Revolutionary Measures

The offline election

With less than a year to go until the 2015 General Election, manoeuvrings and PR campaigns are already in full swing. Since before the party conferences David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have been trying to set out their agendas for the future – all with one eye on the rise of UKIP. In the case of the Tories this means pandering to the anti-EU lobby, for the Liberal Democrats claiming that things would be much worse if they hadn’t been a restraining hand on Conservative policy, and for Labour it means their leader forgetting a crucial part of his party conference speech.
Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Z2aa6

Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Z2aa6

One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.

So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.

Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.

What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.

Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?

As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.

October 22, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Selling out too early

Cambridge is rightly highlighted as one of Europe’s biggest innovation hubs, particularly when it comes to commercialising ideas that began in the research lab. This has spawned a huge biotech sector, and helped create a series of billion dollar tech companies that lead their industries, such as ARM and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR).

The University of Cambridge has the largest un...

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been identified by many commentators as a key emerging market – and one where Cambridge has the ecosystem, experience and ideas to play a major role. So the news that IoT pioneer Neul has been sold to Chinese telecoms equipment behemoth Huawei depressed me. Not for nationalistic reasons, but simply due to the low reported purchase price ($25m) and the fact that the company has cashed out so early in the growth process. While there was a fair amount of PR spin around Neul’s progress to date, I genuinely believed it could join the billion dollar Cambridge club by developing its technology and building alliances and routes to market.

At the same time, Cambridge Silicon Radio is mulling a multi-billion pound sale to US firm Microchip Technology, reducing the number of major, independent, quoted Cambridge companies. Obviously investors and founders do look to realise their profits at some point, but it is important to balance this by looking longer term. While those that put money into Neul no doubt got a decent return, think how much more they’d have received if the company had been allowed to grow and exploit its market position.

I’m not alone in taking this stance. Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), the University of Cambridge-backed VC fund, recently warned its portfolio companies against selling out too early and promised to provide long term, founder friendly, capital to help grow the next ARMs and CSRs.

So what we need is the support, both financial and in terms of time, that gives companies the ability to achieve their potential. Not all of them will make it, and many will be niche players that logically fit better within bigger companies – but at least they’ll have had the ability to aim for the stars before finding their real place in the world. Otherwise Cambridge (and other parts of the UK tech scene), will simply act as incubators that turn bright ideas into viable businesses that can be snapped up and digested by tech giants looking for the newest innovation. It is much better for both the local and national economy that some of these startups make it the stock market as fully fledged businesses, creating ecosystems that generate new sectors and jobs. This requires longer term thinking from everyone involved – otherwise the number of billion dollar Cambridge companies will shrink even further.

October 1, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sting, Simon and Sex – 20 years of the Smartphone

It seems like 1994 was a busy year – not only did it see the first ecommerce transaction (a foolish purchase of an overpriced and overrated Sting album), but also the launch of the very first smartphone. And interestingly it wasn’t produced by a traditional handset vendor, but created by IBM, thus adding to the long list of inventions, such as the PC, that it pioneered but then failed to commercialise.

English: The first smartphone "The Simon&...

English: The first smartphone “The Simon” by IBM and Bellsouth (AT&T) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The oddly named Simon went on sale to the US public on 16 August 1994, and had a calendar, could take notes and send emails and messages as well as make and receive calls. Aimed at the busy executive it could be linked to a fax machine in order to handle all your communication needs. However it failed to take off, only selling 50,000 units. As curator of the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, Charlotte Connelly, drily puts its “It only had an hour’s battery, it was $899 and there was no mobile internet at the time. So it wasn’t very successful.” Personally I’m not convinced the name helped either – “Sent from my Simon” doesn’t have the same kudos as “Sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of an email.

We’re now seeing mobile and ecommerce (as opposed to Sting and Simon) converging, and driving innovation in technology. As this nifty but messy Google Public Data graphic shows, the majority of us now use smartphones as our primary method of internet access, and, aside from reading this blog, watching cute kittens and moaning on Facebook, one of our primary occupations is buying stuff. According to Goldman Sachs, global mobile commerce will hit $638 billion by 2018 – the same amount spent via PCs in 2013. While the majority will be on tablets, smartphones are an integral part of the customer journey and will make up a direct $20-30 billion of the total.

