Revolutionary Measures

Social networks – command and control centres for terrorists?

It wasn’t that long ago that the only spies in the public eye were James Bond and prominent Cold War defectors. But over recent years high-ranking intelligence chiefs have stepped out of the shadows to appear in public, write books and give interviews. They’ll be inviting the public to tour MI5 or the Pentagon next. It all seems a bit counter-intuitive as I’d have thought keeping a low profile was one of the key skills that intelligence agencies were looking for.

Some of the satellite dishes at GCHQ Bude, in ...

The latest spy to break cover is Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ. In an interview with the Financial Times to mark starting in his new role he lambasted social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, calling them “command-and-control networks for terrorists and criminals.” One of his key concerns is the spread of encryption techniques on common mobile phone operating systems – both Apple and Google have recently made encryption a standard feature that users can opt-out of rather than having to opt-in to use.

This is obviously good for privacy, but bad for those looking to monitor the activities of terrorist cells. In his article Hannigan issued a plea for more openness and collaboration between tech companies and the security services.

But in my opinion he’s overlooking two major factors. Firstly, demonising social media is a bit like criticising the telephone network for being used to plan a bank robbery. It is, as tech companies claim, an agnostic platform. If the police suspect a crime is being committed (or planned) there are processes in place to work with a social network to assist them in their enquiries. Normal people don’t see Facebook as a threat to their safety – though, given what some seem happy to share online, perhaps they should.

And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a lack of trust in the security services. The revelations of Edward Snowden showed, as many suspected, that our online activities are being spied on. Recent revelations about police being able to access the telephone records of journalists without needing a warrant using Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislation just add to this.

The trouble with the whole debate about online privacy is that it is becoming increasingly polarised. On the one hand social networks support their ‘free’ business model by collecting and selling data on the interests of their users, allowing them to be targeted with ads. Then at the other end of the spectrum the security services are demanding more access to the very same data. The people in the middle are the users, the vast majority of whom have no idea of how much they are being tracked when they go about their business online. What is needed is more education so that it is clearer about how they can legitimately protect themselves online, rather than both sides scaremongering about the other. Terrorism is a threat to a free internet, but equally so is draconian, untargeted snooping by intelligence agencies and the erosion of user privacy by the networks that we rely on.

 

November 5, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wandering lonely as a smartphone

Can you remember life before the internet? While your response obviously depends on your age (I can recall fax machines, video recorders and black and white TVs), the number of people in the world with analogue memories is dropping. For example, just comparing my time at university twenty years ago (no mobile phones, no email, handwritten essays) with students today demonstrates a real gap in experiences.

English: Daffodil Daffodil.

English: Daffodil Daffodil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sobering question is the basis of a new book by Canadian journalist Michael Harris. In “The End of Absence: Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection,” he starts from the premise that soon, nobody will remember life before the internet. It is easy to point to what we have gained in terms of access to unrivalled amounts of information, available instantly at the push of a button or a swipe of our smartphone screen.

However, as Harris points out, we’ve also lost out in multiple areas. We experience our world through technology, with a screen or camera between us and the real world. This combines with the ability to meet all our wants much more easily and faster than ever before. We can buy things quickly, communicate instantly and indulge our wants without having to wait or often make much effort. And this has a knock on effect – we should be satisfied, but we don’t have time as we’re onto the next thing. The risk, as Harris says, is that we believe that things matter less, simply because they are easy to achieve.

The other impact of the internet, and in particular mobile devices, is that we don’t have the opportunity to be bored or to appreciate the world around us. We lose our sense of wonder, as rather than studying a bird building a nest while we wait for the bus, we’re checking our email. Rather than writing about wandering lonely as a cloud, would Wordsworth today be taking selfies of himself with daffodils and posting it on Instagram? We’re always connected and continually worried that we’re going to miss out on the Next Big Thing.

On the positive side, I think Harris isn’t alone in understanding the need to disconnect. I see an increasing number of people running, cycling or walking, and while they use technology to show where they are, listen to music and see the speed they are going, they are at least unhooked from the broader internet for a few minutes at least. But what we need are more opportunities for solitude and day dreaming. When was the last time you did nothing without worrying about what you are missing out on?

