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.

Look! An infographic. They’re cool.



The war for digital hearts and minds

There’s been a bit of a turf war going on in the advertising/marketing/PR world for several years now, and it’s not really showing any signs of resolving itself.

It’s the war for digital hearts and minds and it’s being fought across all the major social media networks. From the familiar landscapes of Twitter and Facebook, through to the newer territories of Microsoft’s Socl, the revitalised MySpace and on into Pintererst, Instagram and beyond.

In business communications circles, everyone acts like they have the right to own social media: advertising agencies, marketing consultancies and PR firms. And it doesn’t stop there – there are digital creative agencies, interactive marketing houses and tech-based SEO companies. All claiming they have the secret sauce that will help a brand cover itself in digital glory.

But it’s the PR world that has the strongest claim, in my opinion.

Before you pull a muscle shouting “he would say that, wouldn’t he” let me explain why I think that.

One of the key functions of the PR industry is to intercede with the media on behalf of its clients. The media is changing, indeed has already changed, due to the impact of the internet and social media. The PR industry is changing with it.

Circulation figures for all newspapers are lower, as are advertising revenues from their print-based activities. The BBC, the Financial Times and the Guardian are just three of the UK’s major broadcast and print names that are investing heavily in their digital output. Some titles, including Newsweek, have turned their backs on print altogether.

This move to more digital-friendly output from mainstream news providers is more than a passing phase. The traditional reliance on the written word has decreased as video and graphics are increasingly sought out by readers and viewers, and this is a tide that is unlikely to turn any time soon. As a result, the PR industry has had to learn how to craft its clients’ messages and brand stories into formats that meet the needs of these changed media requirements.

But my reasons go deeper than simply the ability to update story formats.

Despite the many different views on what constitutes successful social media engagement, there is perhaps one aspect that everyone agrees on, and that is that social media requires a more discursive approach to corporate communications. The audience you reach via Facebook, for example, is not receptive to one-way communications, they will expect brands to listen as much (more, even) than they talk.

Get that bit wrong, and the rest of whatever it is you’re up to won’t matter a jot.

This is why, in my opinion, if any of the marketing disciplines can claim any form of ownership of social media outreach, it has to be PR.

PR is the only branch, if I can call it that, of the marketing tree, and I realise I probably can’t call it that, where conversation is one of the fundamental building blocks of the whole discipline.

In the event of a crisis that has dragged you into the media spotlight, who is it that businesses turn to for help? It’s not the ad agency. It’s not the web designer. It’s not the marketing consultant. It’s the PR people.

Why..? PR people have no magic powers, after all. Well, it’s because the PR world knows how to listen, how and when to talk, how to avoid making things worse by lying, and how to think on its feet.

Nowhere are those traits more welcome than in the world of social media.

This piece was first published on the Nexus Communications website. You can find it here.



The time is running out for vanity metrics

Social media has come a long way. You can tell this by its ubiquity.

Back in the late 1990s when I was a tech journalist, I interviewed the MD of Acer UK, an Australian chap called Dion Weisler. He was a great interview subject, quickly setting the tone for a relaxed and informative conversation, peppered with tales of swimming training (he swam in the Australian Olympic team). These days he’s running HP in Asia Pacific & Japan.

One of the last questions I asked him that day was about the internet. Back then there was a lot of talk about the internet and what it might or might not do. When, I asked, would the internet become something businesses could rely upon and use productively.

“When people stop thinking about it,” came the answer. My blank look must have prompted further explanation – “when it’s a utility, like the phone, you just take it for granted and use it,” he said.

That conversation took place almost 15 years ago; it’s funny how some things stick in your head. Well, in my head.

We’re not quite there with social media, but stone me if it isn’t just about everywhere these days. And almost simultaneously the world has gone stats and data mad.

It strikes me as somewhat ironic that we have the ability to measure so much, yet so many businesses and social media acolytes are failing, day in day out, to actually measure anything of value.

How many likes you have, how many people follow you on Twitter, how many retweets you get… these remain the Dollars and Cents, the Pounds and the Pence of how the bulk of the digital comms world accounts for itself.

And yet these numbers are at best valueless, and at worst completely pointless. The only purpose they serve is to allow you to show off about how seemingly popular you are.

Sooner or later, this has to stop.

So why not make it sooner?

These vanity metrics might make the less enlightened look, and feel, productive, relative and validated. They might even cut it with mid-level marketing managers who are being judged against a fairly unimaginative set of criteria. But they are no indication of anything transactional ever having taken place. Nor whether anything ever will.

