The Great British High Street: a tale of death and disruption

Sometimes the writing is on the wall. Sometimes it’s on the pavement. Once the scene of busy, bustling, commercial activity, the pavements of Britain’s high streets see fewer, and smaller crowds of shoppers these days. Is the bell finally tolling for the Great British high street?

For those UK retailers reliant on feet-on-the-street for business, recent years’ slow, steady decline in fortunes must feel like a death by a thousand cuts. Caught on the hop by the popularity of ecommerce, caught napping by changes in the demographic mix of communities and their shopping habits, and caught out by increases in business rates, retailers find themselves in a landscape that has become a hostile environment where all the old certainties are fading away.

Take Christmas, for example. This is the one time of year when even the most reluctant shopper could be seen out and about shopping. But all that’s changed now; Christmas 2016 was the fourth successive festive period which saw an ever-decreasing number of UK shoppers take their business to retailers’ physical stores.

December 2015 was a real low point – the worst trading month for retail since 2008, in fact. But the downward trend continues, and although the fall in sales of 0.1% in December 2016 might not look too bad superficially, it masks a poor performance in categories like fashion, where the decline is more pronounced.

So, that’s that. Time to pull down the shutters for the final time, give the floor one last sweep, and come to terms with not having to open up in the morning.

No one would blame an independent retailer for feeling gloomy about the health of the high street; times are hard enough for the large retail groups, after all. But while there’s no denying things are tough, tough times call for tough decisions. If the world around you is changing, why aren’t you changing too?

If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting

 

I’m not sure anyone’s yet written a book called ‘What Would Amazon Do?’ although there is one about Google which asks that question. If such a book exists, I expect there’s one thing Amazon’s phenomenal success story would teach us, and that’s that it purposefully seeks out the kind of disruption other businesses fear.

Imagine becoming a global leader in online book sales then declaring war on books. That’s what Amazon did. First it disrupted book retail sector, then it disrupted publishing. Better to be disrupted by your own decisions than by someone else’s.

While in-store footfall has continued to fall over the last four yuletide periods, online sales were up 19% in December 2016, and in the week before Christmas that surged even higher – 51% up on the same week in 2015. That’s a positive metric, but probably small consolation to anyone running a shop. Healthy high streets need people – lots of people. If everyone is sitting at home shopping online, how can high street shops hope to thrive?

Maybe by doing things differently. Maybe by working hard to take advantage of trends and technology. In short, by taking a leaf from Amazon’s playbook and disrupting themselves instead of waiting passively to be disrupted.

One obvious idea would be to become a parcel shop. But don’t just stop there – don’t just sign up with one or possibly two big name delivery companies and expect all your worries will fade away. Do your homework, find one that works for your business and with your business. And when you’ve done that, make sure you let people know.

You might have just transformed your shop into the answer to all my missed delivery prayers. But if I don’t know, then you might as well not have bothered. Tell me, give me an excuse to use your shop, and when I’m there dazzle me with your professionalism, customer care, and range of things I might be willing to buy from you … disrupt me and my usual patterns of shopping behaviour. Who knows, it might be the start of a whole new chapter for both of us.

 

A version of this article first appeared on the Parcelly Thought Leadership blog.

A good start to the new year? You must be choking

So, how’s 2017 working out for you so far? As I sit writing this we’re not even out of the first month of the year, but things are already getting quite interesting. Obviously, over in the US there’s the President Trump situation and I think we’d all agree ‘wow’ sums a lot of that up.

By this point in the month, many people have abandoned their new year resolutions – all those good intentions to hit the gym or lay off the booze, well, they sounded and felt great a few weeks ago, but as the end of a long, dry January approaches, many of us have simply passed what feels like an acceptable limit of abstinence, will power, and good behaviour.

Twas ever thus.

Would you like to know what else passed its acceptable limits in January?

Air pollution levels in parts of London.

That’s right. In some parts of London, notably south London, nitrogen dioxide levels had breached their annual limit before the first week of the year was over.

