Brexit: Blitz or Bug, there’s a capital idea for advertisers

This is a piece I wrote whilst working on a contract as the Interim Head of Audience and Insight at ESI Media.  I wrote it to suggest an angle for a piece written by ESI Commercial’s Managing Director, Jon O’Donnell.  Jon is a creative character who enjoyed stamping his own character on it and embellishing it by linking it to a recent ESI event.  You can read his splendid version here.  In the meantime, here’s mine.

Britain 1939.  Fear. And then Britain basked in sunshine for months before the bombs rained down.

The World 1999.  Fear. And then over the first few minutes, then hours, then days of the year 2000 the Millennium Bug turned from feared monster to laughing stock.  It didn’t show.

Right now economists and advertisers alike are searching the skies for any evidence of Brexit fallout.

The signs are contradictory.  Permanent hiring has dropped but so have unemployment benefit claims.

Business confidence and business activity has fallen but, after a poor August, there are signs of recovery.

Consumer price inflation remains low and retail sales have risen but consumer confidence has dropped.  But now it is creeping back up.

What can you be sure of?

Something you can be sure of is the resilience of London and Londoners.  Bearing in mind London contains more Remainers than Brexiteers this resilience is a sort of Blitz spirit.  They are prepared for turbulence but remain confident.

Londoners typically show more consumer confidence than UK consumers in general.  The respected GfK Consumer Confidence barometer shows this to be still true, even after the Brexit vote.  The latest figures (August) show London to be the first region to climb out of the negative confidence zone.

In fact, London’s full time workers never went into the negative consumer confidence zone, unlike the nation’s full time workers overall.

Advertisers might take heed of confidence in London and concentrate more spend on Londoners.

After all, there is a high level of physical availability of goods in London but Londoners, amidst all that choice, often just need reminding of your brand.

London accounts for more retail spend than Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland combined (Mintel).

Londoners are more likely to spend without thinking and have expensive tastes. They are more likely to pay more for goods and services that make their busy lives easier. They are more likely to agree that advertising helps them to choose what to buy and, surprisingly, they feel less bombarded by advertising than the rest of the country. (TGI)

London’s workers are more likely than the average British worker to shop for clothes and eat and drink on their way home from work.  They are more likely to stop off at a cinema or theatre (ESI research)

They are also more likely to shop online on their commute too.  Londoners account for two-thirds of all mCommerce spend when commuting (Centre for Economics and Business research).

Brexit hasn’t changed London’s role as a national and global powerhouse yet.  It probably never will.  London’s consumers won’t cease to power the spending and confidence of the nation either.

The Brexit bombs might start dropping soon or, like the Millennium Bug, the bogeyman might never appear.

Whatever happens, advertising to Londoners is a capital idea.

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Will we accept robots on holiday?

Imagine the following scenario. You walk into a hotel after a long flight and the person behind the hotel desk isn’t a person at all but a robot. The scenario sounds futuristic but there are already robot receptionists in some hotels.

How would you feel?

It wouldn’t feel very ‘human’, of course, but then it can feel rather less than human when you’re faced with a real but incompetent human receptionist. Robots make less procedural mistakes than humans and they don’t get tired.

I was commissioned by the travel company Travelzoo to run a multi-country study investigating the extent to which people across the world are ready to accept robots in the travel industry.

Travelzoo were delighted with the amount of PR that the research generated, from Lonely Planet to CNN to The Mirror and beyond. It exceeded the expectations of their award winning PR team.

The countries covered were the UK, Germany, France, Spain, US, Canada, Japan, China and Brazil. I used Nordstadt for the fieldwork. Over 6,000 respondents around the world answered our questionnaire in local languages. All had recently booked travel online.

They were asked the very same scenario this article opened with; you walk into a hotel and a robot is the receptionist.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the majority of respondents (83%) prefer the idea of human hotel receptionists to robots.

However, they were then asked which they would prefer if the robot receptionist was a little more competent than the human. At this point 59% opted for the machine, 41% stuck with the human.

You might argue that it is natural for people to opt for competent service or you might be surprised at our willingness to welcome the machines. Now let’s move on from receptionists to waiters.

In a scenario in which a human waiter and a robot waiter are equally competent, 81% of us would prefer the human, a similar figure to the receptionist scenario.