It is easy to come across as a Luddite when it comes to being concerned about the impact of technology – after all I’m typing this blog on a PC, posting it online and then shouting about it on social media. However, as Harris’s book argues, it is probably time to take a hard look at what we risk losing with the onward march of technology and to take action (or should that be inaction) to reclaim solitude, human to human interaction and a bit of plain idleness.

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JerkTech – the unacceptable face of technology?

It seems to be turning into a bad week for those that believe technology is solely a force for good. Firstly, the UK government has rushed through new legislation that means that ISPs and telecoms companies have to store metadata on email and phone communications (though not their actual content). The aim of the new law is to fight crime and protect the country against terrorism, according to the Prime Minister.

"Technology has exceeded our humanity"

“Technology has exceeded our humanity” (Photo credit: Toban B.)

And over in the US, there’s a growing backlash against so-called JerkTech applications. For those that have missed the debate, these are applications that let people sell on resources at above the market rate that they’ve paid. For example, Monkey Parking enables drivers who are parked in public streets to auction off their space, while ReservationHop makes reservations at hard to book restaurants under false names and then sells them on.

The key point about these apps, and those like them, is that they corner the market in publically available resources (whether parking spaces or restaurant tables) and then charge people for the privilege of using them. While this is neat in economic terms – you are taking something that is underpriced and selling it at the market rate, they remove the ability for anyone to chance upon a parking space or get that hot table. And the actual provider of the resource (City council or restaurateur) doesn’t get any benefit at all. Indeed, if ReservationHop fails to sell a booking the restaurant will have an empty table that it could have filled in other ways. Hence, the JerkTech name, as coined by Josh Constine of Tech Crunch.

The best technology is disruptive – but that does come with risks and potentially even responsibilities. In the same way that scientists and medical researchers are governed by ethical standards, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This particularly applies to ways of using technology to manipulate people (without their consent). There’s been a huge furore about a Facebook experiment where users were served a preponderance of either happy or sad content in their newsfeed – the result of this manipulation was that they posted either more positively or negatively themselves.

We live at an exciting time for technology. We’re moving beyond the original web, to a more mobile, wearable and all-encompassing version, with the Internet of Things allowing previously dumb machines to communicate in real-time in order to improve our lives. The danger is that the sheer pace of change will overwhelm everyone except for early adopters, and consequently new innovation will either be banned or will simply not be used by those that it could benefit. Genuine advances (and I don’t mean parking apps or social networks) will be lost, and there is a potential that geeks will join bankers in the category of ‘most hated profession’.

I think everyone in the tech community needs to think about four questions before they launch (or market) new innovations if they want them to flourish.

  1. Is there a genuine need behind your software, hardware or app? No, we don’t need yet another social network.
  2. What are the positive and negative consequences of your disruption? I don’t mean that a big business will be inconvenienced or will lose market share, but will it hit those that genuinely have no other source of income or add to the load on the public purse? If so, how can you spread the benefits to them, such as by creating a social enterprise or partnership.
  3. Is it ethical and responsible? In the absence of any existing code, maybe the best way to check this is to explain it to a senior citizen – do they find it fair?
  4. And finally, is it secure? Is there any danger that personal data could be hacked or lost, or confidentiality breached?

It may seem odd for tech start-ups and developers to look beyond the coolness of their technology (or the possibility of selling it for millions later in its development). However, in a world dominated by social media, the consequences of being a jerk can be fatal to your company’s success, no matter how innovative your product. So think first – and run it past a senior citizen just to be sure.

July 16, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Marcel Proust and the right to be remembered

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the right to be forgotten on the internet, after a landmark court case. European Union judges ruled that Google should remove a link to a story about the auctioning of a Spanish businessman’s house in 1998 to pay his debts to the government. The story itself, on a Spanish newspaper website, remains up, as it is a media organisation, with particular rights.

