Monthly Archives: November 2013

Duncan Watts and his latest study of Twitter data shows that consumers with average influence may offer a better return on marketing dollars.

Together with Eytan Bakshy, Winter Mason, and Jake Hofman, Watts examined the attributes and relative influence of 1.6 million Twitter users by tracking 74 million diffusion “events”, as tracked by retweets and reposts, that occurred over a two-month period in 2009.

Twitter “presents a promising natural laboratory for the study of diffusion processes,” they write. Since users “follow” the broadcasts of other users, multi-step diffusion processes can be reconstructed by crawling follower graphs. Further, the use of URL shorteners (e.g., allowed the researchers to track all diffusion patterns, not just those that were successful .

Not surprisingly, the Twitter dataset revealed that the largest cascades tended to be generated by users who were influential in the past and who had a large number of followers. However, most individuals with these attributes were not successful in generating large cascades. The vast majority of URLs did not spread at all and even moderately sized cascades were extremely rare.

In addition, a sampling of 1000 URLs showed that, while URLs that spread widely tended to be more interesting and elicited more positive feelings, content characteristics didn’t distinguish diffusion success from failure either.

Overall “predictions of which particular user or URL will generate large cascades are relatively unreliable,” they conclude. Thus, to consistently harness word of mouth influence, marketers need to target large numbers of potential influencers, thereby capturing average effects.

Another knock at Gladwell’s theory of influentials, but it is hard to argue with empirical work – there may be more value to be had in viewing each consumer as an influencer in his or her own right, with many small cascades of information sharing eventually adding up to marketing success.

(via Marketing Science Institute)

Click here to bank with confidence.

Click here to bank with confidence.

The banner ad is not something I admire, but after this article, I have to agree that the technology behind delivering real-time, data-driven advertising is powering a real change in other aspects of society, as argued in this article by John Battelle:

How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal.

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference – The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire – The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. – The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.


My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Image from Luma Partners - the system that lets a product/company follow you across the web.

Image from Luma Partners – the system that lets a product/company follow you across the web.

(via SearchBlog)

What drives sharing? According to researcher Sonya Song, it is a mixture of attention, emotion, and reaction. Below are some data and findings on which news stories took off and which didn’t. 

Sharing on social media is:

1. charged with emotion

2. bounded by self-image management, and

3. by concerns over relationships with others

The research takes some inspiration from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which examines two modes of thinking: fast (system 1) and slow (system 2). Fast thinking is essentially a measure of unconscious attention, the lizard brain essential for survival – turning our heads to loud noises, or withdrawing our fingers from fire before conscious realisation. Slow thinking is the rational thinking that evolved much later, handling learned skills such as reasoning and mathematics. 

Browsing through posts on social media usually puts us in a state of cognitive ease, and also a state of high susceptibility to advertisers/news outlets methods of getting attention: repetition and clarity. Large pictures and uppercase text fall into easy legibility, which then catch our attention more frequently. 


The general pattern is that illustrating a post with an image is associated with higher traffic compared to no image, so is a large image compared to a thumbnail. This pattern holds across three key metrics (reach – number of unique people who have seen your post; engagement – number of unique people who have clicked on your post; and conversation – number of unique people who have created a story from the post, by either liking, commenting, sharing, answering your posts.) by Facebook. In addition, mere “BREAKING” is associated with a higher reach, although not with engagement or talking about this (Figure 2). In fact, not only BREAKING NEWS but also other uppercase words are associated with a higher reach, including WEATHER WATCH, MAJOR UPDATE, BIG PICTURE, NOW LIVE, etc.


As expected, number of average syllables per word was negatively correlated with all three metrics, namely “reach”, “engaged users”, and “talking about this”. The implication for social media editors is to prepare messages that cater to fast reading, because people are often guided by System 1 on social media, even though audiences of various media outlets name readable language at different levels. 

Other ways of priming, such as posing a question in the story/post, also resulted in a higher rate of conversation. 

Based on a sample collected within two weeks, the posts with a question is associated with 80% more comments.

