Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Let your people do the talking

Having tried and largely failed to control dialogue through their branded social media channels, organisations are increasingly turning to their employees as the potential arbiters of their messaging. 

This is a far cry from the days when social networks were often banned in corporate environments to prevent secrets leaking out, or to minimise the risk of customers being alienated, or simply to stop employees wasting time on Facebook.

Early adopters of social media for professional purposes though, have long seen the professional and commercial potential of becoming online bellwethers and gurus. They’ve used LinkedIn and Twitter accounts to build their own communities, creating new opportunities for themselves (and sometimes their employers too) in the process.

This approach is challenging the orthodoxy of social media as a customer service channel (e,g. a powerful way for disgruntled customers to complain publicly). Quite simply, people are happy to moan at a brand, but they’d much rather talk to a person. In fact, they’d probably quite like that.

Consequently, organisations are looking to tap into a portion of their employees’ communication power and push corporate messages through personal social media accounts. For some, this may sound cynical, or simply a recipe for chaos, but proper training and support can convert employee goodwill and ambition into profile.

Implementing such a programme isn’t easy or straightforward. Building a responsive cohort within an organisation and then extending that behaviour into BAU takes time and commitment. But there’s firm evidence that the majority of socially savvy employees are willing to help once they feel suitably empowered and supported within an organisational-wide initiative, sponsored from the top.

No doubt some employers will have certain advantages built in. Equally though, every organisation has something to gain from this in terms of profile and brand. And in the end. Perhaps the biggest biggest benefit of all will be that elusive but valued beast: employee engagement.

Simply explaining corporate objectives to employees is no longer sufficient. Organisations that want to reap the benefits of a fully engaged workforce need to give their employees the opportunity to champion those objectives. Businesses that succeed in this will receive a vote of confidence and loyalty from their customers that can’t be replicated by traditional advertising and marketing spend.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vindication (of sorts)

Quick addendum to my last post as we subsequently won the Best Annual Report (Blue Chip) at the Business Finance Awards for the PwC 2015 Annual Report.

Its great to have your ideas vindicated in this way, through third party independent sources. However, the fact that the judges were unanimous in their deliberations was particularly pleasing.

Julian Baker, Nick Masters and Lee Connett at the Business Finance Awards

Obviously, this has only strengthened my belief in the futility of much of the content that is pumped out today and they way it is handled online. When you see how much repurposing still goes on, it just reminds me of that old joke, "If you want to get there, I wouldn't start here".

Monday, February 22, 2016

What are you still doing with that?

 Not fit for purpose is a widely over- and often misused phrase, but when it comes to much online content online, it's spot often on.

A simple test for this theory is to answer the following question:

  • What is the best format to show numerical comparisons? 
  • What is the best way to demonstrate data? 
  • What is the best way to conduct a four way interview?

If your answer for any or all of the above is to write it down and publish it, then clearly we're not going to agree. Yet as nonsensical as it seems, this remains the number one tactic for a huge amount of external communications material. Sure you trip across the occasional video and well produced graphic, but these are often addendum's to the real thing - the document - and rarely assets that have been conceived and created in their own right.

All of which is increasingly anachronistic in a world where content is consumed on brightly back lit devices that fit neatly into an average hand. Even my local train company insists on still publishing its timetables on a pdf via its app. Brilliantly unhelpful, but extremely convenient for them, as that's how they've been doing things ever since they bought a PC in 1988 and discovered Desktop Publishing.

While the world has moved on, most organisations have not. Even their employees have evolved further in the past 15 years then they have - just look at the following:

  • Our attention span is now less than that of a goldfish (8.25 seconds in 2015, down from 12 seconds in 2000)
  • People read  less than half of the words on a web page – even when there’s only 111 words or less
  • Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text - Imagery gets 67% more attention as a result
  • Videos increase people’s understanding by 74% compared to text

This of course only reflects what we suspect - and if you've ever asked your users or looked at a metrics report - already know.

