Revolutionary Measures

Will the FBI take a bite out of Apple?

Apple has built itself into the largest quoted company in the world by being different. From the early days of the Macintosh computer, through the iconic iMac and onto the iPod, iPad and iPhone, its products have challenged the orthodox approach with a combination of design and features.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

It has extended this into the virtual world. Unlike competitors such as Google and Facebook, which have built businesses essentially based on collecting and selling personal data to advertisers, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy. In a speech in 2015 CEO Tim Cook stated, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.

This approach extends to protecting personal information stored on Apple devices and within iCloud. All iPhones and iPads are encrypted by default, meaning that even Apple itself cannot access the data on them. This obviously gives an unprecedented layer of protection for personal data, which has been particularly welcomed after Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by intelligence services on electronic communications.

However protecting normal citizens against hackers, criminals and terrorists is one thing, but what happens when the iPhone in question actually belongs to a terrorist? This is the current case, being hotly debated in the media and on social media. Following the San Bernadino terrorist shootings last year, the FBI recovered one of the perpetrator’s iPhones. Obviously this is locked with a 4 digit passcode, and simply cycling through all possible combinations is impossible – after a number of failed tries iPhones are programmed to erase all data to combat this type of brute force attack.

Consequently, the FBI has asked Apple to help, removing the erase feature from this specific phone and allowing it to try and guess the password electronically, rather than having to type in the potential 10,000 combinations. It has refused, rejecting a court order and issuing an open letter stating that it will not ‘hack itself’ and create an insecure back door into its products that could be exploited by others.

In many ways Apple has a point – even without the Snowden revelations, governments have a poor record of keeping backdoors safe. This was demonstrated by the US Transportation Security Administration, which mandated that all luggage manufacturers created a skeleton key that could be used to open any suitcase. A photo of the master key was accidentally printed in the Washington Post, allowing criminals to model and create it using 3D printers.

At the same time, the FBI is adamant that it is not asking for access to the backdoor itself – it says it is happy for Apple to disable the erase feature itself and provide access to the data, without telling the Feds how it was done. Essentially Apple is putting itself above the law, which has potentially chilling ramifications given its size, number of users and global reach. It isn’t the plucky underdog it was when the Mac first went up against the PC.

The high profile nature of the case, and the fact that it involves a proven terrorist further complicates matters – most right-thinking people would want to help the government in this scenario. Perhaps the wisest words have come from Bill Gates, who is calling for a wider debate on the balance between privacy and accessibility, irrespective of the case in hand.

As I’ve said before, a reputation for protecting user information is a central part of the Apple brand – and is only becoming more important as the company branches into payments (Apple Pay) and personal health data. Therefore its principled stance makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view. It may well have to eventually comply in some way, but it will have lived up to its promise to fight for privacy, keeping the rest of its community happy, and consequently protected its brand. However what the whole case shows is that we need a grown-up, rational debate about who has access to our personal data, under what circumstances and how they can access it.

February 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Google, tax and PR – do no evil?

On the PR side it has been a busy couple of weeks for Google. Firstly, it casually announced at Davos that it had agreed to pay £130m for ten years of UK corporate taxes, although obviously without any admission of guilt. Cue a storm of protest that this was nowhere near enough for a business that reputedly made £7.2 billion of profits over that period, essentially meaning it paid 3% corporation tax. Much of the vitriol came from other media companies, particularly newspapers, that have seen their own advertising revenues decimated by the search advertising giant.

Google Quick Search Box

Then earlier this week Alphabet, Google’s holding company, became the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, helped by strong financial results and worries about previous number one Apple’s future growth prospects.

Given the closeness of these two events, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that ethically debatable behaviour leads directly to outstanding corporate success. But has it actually made any difference to Google’s reputation in the UK? I’d argue that overall it hasn’t affected its business in any way, for three main reasons:

1.The public doesn’t buy from Google
For the majority of people Google is a utility – providing them with the ability to browse or search the internet, watch videos, manage emails and documents or run their mobile phones, without charging them a penny directly. What people don’t understand is that the price of this free stuff is that they become the product – Google has built its very lucrative business on selling this data on our activities and preferences to advertisers. In contrast Starbucks, another perceived tax avoider, sells physical products direct to the public, giving consumers a vested interest in seeing the right levels of tax paid out.

