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WTF is wrong with agencies?

[This post was first published on Imperica here]

So, you walk into a room full of the brightest and best that agencyland has to offer, a collection of the digitally-enthused and passionately adept, charged out by their agencies for hundreds, even thousands of pounds a day, all in a room to share knowledge and swap best practices.

And then you realise that there’s a surprising common factor – a lot of them appear to be dumb.

The clue comes from the presentations; one is essentially a series of links, as if a bunch of digital heads don’t have any other way of sharing such things, as if Twitter, Stumbleupon, Reddit and, y’know, email groups never existed. Another presentation lays out the revelation that stories have – I kid you not – a beginning, middle and end. This revelation causes much scribbling of notes, swiping of iPads and, yes, even tweeting. I look around me and think: is this it? A stone’s throw from “Silicon Roundabout”, the much-vaunted (by politicians, anyway) digital tech hub of London, where all the cool smartarses should be and it’s just… not San Francisco.

This is only one of a number of occasions recently when I’ve looked at agency staff doing, y’know, stuff and thought “Why do you exist?”

Account team to the rescue

Why do clients hire agencies anyway? Why, if you run a business and employ staff, do you need to bring in an external company to do bits of your business? The answer is that agencies are supposed to be better at certain things than you are. You hire in specialists to do work that can’t be completed internally to the same standards. Simple, right?

At least, that’s how it should be. Digital has been like this for a while – once the preserve of unemployable nerds, later the territory of the whizzkids and geniuses, but always an area where clients were lacking in knowledge and / or experience. Why? Well, often, it was an age thing. Marketing directors and other senior stakeholders were of an age where they hadn’t grown up with the internet and weren’t enthused about it. 10 years ago, people were still debating whether or not they should even have a webpage (mind you, a couple of weeks ago, a large client of mine was still debating whether or not to have a Facebook page. Sometimes things don’t change). Agencies who needed to sell these services found the employable geeks and snapped them up on far better wages than yet-to-be-convinced-of-the-value-of-digital clients. They gave the unknowledgeable the option to buy a service with a set of deliverables attached; if you don’t understand what the work is really about, having a checklist of documents to be produced and webpages to be constructed allowed you to tick things off one by one, and assume you’d done your job.

And then people started to make money out of the web, and things changed again.

Suddenly, this stuff was deemed measurable in metrics normal non-digital people could understand. Did we make a return on our investment? Are we selling things through our website? The demands on agencies changed – and agencies changed to meet those demands. Instead of “digital strategy” meaning “what colour should our website be?” it became “does our web stuff help meet our business objectives?” and so new kinds of planners and strategists were needed, ones that understood the workings of businesses more than just the workings of marketing.

At this point, the advertising agencies who had successfully sold in the notion that the web was just another billboard, somewhere to extend the “above the line” creative, a place to put pretty pictures from the real world in front of consumers (just in smaller boxes)… they began to look, well, a bit shit.

Digital engagement is not like advertising – there is very little value in engagement alone. Whilst you may get a bit of all the above-mentioned metrics, if you don’t give an end user something to do you’re missing an opportunity – that might be the opportunity to engage in conversation (two way communication breeds better engagement than just getting people to watch a film or an animation or read some text), or it might be to drive people to a web or social media page with a stronger call to action, to sign up, to contribute, to purchase. But it’s not just that it’s an “opportunity” – it’s that these are things people want to do online. Passive viewing and sucking up marketing doesn’t cut it. And this kind of activity is more measurable than “how many eyes walked past our poster.” Analytics will tell you exactly what response something got.

And then there’s the user. Digital requires more understanding of individual users’ needs because people do more things in digital than, say, when they’re walking past a poster or watching the telly. They search, they research, they talk with friends about things they like, they shout at brands they hate, they create and distribute, influence and are influenced. And they often do it by themselves in a room with a screen. Advertising & PR have to talk “one to many” – so advertising a product on TV to millions in the hope you hit 2 or 3 target markets means finding messaging that works across all targets; digital has an element of the same but often requires a more individual approach, understanding that it’s just you and the user communicating, albeit in a context of more people / friends / followers etc.

"Yeah, sorry, gotta dash, got a client meeting in 20 minutes, gonna sell them some elephants."

This puts the ball in the court of the strategists. Where great advertising planners of the past were often a mixture of creative instinct, sharp minds and bucketloads of experience, digital planners and strategists need a mix of those things plus one all important element: evidence. That means that you can prove what you say; charm and a few lunches might sell something in to the client, but it won’t sell it into the punter. Smart agencies now buy into psychology, anthropology, data and research. And strategists & planners need to be able to help turn all of that into yer actual real stuff on the other end.