The smartphone has changed how we interact, shop and spend our free time. We are no longer ever idle – why gaze into space at the bus stop and notice the world around you when you can play Candy Crush instead? In many ways mobile technology has outstripped our capacity to adapt, leaving humans scrambling to change their behaviour to fit in with their apps, rather than the other way around. 20 per cent of young American adults (and 10 per cent of the total population) use smartphones during sex, though mercifully the research doesn’t go into any more detail than that.

So, what does this mean for startups and marketers? The smartphone is essentially our most relied upon device, and the one we keep closest to us at all times. You can link it to sensors, watches and the world around us, through Bluetooth and technology such as beacons. It really does provide a window into our lives, which has both a positive and negative impact. Speaking personally spam text messages or calls annoy me more on my mobile than their equivalents on landline or email. It is a delicate balancing act, with the consequences for misjudging privacy or security potentially extremely damaging. But get it right with your app and you can generate big profits or deliver your message right to the heart of your target markets.

The last twenty years has seen the smartphone change the world – as well as the wider device market. It has shrunk from the 500g brick sized Simon to thinner, more pocket sized smartphones (though ironically the trend is now for larger and larger devices), with increased usability and a wider range of apps aimed at consumers as well as businesses. One thing hasn’t changed though – the Simon’s battery lasted an hour, and while I get a bit longer from my iPhone, it still can’t survive a busy day without needing a recharge……..

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beacons – the next big thing or a blinking nuisance?

I’ve talked before about the new ways marketers are trying to engage with consumers. This ranges from QR codes to augmented reality and relies on using the one device we always have with us – the smartphone. Being able to pinpoint exactly where someone is, for example the specific aisle of a shop, means they can serve up relevant marketing material that could turn a browser into a buyer. It is no wonder that the likes of Apple and Google are investing in technology that can help make indoor mapping more granular and detailed.

nerd candy. some iBeacons have arrived

The latest technology to be touted to drive engagement is the beacon. Essentially a small, low cost, Bluetooth-enabled box that can be quickly fitted inside a building, it enables companies to send messages to suitably equipped smartphones in the near vicinity. As beacon technology is built into the latest Apple products, there are already over 200 million iOS devices out there that can act as both receivers and transmitters.

The possibilities are getting marketers, particularly in the US, extremely excited. Companies can automatically send relevant offers if you are in particular areas of a shop, such as in front of their products (or, if you’re being sneaky, in front of your rivals’ products). Airports or train stations could send automatic updates on delays or gate/platforms changes. Beacons can be used to measure dwell time in specific areas and provide offers of help. William Hill is planning to use beacons to send in-app betting messages at the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival, while outdoor advertising companies are looking at how it can drive engagement with adverts. Mobile phone networks EE, O2 and Vodafone have invested to create a joint ventureWeve, to target the space, with Eat trialling their technology. The reason for the interest is that essentially beacons promise the same digital tracking possibilities as online, but in the physical world.

However there are a still a couple of elephants in the room when it comes to mass market adoption. Consumers need to switch on Bluetooth, download an app, enable location services for the app and opt-in to receive notifications. So, even though iPhones now come with Bluetooth on as standard you still need to jump through a lot of hoops to be beacon ready.

And then there’s privacy. Perhaps you don’t want marketers to know whereabouts in the shop you were loitering or what you are buying at a detailed level. As the success of social media and loyalty cards have shown, people are willing to give up some of their privacy in return for a better experience and targeted offers, but none of these are as instant and real-world as beacons zapping a message straight onto your screen in real-time. At the moment all the advantages seem to be skewed towards retailers, with very little concrete benefit for consumers that will make them want to go through the rigmarole of making their phones ‘beaconable’.

At a time when consumers are just about getting their heads round paying for things by swiping cards rather than laboriously typing their PIN, I think beacons have a big job ahead to accelerate consumer adoption. The whole process needs to be made seamless and simple, with a focus on the benefits, rather than looking like another way to invade privacy and sell you more stuff. Only then will beacons deliver the insight that marketers and businesses are looking for.

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March 5, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pick up the phone!

