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Has Black Friday transformed Christmas Shopping in the UK?

Has Black Friday transformed Christmas Shopping in the UK?

This is a fuller version of some work we did, looking at Black Friday in the UK this year. I say "we" — there was some debate and discussion around this, and what is presented here should be considered my own opinions, rather than those of my employer/colleagues. (That is to say, alongside the standard disclaimer, not necessarily everything here was originally my idea, but it is reflective of my current thoughts/opinions.)

The traditional Christmas retail cycle used to be fairly simple; a build-up over the course of November and December, leading up to the last-minute gift shopping frenzy, followed by the Boxing Day sales when people would go and spend whatever they had left after Christmas (and often a fistful of gift vouchers) on themselves. But as an increasing amount of Christmas shopping activity has moved online each year, that pattern is changing.

For several years, we have seen a kind of “double peak” pattern in online traffic around the Christmas run-up; the first peak in early December as the more organised online shoppers get their orders placed in plenty of time for a Christmas delivery, and then a second peak later in the month as shoppers look online for information to help with their last-minute shopping — presumably well aware that they had missed the chance for a Christmas delivery.

In the US, where Thanksgiving is celebrated at the end of November, that first peak has traditionally been pushed by the "Black Friday" phenomenon. When I mentioned it in a weekly round-up post for my work blog last year , I thought it was worth explaining exactly what "Black Friday" meant — assuming that the concept of the post-thanksgiving retail event would be unfamiliar to UK readers.

This year, that phenomenon is much more familiar. Firstly, because more UK retailers than ever have been joining in with "Black Friday" marketing — although Amazon claim to have led the charge, British brands such as Tesco, Sainsburys, Top Shop, Argos — even that most British of high street Retailers, John Lewis were promoting Black Friday discounts this year — giving them their best sales week on record.

But we have also seen a sharp increase in online mentions of “Black Friday”, identifiable as coming from the UK – a fourfold increase on mentions last year.

Although other countries have seen significant increases in mentions this year, this means that while Black Friday remains a predominantly American phenomenon, the UK now accounts for the second largest number of online mentions of “Black Friday”.

Perhaps the most telling difference is in the volumes of mentions over time; in the US, Black Friday sees significant volumes of mentions in the days leading up to the event itself, with almost as many mentions at the end of the day on Thursday, as shoppers talk about preparing for the sales and shops’ early openings.

In the UK, there was relatively little build-up; the peak was in the morning of the Friday, remaining high until lunchtime, after which it gradually declined over the course of the afternoon and evening.

Two brands stand out very clearly among UK mentions – Amazon (who claim to have brought the tradition to the UK – although there were retailers with “black Friday” sales previously, Amazon can probably be credited with bringing the phenomenon to the attention of a broader audience), and Tesco. Mentions of Amazon are broadly split between those who love the discounts being offered, and those who are disappointed that they don’t offer much more than typical ‘sale prices’ – and don’t discount as steeply as US sales.

Tesco mentions were generally less favourable, referencing reports of “chaos” at the physical stores, referencing the “ridiculous” and “hilarious” videos being shared on YouTube, and questioning whether the discounted electronics are items worth fighting over. (Perhaps an easy criticism to make when focussing on the items on sale, rather than the value of the discount to shoppers – as the Washington Post points out, it isn’t the wealthy or the comfortable who are standing in line in the cold, or wrestling with one another over a slightly discounted Xbox.)

Is it here to stay?

Many of the mentions in the UK are specifically talking about the US tradition coming over to the UK, and commenting on the unattractive scenes at supermarkets and other stores. (In fact, Walmart is one of the most mentioned brands in the UK, as people comment on the scenes of bargain-hunters fighting over limited stocks.)

Whether the interest will keep up after the novelty has worn off is hard to say. There is a clear benefit to the strategy if it works; getting customers to spend with you earlier (rather than later, when they might spend with a competitor) benefits the individual retailer, while getting people to do their Christmas shopping earlier could mean that some shoppers will be doing their Christmas shopping for longer — in other words, they won't spend the same amount, but spend it earlier, but will keep on buying more gifts (stocking fillers, "I saw this and jsut had to get it for you" gifts and so on.) Which is good for the broader industry as well.

But it does seem likely that retailers who are pushing their pre-December sales as online discounts will be best positioned to make the most of the buzz around the discounts, without the negative associations that can come with images and videos of people fighting over discounted large-screen televisions in supermarket aisles. This is also more in fitting with the way UK shoppers prefer to do their holiday shopping – more shoppers in the UK plan to do their shopping online than via brick-and-mortar stores.