If the human waiter were less competent than the robot waiter, however, the majority of us (56%) would still want the human to wait our table. People didn’t naturally opt for competence in this scenario.

The Europeans, especially the French, were least likely to want to replace less competent waiters with efficient robots.

It seems that people can accept the idea of robot receptionists more than they can accept robot waiters.

You might think the issue is mobility. It is easier to imagine a machine working behind a desk than negotiating the tables at a pavement café. However, people would accept the use of robots as hotel porters more readily than they would accept robot receptionists. Porters negotiate miles of crowded corridors and take several lift journeys every day.

Similarly, the idea of robots bringing room service was more acceptable than robots working on the reception desk. Only the French would prefer a less competent human bringing room service to a competent robot.

Women were similar to men in the extent to which they would welcome robot porters and room service providers (i.e. roles that involve coming to the hotel room door), which suggests there is no personal security issue at play here. We are simply more open to some travel jobs being taken by robots than others.

People were especially reluctant to replace airline cabin crew and the customer facing crew on cruise ships with robots. In all countries the majority thought humans could do these jobs better than robots. Notably these are jobs that, in emergencies, extend to directing people to life rafts and emergency exits.

After these two jobs it is the humble bar tender we’d prefer to be human. Perhaps bartenders are lifesavers in a different sense. Only the Chinese were happy to see the bartender turn robot.

The majority of people are also comfortable with the idea of robots being used in nurseries in holiday location, assisting human childcare workers. Surprisingly parents of young children were keener on the idea than average. Perhaps their desire to see their darlings entertained is greater than any fear of robot nursery assistants.

In general, the survey uncovered more comfort with the idea of robots replacing roles in the travel industry than expected. Overall, 61% said they would be comfortable with the use of robots in some roles. Overall, perceived advantages of robots in travel industry jobs outweighed concerns.

The biggest concern was that they take away jobs. In unemployment-hit Spain this concern outweighed all the perceived advantages of robots in travel.

The French and Germans worried about robots being too impersonal. The biggest fear of the British is that robots wouldn’t understand slang or irony. In these three countries the main concern was as prevalent as the greatest perceived attraction (efficiency).

In all nations there was a mixture of fear and optimism about the coming of the robots to the travel industry. Optimism outweighed fear on balance.

It is fortunate that we err to optimism as 77% of us expect robots to be a big part of our life soon. The Brits were the most sceptical but even 69% of them expected robots to be a big part of life soon. The robots are coming and, it seems, they’ll be pretty well accepted on our holidays, even if we can see them in some roles more than in others.

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Millennials research by Metro and MailOnline

Recently I led a research project about Millennials for Metro and MailOnline. It was launched at Advertising Week Europe as ‘Millennial Rules’.  Currently it is shortlisted for a Mediaweek award.

The topic of millennials is broad, confusing and often seemingly contradictory. My pitch to win the project was based on the idea of a central hub of insight that would be the ‘go to’ destination for agencies and advertisers seeking to understand the generation. It should lessen confusion and address contradictions rather than add more of both.  

The central hub that was created can be seen here. It contains nine rules for advertising to millennials, eight millennial traits, a competition for agencies, presentation slides, infographics and an expert guide. Hats off to the Metro and MailOnline teams for producing such a useful and good looking website.

You can read all about the full research methodology in the expert guide. I got to work with the Bournemouth University Faculty of Media and Communication (and met some wonderful millennial students there), CrowdDNA who partnered me for the qualitative work and the desk research and Alligator Research who I used for the quant.

 Below, as a taster and content for this blog, is a section from the nine-chapter, sixty page experts guide. Such a big report is there to ensure every brief line in the slide deck can be traced back to a fuller explanation. It ensures nothing gets forgotten and research departments have all the facts, figures and findings. This particular section deals with social media.


Young people have always felt insecure about how others see them but in the millennial story it would be impossible to untangle social media from the pressure to be perfect. 34% of millennials say social media forces the to be vainer, according to Adjust Your Set.

Social media not only triggers insecurity about looks but also the fear of not getting on in life too.

 “With everything we see on social media this can make us feel overwhelmed. We see constant achievements or people the same age so much further ahead in life. Seeing all this on social media sometimes can make you question yourself and doubt what you have achieved” (Older Millennial).

Millennials live lives that only yesterday’s celebrities would have recognised – always in front of a lens, always having to make what they are doing seem ‘cool’.

