Revolutionary Measures

Algorithms versus spontaneity – striking the happy medium

There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.

English: NEW YORK (May 31, 2010) Visitors inte...

Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.

This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.

They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).

Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.

Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.

The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..

So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 lessons marketers can learn from the UK general election

Essentially a general election campaign is an exercise in marketing. Parties are trying to reach distinct audiences with their key messages and convince them to put a cross in the box next to their candidate’s name. To confuse matters slightly you have both national and local campaigns, potentially with different issues that have to be addressed. For example in some constituencies it is simply a matter of defending a majority by making sure people go out to vote, while in the marginals where the election will be won or lost it is about securing every vote possible.

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

It is also a pressure cooker environment. General election marketing is carried out in an intense campaigning period, with the eyes of the media permanently trained on everything that the parties do. So, for normal marketers what lessons can we learn – both positive and negative? I’d pick out five key ones:

1. Show passion
One of the criticisms levelled against David Cameron is that he doesn’t seem to care about the election and potentially winning a second term in office. Whether this is true or not, his perceived insouciance stands in stark contrast to the firebrand rhetoric of the challenger parties such as UKIP and the SNP. If you want to connect with your audience, show that you really are engaged with them and demonstrate you understand their concerns.

2. Don’t take your audience for granted
The days of a two party system appear to be consigned to history, with some of the safest Tory and Labour seats under attack from challenger parties. This is part of a wider dissatisfaction with professional politicians, which the electorate feel is out of touch with their lives and concerns. The lesson for marketers is that challengers can pop up in any industry, no matter how high the barriers to entry, if you fail to deliver what your audience wants.

3. Check, check and check again
I’ve had an election leaflet that says “insert local message here” at the bottom, while Tory MP Matthew Hancock has been embarrassed by an unfortunate fold of a campaign flyer that removes the first three letters from his name. The message is clear – no matter how pressured you are, it is vital to check everything that goes out if you are to avoid slip-ups.

4. Innovate
There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in how the main parties have campaigned during this election. Speeches, battle buses, visits, kissing babies and celebrity endorsements have been the norm. Ed Miliband visited Russell Brand, but given that Brand had earlier told his followers not to bother voting it remains to be seen what the impact of his chat actually will be. The TV debates that helped Nick Clegg to power last time did happen, but in a variety of formats that meant they lost their overall potency – exactly as David Cameron had hoped. Perhaps what is really needed is innovation within the whole process. You can register online to vote, but you can’t yet vote online or via text. Surely it is time to change this to encourage greater participation?

5. Embrace all channels
One of the key differences between most marketing and a general election is that each party is aiming to appeal to a wide age range. So you have to have specific messages for older audiences and the millennials who could be voting for the first time. That’s one of the reasons that this was predicted to be an election that embraced social media, particularly to reach younger voters, who traditionally have been less likely to vote. I’m not convinced that any party really nailed social media – or even if that is possible – but think that most of them could have done more to build engagement on the channel. Still, Twitter saw some interesting memes, with #milifandom making Ed Miliband an unlikely sex symbol.

As I write this on the morning of polling day the expected result is a hung parliament, with no party having a sufficient majority to govern alone. So on that score the major parties’ marketing will have failed. However if you look at the campaign as a whole, there are plenty of lessons to learn about what to do – and probably most importantly, what not to.

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The future of advertising – no ads at all

Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, thi...

Think about it – what was the last advert you saw that you really remember or which made you take action? The likelihood is that nothing comes immediately to mind. This is ironic as we are now surrounded by more and more ads, whether on the internet, TV or billboards. And they should be increasingly better targeted given that advertisers can see our browsing history, previous searches and even what we Like on Facebook.

Why don’t we remember ads? I think there are three reasons. Firstly, we’re getting better at blanking them out ourselves. Our brains are struggling to cope with the huge amount of information around us, and are therefore becoming more ruthless and ignoring things that aren’t relevant.