So – expect to see more next year; more sales, more discounts, and no doubt more ugly scenes from the shop fronts. From an advertising persepctive, I would expect to see more media money being spent on earlier messaging promoting Black Friday offers as competitors work harder to get top-of-mind association with Black Friday, which should drive earlier excitement/buzz. But I think that for the smart marketers, the place to watch will be how the bigger retailers are handling their online presence, and – with mobile accounting for more Thanksgiving traffic than desktop devices in the US – how they are looking to cater for smartphone and tablet shoppers. Setting up an 'online queue' system to manage high levels of traffic might be OK for a desktop web experience, where users can leave a browser window open in the background and get on with whatever they need to get on with, but trying to do the same on a bandwidth and battery constrained mobile experience seems like a recipe for disaster.

I'm hoping that the subject for next years Black Friday marketing conversations will be the interesting technical innovations in handling large volumes of mobile shoppers as quickly as possible, rather than the crowd control (or lack of) at physical retail stores where people fight it out amongst themselves over big ticket electrical items (perhaps to save themselves money — perhaps to make it back on eBay.)

"Is Data the new Digital?"

I wrote a blog post for the IPA about the kind of "data" that is really just information; insights, research, knowledge, facts, statistics, observations and so on, versus the kind of targetable data that relates to an individual, that you can plug into your systems and change what you say to that person.

Will "Print" outlive "desktop"?

"Print will be around longer than the desktop," New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told a group of media professionals Thursday morning.

Interesting point of view — I don't think anyone is really arguing against the idea that "mobile" (including tablets) is the future of "computers." (A report from Enders Analysis today talks about mobile devices accounting for 50% of time spent online in the UK, and tablet shipments overtaking PC sales.) The "PC" is clearly in decline as mobile is growing.

But the same story has been accepted to be true of print for a good few years now — pring has been in decline while "digital" was a growth story. So its a thought-provoking question - which one will last longer — "old" physical print, or "old" digital?

To be honest, I wouldn't like to bet against the long-term future of print. But then again, is its future going to be just as much of a "speciality" as a personal computer?

Twitter, TV and the One Direction effect

Around this time last year, we did a fun little project around pancake-related tweets on pancake day. The biggest driver of tweets over time was a hashtag game, around #replacebandnameswithhashtags.

But the biggest driver of activity was this relatively innocuous tweet;

The impact was pretty clear; a massive spike in activity as it was retweeted and replied to;


(The secondary spike a short while later was the result of his girlfriend also tweeting about pancakes.)

I've been doing a few projects around tracking Twitter mentions and conversations around various topics, and it has become something of a joke – if there is a massive, inexplicable spike in tweets, the first thing to check is whether one of One Direction happened to say something related. And I'd say that as often as not, if no other explanation is apparent, then that is what it turns out to be. We call it the One Direction effect.

Another topic I've been watching (along with many others) is the interaction between Twitter and television. Just over a year ago, a Twitter spokesman said that 40% of tweets were about television during peak TV hours – a huge volume.

What would happen if the two collided? This week, we found out, thanks to SecondSync's analysis. They tweeted;

So, how much of a difference did it make?

This much.


To put that into context, in last week's round up they also mentioned the Graham Norton show;

The top show on Friday night’s leaderboard was the final episode of the current series of The Graham Norton Show, which attracted 16,551 tweets, the most it has recorded for an episode in 2014. The most popular guest on the show was Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, mentioned in over 5,600 tweets, while a peak of 506 TPM was reached in reaction to Ellie Goulding’s live performance. Overall, 75,646 tweets have been recorded for the eight episodes broadcast in this series.

So, the most tweeted about programme on a Friday night generated sixteen thousand tweets. But a single tweet from a One Directioner alone (during a repeat – not the live broadcast) generated nearly fourteen thousand – in a very intense burst.

This is their analysis of twitter volume over time – for a particularly popular (in Twitter-terms) episode of a popular show, in its original broadcast.

Note the difference in scales to the chart above.


Television gets a lot of attention when it comes to discussion of Twitter and their share price/market value.

Funny how One Direction don't get as much attention. I wonder what would happen if they started posting exclusively to Facebook?

"No more real than it is real-time"

Last Sunday, an American Footballer 1 announced that he was gay.

Like last month when the first Premier League footballer came out (five months after retiring from the game), this caused a stir in the news.

But an interesting angle was pointed out in AdAge about the reaction from the advertising world – where "real time" is the latest buzz, vocal brands and real-time advertisers had nothing to say.

Too sensitive a topic? Perhaps. But more likely that 'real time advertising' isn't really the 'real time', 'agile', 'always-on' approach that its being pitched as. Instead, its just a case of forward planning – maybe some quick photoshop work or some fast-working video production.

The commenters on the article don't seem to agree – consensus seems to be that commenting on the story would have been inappropriate. For example;

"Brands, in general, are not weighing in on slow-burning issues that culminate in RT moments (laws affecting same-sex marriage, for example)."