PwC put this theory to the test last year when creating its Annual Report. Previously, this had always been a traditional print document that had subsequently been dismantled and then reconfigured online.

Rather than a single document it was launched as 40 pieces of content including videos, infographics, animations and a data explorer. All of which were individually shareable and pre-loaded on to social channels.

It wasn't a contest.

There was more social sharing in a week than the whole of the previous year and surpassed most obvious milestones, page views, visits etc within weeks. Good content, produced in the right way, finds its audience, now more than ever. There really is no excuse to continue to get this wrong.

Friday, September 18, 2015

New spoons please

When was the last time you went online looking to buy something - say your summer vacation - but you were so taken by an online advert that you ended up buying a set of grapefruit spoons instead (I'd wager never, even if you swap the spoons for "anything").

The reason is that we simply ignore anything that gets in our way online, as if it simply didn't exist. 

It doesn't matter how clever the messaging or how "native" the experience, if something is served up in front of you that does not correspond to the task in hand, it is of no value to you or the people who placed it there.

The data for this is abundant and yet the implications of it are lost on many of us who supposedly do this for a living. 

Sites are packed with things like hero images and rotating banners which look nice and contains all the content companies want people to see, to complete indifference.


Because most people already know what they are looking for and the chances that this is mentioned in a hero image are minimal at best. Anything that doesn't look like content is immediately ignored. Anything that isn't relevant, comes next.

The majority of sites are still steered by the interests of the organisation and ignore the needs of the individual user. This is often why they use social media to act as customer service rather than engagement.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Keeping it real

One common goal for many of those who regularly use digital technologies is the quest for authenticity.

Its an obvious desire to humanise behaviour and capabilities that are largely seen as virtual or distant. But the very concept of authenticity is a tricky one as it is more often than not a value judgement rather than an absolute. 

In another guise, authenticity is often referred to in relation to food, with no particular reference to the users lack of a first hand knowledge of the provenance of a dish or taste.

Even so, we strive for an authentic voice, despite this being for an audience which is largely unknown.

What we are often looking for relates more to believability and engagement rather than a sense of ultimate truth, i.e. does it sound right is the first step on the road to deciding is this for me?.

Social media is the current barometer for much of this discussion as everybody strives to find their voice in a noisy environment. 

In a business context this is why its good to be quite transparent in your online persona rather than hiding behind assumed handles or anonymity.

While it does increase your personal responsibility it also means you are more likely to attract a question or query from a from somebody interested in your content. With most organisation's continuing to view Social Media as sophisticated broadcast tools, they miss the fundamental point. That this is akin to expecting existing and prospective customers to stand outside a building and shout from a distance.

And sharing in your own voice is always going to be more authentic than addressing a multitude of different groups through a single medium.

This is when  authenticity counts. When it is directly inspired by our goal to be an organisation that is social not one that does social.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Look away now

In an unusual bout of consistency - for me anyway - I can now boast that my least favourite work-related question remains the same now as it did a decade ago. The offending query being, "What's the site going to look like".

For "site" read home page and for "look" read look.

This offends me for for two principle reasons. Both of them the same. 

What something looks like must be secondary to what it does/says. Web sites, mobile applications, blogs, social media feeds are designed to be read, watched and listened too, not admired in a slightly detached way.

This is the base problem when being involved in the production of online products - they are seen as primarily aesthetic rather than functional by those who commission them.

Rather than focusing on what what is to be communicated, we tend to obsess about the superfluous and largely redundant imagery, the colour spread and the quota of white space.

The reason users make up their minds about a page in a fraction of the second is because of a single issue - content. Does this page do what I want/need. They do not ponder the challenge, "but does it please me?" The best looking pages are meaningless if they don't provide the answers to the questions in the users mind (and in their search query) and the sites with the most useful/best content tend to win. 

Just look at the continuing success of Craig's List if you remain to be convinced.

