Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, jono, Marketing Thoughts, Uncategorized

What now for social media specialists?

I sense a certain ennui amongst senior social media pros. A sense that it is all not quite as exciting as it used to be.  This was eloquently expressed by the brilliant Tac Anderson (former Head of Digital Strategies at Wagenner Edstrom), who wrote in a recent post: “To me, all the big social media puzzles have been solved. There’s nothing new anymore, it’s all just variations of the same thing”

I have a lot of sympathy with Tac’s viewpoint.  Like him, I am one of the biggest enthusiasts for social media’s crucial and central in the marketing mix.  The problem is the ways clients are acknowledging this fact has fundamentally changed.  So much of social media marketing now seems derived from client’s fear, not their brand ambitions.

I read client social briefs full of two types of fear:

  1. Aggressive fear, shown when marketers want to demonstrate to their superiors that they can simply out do a competitor brand. At its heart, the old keeping up with the Joneses scenario: ‘their videos gone viral, so we want ours to'; ‘they have 50,000 fans; we are going to get 100,000′.
  2. Jumpy fear, expressed through a general request to be doing more ‘social’.  When you drill into it the sentiment is usually ‘let’s throw money at social with an agency, so it won’t worry us anymore and we can have some reports to show the boss’.

If you let it, it seems to me that PR / social media agencies could become very dull places if they simply respond to the 99% of PR and social briefs placed on the table these days.

Most social strategy work for brands used to be highly ambitious, fun, honest and experimental (backed five years ago by only the most forward-thinking marketeers). As social media engagement has become de rigeur, the solutions expected have become blander and those commissioning the work have become a nervy middle-management, not the maverick CEOs or in-the-know junior marketeers with a point to prove, with only small budgets and free reign.

So what can social media experts who have flourished during the social media revolution do now that much of the revolution (mind-set-wise anyway), has taken place and those commissioning work are now simply wanting boxes ticked not achieve big solutions from new channels? If you accept, as Tac Anderson argues, that most big brand milestones in social have now happened, then what next? What do you do if you don’t want to start painting by numbers?

As for me, I am now a partner at Inkling, a company with big ideals and passionately held principles, where I’m now part of something more holistic than being wheeled-out as the digital or social media guy.  And while that’s fine and dandy for me, I think all heads of digital might be looking in the mirror and beginning to ask is this their time for a professional mid-life crisis?

I think there are, of course, other ways of avoiding doing “variations of the same thing” beyond joining a company like Inkling:

  1. Do something different – if digital experts are needed by brands for increasingly boring purposes, then find a new challenge. Leave the business.  Or create a business that will act as a catalyst for changing the new status quo.
  2. Get more techie – the innovations are coming through accessibility to coding now and the bringing about of the cybernetic life, not through the in-depth understanding of social media. Time to create and invent using technology, not just connecting brands with consumers off the back of it.
  3. Widen your vision again – most “digital experts” were generalists before they went so tightly down that avenue.  Reconnect with how much you can offer focus brands with their broad business, marketing and strategic challenges and invest less brain time specifically on the social media side of a brief. Instead unlock your potential to be the client’s less definable 360 support and advisor.

In short, get out the box and refuse to get back in.

The difficulty is that involves risk, which may lead to less briefs, so less money potentially.  But in marketing, you simply don’t have principles unless money is at stake to test them against.

And surely creating marketing that makes a greater difference for a brand, rather than a client’s next review appraisal, is worth it?

Brand Campaigns, Digital PR

The sex appeal of dabbling on the dark side of digital PR

“To know nothing about yourself is to be constantly in danger of nothingness, those voids of non-being over which a man walks the tightrope of his life.”
― Athol Fugard, Tsotsi

Where there is a stink of shit there is a smell of being”

― Antonin Artaud, Theatre of Cruelty

The ultimate challenge and a naughty thrill… is sometimes building social media strategy for the brands people love to hate.  You know the types I am talking about alcohol, gambling, tobacco, banking, insurance and so on.  The ones you wouldn’t bring home to meet the parents.

When I worked as a theatre director I found it amazing the way through slightly changing the context of a scene, or an action on stage, or even the emphasis on a line you could completely change the audiences reaction – even though the script remained unchanged.  So perhaps it is not surprise I find it exciting working out ways that marmite brands can benefit from this type of direction within social media.

However, before you lynch me or peg me for some cynical “spin doctor” I should point out brands from alcohol all the way along the spectrum to tobacco, don’t have much room to manoeuvre within social media to stay within legislation and guidelines from relevant bodies (which of course is reassuring).

Alcohol brands must adhere to guidelines which include restricting Facebook users aged under 18 from accessing official alcohol brand pages, and a commitment to remove inappropriate user-generated content from brand pages on Facebook within 48 hours.