Sadly, once those mid-level marketing managers’ quarterly reports go further up the chain of command, any detail there was starts to become diluted. Similarly, the likelihood of finding many people sitting on the board with an instinctive feeling for digital communications becomes a remote one.

Which is great if way back down at the agency coalface you haven’t actually got a clue about how you’re going to help your client sell any more of those things they sell in order to make the money that eventually trickles down and pays your miserable wages.

If no one’s ever really pushed back and challenged you on why they ought to be forking over great wads of cash in order for you to increase the number of likes their Facebook page gets, I’ve got news for you – they will eventually.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon… as the line in the movie Casablanca goes.

A lot of money has been spent on social media marketing. The number of social media marketing case studies with actual demonstrable ROI doesn’t reflect that.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to be one of those who can’t answer the ‘show me the money’ question once the board-level execs finally start to question whether digital communications activities are worth the paper they’re written on.

If the things you measure are lacking in business value, you need to start measuring something else. It could be web traffic or sales leads, who knows… just make it something that your client’s business can relate to.

See also:

Why it’s time to stop counting your retweets


Tweeting while naked

Not literally naked. Good lord, no.
But figuratively speaking – as in the Emperor’s new clothes.
There was a story circulating last week about how few CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are active on twitter – 19 of the 500 have accounts and only nice actually tweet regularly.  This low take-up of twitter can be linked to $1.3 trillion of missed revenue opportunities, apparently.
Unlike one member of my family, I am not a mathematician. But even I know a trillion of anything is a lot. So, when someone starts talking about $1.3 trillion and links that with tweeting, you can be certain lots of publicity will follow.
Wow. Only 19 of the Fortune 500 have a CEO on twitter, and only nine of those are active.
Wow. $1.3 trillion in missing revenues.
Wow. What a bunch of bozos those CEOs must be. It’s a wonder they haven’t all gone to the wall, isn’t it..?
It’s all nonsense. Furthermore, its misleading, dangerous and self-serving.
What I see from this report is that 491 of the Fortune 500 are getting along nicely without their CEO being paraded around like some superannuated Aunt Sally.
I can’t think – off the top of my head – of any other genre or sector where research can be so blithely turned on its head in an attempt to convince us all that black is white. Nor a sector where so many seemingly bright and capable people are duped so easily – and so frequently – into believing social media will save us all… that if we tweet a bit more, like a bit more somehow businesses will gain a financial reward.
Maybe… if they’re in the business of charging simpletons for wafer-thin research and hokey advice on social media. Otherwise, nah.. there’s no direct causal link between tweets, likes and sales.
There’s more to social media than Twitter and Facebook, I hear some of you cry. Well, of course there is. But we all know where the concentration of traffic, investment and attention lie.
I saw something else recently that said the ‘marketing function’ within businesses was now redundant because of social media. I can only presume that was written by someone who once had marketing explained to them briefly and promptly forgot most of what they’d heard.
Which brings me back to the naked thing.
There are so many flaws in these kinds of report they remind me of sixth form magazine journalism. All posture and opinion, no facts and bugger all evidence.
If you recall the childhood fable, the reason you can see the Emperor’s bum because he’s not wearing any trousers. Not because you aren’t special enough to be able to see the magic cloth.
The continued insistence by some in the comms world that social media (note, ‘social media’ not ‘digital communications’) and in particular the use of twitter is one of the great business transformers of our age is misguided.
Social, in all it’s multi-platformed glory, might be relatively new, but it’s not so new that there hasn’t been time to try it out, use it and see what it’s good for.
It’s good for chatting to people, sharing stuff, issuing vouchers or running competitions. It’s amazing for cat videos going viral, and for giving customers a variety of ways with which to broadcast how much they hate your shitty products and crappy customer service.
It’s good for off-piste online dating activities, and for pretending to be something you’re not.  (hello bored married people wherever you may be).
Not so good at helping any kind of business-to-business transaction though.
Otherwise it wouldn’t be so hard to find actual case studies of businesses (that you’ve heard of) deriving actual ROI from their use of Facebook, twitter and gawd knows what else.
Before you say anything, yes… I know it works better for businesses selling to consumers. But even then, it’s generally acting as an adjunct to existing marcomms tactics and the extent to which it is used well depends on the creativity of those responsible for its use.
The more of us that push back on the nonsense and deploy a little critical thinking, the better.

In praise of the front page corpse shot

The Roman poet Horace said: “pale death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.”

And so it goes today, as it did more than 2,000 years ago when those words were written.

I was reminded of those words yesterday, upon hearing of the death of Muammar “Colonel” Gaddafi. A man who’s lowly start in life belied what was to come in later years – as he installed himself as the self-styled brother leader of Libya; autocratic king in all but name.

