End of the road for review sites, or new beginnings?

First of all apologies for the lack of blogs this year (as if anyone cared, I hear you saying!), but having recently published a small book with my good friend Henk Vaars,  a 21st century primer on employment, I am still recovering from writer’s fatigue, so I have found it difficult to focus on updating this site.  I know this is  a lame excuse and that I have fallen foul of all I have been preaching (for goodness sake if you have a blog keep it fresh!), but somehow life takes precedence even over digital presence.

The good, bad and dreadfulswitch

Preambles aside, I thought I’d focus on something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: review sites.  I confess that when such sites came out I became an instant fan of them, not just as a contributor, but also as a user finding them a great tool for cutting through the inevitable sales flannel produced by the suppliers in question.  With a quick glance you’d get a fair idea of whether a restaurant was good, or dreadful, if a place was worth stopping by and so on.   Alas, times have moved on and I am of the opinion that most review sites have now become a mere tool in the extensive marketing armoury available to most businesses in the era of digital transformation.

Trip grovellers?

Take for example the famous TripAdvisor.  I was one of their very first contributors, so have now got a fair number of reviews under my belt and heaven knows how many of their useless (except to some very sensitive egos) badges I have accumulated.  By the way, it’s futile to look me up as I am contributing under a nom de plume, something which will become clearer later on too.  I still keep adding reviews out of a sense of affection and duty towards the site (entirely one sided I hasten to say), but I am realising how useless this exercise has become.

Allow me to explain with an example.  About a month ago I was in the north of England and wanted to look up some places to eat.  Everything on TripAdvisor was either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’,even down to a local chippie or sandwich bar. There was no way, not even by poring over the review details, that one could get a sense of reality. Most of those entries appeared to have been written either by professional sycophants, people with a pecuniary interest in the places in question, or those under the influence of something!  It was almost too tempting to look hard for those very few poor or average places and paying them a visit for the sake of getting some sense of reality, rather than being in some rosey parallel universe.  This situation isn’t unique.  I was somewhere else in England and it was virtually a carbon copy of the experience mentioned, hardly any review was ‘average’ everything was either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’.  Where do you start looking then?  And if you can’t easily get to the truth what is the point of a review site then?

Cautionary tales, cautious style

After some soul searching I looked back at the way I used to write reviews and realised that over time I also adjusted my style to be much more conciliatory, vague and in effect more forgiving.  This is partly due to the fact that on a couple of occasions I have had some truly nasty individuals responding to my otherwise objective reviews in a threatening way, so much that I had to refer them to that website admin.  In a specific instance the hotel owner even managed to track back my  reservation and ended up contacting my parents.  Scary.  Clearly at that point you ask yourself whether putting up with all this aggro is actually worth the hassle…  which is why, probably with countless other people, I then decided to err on the side of caution and have since hardly ever left a ‘poor’ review, except for some vague warnings in the body of the review itself or areas where I knew I would never visit again.

I don’t know how we got to this situation.  Partly this is a reflection of our litigious society, partly I guess it’s also down to the sites in question which effectively failed to protect their most precious asset, the reviewer.

Is it just marketing?

If you included the people who were incentivised to write on review sites (many, and few of the review websites are able or willing to do anything about), those blatantly compiling phoney reviews (like the ones written directly by business owners and their associates, marketing and PR agencies etc), the neophytes, the uneducated, the inexperienced and added them all up, linking to it the more belligerent attitude of the featured businesses, like in the examples I have just given,  you’d clearly begin to question the nature of much of that content and therefore of those sites.

There was a time when review sites sprouted up left right and centre.  I don’t recall seeing a new one in a long while, so we are pretty much stuck with the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Trustpilot, Google+ and so on.  In addition, there are those sites which are blatantly sponsored by business owners, which begs the question of why of course anyone would want to help them. So it looks as if the review sites landscape has in fact bottomed out with more of them under siege by by professional reviewers like those highlighted in this interesting article from The Guardian that explores even the ‘review turf wars’ between competing companies.

Demise or resurrection?

There are now four possible scenarios.  The first is the technology option. By this I mean that review sites would need to get a lot smarter and should start applying the kind of technology available within search engines to stamp out phoney, poorly written and useless reviews. They also need to reevaluate the star rating.  Everyone wants to be a 5 star performer these days, even school kids, so a new ranking is sorely needed.