Any given moment could turn into a photo shoot.

They are on a quest for physical perfection. Today’s twenty- somethings are three times more likely to go to the gym than their counterparts were 30 years ago, according to Holland and Barrett. The use of protein shakes is high, exercise is personalised (meeting personal physical goals rather than being team sport focused) and lifestyles don’t allow for anything that might cause physical damage so smoking, drinking and drug use is declining amongst the young.

Yet all this work isn’t creating more overall confidence. Rather, the bar is simply set much higher. According to Holland and Barrett, only 3% of the younger generation feel extremely confident about their body shape, whereas more than 11% of those aged over 50 said they felt secure about their appearance when they were in their 20s.

Older millennials have started to grow in self-confidence and put the importance of social media into perspective.

“When I was younger I would say I was more susceptible to social media but now I am older and more experienced I am able to see the positives in my life and hold them in higher regard” (Older Millennial).

“On Instagram and Facebook people only really post when they are doing interesting or exciting things. You can get a misguided impression that they are somehow more interesting than you” (Older Millennial).

“Whilst I use Facebook, I do struggle with reading people’s declarations of their ‘perfect lives’ whilst I’m sitting at home in my pyjamas. I rarely post now and that makes me feel a lot more secure in myself” (Older Millennial).

They still take a lot of pleasure in social media and buy into the desire to show an idealised version of their life.

“Social media is a guilty pleasure. Of course there’s pressure. I feel the pressure of it to show how brilliant my holiday is” (Older Millennial)

But they see other uses for social media. Initiative reported that the older millennials are less likely to use social media as ‘Social Me’ (self focussed with emphasis on marketing themselves and boosting their profile) and more likely to see it as ‘Social We’ (a (a support network linking like-minded people and old friends)

The entrepreneurs see social media as a springboard from which they can launch their businesses. Crucially they can use it for free, be creative and make their own story part of their business.

“Social media gives you the freedom to make money for yourself and that’s what’s amazing about social media – if you want to start a business or promote anything you can do it without paying someone to do it for you. But from a social sense, I find it so stressful, same old thing, everyone trying to portray their perfect lives. But there is so much opportunity on an entrepreneurial level and that’s why I think it’s a good thing on balance” (Older Millennial).

The younger millennials we met were thoroughly bought in, immersed in both the pleasure and pain of social media. A millennial who is also a teacher told us;

 “You’ve got girls taking selfies when I’m trying to teach or videoing me and putting it on Facebook. I thought I was tech savvy but I’m not. They know so much more than I do. They try and charge their phones in the classroom saying oh no I’ve only got 20% battery and I still need to get home. Their whole lives revolve around their phones” (Older Millennial).

And here’s what some of the students we met at Bournemouth University said;

“I would definitely say I’m a different person on social media – you try to be the perfect you! You only post the pictures in which you feel you look your best on to Facebook and Instagram. You are seeking social acceptance and appreciation” (Younger Millennial)

“Many people feel pressured to keep up a positive image on social media, normally an image that suggest they’re succeeding in life and this is depicted by things such as materialistic items, beauty and exotic holidays etc. If you’re not seen this way, people feel they’re seen as a failure’’ (Younger Millennial).

“On Instagram I am a reputation-conscious monster, desperate to portray a persona of ‘coolness’ and ‘attractiveness’ to those who don’t know me in person’’ (Younger Millennial).

‘Likes’ on social media are important to this group.

“Instagram is a young person’s medium, where ‘likes’ are as valuable as money and maintaining an attractive profile means everything!’’ (Younger Millennial).

 “Social media is self-promotion. It is gratifying when your post gets lots of likes or retweets” (Younger Millennial).

“I know some people who have posted a photo and not had ‘enough’ likes and have then deleted it. They think if people don’t ‘like’ you online then they don’t like you at all” (Younger Millennial).

On balance, they would rather be ‘liked’ in person (girls said they would rather someone in a club said they really liked their dress than just get a like on social media) but a social media ‘like’ can theoretically happen anytime, not just when out and dressed up. This group is ever likely to be in front of a lens and ever likely to be critically appraised. There are very few hiding places.

They have adopted tactics to maximise their chances of getting a ‘like’. We heard about “Prime-Insta Time” from a student who times her use of Instagram to match the maximum number of eyeballs that will see it.