2.Google does no evil
It will probably surprise a lot of people that Google is as enormous as it actually is. From its beginnings it has cultivated a laid-back, anti-establishment brand, epitomised by its corporate slogan “Do no evil” and heavy investment in moonshot projects such as self-driving cars and research into cures for cancer. Despite its growth, it is still seen as a Silicon Valley upstart successfully battling the likes of Microsoft (search, browsers, productivity applications, operating systems) and Apple (with Android).

3.Is there an alternative?
Obviously you can use different search/email/operating system providers, including those that make it clear that they won’t either track your online behaviour or use it to target adverts based on your browsing. But how many people actually make the effort to go out and switch, particularly when Google makes it so easy to just carry on using its services. The figures speak for themselves – it has nearly 86% of the UK search market, which hasn’t changed much since the first mention of its tax affairs.

So, while as a PR person I agree that it has handled the whole tax situation badly by trying to claim that it is doing the right thing when its activities are ethically dubious at best, I don’t think it will have a major impact on the corporate brand. This is echoed by an (admittedly small) poll in PR Week, where 51% of PR professionals said it would leave its reputation unchanged – and 11% thought the tax settlement would improve the brand.

However, where it may cause issues, is by attracting further attention from regulators at the European Union, which have previously shown that they have more teeth when dealing with tech giants than national governments. Time will tell, but with the media already setting its sights on Facebook for potential even larger tax avoidance, I think Google will feel that the £130 million it spent is worth every penny.

February 3, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What follows Twitter?

The press and Twittersphere have been in tumult this week concerning the unexpected departure of five key senior managers from the microblogging site. Shares fell by nearly 5% as investors worried about the company’s strategy for growth, while CEO Jack Dorsey was forced to take to the social network to reassure the world that the departures wouldn’t overly impact Twitter.

English: Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, co-founder...

Given that user figures stubbornly fail to increase beyond 300 million, and that the share price has dropped by 67% since last April, the executive exodus is seen as symptomatic of wider issues – particularly an inability to make money on the scale of rival Facebook. Bold ideas trumpeted to revive the network include extending the lengths of tweets from 140 to 10,000 characters, but it doesn’t seem clear how this will increase revenues. In a month that saw social media pioneer Friends Reunited finally close, is it possible that Twitter will eventually go the same way?

Twitter does have a number of problems – many of which revolve around the original structure of 140 character messages, all displayed in real-time. It is easy to meet messages of interest given the sheer volume of content on the site and the user experience is not as immediately friendly as the likes of Facebook (which has also done a much better job of collecting and monetising data on its users and their habits.) When I was in Singapore last year I was told that no-one really used Twitter as they didn’t see the point, and it is true that in the UK and US much of network’s high profile comes from its use by commentators, journalists, experts, and Donald Trump.

So, is Twitter doomed, and if so what will take its place? First off, it does seem strange suggesting that a business with 300 million users is on its last legs, but we live in a world governed by network effect and the likes of Facebook have much larger user bases. And of course, none of the 300m is paying to use the service. Twitter seems like a network that doesn’t have a clear purpose – people tend to use Facebook for personal social contact, and LinkedIn for business. Both of these have bulked up their offerings, with Facebook pitching itself as a channel for customer service, with Facebook Business on Messenger, and LinkedIn’s ability to write and share blog style content providing a channel for business insight. Essentially Twitter is being squeezed, and for many people has become just a signposting tool, pointing to content hosted elsewhere. I tweet all my blogs, and it provides a steady stream of traffic to my posts – although not as many as LinkedIn.

However, I do think Twitter has a role to play – but it needs to be simplified, made more user friendly and above all clearly monetized. Which brings me to a potential suitor/solution for the service – Google. There are three reasons for suggesting it would be a good fit:

  • Google is a master at collecting user data and turning it into a saleable commodity. You may hate the fact that it knows so much about you, but it has built an enormous business on its stated aim of collecting all the world’s information
  • Despite its relatively friendly and sensible design Google +, its own social network, has failed to gain any traction, and merging the two will bring the best of both worlds together. There are allegedly 500m Google + users, mainly because registering for other services automatically adds you to the network, providing a ready market for Twitter – and that’s before you start looking at the hundreds of millions that use Google search or YouTube.
  • Other tech companies, such as Facebook, Amazon and Chinese rivals Baidu and Tencent are offering more and more services. Google therefore risks being left behind in the long term as consumers choose to spend more of their online time with fewer providers.

So there is logic behind a deal – though I’m not sure what the new entity would be called. Gitter or Twittle anyone?

