Thought Starters: integrations, chatbots and the content glut

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at integrations as a means of reaching consumers, the growing hype around chatbots, a critical look at content marketing, growing income inequality among other things:

Ofcom has released the latest edition of its Adults’ media use and attitudes providing a window into consumers’ use of technology and media in the UK. It’s a great reference document that’s well worth bookmarking for future reference, particularly given its inclusion of longitudinal and demographic data:

Device used most often for specific online activities

With the growth of smartphones, the development of mobile apps has became one of the dominant paradigms for reaching and engaging with consumers. Unfortunately, seemingly every other business has had the same idea but the development of a growing array of integrations opens the door for new channels which Hugh Durkin explores:

Native apps are perfect for these frequent, heavy use jobs. But that doesn’t mean you need a mobile app for every product or service. Ask yourself — will people really want to put your icon on their homescreen?

That’s why companies like Uber are looking beyond homescreen icons. Instead of asking users to come to them — download and install an app — they’re deeply embedding their services where users already spend their time.

Chat bots are being increasingly talked up as the next big route to market for businesses with the recent Facebook Developer Conference seeing a lot of this attention focusing on Facebook Messenger’s growing capabilities:

If you want a more balanced view of the opportunities for chat bots, I’d suggest giving Benedict Evans and Connie Chase a listen on Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast:

A valuable complement to the a16z podcast is Dan Grover’s article where he looks at the success of WeChat in China and suggests that it’s less about chatbots and more about a better user experience:

The key wins for WeChat in the above interaction (compared to a native app) largely came from streamlining away app installation, login, payment, and notifications, optimizations having nothing to do with the conversational metaphor in its UI.

Whilst artificial intelligence and machine learning are expanding the capabilities of chat bots and virtual assistants, there are plenty of situations where humans continue to offer a better experience. Ellen Huet explores the services that are relying on the human touch (for the moment):

A handful of companies employ humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans. In the past two years, companies offering do-anything concierges (Magic, Facebook’s M, GoButler); shopping assistants (Operator, Mezi); and e-mail schedulers (X.ai, Clara) have sprung up. The goal for most of these businesses is to require as few humans as possible. People are expensive. They don’t scale. They need health insurance. But for now, the companies are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic.

Much of the attention in the West has focused on the dominance of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, but many Asian markets have seen the development of their own indigenous platforms. This can be seen most vividly in China as detailed by TechinAsia:

China's most popular mobile apps March 2016

Rex Sorgatz provides a very personal account of a return to his old home town of Napoleon, North Dakota. Whilst many of aspects of the town have remained unchanged in 25 years, Sorgatz explores how the internet has changed the experience of teenagers living at the geographic periphery of American society:

I cannot shake the sentence, which seems to contain between its simple words a secret key, a cipher to crack my inquiries into technology and change. Napoleon didn’t have a drive-in in the 1950s, or a mall in the 1980s, but today it definitely has the same social communications tools used by every kid in the country. By that fact alone, the lives of teenagers in Napoleon must be wildly different than they were 20 years ago. But I lack the social research finesse of Boyd, who could probably interrogate my thesis about technology beyond anecdote. So I change the topic to something I know much better: television.

Ezra Klein interviews one of my favourite media and technology commentators Ben Thompson, providing a valuable guide to how he views the world:

Inbound marketing has gained a bit of unwanted courtesy of Dan Lyon’s book Disrupted with its first hand account of his time working for HubSpot. Alexandra Samuel looks at the broader social costs associated with pumping an endless stream of unwanted content out into the internet:

But from a personal perspective, it sucks. For every email newsletter you’re genuinely thrilled to receive, you likely have dozens that merely clutter up your inbox, where they linger unread. To get to the Facebook posts that have been shared by the actual genuine human beings you know, you have to plough through a feed that’s cluttered with posts that somebody paid to put there. (A problem that’s only going to get worse, now that Facebook has given its official blessing to branded content on verified pages.) And unless you read blog posts while wearing glasses that block your peripheral vision, you’re likely to get sucked into clicking on one of the irresistible headlines that now frame nearly every page of content on the Internet — headlines that somebody paid to put there, and which almost always lead to something way less interesting than the headline suggests.

Tom Whitwell explores what is almost certainly the most neglected member of the marketing mix, price:

Price is the crudest, and most subtle, message you can send about your product, so it’s worth getting it right.