We also heard about the role of purchases in the pursuit of ‘likes’.

“I have one friend who has to put a picture on Instagram most days and if she goes shopping the first thing she does is take a photo with the new clothing she has bought’’ (Younger Millennial).

“Many Instagram users have bought things based on the ‘rep’ and number of likes they will receive and I am no exception” (Younger Millennial).

No wonder then that millennials are said to be in constant search of affirmation. Friends play an important role and their advice can be sought on potential purchases even when they’re not in the shop to see for themselves. We met millennials who said all shops should have Wi-Fi so they can send pictures of potential purchases to their friends and receive their instant answers.

But it is also important to remember the role of competition in their lives. They are competing with the very people they are seeking affirmation and ‘likes’ from.

The more competitive amongst them were posting pictures of purchases already made. They were not asking for advice on purchases to be made. It is an important distinction because it says, “here’s what I’ve done” and shows they’ve taken another step. One more step forward in the competition – one more step towards perfection.



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Extra curricular reading of business media

Recently I ran some research for the PPA around business media.  It was a survey amongst people on the databases of business media companies.  Some of the quirkiest findings were around extra curricular reading.

My research showed that 61% of respondents read business media in the evening, after work. 44% read it at the weekends and a staggering one in five of us read it on holiday (however, that last stat became less staggering when I realised that I do it). In fact, only 28% of the respondents did none of these things (presumably only reading business media at work).

There’s an obvious link between this behaviour and another stat that said 71% of them like to take their time with business media. I remember talking to an Engineer who had been scouring his place of work to find back copies of the The Engineer magazine to take on holiday with him. A deck chair and a pile of The Engineers is heaven for some.

Of course, a lot of this extra curricular reading is done via internet enabled devices.  It is done on the spur of the moment and doesn’t require being as pre-planned as our engineer friend.  Such devices blur the lines between work and home – or work and the beach.

The research found 67% of us are looking for breaking news on business media websites and that happens a lot via digital platforms outside office hours. I suspect a study of fortnight holidays would show more of that in the first week than the second. It takes time to wind down and we live in an ‘always-on’ society.

It is an opportunity for business media and a chance to use analytics to find out what articles are being read in the evenings, at weekends and during school holidays that are less read during work.

Now, where did I put that copy of The Engineer?

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The immersive experience of print

This week I was privileged to present at the PPA Business Media Summit at the Intercontinental Park Lane. I shared the stage with such luminaries as Bruce Daisley, MD of Twitter and John Barnes, MD of Incisive Media. The moderator was editor and writer Jon Bernstein, formerly of The New Statesman and Channel 4 News.

My role was to outline some research findings that the PPA had commissioned me to produce. I ran an online survey, using Alligator research, amongst 400 professional people sourced from the databases of the PPA’s Business Media publisher clients. They ranged from engineers to lawyers, financiers to marketing and pharmaceutical professionals. Business media spreads far and wide.

Anyone who has ever been employed knows business media does a good job and my objective was to put some figures behind the great work it does. Jon asked me some interesting questions in the Q&A that followed my presentation.

This blog piece is about the first question he asked me. It was about the fact that respondents were more regularly reading websites than the business media print products. What of the quality of that engagement, he asked? Does the immersive nature of print give it the upper hand?

Firstly, comparing regular reading of print and online is a little ‘apples and pears’ because print has an issue date and websites are constantly updated. It makes it hard to choose a common metric. For print I used “read at least one out of every two issues” and for websites, “at least once per fortnight”. The same? Not really, but close.

The issue date issue is part of the answer to Jon’s question. A magazine’s arrival is an event. It isn’t as ubiquitous as tap water; it’s a glass to enjoy. 71% of my sample liked to take their time reading business media, though 67% are constantly checking business media websites for breaking news.

The Engineer is a business magazine that went out of print a few years ago. Centaur brought it back – one of several print publications to do a Lazarus. Engineers told me how ecstatic they were to see it come back yet none of the content disappeared, just the ‘event’ and the magazine moments; the magazine’s arrival, the moment, as one engineer told me, that you’ve set the machine running and can sit back with the magazine. No dodgy Wi-Fi issues or grubby fingers on smart screens. The only issue is the one in your hand.

