Facebook and advertising: why you shouldn’t complain

There was an announcement recently about the fact that Facebook was going to start embedding advertising content within its users’ news streams. This comes after its adverts have become more prevalent on the sidebar over recent months.

As expected, the announcement was met with general disgruntlement as users complained at Mr. Zuckerberg’s allegedly evil ways.

Perhaps the most vociferous response that I saw came from Ben, a friend whose use of Facebook surpasses in volume that of all of my other 241 ‘friends’.

Ben was right on some counts. He thinks Facebook is great because it creates interaction between people, provides freedom of thought and expression. I agree, although the fact that such freedom is less regulated than the content of other online media such as newspapers is open to question. (Why is it OK to defame or be libellous on Facebook but not in online newsprint?)

But Facebook costs money. Every time you upload a new profile picture, that costs money. Every time you update your status or comment on coo over someone’s pregnancy news, that costs money. And every time you chat with your friends, that costs money. I have no idea what the operating costs are of Facebook, but you can bet that their storage costs alone would make many a grown man faint.

Don’t get me wrong, Facebook is not taking this decision purely to fund its operating costs. It is doing so to ensure that it builds a massive money-making machine. But whether it’s to make megabucks or whether it’s to cover its costs, the bottom line is that Facebook needs to bring in money.

And as I see it, there are four funding models that might be considered by Facebook:

Facebook has to go down path number four. And the most immediately obvious route to go down is that of advertising.

And I welcome that. As long as I am not duped into buying things that I wasn’t aware I was buying, then I see some advertising as a small price to pay for the value that Facebook brings. And if that advertising becomes too onerous, then I hope that I have sufficient nous to call it a day.

People need to stop seeing the web as something that’s run for free.

Every time an online venture tries to secure money, there is an uprising from its users. When Twitter introduced promoted hashtags, there was an uproar. When the Times newspaper introduced a paywall, there was an uproar. Gmail’s sponsored advertising made many of its users livid. And now Facebook’s expansion of its online advertising programme has prompted a similar response.

But with time, people see that the benefit of using the service outweighs the “cost” of putting up with advertising. And the users will remain. And if they don’t see that benefit, let’s hope they have the gumption to realise this and up and leave.

Trolling with @domjoly

Tonight, I had a little fun.

At 1703, Dom Joly tweeted such:

Very difficult to cater for lowest common denominator on here without the use of line drawings and bibs

Fourteen minutes later, I responded thus:

@domjoly What the hell is a lowest comman denomination? God your protenshius.

It wasn’t my funniest moment. Alan will vouch for that. But it made me chuckle and was appreciated by a few people on Twitter when Mr. Joly retweeted it moments later.

What follows is one of the things that makes Twitter so fabulous: momentum and the “wisdom” of the masses.

First Helen Young chimed in:

@danosirra At least @domjoly can spell though! lol

Next, Daniel Plume.

@danosirra @domjoly Wow.. spelling a strong point. Lowest common denominator is the expression. Pretentious is the spelling.

And Gerald D:

@danosirra You’re a proofreader? Really? Clearly a shite one. @domjoly

And Alan Rob:

@danosirra jheez, you’re illiterate, why bother following @domjoly ?

And Baldy Mitch:

@danosirra @domjoly “When illiterates attack!” 😀

Shelley Hobson tweeted something about me needing to further my education next, but this has since been deleted, likely out of embarrassment.

Four people retweeted me; and one favourited my tweet.

You see, people didn’t get the joke. Which added to the joke’s underlying quality. Mr. Joly’s observation that his followers had the intellectual prowess of toddlers was proven, in one fell bout of retweets and accompanying guffaws.

Now I doubt that Mr. Joly’s 114,599 followers are any more or less stupid than those of your next celebrity. What’s different is the way in which they are exposed. The stupidity of most celebrities’ followers is exposed only to those people they follow. But Mr. Joly’s retweeting of the idiocy exposes it to all of his thousands of followers.

Whether Mr. Joly retweeted me out of amusement at my attempt at a joke, or whether he did so by way of exemplifying his followers’ childlike minds will likely never be known. Nor does it particularly matter. What matters is the abuse that followed, and the idiocy shown by those pointing out my idiocy.

That, I love.

Is John Lewis’s TV advert driving its record sales?