Secondly, as well as giving us greater opportunities to see ads, technology is also helping us to skip them. Most of us fast forward through the ads on recorded programmes, and given that more TV is no longer watched live (or on a TV), we can save time by avoiding commercial breaks. Even if you begin watching a recording of a programme on ITV 15 minutes after it starts, you’ll catch up by the end, without missing anything but the ads. Websites are also waking up to the idea that you can offer a premium, ad free product to increase revenues. YouTube is looking at subscription model that means you don’t have to see any ads on the site, for example.

Finally, most ads aren’t actually that interesting anymore. Big budget TV ads still exist, but the vast majority are much more basic and programmatic – you do a search for a toaster, and small, mostly text-based ads then follow your round the internet for a week, appearing on every page you visit for example. The creativity is more in the algorithm that understands your intent, finds a corresponding ad and then keeps tracking you from site to site. It would be physically impossible for the advertiser to create hundreds of creative ads telling you about how their toaster will change your life – there simply isn’t the time or space to do it.

I’m sure there are wonderful long form TV ads out there, but apart from the Christmas campaigns (which have become part of the festive experience) I’m not watching them, and I don’t know who else is either. There don’t appear to be ads that tell your friends about, like the Tango, Guinness or Levis campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. Too many TV or billboard ads are generic or ‘good enough’ in the eyes of the client, rather than pushing the boundaries. Targeting is replacing creativity as the key factor in success, so what does this mean for the advertising industry?

It could mean the end of ads as we know it. Brands are looking for different ways to engage with customers, so are putting their money into sponsorship of programmes, sports and events, content marketing and campaigns on social media. However swapping the TV ads you’ve always done for a Facebook or YouTube-based programme requires a leap of faith from marketing directors and ad planners alike. At the moment many have added the internet to their campaigns, for example sharing their ads on their own site, Facebook and YouTube and using cut down versions for internet advertising.

However I think that there’s going to be a moment when the advertising industry becomes ‘digital first’ and the swashbuckling creatives and Don Drapers will be replaced by data scientists and content marketers who can use technology to understand and reach audiences, as opposed to untargeted TV ads that may win prizes for creativity but don’t deliver ROI. In many ways this will be a shame, but shows that whatever industry you are in, digital can and will disrupt everything you do.

April 15, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why we don’t want discussion with our morning coffee

When you think of Starbucks, the first thing that comes to mind is not discussions about race. So the company’s latest US campaign, called Race Together, which seeks to start discussions between baristas and customers feels misplaced.

The second location of Starbucks in Seattle wa...

Firstly, let me say I don’t doubt that it is motivated by the right reasons, rather than a desire to differentiate or for marketing purposes. It follows extensive staff open meetings where partners (staff) have discussed the whole situation of race in the USA after high-profile cases involving the police and black citizens in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, amongst other places. And in many ways it goes back to the original purpose of coffee houses as venues for, often raucous, debate and discussion.

However as the overwhelmingly negative feedback on social media confirms, a 21st century chain coffee shop is not the place to have a measured discussion on a topic as sensitive and nuanced as race. As one tweet put it, “I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train.” I’d agree – as someone that absolutely refuses to give my name when ordering a coffee, being forced into talking about a difficult subject, no matter how important, with someone I don’t know is not my cup of tea. I’d say there are four reasons it feels like the wrong place for this type of communication:

1          Fit with purpose
People go into a coffee shop to get a drink, and while they may have an unprompted chat with a barista, it is more likely to be about sports or the weather than race. They aren’t necessarily in a mood to talk to anyone until they’ve had their first coffee of the day, and if they are would prefer to choose the subject themselves. And how can you have a long discussion about a complex subject in the couple of minutes it takes for your coffee to be ready?

2          Unbalanced relationship
There is also a monetary transaction involved – it doesn’t feel like an equal conversation when one person is a customer and is paying. A discussion that could be had on an equal footing outside Starbucks most definitely can’t be seen the same way within the coffee shop.