On the other hand, to engage more sophisticated readers with thoughtful responses, one can turn to using more words and words with more syllables. More complex text is, in turn, correlated with more comments (though not likes or shares). 

Unsurprising results on readability.

Unsurprising results on readability.

Pretty straightforward so far. The more interesting bit came in the research in outliers – what stories generated the most and the least activity, and why?

Most conversational stories

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant today pledged $1 million to recovery efforts after yesterday’s devastatingtornado.
  2. Romeo and Juliet, the swans who reside at the Boston Public Garden during the summer (and at Franklin Park Zoo during the winter), returned there today in a sign that the spring season is truly here. See photos:
  3. The lilacs are in full bloom at Arnold Arboretum. This photo was taken yesterday, known officially as Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum. Stop by if you have a chance. Globe staff photo / Yoon S. Byun
  4. Say hello to the CapeFlyer. It had its inaugural run today and is scheduled to have its official debut next weekend, the first time in about 25 years service from Boston to Cape Cod will be offered. Would you ride it?
  5. The Marathon bombingsheared off the right leg of Marc Fucarile (pictured, with his fiancee Jen Regan) in a millisecond. It spared the left, but not by much. Now, he and his family are in a painful waiting game to see if his “good” legcan be saved.
  6. child was pulled from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., after an EF-4 tornado struck. The tornado, with winds up to 200 mph, was up to a mile wide and left behind large areas of devastation.

Least conversational stories

  1. Keith Reddin’s thriller “Almost Blue” at the Charlestown Working Theater, isn’t so much blue as noir
  2. #Recipe for paella-stuffed peppers
  3. New: Matthew Gilbert’s Buzzsaw column. As the cult favorite, “Arrested Development,” returns with a season-sized “episode dump,” Globe critic Matthew Gilbert asks, does giving viewers too much leave them with nothing to talk about?
  4. Make mom feel even more special with these stylish Mother’s Day gifts.
  5. The Phoenix Suns named 33-year-old Ryan McDonough, formerly of the Boston Celtics, as their new general manager.
  6. Album review: The soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” curated by Jay-Z, is a fantastical reimagining of that era, putting ’20s jazz in the modern context of pop and hip-hop. Oddly enough, the one thing the soundtrack is missing is heart.
  7. Creative restlessness and a sense of adventure are at the heart of Iron & Wine’s latest album, “Ghost on Ghost,” which Sam Beam will celebrate with a show at Berklee Performance Center tonight.
  8. Book review: The beloved author of “The Kite Runner,” Khaled Hosseini, returns to the rugged landscape of his home country, Afghanistan with “And the Mountains Echoed.”

Here is my quick summary of patterns related to conversational potential of stories.

  • Beautiful and pleasant stuff was the most conversational, such as photo slides.
  • Also highly conversational: There’s a problem, but there has been (or would be) a solution:
    • Tie, but broken by miracle win in sports
    • Failed to finish marathon, but were invited back to do it
    • Marathon bombing victims, but were given medical care
    • Natural disaster, but children were saved


By contrast, the other eight top conversational stories don’t feature beautiful photos at all. Instead, they first present a problem (tied-game, tornado, cancer, disconnection, etc.) and then provide a solution or a triumph. This pattern I name as tension-relief, which is combined by a turning point.

Song went on to parse the differences behind the urge to share versus to comment on a story. The findings are similar to those from Jonah Berger, who found high-arousal emotions associated with more email shares.

More shares than comments

  1. You stayed classy, Chicago: The Blackhawks took out a full-page Boston Globe ad today to send along thanks and praise to the Bruins and the people of Boston.
  2. San Francisco City Hall was all lit up with the colors of therainbow flag last night following the Supreme Court’s decision that cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California following a bitter, five-year legal battle. Story: EPA photo
  3. This is possibly the best fireworks over Boston photo we’ve ever seen. Photo by Globe staff photographer Matthew J. Lee We hope everyone had a great Fourth of July! More photos of the celebration in Boston:

More comments than shares

  1. The latest cover of Rolling Stone magazine features a photo ofMarathon bombings suspect Dzhohkar Tsarnaev. Is this appropriate?
  2. Very sad news: Two-year-old Logan Stevenson of Western Pennsylvania died last night in his mother’s arms after serving as his parents’ best man at their wedding last weekend.
  3. This dead shark was found lying in front of the Sea Dog Brew Pub in Nantucket this morning.