Amazon is one of the behemoths of the tech world and it’s the company’s AWS which is likely to prove its brightest star. AWS’s revenue growth points to the opportunities in selling the 21st century equivalent of shovels in a gold rush, particularly when you get it right:

AWS is the fastest growing enterprise technology company ever

Cade Metz looks at how data center operating systems (DC/OS) are enabling more efficient use of data centres which fuel the internet with adoption rapidly spilling outside Google where the technology was originally developed:

But this also is about improving the lives of software engineers. Any company that hits 50 to 100 engineers, Stoppelman says, almost has to embrace this kind of container architecture. It must break down its software into tiny pieces that can by run across myriad machines. Otherwise, things get too unwieldy. Tools like DC/OS and Kubernetes make it far easier to build that kind of distributed software. And the importance of this should not be underestimated. After all, software that runs across dozens or even hundreds of machines—think Google and Twitter and Apple Siri—drives the modern world.

We’ve seen a lot of hot air come out of the startup sector over the last six months with a drop in their valuations and entrepreneurs becoming more cautious about raising funds. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley reviews what this means for founders, investors and employees alike:

As we move forward, it is important for all players in the ecosystem to realize that the game has changed. Equally important, each player must understand how the new rules apply to them specifically. We will start by highlighting several emotional biases that can irrationally impact everyone’s decision making process. Next we will highlight the new player in the ecosystem that is poised to take advantage of these aforementioned changes and emerging biases. Lastly, we will then walk through each player in the ecosystem and what they should consider as they navigate this brave new world.

Markus Poschke and Barış Kaymak look at the reasons for the growing concentration of wealth in the US, concluding that technology is the main driver, followed by tax cuts and more generous public transfers:

Top 1% wealth and income shares, 1960-2012

Daniel Knowles profiles Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic ups and downs for The Economist. Whilst much of the recent success has been driven by commodity exports, there are signs of a broadening economic base which will be sorely needed given Africa’s young and rapidly growing population:

Average annual % change in GDP and Exports in Sub-Saharan Africa

Richard Wike teases out some of the cultural differences between the US and Europe including attitudes to individualism, free speech, religion and adultery. One of the interesting pointers is that richer countries tend to be less religious, with the US being an outlier in this general trend:

Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for the US

The recent waves of refugees arriving in Europe has put wind in the sails of many nationalist groups seen very recently in the Austrian elections, with employment high on supporters list of concerns. Given this, it’s interesting to see Hu, Chen and Singh among the most common surnames of Italian company founders in a country not particularly known for its ethnic diversity:

Most common surnames of Italian company founders Jan-Aug 2015

The featured image is a Claudia Walde aka MadC mural photographed in London by Marco Prosch and published in WideWalls.

Thought Starters: A look at Facebook, Snapchat, hidden truths and London

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at adtech bloat, Facebook and Snapchat’s role in the social media landscape, the truth behind the statistics and London’s changing economic landscape. 

There’s been a lot of coverage about the growing adtech bloatware face and the countervailing rise of ad blockers as consumers look to improve their user experience and increase their privacy. I have considerable sympathy for the media sector which is in many cases scrabbling for a decent revenue model. But the situation doesn’t look great when consumers end up footing the bill with growing data chargers as highlighted by Rob Leathern:

When I cover deceptive ad practices/fraud, some people find it interesting, sure, but when I have explained how mobile websites are making far less money from ads than you’re paying in mobile data… People. Got. Pissed.

A recent report in The Information (paywall) points to consumers using Facebook less to share their personal thoughts, although figures from GlobalWebIndex indicate these might be part of a broader trend:

Decline in personal sharing on social networks

Ben Thompson puts Facebook’s position in the context of the broader social media landscape, contrasting it with the more personal mediums such as Snapchat (see below). Facebook’s launch of Moments and Facebook Live suggest it’s not happy being typecast in just this role:

It is increasingly clear that there are two types of social apps: one is the phone book, and one is the phone. The phone book is incredibly valuable: it connects you to anyone, whether they be a personal friend, an acquaintance, or a business. The social phone book, though, goes much further: it allows the creation of ad hoc groups for an event or network, it is continually updated with the status of anyone you may know or wish to know, and it even provides an unlimited supply of entertaining professionally produced content whenever you feel the slightest bit bored.

The phone, on the other hand, is personal: it is about communication between you and someone you purposely reach out to. True, telemarketing calls can happen, but they are annoying and often dismissed. The phone is simply about the conversation that is happening right now, one that will be gone the moment you hang up.