Marcel Proust in 1900

Since the ruling, less than a month ago, Google has received 41,000 further requests to take down links to material, from (amongst others) politicians, paedophiles (12% of cases) and murderers. As in the Spanish case none of these are incorrect or untrue stories – they are simply facts that the people concerned would rather were removed from public view. Therefore in my view, this is a real threat to one of the key tenets of the internet – it provides access to all information and lets people make up their own minds about someone’s character or views.

The whole case, and the plethora of information available today, would have been of real interest to the French novelist Marcel Proust. Famed for his seven volume, unfinished, epic, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), his whole work focuses on memory, and in particular the involuntary connections between cues and recollections of the past. In its most famous episode, the taste of a madeleine cake summons up memories of the narrator’s childhood.

Essentially, Proust was a connoisseur of memory, talking about the need to pick particular episodes, mull them over and develop them individually and at length. In contrast, he sees life as a spinning top that turns so fast that all the specific colours turn to a mix of grey. The ability of the internet to collect huge amounts of information would have simultaneously enthralled and dismayed Proust, giving him an insurmountable treasure trove to mine. We’ve now got a spinning top on fast forward.

But Proust’s central idea of focusing on remembering is probably even more important today than in his lifetime. We’re bombarded with information and sensations, which leads to the danger of swapping reflection for instant action, before moving onto the next thing. You can see this in knee-jerk reactions to events on social media, with peaks of controversy swiftly forgotten by the population at large.

I’d argue that rather than the right to be forgotten, what we need is the right to remember, with people forced to stop, think and analyse their feelings and memories, rather than rushing into an instant response. It’d certainly make people calmer and more thoughtful (and perhaps nicer)………..

In fact, social media and the internet could help solve the problem it creates – how about a service that randomly sends you emails, photos or Facebook posts from your past, giving you the chance to reminisce and refresh your memory? Effectively In search of lost tweets, rather than lost time (or a more arbitrary version of TimeHop). I’d much rather go down that path than an internet open to the removal of embarrassing, but true information, which is where the right to be forgotten potentially takes us.

 

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June 11, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The first social media World Cup?

With the World Cup almost upon us, we’re in the midst of a slew of big budget ad campaigns, coupled with unrestrained hype about the potential prospects of England making it further than the group stages. And of course we have the obligatory ‘will the stadia be ready?’ and ‘FIFA is corrupt’ stories on the front page of most newspapers.

English: FIFA World Cup Trophy Italiano: Trofe...

With its global audience, the World Cup has always been a magnet for brands, something that has swelled FIFA’s coffers. Obviously you don’t need to be an official sponsor to jump on the bandwagon (provided you are careful you don’t infringe copyright). For example, bookmaker Paddy Power has already come up with a (for them) remarkably restrained campaign, commissioning Stephen Hawking to look at the factors necessary for England to win the tournament. Just avoid penalties – as the renowned scientist pointed out when it came to shoot-outs “England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.”

This should be the first real social media World Cup, with traditional broadcasting sharing the stage with the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As the marketing focus has shifted online, and more towards real-time activities, it does mean the playing field has levelled. It doesn’t quite let Accrington Stanley take on Brazil, but it offers a better opportunity for non-sponsors to get involved and engage with fans. Good, creative, well-executed campaigns don’t necessarily require enormous budgets, but do need brands to understand social media influencers and reach the right people if they are going to succeed.

Looking at social media, YouTube has been the early front runner, as brands increasingly put their video adverts on the site, either in addition to big budget TV slots or as an alternative for smaller brands. Castrol’s Footkhana ad, featuring Brazilian footballer Neymar and rally driver Ken Block has already had over 15 million views on YouTube, a figure that is bound to increase as the tournament nears. Nike’s ad, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, was seen online by 78 million people in four days – before it even went on TV.