Happy (gay marriage, Red Sox victory) and interesting (best fireworks, two-headed turtles) stories were shared more than commented.

By contrast, sad (death, loss) and contemptible (various suspects, sport scandal) stories were commented more than shared.

As diverse as these motivations are, people generally aim to maintain good social relations. Hence, such behavior should also be observed on Facebook, a hub of social connections, and its users should try to please others and avoid offending them. That means, if a post warns of severe weather, people are more likely to share it among social connections (information exchange). On the other hand, if a political or religious story will certainly upset some users’ parents, friends, or bosses, they will feel reluctant to throw it in their faces by sharing it. Or if it’s aligned with the belief of a social circle (sports triumphs, gay marriage, sense of justice), sharing is preferred.



People constantly switch between fast and slow thinking modes.

On social media, people are mostly guided by the fast mode.

To cater to the fast thinking mode, we should make better use of image and keep our language simple.

On the other hand, don’t hesitate to tell complicated stories, because they may engage people in slow thinking and result in receiving more feedback.

If you want to encourage a discussion, please ask questions.

If you want to make a story conversational, show a turning point with a tension and a relief, because a turning point attracts attention.

If you want to see more shares, consider infusing emotions into the stories; both positive (awe and amusement) and negative (anger and anxiety) emotions may work.

Besides emotions, smartness also works, because people try to present themselves in an ideal way. Show some good taste in science, health, and hip stories and they’ll have a better chance to be picked up.

If your stories aren’t widely shared but feverishly commented, it may be caused by the controversies in them, because people cherish social relations and avoid upsetting families, friends and colleagues by sharing offensive stories.

Straightforward enough, but as mentioned, this serves as a easy “nutrition facts label” that help newsrooms why some stories take off and others never do. 

(via Nieman Lab)

Hand a glass of white wine to a professional wine taster—how will he rate it? Let’s say 88 on a scale of 80 to 100. Give the same wine to him again, even minutes later—the rating will be plus or minus four points, on average. After adding flavorless dye to one of the glasses, researchers at the University of Bordeaux found even experts mistook the dyed liquid for a typical red. And like non-experts, wine professionals will rate a glass of wine from a fancy bottle higher than the same wine poured from a cheap bottle. (You know, something with a bird on it.)

British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that average consumers have a 50/50 chance of guessing which wine is $5 and which is $48. Serve a non-expert a glass of wine during an fMRI and tell her it’s expensive; her brain scan suggests she’ll enjoy it much more than if she thinks it’s cheap. In short, nobody can tell the good stuff from the jug wine. (This is a modified take on William Goldman’s rule of studio filmmaking: “Nobody knows anything.”)

Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford, says these wine-centric conclusions can likely be applied to coffee. “They both have a very complex, aromatic and multi-sensory profile of taste and texture,” he said. Spence earned a name for himself with clever studies showing that cup color changes the taste of hot chocolate, and the sound of an espresso machine affects the perceived taste of the brew.

(In case you doubt the wine versus coffee comparison, a Consumer Reports blind taste test determined that Folger’s decaf is the best of the grocery store offerings, noting it has “a touch of fruitiness and earthiness, but papery and cereal aromas make it a good candidate for milk and sugar.”)

I asked Spence, who has consulted with corporations from Starbucks to Unilever, about how to leverage cross-sensory experience, and if anyone can really identify a vanilla top note. “We are all suggestible,” he said. “In the absence of any branding or labels or descriptive sensory stuff, perhaps you can’t tell the difference.” But given a description of what you’re supposed to taste, “that allows you to sort your experience in a different way, and then maybe you really do experience those things. But you needed the label or the information or the cue or the trigger to get you there.”