Nitrogen dioxide, which has the chemical formula NO2, come from several sources, including motor vehicles. Diesel engines are especially good at producing NO2. There are a number of reasons for this, such as the higher temperatures and pressures within a diesel engine, which are required to produce NO2. There’s also the small matter of relatively little being done until recently to capture or filter NO2 out of vehicle exhaust fumes.

South London isn’t the only place where NO2 levels are already a problem; from Gloucester to Edinburgh, this is a nationwide issue. Even the former Mayor of London, now Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, once expressed concerns about the volume of commercial goods vehicles on the capital’s roads.

A few weeks ago I was being driven along the M40 motorway at around 1am. It was surprisingly busy, and almost every vehicle was a lorry or a truck or a van shuttling stock and purchased goods from A to B. “That’s ecommerce,” I declared to my fellow traveller. “You click ‘buy’ and a lorry is called into service.”

There is still such enormous potential for ecommerce growth, and all the indicators show that’s the way things are going; it could easily double within size in the next five years. But that would not be without consequences.

All the obvious attention settles on the concerns about what continued growth in online shopping will do to stores and town centres. Not enough attention is being given to the question of traffic, roads, congestion, and pollution, all of which are going to come to the fore as the number of deliveries increases in line with the continued growth of ecommerce.

There are some who have been raising this issue for a while, of course. Not least among them is the UK Warehouse Association, which wants government to facilitate the construction of smaller distribution centres (DCs) in built-up areas.

The next target has to be reducing the volume of delivery traffic in our towns and cities – or at the very least taking steps to stop an uncontrolled increase.

Electric vehicles offer one answer to the problem of pollution, of course. But not that of congestion.

How about Amazon’s supposed plan for a flying/floating DC that hovers over towns and cities while quad-copter drones zip about dropping of parcels, some of you may be thinking. Don’t hold your breath. Can you imagine any municipal authority allowing a huge warehouse to float above the heads of its citizens? No, neither can I. Can you imagine the potential for damage in the event that something went wrong? Yes, so can I. And can you imagine the size of the lawsuits Amazon would face in that event? Exactly.

No, the solution to the problem of growing pollution and congestion is, I’m afraid, somewhat more prosaic. Reducing vehicle numbers is clearly a major part of that solution. How we get to that point, and still enable a thriving ecommerce ecosystem, is going to be the fun part.

 

This article first appeared on the Parcelly Thought Leadership Corner blog.

Returns: the retail crisis everyone could predict

Research from Barclaycard in 2016 highlighted something we’ve all known for a while – handling returns can be bad for business. Almost one third of businesses (31%) surveyed by Barclaycard said they’d experienced loss of margin through returns.

But if handling returns is bad for you, handling them badly is really bad for you. Let’s face it, if you’re likely to have a problem processing returns, while doing your best not to lose margin and at the same time keep customers happy, it’s going to be in the next few weeks. A significant proportion of everything that is being bought in the UK right now is destined to be returned in the not-too-distant future.

Last year, Royal Mail experienced a 50% spike in people making returns on the first day back to work after the Christmas/New Year break. There’s no reason to expect things to be different when 3 January 2017 rolls round.

That, in my opinion, starts to get us close to the heart of the returns issue.

It cannot possibly come as a surprise to anyone that returns will peak in the aftermath of a busy sales period; the bigger and busier the sales period, the more returns there’ll be.

This is a crisis we can all predict from a long way off; no one should be getting caught out here.

The other thing you need to accept is that the returns problem, if we can call it that, is a human problem – it’s caused by customer behaviour. You make it easy for people to return things so they’ll trust you enough to buy them in the first place. The solution, therefore, needs to be one that works with people, not against them.

In an ideal world, every retailer would invest in sophisticated returns processing software that would enable them to track and route incoming returns from the minute the customer says to themselves, “Nah, that’s going back.”

The customer goes online, logs the return, and gets a label. You – the retailer – get the benefit of foresight, and with it the chance to route your returns in a way that takes some of the heat out of your operations, should that be necessary.

The reality, however, is that investing in that many bells and whistles, just to get you through a handful of exceptionally busy times isn’t economically viable for many retailers, especially those trading in commoditised, margin-pressured items. Plus, if you make the returns process the tiniest bit more complicated than absolutely necessary, or ask the customer to make the slightest bit of effort to return something and you’ll be judged … harshly.