For a while, digital people looked pretty smart, then. The explosion of social media brought a new generation of socially-minded people who got lumped together under the “digital” banner and then… Well, I’m not sure the two are wholly related but there seems some correlation, if not causation. Social media seems much more sexy than “trad” digital because, hey! Everyone’s got a Facebook page and – bejasus! Some people have even tried that Twittering thing and it looks fun and so can’t we have one of those? Can we make it sell our widgets? … and so forth.

The less you know about a subject, the harder it is to be strategic. One of the stupidest mistakes of people in positions of “authoritah” is to assume that any job they’ve never done themselves is actually easy. Now they had a Facebook page, they were social media experts, right? Which is a bit like saying you read a paper every day so you know how to be a journalist. Marketing directors would start looking at social as a way of delivering campaign tactics – short term, marketing objective-driven executions; and the new generation of social media agencies have got fat off the proceeds. It was the Wild West all over again, and without much in the way of competition the fees were high and the audience easier to reach. There’s gold in them thar hills, and all that.

Now, things are different: everyone’s doing it. It’s harder to win. Real social engagement means a sustained presence; listening and responding goes further than just communicating – consumers expect companies to change when they demand it, and in the age of social CRM, they do. Marks & Spencer are brilliant at this and they run most of their social engagement from a small in-house team who know what they are doing. Who the hell needs an agency, when you’re the most-engaged UK brand on Facebook and you’re driving sales?

Proper strategy means knowing what businesses need as well as consumers – and over time, not just in the short term. Relationships mature, they aren’t always created in an instant. Knowing the whizziest of whizzy gadgets and gimmicks is not the whole game any more – but it is a part of it. If you stop learning every day, technology-based disciplines will always pass you by. This is the technological imperative at work – just because you know something about Twitter today does not mean you can answer business challenges tomorrow.

All this “smart, experienced people” schtick flew in the face of standard agency hiring practices. Agencies weren’t where a lot of smart people went, not outside of planning departments anyway. If you had a modicum of charm were good looking and had a nice haircut, wore the right clothes and kissed the right sphincter, you could get a pretty decent job. Smart people went into planning and strategy and were locked away in dark rooms. At this point, I expect a lot of agency types to be fuming, but, frankly, if they read this far they aren’t the targets (reading seems to be anathema to a certain type of agency person, long copy a distant dream). Anyway, the needs of the digital market brought in smarter people. Agencies who had never considered such things as, y’know, how a business actually works, started to employ business analysts and consultants, whole departments sprang up that dealt with data and research. Anthropology, sociology and psychology became important.

So, what’s with all the agency dumb?

My theory: money breeds complacency. And complacency breeds poor hiring practices. The lack of competitive pressure which has allowed a whole slew of agencies to gain cashflow on the back of average work. So they keep hiring the same people they always have. They forget – or don’t know how – to look into social and digital expertise. In the ’90s you used to have to check that someone had “Microsoft Office” in their skillset; now kids learn that stuff in school. Just because someone has a Pinterest account it doesn’t follow that they know how to use it for business (and for an explanation of why social media consulting is almost dead for the same reason, see here). And if you don’t use it yourself, you sure as hell can’t check whether someone else is any good at it.

I keep wondering what it would be like if you got into a car for your first driving lesson and the instructor had a book open on his lap. “I don’t drive myself,” he says, “but I have an excellent book here written by some of the best drivers in the world. Now…. If you can…” [reads from book] “depress the clutch with your left foot…”

You would be out of that car in a second.

"Where to guvnor? Can you just put me 'and on the satnav? Cheers."

So why do agencies think it’s alright to charge people for the services of people who are reading from the approved text?

The trouble is, they all follow a similar trajectory. That complacency allows their competitors to nip in and point out that they could deliver the same work (a) considerably better and (b) considerably cheaper. Non-experienced people take longer to do the same work and they’re learning as they go – inevitably costs go up as quality suffers.

Agencies that want to prosper with digital and social offerings need to get their heads out of their collective backsides. Compete with Silicon Valley?

You. Are. Fucking. Joking.

 

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Pinterest & Canvas: Sharing Made Easy

Funny, whilst Google Plus and Facebook are the media darlings duking it out for supposed primacy in mainstream social networking, there’s a few newish sites that are doing good work and with significantly less attention. I think they do a better job of sharing (to a point) than the two great behemoths as they’re more focused on the things human beings actually want / do. I’m going to highlight Canvas and Pinterest because I think they are two sides of a coin; the latter aimed at more of a mass audience and the former at the meme-loving hordes with a bit of a creative bent.

Sardonic sneering: implied.

First, Pinterest. Simple version: it’s a way of saving webpages you’ve visited.

Saving webpages: very easy, thanks.

