Confirmed – it’s curtains for review sites

A new reality
switch

This is something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: review sites and I therefore reworked this blog that I posted a year ago.

When review  sites came out I became an instant fan of them, not just as a contributor, but also as a user wanting to cut through the inevitable sales flannel to get a fair idea of whether a restaurant was good, or dreadful, if a place was worth stopping by and so on.   Times, however,  have moved on and I am of the opinion that most review sites have now become yet another tool in the extensive marketing armoury.

Trip grovellers

Take the famous TripAdvisor.  I was one of its 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 some examples.  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 in Bournemouth recently it was virtually a carbon copy of the experience mentioned, hardly any review lived up to expectations and my ‘very good’ hotel turned out to be a hell hole.  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 elderly 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.  Perhaps 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.

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 promotional tool of little or no use.

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 created.  The evanescent nature of such sites would counteract some of the pitfalls just highlighted above and be more in keeping with the more dynamic social media angle of contemporary digital communications.

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

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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.

Don’t write to impress others

“Do not write to impress others. Authors who write to impress people have difficulty remaining true to themselves. A better path is to write what pleases you and pray that there are others like you. Your first and most important reader is you. If you write a book that pleases you, at least you know one person will like it.”

I am opening this blog with this well-known quote by Guy Kawasaki. I believe in the essence of what he is trying to say, especially in relation to online communications.  All too often when agencies are approached by clients to commission content for their online channels (or to set them up if they don’t have any!), the subject of content marketing is broached, and all too often the results can be pretty poor at best.

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are of course many reasons for this. Some agencies fail to listen to  clients in order to follow their own agenda.   On the other hand there may be clients who are simply either uncooperative or have an unclear marketing strategy, but very often content is left in the hands of copyeditors whose jobs is merely to churn out an agreed number of words so that the client can be billed accordingly. Aside from the obvious grammar checks and perhaps even SEO ones (long tail phrases to please Hummingbird, keywords, links, etc) not much attention is really paid to the actual engagement value of the piece in question, especially if this is gets published as a blog. Little wonder therefore if much of the stuff which is pushed online is hardly ever read, aside from  authors and a few other diehard individuals.

But what is the point of that? If the writer doesn’t have a real ‘feel’ for the subject in question there is no way that proper value can be transmitted and it’s unlikely therefore that readers would  find the piece engaging. Some of the blogs you read, especially B2B ones, are like re-reading an instruction manual, full of facts and figures, but hardly the sort of stuff you’d want to pass the time with while travelling for example.

Now I am not suggesting that everything should be written in the style of Agatha Christie of course, but passion, and even fun, should always be part of a blog. It is after all about knowing the author as a person too, not just the topic itself. This is why the best and most successful blog channels are also the more controversial ones, because those authors really feel the intensity of emotions (and knowledge) for what they write.

For a third-party writer therefore it may be quite difficult to feel passionate about a small gadget they don’t own or have made. A good PR and Marketing Communication agency should always evaluate whether a blog is indeed the most appropriate channel for this kind of conversation and whether there may be other ways instead. High search engine ranking isn’t just achieved by churning out masses of text, but by a variety of other factors which would be too long to enumerate here.

Ultimately, it boils down to creativity, honesty and credibility, adjectives that are at times in short supply in the world of communication. So back to blogging – do it, but with passion, for you first and not to impress others, not even your boss. If you are passionate about what you say you can’t go very wrong and in time you may even be able to create a loyal audience. And isn’t brand loyalty the key ingredient of success in all aspects of marketing? But perhaps more on this topic in another blog…

(first published in Creativebasement.co.uk on October 22, 2013)

SEO basics every PR pro should know

See on Scoop.itPR, Social Media and Marketing

Instead of trying to win the battle for dominance, pros in the public relations and search engine optimization fields should be learning from one another.

Maurizio Fantato‘s insight:

As this article quite rightly states in its opening line, the  recent algorithm change by Google has ruffled a few feathers, especially in PR circles.  Much of it is speculation, more so as very few know what Google is really up to and how the next upgrade might even change the goalposts yet again (I speculate that more emphasis will be placed on cross platform and mobile integration).

What surprises me is all this talk about ‘quality’ as this was an attribute that had just been discovered and not something everyone should have been concerned with from day one.   It was always known, for example, which were the most coveted links; just as we always knew that if we provided really informative, engaging  and easily accessible content there was a much higher chance of it to be ranked highly by Google.

So what Google has done is to root out some of the bad practices. Some of these included rebroadcasting the same news item across many channels, in the hope it would make it to the top of the first search engine page, regardless of whether it was really newsworthy. This is now history, and good riddance too – it was just spam under a different guise.

We are all agreed that quality content is king.  Yet producing truly original content requires a professional approach, in depth understanding of the product or service on offer, the target audience and of all other related marketing issues.  It is an inherently expensive process, but then this is what quality is all about – ultimately only quality customers and quality agencies/consultants will survive.

See on www.prdaily.com

How Google Authorship Will Impact Search and Content Marketing – Jeffbullas’s Blog

See on Scoop.itPR, Social Media and Marketing

Google authorship is seen as a way for authors to verify content they’ve created and become authorities. This will impact search and content marketing.

Maurizio Fantato‘s insight:

Authorship markup has been around for a while, but it could be a tricky one to implement and as the article highlights there are also several concerns to bear in mind, not least a forthcoming enhanced Google facial recognition… beware those of you round there who are lending their names under different identities for example!  Ultimately Google is after real content, from real people, quite how agencies and businesses will adapt to this is sometihng we do not yet know.

