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How much has TV viewing really changed?

I was listening to the Rule of Three podcast with Laurence Rickard (of Horrible Histories and Yonderland fame, to anyone with young children in the UK), and there is some conversation about producing TV programmes for different channels (CBBC- Horrible Histories, Sky- Yonderland, and BBC1- Ghosts), and the differences in audience expectations for a programme that goes out on a given channel, at a particular time - and how changing viewing behaviours mean that how programmes are watched is not as closely tied to how they are scheduled any more.

Joel Morris (one of the podcast hosts) says, about 4 and a half minutes in;

"We did some work about 5 years ago for Gogglebox [...] I was always under the impression that Googlebox was a fiction, that families didn't gather around the TV and watch it anymore [...], and we looked up the BARB figures (about 5 years ago) were that 85% of programmes were watched live, by a family, on a sofa, when they went out. And I thought - god, I thought that was a vintage and antique thing. I am sure that is not true any more, and that must have changed really quickly, and I'm wondering whether the culture of comedy, where the demand is for things to hit straight away, whether people have quite caught up with the fact that people consume everything so differently now."

I'm really interested in changing TV viewing behaviour for all sorts of reasons (some of which I talked about here- an old post, but still relevant), so I thought I'd take a look at whether this is true - what has changed in the last 5 years?

First of all, for the sake of clarity, lets look at what is being said;

85% of programmes were watched live, by a family, on a sofa, when they went out.

OK- there's a few things going on there, so for the sake of clarification;

  • "85% of programmes" - this is a bit of a fuzzy one, because you aren't really talking about "85% of programmes" - a given programme can be watched live, by a family, on a sofa, when it goes out by one household, but watched from a recording, by a single person, in a bedroom, the day after it goes out next door. I'm going to assume that what Morris meant was "85% of viewing time to programmes" - ie. "85% of all the time being spent by people watching television programmes". Because nobody really cares about "percent of all programmes" - a metric which would put a world cup final on equal footing to an obscure programme on an obscure digital channel, broadcast at 3am on a Tuesday...
  • "watched live" and "when they went out" - I'm going to lump those together as meaning "watched when they are broadcast", because "live" has a slightly different meaning. (ie. Gogglebox is pre-recorded, so its never "watched live"... unless you are using the TV Licence definition of "live TV"...) So I'm looking at what is viewed when it was broadcast, vs what is timeshifted (ie. watched at a different time to when it was broadcast, whether recorded, streamed or downloaded.)
  • "by a family" - BARB data doesn't really have an easy way to say what is watched "by a family", but I can look at what is watched by an individual on their own vs. "shared viewing" watched by 2 or more people together.
  • "on a sofa" - OK, this isn't really something that is captured by the BARB data - you can look at what room a TV is in (ie. living room, bedroom, kitchen etc.), but I'm interpreting this to mean "on a traditional TV set" - as opposed to on a computer, tablet or smartphone.

Luckily for me, the BARB website has some of the data available to the public.

But there's another bit of the quote worth pulling out;

Firstly, live vs. catch-up viewing; in 2014, live viewing accounted for between 85.8% (w/c December 22nd) and 90% (w/c June 23rd). In 2019, that figure has changed... a little. The most recent data at the time of writing is for w/c 1st July, where live viewing accounted for 85.8% of viewing- the highest for the year to date. (The lowest was 83.2%, w/c 8th April.) I suspect that this live vs. recorded viewing is what he was talking about - just because the number is so close. But has it changed much? I'd say no. A bit, but not much.

Next is "by a family" - which I'm looking at as viewing by one person vs viewing by more than one person. This is a bit trickier to get hold of the numbers - I couldn't find anything on the BARB website for solo vs shared viewing, but as I work for a BARB subscriber, I do have access to their full data. This is what the share of "solus" viewing by month looks like for the last 7 years;

Solus as a share of total viewing minutes

Solus as a share of total viewing minutes

So - 85% of viewing is definitely not watched "as a family", because nearly half is watched alone... but that said, the point here is that I'm not seeing anything here that makes me think that there has been a significant change in viewing behaviour over the last decade. (Interestingly, we watch more TV on our own in the summer months- which is when we tend to watch less TV overall.)