I’ve used a variety of sites / applications for this kind of thing over the years. Delicious was my original place, but its links to Yahoo! always made it clunky and you’d often find yourself logged out and needing to remember passwords etc. But it worked, so it was good. Later came Evernote, which mixed the simple link-saving with some visual “clippings” of the webpage to remind you what it looked like, etc. As I started to post more and more to Twitter I found myself mentally relying on the fact I’d tweeted as a “store” of my links… only to realise that searching tweets was annoyingly tricky sometimes – and then Trunkly came along. All you had to do was log in with Twitter and there were all your links you’d posted, neatly searchable. And then Delicious bought Trunkly and they’re about to turn it off whilst they integrate it into Delicious. And that felt like a step backward. I want “simple” – push button, everything happily stored. So I took a look at a friend’s recommendation: Pinterest.

Pinterest lets you save webpages as collections of thumbnails with a short description. Example. You can create a board about anything. In the “About” tab you’ll see “Pin It Button” – go there, drag it onto your links bar, then every time you’re on a webpage you want to save, you just hit the button. It’ll ask you which board you want to put it on, then you can add an image from the page and a description (tip: highlight text on the page and it’ll automatically add it as the description, so no additional typing required). And that’s it.

I love the simplicity. If you see an entry posted by someone that you like, you can “like” it, share it, follow that particular board. Whilst you can follow people, the chances are you aren’t interested in everything they are; perhaps you share just one common interest – so you follow the board not the person.

When you consider the relative complexity of Google’s Circles in Google Plus – and the amount of time it takes to administer it all Pinterest beats it hands down. I save content because I want to – if anyone wants to share it with me then that’s fine, but because my primary behaviour is “I want to save this” not “I want to display this” or “I want to draw attention to (or market) this” it just feels much more intuitive.

In the last week I have watched as the activity levels have shot up. Somewhat unbelievably, Alexa ranks Pinterest at #34 in the US traffic rankings – considering it’s still in beta and you need to request an invite, that’s… astounding. And it’s not just the stereotypically male, geeky early-adopter types; there’s a real spread of gender and age in the people I’m seeing, far more than Google Plus has managed to date.

If you’re interested, here’s me btw.

Onto Canvas, then. This is also a site about sharing, but it also adds a couple of neat elements: (primarily) visual conversations and the ability to create content easily. I’ve long been a fan of the likes of 4Chan and B3ta,

It's still rude, but not as rude as 4Chan

image boards that allow users to post Photoshopped images, animated gifs and other links – and with a streak of free-minded, anti-censorship liberty thrown in. Both are beautifully NSFW, 4Chan markedly more so than B3ta. Both are chock-full of laughs, mind, if your brain is wired that way. They are probably my two favourite sites which have lasted over the years. Which says a lot, probably.

Why is Canvas a leap forward? Because in the 8+ years I’ve been on both I’ve hardly posted any images. I’m laughing, but I’m also in awe of the Photoshop / other tech skills involved. I don’t have the chops, so I “lurk” rather than create. You may have heard of the  “1% rule” that says that only 1% of people are regular creators of content and this certainly applied to me with these sites. But Canvas (which, by the way, was created by Chris Poole aka “Moot” who created 4Chan) makes it easy – if you see an image, you’re encouraged to “remix” it. Hitting that button opens up an image editor with brushes, text editors and more that even I can use. And suddenly, I have started creating more. It’s just what you want if you love “meme” culture and want to get involved. And unlike sites like memegenerator.net – which has its charms – it has a much more conversational flow to the content and the way things are posted.

But that’s not the whole picture. “Liking” content is done through “stickering” – you drag a sticker onto the image you like. And there’s different stickers for different emotions – the traditional “LOL,” a shocked face, a “wise words” sticker, and more. The more time you spend on the site the more stickers you get access to.

There's more to life than "Like"

Finding images you liked is easy, too, as you just have to go to the “stickered by you” page and everything you liked is saved there.

And this, frankly, is better than Facebook “Like.” Liking is fine, but it’s too simplistic. I don’t “Like” my friend’s status saying that they’re having a rough time; I may LOVE a particular picture; I might be inspired by a comment. But it’s all just “Like” and that just isn’t human enough. I want to comment without (always) having to write something; sometimes you just need to smile or grimace at someone, give them a pat on the back or a roguish slap on the cheek. Humans interact through expression as much as through words; Canvas gets this.

So, two entirely different sites but with a common theme: they understand your social behaviour better than the two giants that we all talk about constantly. Neither are anything like “Facebook Killers” (stupid idea) – they’re just healthy additions to online life. And Google Plus seems to be doing a good job of killing itself with no outside assistance.

Anyway, these two sites appear to have done more to enable the truly human sides of sharing that either of the giants in recent times. “Like” is too simplistic; Circles is too complicated and time-consuming. Enabling human behaviour is at the heart of what makes a good social site and these two do it in spades. Enjoy.

