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.

 

 

The end of social

I dislike predictions. But I’m going to make one… there will be no more big social networks. We’ve reached, and passed, a tipping point.

Why?

Because they’re all being strangled at birth by over-eager PR and marketing people, who – for all their impressive-sounding job titles and amazeballs CVs – seem to have completely forgotten all the basics of social.

Twitter and Facebook dominate the social landscape for most of us*. Similarly, they dominate the marketing spend of those brands that advertise on social media.

There’s a clear cause-and-effect thing going on here … first came the platform, then came millions of regular users, then (and only then) came the marketing and PR people.

That’s the way it works. The logic is pretty robust and if you felt like it, you could template it and see that it applies in many other walks of life.

Something has been lost, or forgotten, though.

Because now, when a new social platform launches, before most people have even created an account or downloaded an app there’s a slew of ill-conceived blog pieces and articles from marcomms people all treading the same tired old ground … ‘what brands should do on X…’

Almost none of them say “what brands should do is back off for a while, see if this thing gathers momentum, whether or not people will naturally gravitate to it, and if so what their behaviour can tell us about how we should use this platform – if at all.”

David Meyer wrote a piece on Gigaom which hits the nail on the head as far as the recent launch of Jelly was concerned… “Goodbye for now, Jelly – it’s not you it’s the marketers.”

And he’s right!

I’ve been an active and enthusiastic user of social media since before that term became common parlance – dig around in the archives of the Scotsman and the FT and you might even find me quoted in articles as far back as 2006 on how businesses could use social media for research and recruitment.

But it pains me when I see people in my sphere of work forever caught up in the Emperor’s new clothes outlook.

It really wouldn’t kill any of you to slow down a little, ask a few questions, be intellectually curious and maybe even a little sceptical.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, if we choose to ignore the old recipe for success, which turned the likes of Facebook and Twitter into the enormous beasts they are, we’re doing ourselves and our clients a disservice and we’ll eventually be over-taken by events – or smarter thinkers.

Your clients are – or should be – paying you for your consultancy. So be a consultant. If they just wanted to spend time in the company of someone to jump up and down on the spot shrieking excitedly, they’d get a job at a soft-play centre.

 

* – Europe, North America, the Antipodes, etc… ‘the West’ as it’s sometimes called.

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.

 

 

Why it’s time to stop counting your retweets

How easy would it be to write a post ridiculing the practice of assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have?

I think we all know it would be quite easy.

How much value would there be in my doing that?  Well, about as much value as there is in assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have.

Did you see what I did there?

I read a blog post today in which someone said they’d tweeted something about the Uberdaddy of record-breaking sky-diving, Felix Baumgartner. That tweet was then retweeted more than 5,000 times, reaching more than 140,000 people’s streams.

Woah..! Big numbers.

Big so what, too.

In an exchange on Twitter with a social marketer at one of the world’s premier sports brands, I recently said something that went a little bit like this:

Measuring your online relevance simply by counting how many retweets you get is a bit like driving all the way to the supermarket at the weekend, not actually going in to buy anything, but still considering it to have been a trip to the supermarket.

Technically, that’s a trip to the supermarket.

You don’t have anything to eat though.

One point I (try) to make to the brands I speak to about how they measure social success – and more importantly how they should measure social success – is that surely it has to be better for their business to find 50 people they know are spending money with them than to have 50,000 Facebook likes from people who probably aren’t.

That’s me all over though… I state the obvious.

Social media. Digital communications. Where did it all go wrong? We let it fall under the spell of people with no real experience of what it takes to create genuine interest and actionable desire.

Affecting a sustainable change in people’s perceptions and behaviour is not as hard as it might seem. As for measuring those changes, well OK that is a little bit hard. But it’s not impossible and it gets a good deal easier when you know what it is you’re trying to measure and why.

A former business contact of mine got a job last year as a “social media coordinator.”  I posited that one day, maybe in three-to-five years, there wouldn’t be anyone with the word social in their job title.  It’s all just media.

