Boaty McBoatface – sailing in the choppy waters of social media

Never mind the economy, the environment, Europe, or the local elections, Boaty McBoatface stole their  thunder, providing at the very least some solace in otherwise cheerless times.  For those who missed all the fuss, the story was about the naming of the new British Polar Research ship (a ship, not a boat by the way),  which we have just learnt will now be called ‘Sir David Attenborough’ instead.  However, its submersible will be given the vox populi name, though this consolation prize doesn’t seem to have been well received by those who voted for Boaty.

With so much media attention there is no need for me to go into the details.   My question is instead a simple one.   Was this exercise a success or a failure?  I have heard praise and criticism in equal measure.   There are those who say that it has been a PR triumph, raising the profile of science and more, with detractors telling it was a waste of time and money that did nothing for science except trivialising it.   I believe there was a page where you could have learnt more about the vessel and its purpose, but I am afraid I don’t know whether driving traffic to it was the sole objective of the operation.

And here is the nub of the argument.  If the objective was as simple as getting people to land on a page or talk about the ship then I guess this exercise was successful.  But what about raising the profile of NERC and science?  I read very little of scientific concern in the countless online articles I saw.  Did the campaign reach the right audience (which one)?  I wish I knew more about the criteria used to measure its performance, but I have no clue. For this reason my mind – and I suspect that of most other digital communication geeks –  is full of these questions.  In truth, the social media ecosphere is still for many marketers a lesser known galaxy, one with its own quirky rules, where the paradigms of old sit less comfortably with those of today.   Above all, social media is an environment in which the pendulum sways very quickly from triumph to disaster.

I would like to think that SMART criteria were used as these should always define all marketing operations.  But as I have no idea what the objectives were I can’t shed any light on this point.  I sincerely hope that someone at the Research Council or elsewhere could do so soon, not just to satisfy my own idle curiosity, but because regardless of whether this  was a success or a failure there are certainly good lessons to be learnt from it.

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.

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.

Six key communication points for small businesses

Every business, large or small, needs to have a comprehensive and focussed online presence, but while this may be relatively easy to achieve for a company with access to good resources and budgets, including specific people allocated to these tasks, it becomes a more arduous operation for a small business.  In small businesses other priorities tend to crop up all the time and inevitably communication issues get pushed to one side.  In the following few lines I am hoping to provide small businesses with some of the key issues to consider in order to maximise their online presence.

Establish clear objectives and key performance indicators

This is vital for any business.  You need to know what your goals are, in which direction you want your business to grow and how you measure this.  If you are aiming to attract visitors to your venue, for example, you should have profiled the appropriate market segment and established how many of them you can cater for, what exactly you are going to offer them and how much you are planning to take from specific tasks.  Stick your

Local businesses

Local businesses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

business plan on the wall where you can see it all the time, don’t bury it in your pending tray or in your hard drive!  Your goals can change, they will as your business evolves, but provided you have clear performance indicators you won’t go far wrong.  Also, don’t forget to use the SMART format for ALL your business objectives…. Specific, Measurable, Action oriented, Relevant and realistic, and Time based.  In short, be focussed and set up a realistic timetable with achievable and measurable actions – simple.

Audit your current communication channels

Take some time to look around your office and gather together all your offline communication tools (from headed paper to brochures etc), then move on to the online presence and create a short spreadsheet where you undertake a quick critical assessment of each of them.  Once you have done this create a wish list (for example, we want to have an effective social media presence and so on, we need a new brochure or a web site, etc.) and compare to the audit in order to identify shortcomings and opportunities.

Establish your communication priorities – don’t run before you can walk

Never attempt to take up more than you can chew.  Having done point 2 you will probably come up with a long list of activities.  You may feel exhilarated and because things have gone reasonably well you may wish to do everything at once.  Please don’t.  Even in the best possible business growth scenario demands on your time will increase further.  If your list of communication activities is too long you may not have sufficient time to spend on each of them.  This will result in errors or unfinished tasks at best. Don’t be tempted to pass the buck to someone else either in your organisation or outside in the hope that they can get on without any input from you.  Even if you commissioned the work outside to the best specialists around you would still need to sit down with your agency on a regular basis to set up objectives and review performance – you can never wash your hands completely.  So please establish realistic communication priorities from your own personal perspective too.

Set up a realistic budget and don’t forget ROI

When you have identified your priorities create an actions list and then allocated a realistic budget for each task.  You should really always place a monetary value next to each of these actions, even if you decided to do everything in-house – after all your time is money and you’d be surprised how expensive your own time may turn out to be.  So if you decided to tweet regularly set up a calendar action and an appropriate cost based on the time you are planning to spend, including research of course.   You need to know at the end of each period how much return this investment will bring. By the way, the ROI formula is very simple: how much you have earned from your investment, less the cost of the investment, all divided by the cost of the investment again, and multiplied by 100 so you get it as a percentage.  Don’t be disheartened, however, if your ROI is little to begin with – with all kind of communication you need to persevere and what matters is the trend, if positive stick with it and continue to refine until you reach your goal – or ditch!

Be consistent in the delivery of  your communications

By now you have established  clear priorities, have identified specific actions and have set everything in place – you have a battle plan.  The temptation now is to slacken the delivery pace. Messages gets sent out less frequently than at the outset, you get distracted and soon your twitter feed gets used once every few weeks or so, and you never retweet or follow anyone else, for example.  With online media you need to keep up your efforts.  If you neglect your online channels you will struggle twice as hard to reinstate them as your reputation would be dented.