Finally, "on a sofa"... or, my interpretation, on different screens.

BARB report two sets of data at the moment - firstly, whats watched on TV screens, based on a panel of households with meters monitoring what the TV is doing. Secondly, what is being watched by the "players" (ie. iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Sky Go etc.) on other devices, based on census-level data from the players themselves.1

You can see the time by device data on the BARB website here - I've had to pull the equivalent data from BARB myself to get to this chart of total viewing minutes.

2019-07-29 13_20_09-Total TV Weekly.xlsx - Excel.png

From the bottom, we have a combination of "live" (ie. as broadcast) viewing and VOSDAL - Viewing Same Day As Live (ie. watched on the same day as the broadcast). Then we have viewing that is watched between 1-7 days after it was broadcast, and a much smaller slice of programming watched between 8-28 days after it was broadcast.

Then there's a purple slice of viewing that is "unknown" - the way BARB works is by matching what is on a TV with an archive of broadcast content from the last 28 days - anything that isn't matched is "unknown"; so that will cover watching DVDs, or watching Netflix exclusives, or playing computer games. Its generally understood that most of this is accounted for by Netflix and Amazon Prime, but exactly how much isn't massively clear - and certainly a bigger topic than I can cover here (where I'm already oversimplifying more than I would like...)

Then there is a tiny sliver along the top that is the billion or so weekly minutes of "player" TV being sent out to computers, tablets and smartphones. (ie. very unlikely to be watched by a family, together, on a sofa.) A billion sounds like a big number out of context...

As I said, I've been watching these numbers for quite a while, so none of this really surprised me very much. About 12 years ago, a colleague of mine did some analysis on PVR viewing where he found that when a household gets a PVR, they do start skipping adverts - but they also watch more TV, and the extra TV viewing outweighs the ad skipping, so they actually end up seeing more advertising - at least, for the first 6 months or so. That taught me two important lessons;

  • First, we are incredibly bad at understanding our own behaviour. (I wrote about this some years ago - see "Do you really know how much TV you watch?")
  • Second, the intuitive conclusion - in this case, we see less adverts when we start skipping them - isn't necessarily backed up by the data.

Why the Sofa is the most important media device

My theory is that the space that "TV" fits into people's lives simply hasn't really changed much. Generally speaking, people go to work, come home, deal with the household chores that have to be dealt with, and then at the end of the day they sit down on the most comfortable chair in the house - which has a TV in front of it - and they watch TV.

The thing in the living room with the biggest influence on TV viewing isn't the TV (big, small, smart, dumb etc.) or the things plugged into it (ie. the satellite/cable box, recorder, DVD player, games consoles, wifi dongle etc.), or the things that are on the screen (TV broadcast, videos, DVDs, Netflix, games etc.), but the sofa.

As Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the massage". Or, "Content is the juicy piece of meat that distracts the watcdog of the mind". If you want to see the effect that TV has on people, watch the people - not the TVs.

That said, exactly what "watch TV" means is changing - I grew up with 4 channels to choose from, which meant that the best way of representing how people watch TV was the idea of "least objectionable programming" - people would see what the options were and settle on the one they objected to the least; the least boring, least offensive, least upsetting or unsuitable option would get watched. That model doesn't really work when you've not just got a dozen or so channels to choose from (just looking at the channel repertoire of what people actually watch - ignoring the dozens and dozens of channels in the EPG that you never actually switch over to - generally, people have about 23 channels that they actually watch, no matter how many channels they can watch), but also a library of pre-recorded favourites on your Sky+/PVR (sure, we had VHS tapes along with our 4 channels, but actually choosing one and watching it was a very different experience), as well as the archive of programmes available on the iPlayer/ITV Hub/All 4/Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouTube etc.