 

 

 

PS No, I’m not going to link to my stuff on Canvas ‘cos it’s rude.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Communities, Digital, Social Media

 

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The Nonsense of The Personal Brand

I get a lot of gip about my Twitter account. I swear, make bad and often off-colour jokes, troll major brands and social media consultants for kicks and generally refuse to play the “game.” Considering a history of working in marketing and dealing with brand and PR, am I just killing my personal brand?

AKA "I am a massive bell-end."

I certainly hope so.

Consider what personal branding is all about – the idea that you need to maintain a professional demeanour in the face of present or potential clients or networking colleagues. Sadly, there are plenty of examples of employees losing jobs over their social network postings and employers who “vet” potential employees using companies that perform online vetting.

The idea that your personal life now belongs to your employer is unbelievably offensive in what is supposed to be a “free” country. Sure, if you attend a Klan rally wearing your McDonalds uniform people are bound to get upset – you can’t blame the Klan for excluding you.* If you’re wearing a uniform then it’s not such a stretch to think that you represent your employer somehow, but if you’re in civvies on your own time? Would you expect your employer to see you dancing badly on a Saturday night and give you a written warning about your conduct? What if you worked for Amnesty but liked to secretly read the Mail On Sunday? Or you worked at T-Mobile but had a BT landline? What business is it of anyone’s?

The answer to all of this is pretty simple. If you’re worried your employer may be social network-sensitive, don’t allow them to connect to you and sort out your privacy settings. For some people, this is sadly a reality – but they are a slightly different issue to those with “personal brands.”

The person as a brand is not a new concept. And, if you’re famous like Donald Trump then I suppose I can see the sense in it – your income is related directly to people’s perception of you. So, even if it makes you a total douche, fair enough. But that isn’t most people. Most people who go down this route are creating a

"Hi. I'm a self-perpetuating media node."

professional façade for their personality – this is what your CV or LinkedIn are for, a professional interpretation of who you are. But your presence in social networks is social by definition – why are you pretending to be someone you aren’t?

The process of branding is often about making products seem more human or human-friendly – so why is that process being applied to, erm, humans? Would you ever want to meet a personal brand? How does that go? “Hi, I’m Tom. Have you read this week’s iPhone news? If you’ve enjoyed this conversation you can find me at the bar across the street later where I’ll be discussing the Wall Street protests…”

“Uh-huh….  Check please.”

I don’t subscribe to this kind of stuff because I’d rather people knew what a jerk I am before they employ me. What’s the point of pretending to be someone I’m not? They’ll find out eventually. I wouldn’t lie on my CV and say I can operate a crane, only later to destroy a building with one and sheepishly ask if I’ll be getting paid for the hours I’d done before those unfortunate deaths. The same goes for clients. If clients are sensitive, ensure they are not connected. It’s the work account that needs to be careful not the personal ones. If you’re a massively offensive and profane person, your company is unlikely to place you in a room with sensitive clients so why would you connect  with them on social networks?

Most client organisations are made up of human beings just like you. And they don’t care about what you do in your personal life. They are more likely to be offended if you pretend to be someone you aren’t and then they discover the real you. If you spend your whole life with a permagrin, soray tan, fake Rolex or Gucci handbag slapped on your person, good luck to you. But you can buy your own drinks.

Branding? It’s for companies and cattle. You aren’t a brand, you’re a person. Maybe try actually being one.

It's the mark that says "Hi, I'm Chad, let's talk about articles I read on Mashable."

*Zzzzzzing.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2011 in Branding, Marketing, Social Media

 

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Social CRM : A Guide by Business Cat

In my life of PowerPoint hell, I made the following to explain it to a client who I knew also likes memes.

(And if you haven’t caught this particular bug, as it were, try this definition and also a chart of popular memes here which attempts to explain them).

More Business Cat.

There is a lot being written about social CRM at the moment and most of it seems designed to sell software. It’s a lot simpler than that:

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Stupid

 

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Social Media Consultants: A Cautionary Tale From History

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Once upon a time a man called Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. It was 1876 and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. That’s not the interesting bit. What’s interesting is that Bell himself, despite predicting the immense social consequences, never owned one at home.

The reason was generational: having grown up with nothing more than telegraphs and morse code to communicate further afield than the next town, the need for these new forms of communications had not really touched his own life. He just didn’t feel the need.

In 1878, the first switchboard opened in Connecticut. It was staffed – as were many of the first exchanges by young men (average age 17, apparently). This was because they had the stereotypically “male” trait of being able to look at these complex devices and be able to work them without lengthy training. By 1880, there was one phone for every thousand American households. By the mid-1890s, that number had dropped to one in 70.