Like most tyrants, he got the end he probably deserved. Found cowering in a drainage tunnel, he was dragged out, beaten and shot. His corpse was dragged through the street for all to see. But not, from what I’ve read, hung upside down outside a petrol station, as the Italians did when they fell out of love with Mussolini in 1945.

It is said that it’s not enough for justice to be done. It must be seen to be done. That’s a viewpoint I have a great deal of sympathy with. But while I’m not a proponent of censorship per se, I do think that there needs to be some judgement exercised when it comes to broadcasting the image of a blood-stained corpse across the world via the mass media.

My colleague Julian Moore summed up one of the things that bothers me about the image of the dead Gaddafi, which currently adorns many of the UK national papers’ front pages: “Kids need to be brought up not thinking that violence is an acceptable part of everyday life. This doesn’t help do that.”

Telling stories, human nature and social media

Since the very dawn of time itself mankind has told stories.

Ok, maybe not since the dawn of time perhaps “since the evolution of language” would have been more accurate. But that didn’t sound very story-like.

Someone once told me that all the stories we are familiar with are in fact based on just a handful of original story ideas that came into being eons ago.

That could be true.

Certainly many cultures have a rich story-telling tradition. Viking sagas, the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, Greek myths, the Tales of 1,001 Nights – frankly there’s loads.

Stories don’t just come in that more obvious narrative format either. Cave paintings, totem poles, the adornments on boomerangs – graphical story-telling is a strong part of human history.

We’ve come a long way from sitting round the fire recounting our ancestors’ tales of derring-do or painting on cave walls. But stories are still a fundamental part of who we are as individuals, as nations and also in relation to how brands identify themselves.

The approach taken by advertisers and marketers just a generation or two ago looks naive by our sophisticated 21st century standards. It was, with some exceptions, “here’s our product – buy it.”

And while that approach still exists – and of course the motivation of generating sales is still hugely valid – consumers tend now to switch off to a lot of that stuff. We’re all so accustomed to being marketed to that maybe we’ve started to become immune.

Whether you call it PR, communications, marcomms, or whatever, those who ply their trade in the same sector as I are in the business of telling stories. Stories that will resonate with our clients’ target audiences and give them a sense of affinity with a particular brand.

This can be seen being played out in the digital space even more clearly, where the time between brand execution and customer feedback grows ever shorter.

But much like the crazy preacher-man berating the passing crowds at Oxford Circus I passed this morning, there’s a danger we end up trying to tell our stories to people who simply aren’t interested.

Again, the online world has made this trap ever more easy to fall into.

The fundamentals of story-telling – much like the fundamentals of human nature, in my opinion – remain:

  • Get the story right
  • Know who it is that you want to tell your story to
  • Be sure you’re talking when (and where) they will listen.
  • And who knows, maybe even ask them to share their stories with you too

We haven’t really come such a long way at all, in this story-teller’s opinion.

Although at least we’re not still writing on walls.


Yes Facebook, I’m looking at you.

Social media FUD and no comment 2.0

It’s one of the most worn-out things for someone like me to say but some clients are so gripped by the fear of what might go wrong with their social media strategy that very little can actually go right.

However, I’m fortunate enough to work with clients who, in the main, are not only excited about the potential of digital comms but they get it. I guess that may have led to a certain amount of complacency on my part – I’d started assuming that everyone was enlightened in the ways of social media.

A conversation in the office this morning with a colleague made me realise how off-the-mark this assumption of mine is. It also brought to mind challenging conversations I’d had with clients about regular-grade PR, never mind the digital flavour.

Have I, I then asked myself, stopped thinking about things from the perspective of those who live and work outside the comms and media bubble?

Is there still a job of education to be done?

Or could it be that some people (by which I mean businesses, organisations and the individuals that work in them) will never get to grips with external comms?

The most common objection I have heard from comms-deniers generally goes a little like this, and if you work in PR I reckon you’ll have heard a rendition of this one at some time:

“We don’t want to talk about X because it isn’t one of the things that we sell/offer/promote.”

PR person’s typical response:

“I understand, but you asked us to raise your profile, and you have said you want to be a thought-leader. So you need to have opinions on a wide range of subjects, not just your own products but your industry.”

Like most PR folk, I’ve been involved in running clients’ twitter streams to varying degrees, and it is here that some of this reluctance keeps cropping up frequently.

“We should really only be tweeting about our company and products,” is one comment I’ve seen recently.

Face, meet palm. Palm, meet face. I’ve a feeling you two will be spending a lot of time together.