 

January 27, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How my consultancy is bigger than Facebook UK – and that’s a bad thing

 

I’ve been in business for five years now, and things are going well. I’ve seen revenues for my PR agency grow every year, thanks to loyal clients and (if I say so myself) some wonderful work. Yet it was only when I saw how much corporation tax Facebook paid last year in the UK, that I realised exactly how well I was doing. Comparing our two tax bills, I’ve paid considerably more than the £4,327 Facebook shelled out in 2014. Therefore it stands to reason I must have made much more money than the social network, even if globally its profits were $2.9 billion. Its UK business must just be lagging behind the rest of operations – after all very few people use Facebook in this country.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Obviously this isn’t the case, and like companies from Starbucks to Google, Facebook has engineered its operations to minimise its tax bill. As a businessman myself I can understand this – but what I can’t understand is that it doesn’t take into account the reputational damage that results. After all, company filings are public documents that anyone can access, and there are enough people out there who know how to read a balance sheet and can therefore spot holes in a company’s story without needing to spend too much time investigating.

I even felt sorry for the poor PR spokesperson delegated to read out the anodyne statement that Facebook was compliant with UK law, and all staff paid income tax (how gracious!). Then I realised that the spokesperson was one of the 362 people that shared the £35.4m in bonuses that pushed Facebook’s corporation tax bill down so close to zero, and any sympathy evaporated.

On one hand companies talk about how important their brand, and brand values, are to their success, yet cheerfully spend their time undermining these very same values from within. Why? I think much of this comes from a fundamental disconnect between senior management and those responsible for public relations or brand reputation. They aren’t involved in senior-level decision making, meaning that no-one is pointing out the potential pitfalls of being seen as a poor corporate citizen. In an age of consumer power, the lack of a check on potential corporate skulduggery can prove fatal to a brand.

Ever since I’ve been in public relations, which is over 20 years, there have been calls for PR to have a seat on the board and to be more involved in setting strategy, rather than just delivering it. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Partly it comes down to PR’s own reputation, with the discipline seen as more Ab Fab than strategic, and limited in what it can achieve. The rise of digital and the increase in the importance of corporate reputation should have changed that, but my impression is that the overwhelming number of FTSE 100 companies still don’t have or seek senior level PR counsel until too late in the process.

It is therefore time for PR people to take a step up and build the business understanding that they need to communicate with other senior management. Talk their language, link campaigns and messages to business goals and objectives, and if necessary, scare the bejesus out of people by explaining the financial (and even judicial) consequences of not thinking through decisions or ignoring dubious practices. While Facebook’s tax policies haven’t hit its share price, just look at Volkswagen’s financial woes for an illustration of what happens when you cover up bad behaviour. Despite its US head admitting he was briefed on how the car maker could fool emissions tests in spring 2014, nothing was done to remedy the problem or to come clean.

Looking at the PR implications of business decisions shouldn’t just be limited to big companies with expensive communications departments. Every company has the potential to be caught out if it transgresses the brand values that it trumpets to the world. So whether you are an international social network or a local plumber, think through the PR consequences of your strategy, before you implement it, if you want to avoid potential long-lasting reputational damage.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Facebook take over the world?

 

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Last week Facebook announced that on Monday 24th August 1 billion people logged into the social network. That’s 15% (almost one in seven) of the world’s population using Facebook in a 24 hour period. And given that over half of the globe still isn’t online, the percentage of actual versus potential users is actually much higher – closer to 33% of the 3.195 billion internet users.

The announcement begs three big questions:

1.Is it a good thing?
It is difficult to find a parallel in history for a single entity being used by so many people across the world. There have been monopolies in the past of course, particularly in telecoms before deregulation, but these operated at a country level, and you didn’t have a choice. You wanted to make a phone call and you had to use BT or AT&T. When it comes to control over how people communicate the only example that comes to mind is organised religion, such as the pre-Reformation Catholic Church where all of Europe was subservient to the Pope. As yet, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t branded any Twitter users as heretics, for which we should obviously be grateful.

Critics will argue that having one company central to how we communicate with friends and family, find our news and even shop is a bad thing. On the other hand, Facebook fans will point out that you have a choice – other social networks are available and the past is littered with previously successful companies (such as MySpace) that failed to evolve. This does ignore the impact of the network effect – as more and more people are on Facebook, it becomes increasingly necessary to be on there if you don’t want to miss out. Technically it is very easy for anyone to create a new social network, what is difficult is enticing enough people to join to make it necessary for their friends to also jump aboard.