We need to stop dressing it all up as something it isn’t and get back to the business of crafting great narrative, building compelling brand stories, and measuring the things that really matter.

 

Social media has not evolved

Any discussion of the evolution of social media misses the point. It’s the evolution of the user that has been the biggest change in the last three years.

First it was “what is the point?”

Now it’s “we must find the point!”

That’s not a technology thing. That’s people realising the potential that (some but not all) social media platforms have and trying to be among the first to exploit that potential.

The change was slow at first. As is often the case.

Googleplus was the first major new platform that had brand managers and marketers rushing around frantically. Each time Facebook makes a change you see the same thing.  That’s to say, I don’t remember the same amount of marcoms clamour around Quora.

But it’s happening with new kids on the social block now in a way that didn’t happen before.

Pinterest and Percolate are two such examples.

Yes, there are people asking “what *is* the point?” of these platforms.  But increasingly there are people investigating their potential use in a brand advocacy manner.

A Tweet before bedtime

Like a lot of people I’ve grown to know online, and even count as friends, I have more than a passing interest in the tools available for blogging, tweeting and generally carrying on like a good netizen.

I’ve discussed Klout before. It’s interesting. A little addictive perhaps. But pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Peerindex is much of a muchness (I love that expression, in case you were wondering).

Attempting to measure a person’s online significance, influence, or (heaven forbid) capital by virtue of something as monodimensional as how many followers they have is clearly nonsense. The algorithms behind the likes of Klout, Peerindex et al are more sophisticated I grant you, but not massively.

I’ve become quite interested in Crowdbooster recently. I like the reports you get showing how your tweets were interacted with. It is quite simply, interesting. Nothing more, nothing less.  I’m unlikely to change my behaviour in lieu of it.

I noticed just the other day that Crowdbooster also offers recommendations for the best time for me to tweet. It turns out I ought to tweet at 10am, 3pm and 5pm. To what end is not entirely clear. What to say in those perfectly-timed mini-missives… anyone’s guess.

I sincerely hope no one is taking this advice too literally.

Content remains crucial. Have something to say. Know who you want to say it to. Then figure out when to say it.

10am, 3pm, bleak o’clock…. whatever. It doesn’t matter what you tweet if you’re saying the wrong thing.

Twas ever thus.

And it it doesn’t just apply online.

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.

Ahem..!

Yes Facebook, I’m looking at you.

I don’t want you but I need you

Smokey Robinson said it best when he sang I don’t want you but I need you.
As one of the most gifted song-writers in the popular music genre, this observation of what it’s like to be in love with someone you know is bad for you is beautifully crafted.
It also kinda sums up most people’s relationship status with Facebook.
I can’t think of an example of another organisation with such a vast following of people who are so quick to voice their dislike of the service.
And therein lies Facebook’s problem. Timelines and profile tweaks aside, it needs to do something about the toxic relationship it has with its users, many of whom are only sticking around because their friends are too.
It’s like a massive Mexican stand-offIf the day ever comes when enough people finally walk away from Facebook it could start a craze.
So far there hasn’t been a viable alternative to lure people away. For all the fuss, hype and expectation, GooglePlus won’t do it.  And there simply isn’t anyone else with the size and reach to be a realistic threat to Facebook.
That’s not much of a business model though, is it? Our customers are stuck with us and we are stuck with the fact they don’t like us.
If I was gambling man, I’d be looking at Renren as a possible longer-term Facebook rival. But that’s probably a topic for another day.
In the meantime, Facebook has to do something to stem the tide of discontent and griping.
Will Timeline be enough to do this?
No, of course not. But if it forms part of a coherent strategy to start putting people at the heart of the Facebook experience, giving them something to like – in the real sense of the word, not a silly fake Facebook like – then maybe it could be on to something.
Now, why not treat yourself to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles singing You Really Got a Hold on Me – the video and audio quality isn’t the best, but it’s worth it. Your soul will thank you.

Egypt, Twitter and social media tools

I have been an active user of twitter for about two years. I’m no veteran or social media maven, but I’m no newbie either.