The second is that of manual intervention. This is however very expensive and would require editing and validating every review, therefore it’s an unlikely scenario in tight commercial circumstances.  The third, and in my opinion more likely, is that major review sites will continue to devalue themselves to a point where the general public will consider them as yet another small element in a customer’s product or service selection journey, of some interest, but not necessarily high value.

The last point is more revolutionary.  Small review sites could spring up and close down after a short timespan, almost like forums used to be.  The evanescent nature of such sites would counteract some of the pitfalls just highlighted and be more in keeping with the more dynamic social media angle of contemporary digital communications.

But I am no optimist and therefore believe we are simply experiencing the beginning of the end of many review websites, unless they are willing to reinvent themselves – time will tell.

IoT? Smart watches? Boring.

BoredomI feel a little guilty for not having written that much in this site for a few months, but I have a number of disparate interests and with the impending elections here in the UK I have also immersed myself into politics.  Fear not, I have a separate blog for my own political activities, so I am not going to mention the ‘p’ word again here.

The truth is that my passion for innovation hasn’t been fired up by anything over the last few months.  As an avid reader of technology blogs all I have been seeing is basically variations on existing themes.  In fact I pity those journalists who have to make a living looking at technology as sure as hell they must have even run out of nibs by now  (news in brief for the uninitiated by the way).

Variations on a theme

Yes, we have had smart watches (of all shapes and sizes), Google has thrown out its glasses (such timidity shows how much the company has transformed itself into just another boring corporation), the IoT is still in its inception and… well the list goes on almost ad infinitum.  And what about SEO and innovation on the web front?  Yes, search engines are turning smarter and smarter, locational devices offer immense possibility, but we all come a cropper when we try using them either in densely populated areas, where the signal has deteriorated, or in the countryside where there is none. Have you noticed that we are stuck using the same old browsers, except of course they are becoming larger, slower and even less secure by the day?

It’s just a monotonous pattern of product variants and tweaks, rather than real innovation.  It seems we have stalled, just refining and redefining, rather than truly inventing and imagining a new, smarter and more exciting and sustainable world.  Take the ubiquitous  smartphone; it has changed shape (slightly), has had more pixels, more memory (and less battery life, another story!), but we are still essentially split between Android and iPhone.  And when you see the buzz that the imminent launch of Windows 10 creates, well you know that we are living in truly dire times, virtually in the midst of the Gobi desert of technological innovation.

So, could someone out there please come out with something truly inventive, innovative, imaginative, like the internet, or smartphones, or the telegraph, or the light bulb, something, anything, before we all die of boredom?  And if you disagree could you please add your thoughts and above all a link or two, before my brain goes to pulp.

Engage or be damned

It’s all about engagement

I have already written at length about the importance of engagement on social media for B2B operations,  just like a host of other consultants, but I am still surprised by the lack of overall standards and not just on B2B but B2C too!  These days experiences still range from the sublime to the ridiculous, regardless of market segment or company size.

Good app

A couple of years ago I installed on my phone a nifty little app called WeatherBosocialmediamb.  It’s a meteo app that combines reports from various sources displaying the overall situation in graphic format in a specific locality over a 7 day period.  I won’t elaborate as you can easily download it yourself, for free, from your Google Play site if, like me, you use Android.  When a little while ago the developers issued a new release and the app crashed I reached them on social media –  in a matter of hours I had a nice reply shortly followed by a fix.  In fact it was such a nice answer that we continued to engage in conversation and are still in touch to these days.  I have since become one of this app’s most stalwart supporters – a brand ambassador, you may say.

Bad app

At the opposite end of the spectrum a few months ago I took the ill-fated decision of becoming a beta tester for Facebook own Android app.  Their developers kept spewing out new versions almost every other day (proportionally bigger and slower than the previous one) and when things went awry, which was often, there was absolutely no way of getting a response, even using their own dedicated beta testers Facebook page.  Now I know that in the grand scheme of things I was only an infinitesimal annoyance for Facebook, more like a microbe or a gnat than a human being, but you would have expected more from one of the pillars of social media, especially when their audience was a bunch of  people who like me had (stupidly obviously) agreed to help them develop a better product.  Needless to say after much frustration I simply deleted the app and woved never to install anything from Facebook again.  By the way, you can just use your smartphone browser to log into your Facebook page, it’s normally faster than using their app, especially if you just want to check the updates.  In this instance I have therefore become a brand detractor, and all on the back of my social media experience.