3          Training and knowledge
Baristas at Starbucks haven’t received any special training in debating, and are of course still expected to carry on doing their jobs while engaging customers in discussion. Notwithstanding the potential impact on the coffee they are making, the risk is that they are out-argued by customers on specific points, adding to the issue, rather than helping solve it.

4          Risk to reputation
As a communications professional I’d also look at the risk to Starbucks’ reputation. It is easy to be very British about Race Together and just write it off as patronising, ignoring the genuine American issue behind it, and the more open US culture of discussing your life with complete strangers. But you have to look at the slew of negative tweets and articles to see that many Americans were not impressed. Additionally, given the global nature of the brand, a campaign in the US has an impact across the world, affecting the attitudes of coffee drinkers in other countries.

Most of all it reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, where Michael Palin pays John Cleese to have an argument. It deteriorates rapidly into just contradiction and is ended by a combination of the police and some wooden mallets. I’m not suggesting that the same approach is necessary in Starbucks’ case, but it needs to focus its efforts differently if it wants to get its message across and a proper discussion started.

March 25, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should Apple Watch out?

After announcements last year, this week saw the launch of the first Apple Watches, although they won’t go on sale until 24 April. The cutely named Spring Forward event saw the tech giant reveal all 38 models, which will range in price from £299 (for the sport model) to £8,000+, depending on screen size, design and whether you want it in 18 carat gold.English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

More importantly Apple showed a selection of the apps that it expects to drive demand for the device. You can make touchless payments, receive phone calls, open a compatible hotel room door (rather than using a keycard), and remotely open an internet-connected garage door (no, I don’t have one of those either). However for a large number of functions, such as messaging, GPS tracking and making phone calls you’ll need an iPhone 5 to run alongside your new watch.

Apple is not a stupid company and has grown to be the biggest quoted business in the world by revenues through reinventing the music and smartphone markets. It hired former Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts to head up its online and physical stores, partly to help its move from technology into fashion with watches. I remember loudly proclaiming that the iPad would never catch on due its innate pointlessness, and now I rely on it every day. But I still see some serious challenges to the Apple Watch attaining critical mass. Here are four of them:

1. Price
The cost of the Sport model begins at £299, with prices for the mid-tier Watch version starting at £479. To me, this is a lot of money to spend on a watch, even one that looks as sleek as the

Apple device. And for £900+ you can buy a low-end TAG Heuer, that you know will last for a long time without needing to be upgraded as software advances. Yes, millions of people have iPhones, but the vast majority got them on subsidised deals that meant they didn’t have to fork out close to the real sales price. A better comparison is the similarly priced iPad, which has seen sales slow as the market becomes saturated over time. Therefore predictions of sales of 60 million seem excessive, with the market much more limited than that.

2. Does it do anything different?
Anyone of a certain age who saw or read Dick Tracy loves the idea of using their watch to make a call, even if it is to the office rather than for police back up. But Dick Tracy didn’t have a smartphone, which can do pretty much everything a watch can do – and more besides. And as Apple has said, you’ll need to retain your iPhone to provide many of the functions that can’t be squeezed into the watch. Admittedly the iPhone is getting bigger, making it more difficult to use for things such as contactless payments, but equally the watch could be seen as too small for many other activities.

3. A whole new market
Apple has always been known for its design excellence, and the Watch appears to be equally stunning, admittedly with a bulkier face than a traditional wristwatch. Hiring Ahrendts also points to a desire to bring in luxury marketing nous to help it move into a different sector, where factors outside technology excellence and cool apps could be more important. Can it become the fashion accessory that everyone wants? In the ultra-competitive watch market it will be difficult, though expect Apple to try to jump the chasm from geek to cool.