On Monday, Neil Mortensen, Research & Planning Director at Thinkbox, tweeted the following:

Record sales for John Lewis last week, biggest week ever. #tvworks

This drew a wry retweet from John Willshire of Smithery.

The same must be true for all last week’s ads then? 😉

It’s true. Claiming success of TV advertising for a record sales week two weeks before Christmas is somewhat glib. Imagine the following fictitious tweet from Standard Fireworks on 6 November.

Record sales for Standard last week. Biggest week of the year so far. #tvworks

While the evidence may indeed be there for TV advertising driving John Lewis’s record sales, the implication was that their high sales were wholly a result of the much-lauded TV ad. I expect that most companies tailoring their offerings to the Christmas market have seen increased, indeed record, sales over the last few weeks.

Stripping out seasonality is important, as is stripping out the effect of other media. Otherwise, statements such as these either artificially elevate the impact of TV advertising; or else are treated with the important pinch of salt that they warrant.

Britain is not a Christian country

I’ve never understood the concept of a country being aligned to a religion. The UK is a Christian country, for example. To me, it’s as intrinsically wrong as saying Britain is a white country.

I understand what is meant. The meaning, I think, is to embrace certain values that Christianity claims to uphold. And I’m all for that. There are certain values that Britain should strive for and that should help to define its political outlook. Fairness, honesty, equality for all, education as a right, freedom of speech etc. etc.

But why is there a need to put these values under the banner of a religion? Surely by doing so, any concept of equality goes out of the window.

If Britain labelled itself as a white country while “embracing” people of other ethnicities, that would, rightly, be considered wrong. But that is how Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists in Britain etc. must feel at being told that Britain is a Christian country.

So Cameron, embody some values and preach them from the rooftops. But please, please don’t label them with a religion.

When politicians get it wrong

I’ll be honest. I don’t profess to understand the intricacies (nor indeed the extricacies) of the debt crisis. Nor do I know what is the best course of action to address the more recent crisis that has beset the euro. And nor do I know whether the amendments to the Lisbon Treaty that were proposed on Friday were attractive to the UK, or whether we are better off having walked away from the negotiating table, as Cameron did.

What I do know is that politicians are bullish. And what I do know is that once they choose a course of action, it is rare that they later decide that this course of action was foolish. Heaven forbid they might do a U-turn.

Because in politics, being wrong is a weakness. And admitting you’re wrong is an even bigger weakness. Much better to plough on with an ill-judged policy than to stop, rethink and take a different path. Taking the latter approach will yield cries of incompetence from the opposition and might see your career take a turn for the worse at the next Cabinet reshuffle.

Sometimes, this latter course of action is taken but is hidden. Cameron and Osborne recently performed a U-turn on the economic recovery programme, deciding to pump £50bn into the construction industry, after severe austerity measures, in a bid to stem the economic downturn. Not a U-turn, of course, merely another facet of a complex economic reform programme.

I can’t help but feeling that Cameron has been too hasty in his decision not to join the other 26 members of the European Union in signing up to changes in the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. Ten hours is simply insufficient time to make a decision so intrinsic to the future identity and economic outlook of the UK.

Yet ten hours is how long it took. And at the end of those ten hours, a decision had been made. The UK would leave the rest of Europe to it. If Cameron had any doubts about the wisdom of this decision, they certainly didn’t show, as he defended himself to the hilt in subsequent press conferences and in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

But what if there were glints of regret in his mind? My view is that Cameron would have taken the same course of action, as would many other politicians in his position having made the initial decision.

The political consequences of a U-turn, or even a request to continue discussing the matter with Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy, are considered too great for this to be a viable option. Yet the possible economic impact on the UK of not entertaining this notion is far greater.

I wish politicians were able to admit their failings and misjudgments more readily. But the political system and its rich history is designed to slam those who deliberate, cogitate, and certainly those who rethink. And that’s such a shame.

xkcd and osirra’s Christmas music analysis: the difference a Pond makes

At 5am this morning, the latest xkcd blogpost was published, titled Tradition. (xkcd remains my favourite blog on the interweb, btw.)

I read it at around 0945. And by 1015 I’d posted the British equivalent. (The chart was built in Excel using an xkcd-esque font that I downloaded for the very job.)