When we get to the matches themselves, expect a flurry of activity as brands try and embed themselves into second screen conversations. Facebook estimates that 500m of its 1.28 billion users are football fans, while the 2012 Champion’s League final generated 16.5 million total tweets. Social media has already become a major part of big sporting events – and the World Cup will demonstrate this. It gives non-sponsors a chance to muscle in on the action, but is going to require a combination of good planning, quick reactions and genuinely engaging content if they are going to actually reach the right audience. Competition will be fierce – as well as brands, pundits, media organisations and the general public will all be looking to have their say, so expect Twitter records to be broken.

In essence there are three competitions going on simultaneously – on the pitch, between brands and also between the social media networks as they look to monetise their members and wrest advertising and marketing budgets from traditional channels. All of these promise to be fascinating contests – however far England actually get.

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June 4, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to hit mute on Twitter?

twitter fail image

Twitter is currently in a bit of a pickle. Since it floated on NASDAQ its stock has been falling, culminating in a drop of 10% in after hours trading when it recently announced its Q1 results. The reason for the beating? A combination of slowing growth in user numbers, a trading loss of $132 million, and the ability for staff and early investors to sell their shares for the first time.

But it is important to put things in context. User growth did slow, but Twitter still added 25% more people to its network, bringing total numbers up to 255 million. And it actually made a modest profit by some accounting standards (and certainly improved from last quarter’s $511 million loss). The company is still worth over $24 billion – about the same as breakfast cereal maker Kellogg’s for example, and a lot more than LinkedIn.

Essentially sentiment has turned against the microblogging site, with investors disappointed that it isn’t growing or adding new services in the same way as Facebook. The issue is a classic one of people expecting too much and then punishing a company for not delivering what they dreamt of.

Twitter is really hamstrung by the simplicity of its service. You go on, give a 140 character update on what you think is interesting, see what other people are saying and have a conversation or two. Yes, you can share other content, such as video and photos, but as Twitter is finding it is difficult to monetise conversations, based on the limited information it holds on users compared to the likes (or should that be Likes?) of Facebook. So any new features are correspondingly limited – you can now mute people that you still want to follow, but don’t actually want to listen to (how very polite!).

There are interesting things happening on Twitter – Amazon is experimenting with the ability to add items to your shopping basket through a tweet, for example. Where it is really succeeding is in becoming the mainstay of live interaction around big events, from football matches to breaking news stories or TV shows. 5.3 million tweets were sent around the Eurovision song contest on Saturday night – a new record for a non-sporting event. And more and more companies are using the channel to give customer service support, both in terms of spotting aggrieved customers and offering a faster alternative to email.

The point is, anyone that bought Twitter stock thinking they’d got the new Facebook was, frankly, delusional. But it is time for the social network to be a bit more adventurous and start thinking outside the 140 character box. In the same way that Google is built on capturing and analysing billions of pieces of user data, Twitter needs to better understand its members and actually monetise them more effectively. I appreciate that this sounds a bit mercenary for social media purists, but as a quoted company Twitter needs to spread its wings and fly. E-commerce is one area to look at, but how about creating private twitter feeds for individual companies, enabling staff to share their thoughts in real-time, or providing ready made monitoring packages for TV shows, celebrities or organisations. Perhaps it should buy another, complementary, network such as Pinterest. It could even look at creating paid-for subscription feeds, such as stock prices or business news from the likes of the FT or The Economist. The more you think about it, Twitter is no turkey – but what it needs is to both innovate and show the market that it coming up with cool new stuff if it isn’t to go the same way as MySpace or countless others…………

 

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May 14, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Virtual Reality – the new mobile?

Oculus Rift

Acquisitions by large companies can be a bit of a mystery, forcing people to ponder why they are spending their money on unrelated markets or technologies. Is it a stroke of brilliant foresight, PR by association or just bailing out a mate with an interesting idea?

Facebook’s purchase of virtual reality company Oculus VR is the latest purchase that has led to a lot of head scratching. How does the company’s immersive headset for video gaming fit into Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of the social media giant? Will every Facebook user be issued with a headset so that they can see their friends and ‘like’ things in a virtual world?