4. Battery life
Watch batteries traditionally last for years. In contrast iPhones provide just hours of charge, depending on how much Candy Crush you are actually playing. So the news that the Apple Watch will keep going for 18 hours is disappointing to say the least (although the company says that it will continue to show the time for up to 72 hours after that). Essentially consumers will need to charge the watch every night, plugging it in alongside their iPhone ready for the morning. It just reinforces that this is a technology product, rather than something you wear, and is bound to put some people off.

I could be as wrong about the Apple Watch as I was about the iPad, but to me, despite the hype, it won’t move beyond being a niche product for fanboys and girls who want to pair it with their latest iPhones. For me, if I had the spare cash I’d buy a TAG instead and leave technology to my phone……….

March 11, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How smart can a smartphone get?

If you needed evidence of the growth of the smartphone market and its move into every part of our lives, then this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) provides it. It wasn’t that long ago that the event was dominated by network infrastructure companies, but now it is essentially a consumer electronics show in all but name. And one that looks far beyond the handset itself. Ford launched an electric bike, Ikea announced furniture that charged your smartphone and a crowdfunded startup showed a suitcase that knows where it is and how much it weighs.

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Five years ago none of these companies would have even thought of attending MWC – and it is all down to the rise of the smartphone. It is difficult to comprehend that the first iPhone was only launched in 2007, at a time when Apple was a niche technology player. It is now worth more than any other company in the world and 2 billion people globally have an internet-connected smartphone. By 2020 analysts predict that 80% of the world’s adults will own a smartphone.

As any honest iPhone owner will freely admit, they may be sleek, but they are actually rubbish for making and receiving calls. What they do provide is two things – a truly personal computer that fits in your pocket, and access to a global network of cloud-based apps. It is the mixture of the personal and the industrial that make smartphones central to our lives. We can monitor our own vital signs, and the environment around us through fitness and health trackers and mapping apps, and at the same time access any piece of information in the world and monitor and control devices hundreds or thousands of miles away. Provided you have a signal……….

Essentially the smartphone is a universal platform that companies can build on – whether it is a disruptive taxi business (Uber) or completely new ways of dating such as Tinder and Grindr.

So, based on what is on show at MWC, what are the next steps for the smartphone? So far it seems to split into two strands – virtual reality and the Internet of Things. HTC launched a new virtual reality headset, joining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Samsung and Oculus Rift, promising a more immersive experience. Sensors to measure (and control) everything from bikes and cars to tennis racquets are also on show. The sole common denominator is that they rely on a smartphone and its connectivity to get information in and out quickly.

It is easy to look at some of the more outlandish predictions for connected technology and write them off as unlikely to make it into the mainstream. But then, back in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, there were plenty of people who thought it would never take off. The smartphone revolution will continue to take over our lives – though I’m not looking forward to navigating streets full of people wearing virtual reality headsets who think they are on the beach, rather than on their way to work…………

March 4, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Publish and be damned

The old saying is that everyone has a book in them – it is just a question of sitting down, writing it, finding a publisher, marketing and then selling it. That used to be the hard part but technology is changing this, making the whole process easier. No wonder that UK publishers released 184,000 new and revised titles in 2013 – the equivalent of 20 books an hour, which means the country published more books per inhabitant than any other nation. In the US 1.4m print books were released in 2013 – over five times as many as 2003. That figure excludes anything self-published, pushing the total up even further.

English: The second generation Amazon Kindle, ...

 

So, what is driving this growth – and what does it mean for publishers? There are essentially four ways technology is making the writing and publishing process easier:

1          Writing and editing
The platforms for editing and proofing manuscripts are now predominantly online. This makes it easier for a single editor at a publishing house to work with multiple authors, and also allows the different parts of the process to be subcontracted to copyeditors, designers and proof readers.

2          Publishing the book
The rise of ereaders like Amazon’s Kindle mean that books don’t physically need to be printed. This speeds up the publishing process as it removes the sole manual, mechanical and time consuming part of it – getting ink onto paper. Technology is also changing physical printing, with short runs a lot more feasible due to digital printing.