But our perception changes much faster than our behaviour, for a number of reasons;

  • The more we think about something, the more we remember it. That means if we are looking through a library of content - whether actively looking for a specific programme or browsing through genres hoping to discover something appealing - we are much more likely to remember that act than flicking through channels to see what is on - which in turn, we are much more likely to remember than watching whatever happened to be after the programme we were watching because nobody objected enough to switch over. (Which is also related to why we remember fast-forwarding through the adverts more than we remember not fast-forwarding through the adverts, and similarly over-estimate how much we do it.) Our perception of ourselves is fundamentally biased. (Similarly, we remember doing stuff on our phone while watching TV more than we remember not doing stuff while watching TV.)
  • We focus on the new - what has changed - and ignore the familiar until it goes away. So when we think about how TV is changing, we think about the technology drivers - big screens, Sky+, iPlayer, iPads, Netflix - and don't think about what is stopping things from changing. I suspect that if you were to take away the sofa from a typical household - or even to move it into a different room - you would see bigger changes in behaviour than introducing any piece of technology. (Well, you'd probably just see people moving it back again, but you get the idea...)
  • We lie to ourselves. We like to think that we are the sort of person who doesn't just spend hours watching TV every single day. We like to think we are the sort of person who carefully curates and selects the content that is worth our time. (This is on top of the fact that we are wrong about how we are spending our time in the first place.)
  • We are lied to. What the media tells us about how everyone else is watching TV is about the changes - advertising the new technology and the new services, reporting on the impact of the new technology (and the PR that promotes it), the science-fiction vision of how we will watch TV in the future - all of which builds a false picture in our minds of how 'everyone' watches TV, which we tend to assume applies to ourselves as well. I would put the podcast that prompted this post into this category; we hear people talking about how everything is so different now, so - unless we happen to be paying particular attention to the particular area - why wouldn't we believe it? (At the end of the day, that is a big part of why TV advertising works so well.)
  • We lie to others. We don't like to present ourselves as the sort of person who spends hours indiscriminately watching TV every single day. We like to present ourselves as someone who is in touch with the current trends, using the latest technology. (This is on top of the lie we tell ourselves, on top of being wrong about it in the first place.) If a doctor asks a 25 year old how much alcohol they drink every week, they probably don't expect the answer to be accurate. (But they probably do expect the person they are asking to think about how much they actually drink, versus how much they should drink, and how big a lie they feel they should respond with...)

So, in conclusion, I don't think "TV viewing" has really changed all that much - in the sense of the way that we watch TV. The television industry is changing enormously - what we choose to watch, how we choose it, how we watch it, what is available to us, who is paying for it, how it gets comissioned etc. etc. All of which is a really interesting space to watch.

But the thing that remains really interesting to me - the basic human behaviour of sitting down on the most comfortable chair in the house at the end of the day and watching "audio-visual content" (for want of a better word) on the best screen in the house is a behaviour that has remained remarkably consistent for a remarkably long time.

  1. The methodology is a bit too dull to go into in detail, but in a nutshell - each video has a tag which fires when it is played, telling BARB that it is playing. So BARB get a record of all viewing by the players - not just based on the panel, but based on every single view. What they don't have is a way to say who is watching - ie. old, young, male, female etc. - or how many people are watching. So technically, it isn't comparable data - but its the closest that is available. If you don't work in media research, you probably don't care. If you do, you probably know all this already.


Digital Media's Growing Pains

Its now about 11 and a half years since I thought it would be a good idea to work in the media industry for a year or so. (I thought) I wanted to be a web developer, didn't quite understand how everything was on the internet for free but somehow companies like Google and Facebook were worth millions of dollars - but knew that it was something to do with advertising, and wanted to understand how that business worked a bit better before I did something like set up my own business in a world where the financial model made no sense to me.