Zuckerberg himself has said that he sees virtual reality as the next stage of computing, after mobile, and the company is planning to expand the use of Oculus technologies to include “communications, media and entertainment, education and other areas”. Some of the original KickStarter backers of Oculus, which initially raised £1.5m on the crowd funding site, are unhappy that they won’t see any of the $2bn purchase price, but their reaction seems to ignore the basic site premise of providing funding for zero equity.

Having been to a demonstration of virtual and augmented reality technology a few months ago, I think there are three main reasons that Facebook has shelled out for Oculus VR.

Firstly, bear in mind they are actually ‘only’ paying $400m in cash (the rest is in Facebook shares), so they are not betting the farm. And as an internet company that started with essentially one product, they have been diversifying rapidly into neighbouring markets, with the purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram. This mitigates the risk of having all your eggs in one basket and provides the chance to diversify and sell other things to your enormous user base. The perfect case in point is Google. While it began in search it now offers everything from mobile and desktop operating systems, robotic cars, smart thermostats and cloud-based office applications.  And that’s the stuff we know about. In an industry as fast-moving as the internet, clever companies realise that they can’t stand still – better to take a punt on a variety of new technologies, see what works and learn as you go.

In my opinion, the second reason is based more on a desire to be taken seriously. Google has Glass, Microsoft has Kinect and Amazon wants to deliver your parcels through drones. All bold statements that lift the company from being about mundane bits and bytes to being part of the real world. Facebook has a shedload of money and is essentially aiming to compete with its older, more established neighbours.

But the third reason, is that Zuckerberg might just be right and VR could be the next wave of computing. The fact is that companies, brands and marketers are continually trying to get closer to consumers, and bridge the gap between the digital world (where everything can be measured) and the messy, chaotic real world. From Google Glass headsets to augmented reality and even QR codes, companies want us to use our mobile devices to interact with brands. The businesses that manage to own this intersection will be extremely powerful gatekeepers, in the same way that Google is the start point for the vast majority of internet browsing or searches.

Time will tell whether Oculus becomes central to Facebook or withers away in a corner of the campus. It does mark a step change in Facebook’s growth, since, while the product is about virtual reality, the headset is a physical device, rather than an app or social media network. What it does show is that the Facebook of 10 years time will be radically different to the network we see today.

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April 9, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Generating a network effect – why WhatsApp is worth $19 billion

As I’ve said before, the technical side of creating a new social network is relatively easy – and nowadays with cloud computing you have fast, cost-effective access to the resources you need to scale it in line with demand.

Diagram showing the network effect in a few si...

But how do you create the demand – for your social network or any other service in today’s complex and fast-moving world? Essentially you rely on the network effect – the fact that the more people use a service, the more valuable it becomes to each user. A classic example is the telephone. If one person is connected, it is worthless, but add more users and the positive effects increase dramatically – you actually have someone to call. It can also drive lock-in – if 80% of businesses use Microsoft Office there are compatibility issues for those that don’t, but who want to share documents with them.

Social networks are a classic example of the network effect in action – the bigger Facebook gets, the more people are on it who you know and supposedly want to communicate with. WhatsApp is another. It has built a base of 450 million users – 70% of whom are active on a daily basis. And as it allows free texts to be sent between users (and doesn’t cost to join for the first year), why wouldn’t you sign up to message your friends? No wonder it is predicted to hit the billion user mark in the relatively near future.

So how do you create the network effect and catapult your startup into the $19 billion bracket? There are six things I think are necessary

1              Word of Mouth
Obviously people have to know about your network or service, but traditional PR and marketing can only take you so far. What you need is people to recommend it to their friends, so start by researching and targeting the nodes of networks (i.e. those with lots of connections). If they join then their followers will as well. Approach these people and maybe even make them brand ambassadors to get them onside.

2              It has to be different
In open markets there is no point trying to simply copy what is already out there – if people are already using a service, the alternative has to be different or substantially better, if they are going to join. What issues/problems do people have that you can solve? In the case of WhatsApp it is removing the cost of sending text messages, so there is a clear advantage of moving to the service.