Twitter’s helped me find work and business opportunities. I’ve used it to find people to hire, I’ve even forged friendships with people I would never have met had it not been for twitter.

Depending on how you use it, it’s an interesting and useful tool, or a way of revealing your ignorance. But a hammer can be used to help you hang a picture of your grandmother on the wall, or as an offensive weapon. It’s a tool.

Not for the first time in the last two years, I’ve recently found myself watching with a sense of mild bemusement as news of events thousands of miles away is broadcast via twitter along with a heady mix of opinion and speculation.

I am, of course, referring to Egypt. Political and societal turmoil – protests, demonstrations, and a death toll which rises daily.

As a former journalist, when something big like this happens I want to know about it: I want context and background, I want to question the sources of the information, I want to know how reliable they are.

The polarisation of the twitterati in such events as those unfolding in Egypt, is also interesting.

It doesn’t take long for people to decide there are Good Guys and Bad Guys and that somehow everyone involved, no matter how loosely, is affiliated with one side or another.

The other thing that really strikes me is the desire of many on twitter to broadcast every new, or not so new, detail in a manner that attributes equal weighting to everything, while simultaneously rushing to be the first to move the story on, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of it has been well worth reading – such as the piece I read regarding the manner in which the lights went off across Egypt’s ISPs. But the majority of what’s appeared in my stream has tended toward being tub-thumping sloganeering.

I can only offer conjecture of my own when I wonder how many (by which I really mean “how few”) of the people I follow on twitter who are avidly tweeting and RT-ing Egypt-related information really have an understanding of what is going on there.

Yes, we all know the Mubarak government has been criticised for being oppressive and not committed to a meaningful democracy.

But what do we know of the forces within Egypt that have realised current events offer them a golden opportunity to exert influence, possibly even seize power and have the country march to the beat of their drum?

The answer is as obvious as it is depressing – very little.

The history books are full of accounts of popular uprisings and revolutions that before long were exploited by those with their own, sometimes deeply oppressive, agenda.

But reading history text books affords few opportunities to show off about how ‘aware’ one is.

Video: it’s not a serious PR tool is it..?

Everyone likes a good video, don’t they? I know I do.

In PR terms (check out my subtle segue from the potentially interesting topic of watching movies to the potentially duller topic of PR) there are differing opinions of the medium’s efficacy. The jury, to use an already exhausted metaphor, is still out.

Combined with the power of social media to attract an audience though, and in the right hands, video can be a useful addition to the PR practitioner’s toolkit.

One of the best examples of video and social media in action that I’ve seen in recent months comes courtesy of the Las Vegas based entrepreneur, internet marketer and force-of-nature that is Maren Kate Donovan, at http://www.escapingthe9to5.com/

Back in April (yes, it really has taken me that long to write this) Maren Kate posted a video on her site that took the form of an appeal to Herman Miller, the purveyor of fine office chairs and other related bits and pieces.

The appeal…? “I want Herman Miller to send me a several thousand dollar chair for free, in return I’ll blab about its greatness (assuming it is great) everywhere!” MK explains on her site.

The thing that caught my attention, and still has me thinking about what all this means, is that Herman Miller responded!

I contacted Maren Kate and asked for a bit more detail.

She told me: “I was hoping to get them to send me a chair and to see how long it took a major brand to get back to someone who ‘reached out’ to them via social media. So it was an experiment of types as well as an excuse for me to get rid of my old chair. The wider strategy: which is soon going to be a full-fledged video review site (name pending) is to get traffic by reviewing other people’s stuff for free, so you will get the benefits of having a site where lots of people go (ads, etc.) and you will get a deluge of free stuff because opposed to popular opinion companies are DYING for you to try out their stuff online.”

Herman Miller have said they’d like Maren Kate to review one of their new chairs later in the year (that’s autumn if you’re in the UK and fall if you’re in the US).

It’s not a strategy that would work for just anyone. Maren Kate has built up a huge following and not insignificant personal brand equity through years of hard work.

But it does point to the extent to which major corporations are willing to incorporate social media into their communications strategies and the potential results if people like me, in PR and communications, can help them find the right channels.