As it turns out, the first thing I learnt which pretty much shaped the next decade of my career was that communications technology might be interesting, but the impact it has on people and their behaviour is far, far more interesting.

Something else I learnt, probably a few years later, was that the world of "digital" that was massively disrupting the advertising industry is only a subset of "marketing". It was a new world that was sold on the back of all the new things that were possible, but to a world that didn't really grasp the implications of what was lost in the process. The problem is that "best practice" for digital media/advertising isn't necessarily "best practice" for advertising in general.

Digital is great for short-term results, identifying potential customers close to the point of purchase and giving them the final nudge. Which are very easy to measure - you just watch your sales numbers before, during, and after the campaign and see how much of a difference it makes.

But what "traditional" media does well is the long-term, brand-building stuff - the messages that stick in the back of your mind until they resurface when you're walking doan a supermarket aisle and make you pick up the more expensive branded product instead of the cheaper alternative. (My go-to example is always the £3 packet of Nurofen instead of the 30p supermarket-brand ibuprofen.) The kind of advertising that doesn't necessarily make you run out and buy the product, but changes the way you think about it in a way that expresses itself as brand loyalty (buying the same product again- even when the last time you bought it was purely because it was discounted), "price elasticity" (willing to pay more for the same thing) - factors that only really shift as part of a long-term, consistent marketing exercise, but are very difficult to measure, quantify, and build into a marketing model.

So, when more money is being spent on "digital advertising" than all other forms of media put together, a problem arises. But its a special kind of problem that doesn't actually look like a problem to begin with.

How Advertising Spend has Changed

Just over a decade into my "year or so" long experiment and its not unreasonable to say that the advertising industry has been completely transformed by the impact of technology.

This is what the global picture looks like, in terms of where all the advertising money is going;1

Worldwide Ad Spend by Media ($m)

What we see; Newspapers used to be the biggest advertising medium (by spend) in the world, overtaken by TV in the mid-to-late late 1990s. Then, around the year 2000, a small spike in advertising across all media2 was followed by continual and rapid growth in online spending — mainly at the expense of newspapers3. In the space of a decade, online advertising had overtaken Outdoor (ie. posters) and radio.

Then, everything took a dive around 2007 - the global financial crisis hit the media industry pretty hard - Newspapers, looking pretty flat for a few years, suddenly fell off a cliff and never recovered, while online advertising continued its growth. While TV advertising remained (and remains) fairly strong, online spending recently overtook that too, and is now the biggest medium by ad spend in the world.

Now, lets take a look at the same figures but just for the UK;

UK Ad Spend ($m)

By 2008, the internet had become the biggest media channel by spend in the UK. It now accounts for more than half of all the UK's advertising spend.

What the Big Numbers are Hiding

It is worth noting at this point that these big, broad numbers hide a few things.

The first - and probably most apparent from inside the media industry - is that "Newspapers" really covers two very different things. On one hand, there's the kind of advertising that you probably think of when you think about "advertising in newspapers" - the big, colourful, maybe even full-page adverts that are selling some sort of "brand". The other is the "classified" adverts- mostly taken up by property for sale, recruitment for jobs and second-hand cars. When spend started shifting to "digital", the first to get hit was the classified ads - adverts that worked very well online, probably better than in print. The "brand" or "display" ads weren't so much hit by the online alternative for advertisers, but the online alternative for readers - as readers migrated from print to online, the advertising model (and money) changed. As the industry cliche goes, from analogue pounds to digital pennies. In print, newspapers were competing with one another to be "the paper" that a person or household would choose to buy. Online, there's no particular reason why anyone would limit themselves to a single source of "news" - why not read the Guardian for politics, the Times for international news, the Sun for sport. Or maybe you would read the front page (now "home page") of a newspaper website for the headlines, then read a bunch of bloggers for the editorial.