Telephone

Everyone in business today has a plethora of communication channels to choose from, split between analogue (face to face, phone) and digital (email, social media, text, web). But is it a good thing?

As a member of Generation X (roughly defined as born between the mid 1960s and early 1980s) when I started work in public relations the only ‘digital’ communication was the letter (and extreme cases of urgency the fax). So analogue channels were pretty much the sole way of interacting with colleagues, talking to clients and pitching to the press. That meant that you had to develop verbal communication strengths such as being able to respond quickly to questions, give succinct answers and carry a conversation.

And PR was typical of all professions at the time – we were forced to speak to people (even if it was scary) and consequently got reasonably good at it.

But this has changed with the entry into the workplace of Generation Y. Weaned on new technology, these digital natives never had to learn to use email, social media or text as new channels – as far as they are concerned they’ve always been there. Lots of people I know comment on how much quieter today’s offices are as people are simply not on the telephone.

Which brings me to my issue. At the risk of sounding old, Generation Y need to start picking up the phone rather than hiding behind email and social media. It is very easy to craft a wonderful email, hit send and believe the job is done. Research quoted in Fresh Business Thinking found that 1 in 20 18-24 year olds is terrified of using the phone in work – and I reckon that’s a gross underestimate. The survey also found that 40% of 18-24 year olds were made nervous by telephone communication, against 28% of the total workforce.

We’ve all ducked making that call and sent an email instead (whatever generation we are), but here’s three reasons I think it doesn’t always get results:

1              Lost in transit
Most people get hundreds of emails every day and with the best will in the world it is easy to overlook one out of the many, whether deliberately or not. So the end result is that you don’t get a response and either have to re-send the email or try another channel.

2              Lost in translation
Even if everyone in the email conversation speaks the same language the chance of misinterpretation is high. Something that you can explain verbally can appear rude or just unclear, giving the wrong impression or leading to being ignored.

3              Lost in the gaps
With a phone call, or face to face, you need to think on your feet and try and build a rapport. You can change your tone, explain things and actually persuade someone by listening to what they are saying and responding accordingly. You simply can’t do that on email. While someone might come back with a question they are more likely to just hit delete and move to the next email.

I’m not Luddite enough to suggest going back to the days of telephone only communication, but people need to understand that there are advantages and drawbacks to every channel and pick the right one for each particular task. That might be email, social media or text – but it is vital that today’s workforce doesn’t neglect the telephone or we’ll end up as a nation of business mutes rather than engaging communicators.

October 30, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watch out!

A Casio Databank calculator watch.

Like a lot of people I’ve given up on wearing a watch during the working day, replacing it with glancing at my phone, tablet or computer. So all the current noise about mooted smart watches from Apple (immediately dubbed the iWatch), Google, Samsung and now Microsoft puzzled me. Why would anyone try and replicate the features of a smart phone on a tiny screen on their wrist – particularly when they were probably carrying their phone in their pocket?

Take the Pebble watch. It essentially syncs with your smartphone and reminds you about your latest tweets, emails and phone calls – a cute accessory but hardly game changing for most people.

But a bit more thinking unlocks why the tech titans think there’s a market out there. The only time I actually wear a watch (except on the few occasions I want to appear smart) is when I go for a run and I use GPS to measure where I’ve gone and exactly how slowly. Essentially I’ve got a wearable sensor around my wrist, rather than a time keeping device.

That’s where the interest will be, not as a smaller second screen for your iPhone, but providing a way of measuring where you are, what you are doing and your vital signs. After all a watch has the benefit of being intimately connected to your person – few people are going to hold their phone to their wrist to measure their pulse. With an aging population, and increasing desire to manage our health, this is where the mass market will be. Add in the Internet of Things and you can see a connected web of wearable sensors managing our lives.

Thinking of the smart watch I’ve come up with five applications where it could be used – from the basic to the far fetched.