See on www.jeffbullas.com

Infographic: An Amazing Atlas of the World Wide Web | Wired Design | Wired.com

See on Scoop.itPR, Social Media and Marketing

Israel-based designer Dafna Aizenberg created the Atlas of the World Wide Web, a 120 page visual guide to how the internet has blurred the traditional, physical borders around the world.

Maurizio Fantato‘s insight:

I am little bored of what passes as data visualization (infographics) when it is just a nicely produced, colourful poster.  This atlas is what true data visualization is about; the possibility of making sense of vast quantities of data, for the purpose of researching it further and either write about it, or analyze again.  However, this requires a methodical approach to data gathering… how many of your clients would give you access to all their raw data?

See on www.wired.com

Marketing Summit 2013

Marketing summit 2013 – a view from the forest

According to Anne Godfrey, the recently elected CEO of the CIMA, companies controlled at least 80% of their communication output a few years ago.  These days this figure has dropped to just 20%.  It soon became evident that this was one of underlying concerns of the CIM 2013 summit in London last Friday, held at the swanky offices of Bloomberg UK.  One of the key questions for marketers and communications specialists is how to adapt to this ever-changing scenario without losing our clients, or our marbles…

But it was Daniel Rowles who set the tone of the day with his incisive presentation.  His empirical research revealed that the three most discussed topics by marketers for the last twelve months are, in this order, ‘Google Glasses’ (good PR work from Google!), ‘Big Data’ and ‘Content Marketing’.  On the topic of data alone, 16 years of viewing time is currently uploaded to YouTube every day and 24% of it comes from mobile devices.  It is clearly impossible to view all this data and even its mere analysis is something that is keeping major governments incredibly busy, as events of the last few weeks testified.

Mobile content was another hot topic of the day.  With mobile access, communication agility is key.  Responsive design and highly honed broadcast processes are built with the sole purpose of engaging with what audiences really want to receive, rather than what companies would like them to read.

Bring parallel thinking to online marketing

The old paradigm of companies basing their online content strategy on their own core competences is dead as potential customers may not necessarily be interested in the same keywords and phrases but may be looking for an answer to a parallel solution.  Therefore, this all elusive ‘solution’ is what businesses should focus on in their communication efforts.  For example, if you want to lose weight you may be searching something like, ‘I am too fat’, rather than the more obvious ‘How can I lose weight?’  Addressing the former concern may open your business up to a more receptive audience than the more obvious traditional approach, contributing to a higher Google ranking for your products and services.  And ranking these days may even be aided by peer reviews that allow your customers and supporters to enter content on your behalf.  Risky?  Well, welcome to agile and responsive 21st century communication strategies!

Understand a buyer’s journey

But what about big data?  One thing we are not short of in the digital world is data.  In fact, it appears that there is now far too much of it.  Take a look at your Google Analytics, add a sprinkling of social media data, plus your own sources and you will soon end up with vast quantities of mostly indigestible data, or information of such gargantuan complexity that you will need to end up hiring a team of Harvard postgraduates to analyse the lot.  You can, of course, cheat (like most of us) and just pick and choose a specific metric.  Or, as Matt Hollingsworth of Acxiom mentioned later on in the day, you can act as if you are walking in a forest – follow your path but remain fully aware of background noises, especially if anything peculiar comes to your ears, like the distant clap of thunder that may herald a storm.

The additional problem with data is that a lot of time and effort is spent in its acquisition, rather more in fact than in its use to understand a buyer’s journey; yet understanding this essential experiential voyage from the moment a need is identified to the instant when the customer is ready to part with his or her hard earned cash is key to a successful online strategy.  But how many companies can really be confident that they fully understand this journey?

Integrative communication strategies

Michael Dick, Head of Strategy MEC Global, touched on the topic of what clients want from agencies and how businesses need to create a cohesive communication strategy.  His seven I’s (Interaction, Ideas, Integration, Implementation, Internationalisation, Impact and (Ro)Investment) represent quite clearly what a client wants from an agency, providing probably one of the pithiest answers to this specific topic – food for thought for many of us.  More emphasis on content from this speaker too, especially about allowing people to tell their own story, which explains the success of experiential sites like TripAdvisor.  An integrative communication strategy of this kind would deliver value, as well as extending outreach beyond the scope of your initial campaign.  By letting your champions talk on your behalf you may even save your company’s money.  But don’t just think that you can fire your copywriters by letting your customers do the spade work for you, as you will now need to employ more people to monitor content and to react, as quickly as possible, to any of the moods.  It’s agile communication all over again…

Just after lunch, Louise Brice, Research Director IPSOS MORI flexed her muscle by presenting a wealth of data, demonstrating both this company’s supreme ability to deal with research, as well as the fact that you should never let a data analyst loose with a presentation.  Much of the data on offer supported mobile marketing – just in case a few marketers in the room, or the 2,000 or so online, had lived for the last few years in a monastic community and had missed out on these trends. Nevertheless, figures like only 39% of all web sites being fully mobile optimised made for some sobering reading.

In conclusion…

Mobile strategy continued to be at the top of the agenda with the question of whether we should stop thinking about optimisation, creating instead content specifically aimed at mobile platforms, to reflect, for example, haptic technologies.  An interesting parallel was drawn by the discussion panel with TV, a now fully digital medium, but one still reliant on cumbersome and illogically laid out hardware, such as our too familiar remote controls.

You may have been disappointed if you had expected earth shattering revelations from the Summit, but what was revealed instead was a deeper overall understanding of the way ahead, together with the realisation that marketers and businesses are no longer in full control of their message.

In short, stop controlling, don’t get too hung up about all that massive data, use just what really matters to you, keep an ear to the ground, be human, enjoy what you are doing with genuine passion and commitment and respect other people’s opinions – digital communication strategies are perhaps stimulating a return to common sense.