…and bad cooking!

And don’t think this experience is limited to apps.  My wife was up until recently an avid follower of the famous chef Gino D’Acampo.  Whether this was because of his recipes, or the dashing looks is something I don’t particularly wish to dwell on.  Anyway, she recently purchased one of his books and had a series of disasters with one of the recipes.  I tried making it too, with the same dismal results.  As we both love cooking and have a few decades under our belts in that department I looked in detail at the list of ingredients and realised there was something unusual.  I commented this to my wife and as she followed him on social media (no, don’t say anything…) she attempted to communicate with his team (you don’t really think that personalities write themselves?) but she gave up as nothing made them engage – not even an acknowledgement, nada.  I prevented her from throwing all his books away, or deep frying every page, but she now detests the man.  Another social media experience gone awry just for lack of engagement.

Risky business

So, here we have some radically different social media engagement experiences, yet I am sure reflecting everyday’s reality for most people.  Quite why many commercial ventures continue to mistake social media for push advertising is a mystery to me.  While it’s almost inevitable for behemoths like Facebook to raise two fingers at their audience, particularly when they enjoy a de facto monopoly, for smaller brands ignoring social media good practices is a risky tactic.  When it comes to social with the right processes in place it is perfectly possible to drive sales upwards at a fraction of what would be required by using more conventional channels.

I know that calculating the real value of engagement isn’t easy and it often needs the support of well established customer relationship management tools in the background, together with sound commercial practices, but it is possible with proper support from social media consultants.  For now though, if you ever thought of becoming a Facebook beta tester take the ice bucket challenge first – you may feel refreshed and therefore more open to consider investing your time in more rewarding ways.  And don’t bother contacting Mr D’Acampo either.

All things Google

The latest design from google

The latest design from google

Those who know me well know that I have a soft spot for all things Google. Perhaps it’s because I witnessed the development of search engines since the old days of Excite or Altavista and Lycos. When Google came out it was like a breath of fresh air.  Further on the company continued with missionary zeal along the path of innovation, another subject close to my heart. How could I not love Google therefore?

I am no dreamer, so I am sure it has its foibles and there are good and bad people in Google too (hopefully more of the former!).  Anyway, I couldn’t help pushing across to you today the excellent synopsis published only a couple of hours ago by The Verge on the 17 Most Important Things announced by Google.  Do take a few minutes to look at this article, it’s very pictorial and packed full with information about the very latest development from that company.  It would be truly amazing especially if Google really managed the provision of a cheap Android smartphone for the developing world.

There is also a new Google design, called Material Design apparently, which is truly cutting edge and fresh.  Here is the link to the Material Design page.

Short piece from me today, but I have a dawn start for a very early morning flight from LGW, enjoy the article from The Verge!

Link

Global Environmental Perception Index Way Down

Aside from my passion for B2B online communications, technology and all things that can unexpectedly go bump in the night… I dedicate most of my spare time working to preserve the environment.  I was therefore perturbed to learn that at global level environmental perception is now on the way down, despite all warnings that things are actually getting worse.

Rather than pasting the full article I recently wrote I invite you to read it in its original format from the link above.  I hope you won’t mind but it really is bad practice to copy and paste content across sites…

B2B Social Media – Not for the Faint Hearted

I have always been one of social media’s more stalwart proponents, in the firm believe that what has kept humanity going up to the present days has been, well, exactly that, human interaction and engagement; which is really what’s at the heart of effective and engaging communication through this media.

Getting on my soapbox

At the start of my social media crusade, and partly also because I have always operated in B2B, it was a hard and unrewarding battle.  Let’s face it, five years ago many B2B senior executives had barely grasped the significance of the web – social media was something they had heard either on TV or from their kids.  A few enlightened souls were always around of course, there are communication innovators in B2B too, but these were in a minority.  Then slowly, very slowly, things changed.  At first timidly too (I remember witnessing the embarrassment of the few innovators present at trade shows when they admitted using social media); then questions were raised about ROI (the classic bean counters ploy to buy time before they are forced to put money into something new).  Now these questions are of a different nature and much more significant.