  • Patient monitoring – both in hospitals and more importantly at home, the watch can send back vital statistics to doctors and monitoring services, raising the alarm if issues occur
  • A smart wallet – why get your wallet or Oyster card out when you need to buy something? The watch automatically debits your account as you pass through ticket barriers or pick up that latte.
  • Obesity control – measuring calories burned is standard on sports watches, so combine this with a camera and an electric shock buzzer. Not burnt enough calories and reaching for a doughnut? Cue a mild electric shock to remind the wearer of their diet
  • Getting your dinner on the table. The watch senses when you’re half an hour from home and sends a signal to your oven to switch it on. Get stuck in traffic and it changes the heat so your dinner isn’t burnt to a crisp
  • Surveillance. Very 1984 but just imagine if every smart watch could be tracked by governments – not only allowing them to see where you are but your state of health and everyday activities. Obviously the most far fetched application of all (we all hope)…..
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April 17, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Telling a Whopper on social media

Burger King

Rather than covering a range of subjects I could probably write a weekly blog called ‘Which brand has f@cked up on social media’, without running short of material. This week it was Burger King’s turn on Twitter – though to be fair to the fast food giant they believe their account was hacked. After all the background picture was changed to a McDonald’s logo and one tweet claimed the chain had been sold to the Golden Arches.

The tweets stopped after an hour after Burger King asked Twitter to suspend its account (unlike HMV, they knew how to switch social networking off). They even had a supportive tweet from @mcdonalds commiserating with their rivals.

So no real reputational damage done – the online equivalent of breaking into a local Burger King, daubing graffiti on the walls and putting quick drying cement down the toilets. Illegal yes, but once the mess is cleared up, Burger King on Twitter will be back open for business.

But the financial damage could have actually been enormous. Imagine that rather than tweeting an obviously untrue rumour (We just got sold to McDonalds!) the hackers had put out something different and subtler – such as news of finding horsemeat in the company’s burgers (not true I hasten to add). Think of what that would do to the stock price, spooking investors and sparking a sell-off. Financial institutions would have seen company news from a reputable source and acted accordingly. Given Burger King is US-listed I’m sure litigation wouldn’t have been far behind from disgruntled shareholders too. And the problem isn’t just malicious hacking – do companies have corporate policies about what they can and can’t tweet/blog/put on Facebook in case it is share price sensitive? My betting is that many don’t, leaving it to the discretion of whoever is actually running the Twitter feed. Hardly foolproof.

So, at a time when cyber security is top of the agenda, companies need to make sure that they not only know their Twitter logon details, have clear policies in place, protect their passwords and have an instant crisis plan if security is breached. I’d hope that if it wasn’t before Burger King’s investor relations department is now much more involved in social media planning. Handled properly this is another chance for marketing/PR/social media to become more strategically involved in vital financial communication – so marketers should ignore the Burger King experience at their peril.

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February 20, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bringing Silicon Valley to the UK

Silicon Valley comes to the UK

Silicon Valley comes to the UK (Photo credit: Cabinet Office)

Looking out at an another chill autumnal morning, the lure of Silicon Valley’s sunshine is increasingly powerful. But there’s a lot more to the success of tech companies in the US than simply climate. The question is what is it and can we in the UK learn how to replicate that success here?

That’s one of the key missions of Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVC2UK), a programme of events across the UK that brings across leaders from US companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook to help, nurture and assist local entrepreneurs and their companies. Originally a Cambridge event it has now spread across the UK, covering London and Oxford as well. The theme of this year’s programme is scale – addressing the fact that while the UK and US are pretty evenly matched when it comes to starting up businesses on a per capita basis, the UK’s scale up rate is less than half that of the US.

Another strand of the programme is looking to uncover the next generation of startups through intense bootcamp events. The most interesting one of these is the Future Business weekend being held in Oxford and running in collaboration with SVC2UK.

It is looking to build on the research strength of the UK by providing access to existing patented technologies and essentially allowing teams to generate new ideas and innovative businesses around them. It’s often said that not enough research makes it out of the lab, and the event aims to change this by taking scientific intellectual property and making it available, along with support and mentoring.

Held between 9-11 November the weekend will be run by the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OxCEI) together with the Future Business Pre-Incubator (FBPI) and Silicon Valley Comes to UK (SVCUK). The aim is bring together entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists and mentors to generate ideas and new companies to take existing patented technology to market.