In one study, undergraduates took a questionnaire that sought to determine values, including the importance of “seeking authority, wealth, social recognition, and preserving one’s public image.” Given a choice by scientists, kids who most valued social power preferred a sausage roll. Those less-inclined to value power chose the veggie alternative more. The punchline: the two rolls were identical.

In another study, researchers compared Perrier to a generic brand of mineral waterand found that Perrier was favored only when the two drinks were labeled. (My personal favorite is the study that showed most people can’t tell paté from dog food.)


Advertisers, of course, are keenly aware of all of this. They fund a ton of social and cognitive psychology research. (There’s literally a field called consumer psychology.) They know the cup in our hands is a visible symbol of our place in the social strata, and that our preference has almost nothing to do with flavor. Sell it right, and we’ll buy our own loyalty.

Are you a Mac or a PC? A Starbucks or a Blue Bottle? Who do you want to be when the chips are down?


This is not to say expressions of identity through brands and the pleasure taken in their consumption are invalid. There are genuine human desires for association and distinction, and value in meeting them.

(via the awl)

Being a recent transplant to the United States, I am no stranger to the conceptions and misconceptions about Asia/Chinese culture. A visit to a souvenir shop in Chinatown showcases the many things that fall under the “vaguely Asian” category – fabric fans; fake bamboo carts; elephants as toy; elephants as god; cats, and not just Hello Kitty; scroll painting; ninjas, and so on.

Along with the junk and trinkets are some American Chinese design that even non-Americans are familiar with – the angular type that makes an attempt at mimicking Chinese calligraphy brushstrokes, or what Jennifer 8. Lee calls, the Chop Suey font.


A proud American invention – chop suey.


The accompanying chop suey font. Yes, I know karate.

Design historian and School of Visual Arts professor, Paul Shaw, whose 2009 article for PRINT magazine offers a comprehensive look into the history of quasi-ethnic fonts, noted that Chop Suey (or Chopstick) letting dates back to the mid-19th century, at a time when the Chinese first started immigrating to the US in large numbers.

The one 19th century face with an unmistakably Asian name and a suggestive appearance is Chinese (Cleveland Type Foundry, 1883). Known since the mid-50s as Mandarin, the face is characterised by curved and pointed wedge strokes that superficially resemble two of the eight basic strokes of Chinese calligraphy: the downward left stroke and the upward right stroke. Unfortunately, the strokes, forced onto the armature of Roman letters, are assembled in a manner that completely ignores a calligraphic emphasis on structural balance and harmony.

Mandarin is the granddaddy of what have come to be known as Chop Suey types. It’s a fitting name, just as chop suet is an American invention, so, too, are the letters of Mandarin and its many offspring. Neither the food nor the fonts bear any real relation to true Chinese cuisine or calligraphy. But this has not prevented the proliferation of chop suey lettering and its close identification with Chinese culture outside of China. Mandarin was used by the Beggarstaff Brothers (William Nicholson and James Pryde) for their 1899 poster, “Trip to Chinatown”. The poster was included in Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, the enormously influential money publication showcasing the most beautiful posters of the fin de siècle. By the end of World War I, chop suey lettering had become synonymous with San Francisco’s Chinatown. This may have been due to the influence of the Beggarstaff poster, or it could have been a way to distinguish the rebuilding of Chinatown as a tourist destination following the 1906 earthquake. The new Chinatown was flamboyantly, theatrically Chinese, complete with pagoda roofs and other exaggerated and stylised details.

It is ugly, if not racist, but enterprising Chinese-American restauranteurs are the ones who most eagerly embraced the chop suey lettering. It was obvious about what it hinted at, and after 1.5 centuries, it has cache.

Given the unpleasant associations of the typeface, why did so many Asian eateries end up adopting it? “In many places it’s become a signaling device,” he says. “Fail to use this kind of lettering and you run the risk of being overlooked. If your sign is something really nice in Helvetica, people might go, ‘Is that really a Chinese restaurant?’ So there’s a commercial incentive for takeout places to use this typeface. And not just Chinese restaurants — I’ve seen Japanese, Korean, even Indian restaurants use this style of type, which of course makes absolutely no sense.”