Most interesting to me was that, at this point in history, these expensive machines were not for fun – they were treated like a telegraph machine with a little more functionality. You didn’t chit chat, you didn’t top and tail your conversation with pleasantries, you just verbally expressed what you would have sent by telegraph. People would pick up the phone and say “Need 17 cases STOP Delivery by Wednesday STOP Price as previous order STOP.” And put the phone down.

By the 1920s, the machines were more ubiquitous and the companies that sold them were trying to get people to use them as more social devices. AT&T’s legendary “Reach Out & Touch Someone” came from a realisation that the families and friendships that had been scattered by America’s still-recent migration could be reconnected using the phone. This marked a change in direction, although it was one that businesses had already realised, as they networked a series of offices across the country and even the world. Using the phones was big business, but people just hadn’t grown up with them so they needed help.

An industry grew to help these businesses. This is a film from 1927 (it has no sound, sound hadn’t been invented then and I believe people mostly mimed to each other in the street [CITATION NEEDED]).

Around this time, the switchboards were getting rid of those young boys who had ruled that particular roost. With competition raging between Bell Telephone, AT&T and Western Union (the latter merging under the same president, Theodore Vail, who was related to the one of the people who developed the first telegraph and was such a stickler for centralised power that Vailism became a byword for monopoly practices) there was a move towards service as a feature rather than mere functionality. Owners found that the boys were often rude, made short answers and were unhelpful – another stereotypically male trait, unfortunately. This is why, by the time cameras got around to capturing them, most of these switchboards were operated by women – they were simply more pleasant to talk to than their spotty teenaged male counterparts.

If you look closely there's a smug guy saying "Plug it in there and say "Hello, sir.""

There must also have been a change in the employees that were taken on. By the mid-20s, many would have had experience in using a telephone at home and would have been more comfortable with the conventions surrounding its use. And training would have become less of a specialty – these operations would have become focused over time less on how to talk on the telephone and more about how to monetise operations off the back of them. Think of terms used in callcentres today and it’s all cross-sell and up-sell. You would imagine that the training around saying “Hello, welcome to Acme, my name is Allan, how may I help you today?” would be a short side note. The real meat of training is how to sell, how to serve, how to make sure the customer leaves happy and with a lighter wallet.

And so it is – and will be – with social media. It seems odd to me that this is even something worth mentioning in 2012, but I was reminded of the need by an idiotic spat with a “social media consultant” over their use of hashtags to hijack news items and conversations. I’ll save the details for now, but it occurred to me that these snake-oil salesmen are still out there relieving businesses of budgets for nothing more than, effectively, learning how to speak to people in these channels.

This was social media strategy for most of us in about 2005. Since then, it’s become more about how to integrate this new channel into business operations. With the advent of “social CRM” (yes, I know, but it doesn’t have to be complicated, it can really be distilled into listening to what your customer wants and then working out how your company can service their demands and needs), there is an even greater push to get brands and organisations engaging, listening and responding operationally.

But this is not where the social media consultant lives. They still think that their ability to chat on the phone sets them apart as specially talented, that brands haven’t yet caught on, that the need to impart wisdom gleaned from sometimes as much as two years’ experience as a self-appointed consultant qualifies them as a business requirement. But every year that passes, another generation of young employees comes to a company and for them social media is not something special – it just “is.” They’ve grown up with these things, it’s natural to them, they don’t need training in how to use it; they need training in how businesses work so they can work out how social media becomes as much a part of everyday company life as it is for the next generation of consumers coming through. Communication skills are easy to teach; how to run a business is not.

Snake Oil - check out that ROI!

The social media consultant should be dead by now, but they aren’t. They use each other to bolster their follower accounts, content farming like crazy to set out nets to catch each other with, giving the impression of huge networks that are bolstered by pointlessly-inflated Klout scores, but despite dropping phrases like ROI into their copy they offer very little of real worth to anyone that has learned to use their new version of the telephone. In an age when social media should be moving people towards transparency, they are skilled at setting up false impressions that easily impress the last few clients on the block not savvy enough to see through it. In this respect, they have another historical counterpart – the snake oil salesman, the guy that used to ride into wild west towns, sell everyone a magic cure based on miraculous results witnessed by the crowd when some poor miscreant (who also happened to be a stooge) would suddenly be “cured.” Then they’d ride off to the next town before the last one discovered this stuff had done nothing at all or, worse, poisoned them. Often, the placebo effect would make people believe they had actually gained relief, so those salesmen knew which towns they could visit again and which ones would lynch them if they ever set foot in the place.

A couple of years ago, I saw the video below. It made me laugh so much that I immediately removed from any of my copy any kind of terminology that seemed to imply social media guru credentials. I (honestly!) wasn’t in the same game but I knew plenty who were and it seemed like a red flag, a warning not to be lumped in with this kind of behaviour. I watched it again. And what made me laugh more than anything was the thought that with 2012 just around the corner, it’s still relevant – unbelievably so.