The growth of smartphones has had more than a helping hand in the growth of sexting among teenagers. This has raised serious questions for lawmakers who face criminalising teenagers using child pornography laws that were designed with different situations in mind and risk compounding the problem as Madeleine Thomas reports:

“You can allow them, or you can prohibit them, but [teens] are going to sext and they are going to have sex regardless,” Hasinoff says. “The potential for harm that technology creates is legitimately new, but the way we’re dealing with it is just completely the wrong approach. If you think you can stop it by criminalizing consensual sexters, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Snapchat is one of the platforms most closely associated with sexting with figures from comScore showing the disproportionately high share of younger age categories when compared to other social networks in the US:

Demographic Composition % of Major Social Networks

Snapchat’s recent launch of an updated version of its mobile messaging platform with a richer range of features again put it in the spotlight and left many marketers wondering how they can get onboard. Dakota Shane Nunley does his bit to pour cold water on some of this excitement pointing out there are plenty of situations where Snapchat simply doesn’t make sense:

Snapchat is not for:

  1. Big brands looking to be “relatable” (unless those brands are buying space on Discover, Filters, or paying Influencers)
  2. Businesses not based around an individual or personality
  3. People without a social following elsewhere
  4. Most small to mi-sized businesses

The commercial launch of Oculus Rift has left many commentators wondering whether virtual reality is the next big thing. The platform’s hardware costs mean that it’s not going to challenge the smartphone for the foreseeable future but that will change over time. For a closer look, it’s worth having a read of Benedict Evans’ look at the different development paths and the relationship with its cousin, augmented reality:

If one can answer those questions, then AR has the potential to be a new computing platform in a way that VR cannot – AR can be with you everywhere whereas VR needs a room, and so AR could be the next universal computing platform after mobile. 

The transition from physical to digital distribution of music has been a far from smooth one with no shortage of musicians complaining that the shift to a streaming model is leaving them out in the cold. Figures from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry suggest the industry may have now turned a corner with the fastest revenue growth since 1998 – whether that money reaches musicians remains to be seen:

Music sales growing at fastest rate since 1998

The Guardian is one of my go to news sources even if I am not always in sync with their view of the world and their drift to a more lifestyle format. Given this, I was disheartened to read Michael Wolff’s analysis of the organisation’s management under Alan Rusbridger which suggests it may face the same fate of other newspapers struggling to make the transition to a digital world:

Alan Rusbridger’s disciples consider him a visionary, but the former Guardian editor oversaw enormous losses, a huge fall in circulation and a ruinous faith in free content. Now, as he returns as chairman of its parent company, has his legacy of unchecked idealism condemned the iconic brand to terminal decline?

Right through my university career I identified as politically correct reflecting strongly held views on the sexism, racism and homophobia of various aspects of contemporary society. Given this, I’ve watched with considerable interest recent debates around political correctness particularly in American universities of today with commentators pointing to activists overreaching and the silencing of broader debates. Whilst I feel too far removed to give a considered judgement, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s article in The Atlantic and Lauren Modery’s commentary on Medium gave me plenty of food for thought.

Tim Harford has become one of my favourite commentators, separating the truth from fiction in news reports via the More or Less radio show/podcast and his regular column in the Financial Times. A recently penned feature article profiles the distortion of statistics and outright lies by politicians looking to shore up support among the general public – something well worth reading as UK approaches the Brexit referendum and the US head towards their presidential elections:

Perhaps the lies aren’t the real enemy here. Lies can be refuted; liars can be exposed. But bullshit? Bullshit is a stickier problem. Bullshit corrodes the very idea that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered by a careful mind. It undermines the notion that the truth matters. As Harry Frankfurt himself wrote, the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Whilst we’re on the subject of politics and its impacts, CEPR have had a look at the economic impacts of Brexit and it’s unsuprisingly not positive:

The economic consequences of leaving the EU will depend on what policies the UK adopts following Brexit. But lower trade due to reduced integration with EU countries is likely to cost the UK economy far more than is gained from lower contributions to the EU budget.

Even setting aside foreign investment, migration and the dynamic consequences of reduced trade, we estimate the effects of Brexit on trade and the UK’s contribution to the EU budget would be equivalent to a fall in income of between 1.3% and 2.6%. And once we include the long-run effects of Brexit on productivity, the decline in income increases to between 6.3% and 9.5%. Other possible political or economic benefits of Brexit, such as better regulation, would have to be very large to outweigh such losses.

Diet is one area where we’ve seen the media and public opinions shaped by evidence that often falls well short of gold standard in scientific research. Ian Leslie’s fascinating coverage of attitudes to sugar points to a situation where strong scientific wasn’t enough to change societal norms with personal politics getting in the way of the truth (see below). Unfortunately many countries are now paying the price with growing obesity rates:

It is a familiar complaint. By opening the gates of publishing to all, the internet has flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist. We no longer live in a world in which elites of accredited experts are able to dominate conversations about complex or contested matters. Politicians cannot rely on the aura of office to persuade, newspapers struggle to assert the superior integrity of their stories. It is not clear that this change is, overall, a boon for the public realm. But in areas where experts have a track record of getting it wrong, it is hard to see how it could be worse. If ever there was a case that an information democracy, even a very messy one, is preferable to an information oligarchy, then the history of nutrition advice is it.