So … what to do?

When it comes to returns, there are some similarities with click and collect. People flood your stores clutching the things they want to return, getting in the way of other shoppers, or of staff, and taking up floor space – a little like the queue for collections during peak times. This is not a great experience for anyone. You need as much of that as possible to be taking place away from your physical stores.

Christmas exerts a tremendous gravitational pull on the retail sector. It is always at the same time of year – it is not a moveable feast. Yet somehow there are still yearly panics and crises when it comes to processing sales, shipping items, and – more particularly – handling returns. It really doesn’t need to be like that.

Don’t have the capacity to cope with a returns peak? No problem. Find someone who has and partner with them. Tap into other networks. Learn from other’s expertise.

Will there be a cost? Well, let’s hope so. You’ll be losing margin on returns anyway, so why not invest in outsourcing some aspect of that operation to a professional whose business it is to help mitigate your exposure to lost margins?

 

This article first appeared on the Parcelly Thought Leadership Corner blog.

 

How to turn your unknown expert into a media success story

News-jacking. Issues-tracking. Call it what you like, but a rapid response to breaking news has long been a route to PR success – particularly for challenger brand spokespeople who otherwise tend to get overlooked by journalists who have their tried and tested contacts to fall back on.

Image copyright: NY - http://nyphotographic.com/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Image copyright: NY – http://nyphotographic.com/
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Having recently been asked to give my opinion on how to turn an unknown expert into a media success story, I decided to write a quick overview of how to run a PR rapid response programme; done well these have a very high success rate over time – they’re not always the overnight success some people would have you think they are.

Give journalists something that helps to move the story along

Your targeting will have to be impeccable (resist the urge to spam your entire media database). Instead, focus only on those you know have written about the subject in question.

You’ll be battling journalists’ inertia (nobody ever got fired for quoting IBM et al) so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get a bite – just have faith and stick at it.

You’ll need to have something genuinely useful to say (don’t point out the obvious, help move the story on – this is crucial). If you send something like this to a journalist you’ll be ignored, and rightly so: “Hi, I saw your story about X. My client is an expert in X. Would you like to talk to them about X?”

Make it inescapably clear why they will end up with a really interesting story as a direct result of hearing from your client … “Hi, I saw your story about X. My client is an expert in X. Did you know that one of the unintended consequences of X is Y? Would you like to talk to my client about Y?”

The following advice is primarily aimed at those new to news-based PR, or maybe at smaller PR agencies lacking resources. Although some established agencies/practitioners may find the following of interest, I would expect it to be a little basic for anyone with a reasonable amount of experience in such matters. I’ll apologise up-front if any of it appears too basic; if it feels like I’m stating the obvious, feel free to move right along.

  • Agree, with your client, the top three issues / talking points they could potentially offer valuable comment on. These should be issues that have a tendency to arise in the media. It might be a shortage of acute-care beds in UK hospitals in winter, or the tension between GPs and A&E departments who both suffer from a lack of resources and too many patients. It might be something to do with protecting your smart-home devices from cyber attacks. Maybe it’s something to do with aquifers and fracking. Whatever it is, it’s going to be dictated by the sector your client operates in and their particular expertise.
  • Draft some short, to-the-point email copy for each of the topics you’ve agreed on – something you could cut and paste into an email giving a clear overview of who your client is, why they are someone to be listened to, and a breakdown of their expertise as it relates to the talking point / issue in question. Have it pre-written and pre-approved by the client.
  • Create a list of all the press contacts that write about your agreed issues … and issues related to them.
  • Track the media for stories relating to your agreed issues.
  • When such a story breaks cut and paste your drafted comment and send it to anyone in the press likely to follow-up on that story. The trick here is to give journalists something that moves the story on… something that gives them a good reason to pick up the story (which may have initially been written by a rival) and put their own stamp on it. So, take your pre-written copy and add to it a short explanation of how your client’s insight relates to the issue in question.
  • Make sure your client is available – either to talk to any interested press, or provide you with additional written answers if you get asked for them. That might mean a phone interview, or even broadcast appearances.