Some of us have been around print for years and we have habits and associations that are hard to break. Recently I was handed a free NME at a tube station (that companion of our youth is now without cover price) and it felt a bit guilty and a bit special to just be given one. It went in my bag as something to look forward to.

However, I was in a focus group with the youngest of smartphone touting millennials the other day and they told me about the joy of print; glossy fashion magazines with page after page of delicious fashion advertising.

So it isn’t just about the old romantic notions of print held only by those of us who remember a pre-digital world. It is about appropriate platforms. Print is personal and can look beautiful so it appeals across the ages.

But then my iPhone is personal and can look beautiful too. The web might have started cluttered but it needn’t go on that way. Mobile first strategies are making our screens immersive, not despite the small screen but because of it, because it is personal and beautiful. I’ve never believed that screen size matters, just design and resolution. I know a lady who tells me her husband read a novel on his watch! That anecdote sounds less and less unusual every time I tell it.

The design of apps makes for immersive reading too. Much thought goes into keeping us in their walled gardens. As a result, Enders tell us that 86% of the time we spend on connected devices is spent within apps. 36% of those with a smartphone in my PPA research had downloaded a business media app and 27% of them used it everyday. Only 2% never used it. Get someone to download and they will use it. Yes, the youngest members of the sample were more likely to have downloaded business media apps but so too were those in the boardroom. It is certainly an emerging behaviour.

App reading can be complementary to print and website reading. Those reading a print business media title regularly were very likely to have downloaded an app and so were those who read business media websites regularly too. It’s not one or the other; it’s about appropriate platforms. I like the Kindle app on my iPhone on which I read my Amazon purchases. I can immerse myself in my book, one handed, hanging onto a tube train – but I’d rather be on a sofa with the actual book. The app is just immersion on tap.

Why don’t I read via a screen all the time? Why don’t people in my research just give up on the print product? In a nutshell it is because it requires a different sort of energy and the information I read is later recalled in different ways.

Research by NewsUK last year concluded that reading via a tablet triggers more electrical activity so it encodes into memories faster than print. Print is a less stimulating though less tiring way to read and so it ends up encoding as much into our memory as tablet reading does but over a longer period. They argue, therefore, that simply comparing dwell time of print and tablets overlooks the energy spent.

Researchers in an Israeli Institute of Technology in 2011 had people prep for a multi choice exam either using screen based or print based course material. When given only 7 minutes to prepare both groups did equally well. When given an indefinite period to prepare the print group did much better. The researchers put it down to print encouraging people to read with goals and revisit paragraphs to ensure they understand. Behaviours consistent with the NewsUK view that print is a slower boiling pot.

If there is a lesson for business media publishers in all this it is that you don’t need to make screen reading exactly like print reading. Publishers tried that and it isn’t a bad starting place because it made them de-clutter. However, digital reading will be all about interactivity and personalisation in future.

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We need a monument of hope in the age of the Shard

This is a piece I wrote for Mediatel in 2011.  At the time I was working at The Daily Telegraph and we were promoting a roadshow of media buying agencies that The Telegraph was undertaking.  The Shard was a recent addition to the London skyline and gave me a striking metaphor to begin with.

The Shard towers over London, a lean, tapering, thrust to the sky. It’s magnificent but it’s not kind. The contrast with the Gherkin couldn’t be starker. The Gherkin, built in 2003, before the financial crisis, is plump and jolly – a monument to a time of plenty. The Shard tells the story of the new world but there’s optimism missing in its sharp narrative.

In these dark days the future is uncertain and we need a monument to inspire hope. After the ’87 crash, New York adopted a statue of a raging bull to represent financial hope but I propose that London, not least ad-land, needs a statue of slightly balding man in his late fifties. He doesn’t need to look aggressive or triumphant or even saintly, he could just look a bit, well, like someone’s dad.

He is your hope. The country is feeling the pinch of the financial crisis and things are set to get worse. But we are not all feeling the pinch equally, we are not all in it together as the government tell us. There is a wealth gap opening up in the country and it’s not between north and south or the franchised and the underclass; it’s between the generations. Your baby boomer parents have all the money and for them, the party isn’t over.

This is a story of luck. The baby boomers were born in a post-war world. They were expected to be the generation that fought the Russians but they ended up riding a wave of good fortune and they sucked up all the wealth. Nobody could imagine the extent to which the babies of the fifties would have it so good.