There’s been growing awareness of discrimination faced by women in the workplace, reflected in the lack of women in leadership roles and the gender pay gap. Whilst a lot of attention focuses on the need for flexibility in the workplace and familial demands, research from ICEDR suggests that what thirtysomething women are really interested in is better pay:

The top 5 reasons people in their 30s leave companies

London has long had a character that set it apart from the rest of the UK both in terms of its international character and its economic output. One of the more recent consequences of this is the growing squeeze on poorer residents, reflected in the decline in the number of children eligible for free school meals as London’s central boroughs increasingly gentrify (see below). It’s no surprise that first time buyers are finding it increasingly hard to get on the property ladder compared to the rest of the country with regulation compounding the problem of population pressures:

Free school meal eligibilitySilicon Valley with its sea of office parks provides a rather different development model to London. Hunter Oatman-Stanford provides a fascinating look at the growth of this suburban corporate campus model as companies looked to flee inner cities. Unfortunately by sealing themselves off from the rest of society, businesses risk losing touch with the noisy and chaotic world they’re in many cases trying to serve:

While many modern office developments specifically include lounges or multipurpose zones where employees might randomly interact with one another, these spaces are entirely limited to office staff—with the aim that conversations would further relationships or spark ideas beneficial to the business. “I look at Apple’s Norman Foster building, and it’s 1952 all over again,” Mozingo says. “There’s nothing innovative about it. It’s a classic corporate estate from the 1950s, with a big block of parking. Meanwhile, Google is building another version of the office park with a swoopy roof and cool details—but it does nothing innovative.”

Online dating is reshaping the way people meet their flings / boyfriends / girlfriends / future partners. You can see this in Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas’s research from the US (see table below). The 2009 cut off date suggests the graph is substantially underreporting the current situation given the growing penetration of smartphones, services such as Tinder and growing social acceptance of online dating.  Alex Mayyasi reports on some of the consequences of this trend including a likely growth in assortative mating which is ultimately likely to undermine social mobility:

How straight couples met their partner

Whilst we’re on the subject of relationships, it’s worth reading Gay Talese’s account of one motel owner’s voyeurism. You might not learn a whole lot about human relationships, but it does makes for an entertaining read.

The featured image is a GoddoG mural from Bordeaux published in ekosystem.

 

Thought Starters: innovation, intellectual capital & circular economy

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at questions over the pace of innovation, the growing portability of intellectual capital, the American presidential nominations and the circular economy among other things, all making for great weekend reading.

David Rotman profiles the work of economist Robert J. Gordon who takes a relatively dim view of the productivity gains over the last ten years. A valuable perspective although one focusing on economic gains doesn’t necessarily encompass other benefits enabled by new technologies and innovations:

Peak innovation

An interesting complement to the Rotman’s article is Prashant Gandhi, Somesh Khanna and Sree Ramaswamy’s review of the levels of digitisation across different parts of the US economy. Information technology inevitably leads the charge but it’s more valuable to look at the laggards where we’re likely to see considerable changes and innovations in the coming years:

How Digitally Advanced is your Sector?

One area that we have seen substantial advances recently is technologies that enable remote teams to more readily collaborate (eg Slack). Samuel Hammond points to a world where intellectual capital is increasingly portable even if immigration barriers mean that this mobility is more virtual than actual:

Consistent with the premature futurism thesis, smart writers have been predicting large and looming social implications from telecommuting and remote work for decades, only to have their visions stymied by some unforeseen technical or psychological barrier. While hiring international freelancers has gotten a lot easier, for many jobs people just prefer face to face contact. Yet we seem to be finally reaching a critical point where video streaming, virtual reality, and collaboration tools are converging to make even the most complex team production viable across borders.

Uber is one of the shining stars of the startup sector with its growth and funding leading many entrepreneurs to pitch their business as ‘Uber for ____’. Farhad Manjoo points out that we should be wary of trying to draw direct parallels between Uber and other business use cases given the particular characteristics the ridesharing:

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Dan Lyons’ rather humourous account of joining HubSpot provides a valuable antidote to some of the overinflated hubris sometimes associated with startups:

The truth is that we’re selling software that lets companies, most of them small businesses like pool installers and flower shops, sell more stuff. The world of online marketing, where HubSpot operates, though, has a reputation for being kind of grubby. Our customers include people who make a living bombarding people with email offers, or gaming Google’s search algorithm, or figuring out which kind of misleading subject line is most likely to trick someone into opening a message. Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better either.