What is definitely true is that Facebook, like other international online giants, does need to scrutiny that matches its power and reach. I’m not talking about regulation per se, but any organisation that has Facebook’s combination of personal demographic data and ability to analyse it on a grand scale has to meet the highest standards of behaviour.

2.What about the other 85%?
The obvious point that many people have made is that if 1 billion people were on Facebook on a single day, the remainder of the world (85% in fact), were doing something different. As we’ve seen, Facebook has captured a large percentage of the online population, which is why the company’s efforts are being put into increasing the number of people with access to the internet in some form. Its main vehicle for getting people online is Internet.org, which provides free basic internet services in areas where it is either non-existent or unaffordable. Some of the ways Internet.org is looking to extend coverage include high altitude planes beaming a signal to a particular area, lasers and satellite technologies. However Internet.org has attracted criticism for only providing access to a walled garden of services, including (surprise surprise) Facebook itself.

Clearly if Facebook is to grow it is easier to expand the pie of internet users and reach the currently unconnected, rather than target the refuseniks in countries where it already enjoys high penetration rates. Expect more efforts to extend internet access – probably not just within developing countries but also within ‘notspots’ inside existing markets, thereby encouraging people to use the service even more.

3.Where next for Facebook?
Facebook has already overcome two major hurdles that have defeated its rivals. It has successfully transitioned to a mobile-first world (87% of access is from mobile devices), and is generating growing profits. As well as extending its reach to new victims (sorry, consumers), it also needs to increase engagement – i.e. ensure people still log on and use the service, and do it more often and for longer. The big bet that Zuckerberg has made here is on virtual reality, with the $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR expected to spawn headsets that deepen the experience of using Facebook and interacting with your friends. This, for me, is where things start to get more than a little creepy – if people are addicted to Facebook now, just imagine the time they’ll spend online if they can essentially experience reality without leaving their screen. Plus, with the current size and design of headsets, everyone will look like they are part of Daft Punk.

So, to answer my three questions, I’d say we should be wary about Facebook’s might, keep an eye on its efforts to reach the other 85% to ensure there is a level playing field when it comes to access, and be sceptical about the advantages virtual reality can actually bring us. After all, you could just pick up the phone and talk or, heaven forbid, chat to someone down the pub……

September 2, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Football crazy? Can clubs control the media?

The new football season is already nearly a month old, and while action on the pitch is taking centre stage, how fans get information about their team is also becoming a hot topic for debate. Several clubs, such as Swindon and Newcastle, have banned certain newspapers from attending their press conferences or talking to their managers and players. The reason? They prefer to communicate direct with fans through club websites, newsfeeds, social media, apps or even in-house TV channels. Scottish club Rangers has even banned particular journalists due to not liking the articles they’ve written about the club’s governance or finances.

Polish Football Fans 001

In a way this approach simply fits with the ability of the internet to remove middlemen (in this case the media) and to connect brands directly with their audiences. However it also sets a dangerous precedent – with coverage reduced to happy soundbites stage managed by the club’s PR team. The decline of newspaper and magazine staff numbers has tipped the balance in favour of big brands, with many journalists now using their skills to publicise companies and PR agencies. Football teams are not the only brands aiming to do this, using the distribution mechanisms of the internet and social media to get their message out unfettered by the critical filter of the press.

As a PR person I can see the initial attraction in this – after all, what marketing manager doesn’t want guaranteed 100% positive coverage? But it isn’t sustainable. One of the reasons for the rise of PR was that an independent article in a newspaper or an interview on the radio was more believable, and therefore worth more than an advert. While the internet has blurred the lines, I’m convinced people still react best to coverage that delves deeper than a press officer’s prepared statement. Football is the perfect case in point – fans may love their club, but be intensely suspicious of the owners, board, manager or particular players. Take the frequent demonstrations at matches and the vitriol directed at players on social media. Therefore simply providing bland statements of how the new centre forward is looking forward to the season ahead and how wonderful the training facilities are, is not going to keep true fans interested or happy. At the same time social media, while providing a channel for brands, also actively undermines them by making it easy and fast to share unofficial information. This could come from anywhere – a disaffected (or unthinking) player, a taxi driver that overheard a conversation or a barman that saw that same new centre forward slumped over his pint the night before his debut.