It can take a while to get traction, but if you are relentless in your determination to be the first to offer an additional view on a story – an extra nugget of information, an opinion that hasn’t been considered, etc – and the comments you send are genuinely interesting/valuable, eventually you’ll get results.

Good luck!

Go and shout at a tennis player

I’ve been watching the Olympics. Have you? It’s very good, isn’t it? So far I’ve seen shooting, judo, cycling, archery, tennis, diving, and gymnastics. It’ll be even better when the track and field events get underway.

While I was watching the gymnastics one evening I had a bit of an epiphany.

Lauren Mitchell, 41st AG World Championship, 2009
Lauren Mitchell, 41st AG World Championship, 2009. Copyright Steven Rasmussen, Creative Commons.

The beam … what a terrifying piece of equipment that is. It’s 1.25m (just over 4ft) off the floor, and it’s only 10cm wide (4in). And have you seen the stuff the gymnasts do on the beam..? Jumps, handstands, somersaults (forward and back), and more besides.

The thing about gymnastics finals is that all the exercises take place simultaneously, so while watching someone do something on a 10cm beam that most of couldn’t do on terra firma without injuring ourselves irreparably, in the background I could see other gymnasts sprinting down the approach to the vault and throwing themselves up and over it. And the whole time the crowd of many hundreds of people – maybe thousands – were clapping, cheering, yelling, stamping their feet and carrying on.

At times the noise was incredible. Did it put any of the gymnasts off? It didn’t seem to, no.

Compare that with what goes on at a tennis match. If you’re in the crowd at Wimbledon you can’t even speak when play is taking place, never mind yell, scream and shout.

If a gymnast can pirouette, somersault backwards and land perfectly on a high beam which is only marginally wider than the average human hand, while an enormous crowd is making as much noise as it can, why can’t a tennis player hit a ball with a racquet if there’s even the merest hint of a racket?

FOOTNOTE: I don’t have a problem with tennis players, just with prissiness. I watched the Johanna Konta / Svetlana Kuznetsova match a few days ago and was gripped. I don’t think it should be in the Olympics though. Tennis players are professionals – they get paid for playing tennis. That strikes me as contrary to the whole Olympic ethos. I felt the same way when the US started filing the US national basketball team with pro players; it’s tantamount to cheating. The same applies to golf. Although I’m not convinced golf is a sport in the true sense of the word. And as for sailing… don’t get me started on sailing. Sailing isn’t a sport. It’s an activity, a pastime. I’m not against sailing. I just don’t think it’s an Olympic sport.

The EU is undemocratic

The EU is undemocratic, I hear people say.

No, it isn’t, I reply. No more than the UK, anyway.

Let me explain why I believe this.

There are elections for the European Parliament every five years. Just like the UK parliament. You get to vote for the MEP of your choice. It’s a proportional representation vote, not first past the post.

It’s actually a more democratic process than the elections we have for the UK parliament.

What about those faceless bureaucrats and unelected commissioners though, eh..?

We’re really just talking about civil servants. You do know that, don’t you. And you don’t get to vote for the civil servants in Whitehall, do you? You probably don’t complain too much about that either.

Did you know there are about 33,000 civil servants working for the EU (population 500 million), while there are about 400,000 civil servants in the UK (population 65 million).

That doesn’t sound like a top-heavy bureaucracy to me.

© European Union (2015)
© European Union (2015)

As for the EU Commissioners (who are often cited as the unelected mandarins of Brussels), there are 28 of them — one for each member state. They’re appointed by the elected government of the country they come from.

That’s the way democracy works — you vote, you get a government, they make decisions about how things are run. Some you like, some you don’t. Nothing’s perfect. No one’s perfect. Not you, not me. Nothing. No one.

Everything the EU Commission puts forward (policies, proposals, decisions etc) has to be sanctioned by the EU Parliament, which is made up of the MEPs that everyone gets to vote for every five years.

That’s democracy.

The UK is also a member of the UN, which is not an elected body but which makes decisions about invading countries, going to war, ignoring genocide, you name it. See also NATO, which the UK is a member of. We’re also in the Commonwealth — not an elected body. Part of the World Trade Organisation — not an elected body. You can add the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe to the list too.

