My mate Justin has started a new project called Pixtories, ‘the very short stories behind photos’. All you need to do to be part of it is tweet a link to one of your favourite photos to @pixtories with (obviously) a 140-character description of it. Some of the photos on the site so far are really lovely. I think it’s one of those projects that would make a lovely coffee-table book some day. 

Here’s my entry.

Theory vs. Practice: Thoughts On The Netflix Prize

I always wondered whether the solution proposed by BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, the winners of the $1 million Netflix Prize would actually solve the company’s fundamental problem: that of making what we (at work) call the Next engine – the recommendations that come attached to your movie selections – work more effectively. This article, and the associated research paper, is very useful in understanding the logic behind it all. I was also fascinated by how Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory is woven into the whole thing, as well as Pareto’s 80-20 rule. According to Wharton professor Serguei Netessine, the costs associated with investing in a company like Netflix or Amazon, such as renting out warehouses to store the DVDs and items that need to be shipped, mean that they DO need to find a way of shipping more of everything – not just the ‘hit’ products. 

Netessine says the research indicates that “primitive” recommendation systems are likely to blame for the delay in lesser known products becoming available and consumers finding their way toward them. “Many recommendation systems are not terribly smart,” Netessine states, adding that recommendations about films are made to Netflix subscribers who view similar films. But in order for a film to be recommended, it must be viewed in the first place. “If you want to see the long tail effect — consumers going into those obscure products — you have to be sure consumers learn about them, and that’s not easy. Current tools may not be good enough.”

Ergo the need for the $1 million Netflix prize.

Anderson’s counter-argument is equally well-put, however:

“Although academics are free to do all the relative analysis they want, it is incorrect to apply it to my theory,” he writes. Anderson argues that defining the head and tail of demand in percentage terms is meaningless in a market with unlimited inventory, such as a retailer with digital distribution. For example, take a company with 1,000 different items in which the top 100 — or 10% — account for 50% of sales. If 99,000 more items are added to the catalog and sales of the top 100 fall to 25% of the total, it may take another 900 items to make up the next 25%. In this case, Anderson would argue that sizable demand has shifted down the tail toward more people selecting fewer products.

In relative terms, however, 1% of the products now constitute 50% of the revenues, which would make it appear that there was a greater importance of the hit products. But since real people experience the world in absolute numbers, not percentages, this is a statistical illusion, he states. The truth is that people are choosing a wider array of titles. “Nobody in the business world is confused about this, thankfully,” Anderson adds.

Hmmm…as Benjamin Disraeli said, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. We’ll need to wait a couple of years to see if the $1 million investment was worth it, I suppose. 

Social Media in Business – October 23rd 2009


For all you social media folk in London, the Social Media in Business conference is something you should attend if you’d like to understand the strategy and execution behind social media campaigns. There are a bunch of very interesting speakers lined up including Eaon and Benjamin, with topics ranging from crowdsourcing and brand engagement to online reputation management. I for one am extremely keen to see how the day plays out, and look forward to catching up with people old and new – more so because I’ve attended more than one conference or talk that claims to have the answer but eventually disappoints. This one looks like it will be THE one to hit the target.

The details: October 23rd, Strand Palace Hotel, London. Tickets cost £161 and are available here – and the good news is that for all you folk reading this, if you enter the code mafia25xx, you’ll automatically get a discount of 25% when you book your ticket.

If you’re coming, do let me know in the comments and I’ll see you there. The code for the event, if you blog or tweet, is #smib09, by the way. (Twitter Search wouldn’t be as useful without hashtags, you know that!)

The Past, Now

So Twitter is saving our tweets. And Songkick has added the ability to automatically pull in real-time tweets to a gig’s page. I was thinking that in the future our kids can read a direct, live-tweeted record of  important events of our time, like the Mumbai terror attacks, for example. Or at a more personal level, the different gigs I keep a log of on Songkick. Isn’t that quite cool? I’d love it if I had access to a record of things my parents did when they were young. Many, many years later.

A Street Party, Oprah-style

Melody pointed me to this video of a flash mob dancing to the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I gotta feeling’ in Chicago for a block party to celebrate Oprah’s 24th season. It’s quite awesome to watch. The organisers got the people behind the T-Mobile flash mob in London to work on it, and Oprah herself was completely clueless. Here’s how it was planned.

This was an engineered event no doubt, and therefore less ‘flash’ than in the typical usage of the term, but there’s still something to be said about watching people’s collective behaviour in a crowd. There was a time when the word ‘mob’ only had negative connotations. Flash mobs have changed that, and even more interestingly, are a phenomenon that only began with the increasing use of the internet and mobile technology. That’s pretty significant, don’t you think? I think ‘smart mob‘ is a much better description though, a concept introduced by Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Anyway, that’s the sociologist in me thinking aloud.

Closing the circle

I’m reading Groundswell at the moment, and call it coincidental but I’ve had a couple of very positive experiences with brands this week that I’d like to share. One was Symantec, the people behind Norton Anti-Virus. Despite renewing my anti-virus protection a while ago, my computer kept notifying me that it was unprotected. Numerous attempts to fix the issue on my own were of no avail. Finally, last weekend I decided to use Norton’s online chat facility to talk to a support representative. Now, my experience with support representatives in the past (in general – not specifically with this brand), has not been very pleasant, so I wasn’t hoping for much. But my problem was resolved professionally, politely and speedily in much less time that I thought it would take. I was very pleasantly surprised, not to mention relieved. I won’t have second thoughts about renewing it next time.

And then the kind folks at We Are Social. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that I was offered a free Pizza Express blogger lunch a while back. Due to a postal strike, the vouchers they sent me didn’t arrive on time, but they ensured a fresh set was sent directly to the restaurant on the day I’d chosen. Today, when the long-overdue vouchers finally arrived, they kindly said I could keep them. 

Social media might be a bit overwhelming at times, but one thing is for sure: a brand who uses the medium the right way makes consumers’ lives better. The focus shifts back to the consumer, from a few decades ago when all the power was with the brand (Think Mad Men). The truth is that brands wouldn’t really exist without consumers – so the circle has come back where it started. And that’s the way it should be.