Tobacco brands have to contend with the fact that Tobacco advertising is banned in 161 nations that have now ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).  Article 13 of the FCTC requires ratifying nations to undertake a complete ban on tobacco advertising and promotion, which is broadly defined as:

“any form of commercial communication, recommendation or action with the aim, effect or likely effect of promoting a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly, unless prevented from doing so by their constitution”

And against the broad definition of advertising required by FCTC signatories, social media marketing in some instances could be considered a “commercial” communication and therefore also be banned.

Making successful social media strategies for the types of brands you wouldn’t necessarily want on agencies creds is not easy, because it involves three competing motivations:

a) doing the best possible work to help them retain and possibly recruit customers

b) staying not just on the borderlines of relevant legislation but well within it, for the brands safety, and your own conscience

 c) not selling your soul.

I suppose a marketeer must constantly balance the projects they are proudest of in terms of feel-good factor, with the ones that provide the greatest intellectual challenge.

Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, jono, Marketing Thoughts

7 golden rules to create a great company from “the oldest man in new media”

This week, the senior management team of Citizen had the pleasure of listening to a talk given by Mark Collier, the founder of Dare (a sister agency).  A legend in the industry, who self-deprecatingly describes himself as “the oldest man in new media”.  He reflected on the golden rules that he has learned through building an award-winning agency from the ground-up.

The golden rules:

1.  Have a clear mission

2. Have a strong set of beliefs

3. Strong processes that liberate rather than stifle creativity

4. Strong and united leadership

5. Focus on long-term client relationships – a rule of thumb:  “You are always only three phone calls away from disaster”

6. Embrace PR

7. It’s all about the work (Love it.  Do it right.  Do it smart.  Be obsessive about targets)

This is NOT Mark, he is not really that old


Brand Campaigns, Digital PR

This is Path

The two questions of the month from clients and colleagues have been “What’s Pinterest?” and “What’s Path?”

Pinterest has been explained every which way in tweets and articles over the last fortnight alone, including by my Citizen Relations colleague Jon Cronin.    But, the Path discussion is rarer and there is not too much down in writing for people to refer to.  So…

Path was launched in November of 2010, and now boasts over two million users.  It is a very cool app, beautifully coded and designed – managing to some extent to cover all the basic functions of Foursquare, Instagram and Twitter.  The Path app is designed to help you record your path through life and share that trail just with intimate friends and family (limited to 150)

You leave the breadcrumbs of your daily life by:

  • Uploading photos (which you can add filters to Instagram style)
  • Tagging people you’re with
  • Noting your location
  • Noting the song currently playing on your iPod
  • Writing a thought
  • Logging when you are about to go to sleep and when you wake up (so that you receive inspirational messages when you arise)

Your entries are displayed in a chronological timeline – your Path.

Am I going to be a regular Path user, probably not; but, friends and colleagues of mine who are strongly attuned and committed to “life-logging” probably will be.

To read up on why Path has got itself in a bit of hot water over privacy  recently, you would be wise to take a look at a concise post from the sharp mind of prgeek

Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, jono, Marketing Thoughts

What is PR?

What is PR? CEO of Edelman U.S. Matt Harrington today gave his rather complete, but because of its fullness, rather joyless definition.

My definition is, unlike his, brazenly incomplete: for a start, it doesn’t really cover the role PR plays when something goes awry.  It also has other flaws, but life’s too short and I’m in the mood to adopt the ‘publish or die’ attitude.  So here is my INCOMPLETE DEFINITION OF PR.

 PR is…

Sharing with people where the excitement or interest lies in a brand, in a way that will allow those people to believe it or indeed feel it for themselves

That requires PR agencies to be made up of people with the minds of…

  • Anthropologists
  • Psychologists
  • Creatives
  • Technologists
  • Entrepeneurs
  • Theatre Directors
  • Data analysts
  • Artists

To be true to this definition, PRs need to constantly think, understand, create and out-pace.  


Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, Marketing Thoughts, Pop Culture

QR codes: Fool’s Gold?

I was in a meeting yesterday between a client of mine and TfL, in which the topic of the arrival of widespread Wi-Fi on London Underground came up. This led me to being asked for the third time in just one day for my thoughts on QR code usage. QR codes being the 2D codes that can be scanned using a smartphone with a QR code reader, taking the user to further cotent via their mobile. So I thought it might be sensible to note my thoughts down here.

It was predicted a few years ago that by now QR codes would have exploded in the UK. Sure, you now see them on cereal boxes, posters, TV ads – but how many people are pulling out their smartphones and scanning them? Well, about 19% of UK consumers according to some stats. But, how many find the experience satisfying if they have gone to the trouble of getting out their smartphone and scanning? I’d suggest a very small proportion, with most experiences being very anti-climactic!