If you are adamant that the EU is a bad thing because it is undemocratic I hope you are as vocal about the House of Lords, the Royal Family, and the raft of government-appointed so-called Tsars and special advisers.

I would like to see reform of the House of Lords. I’m not anti-royal, but beyond the head of state I would like to see the rest of the royal family – the extended bit full of dukes and whatnot – disbanded. I’d like to see elements of the EU (parliament and commission) reformed, or at least investigated with a view to making changes.

But I’m not convinced things are so bad that we have to take our ball and go home.

 

 

Inbox ballast: where content marketing is going wrong

I recently read the following in an update from a recruiter on LinkedIn:

“If you’re an experienced Content Editor with a passion for technology then get in touch! I’m looking for someone who wants to work for a leading content agency with some of the biggest tech brands!”

There it is, I thought to myself, that’s what’s wrong with content marketing and why it is doomed to fail.

Here’s the thing … the best editors and writers are those with a background in journalism. I’m not talking in absolutes; I’m not saying “if you were never a journalist you are a terrible writer.” Nor do I think all journalists are great writers. But the training and experience you get in journalism equips you with a set of skills others in the PR-marketing-comms sector don’t have.

You can argue differently if you like, but you’ll be wrong. After all, there are people out there who’ll put together a plausible sounding argument that the world is flat. The world isn’t flat, and the best writers tend to be, or have been, journalists. Go ahead and argue… I’ll be silently judging you while nodding and smiling.

The best journalists (and by default that now includes writers and editors) are a little bit cynical, hard to convince, determined not to be fobbed off with the superficial. Quite often they are not easy to get along with, are somewhat at odds with the world around them, and are perpetual outsiders. They like writing, they like ideas, they like information. Often they like the thrill of chasing down a good story and uncovering something that would otherwise have been left hidden.

They’re not, typically, credulous cheerleaders for brands and their wares. Nor do they generally identify themselves as passionate in the way that poor old word gets abused in the recruitment sector.

The emphasis on the prowess of the brand is behind so much of what’s wrong in the content marketing world.

It’s almost never going to be the brand that’s the draw from the reader’s point of view … it’s the story, the contents of the thing that gets described as content, if you follow my drift. The exceptions – where the brand is what people come for – are the big, well established, or the ultra cool. They’re not churning out sub-standard drossy content that bores people to tears though, in the main. There’s a link there between the things they say and the way they are perceived. But it’s a link that seems to be invisible to many well-meaning CMOs and their content houses.

If you can’t think objectively about what you’re doing with your so-called content marketing you’ll just be churning out low grade inbox ballast. There’s no shortage of that. People who are passionate about working with the biggest brands are unlikely to ever be able to think dispassionately about the audience, or about the story, or about the brand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banning AVEs in PR..? You Canute be serious

Over the last week or two there’s been a proper little shitstorm (someone else’s word for it, not mine) blowing because of a document produced by media monitoring and online sentiment analysis firm Meltwater.

Some of it has been a bit hysterical if you ask me.

But before I go any further, I want to state for the record that in the past Meltwater was a client of a PR consultancy I worked at; I managed their PR account. I have also been a Meltwater customer in the past. But I have had no dealings with the company or any of its staff for a number of years.

Back to the aforementioned shitstorm.

Ball of confusion

The document from Meltwater focused on the use of AVE (advertising value equivalents) as a way of measuring PR effectiveness and return on investment (ROI) in PR activity. In short, it works a bit like this – if you got your client some coverage in a newspaper and that coverage took up about half a page, then find out how much it would have cost to put an advert on that half a page. Then multiply that cost by three (or five, or eight, or magic beans, who cares). Why multiply it..? Because PR is more effective than advertising, and therefore more value is derived from it. Which is why companies read out press releases in those little commercial breaks between the TV shows you watch … oh, wait, I think I made that last bit up.

The shitstorm (there’s that word again) struck when some people who work in the PR industry who do not like AVEs, because they are unscientific and silly (the AVEs, not the PR people… ), took issue with Meltwater saying AVEs can be used as a way of measuring ROI in PR.