The thoughts below are based on my experience of running B2B social media channels with tens of thousand of followers, so I can say, modestly, that these points come with a certain degree of authority.

Some social media stats

Some social media stats

I can’t of course begin to list every single issue, but from my perspective there are two significant topics.  The first is content.  The second one concerns organisational processes.

It’s all in the content

Content is king across all online communications.  If your organisation’s idea of content marketing is to regurgitate online the same information as the one in your printed data sheets you don’t deserve to be in business in the 21st century.  If content rules on the web when it comes to social media its significance is even greater.  Take tweets, for example. Getting someone’s attention in just under 140 characters is no mean feat (I am saying under 140 as some will be eaten by URLs).  In fact a top tweet is a true editorial achievement.  Its success is easily measured by the number of retweets and/or conversations.  A similar principle (though a little more relaxed, perhaps) applies to all other social media channels too.

Think of your favourite pub

youtubestats

from mediabistro – click to go to page

I have always likened social media channels to catering outlets. Twitter has its own peculiar atmosphere. It’s the fast food of social media channels – you expect to be served in no time, with no fuss and given goods of a consistent quality. Facebook is instead more like your traditional coffee-house, you have more time to engage, you need to be more visual because people will be looking at you for longer and are allowed to be a little, well, silly even.  I am not going to list them all here, but I hope you are getting the gist. So the corollary of all this is that you absolutely need to create content which is appropriate for each individual channel, not just of a one-size-fits-all kind.

Tearing down your beloved processes

Now we come to processes.  In the – not so old – days you could push something on your website and if you were smart enough your content might generate a few email inquiries. These were easily dealt by your (probably) sluggish internal processes, typical of most B2B operations.  But now social media has opened the proverbial Pandora’s box.  pandorasboxDo you have a twitter feed?  You need to monitor it almost 24/7 and respond in a timely fashion, certainly no more than in a few hours for a serious request, or even minutes in a crisis. The other consideration is that you can’t possibly just let one person deal with all those channels.  If your company is really good at social media you are probably likely to have hundreds (if not thousands) of true (as in not bought) followers.  As you crave engagement, your followers will be firing questions at you from all angles. Some of these queries will be customer service ones, others will be of a technical nature, some may be employment related and the list is almost endless.  Unless you employ someone with a super brain, pleasant, cheerful and fantastically knowledgeable (which you will probably have to pay a small fortune) you simply can’t do this without the help of a small team and preferably by assigning social media roles across your entire organisation – regardless of its size.

Here comes the rub for many companies.  For decades, executives have jealously guarded knowledge and information within all organisations, creating complex gatekeeping processes.  Now, at a stroke, we are asking the same executives to trust a large number of their employees implicitly and to show levels of openness which have been unheard of. By the way the new approach also means making people really work together (breaking down silos and all that, and not just in words).  Oh, I nearly forgot, don’t bother giving social media to agencies either, regardless of their promises they can at best help you with initial implementation and other basic stuff, after all, would you outsource your Customer Service?

Well, my dear reader, this is where online marketing in the 21st century is taking us.  Few businesses have grasped the cataclysmic nature of social media, its enormous power to engage and create true loyalty (not just its illusionary advertising concept) and therefore achieve huge profitability and growth opportunities.  Many companies will fail and fall along the way, but the remaining few will be deserving winners.

Enjoy the ridegooglepls

So, roll up your sleeves, get on with your social media activities, enjoy the new thinking and embrace the latest BIG business opportunity, but one last word of warning, you have to be true to your values and show a real human angle, if you just pretend you will inevitably be exposed as a fraud and could end up paying a very dear price.

But what about ROI, analytics, integration with other communication channels, is Hootsuite better than Sproutsocial, how about media relations, social media at events, and… I hear you loud and clear, but unfortunately there is simply no time for all of that in such a short piece.  In any event, if you don’t get your basic social media strategy right from the start there isn’t much point either in talking about the rest.

If you don’t take my words for it, listen to what McKinsey has to say on the new digital market economy: Few business functions have been as profoundly disrupted by digitization as marketing. The era of expensive campaigns pushing products through mass media has been upended, as consumers, empowered by information, are demanding more and more from the companies they choose to form relationships with. By the way, you can read the rest of that  interesting article here.

PS) if you liked this article and would like to know more about social media implementation get in touch.