3              Make it easy to use (and free)
An obvious one, but if people log on and have to navigate through a maze of functions when they join, they are going to be put off. From registration to ongoing use, make things simple for people. And you have to understand and appeal to a mainstream audience – test it out on real people, rather than early adopters and fellow geeks. An intuitive user experience and comprehensive online support, including video and how to guides are a must if you are to grow. Put it where people will use it – on their mobile devices as well as PCs. And the basic package has to be free if you want to recruit major numbers of people.

4              Make it compelling
Just getting people to join is the easy part – network effect relies on them actively using the service. LinkedIn had this problem a few years back. Everyone had joined, but no-one was logging on, unless they were actively looking for a job. It changed this by adding in compelling content that aims to drive you back to the site – from the thoughts of business leaders to seeing what your peers are doing. You need to create reasons that drive people back to your site on a daily or even more frequent basis if you are going to build a solid user base. 

5              Think global from the start
When it comes to tech and the web, you need to think global. Does your proposition work in Delhi as well as Derby? The wider the target market, the bigger the potential user base, provided you make it appealing to a worldwide audience. Even if your site is initially just in English, the user experience has to be understandable by non-native speakers. As things grow you should quickly add other languages, dependent on demand.

6              Keep evolving
Nothing stands still – since its acquisition, CEO Jan Koum has announced that WhatsApp will offer voice calls on its platform, putting it in direct competition with Skype and traditional telecoms companies. You need to add new services and functions to both keep momentum going, ensure users return regularly and to recruit new ones.

The success of WhatsApp demonstrates it is less about the technology, and more about generating network effect if you want to attract a lucrative exit. Is it worth $19 billion? If it can continue its growth, introduce new paying services and bolster Facebook’s own platform it might just be.

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February 26, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lego – the marketing

English: A 2x4 red plastic brick like a Lego b...

Everyone loves Lego – except of course when you tread on a brick with your bare feet or cannot see the living room floor for brightly coloured ‘creations’. So it is a bit of a surprise that we’re only just seeing the first full-length Lego movie (imaginatively titled The Lego Movie) hitting UK cinemas now. We’ve already had short Lego films, pastiches of other films (my personal favourite is the Camelot song from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail) and innumerable video games.

As a parent of Lego-age children I’m sure I’ll be visiting the cinema to see it this half term, but what has really impressed me is the marketing around the film. As well as the traditional online, cinema and print ads, Warner Brothers have looked further afield. For example, the whole of one ad break in Dancing on Ice was made up of traditional adverts, re-shot entirely using Lego characters and bricks. From BT to Travelodge, it didn’t really matter how good the original ads were – the Lego ones were a whole lot better.

It didn’t end there – the Culture Show ran a special programme on the impact of Lego on architecture and even David Beckham got in on the act, claiming that building with the stuff calms him down and that he’d just finished a 1,000 brick model of Tower Bridge. VIP tickets for David and his kids must be in the post. At one point I even expected a Lego character to turn up as Top Gear’s Star in a Reasonably Priced Car (or the Stig to remove his helmet to reveal a yellow, brick-like face.)

And this has been backed up by a very active social media strategy, dating back a number of months. This sends you to a website where you can create your own mini figure which you can turn into a poster, icon or wallpaper.

Of course, Lego the Movie (and indeed the overall brand) has a big advantage over a lot of its competitors. It is intrinsically linked to pretty much everyone’s childhoods, and the urge to create is something that most of us don’t grow out of. However the company has used its strengths and extended itself very naturally to the film and online spaces (witness its CUUSOO site where the community votes on potential new models). Consequently people have flocked to the movie and a sequel is already in the works.

We can’t all have the brand power of Lego, but brand marketers and startups alike can learn a lot from how the company operates. It is open, friendly and inclusive, great at customer service and most importantly, doesn’t rest on its laurels. There is always new stuff coming out – from electronics-based Mindstorms to more traditional models. Children and adults love the Lego experience and have an emotional connection with the brand that grows over time. You don’t really grow out of it. Look at your own company – how can you build your own little bit of Lego into the DNA? Minus the painful standing on a brick, obviously.

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February 12, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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