Many are saying QR code usage will take off when Apple and others include QR readers within the preset package when you buy your smartphone. I would argue that while this change will assist moving QR codes being just a gimmick to a more consistent part of people’s everyday lives, it will not make a massive difference. A step change in QR code usage will only in fact come when brands, advertisers, PRs (and the like) are able to start coming up with QR code initiatives that offer non-techie people more than they could get by simply typing in a URL to a browser.

I believe QR codes will come of age as a meaningful communication route at some point, but only if creative mental leaps are made by those incorporating them into campaigns and initiatives, not because of a fast forward in technology.

It would be a start if those employing QR codes in campaigns could remember not to place them underground (at least until there is WiFi down there!) or point them towards sites that aren’t optimised for mobile phones.

A rare example of an initiative with enough creativity – and value to the user – to be worth scanning a QR code for, comes from South Korea with a virtual Tesco store for busy subway users:

Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, Marketing Thoughts

10 mistakes made by agencies looking to ‘do digital’ better

At Citizen Relations I’m part of an organisation always striving to “be” in the digital age and not to just “do digital” – opting for the Method approach.  The only way to ensure that keeps happening is to reflect on what not to do, as well as what to do.  So, looking back on another year I thought I would add a few points to my post written back in August entitled: “7 mistakes made by agencies looking to ‘do digital’ better”, to bring it up to a grand total of 10 considerations.

1. Unprepared to drop ego in order to work with other big digital players – With every PR / ad / media-buying agency claiming to “do digital” these days, the natural reaction can be to go into battle mode.  Looking to prove to clients that whatever the digial scenario ‘we know more and can do it better than them’.  But the wisest agency, will act as a connoisseur of the digital talents and strengths of other agencies and consider what they would like to team up with agency X on that would be mutually beneficial? Can sometimes playing the bashful partner to another agency result in amazing case-study or an award-worthy / pride inducing piece of work that would otherwise not naturally fall into your office?  Also, you can learn a lot that will sharpen your own offering from casual conversations with heads of other digital agencies or those looking to move increasingly into the space; as long as you are prepared to ditch the constant battle mode.

2. Just talking about digital innovation – most digital innovation will involve making things, whether they be new tools or apps or aggregators, or automated processes. So if any agency doesn’t have a capacity to tinker in these areas it can’t really validly claim to be inherently innovative – even one innovator/developer/technologist is a start, you don’t need a whole Innovation Lab initially!

3. Dabbling with social media monitoring / insight tools – I don’t care what tool you favour, it can be Meltwater Buzz, or Radian 6, or Sysomos, you have to get to know to use any one tool inside out and back to front before you can deliver real value to a client through using it.  Dabble all you like with additional monitoring / insight solutions, but be prepared to go-along-for-the-ride and seriously commit to one tool for long enough to gain real expertise.  Only when you really get a tool, can you move on to presenting it’s data findings most effectively.

4. Disconnection between PRs & digital specialists – meaning client briefs that may or may not involve social media solutions are poorly interpreted by PRs so delivered to digital specialists in such a form that opportunities have been lost for both meaningful work and meaningful profit.

5. Inability to attribute precisely – wooly digital KPIs agreed with clients, because of a lack of confidence and experience with the range of possible digital outcomes and attribution models internally. Resulting in client and agency working too hard chasing the wrong things.

6. Lack of star quality in community management – clients believe community management is cheap and easy, thus they brief it out to agencies, but it proves almost impossible to turn a decent profit on for the agency. The only ways to increase this profit margin are to turn away community management work or demonstrate why you are charging a premium for it. To do this you need a star person, famous for running hugely successful communities or forums to wheel in front of clients and oversee any community management work at a premium price point.

7. Digital leadership at board level – junior employees are not naive about how companies work. They realise the significance of being called a Managing Partner, Managing Director or Director and they see who disappears for board meetings. They trust they are being represented- if digital specialists- or that digital expertise is being taken seriously by such subtle dynamics, not because of mission statements about “digital being central”

8. Data and presentation of it – clients cannot see the hours spent researching before something is presented about their audience, it’s social media habits, online journey or the proposed digital strategy etc, all they can see is the presentation about it. The client can go online and check out YouTube videos of Hans Roslings data visualisation work or JESS3s infographics and so the bar is constantly set by outside forces. Thus, day by day the PR agency must win over the client by taking the final way of presenting data and ideas compellingly just as seriously as anyone else, not just in the industry but outside of it.

9. Weak digital design and build capability from social media pages, to sites, to apps – If you haven’t got the resource to do this, you can’t compete in the PR big game anymore. Unless you have an almost symbiotic blood-brothers relationship with an agency that only offers this. Even if this relationship becomes weak, fraught or mistrusting, watch the quality of work, ambition of work and profits evaporate bit by bit.