Admittedly this is slightly less of an issue than it once was but just for the record, when working on an online project, on a list of five priorities, pure design will always come fifth.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Disrupting the disrupters: How good content finds its home

An extract from a speech I made at the PR Moment conference on 3 Dec:-

Recently I was reprimanded for posting the following Tweet.

It was Friday night, I was at a gig. I like the band a lot and the Union Chapel is beautiful and evocative venue and in those circumstances this translated a little more rationally perhaps than it does out outside of that context.

Even so, I didnt entirely understand the reaction to something, I was informed, was not the kind of thing I normally talk about or am associated with.

Logically Im only doing what lots of people do now, which is to extemporise moments in their lives, to an audience they may or may not know. At the same time using language and expressing emotions that are not the norm, could be seen as inauthentic or worse still pretentious rendering the message a victim of its own intent.

The latter point is crucial in some respects as any communication relies on its audience to judge the originators motivation. Was this serious? Did I mean what I was saying? Did I express it properly? In a world where sarcasm and irony are used to decontextualized commentary, how you express something is often as important as what you are trying to say.

But if the importance of social media is that it does allow us to talk about what we chose, where and when it suits us, then presumably there are going to be more interactions like the above not less. Which is course begs the question is this really a good thing?

Isnt it going to create a world of ever greater noise, where anybody can comment on anything, and where we all get lost in the welter of confusion and conflicting messages which surround every experience or idea.

I think this is not the case. In fact I think we have good evidence to show that the converse is already proving to be true.

Its not information overload. Its filter failure. Clay Shirky 

Quite simply we have to learn to deal with the abundance of information that is coming our way for no other reason that it is in our own objective interests to do so. We have to begin to curate our own needs and requirements as we cannot rely on the traditional outlets here.The press are slowly disappearing and broadcasters are increasingly struggling to deal with the problem themselves. And of course both devote much of their time and space to information generated by social media in the first place.

Unless we decide where we source our information, from, then things quickly become overwhelming. And lots of us are becoming adept at this quite quickly. Just look at how we already segment our (electronic) social-selves between various channels

According to OFCOM on average in the UK we (the average we that is) spend 35 hours a week online which for a lot of us is an entire working week. And within that expansive period, a quarter of all time is spent on just four or five Social Media sites. This is an enormous commitment of time in many peoples lives.

While the plethora of sources makes this more challenging in many ways, it also offers more diversity. Instinctively we look for those that reinforce our accepted ideas and opinions but its increasingly impossible to avoid the wider discourse and debate. If nothing else the matrix of sharing and interconnectivity opens us up to more sources, ideas, individuals and organisations, many of whom were unknown to us previously.

With both our personal and professional lives now open to these opportunities, we find ourselves increasingly taking a similar approach to both.

Individually, we fail to discriminate between the two, and we will happily use either, where it is useful or expedient to do so.

Which is great.

Unless your job involves trying to reach clients and markets as part of your companies messages and products. Because if our audience (i.e. us) are individually starting to control and curate our own information needs and only trust those which we choose to connect with - then how do those traditional models of companies identifying, targeting and tracking their targets stack up in a networked world.

In short, they dont.

Quite simply our personal adoption of disruptive technologies is, perversely, disrupting a function (marketing) which has always prided itself on being disruptive. For a long time now marketers have been warming up leads, creating communities and executing engagement strategies. Many of which are no longer credible activities because the exchange of information between individuals within any specific personal network (cohort) is regarded as more trustworthy or actionable.

If one person is recommended to do something by somebody else in their network (even if its just, read this article) then its more likely that it will happen than if compelled to do so by a random email.

It might be convenient for a large organisation to ascribe attributes to their clients and targets and call these communities but in an age where we are all bombarded with information, unless what is sent out is clearly actionable and of immediate interest to the recipient, it will be rejected and ignored.  Aggregating content into products, based on such broad assumptions, is increasingly difficult to justify in a world where information flows so freely.