What brands (of all sizes) need to realise is that you need three different types of content (paid, earned and owned) to build your profile. There is paid media, essentially advertising and sponsorship, where it is normally clear that money has changed hands. Earned content is when a third party (which could be a publication or simply a fan on social media) shares or publicises your messages. Finally, owned media are the channels you control – from in-house TV channels to websites and Twitter feeds.

Successful brands combine all three of these in a cohesive way that builds engagement. Fans will want to the chance to interact directly with you and get information straight from the horse’s mouth, but at the same time they want independent verification through trusted third parties such as the press and the backing of their peers through social networks. And these same social networks provide the platform for independent fans and commentators to create and share their own content, outside the club’s control. Therefore the football clubs that have succumbed to the beguiling fantasy of controlling the news should take a step back and look at organisations and countries such as Soviet Russia that have relied on propaganda. Citizens stop believing in the news they read and before too long even the most rigid states begin to show cracks and eventually collapse.

August 19, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are startups solving the right problems?

 

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to launch a startup in the UK. The public profile of the tech industry is incredibly high, and those that create businesses are more likely to be seen as visionary entrepreneurs than cranks who couldn’t get a job in a proper company. Indeed, for those leaving university, setting up your own startup is a valid (if not as initially lucrative) alternative to becoming an accountant, banker or lawyer. I’m sure startups would complain that it is still difficult to raise money, or scale up their businesses, but it feels that there is now wide public and political acceptance of the importance of creating a culture that encourages startups.

Relief map of Europe and surrounding regions

Read the press and politicians’ speeches and there seems to be a relentless search to find the ‘European Google’ or ‘British Facebook’, multibillion dollar global companies that can become standard bearers for the industry. Alternatively, other European companies essentially mimic what is being done in the US, taking their business models, localising them and then hoping that first mover advantage will let them create viable businesses before the original enters the market.

The people that run startups are smart, as are the venture capital funds that back them. But are they looking in the right areas when it comes to creating new businesses – as an article by Liam Boogar in Rude Baguette recently asked “Where are the European startups to solve Europe’s biggest problems?” Leaving aside the question of whether Europe is cohesive enough that the same problems apply to life in Edinburgh, Athens and Bucharest, it is a valid point. What issues can be solved, first in Europe, and then expanded globally, to create thriving companies that benefit us all?

The article focuses on the need to shake-up the savings market, and with interest rates in many countries close to (or even below) 0% I can see the opportunity to transform the sector, such as through peer-to-peer lending.

However, what other areas would enable European startups to build global businesses? Thinking about the particular problems Europe faces, here are four that come to mind:

1. Healthcare
Across Europe, people are living longer and birth rates are falling. Longer lifespans increase pressure on health and social care services, as the elderly battle chronic diseases and poor health. While this isn’t just a European problem, it is one that startups can focus on, particularly given the public money currently being spent on healthcare research. Areas such as wearable monitors and the Internet of Things can potentially help improve the quality of care, even allowing people to remain in their own homes, rather than be treated in hospital.

2. Transport
From driverless cars to drones, technology is revolutionising transport. With its combination of major car and aeroplane makers, Europe is well-positioned to lead the way, but it needs an injection of startup energy and fresh thinking to succeed. Whether it is new ways of charging electric vehicles as they wait at traffic lights or smarter cities where you are automatically guided to the nearest parking space, there is plenty of scope for innovation, along with the chance to scale up to export the technology across the globe.

3. Employment
More than 6 million jobs were lost in the recession between 2008-13, and youth unemployment in many countries remains high. Many of the roles that were made redundant are simply not coming back as they have either been offshored to lower wage economies or replaced by technology. What are needed are ways to reskill European jobseekers so that they can compete in the global market. Much of this should be the responsibility of governments, but technology can help with new ways of training, new opportunities for collaboration and the encouragement of remote working to combat rural depopulation.

4. Cutting bureaucracy
All governments, of whatever political persuasion, seem to delight in creating red tape that tangles up citizens and businesses alike. And, despite the European Union, there is still a range of different measures that need to be met. Many countries have begun to put their services online, but more can be done, and in many cases nimble startups can get things done quicker than lumbering government departments.

I’m sure there are plenty more European problems that need solving, from the environment to education. These don’t just benefit society, but are potentially extremely lucrative as well. So the challenge for startups and entrepreneurs is to try and solve them – and at the same time we might create the European Googles that politicians are so keen on.