10. Great people make great agencies – it only takes one person to be outstanding at one aspect of the digital conmunications skill set to start building agency specialisms. But not enough digital-ready PR agencies are investing in truly high level training or self- development time in online data analysis, developing digital attribution models, future of connected TV etc for key interested staff in order to bring them forward. They think “well staff leave”, but that is wrongheaded. One member of staffs key knowledge area has ripple effects and before you know it it has become the organisations collective knowledge and expertise.

Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, jono, Marketing Thoughts

Brilliant global brand development in the digital age

Still not entirely comfortable on camera, but at least it doesn’t look entirely like I’m featuring in a hostage video this time.  In the recording are my broad thoughts on brilliant global brand development in the digital age – distilled from a talk I did for PRCA….

Brand Campaigns, Digital PR, Marketing Thoughts, Pop Culture

What’s the point in being a PR pro?

My wife has mentioned twice this week how great it must be to be a driving instructor and see your former pupils on the road, having taught them this life-enhancing skill.  This observation started me dwelling upon what the value of being a PR professional is?

Someone gave me a neat explanation once, saying that the PR pro’s value lay in “guiding people to products they might enjoy that they would otherwise forget, or be unaware of”. But even that sounds pretty sly.  Like saying an estate agent simply matches people with the houses they might like.

PR people do not normally grow up dreaming of the ways they could create value in the world through PR… They usually found their transferable skills whether they be strategic thinking, an interest in anthropology or a theatrical sensibility could make them great at the creativity, or thinking, or selling, necessary for PR.

So I ask again, as an individual what is the value in going into work each day and trying to make products and brands sell more successfully through lodging them into the right magazines or through creating a mega-interactive community on Facebook?

I was asking this question when PR began transforming significantly in the mid 2000s because of web 2.0 and I started finding more satisfying answers.  Suddenly, instead of only spreading whatever we were told to “make famous” we had to start MAKING stuff.  The ‘stuff’ could be unique consumer experiences that would be filmed, infographics, WOW moments involving latest technologies, social media games, films you just had to pass-on. Even the “make this famous” part began to be more interesting, as we suddenly were able to understand people better on a second by second basis, with the help of buzz monitoring tools.  No longer just selling to people based on set audience breakdowns that had been compiled up to a year earlier, but based on real-time understanding.  In short, I found the fun in PR again.

It is said there are no new ideas in PR, but the possibilities of new technology suddenly meant there were and are  (for an example, see Adidas’s recent AR work). Or at least new ideas alongside all the same sometimes more cliched ideas that are just given a “social media mechanic” as an update (but that’s life).

However, the “digital age” increasingly shows PRs to be the creators of amazing experiences for people.  Yet, some people may view us as just disingenuous slime balls with a new set of skills.  I have some sympathy for this view, you see, during my years leading digital PR work I have been asked to at different times in the last decade:

  • quieten online conversation around whether a pedophile lived on a certain companies housing estate
  • create a digital strategy and online advocacy for a cigarette brand
  • push a persons negative blog about a horrifying experience with an optical brand as far down Google as possible for said brand
  • report pragmatically on how to conquer an ocean of online conversation showing a brands health claims to probably be false

I only accepted two out of these four requests- maybe two too many, who knows. 

I have been asked to do some pretty worthy stuff in the name of  PR too – for Princes Rainforest Project, vinspired and wildlife charities.  To be fair, most often the brief is neither about helping to make a significantly better or a worse world, it is simply from a big brand saying we want more x,y,z because this year we want to sell more devices, trainers or subscriptions.

For me, as a digital PR, you have to veer between: being the equivalent of a regional theatre producer reviving popular old musicals guaranteed to sell out box offices; to being a cutting-edge artistic director, creating great theatre that wows people. Every second brief I can help do a great job for, may involve cliched activities to ensure the brand achieves what it wants for better or worse (like the regional theatre director tasked with packing an auditorium), but these are necessary deviations to allow me to be part of great moments of creation or understanding at the behest of a brand (like the cutting-edge theatre director).

 So what is the point in being a PR pro for me?

I guess the point of being a PR pro for me is that often I get the chance to think truly creatively using the palette of media and technology.  It is in those moments when I feel like PR pro doesn’t really describe in any way what I, or most PRs pros, do any more.

That’s why I don’t sneer at the increasingly odd job titles being spawned within PR and ad agencies at the moment, because we are all groping around in the dark for what fits.  It we aren’t exactly PR pros, then what are we. At the company I started at recently, Citizen Brando we are terming what we PRs do, as working in Citizen Relations, other firms are calling it working in a Recommendation Agency or an Ideas Agency.

As for what the point of the PR pro is – in the bigger existential scheme of things –  I try not to look at that too hard… it is not something best grappled with on a Friday afternoon with the weekend on its way!