The things is, there are no universally used and accepted metrics for assessing ROI in PR. That’s one of the biggest weaknesses facing PR. It’s no surprise it’s a very touchy subject, because in these increasingly digital times, when everything can be measured, the inability to directly link a piece of PR activity to a tangible financial benefit is a perceived weakness for many. There’s a set of guidelines known as the Barcelona Principles which many in the PR sector adhere to (with a fervour that frankly makes me a little uncomfortable … it’s not a belief system… or is it?) as the future of measuring PR effectiveness. I’m no expert, and you can look it up online if you feel so inclined, but the Barcelona Principles strike me as a great attempt at defining the problem; I’m just not sure they are the answer. I’m also not sure a great many businesses hiring PR practitioners, whether as agency teams, solo service providers, or in-house resources, will have the patience or the interest in something as nebulous as “measurement must focus on “conversation” and “communities” not just “coverage”..”

Pass me my slide rule – I’m off to measure a conversation.

Anyway, back to the skitsnack (hej Sverige… kan du höra mig?).

Yours truly, angry mob

Things got a bit febrile in the old Twittersphere on Friday, with a lot of noise being made by a small number of PR practitioners (and others) all sounding off quite vociferously about how truly awful it was that Meltwater should be giving advice on how to measure AVEs, how truly truly awful AVEs are, and how truly truly truly awful anyone using AVEs must therefore be.

It all got a little bit angry mob, which is never anything other than ugly, and absolutely never productive.

I was saddened (although not much, in truth) to see some leading figures in the PR world among the mob’s chief agitators. People who ought to understand that PR agencies are at the beck and call of their clients, and that if those clients want AVE figures, then the agency will provide them – to do otherwise might put a client relationship in jeopardy.

These are still trying economic times in many parts of the UK and in many business sectors – not everyone is in London or the south east, and not everyone is working with clients who operate in booming sectors. When it comes to client/agency relationships, rocking the boat is a privilege few get to enjoy; you have to be big and influential to get away with it, usually.

I wondered what it might feel like to be the head of an agency that isn’t in London, that isn’t experiencing an economic upturn, watching others in the industry heaping scorn upon you from their privileged positions. I wondered what it would be like if you are constantly compromising on what you’d like to do in order to keep clients happy (or just to keep them) and seeing one of the things you have to do being so openly mocked.

Are there better ways to measure PR effectiveness than AVEs? Yes, probably. Although that really depends on what your definition of effective is in the case of the PR activity you are undertaking. However, I don’t think it’s good enough for those in a privileged position to be quite so scathing about something that only exists because of the demand for it from clients.

Calls to stamp it out are as ludicrous as they are unhelpful, and hint at a fundamental failure to understand the economics and mechanics of the PR industry. Which is just a bit mind boggling given that much of the ardent criticism was coming from people who have worked in the PR industry for a very long time and done very well. Maybe they’ve had it too good for too long. Maybe it’s easier to point and laugh, or yell and shout, than it is to offer constructive, actionable advice on how to get your clients to give up their AVE dependency.

Back to basics

Now, about five years ago one of my PR clients was a large and well-known bank. At a kick-off meeting we discussed – among other things – reporting … how would the client like to measure the progress we were intending to achieve? We talked about a range of options and measures, but in the end the client was resolute; they wanted a monthly AVE figure that could be easily circulated to other stakeholders within the bank who wouldn’t understand the subtleties of changed perceptions or share of voice, or whatever, but for whom a simple number was the lingua franca.

It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the bit in the book The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a supercomputer is asked what’s the answer to question of life, the universe and everything (or words to that effect) – the answer is 42, apparently. A supremely unhelpful answer derived from not understanding the question; if you don’t measure the correct outcome, you’ll never know what progress you’re making.

It also reminds me of an old saying … he who pays the piper calls the tune.

If I want something and have the money to pay for it, whether it’s AVEs or a rendition of Scotland the Brave, you won’t change my mind by taking away someone’s bagpipes, or trying to ban AVEs (what a laughable idea that is when you see it written down).

There will always be other pipers. There will always be other PR agencies … more interested in servicing clients and saying yes to everything than they are with educating their clients.

It’s basic supply and demand.