A lot of noise has been made about younger consumers fleeing Facebook for the newer social media platforms but comScore data from the US points to the platform maintaining its appeal among millennials – suggest we’d  see teenage audiences telling a rather different story:

Age 18-34 Digital Audience Penetration vs Engagement of Leading Social Networks

Snapchat updated its mobile messaging platform recently providing a richer range of features for users as well as changing its privacy policy which is likely to see a broader array of targeting options for Snapchat advertisers. It’s worth reading Ben Thompson’s piece on Snapchat if you want to take a broader look at how the platform has evolved since its launch in 2011.

Virtual reality is now well and truly out in the open with Oculus Rift now available to the general public. Brian X. Chen’s review of the headset suggests that in its current state, it’s one for the early adopters:

The Rift’s graphics, sound and head tracking, which is the device’s ability to follow where the viewer looks, do feel like something out of science fiction. While the system’s setup is somewhat complex, the smoothness of the graphics and the high-quality design of the headgear make virtual reality feel ready for prime time.

And yet there may be a higher reward for those who wait to buy the Rift.

Soundcloud Go launched on the 29th of March in the US, adding to the list of streaming providers that are offering a subscription service for music consumers. Another route to monetise content might sound great for musicians but Dave Wiskus’ review of the service suggests something much more insidious:

You can slice it, package it, or spin it however you like, but the bare fact is that you’re making money off of songs you aren’t paying for. Worse, you’re doing it while perpetuating an air of exclusivity around the concept of making money. All while you’re pretending to be a friend to the little guy. There’s nothing artist-friendly about this approach.

Sven Skafisk’s overlaying of smartphone sales on top of traditional camera sales illustrates how much mobile phones have come to dominate how the majority of consumers experience photography – click through for the full length chart which really puts things in perspective:

CIPA camera production

The success of Amazon’s Alexa highlights the significant market opportunity for user friendly smart home solutions, which has even led to religious authorities offering advice on its use during Shabbos. What consumers may be less aware of is that in many cases they are buying into a service rather than a piece of hardware with the demise of Revolv leaving consumers in the lurch (although it looks like Nest may be stepping in to address some of these concerns now).

With the release of the Panama Papers, it’s worth revisiting which countries enable financial secrecy. One of the interesting insights to come out of the reports is the relatively limited number of Americans caught up in reports reflecting relatively lax controls in some states. The US falls in third place in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

NPR’s Planet Money (well worth subscribing to their podcast) has looked at the changing structure of employment in the US where you can see changes both in terms of the number of jobs and as percent of the total. No huge surprises but it will be interesting to see how the chart changes as machine learning and artificial intelligence make inroads into white collar professions which have traditionally proven more immune to automation:

The Decline of Farming and the Rise of Everything Else

Another podcast worth recommending is Vox’s The Weeds, providing a valuable window into American politics and policy. A recent episode looks at the tax implications of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ policies (from 34:20). One of the interesting conclusions is how comparatively robust both Democratic candidates proposals are compared to the leading Republican candidates despite Clinton and Sanders taking rather different policy approaches:

One area where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump do seem to have something in common is their relatively protectionist approach to trade. Whilst I am all for ensuring employees gets appropriate protection around the world, it could put a real dampener on emerging markets’ economies as Jordan Weissmann points out:

With those last few words, Sanders has effectively written off trade with any country that is not already rich and prosperous—which is simply inhumane.

Encouraging the circular economy is likely to be a more appropriate way of encouraging local employment. Walter R. Stahel profiles this closed loop approach to production which offers benefits in terms of reduced emissions, increasing in employment and reduction in waste:

Closing Loops

As UK fast approaches the Brexit referendum, immigration and the country’s health system lead concerns facing Briton’s – issues not unrelated given the reliance Britain’s NHS has on foreign born staff:

What do you see as the most important issues facing Britain

Potentially allaying the concerns of immigration opponents is research from Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri in Denmark which points to the benefits of immigration, even for the low skilled populations:

Instead of a small negative effect on the local native-born — as most studies in the U.S. tend to find — Foged and Peri found a positive effect. That’s right — low-skilled immigrants actually raised the wages of their less-educated native-born counterparts in the surrounding area. The data followed the native-born workers for a long time, letting the authors confirm that the change was durable.

The featured image is a Nelio mural made for the Marion gallery in Panama.