The event uses the proven Idea Transform methodology, which underpinned the extremely successful Idea Transform weekend in Cambridge back in April 2012, providing structure and support to teams through mentoring, team creation, inspiring speakers and networking. And the good news is that selected projects from the event will then be supported through the Future Business Pre-Incubator with access to facilities, resources and ongoing mentoring.

Silicon Valley Comes to the UK starts on 15th November with an event at the Houses of Parliament – to find out more visit the website at http://www.svc2uk.com/

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November 7, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Social media and the sales funnel

Due to its massive growth companies are flocking to social media. In today’s world you can’t be a self-respecting marketer without a Facebook page, Twitter handle, YouTube channel, LinkedIn profile, blog, Pinterestboard etc.

facebook

facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

This is all very well – social media provide a completely new channel that lets your brand interact with consumers in a genuine conversation. However there’s not a lot of thought (or rigour) going into the social media presence of a lot of companies. Some are simply chasing follower numbers, despite the fact that these can be easily bought and others are launching campaigns (like the Waitrose Twitter hashtag project) which seem doomed to attract only ridicule.

Companies need to take a step back and work out where social media is going to help them. If you’re selling a toilet cleaner is it worth having a Facebook page – will people really think it is cool to Like a bottle of bleach? It is time for marketers to put their puppyish enthusiasm to one side and look at some basic marketing and sales concepts.

When it comes to generating sales there’s a well recognised marketing acronym called AIDA, standing for:

  • Attention/Awareness – i.e. attracting the consumer
  • Interest – piquing their interest by focusing on benefits
  • Desire – making them want what you’ve got
  • Action – getting them to take a positive step such as purchase

Essentially lots of social media marketing is focusing on the first point, but doesn’t have a strategy to move people through the rest of the process. I think marketers are getting confused by the speed and accessibility of social media to think that you can skip the middle sections and go straight to Action. In some cases consumers do work like that – a tweet with a special offer on a new film/book/CD is a straightforward transaction, but these are the exception rather than the rule and merely replicate what you are doing through other channels.

Building interest and engagement with your brand takes time – you need to create a community, listen to your consumers and deliver sustained benefits to them. A money off voucher may be good for short term sales, but isn’t building long term loyalty (and who’s to say they wouldn’t have bought your product anyway?)

So marketers need to take a step back and ask themselves an honest question. Do consumers want to have a conversation either with or about your brand? Would they talk about it positively down the pub or is it just something that they buy because the toilet needs disinfecting? It could be that you don’t need that all singing, all dancing Facebook page and you should focus on other offline channels. Less sexy (and not as exciting on your CV) but there could well be better ways of connecting with consumers and driving sales.

Making sense of Big Data

Big data is a very sexy subject at the moment. Given the enormous volume of digital information in the world, being able to bring it together and analyse it should make it easier to spot overall trends and, in the case of marketing, build up a personalised picture of consumers so you can better target them with products and offers.

Like everything in IT this isn’t anything that new – I remember a story from 20 years ago about a US supermarket that analysed the buying patterns for nappies. They found that lots were being bought at 6pm on a Friday, and by staking out stores saw that the majority of buyers were fathers on their way home from work. By moving beer nearer to nappies, they increased booze sales dramatically as dads stocked up for the sleepless weekend ahead.

What has changed since then is the enormous increase in the number of data sources and the sheer amount of data out there. We live in a digital world and the majority of what we do leaves a data footprint behind us. However in a lot of cases this data is either in multiple formats – or is completely unstructured, such as academic documents (or this blog).

Big Data

Big Data (Photo credit: Kevin Krejci)

And analysing big data isn’t just about selling us more beer – by comparing and questioning multiple information sources, including patents and scientific papers you can speed up research in areas such as life sciences, helping make drug discovery more efficient. A great example of a company enabling this is Linguamatics, which has just opened its new worldwide HQ on the Cambridge Science Park. Its flagship I2E text mining software uses natural language processing to understand the meaning of unstructured data delivered through a search engine approach that is fast and accurate.

Already used by nine out the  world’s top ten pharmaceutical companies Linguamatics is growing fast, both in Europe and North America, but has operated under the radar, focusing on building its business. With big data being flavour of the month, the time is now right for Linguamatics to raise its profile, both in Cambridge and across the world.

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September 25, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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