The second thing that the broad numbers hide is that "internet" also covers a number of different things. About half of it in the UK is Search advertising - the search results that you see with "Ad" or "Sponsored" next to them, shown to you based on the search terms (and influenced by other data that your Google account or web browser history might be holding). About 40% of it is "display" - the banners at the endges of web pages, the pre-roll videos, the sponsored or promoted posts in your social news feed. The other ~10% or so is the "classified" ads. Clearly, Search advertising is doing a "response", rather than a "brand" job. Likewise, Classified ads are obviously "response". But of the online Display advertising, a great deal of it is also doing the "response" job - easily measured in terms of efficiency and value, but less likely to do the long-term "brand building" job.

How the Media Industry has Changed

When I joined, there were a few interesting things going on. Firstly, the agencies didn't really seem to have many people who really "got" the internet. I was 30 at the time, and when I left school I had never heard of the internet - the fact that I could walk into an interview with a smartphone/PDA in my pocket and a link to my blog (about the internet!) on my CV was enough to mark me out as an "expert" - despite no experience or understanding of the advertising industry. The industry - media owners, media agencies and advertisers - really, really wanted to be able to show that they understood the new, digital world. And the people they turned to for knowledge and understanding were (and still are, I think) mostly the salesmen.

The big story from a consumer point of view was about how broadband penetration was growing, Facebook was clearly the "next big thing", but people were still wondering whether it was going to be as big as MySpace - and if so, what was stopping something else from coming along and overtaking it. (My point at the time was that Facebook was doing something different by connecting people's real world identities - you didn't tell anyone your real name online at the time - with all of their interests, and all of their real-world friends, and that was going to be a very sticky thing to pull people away from.) It was also at the point after smartphones had started to appear, but before the iPhone had really crystallised what a mass-market smartphone/pocket computer would look like. (At the time, it was a real headache from a research point of view that everyone had a different definition of what a "smartphone" was… but thats another story.) Digital was the future - obviously - and whether or not it was a future that we wanted, it was just a race to get there first.

Today, its a slightly different world. Every media has been touched by "digital" in some way - "TV" is now part of a broader "video" marketplace, where broadcasters are making most of their content available online, and "radio" is part of a broader "audio" marketplace, where radio broadcasters are up against a world of music streaming services and podcasts, "newspapers" have become "newsbrands" and while their businesses are often still reliant on the printed copy (partly because its something that people pay for, but just as much because print advertising is an easier business than online advertising), their future is probably going to be in a world where they are balancing the value of their content with the value of their audience (who can just as easily be targeted anywhere else on the web, on an individual basis).

Which brings me to my point.

Advertising on the internet has its own set of best practices. There are things that you can do online that you can't do offline, and vice versa. But "best practice" for online advertising is not the same as "best practice" for marketing in general. However, with online advertising so massively dominant in the UK, I don't believe that there are enough people worrying about this particular conflict and the implications. (Some, sure. But not enough.)

Or, at least, not as many as there are still racing to be the first on board with the Next Big Thing - whatever it might be.

  1. I've deliberately left this data unsourced, because I'm not entirely clear whether the data is allowed to be published in public or not. Suffice to say, I'm confident enough that the figures that they illustrate a 'truth', and confident enough in the story that they tell that I don't feel a need to cite an authoritative source.

  2. I'm pretty sure that this is the dotcom boom, when a bunch of investor money got pumped into new online businesses, who pumped a lot of it into advertising their businesses, a lot of which was with other advertising businesses, which made them look good to investors who pumped more money into their businesses…

  3. Newspapers are pretty flat on the chart here; although newspapers' level of advertising spending stayed fairly steady, total advertising spend tends to be proportional to GDP- advertising spend overall kept on growing, but newspapers' share was declining - especially in the markets where internet infrastructure had been developed and online advertising was thriving.

Why I don't watch adverts

I don't watch adverts.