In the wider social context this is not a new phenomenon. In his 1958 paper, Community and Society sociologist Ferdinand Tรถnnies, identified the shift from smaller communities, which were regarded as definable unitary entities to a more urban society comprised of fragmented networks of association or cohorts.

The crucial difference being that such associations were made through personal choice rather than external ascription, strengthening an individuals trust in their specific cohorts rather than the arbitrary groups (communities) to which it was assumed they belonged.

Which is where it all gets interesting. Businesses require structure and organisation to operate efficiently, but also to measure and tailor that efficiency. As such it makes sense for areas of knowledge and expertise to be grouped together internally, and similarly it makes sense to rationalise the marketplace into discrete areas that can be targeted through marketing, business development and sales activity.

However, there is an increasing mismatch between the structured groups used to target individuals and their view of how they wish to find, accept and consume content. As information becomes an increasingly key commodity in business decision making it is imperative that we all understand the nature of this change and operationally adapt to its processes to meet the needs of a world where information is more readily distributed through cohorts rather than to communities.

So how do we do this? The good news is that a crucial element of it is relatively straightforward. Just start creating and distributing useful content. Think of information as a utility rather than a support mechanism.

Content has become devalued partly because it has become a commodity and partly because its role is so ill-defined. Much of what we see today is borne out of the last major information revolution in the mid-to-late 1980s, when desktop publishing technology allowed organisations to emulate the processes of the mass media and produce their own print-based publications.

Companies then began aggregating multiple pieces of content together into magazine or newsletter style products aimed at so-called communities of interest. The bigger the community the more content could be packaged together, the bigger the savings in distribution. This approach is still the norm in many organisations. It also dominates thinking around the commissioning of content. However, this model no longer really works.

The internet demands content be stripped back to its core messaging and is readily available as unique components, be it a publications, white papers, videos, webcasts, podcasts etc. This is how the material is indexed, this is how it is searched and this is how it is found. But while businesses continue to bundle content together in ready-made packages the bulk of its intellectual value is lost.

And this despite the fact that engaging video and audio products are almost as easy to create, edit and distribute as print documents.

We also know that users consume content one piece at a time, and they do not necessarily know nor care about the provenance of the information as long as they trust its referring source. This is what is hurting traditional newspaper publishers. They are now competing with each other on a story by story basis and cannot rely on discounts in cover price to shore up a title.

Similarly, we can no longer rely just on our brand image, size or reach. Clients and targets may initially think of looking to organisations like ours for their information needs, but now it is easier to type a query into a search engine and find the answer to the question on your mind, then that reliance can no longer be trusted.

If the aggregation of content into a greater whole actively damages the chances of it being found and read online, particularly if you use content to distribute thinking and look for client engagement what has become known as content marketing. Our content distribution model needs to be adjusted to one which sweats every asset produced to ensure the maximum value can be extracted.

This is best done by publishing information individually, in multiple formats, via multiple channels to the widest possible audience through atomisation.

But as the user experience continues to diversify, towards video and audio, personal blogs, social networks etc the onus is going to fall on companies, to connect on their audience's our terms.

If you are investigating a question and you are pre-disposed towards watching videos rather than reading documents then youll choose a You Tube link over Wikipedia. Similarly, if you think someone in your network will know the answer to a question you may well ask them via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. As a result it is crucial that we ensure our content is as portable, mobile and sharable as is possible.

The basic challenge here is simple enough in an information rich environment how do we best reach our clients? Which brings us back to the central importance of networks.

Our established methodology still groups people together based on forms of market segmentation. But the fragmented nature of peoples roles and lives means that these ascribed groups are not necessarily understood or recognised by those in these target groups.

Finding the moment when somebody is interested in and what a company is talking about is an inexact science but if it addresses the issues on the mind of its audience, in the language they chose, and make it available where they are likely to look, then its chances of success increase exponentially.

It sounds easy because it is. But only if you understand why so many organisations find it so hard.