3          Distribution channels
The rise of ecommerce has decimated high street book shops, and has concentrated power in the hands of online retailers. Whatever the consequences for the public, this makes the job of authors easier as they can promote their book and simply direct potential buyers to Amazon. If they route them through their own website they can even collect affiliate fees. No need to keep an enormous box of books in the spare room and then laboriously pack and post each one to fulfil an order.

4          Marketing
With this increased competition from more and more new titles, the job of an author is now more about marketing than ever before. As this piece in The Economist points out, authors have to be much savvier about the different ways of promoting their tome, from gruelling book tours to ensuring that it is stocked/sold in the right stores to make particular bestseller lists. A lot of this comes down to brand – if you have built up a following and people know who you are, it gives you a headstart in shifting copies. Hence the enormous number of ghost written celebrity biographies released every Christmas and the high sales of books ‘written’ by Katie Price.

Social media gives the perfect opportunity to develop that brand, before putting pen to paper. Promotion of Ann Hawkins and Ed Goodman’s excellent New Business: Next Steps, a guide to developing your fledgling business, was helped by the community and following the authors had previously built on social media. Cambridge Marketing College (CMC) is self-publishing academic books, based on its existing reputation, large numbers of alumni and the shrinking costs of digital printing. Due to its ongoing courses, CMC knows where there are gaps in the market for textbooks, and can therefore exploit them. The key points here are that the brand and following were created first, rather than trying to launch a book and create a buzz from scratch at the same time.

The changing market also begs the question – do we need publishers anymore? After all, the costs to publish a book, either physically or digitally, are much lower than ever before. This means that publishers need to up their game, adding value across the entire process and embracing digital techniques to help find and promote authors, crowdsource ideas and use technology to push down their costs. Otherwise smaller publishers without a defined niche risk being pushed aside by well-developed brands that can use technology to find gaps, develop the right content and market it professionally. The publishing market is changing rapidly – the only sure thing is that the number of new titles will continue to rise.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Would we Like a social media election?

We’re now well into the General Election campaign and commentators are examining which media politicians are going to use with engage with voters. I’ve already talked about the debacle around the televised debates, which David Cameron is doing his best to scupper, but what of social media?

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party leader, during his visit to Oxfam headquarters in Oxford. Full version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Predictions that the last election would revolve around social media were wide of the mark, proving less like Obama’s #Yeswecan campaign and more akin to a series of embarrassing mistakes perpetrated by politicians and their aides who’d obviously never used Twitter before. This has continued with further gaffes, such as ex-shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry’s patronising tweet during the Rochester and Strood by-election that cost the Labour frontbencher her job.

However, there are already signs that social media will pay a bigger role in this election. For a start, social media is a good way of reaching the core 18-24 demographic that is currently disengaged from politics. 56% of this age group didn’t vote at the last election, so winning their support could be crucial in a contest that is currently too close to call.

We are also in an election where the core support of the traditional big two parties is being swayed by the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. So, rather than just appealing to floating voters in a certain number of swing seats, the Conservatives and Labour both need to demonstrate to their supporters that they understand their concerns and have policies to win them over. This means that they are likely to be more aggressive than in the past, judging that alienating the middle ground is a price worth paying for retaining traditional voters.

How this plays out generally will be fascinating, but what can social media provide? Early indications suggest there are six areas where it will be most used:

1. Attacking the opposition
Unlike offline or TV advertising, social media is largely unregulated. Which means you can get away with more online – for example, the Tory party is financing 30 second pre-roll “attack” ads on YouTube the content of which would be banned on TV. Given the desire to reassure core voters, expect tactics like this to be used even more as the campaign unfolds.

2. Managing the real-time news cycle
CNN brought about the 24 hour a day news cycle. Twitter has changed that to give minute-by-minute, real-time news. Stories can gain traction incredibly quickly, and fade with the same speed. Parties will therefore look to try and control (or at the very least manage) social media during the campaign, monitoring for trends that they can piggyback and starting stories of their own. And given that the media will also be monitoring what politicians are saying, expect a rash of stories with a shelf life of minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks.