Denying that reality is a bit like trying to turn back the tide by force of your own puffed up ego.


 

Additional reading – Explaining PR’s Barcelona Principles

 

50 not out — why I’m perfectly happy about getting older

Today – 29 January – is my birthday. My 50th birthday.

Fifty. The big five oh.

This isn’t one of those help I’m getting old, my hair’s falling out blog posts full of self-pity that hopes to make you smile; apart from anything else, I’ve still got plenty of hair on my head. It’s also not one of those pathetic blog posts, where the author is clearly bitter about getting older.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said hitting 50 hasn’t felt momentous. It’s a big number and a bit of a totem for many; I think you’re expected to feel old when you turn 50 – that’s the way it seems to me, at least. There’s an expectation – from people in a specific sense and society in a more general one – that at 50 one should feel aged, past it, sorry for yourself, and maybe even a little apologetic about it.

Well, balls to that.

As my 50th birthday was getting closer I did, I admit, start to think a lot more about age and about one’s inescapable mortality, and what turning 50 might actually mean to me – if it has any meaning. It was something I reflected on even more during that strange week when David Bowie and Alan Rickman died, and a lot of people (on social media at any rate) seemed to have been caught out by the inevitability of death and its indiscriminate nature.

And so it was that I got to thinking about all the people I’ve known who never made it to 50. Most of them died because of illness, accidents or suicide. And thinking about them made the big five oh feel well… different – this is nothing to be gloomy about. It’s something to be thankful for.

There was the kid in the year above me at primary school who I sometimes played football with – hit and killed by a motorcycle when he was 11 years old. It happened during the long school summer holiday. I can still remember the look on his little brother’s face on the first day back to school that year.

There was the woman I worked with many years ago who went on holiday and never came back. She died when the car she was travelling in was hit by a lorry. She was just 24.

There was the guy I played in a band with, one of the loveliest guys I’ve ever known – dead at 43 thanks to a brain tumour.

There are more, many more. I remember their names and I can recall their faces.

Do I feel sad and sorry for myself because I’m 50, because I’m getting old? Nah, I feel thankful.

birthday balloons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Online is dead

Last month Ofcom published a survey in which it stated “people are spending twice as much time online compared to 10 years ago” and in one fell swoop revealed itself to be hopelessly out-of-touch. There followed a slew of news stories and blog posts echoing the report and its findings, all repeating the same moribund mantra of ‘time spent online.’

Going online was something we did in the last few years of the 20th Century and the earliest years of this one. You’d sit at your PC, typing in Word or doing ‘what-if’ analysis in Excel, then you’d fire up your modem, listen to the screeching of it connecting with the internet, so that you could go online. Once online, you’d send your email, or browse the internet, then you’d disconnect, and go back to what you were doing.

The world isn’t like that anymore. It hasn’t been like that for several years. It will never be like that again.

This is a bit of a man-in-the-pub anecdote, but I heard it just a few weeks before the Ofcom report was announced … a teacher asked his class of 16 year old students how many hours they spend online per day, and his class didn’t understand the question. Why? Were they particularly stupid? No. It’s because the world has moved on and the concept of online has been left behind.

One of the comments in Ofcom’s press release on the report was: “in 2010, 5% of adults used a tablet to go online. By 2014 that was 39%.”

It didn’t say what the other 61% are using their tablets for.

In a world where your thermostat is connected to the internet, your TV set-top box (or even just your TV), your games console, your phone, your watch, your fridge, even your car are all always connected to the internet, going online is just not a thing any more.

Go around asking people how often they’re online and all you’ll really achieve is letting people know you hail from a bygone era. And not in a cool hipstery way.

That same derelict way of thinking can also be seen in some of the things we try to teach young people at school and college. There are courses, a GCSE history module in particular, that seeks to join the dots between digital & social and magazines, newspapers, periodicals and even all the way back to the evolution of writing … look kids this is how come you got Facebook and WhatsApp, and all the other things that are so cool and useful.

You might as well have tried to teach kids in the 1980s that cavemen building fires were actually using the first ever microwave ovens. It’s just misguided.

ofcom
Look! An infographic. They’re cool.