“Average Baby Boomer” is the title I’m giving my proposed statue, or “Brian”, to give him a name. He bought his first house for a ninth of the price his average son paid this year for his average property. His son is in negative equity, having only just got rid of his student debt but “Brian” has made a mint from property. His present mortgage has practically gone but he is one of the baby boomers who bought a second home recently because his son’s generation couldn’t get the credit to benefit from falling house prices. He and his wife are busy furnishing it.

Brian was once a bright lad who got himself a good job as an accountant, at a time when there was more social mobility. Bristol University research shows that, on average, accountants of Brian’s generation were born to parents who had average incomes. Those taking up accountancy jobs in later generations had parents whose incomes were 40% higher than the national average.

Social mobility is part of the baby boomer success story.

Brian has climbed the tree as the years have gone by and he’s at a level in his company that means his wage has increased by over 25% in ten years. For those lower down the tree, like his son, wages have barely kept pace with inflation.

When he retires he has a final salary pension, the level of which was worked out by someone expecting Brian to live no longer than seven years after retirement but, he’ll keep going until his late eighties, spending most of that time active and spending. No such luck for the rest of us, a PWC survey found recently that 94% of major employers intend either to reduce or axe current defined benefit provision.

I mentioned that Brian’s an accountant but he’s also the bank manager of the fastest growing bank in the UK, the bank of mum and dad. According to research from Sainsbury’s Life Insurance, parents in the UK have forked out a staggering £34 billion in loans and financial gifts in the last year alone. This includes those who received a total of £8.4 billion for mortgage or rental deposits or payments, £3.5 billion for home improvements and £2.2 billion to pay off debts.

Deloitte says household incomes are at their lowest since 1955 and Mervyn King says we face the biggest downturn either since the thirties or perhaps it will be the worst yet. None of us have experienced anything like this but it is Brian’s money that will make our world keep turning.

He represents hope. His statue might not be as attractive looking as the figure of someone in the 25-44 age groups but he is cast in gold. He is the opportunity now for advertisers brave enough to think beyond their traditional targets. For many advertisers who target 25-44s, a significant amount of their existing customers are 45+ anyway but they are often left un-targeted. Times have changed. When the young could get credit, it was easier to ignore this large, rich group of people but that was in Gherkin time, not the age of the Shard.

As part of the Telegraph Works programme we’re visiting advertising agencies on a roadshow, bringing an exhibition showing just how the Telegraph works. As part of the day advertising director, Nick Hewat is doing a couple of talks in which he discusses Brian along with characters representing younger generations. It’s compelling stuff and if that roadshow comes to your agency do go along. He makes a thought provoking case and, you never know, if he convinces you, you might just join my campaign for ad-land’s new monument to hope.

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Robo-journalism: The future is arriving quickly

This is a piece that I wrote for The Media Briefing. It can be seen in situ (including links to source articles) here.

The number of UK employed journalists has declined by 6,000 (9%) since 2013 as publishers have had to cut costs. However, it means they are cutting content creators at a time that they are demanding more content creation. Some experienced writers have been replaced by younger, cheaper ‘digital-natives’ but publishers will increasingly use robo-journalists instead.

If you think that’s far-fetched – they’re here already, learning fast.

The career path of the robo-journalist

Robots are employed by several publishers including The New York Times, LA Times and Forbes.

They’ve shown a natural aptitude for data so careers have started on sport and business desks but they’re moving into breaking news and investigative journalism.

Like all junior reporters they’re learning from their copy editors. Although in this case the ‘subs’ are there to actually, not metaphorically, re-programme them.

Like junior reporters they can learn from and draw on a back catalogue of great writing – but with more powerful memories and analytical techniques.

A few big publishers will understand their potential and let them shine. Other publishers will only ever give them mundane jobs.

They’ll open doors for the sort of nimble new companies that arrive during disruption, able to use technology for what it is suited.

Silicon Valley is already immersed in the technology behind robo-journalism but will use it first in fields like healthcare. They’ll enter robo-journalism later, buying or eliminating the newcomers.

Take a step back. How good is robo-journalism?
It has taken ages to reach a point where people in tests can’t tell the difference between machine written articles and similar articles by humans. A key feature of the ‘new machine age’ is that slow development quickly turns to accelerated gains.