That isn't exactly an uncommon thing to say. I've done a bit of work into how many people say it - specifically, how many people will say that they don't watch adverts, or live TV at all, and how everything they watch is recorded on Sky + and the ads are always skipped - and then you track what they are watching and discover that actually, at least three quarters of their viewing is live and even when they watch recorded TV they still watch the adverts a significant amount of time.

But this isn't about that.

This is about the adverts that you choose to watch - the ones that you actively seek out. The Christmas advert that you search for on YouTube when you hear that it came out today.

I don't watch those adverts.

Partly its because, well, I don't really want to watch them. But for a slightly deeper reason - I work in the advertising industry (at what used to call itself a "media agency", when we judged ourselves in terms of how well we bought media - but thats another topic…), where there is a kind of expectation that you care about advertising.

Maybe its the decade (and a bit) that I've been working in the industry that has brainwashed or indoctrinated me, but I find that I do like advertising. Kind of... I mean, I like the way that it makes "free" things possible. I like the fact that it has enabled "news" as an industry to develop and exist, which in turn makes the ideal of an informed democracy at the very least, a possibility. (Although, whether that is still true is up for debate.)

I find "advertising" as a part of a wider world of "marketing" much more interesting though. And I have a theory that if you take something that is supposed to be an "advert" - that is, a thing that is supposed to communicate something from a business to its (potential) customers - and take it out of the context of the media space that it was designed to sit in, then you fundamentally change the nature of what it is.

Figure and Ground

I've written before about Marshall McLuhan, but there's an idea that he wrote and talked about that I only recently got my head around, and its about "Figure and Ground". Think of a painting - lets say, the Mona Lisa. Everyone has seen it, everyone can recognise it, everyone knows what it looks like.

Think for a moment about how you would describe it. (You don't need to look at it first — in fact, this exercise probably works better if you don't.)

All of that stuff that you're thinking about describing is the "figure". Probably the woman, her face, her smile, her hair, her clothes — the object of attention. In fact, for a painting, that is the way it is designed - something in the frame is supposed to get your attention.

But that isn't the whole painting. The rest of it - the lake, the rocks, the winding road, the bridge, the clouds, the arm of the chair, the balcony - is the "ground".

In painting, or perception, it is about the thing that jumps out at you and you pay attention to. But in McLuhan's media analysis, its about the context. And one of his central theses was that the ground is the bit that really matters.

"The medium is the message"

(or "massage" - apparently typo in an early version of a manuscript which actually illustrated the point; a twist of the original meaning that could only happen in a typeset medium.)

“For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
Marshall McLuhan in "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man"1

My view is that watching an advert out of context is like taking the label off a tin and sticking it in an art gallery. First, you fundamentally change the thing you are looking at - by removing it from its context and putting it somewhere else. But also, you fundamentally change the thing itself - can anyone look at a can of Campbell's soup and not think about Andy Warhol?

I should note that I don't really avoid adverts. I mean, I tend to skip through the adverts when I'mn watching recorded TV programmes - mainly because my wife has the remote control - but I'm not installing ad blockers and all of that. (Because I don't think most people do, and I do think it matters that I tend to see what most people see in their online experience.) And I tend not to watch much TV - just because I would prefer to do other things, like play computer games or paint or code or read or surf Reddit or... you get the idea.

So, my theory is that by avoiding looking at advertising out of context, I get a better idea of what the advertising is actually doing - how it is changing the "ground" - than someone who is taking the TV spot that millions of distracted people are going to barely notice in the background of their Facebook sessions, and watching it on the biggest and best screen that the agency can buy with a bunch of other highly paid people in expensive clothes, sitting quietly around a boardroom table, drinking coffee and taking notes.

Which is a very long winded way of saying that I don't watch adverts because I care about advertising.

  1. London, England: MIT Press,1964; p.18], reference found here, in what I think is his grandson's blog.

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.