(via WSJ)

chop suey restaurant

Throw in a pagoda for good measure.

“Ethnic” typefaces are not restricted to chop suey lettering – Greek and Mexican and Jewish outlets employ the same schtick, not because of a malicious intent to play up stereotypes, but simply because these fonts are good at what they do: distill an entire culture into a typographical aesthetic that becomes a signifier to the uninitiated.

We are happy to serve you.

We are happy to serve you.

Still, where does one draw the line? More importantly, we should note that these fonts are often employed by the immigrants themselves. As Shaw puts it, as long as there is chop suey, there will be chop suey lettering.


Two Wongs can make it white. Also, 80% of manicurists in California are Vietnamese Americans; Cambodian Americans own approximately 80% of doughnut shops in LA; Koreans own 65% of the dry cleaners in NYC. (T-shirt from A&F, data from a book called Contagious, by Jonah Berger)


D.E. Berlyne’s Aesthetics and Psychobiology (Berlyne 1971) summarized the state of psychological aesthetics and inspired considerable research since it was published. Following Berlyne, Colin Martindale has conducted many experiments attempting to establish universal patterns of stylistic change in art (Martindale 1990). In a varied series of studies conducted since the late 1960s, Martindale and his colleagues have shown that artistic change in all cultures rests not on an instinctive “will to innovate” but rather on a universal human desire to avoid repetition and boredom. The craving for novelty is based on well-known psychological principles of habituation, the principle that predicts the tenth mouthful of an interesting and delicious food will not be as piquant as the first, that people will sometimes change perfectly adequate wallpaper, and that ten Vivaldi concertos in a row may well prove tedious. Martindale calls habituation “the single force that has pushed art always in a consistent direction ever since the first work of art was made.” It is the universal mainspring of artistic change.

The challenge of branding has always been how to continue to be fresh and relevant in a changing world, and yet still stay the same, to keep playing the same role in a person’s life.

Here’s a leaf from academia, sometimes also known as common sense disguised under a veneer of jargon and big words. Inspired by and also intent on debunking the idea regarding the disproportionate influence of opinion leaders and trend setters in spreading fads and ideas, professor Jonah Berger set out to highlight the six STEPPS any message should try to incorporate in order to go viral among the regular Joes and Janes:

1. Social currency – we share things that make us look good, sound smart, compare favourably to others. Exclusivity in restaurants or flash sales websites is one example.

2. Triggers – we share ideas that are at the top of our mind. Sales of Mars bars spiked during NASA’s mission to the planet in 1997. Rebecca Black’s song, Friday, sees a spike in search every Friday.

3. Emotion – when we care, we share. That’s why we don’t share droll, boring stories, or events (although we somehow are compelled to tell others what we are having for breakfast). We share stories such as the one about United breaking a passenger’s guitar, something that triggers strong emotions.

4. Public – we follow others, but only if we can see what they are doing. Baristas put their own money in a tip jar to get the ball rolling. A new pub can get someone to stand in line, to get people wondering.

5. Practical value – we crave the opportunity to give advice and offer tips to others, especially if the advice is of practical value. Helping others also gives one a positive emotion. Sharing is caring.

6. Stories – people don’t just share information; they share stories, with information wrapped up in them. Stories are inherently more engaging and memorable, making them good vessels to spread ideas, brands and information. Stories, however, have to be on brand – Evian’s roller baby video has not done anything to stop a drop in sales.

It is hard to believe that any of this is remarkably new information (that will make me want to share the book). Exclusivity can help products catch on by making them look more desirable is not groundbreaking; that good storytelling sticks is a well-known fact since storytelling existed (has anyone wanted to write a forgettable story?).

Content aside, Professor Berger is also, unfortunately, not a good writer. While not one to use big words and academic jargon, he has chosen to fall to the other end of the spectrum by employing hackneyed marketing words such as inner remarkability, and repeating point after obvious point. This book should not catch on, but there are worse things with a larger following.