A hard exercise has been getting journalists to verbalise what they’ve learnt to do instinctively. Once verbalised, those lessons are turned into algorithms. Machines can then trawl through wire stories, the Internet, press releases and data sets, finding and writing stories.

They don’t, of course, knock on doors, burn shoe leather or make contacts and phone calls. However, they can do the same tasks as the increasing proportion of journalists set to re-packaging news or making sense of the increasingly digitised data that informs the news.

After algorithm creation there’s slow fine-tuning. This is human labour-intensive process of re-programming but it is coming on apace.

The Associated Press once checked everything machines produced but now they put the majority of it on the wire directly.

Other companies will be check everything but decoupling machines from over zealous human chaperoning will be essential to take full advantage. It is what will make new entrant companies nimble; it is what will hold back established publishers. Machines produce more if checking doesn’t slow output.

How machines learn
Machines can learn language from large banks of expensively produced, comparable texts.

They translate between languages by comparing decades of EU and UN reports, expensively translated into multiple languages by humans. When asked to translate a sentence they scan these translations to find a close match or a few fragments they can add together.

Similarly, that newsbrands publish to the open web means machines can compare how publishers cover the same story. They learn alternative phrases, different approaches, narratives, tones and house styles.

It means they can be set to write with a particular skew: in support of a sports team or against a political party.

They can learn in an unsupervised way. They can absorb captions under hundreds of pictures and so describe what is in a new picture. They can test their understanding of stories against summaries like those CNN and MailOnline use in articles. They can learn in dynamic environments, reacting to events around them. They don’t always need a human to slowly feed them knowledge.

This rich back-catalogue of digitised articles is also a source of facts to draw on. Machines have powerful memories. Fact checking is fast.

Paul Pierotti, MD of Accenture Digital says:

“This technology is being used in healthcare firstly because of its ability to digest vast amounts of textbook knowledge and new research; secondly because it can diagnose what it sees in pictures or in patient data; thirdly, it can use language to report the diagnosis along with supporting evidence and recommendations. The reasoning and language will evolve to feel human. If the healthcare industry can harness that potential so too can news companies.”

Data Analysis
Machines are adept at investigating data sets. Publishers have set them to tax records, homicide data, meteorological reports and more – looking for patterns and describing them. They’re thorough, not prone to error and they’re fast.

The LA Times uses robo-journalism to break news about earthquakes because machines can analyse geological survey data faster than a human. It takes under five minutes to spot a story and get it online.

Robo-journalists are arriving at a time when the lack of data skills amongst journalists is starting to show. Peter Bale, MD of CNN observed at a Reuters Institute Big Data event that traditional journalists who aired opinions based on very little proof were being embarrassed by people, often outside the industry, who could draw more solid conclusions from data. Machines will help publishers catch up.

Machines can produce multiple versions of an article to make it more ‘personal’ – to give it local flavour, for example.

Again, speed is important. Re-writes are produced in a fraction of the time it would take a human so stories are both current and personal. As well as location, personalisation might be based on the demographics or behaviours of groups of readers, as determined by their online activity. Publishers already target advertising like this.

Articles can be re-written based on what an individual might show they know about a topic in an interactive element in an article. The machine then describes the difference between your perception and reality.

We’ve always read between the lines to understand how we are personally affected or to see how reality differs from what we assume. In the future we will only need to read the lines themselves to understand those things.

Language translation is another form of personalisation. Publishers from De Correspondent to The Economist have ambitions to find new customers amongst different language speakers. Machines offer opportunity.

Finally, machines can write tirelessly. By covering more topics they’re more likely to write about your football team, your industry etc. News feels more personal.

Interest to Advertisers
Robo-journalism will be of interest to the advertising department. They’ve built native advertising units to write copy for advertisers – and charge a premium. Personalisation means bigger premiums.

On the flip side, what if robo-journalism technology got into advertiser hands? They already plan to buy native at scale across many sites. What’s missing is the ability to speedily and cost-effectively re-write content to suit different publishers’ environments. If technology enables it, they can force prices down.

In conclusion
The slow part is over. The rate of development will accelerate. Costs of entry will drop, as expensive lessons learnt by machines will be cheaply replicated in others.

Publishers will battle nimble robo-publishers and advertisers seeking to drive down cost. They’ll need to fully embrace the twin opportunities of data interpretation and personalisation – and avoid chaperoning machines too closely.

Before you know it, these challenges will be upon us.

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