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.










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.



Spinach, start-ups, and bloated tech companies

Dear Tesco, what is the point of this?
I’m referring to the pic of two baby spinach leaves with a speech bubble asking “what am I like?”
 At first glance, and maybe because I lived in Manchester for a time, when I see “what am I like” in my head I hear an annoying voice going “what am I like, eh? I’m just dead mad I am.
But no, the baby spinach is asking a straight question which is subsequently answered. For this is an attempt to tell anyone who has never tried baby spinach what it’s like.
“Young and tender dark green leaves…” is the first thing we are told. It’s also the first thing I have issue with.
“No shit,” one of the unfiltered voices in my head cries out. Baby anything tends to be young and tender.  And I can see there are dark green leaves, because much of the bag is transparent.
Next we are told the leaves come “.. with a distinctive flavour.”
I see.
A distinctive flavour.
Dog shit has a distinctive flavour (sorry, same unfiltered voice as above). So does toothpaste. Everything that isn’t a compound of other flavours has, by definition, a distinctive flavour.
Describing the flavour as distinctive doesn’t tell me anything useful.
So, what’s the point?
I’m not on some there’s-too-much-informationcrusade. I see this as yet another symptom of marketing departments populated by people with no real clue how to communicate with other people – well, with real people; they probably manage just fine talking utter garbage to other dullard marketing managers.
Anyone in PR will at some point have had to work with one of those people at a client. A mid-to-senior level marketing manager who is only in a position of responsibility because everyone better than them was either made redundant in the post-2008 downturn, or left to do something more rewarding.
These people don’t understand concepts like communicating effectively. They talk almost exclusively in jargon. Can’t cope with being challenged and have no frame of reference outside the impossibly narrow confines of their pointless job and equally uninspiring dimwit colleagues.
They add no value and, by and large, the only skills they have acquired are sufficient political nous to dodge the redundancy bullet and a few knife-wielding chops, but only when people’s backs are turned.
While so much of the tech sector is currently experiencing paroxysms of joy over the incredible talent of our burgeoning start-up communities, the heavier weight tech companies remain bloated by people who were hired during periods of rapid growth and who ought to have been jettisoned long ago.
In case you were wondering, yes I do feel better now thanks.

Why my kids don’t need a Twitter account

I dislike personal attacks on people and I really hope the following doesn’t read like one. But I’ve had an “enough is enough” moment.

I recently read an interesting article on the Marketing Donut (a site/blog I have contributed a couple of articles to – just to declare my interests properly). Written by Kate Horstead and entitled “Can Twitter help your business?” it might not break any new ground but it’s a decent little exploration of the topic and appears to be based mainly on an interview with Nikki Pilkington.

I’m following both Kate & Nikki on Twitter – if you’re not already maybe you should too.

So what put the stick up my backside? Well… there was a comment from Penny Power, the founder of Ecademy, which I found so misguided and misleading that I had to blog about it just to get it out of my system.

As I already said, I dislike personal attacks, but Penny is the head of a business networking association which has been around since 1998, so I figure she can cope with someone disagreeing with her.

The thing I took issue with is the following statement from the comment Penny left: “I certainly tell everyone I meet to create their Twitter name before thier real name goes. I have registered my children for the future too.”

And in case you’re wondering the spelling mistake (thier) is copied from the original – not created by yours truly for effect or done out of sloppiness. There are other typos there too if you want to go looking for them, and maybe you should – she’s writing a book after all, so presumably wants readers.

Cutting to the chase, this advice misses the point of Twitter and everything else in the social media oeuvre. So much so, that at first I thought it had to be a joke.

Who will benefit if we all do as Penny recommends and register our children’s names as Twitter accounts? And why stop with your existing children, why not register a few spares covering all the names you might pick for the kids you haven’t had yet.

Now, here’s a thing. Any account not updated for six months is classed by Twitter as inactive (I have learned from a quick squint at the Ts&Cs).

So if I register @corneliusfleming today (in case I have a son in the future I hate so much I name him after my father) the account could be gone before Badly Named Boy can even say Twitter. Thereby making the whole exercise a complete waste of time.

Maybe I’ll have to ghost Tweet for him, to ensure that doesn’t happen. Great! Just what we all need on Twitter, an army of parents ghost Tweeting on behalf of their kids. Can’t wait!

As far as I can see, no one benefits from such behaviour. Maybe as a parent one gets a warm satisfied feeling that no one else can use the name they happen to share with your three-year old. But that’s about it.

Who loses? We all do. Twitter is a community; its value is in the networks that develop within the community – individuals and organisations interacting, sharing knowledge and insight. Twitter may one day be nothing more than a footnote in the pages of online history. But there will be connections made today on Twitter that become sustainable and mutually beneficial.

The more it is jumped on as an opportunistic bandwagon by people with little to contribute the sooner Twitter’s demise will be brought about; the cool kids will leave once the dorks arrive en masse – we’ve seen it all before, I’m sure.

I’ve got kids (two sons I’m tremendously proud of) but I don’t see much business benefit to me or anyone else in them having Twitter accounts that they may or may not use in the future. I also fail to see how my sandbagging accounts like this assists me or anyone else in terms of networking. It’s not social (if it’s anything it’s anti-social) and it’s as far from community-minded as it gets.

I’m sorry Penny, but as someone who until recently ran a small business, I expect more awareness and better advice from the head of a business networking association. I can forgive Business Link for being full of windbags, civil service dead wood and the general walking wounded that comprise the sub-genre of retired banking execs, but Ecademy has to aim higher.

There’s more I could say, and in fact did say in a response I wrote to her comment on the Marketing Donut but at the time of writing this, that response hadn’t appeared.