By the way, consistency also applies to how good each message is (is it engaging, targeted and informative?) – you’ve got to strive for excellence to stand out from the crowd.

Regularly assess and review

You have followed these points to the letter, well done.  Now you need to review the way the way the entire communication plan works, regularly.  Failing to do it until things go wrong,  or when your stats show that your online presence is plummeting and it’ll be much harder to put right as you would have moved from a simpler tactical adjustment to a crisis situation.  But don’t expect instant success either, as we said before, you just need to keep an eye and apply the necessary adjustments if and when required, unless of course your business models changed drastically.

Finally, if you don’t have the time to do all of the above on your own, but you have come to conclusion that something must be done don’t be scared to look around for companies or people that could help you.  Not every organisation out there would suit you and selecting the appropriate expert will be the topic of a next blog.  But outsourcing needn’t cost the earth either, especially if you have done your homework correctly and put a value next to each of the necessary actions.   A clear vision and good will is all it takes in the end.

Top Google SEO tips

Have your site at the top of page 1 of Google search – or every marketer’s holy grail.  I get calls almost on a daily basis from companies who are looking for SEO expertise and who want to beat their competition by being the number 1, right there at the very top.  The trouble is that when it comes to SEO you have to follow a number of rules, but not just those that suit you, all of them!

Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail

Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These rules are essentially, yet rather simplistically for the purpose of this blog, split into a three pronged strategy: a technical approach (the way your page is built); a responsive tactic based on how each search engines work (e.g. Google and its latest algorithm and therefore links and so on) this of course feeds into the technical arena and finally a sound content strategy.  Each of these three areas is complex and require careful attention to details. You can find lots of resources online mainly as by the time books are published their content is likely to be obsolete.

I have just come across this video by Sparka and though a year old most of the recommendations are still applicable to these days, it’s like your personal map to the fabled holy grail, so don’t miss it and there’s loads more on his playlist page too!  Have a Merry Christmas too!

Google+ and Facebook – the battle goes on.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Français : Logo de Facebook Tiếng Việt: Logo Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few months ago I wrote a very positive blog on Google+ and on how this channel was going to be much more significant to businesses than Facebook.  Generally, I remain of the same opinion that in relation especially to content management and SEO there is no doubt that a Google+ presence is infinitely superior to a Facebook one, from a business perspective, but perhaps not in terms of general audience engagement as I am trying to explain.

On this particular count Google+ has consistently failed to create sufficient ‘buzz’ and to attract a lively level of engagement in any way similar to the one of Facebook.  At least away from specialist B2B sectors, such as IT or similar, or in the few instances where brand new communities, that previously may not have existed on other social media channels were set up first on Google+.

The reasons for this lack of traction from Google+ are really quite simple and as ever are based on sociology and psychology, rather than just technology.  Let’s look at how  most of us interact across our personal social media channels.  I bet you that most of you have a personal Facebook account in which you have gathered the usual motley crowd of ‘friends’.  It doesn’t matter whether you are a passive reader of status updates or an active contributor, you are highly likely to be on Facebook as this was one of the first social media channels of this kind.  When you looked for old friends, or old flames, you instinctively searched on Facebook (way before you would have gone on Friends Reunited, do you remember that?).  I bet that even if you did so now I very much doubt you’d first check them out on Google+.  So, from a purely social perspective at least Facebook wins, by far, but as of late the battle has become even more fierce from a business angle.

Creating a good Facebook company page takes a matter of minutes, including very high levels of customisation. More importantly, finding appropriate audiences to advertise an update or to acquire ‘likes’ is a doddle.  With Facebook in just a few clicks you can search exactly for the geographical area, interest, gender and more, targeting your advert as accurately as possible.  This is not just because over the years Facebook has polished and enhanced its database exponentially, but also because they were clever enough to create a highly intuitive and user friendly interface.  Try comparing this with Google AdWord for example and not even Adword Express (apparently designed for small businesses) comes anywhere near to the ease of use of Facebook.  Beside, creating an advert on Google will simply expose you to the might of the competition and unless you’ve very deep pockets you are likely to see little benefits from it, when you could just as easily achieve similar results with some high quality content management for example.  On the other hand, Facebook can expose your brand to a well segmented audience, but it’s fair to say that this kind of audience may not be appropriate for specialist B2B sectors being much more potentially rewarding to consumer brands or campaign organisations instead.

So who wins?  Well in the end it’s the usual story of finding the right channel for you, one relevant to your audience.  However,  in terms of usability and B2C engagement, despite the growing number of Google+ users, Facebook wins.

I conclude with some anecdotal evidence. A year or so ago, when Google+ came out,  I asked all my Facebook friends if they would consider joining me on that channel.  Only one out of 200 replied in the affirmative.  Maybe I don’t have very good friends, but I suspect that most people are simply used to Facebook.  They have it on their smartphone, is bookmarked on their PC or laptop and they too have all their friends there who are equally unwilling to move.  How could they possibly consider switching over then?

It’s blindingly obvious that social media is inextricably linked to day to day social interactions.  Therefore, if you have been going to your local hostelry for several years and you suddenly decide to defect somewhere else, you’d probably end up drinking on your own at first, until you created another group in that specific location.   It’s just the same for social media channels.

This situation might change only in the light of some huge privacy cock up from Facebook, or if there were more freely available and easy to use tools that allowed you to share the same content initially across several platform, without losing the user experience of Facebook. Maybe one day we will be faced with two very serious contenders, but for now Facebook remains in the lead.

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)