August 5, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

War moves online

Most people know that the funding for the prototype of the internet (Arpanet) came from an agency within the US Department of Defense, and that one of the reasons for the decentralised nature of the network was to make it more robust in case of physical attack during wartime.

Therefore it is ironic that the underlying internet infrastructure is used as a platform for new kinds of attack, from cyber warfare by individual states and as a way of disseminating propaganda by terrorist organisations such as IS.

Of course, governments and terrorists have always aimed to use communication channels to get their messages across. Hence censorship in times of war, and even reporting restrictions during peacetime – I remember the ban on members of Sinn Fein (and other Irish republican and loyalist groups) from speaking on TV in the 1980s and 1990s.

anonymous

Photo David Shankbone via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/ao6MNZ

The internet, and more particularly social media, has opened up completely new ways of reaching audiences, and groups such as IS have been particularly strong at using these sort of channels. One study claimed that IS and its sympathisers controlled 90,000 Twitter accounts for example. Governments have tried to fight back, but the combination of the size and global spread of the internet and the difficulty of pinpointing specific individuals has made their job more difficult. The latest measures, recently announced by David Cameron, include ensuring that ISPs do more to remove extremist material and identify those that post it. However in a fast-moving world, the concern is that it is impossible for governments to move fast enough – as well as worries about the impact on free speech.

Some people are therefore taking action independently. Hacktivist group Anonymous is targeting alleged IS supporters online, recently publishing a list of over 750 Twitter accounts that it claims are spreading IS propaganda. It is also trying to take down Facebook pages, blogs and websites used by supposed supporters of the group. To try and influence search engine results it is flooding some Twitter accounts with images of Japanese anime character ISIS-Chan, making it more difficult for those looking for information from IS to find it.

I must admit that the attacks by Anonymous leave me in two minds. On one hand, anything that reduces the online footprint of a group that advocates cold-blooded killing of those that it disagrees with, can only be a good thing. But at the same time Anonymous is setting itself up as judge and jury – there is no right of appeal if someone innocent is targeted in error. It feels very much like the justice of the Wild West, perhaps because that is what many parts of the internet have become. For example, other groups linked to Anonymous recently took down the website of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, after one of its officers shot and killed a protester, an action that could have hampered the ability of the public to find out information or potentially report incidents.

I’m sure Anonymous is confident in the information it is working with, and when it comes to IS its mission is laudable in many ways, and seems to be getting some results. But surely it is something that a combination of social networks and the authorities should be leading on? The real issue is that the majority of those with the technical skills to hack perceived wrongdoers don’t want to play by the rules – they’d much rather operate outside the law, rather than as part of it. The challenge for governments is therefore not only to persuade the online population of the dangers of IS, but to enlist the help of hackers to work with them more officially if they want to use their skills for good. That won’t be easy, but is vital if there is going to be a united front when it comes to the online War on Terror.

July 22, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The battle for banking – Amazon enters the fray

In a previous post I talked about how the big four internet companies Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) had quickly developed their businesses. They’ve all moved beyond the sector they started in, extending what they offer to compete with each other in areas such as ecommerce, social networks, mobile devices and mapping.amazon_logo_wb_2328

How have they done this? They’ve used the four strengths that they each possess:

1. Agility
With the exception of Apple, GAFA was born on the internet meaning they aren’t burdened with long-established corporate structures compared to their traditional rivals. So they can make decisions quickly, unhindered by the warring departments and turf wars that characterise first and second generation technology companies.

2. Data
Rather than purely physical assets, GAFA’s USP is data and what it does with it. From selling our search histories to monetising our personal pages, the four companies have built up extremely detailed pictures of their users and their lives. This allows them to accurately predict future behaviour – how many times have you bought something suggested by Amazon even though you had no idea it existed until the recommendation popped into your inbox? The advent of even cheaper machine learning and potentially limitless cloud-based resources to crunch data means that this is understanding is only going to get more precise.

3. Focus on the customer experience
Even though the majority of interactions don’t offer the personal touch of a bricks and mortar shop, these companies have gone out of their way to create a simple to use customer experience. Compare the Apple iPhone to previous ‘smartphones’ – the only difficulty for users was unlearning the convoluted way you had to access information on Microsoft or Nokia devices. I know, I had one of the first Windows phones – the user experience was terrible. Innovations such as one click ordering, reviews and simple sharing all mark out internet companies from their rival.