The original post showed the 20 most-played Christmas songs (2000–2009 radio airplay) by decade of popular release. Nine of the entries fell in the 1950s and a further seven fell in the 1940s. Of the remaining four, two were in the ’60s, one in the ’70s and one in the ’30s. The most recent song in the chart, Feliz Navidad, was written in 1970, 41 years ago.

The post linked the surge in music with the postwar baby boom, suggesting that Christmases since that boom have merely tried to recreate the Christmases of that time.

I was certain that the UK equivalent chart would look wildly different, so I set out to show this. And wildly different it is. (Click the chart for a bigger version.)

XKCD - UK ChristmasI was expecting the median decade to be the ’70s, but in fact eight of the songs were released in the ’80s, a further six in the ’70s. The earliest charting number was Bing’s White Christmas from 1942, the most recent being the 1994 offerings from Mariah Carey (second best Christmas tune of all time: fact) and East 17.

The UK’s 20 songs are all far more recent, with a mean release year of 1977. (America’s 20 most-played average to 1951, each song being on average over a quarter of a century older than its UK equivalent.)

There is a strong musical tradition at Christmas in the UK, one that I unreservedly love. The Christmas Number One is a big deal (or at least it was until X Factor made it so much more formulaic), and I get the impression that modern Christmas music is far more accepted and expected in the UK than it is in the US.

A lovely piece of analysis by xkcd of the US market. But, if I may say so, a much more lovable piece of analysis by myself of the UK equivalent. Without xkcd, I wouldn’t have thought to do it. But without the wonderful British Christmas music market, I wouldn’t have been able to paint such a fabulous picture.

An occupational hazard

In anticipation of buying a car, I recently went about obtaining quotes for car insurance.

Most of the questions that I was asked were simple to answer: my name, address, date of birth, marital status, driving history, yada-yada.

But there’s one question that nowadays I struggle with: occupation. In the past, it was slightly more straightforward. As an employee, I could usually pigeon-hole myself into one of a couple of the entries presented to me. And I picked the one that I felt most closely matched my employment at the time. (Often the occupations on offer were somewhat bizarre and irrelevant, but I could generally find one that had something to do with what I did.)

But more recently, I lead many lives. I am a proofreader, a company director, a business analyst, a project manager and a spreadsheet modeller. And I expect that many of my friends will struggle similarly to select from the Occupation dropdown. Particularly among my consulting friends, I struggle to think of one that exclusively fulfils a single role.

In these austere times, is it time to rethink the Occupation dropdown? Is it still valid for everyone? I expect that more people than ever are working two jobs to make ends meet, turning to secondary skillsets to pay the bills.

So how should they respond to such a question? Should it become a multiple choice question? Or does it need to become something altogether less discrete?

The decision to buy a car

Last weekend, we bought a car. And a few factors contributed to this decision.

Over the previous seven months, my car usage had become sufficient to suggest that Streetcar, or Zipcar as it recently became, was no longerthe most economically valuable solution. My four-times weekly 35-mile each way commute was arguably viable when the 500-mile fair use mileage was in place under Streetcar. But when this was lowered to 200 miles under Zipcar’s charging model, the financials changed.

And tax rules mean that once you’ve commuted to the same location for a certain length of time, it is no longer allowed for that travel to be put through the company. That time limit was hit in October.

These factors meant that car ownership was the most sensible option. So I started the search.

I wanted to spend four figures. My wife is more comfortable with an automatic. The car needed to be sufficiently sizeable to cater for the family of three. And it needed to be relatively fuel efficient, both for the environment and for my wallet.

The default choice was the second-hand market. And the default choice therein was Auto Trader. (I didn’t even consider going directly to a dealer.)

I did my research. I looked for cars that interested me, and refined the options over the course of a few weeks. At first, I was looking at bigger cars: the Nissan Qashqai and the Kia Cee’d SW. But then I realised that apart from legroom, we don’t have huge space requirements. So the options moved to the dull yet solid Ford Focus, the Citroën C3, the Fiat Grande Punto and the pricier Audi A3. A late entrant on the list was the Mazda 3.

Most of my research was done online. Although I also took some advice from friends old and new, including Pete Chivers, an old friend from school.