3. Reaching voters
One of the most powerful parts of social media is the demographic profiling it provides advertisers with. This means that spending on advertising can be extremely targeted towards potential supporters, with little wastage. Figures obtained by the BBC show that the Tories are on course to spend over a million pounds on Facebook during the course of the election, based on current activities. Of course, reaching voters is one thing, the next step is to actively engage with them, starting conversations, listening and responding to their concerns. That takes time and skill, so expect a lot of effort to be thrown at content and conversations.

4. Monitoring voting patterns
There’s a lot of excitement about Big Data, and in particular how you can draw insights from the conversations happening on social media. Party strategists will be able to monitor what is trending on networks, and then use this feedback to evolve or change their strategies to focus on areas that are resonating with particular groups. However this sort of monitoring is still in its infancy, so results will need to be cross-checked before parties decide to do a U-turn on key policies.

5. Amplifying success
Third party endorsement is always welcome, so politicians will look to share and publicise content, such as news stories, that position them in a good light, and also encourage their supporters to do the same. This has already happened with celebrity interviews with the likes of Ant and Dec and Myleene Klass. However, as journalist Sean Hargrave points out, the Tories have a problem here – much of the right leaning media (The Sun, The Times and Daily Telegraph) are behind full or partial paywalls, making sharing difficult. In contrast the likes of The Guardian, Mirror and Independent are completely free and design content to be as shareable as possible. That just leaves the Tories with the Daily Mail……..

6. Making it bitesize
Like any modern digital campaign, the election will run on content. And to appeal to time-poor voters it will need to be carved up into bitesize chunks, such as blogs, Vines, Tweets and Facebook posts. Politicians are meant to be masters of the soundbite, so this should be just a question of transferring their offline skills to the digital world.

Social media will definitely be more of a battleground at this election, if only because more people are on Twitter, Facebook and other networks compared to 2010. Parties and politicians will look to adopt the tactics above, but with varying degrees of success. Some, such as those that have been engaging with voters for years, will do it well, but expect more gaffes from those that don’t understand the difference between a public tweet and a private direct message and decide to show the world pictures of their underwear…………or worse.

February 18, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Moving back to a medieval economy?

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum.

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My very first blog post, four and a half years ago, talked about how social media had parallels with how people worked in medieval times. Essentially as a worker you attracted business through personal recommendation – do a good job and you’d get more work. Do a bad job for the Lord of the Manor, and you could well be clapped in irons. The industrial age changed all that, with companies mass producing goods or services and the personal link disappearing from many professions. No-one knew if you’d done a good job in your cubicle –the chance to express your individuality was simply not there in a lot of sectors.

In the same way that social media is changing how we interact with companies and how they market to us, the internet is also changing how we work. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, we’re increasingly becoming a freelance-based economy, with skilled workers now available on tap to complete specific tasks, with no need to employ them full time. Figures from the Freelancers Union claim that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce do some freelance work.

The internet and smartphone apps mean a business can now find someone to do everything from research a new product to provide legal advice or consulting. Many routine tasks, even in knowledge-based businesses, can either be outsourced or digitised, so why go to the trouble and expense of employing someone to do it? And for those businesses that worry about quality, the platforms that deliver these people will have vetted them and you can read reviews from previous customers.

This is going back to the medieval model – with skilled artisans and craftspeople available to work directly for their end customers, rather than toiling in a factory or office for a regular salary. On the plus side, it delivers freedom and flexibility to those with the right skills. On the other hand, the vast majority of the medieval working population were itinerant labourers, turning up where there might be a job and hoping they’d get picked. Essentially, not much different to a modern zero hours contract, which is the flipside of the freelance economy.