4. Scale
The final differentiator is scale – and the speed at which it is possible to grow on the internet. Rather than taking 20 years to become dominant in an existing market, companies can create a sector of their own and expand globally within months. Part of this is down to the network effect, but scale has also been achieved by moving into adjacent markets and just adding them onto the offering for existing users. This lowers the cost of entry for the company with the user base and creates a barrier to entry to rivals.

Taking these four factors into account, banks should be worried about Amazon’s latest move as it builds on all four of these strengths. Amazon Lending will make loans to small businesses in the UK that sell through the company’s Marketplace platform, after the service was successfully launched in the US. The beauty of the scheme is that Amazon knows exactly how the small business is performing as it can track their sales, and then use this data to offer selected companies short term working capital to improve their business. As it handles all the billing and cash collection for Marketplace sellers it can even take repayments directly from their profits, before they it pays them, minimising risk.

Adding to this data advantage, it is also offering the same simple to use customer experience that sellers are already familiar with. Compared to faceless or unhelpful banks, this is just the sort of thing that expanding small businesses are looking for.

The ironic thing is that, on the face of it, there is nothing to stop banks offering something similar. Their merchant services arms handle online and offline debit and credit card transactions, so they have access to data that could be used to work out creditworthiness. They have a network of branches to provide loans through, as well as a significant online presence. But all of these are separate departments and banks don’t have the agility to bridge the silos and provide the one stop shop that businesses are looking for.

In the same way that Apple Pay is disrupting payment services, Amazon Lending will take another bite out of the traditional business of big banks. And, as more and more of such services launch that nibble away at banking profits, then they face being outmanoeuvred by nimbler, more customer-focused and cleverer competitors. It is therefore time for retail and business banks to get joined-up or face becoming low margin commodity businesses in the future.

July 1, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apple: Do no evil?

English: Apple. Polski: Jabłko.

The technology world, outside China, is increasingly dominated by four companies – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. They’ve even spawned their own, rather ugly collective acronym – GAFA. What’s interesting is that while all four have started from different places in the technology ecosystem they are now competing with each other in areas as diverse as smartphones and mobile devices (Android vs iPhone/iPad vs Kindle/Fire), mapping, and retail (especially music).

But the biggest – and most lucrative – battleground is digital advertising. Both Google and Facebook are using the huge amount of information they know about their users, whether through searches or their social media profiles, to target adverts so that they are more personalised and therefore more effective. In a less creepy way, Amazon analyses what you’ve already bought and suggests potential new purchases.

This reliance on consumer data, has led to issues, with users complaining about their privacy being invaded for example. Others have pointed out that with ‘free’ services like Facebook, the consumer becomes the product, with their data effectively paying for the access they receive.

Up until now GAFA have been pretty united in their use of consumer data and attitudes to privacy. This has now changed spectacularly with Apple CEO, Tim Cook, launching a blistering attack on his rivals, stating that “I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information.”

If that wasn’t direct enough an attack on Google and Facebook, he added, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose.”

Before we hail Cook as a white knight of the IT industry, it is worth bearing in mind four facts:

  1. Apple has complex privacy policies just like the rest of GAFA
  2. Advertising is key to a large number of the apps within the AppStore
  3. Currently the default search engine in Apple devices is Google, so the company indirectly benefits from “selling off your search history”
  4. He was speaking to EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event, where he was honoured for corporate leadership – so he was hardly likely to speak positively about data-driven rivals.

Putting cynicism aside, there are two other reasons for Apple to embrace privacy and break from other members of the GAFA pack. Firstly, it made a profit of $13.6 billion in its most recent quarter, so it doesn’t really need to upset its more upmarket customers by selling their data for a (relative) pittance.

Secondly, and more importantly, Apple is now moving into new areas where security and privacy are everything – payments (with Apple Pay) and health (with a new ecosystem focused on wearables and sensors). Both of these are based on the most personal of personal data, where a single misstep would destroy consumer trust and essentially stop expansion in its tracks. It might even harm the overall Apple brand.

So Cook (and the rest of Apple’s strategists) have made a choice. They believe that people are happy to pay more for premium iOS products, on the understanding that their personal data will not be abused. It is in stark contrast to Google’s focus on mass market, cheap or free products where consumers pay by giving up control of their information. As the battle within GAFA rages, it will be interesting to see which side comes out on top in both the PR and sales wars.

June 17, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers