We must take more pride in analysing how stories are made

Source: http://rebelacademy.org/images/users/2dbb34b99a07d0edd21a495ad785c5b4/bb7846dbc808d5e760b10767ed3c3d19-brainstorm_660.jpg

There’s a common founder myth (read “cliche”) that goes something like this:

“From a young age, I found myself fascinated by how things worked. Once I took the TV apart to see how the little people got inside. Just like Steve Jobs, this is why I think the back of the cabinet/ inside of the device must be as beautiful as every other bit.”

I exaggerate somewhat. But you get the gist – people who end up in hardware talk about learning by taking things apart, scrutinising them and taking that understanding on into their work.

It’s a strong anecdote — but this quite literal tale neglects a broader, possibly stronger metaphor that applies to more abstract careers too . And I’d claim, if anything, it’s more relevant in that context.

My own epiphany here started with Kevin Bacon.

Streaky brainstorming

When Bacon started fronting EE’s recent marketing, many thought the company’s decision inexplicably Footloose and fancy-free – or worse, felt his character something of a Hollow Man at the centre of such an important campaign. (Forgive me, the puns are out of the way for now.)

My reaction was different. Immediately, my imagination conjured a corporate board room, perhaps with a whiteboard tripod in the corner and some Cadburys Celebrations/ Krispy Kreme on the table. Upon that whiteboard, in fading blue marker lay a single world in a big, misshapen circle: “Connection”.

The idea shower/ brain storm/ concept carnival/ perception party (delete as applicable) begins.

We have all been in this room, shouting out ideas fuelled by either too much caffeine, sugary snacks or both. As they say, there are no bad ideas in such a brainstorm – only bad people.

And in this case, that bad person is (through no fault of his own) Kevin Bacon.

Bringing it home

At some stage, starting with the word connection, someone brought up “seven degrees of Kevin Bacon”. This game involves naming any actor and then using various connections like costars, directors, relationships to map them back to Kevin Bacon in seven steps or fewer.

So, someone wrote that name on the wall. Then, months later, we have a former Hollywood A-listed doing a mockney English accent in a cafe and pretending anyone wants to use the Samsung Galaxy Gear.

This is one of the ways ideas are made. And this is when I realised how obsessed I have become with the construction of stories. Just as engineers constantly dissect and analyse physical creations, I think those of us in abstract disciplines like marketing are doing the same thing. But perhaps in the abstract process, we’re carrying on with this behaviour more constantly and unconsciously than we even realise.

It’s time we proudly embrace this. It gives us the context to justify sending a whole agency of employees to the movies for the afternoon (Danny Whatmough deserves a hat-tip for that idea), and subsidising them to explore the fiction and culture that their audiences are immersed in. Or better: encouraging them out of their comfort zone to even more diverse and varied material.

Some of us are better able to see the strings behind the scenes than others. Some of us may get so hung up on it that they can’t enjoy certain creations. However, if it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something, I’d assert that many of us are practicing more often than we think.

Poke fun at martini lunches, pitching to influencers, or the intense daily strain of PR (especially agency) life if you like. I think there are few places on earth that will push you in this area of understanding good stories like being part of a thriving, hungry PR machine.

July 15th, 2015


Google Authorship is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of search

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate a minute.

Google has said it will “stop showing authorship in search results.”. It has not said that it will stop using what it has learned about authorship to impact rankings.

Over the past few years, it has registered a huge range of major publishers in one form or another and you can imagine it has gathered a lot of useful data. Its map of where writing comes from and how authors behave is more complete than ever.

Like moths to a flame, every SEO and their content-marketing best friend has splurged out rel=author in the hope it would positively affect their rankings. The issue with something so visible is that it immediately tempts manipulation.

Google must realise it doesn’t need to know about the long tail of EVERY author, just important authors. It has them. In the announcement it also reaffirmed its commitment to structured markup, the long time future of a more organised web and the area authorship fit into.

This isn’t a Google+ story, as many have tried to make it. It’s an interesting example of user experience vs ranking factors. Making authorship a visible element in search results was not an improvement – so Google has removed it. But I don’t believe that it has turned its back on better understanding sources and producers of content vs the simple pages they generate.

Like Obi-Wan, the corporeal form of authorship may have been struck down — but if the data so far has made it more valuable to Google as a ranking factor, it may have become even more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

September 5th, 2014


Twitter Cards are becoming the smallest unit of ‘web’

My thoughts on Econsultancy:

Furthermore, because Twitter Cards can be based on existing metadata of websites, they can be simply generated at scale. For example, Amazon can immediately translate any product listing into an accompanying Card.

At that stage, what’s to stop you making a page of the cards, searching by its metadata and cutting out the middle man? Or creating a simple shopfront by creating a search filter of friends’ “Buy” cards?

Read the rest: Twitter Cards are becoming the smallest unit of ‘web’

April 2nd, 2014


Listen up Apple: build a smart EarPod or someone else will (Wired UK)

By me at Wired:

The idea would take a key element of Apple’s heritage and sidestep the assumption that a wearable device has to rely on your sense of sight or touch. Apple has an opportunity to recall one of the strongest motifs of its iPod days and put the humble earphone back in the spotlight.

Read the rest at Listen up Apple: build a smart EarPod or someone else will

April 2nd, 2014


“Blue sky thinking” to popularise the Year of Code with today’s youth

The Government’s Year of Code is off to a mixed start, to say the least. But it is possible that increasing the next generation’s knowledge of these valuable tools could be key to increasing our country’s future prosperity. So what are we to do?

Drawing on my own childhood computing interest and some classic ‘blue sky thinking’, here are a few suggestions to get things moving.

1. Turn off the App Stores

It can be done. Egypt has done it, Syria has done it — isn’t it about time someone used filtering of communications as a force for good? With access to the exciting and useful array of apps now gone, the App Store home pages can be replaced with a guide to writing your first programme. Or the source code for Flappy Bird and Snapchat. Today’s industrious youth will have hacked together an alternative in no time — I mean, what else are they going to do, read a book?

2. Give the project to Reddit to run instead

Loading up the home page and seeing George Osborne grinning back at you is enough to put anyone off. Seriously though, the Government is not cool, school is the biggest institution you ignore the advice of, and men in suits who work at Google are not aspirational figures. Reddit is an online community founded by young guys who had no idea what they were doing and smashed their way to success. And if nothing else, the community gets things done.

3. Bring back TV storylines where kids hack computers to change their grades

This used to happen in literally every children’s TV show when I was young and they made it look easy enough to try. Given the state of most Government IT, they probably stand a good chance at success.

Joking aside, if you want to learn more about the Year of Code and get a more optimistic view on the subject, you could do worse than read this analysis by Benjamin Southworth. Ben was previously in the belly of the beast as Deputy CEO of the Tech City project so his perspective is not your average Joe’s.

But hopefully, if all else fails, my suggestions above can remain a solid Plan B. Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments.

March 4th, 2014


How do journalists get ‘out of’ PR spam

Nearly four years ago, I wrote this:

What if you could tag PR spam right from your inbox with the system sending automatic responses to each incorrect query?  Perhaps it  could even bounce them a full bio of what you *do* cover for future reference.

The Big Why

  • It’s the minimum disruption to journalists’ time. Right Click + Tag takes no longer than Right Click + Delete.
  • It sends a clear, unavoidable message to bad PRs each time it happens.  If they spam 200 addresses and get 180 bouncebacks each time, they might adjust their behaviour.
  • It doesn’t penalise the good PRs- it even improves their understanding of the publication for the future.

And even though I had some interesting chats about the subject with Charles Arthur and Adam Parker, among others, life got in the way and I never got round to putting a theoretical tool like this together.

Then today, in the midst of the discussion on Twitter, a simpler way of achieving it struck me.

Every journalist should turn on their Out of Office feature.

Okay, bear with me here — it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

The Good

The biggest challenge facing PR today is lack of feedback. Good PRs try to send news to journalists they think will be interested. We read their writing, stalk them on Twitter — we *listen* to them as best we can. And we still make mistakes because ultimately you’re also often taking a gamble when topics are on the ‘edge zone’ of what they may or may not want to cover. Part of our job is often to help good writers discover what’s at these edges and what’s happening next.

However, because the ratios of PRs to journalists are out of kilter, we can’t always get feedback. So names stay on lists that technically shouldn’t be there. Nobody wants them there, on either side, but logistically it’s impossible for the journalists to provide the feedback that would save them.

The Bad and the ugly

Meanwhile, bad PRs are smashing out their announcements left, right and centre because they either don’t understand or don’t really care. For better or worse, we do have these people out there who maybe are just doing their first job and don’t really care about sticking around for a career or anything.

This is a whole other topic — BUT, the important thing is, there’s little in the way of immediate cost for them to go broader rather than more targeted. Maybe their account manager will just smooth over the lack of coverage with the client, or maybe they’ll follow up with phone calls and get lucky in one of the 200 leads.

We need something that:

  • Scales for journalists – the closer to zero effort the better,
  • Rewards good PRs and helps them refine lists,
  • Punishes bad PRs in proportion to the volume of irrelevant spam they are sending
    • (or alternatively gives them less and less excuse for sending to the wrong people)

So – we need something that provides feedback for each and every email. This is where the automated Out of Office comes in.

The Idea

Every time a PR emails, they’ll receive a simple, personal update that clearly states what that journalist covers and how they like to be contacted. Whether they ask for it or not.

Most systems will only send this once per conversation thread, so it shouldn’t be entirely suffocating, plus it will give you a signal as to whether your email was properly received or ended up in spam (I think.) 

  • Bad PRs end up with an equal amount of responses in their inbox — but each one offering the potential for them to learn and refine their lists, causing them less return spam in future.
  • Good PRs get to know their leads even better — especially if journalists update this stock message every month or so to keep it current. Maybe they even highlight good and bad examples, there’s a lot of potential here.
  • Journalists hopefully end up with a relevant, low maintenance and direct opportunity to educate the people who email them, without things getting too personal.

The catch? Out of office goes to everyone. That I haven’t nailed yet.

But I think this might be one of the easiest, most low maintenance ways to really make progress in this area. Education isn’t enough — change will only happen if we take action.

Got a better idea or a way to improve this? Chip in.

 

 

September 24th, 2013


The only interesting things about the new iPhones/ iOS

Not interesting:

  • colours
  • cheap vs expensive
  • ‘flat’ design/ transparency/ parallax effects
  • 64 bit processor

Interesting:

TouchID + Bluetooth Low Energy (iBeacons)

Apple just put a method in your pocket to verify your identity instantly with any device it can connect to through this new bluetooth standard. Want more security? Use voice recognition in tandem to verify a phrase.

Put it in a watch and it’s more convenient than ever. It’s no co-incidence that iCloud Keychain is also on the way to keep all your passwords in one place. And don’t forget Passbook securely holds things like your plane tickets right through to your Starbucks card. Your thumb is now the easiest way to access all of this, in an instant.

Controller support… but no controller announcements

iPhone gaming is an unexpected success (Apple has never cared about the area before) — but is hamstrung by not being able to do ‘traditional’ games justice. Seeing the glitzy graphics of Infinity Blade (a game that really only works on a touchscreen), you have to ask how far out of reach Vita or even current gen console games are on the device.

Perhaps an explanation for the lack of updates on this major area will come in the pre-Xmas Apple event this year. Considering the lineup, it’s iPods and iPads for sure — where they’ve really played up the gaming message recently. If they come on stage and account proper controllers in conjunction with a new Apple TV that gets games onto the screen in an elegant fashion, this would make sense.

A dedicated motion CPU

The fact that the quantified self movement relies on devices outside your phone, even for simplistic things like step count, is stupid. I don’t care if it’s on your wrist or a little widget in your pocket, these devices are a mess today and unlikely to go mainstream in contrast to the integration announced today. By making the phone itself handle the laborious ongoing tracking, it means you can add sensors for specific tasks (heart rate) or sync with nearby devices (e.g. a running machine via iBeacon.)

I still don’t totally buy into the idea that these things present meaningful value and accuracy yet, to the degree the mainstream would need and expect. But by becoming an effortless add-on that doesn’t kill your battery, the selection becomes more about software than hardware. And this area is ripe for a “there’s an app for that” approach. 

Did I miss something? Let me know.

September 12th, 2013


In defence of Google+

If you don’t understand why Google is the 2nd most active social network, you don’t understand what Google+ is. And it’s all your fault.

Since day 1 in June 2011, Google was very clear about the motivation behind its Emerald Sea project: build a better Google.

People like Danny Sullivan have spent their time fundamentally misunderstanding even the clearest explanations:

When I asked Gundotra how many people are using Google+, he deftly told me I was looking at it wrong. “You have to understand what Google+ is,” he said. “It’s really the unification of all of Google’s services, with a common social layer.”

No, we’re not looking at it wrong. Google is just refusing to answer the question for its own reasons — which is probably because Google+ has far less activity as a standalone social network than either Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps even less than Pinterest, for that matter.

Right. That’s one possibility. Or you are just not listening to the poor man. But you wouldn’t be the only one. Comparing numbers of G+ posts to Facebook posts or any other network does not make sense if you consider their goals.

The stream you see when you visit plus.google.com is not Google+. It’s simply where the actions you take across Google services manifest when shared. They may be shared to one person, they may be shared to a circle, they may be shared publicly. It’s the journey, not the destination.

But it’s not without its virtues. For example, anyone who has tried to tackle big topics in 140 char without either linking many tweets together or ending up being glib and superficial will appreciate the extra scope that comments on Google+ posts allow. Or even the basic simplicity of being able to +1 someone’s response (which everyone can see, vs relatively hidden Twitter favourites) and say more than a hollow thumbs up tweet.

Google+ is not a Facebook killer (as some journalists have started to twig). Google+ is Search, Youtube, Gmail, Maps, Drive, Android, Hangouts and more. Google+ starts as the layer that runs through all its products but the real goal is its extension through the web. This is where the Google Authorship markup strategy has been so ingenious. Never has anyone had such a compelling reason to integrate a new way to share into your site.

It’s this kind of thinking that is gradually helping Google+ become the widely distributed fabric that it intends. Google doesn’t need to beat social networks in quantity of shares or visits to the stream — or indeed almost all the other areas that businesses like Facebook and co. care about — to get value from this initiative.

Why is this important? For most people, it’s not and although it’s a shame I can’t share all my photos with my university friends anymore like I could on Facebook, I can live with that.

But if you work in marketing, PR, digital, social, search — whatever you want to call our converging industry today — and you’re patting yourself on the back as you joke about this ‘ghost town’, it might be time to wake up and smell the +1s. It’s part of our job to look past the surface to understand things and offer that knowledge to our clients. Keep up.

September 6th, 2013


Linkedin endorsements – cynical, not stupid.

Since its introduction, it’s fair to say that Linkedin’s “endorsements” feature, which makes it simple to add a ‘point’ to your connections’ skill in various areas, has divided opinion. Actually, that’s probably not fair — anecdotally most people I know seem to think it’s a complete absurd joke.

But, I think there’s an easy misunderstanding around this feature. Most people assume, quite reasonably, that Linkedin has added this to provide more value for its users. I don’t actually think that’s the main story here — it’s about interaction figures.

As a social network, your best indicators of network health are not user numbers but user engagement. By the same argument Apple keeps coming back to re. iOS devices being *used* much more than Android equivalents, the unloved accounts that litter hundreds of now dormant social networks speak for themselves.

For years, most Linkedin users I know have been lurkers. Perhaps there’s a flurry of activity if you’re on the hunt for a new opportunity but, even then, most peoples’ career cycle is more like a couple of years than a couple of months. And as for the communities on Linkedin, the experience is so unpleasant and the general usage so uninspiring and cynical that it’s hard to create stickiness compared to the variety of alternative communities that exist.

So what do you do?

Endorsements are the answer. Every iota of the feature’s design exposes its motive to simply up engagement metrics rather than genuinely add something valuable. The box pops up gleefully all across the site, challenging the user to confirm endorsements that verge on the rhetorical with a simple click and message of positive reinforcement. It feels like hyper-engineered altruism by numbers and its what makes it clear this is a feature for Linkedin, not so much for you.

I think this kind of design is more common in the social world than people often realise. I had an article in mind recently to run through all Twitter’s announcements for the last year and create a checklist of who each development served. If it was the users, they receive a point, if it was Twitter and/ or it’s business model, Twitter gets a point. Sadly, I don’t think there were many where everyone benefited.

For Twitter and Linkedin, I think it actually works because they do have something valuable at their core that people are already finding value from. In Linkedin’s case, it’s engineering reasons to come back more often and support that user value with company value. Does it hurt you to play with the endorsements feature a little to help support their service? Perhaps you’re actually endorsing something more important than you first thought.

Postscript: minutes after I wrote this, Mat Morrison brought up the following not entirely irrelevant aspect to the matter from Linkedin’s Q3 results. Another very clear side of the picture…

August 8th, 2013