To anyone that might consider employing one of these chumps, I beg you – ask why you need them. Again, this feels like a five year old issue, but it clearly needs restating. Ask why you need “social media” and be clear what exactly your company can use it for. Treat it like any other channel and apply some meaningful metrics. Your telephone is connected to – potentially – billions of people, but just because it has that potential connection doesn’t mean you are actually connected.

That connection depends on whether or not your business has anything they want. Without that, your Twitter follower count means precisely dick-all. If you have the kind of business that needs it, there are specialist call centre companies which can help with outsourcing. They work because they are well-trained, understand your business requirements and deliver against them. Outsourcing social media should mean nothing less, but it often does.

Whilst “social media strategy” used to mean “how to talk to customers through social media” it is now about the more complex relationships involved between organisations and their customers, including collaboration and co-creation and how to integrate what is created into business operations that run a profit. Social strategy is a part of digital strategy is a part of business and marketing strategy. It’s all inextricably linked. Stop being impressed by surface impressions and ask more questions about what this stuff does for you. Stop drinking the snake oil.

Like the boys who once ruled the switchboard roost, or the maker of the instructional film, the social media consultant will one day be consigned to a minor footnote in history, notable only as a passing interest that “huh, we once used to need people to tell us how to use this stuff.”

Huh. How about that?

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society

 

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Opinion: Google+ – has Google done it again?

A long time ago, in a company blog far, far away (don’t look for it, it isn’t there anymore*), I wrote about how Google had dropped the ball with Wave & Buzz. Rushing to judgement on Google+ is not smart, but I’m seeing a lot of the same signs and I think Google have a very small window of opportunity in which to make things right before their adoption rates start to atrophy.

Full disclosure: I love Google. They’ve given me free email that works better than anything else I’ve had, they solved the problem of porting contacts to a new mobile phone with Contacts (from an hour plus hassle to mere seconds in one fell swoop), the Calendar, Contacts and email all play nicely together and are bloody easy to set up on Blackberrys and other phones. They’ve given us Android and Chrome. And they have this search engine thingwhich is quite handy.Their maps have saved me navigational humiliation on many an occasion. I’ve never had to pay a penny for any of those things, too – so what’s not to like?

The problem with Wave and Buzz wasn’t the products themselves, necessarily. It was how we were introduced to them. Other Google products were developed by damned fine engineers, then released into a beta or Labs version, then tested & gradually released. I remember when Gmail invites were genuinely hard to come by, – and it was for more than just a few days, too. This process allowed engineering types to gradually absorb real user feedback, tweak, redevelop and re-release – it was a productive loop. Similarly, products and add-ons that got released to indifference would eventually slip quietly off the Labs list and disappear.That period also gave time for users to explore, experiment and develop a genuine love for the product.

But Wave & Buzz both did something that Google had never really done before (with the possible exception of Chrome at the time): they appeared in a traditional, PR-heavy blaze of publicity – they were announced as the finished, real deal. And, of course, they weren’t. Had Google released Wave to interested parties in a beta, they would have found all the little things that annoyed people or were just plain non-user-friendly. Perhaps by the time it reached a public release it would have been easier to use and adoption would have been steadier. Buzz was just a Twitter “me-too,” with seemingly only its ability to integrate into Gmail as anything like a USP.

"I would show you my manboobs if I thought you'd buy into the product"

People use phrases like “organic growth” far too much without really understanding what it means. Gmail was awesome in the light of the Hotmails and Yahoo!s that preceded it. Suddenly here was a nicely searchable, easy to use mail interface with seemingly unlimited storage space – it was so good that people became evangelists for no other reason than “this is good – you would love it.” By dropping a top-heavy marketing campaign on an unsuspecting public, expectations are raised, often unrealistically; there’s just no room for users to become enthusiastic of their own accord – all the enthusiasm has been generated for them. So there’s less incentive to talk about the product and far more interest in picking it apart. Instead of being able to help fix the holes, which happens with lab products, it’s too late – it’s a release version, it’s not that great, we all move on to something else.

Google+, then, has some great things going for it – I think “circles” is a decent answer to the definition of social media “friendships,” for example – but it also has a lot of holes. Private messaging is clunky, the mobile app side of things is shockingly bad (iPhone but not iPad or Touch? Really?) but most important of all is the lack of an open API – which would have helped solve all of those problems much quicker than Google can themselves.

What they should have done was test in private / semi-private for longer. They could have added / withdrawn functionality as required, let developers play with the API and start building apps to connect the dots. User feedback would have improved the usability for ordinary, non-techy types and by the time it reached a release version it would have been better. Those invites should then have been let out much more slowly to ensure that users were seeing the benefits and continue the tweaking at a reasonable pace.