Having done the research and identified some options, and after a thoroughly enjoyable game of golf last Friday, I popped in to see a semi-private dealer near Croydon about a Mazda 3. It ticked all of the boxes and seemed a good deal. I didn’t have time for a test drive, but my initial viewing of the car was positive. I caught the train down to Purley the following day and after a short test-drive, I drove away with having bought the car.

And so far so good.

First, the dealer: On Four Wheels. Not a dealer in the traditional negative sense. A truly positive experience. Not pushy, just seemingly genuine. I wouldn’t hesitate in advising people to go straight to him if you’re looking for a user car.

And the car itself? It’s great. It’s not going to pull away from you at speed when the lights change. But it’s safe, solid, roomy and pleasant to drive. And it’s ours. And my daughter’s happy because it’s purple (more blue than purple, but she’s convinced) and she has a new car seat furnishing the back seat.

As for the financial comparison with Zipcar, time will tell. But I’m estimating that once all of the ad hoc costs of a car are factored in (petrol included), I’ll be saving a sliver over £100 per week against their increased pricing model, not taking into account the cost of the car itself.

Those incomprehensible skills

There are many, many skills that I don’t possess. Ask my daughter of my drawing skills, and she’ll probably vouch for them being comparable to hers. (And she’d be about right, although she can draw a flower that would put mine to shame.) My observational skills could do with some work. And my abilities as a salesman are, at best, limited. (This list of my non-skills is by no means exhaustive, btw.)

But for most skills that I don’t possess, I comprehend them. My brother, for example, has spent a good few hours more than I have carelessly sketching in notepads, and his artistic skills reflect this. He is a fabulous artist. My wife is a phenomenal influencer, and can use her interpersonal skills to secure the right outcome in the workplace.

I know coders that can put together sublime websites in a heartbeat; and technicians that can support those websites without you knowing they’re there. (They’re the best types, btw.)

These skills I get. I understand that practice makes perfect, and that you can hone these skills over time.

But there are some skills that I just don’t get. One in particular is photography.

Anyone can take photographs. Here’s my daughter’s first Flickr set, for example. But few can take phenomenal photographs. Even fewer can do this consistently. And yet fewer can do this even when faced with what might seem like mundane subject matter.

Paul Clarke is one of those people. Over and over, he brings subject matters to life, complements a photo’s subject with a violent sky or a beautifully-lit street. And I have no idea how.

Sometimes, naively, I think that maybe he’s blessed with skies and lighting that are unavailable to the likes of me. At other times, I think that he reels off furlongs of proverbial film to get to the shot of choice.

While point two no doubt has an element of truth, the primary reasons for the skill are training and experience—just as is the case with the vast majority of skills.

But the immediacy of photography to me makes the skill stand out far more than other skills. Modesty aside for one second, I can rock a spreadsheet. And give me a document to proofread and I’ll guarantee that the result will be stellar. But both of those activities allow me to play, review, delete, undo, redo before giving you the output. Photography doesn’t appear to allow that luxury. And that is perhaps what I admire the most.

Here are just a few of my favourites.

Me and management consultancies

(Or more correctly, management consultancies and I.)

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t make a particularly good consultant. I’m not talking medical consultant. I’m talking management consultant.

You see, while most large consultancies will likely have a “value” that focuses on the client, successful delivery, exceeding client expectations or some similar strapline that sits nicely on a poster, they also have other “values”. Now these other values may not be well advertised, or even publicised, but they’re there. And they are all about bringing the knowledge that you’ve garnered at the client site back to the proverbial mother ship—thought leadership, if you will. And maximising the value of each assignment—cross-selling, if you will.

And I was rubbish at these aspects. As a consultant, I focused relentlessly on making a project successful, delivering the scope, delivering beyond the scope, and generally trying to make the client happy. But I was rubbish at the thought leadership. I had little time for the consultancy-only team meetings. And I was the worst cross-seller in the business. (As someone once said of me, I’d be rubbish as a salesman—I’m too honest.)

Why? Because these aspects of the job got in the way of the client-focused delivery. If you are 100% committed to the success of a project, then arguably having targets to sell more of your own people into the project doesn’t align with this commitment. And taking a few hours a week to feed everything back to the consultancy is time that might be better spent in project delivery mode.

Consultancies have their place. They’re just not for me, that’s all.