyond games and fan pages. At that same Ad Age conference, Kay Madati, who heads the social network’s entertainment division, raised the possibility of Facebook-enabled TVs being able to automatically record programs that a certain percentage of your friends had “liked.”
That’s what friends are for, right?
The power of the second screen
Some go so far as to suggest that Facebook could actually save TV. One is Nick Thomas, an analyst for London-based Informa Telecoms and Media. He acknowledges that, at the moment, Facebook seems more threat than boon because research shows more and more people are actually focusing on their small screens–laptops, tablets, smart phones–while occasionally looking up at the big screen.
But he argues that savvy TV programmers will tap into Facebook and Twitter chatter to boost a show’s fan community or turn live TV into a special event shared by millions–some with something actually witty, poignant or insightful to say. More often than not, the best part of award shows now are the tweets about what’s happening on stage. (There were an estimated 13 million social media comments made during this year’s Grammy Awards.) And nothing cranks up the drama of a sporting event like a torrent of tweets.
Case in point: Last week, after Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton hit three home runs in a ball game, word spread quickly on social networks, according to Bob Bowman, an exec for Major League Baseball. By the time Hamilton smacked a fourth homer, the audience for the game had swelled.
“As the player hits that third home run, fans are all over the place chatting about it,” said Bowman. “I think it’s complementary. As soon as something is happening, fans want to get to as many people as possible.”
But social TV isn’t just about the big boys. Here’s a sampling of some of the startups hoping to cash in on the obession with the second screen:
- Who says they couldn’t pay me to watch TV?: Oh, yes they can. Viggle is a free app that rewards you for watching TV shows. You simply “check in” by holding your iPhone to the TV screen and that earns you points depending on how long you watch. Once you earn enough–and it will take awhile–you can redeem them for products at Best Buy, Amazon, Starbucks, etc. Plus, the app keeps you entertained while you watch, providing you with games, quizzes, real-time polls, even video clips tied to the show. Active Viggle members–there are now 625,000–now check in about five times a day, with each session lasting an average of an hour and a half.
- Talk amongst yourselves: For those who want to bond with people who like the same TV programs, there’s GetGlue. It’s a social network designed to connect people around entertainment, but most of its action has been about TV shows. Once they check in, fans can let their friends know what they’re watching. They also can post comments, ask questions of other devotees, rate snarky retorts. Plus, members can collect stickers of their favorite stars. (I’ll trade you a Don Draper for a “Game of Thrones.”) So far, 2 million people have signed up.
- But wait, there’s more: When it started out, Miso was another iPhone app that let you check in to flag your friends about what you’re watching. But it has ratcheted things up with a feature called SideShows. These are slideshows of additional content–some of it created by fans–to run in sync with the show on the big screen.
- Making trends meet: BuddyTV combines a viewing guide on your smart phone with chat and fan discussions and also being able to announce what shows you are watching on Facebook and Twitter. But it also suggests shows that are airing now, coming up, trending, or on your favorites list.
- Name that tune: Shazam first became popular as a smart phone app that could identify songs for you. It made a big splash with its second-screen content during the Super Bowl and the Grammys and now SyFy, Bravo and USA are “Shazaming” shows and ads to keeps viewers engaged with a show from episode to episode.
Video bonus: Still not clear on social TV? GetGlue’s COO Fraser Kelton gives you the lowdown on the latest trends.