I have some sympathy with the paranoia of being quoted out of context, or being asked questions you can’t answer, that leads some clients to stay entrenched in their comfort zone. There is that whole you can’t unring a bell thing about once you’ve said something to a journalist it’s hard to take it back.

But this outlook is very destructive when it comes to social media engagement.

There, look… I said it – engagement. That word gets over-used for a reason.
There is no value to either party in simply pumping out a one-way, mono-dimensional stream of tweets.

Your followers will grow bored of you. They come to resent your lack of willingness to enter into a dialogue, or impart any wisdom. They will switch off, not just from your tweets but from your brand too.

Net result – more harm than good.

That’s not to say every corporate tweet needs to be hugely informal, or irreverent. Far from it. It’s important to reflect your brand values as well as inject some personality into things.

Ultimately people will be drawn to those brands that offer them something of value. On the high street that may take the form of sale-prices, in the case of a call to register a complaint you want someone who listens and then takes ownership of your problem, and online that’s most likely going to be content that you find interesting and of value.

When I was a boy, my mother used to say to me “if you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say anything.” To this day I get called taciturn. But maybe, all kidding aside, this isn’t such a terrible piece of advice for brands taking their first steps online.

Think about what it is you hope to achieve, what it is about the brands you admire in the digital space that you like, and try to bring some of that good stuff together in a way that will work for you and the people you want to engage with.
Find something good to say.  Otherwise, maybe we need to head off down another well-trod PR path, that of the dreaded “no comment.”
Almost never a good idea in the face of a direct question, I have an inkling that no comment 2.0 might start weaving its way into social media advice some brands need for their own good.

Democracy, disintermediation & dining out at the all-day information buffet

Remember when you watched the TV news in the evening to hear about important stuff for the first time?

Remember when you read a newspaper in the morning so that you would feel informed of the weighty matters of the day?

I’ll bet neither of those things has happened to you for a while.

In pretty much every aspect of modern life, not just when it comes to the news, relationships between the public and the various providers of services and information have changed irrevocably.

You can call it disintermediation.

You can call it the democratisation of the means of publishing.

You can talk about citizen journalists if you really feel you need to.

But those of us who have regular contact with the internet no longer get our news in the old-school manner. Instead we use our RSS subscriptions, lists on twitter, messages via Facebook and other social media platforms and news websites to get our daily feed of news.

And we graze. A lot.

We take a mouthful of twitter-gossip, a bite of bloggetry, and chew on the wares of our favourite news sites. From this we get our fill of news.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a very important role for broadcast news and newspapers. But they’re rarely the first place you get to hear about something.

A growing number of people create content as well as consume it – blogs and tweets are some of the most obvious mechanisms for so doing, but there are others.

Ordinary people, for want of a less pejorative way of putting it, are now right in the centre of the flow of news and information, and are no longer reliant upon the traditional methods of staying informed. This is a trend (dare I even say phenomenon) that can be witnessed elsewhere.

How often does seeing one advertisement inspire you to go out and buy the product concerned?

Not often I imagine.

Would you buy something because a brand you like (or even “like”) is on Facebook? Again, probably not just off the back of that one thing, I expect.

Tweets, likes, reviews on blogs as well as in magazines (and their online variants), personal recommendations and so on, all go toward helping us make what we feel are informed choices about the goods and services we buy, and the ones we avoid. A lot of that information doesn’t come from what might be considered traditional sources, but is user-generated in the main.

Mobile phone companies are experiencing something similar. Do you feel much allegiance to your network provider? Despite statistics I’ve seen from research done by one of my clients (which indicates that two-thirds of us have been on the same network for at least three years) the likes of O2 and Vodafone can only dream of enjoying the kind of brand-kudos many of the handset makers revel in – Apple, BlackBerry, SonyEricsson for example.

It doesn’t stop there. The growing use of data-based services on smartphones, some of which will let you make VoIP calls (via 3G or wi-fi) effectively bypassing the carrier’s voice network completely, is another headache. People don’t get excited about the network they’re on – unless it stops working. The network has been usurped in people’s hearts by the app makers and handset manufacturers.

The common thread in all of this is that the old order is no more.

If your job involves managing customer relationships, or sales, or marketing, you ignore this at your peril.

If customers don’t see any perceived value in dealing with you they will simply ignore you and direct their attention to those people and organisations they feel an affinity for.

The challenge then is how to be valued in what is an undeniably information-rich world where there is no shortage of voices clamouring to be listened to.

You need to be present wherever your customers may be – and in every format they will be coming into contact with. You need to present a human face and treat people with the same respect that you would like to be treated with yourself.

Ultimately you want to be trusted and believable.

And it’s not rocket science, which makes it all the more noticeable when brands get it wrong.