But the main thing Google have forgotten is that there was no aching need for a new social network in the public-at-large. Much is made of Facebook’s privacy and other issues, but those are still issues that interest a relatively small slice of its user base. Diaspora’s privacy-hugging release has not dented Facebook one iota – there simply aren’t 100s of millions of people waiting for a replacement, they’re happy where they are. Likewise Twitter. Like Buzz, we now have a product with some natty features but we aren’t sure why we should trade up. Like Wave, we have other things that do that job for us – do I really need to learn how to use something new..?

We still love this stuff, right?

And key to all of it is a lack of mobile functionality. This wouldn’t matter so much if there was an open API and developers could start getting it in shape. The truth is, many developers will be better at mobile interfaces than Google. Despite all the time they’ve had – and their involvement in Android – Google is still hit and miss on mobile. In fact one respected angel investor has decried Google as almost a spent force, and not least because of a failure to get mobile working for them

It surprises me that people think something like a social network can be marketed like anything else – it’s a particular product that demands social acceptance and, yes, organic growth. That’s how you know it’s good, because it’s inherently “social.” Google+ is showing fast growth because they’re tapping into an existing Google customer base, within which is a voluminous tech-savvy bunch who have enough doubts about Facebook to want to try something new. I think their first 20 million users is easy. To reach 100 million they’re going to have to overcome a lot of the issues mentioned above as well as the fact that Twitter’s existing base seem happy enough. It’s not the Facebook-doubting Google-lovers they have to convince; it’s all those people’s friends that are on Facebook, because if they don’t leave or migrate, then those same tech-savvy types will just go back to where all their friends are.

Google had a way of working that set them apart from the competition. Whilst Microsoft was dumping effectively unfinished products into the market (poor iterations of Internet Explorer, Windows Vista, early Windows mobiles, vast swathes of clunky, memory-sapping  software), and relying on their brand and clout to sell them in, Google were the happy engineers, testing and tweaking and as close to their marketplace as they needed to be to succeed. Wave & Buzz looked like Microsoft launches, not Google; Google+ looks halfway between the two. If it works, it will be because the engineering side of their character shines through and they address quickly the issues that will hamper growth.

Google stands at a crossroads. Whilst their success as a multinational brand is probably unlikely to change in the light of advertising-based performance, their success as innovators may be in the balance. I hope they take the right path.

*Because mixing film references is fun, OK?

 

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Caution: Do Not Subscribe To This Blog

I really mean it. Perhaps that sounds odd in an age where everyone seems to be trying to gain a personal following. I mean, shouldn’t I be trying to build up an audience for this new blog? Should I not be kissing link-butt and drawing in you in? Maybe, but I don’t like the idea of “belief.” And following people – or, indeed, subscribing to their blogs – seems to engender a notion that one believes in them rather like one believes in a religion or political agenda. And that stuff is getting old, baby.

There is nothing that can't be said through the medium of lolcats

Let me explain: I am, basically, an old punk. My favourite band is probably  Dead Kennedys (caution: maybe NSFW / NSFL) and my favourite comedian Bill Hicks (likewise). It is plain weird to me that I have somehow, despite all my best efforts, ended up working in the field I do with the principles I hold dear, but that, as they say, is life. One of my main principles in thinking punkyish is that you burn your idols. You don’t have them. Nobody gets to be right just by virtue of who they are. Our political systems (West, East, everywhere) are based on the idea that we believe what certain of our leaders say with often then very lightest of questioning.

This is a form of idolatry. I want to question everybody, I want to know what they know so I can see whether their conclusions are ones I would come to myself. We all tend to use cognitive shortcuts – instead of examining the raw data or information, we rely on the source – some like The Guardian, some like The Times; some follow the guy with that kind of beard, some with this kind of hat. Are you a Redditor or a 4Channer or a Digg-er? Noam Chomsky or Leo Strauss?

There is a certain necessity in all of this. Few people have the time to examine every fact for themselves; more importantly, few have the intellect. There is no reason why anyone who has not studied economics (academically or in practice) should hold a valid opinion on whether or not we raise interest rates or cut taxes. This is why debates like whether or not the UK should join the Euro are reduced to nationalist issues such as whether or not the Queen’s head would be on a 10 Euro note or whether or not it’s a matter of national sovereignty. The media – and commentators, blogs etc – act as a filter or translation mechanism. If you don’t understand an issue personally, then you use outlets you trust to make those decisions for you.