However, a little searching reveals this to be a bad example.

Forbes has a slideshow of some outdoor advertising. Mashable has a story about Microsoft and Amazon having some videos. Chevrolet are running some pro-gay marriage ads over the Winter Olympics, and Business Insider has an article – including plenty of social media examples.

I think the issue is that brands are weighing in on these slow-burning issues. But only the slow-burning issues. (Maybe 'social media' still isn't ready for fireworks.)

Apparently brands have already been in touch with Sam about sponsorship deals – so maybe its that they are looking to make a stronger statement than merely tweeting about their support.

Maybe its just that I'm not paying close attention to the kinds of brands who are tweeting their support or posting about it to their Facebook pages – I am, after all, neither American nor an American Football fan (and haven't been spending much time on Twitter or Facebook this last week or two), so I'm taking it on faith that AdAge's writer, editors and commenters would have noticed if it were a false premise.

But the feeling I get is that this is an example of where 'real time' is falling short. Right now, its about either preparing for moments of planned spontaneity, or looking for the technology that will detect the stories that meet certain key brand-related criteria (read: use the right keywords.)

The point where 'real time' becomes 'real' still seems some way off yet.

  1. That is, a player of American Football. Not an *actual* footballer.

Chromecast coming to the UK soon?

Talking about the future (or lack of) for Smart TV, I said;

Today, a typical household might have;

  • TV (well, probably a couple — but ignoring secondary screens for the moment to try to simplify the picture…)
  • TV service (cable/satellite/terrestrial) - probably a separate set-top box (given that over half of the UK pays for subscription TV service.)
  • PVR (eg. Sky+/V+) for recording broadcast TV - two thirds of the UK have one (probably built into the TV set top box, or possibly as a separate VCR-like box — probably not built into the TV.)
  • DVD player/Blu-Ray player for watching pre-recorded films/video.
  • Games console (55% of households) — mainly for playing games, but often used to access online video services.
  • Some sort of dedicated 'Internet video' device (might be an Apple TV, Now TV, Roku etc. Might be a connected PC. Might even be more than one.)

Those last two are somewhat different to the others. 98% of UK households have a television set, and if you have a TV then you have some sort of TV service (whether free or paid.) If you have a PVR, then its probably come from your TV service provider, bundled with the package.

DVD/Blu-Ray players are another 'must-have' – whether its a low end DVD player, cheap enough to throw in with your supermarket shop, or a high end, high definition player to watch your favourite films in the best possible quality.

But games consoles – while popular – aren't for everyone. If you aren't interested in games, you probably don't have one in your house, and if you do you probably aren't too interested in the 'additional' features it offers – like watching online video.

Finally, the 'internet video device'. If you are interested in streaming films, setting up a Netflix subscription etc. then you're probably interested enough to get something to let you watch it on the big screen. But that's not 'mainstream' – if you're not interested in gadgets, you're probably not interested in finding the best box for your requirements. And even if you are, you might not be sufficiently motivated to go and spend the best part of £100 (or, to put it another way, more than a Blu-Ray player).

Which is what makes Google's Chromecast such an interesting device. At just $35 in the US (about £21 equivalent), it plugs into your TV (and a power supply), connects to your home wifi network, and lets you stream video from your smartphone/tablet to your TV screen.1

And its UK launch is rumoured to be soon

For YouTube and Netflix, this is probably going to be great news (they are already supported in the US, and both go for a general strategy of ubiquitous availability.) Whether the UK's TV players will be bringing iPlayer, ITV Player and 4OD (especially the BBC) is what will be the make or break.

…Which leaves Sky. Their Now TV) box is just £9.99, and is being marketed as a way to access Sky's (subscription) TV services without a satellite dish. But it also has apps for iPlayer, 4OD, Spotify, Vimeo and a number of other online services – Netflix and YouTube conspicuous by their absence.

The thing is, these are two very similar pieces of technology with clearly very different functionality; one for putting online video on your TV, the other for giving you TV through online video. And while the price is low enough to make getting both quite affordable, there is the issue of having 2 spare HDMI sockets in your TV set.

But, for those not interested in shelling out for a Smart TV or sticking a games console into their living rooms, this should be an interesting and cheap way to get some online video onto their TV screen.

  1. At least, thats the illusion. In practice, the mobile device just tells the Chromecast what video to stream and where to pull it from – the phone doesn't actually do the work, which means its free to find the next video you want to watch.

"Social TV" measurement

Last week, I mentioned an announcement of a partnership between Twitter and GfK (a research firm) in providing an "offical" measurement of TV-related conversations on Twitter. This comes on the back of similar partnerships with Nielsen (for the US) and Kantar (for the UK.)