There’s also multiple other challenges to address, both for freelancers themselves and the wider country. I know that as a freelance it is up to me to market myself, provide for my own retirement, sort out my work financial affairs and keep my skills up to date. If I don’t work, through illness or holiday, I don’t get paid. All of these are things that previously my employer would have provided for me as part of the contract between us. For me, that’s not too much of an issue, but for others (thinking again of zero hours contracts), what happens when they reach retirement age without private pension provision? The state will need to provide, where previously an employer did. Education will have to teach people to think in new ways, so that they can pick up skills throughout their working life, rather than training them to do the same thing for their whole career.

The other challenge is that the freelance economy needs corporate businesses in order to survive. Firstly, it is where it recruits many of its members, who’ve got their training within a large organisation and then decided to strike out on their own. Working for a large company not only provides a positive endorsement of quality on a CV but also gives access to an ecosystem of potential assignments within the company and its peers.

Secondly, freelances need larger companies (and those that work for them) as a market. Whether it is selling to organisations that have a specific skills gap or providing on-demand services to the salaried (in the US you can get everything from food, to taxis (Uber) and home cleaning at the touch of a smartphone screen).

Take away this infrastructure and you remove the market and the skills – in fact, essentially moving back to the medieval model. The main difference is now, with the internet, you don’t just have access to your village carpenter, but potentially millions of them all over the world. Like any change there will be winners and losers, but it is important to look at the negatives as well as the benefits before we fully embrace the on-demand world.

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The City and the Countryside

Forget city-based startup clusters, as, according to new government figures, the countryside is now the place to launch your business. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report points out that the rural population will grow by 6% over the next decade, with more people moving from cities to the countryside than vice versa. More businesses are starting in the countryside than in cities, and rural productivity is growing for the first time since the industrial revolution.

All very positive, leading to Environment Secretary Liz Truss to talk up the innovation within rural areas and point out that people will no longer have to commute to cities, but can work from home using newly deployed superfast broadband.

This all sounds incredibly positive, but as someone who lives (and works) in the countryside I can see four big issues that are holding back rural growth.

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Image – Peter Mooney via Flickr

 

1          Networking in a field
While there are more businesses being started outside urban areas, London is still the dominant place for startups, reflecting its position as the centre of the economy. One of the advantages that London and other cities/towns have, is a concentration of people and companies in a small space. This means that it is easy to network, partner and find suppliers to help you grow. Things are much more scattered in rural areas and it is more difficult to identify other companies. I only know about the two people in my village of 3,000 people running complementary businesses to my own because of chance meetings in the school playground. So, there needs to be more done to link rural businesses together in order to help them network.

2          Intermittent infrastructure
A lot has been made about the rollout of rural superfast broadband, and that is improving. But I still don’t have a 3G signal or decent mobile reception in my office, making it more difficult to work. Getting all communications channels right is vital if companies are going to set up and thrive in rural areas. The government has talked about addressing rural mobile “notspots” and this has to be a priority to help everyone in the countryside (not just businesses).

3          Transport by tractor
I’m obviously speaking personally about where I live but rail transport links to London are rickety and slow, while roads can be congested and prone to traffic jams. This means getting anywhere takes time – more time than it should. And, given that for a lot of businesses, including mine, you still need to get to London relatively regularly, this is a cost to doing business in the countryside.

4          Finding skills
Locating staff with the right skills to help your business grow is hard, wherever you are based. But it is much more difficult in rural areas due to the lack of networking and also that a lot of the best talent disappears off to cities and universities straight after school. That is perfectly understandable – but it does mean people don’t tend to return to the countryside until they are settling down and starting a family. This leaves a gap in the market when looking for bright, ambitious staff with some experience who are willing to learn. A lack of affordable housing doesn’t help persuade people to stay in the countryside either.

Don’t get me wrong, I love working in the countryside and contributing to a thriving rural economy. However, government needs to do more if it is to create sustainable, knowledge-based companies and that starts with investment in infrastructure, networking and skills.

January 7, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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