This is a responsibility which is often abused. Headlines about health that play on fear or offer unrealistic hope by pulling a medicine trial result out of context – cancer is not necessarily cured because a bunch of rats showed some promising results in a single experiment. But media need to sell papers and advertising and bloggers need their status and ego-stroking, so that’s what tends to happen. Andrew Wakefield falsifies results in a tiny trial regarding autism and the MMR vaccine to bolster his shareholding in a company which sells single-shot vaccines. Years later, children suffer from diseases which had all but been eradicated; media and others have used the confirmation of what they “believe” in the media to bolster what they think they “know.” And it’s totally understandable – we just don’t have the time or intellect to read up on everything we need to have an opinion on, be sure of the validity of the source of the information and interpret it accordingly. Which begs the question: do you really need an opinion on every subject?

Believing something and knowing something  are two very different things. Scientists are supposedly the benchmark: a good scientist can hypothesise on something for years, treating it almost like a belief, but – unlike, say, religious or political people – when the evidence shows them to be wrong, they change their minds.Science is not a belief system – it’s about being able to observe something and repeat it, in essence it’s only about what can be actually proved to be true. It requires no belief other in one’s own eyes and ears.

In practice, of course, that isn’t often the case. Andrew Wakefield still “believes” he is right (as he is paid quite a lot of money to do so) despite all the evidence proving he is quite wrong. Renegade / sceptical climate scientists make a name for themselves by being available to undermine the 97%+ of climate scientists who agree that the evidence is compelling. The public’s difficulty in sorting the wheat from the proverbial chaff (most of us are lucky to have a physics or chemistry GCSE let alone a career’s worth of learning to be able to decide for ourselves) and so we fall back on belief.

Where the science element fails is often not in the science or scientists, but in those that follow them. I love Ben Goldacre’s work in this respect, but those that follow him tend to use his proclamations as fact when they are often opinion (which he is entitled to) – I suspect relatively few of those that cite him understand his actual scientific work in the slightest. I also adore the work of Adam Curtis as he’s one of the few documentary makers I’ve come across who can stimulate thought and discussion around complex topics, but it’s foolish to take it all at face value and represent as pure fact. This is exactly what religions and political parties do; you may believe that God sent the 10 commandments for his people on Earth but how much more of a religion’s commandments are actually just interpretations by mere mortal men & women? You may believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy because your political party tells you it does and provides you with a single historical example of when this appeared true – but does it also show you examples of all the times when it didn’t?

This is why I love the likes of Wikileaks and (some) hackers. The opening and democratisation of information allows people to see the facts for themselves without the media’s filter process. The downside is that people often do not recognise their own shortcomings in interpreting the information. But that problem is the same with or without the media in the middle of the process. My mother clearly has trouble questioning what The Daily Express tells her – give her the raw data and she’ll still most likely see what she wants. In that respect, I think she’s fairly typical of most of us, whatever publications we choose.

Some credit, then, to Noam Chomsky this week. He’s someone I both love and hate, although most people treat him in exactly the fashion I am trying to address. They either idolise him and repeat every word as gospel or treat him with contempt and ignore everything. But this week he did an interesting volte face. He’s previously hailed Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution in Venezuela. But he’s also had the guts to say “Actually, you’ve gone a bit wrong there, pal” when it matters. Must be hard to lionise someone one moment and then be critical when required. Try finding newspapers that apologise for their errata with the same amount of column inches they gave over to being wrong in the first place.

Truth is, Google (or Wolfram Alpha or Bing) is my guide. If I want information on a subject I look for it and try and find as commendable a source as my feeble brain can understand. What I don’t do is have a small selection of media outlets on which I rely for information. If I see something in The Independent I may wish to cross-check it with The Guardian, Telegraph or specialist blogs. Just because I see a good post by a blogger does not mean that everything they write is spot-on. This kind of thing is endemic in the kind of people I meet in my work. Malcom Gladwell, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Robert Scoble. All good, intelligent people, but whilst some of their work appeals, some of it is, frankly, utter shit – churned out to sell a book, bolster blog traffic or gain new followers. Once anyone is in the business of providing information, their motives should always be treated as suspicious. That scepticism is healthy – although instantly disbelieving someone because they make a buck is equally stupid.

”]Belief is like a cancer. It grows in a person until they can no longer function effectively. How on Earth can it be that people believed in the Rapture / end of the World? Because they believed in Harold Camping. That’s bad enough, but when he’s proved wrong by a distinct lack of, y’know, earthly destruction, how can people continue to believe him. In fact, people’s beliefs are more likely to be strengthened even when they are “proved” wrong. Seriously, how mad is that?

So forget your idols. David Cameron is not right about everything by virtue of being Prime Minister. Obama is not wrong about everything by virtue of being “leftist”. Your rabbi / imam / priest / prophet is there to be questioned not idolised, your favourite writer / commentator / scientist is just one voice. And yours should be asking “Why? How? When?” or maybe just “WTF?”

So, as I said: do not subscribe to this blog.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society

 

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