This is an area that I've been watching for a while — a couple of years ago, I did some analysis at work around online mentions of TV programmes, comparing volumes of mentions to TV audience sizes. I then spent a fair amount of time prototyping and then building my own little Twitter-tracking application which would plug into TV listings to create an ongoing measurement of TV programme mentions on Twitter. I ended up shelving the project for a number of reasons — not least because a company called SecondSync were doing something very similar (but as a proper business, rather than just a coding hobbyist project.)

What has been clear to anyone paying attention to the world of television is that a few different trends were all colliding;

The rise of social media. People talking to one another online about (among other things) television.

Twitter — the ideal platform for this kind of conversation for a number of reasons;

  • Public — most tweets are visible to anyone who wants to see them (as opposed to Facebook's 'semi-private' nature — much of what happens on Facebook is only visible within limited social circles, either to friends of the poster, or 'friends of friends.')
  • Searchable — put a keyword into Twitter's search, and you can see anyone's tweets mentioning that keyword. Hashtags make this very easy to do, encouraging public content to become part of a public conversation.
  • APIs — Its reasonably easy to plug into Twitter's data feeds and automate the searching process. Which means that its fairly straightforward to count mentions of keywords and see the volumes of mentions.
  • Real-time: Twitter's design focusses on what is happening right now (as opposed to "interesting things your friends have shared", which has been Facebook's focus — with a lot of their innovation revolving around figuring out the most "interesting" stuff to put at the top of your news feed.
  • Marketing — Twitter have made a concerted push to position themselves as the de facto platform to talk about television. (Zeebox were looking like they might replace them because they were focussed on just talking about TV, but I don't think the idea of only talking about TV has really caught on.) And, as this analysis by my colleague Mat Morrison shows, Twitter gets a lot of news/media attention for its size.

So, despite a much bigger audience, Facebook has been kind of left out of the "social TV" conversation — we don't really know what other people are talking about, we don't know the scale of conversations around particular topics, but we do know that while Twitter can be viewed as a network of conversations tied together by common hashtags, there is no way to connect a conversation I'm having on Facebook with that of, say, a teenager in Taunton or a mother in Middlesex that happen to be about the same thing, at the same time. Unless we have mutual friends, those other conversations might as well be happening on MySpace, as far as my experience is concerned.

Last Thursday, Facebook made an announcement;

Today we’re announcing an international partnership with SecondSync, a social TV analytics specialist, intended to help clients understand how people are using Facebook to talk about topics such as TV.
The first output from this partnership will be a forthcoming white paper, Watching with Friends, showing how different types of people use Facebook to talk about TV across a range of programs in the US, UK and Australia.

Interesting for a number of reasons;

  • Apparently Facbeook have been privately sharing some numbers with TV networks in the US, but this is the first time we will get a proper look at what is being talked about on Facebook – not brands being 'talked about', but 'natural' conversations. (There was a very limited tool some years ago that was apparently hacked together in Facebook's early days, but seems to have long since been forgotten.)
  • The fact that its beng done by a firm used to doing it on Twitter would suggest that there should be a degree of comparability between the figures. At the very least, it should give us an idea of the difference between programmes that are talked about on Twitter, Facebook – or both. In other words, we start getting a proper idea of 'social TV' – not just 'Twitter TV'.
  • The fact that its being done by a firm based in the UK should be good news for those of us in the UK media industry.
  • The fact that its also being done outside of the UK indicates that SecondSync have been developing their business/technology. Which is nice to hear (although a little frustrating on a personal level…)
  • Some visibility into Facebook conversations should give us (that is, researchers/media types) some better idea of what is actually going on, outside of our own circles or brand pages we are involved in.
  • Which, in turn, should tell us a bit more about TV audiences and viewing behaviours.

Twitter and GfK announce TV measurement partnership

Twitter and GfK have announced a partnership to "introduce GfK Twitter TV Ratings in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. The new service will provide insights into the frequency and reach of messages from Twitter users associated with television programs and campaigns."

Those watching the "social TV" industry will recall the deal Nielsen announced with Twitter at the end of 2012 (I wrote about the deal and implications of this kind of measurement for my work website at the time.)

And those wondering why the UK wasn't included in the deal may want to cast their mind back to last August, when a similar partnership between Twitter and Kantar (with SecondSync providing data) was announced.

The big question from my point of view is about how this "reach" measurement is being measured.

Will it be based on inflated counts that assume that every follower sees every tweet, and doesn't account for the fact that people might follow more than one person who tweets about a programme?

Or will it be based on actual data from Twitter, who presumably have the ability to know how many people actually see each tweet (given that they have to do the work of putting it in front of them.)

Sadly, I'm expecting the former…