Saturday, December 14, 2013

Disrupting the disrupters: How good content finds its home

An extract from a speech I made at the PR Moment conference on 3 Dec:-

Recently I was reprimanded for posting the following Tweet.

It was Friday night, I was at a gig. I like the band a lot and the Union Chapel is beautiful and evocative venue and in those circumstances this translated a little more rationally perhaps than it does out outside of that context.

Even so, I didnt entirely understand the reaction to something, I was informed, was not the kind of thing I normally talk about or am associated with.

Logically Im only doing what lots of people do now, which is to extemporise moments in their lives, to an audience they may or may not know. At the same time using language and expressing emotions that are not the norm, could be seen as inauthentic or worse still pretentious rendering the message a victim of its own intent.

The latter point is crucial in some respects as any communication relies on its audience to judge the originators motivation. Was this serious? Did I mean what I was saying? Did I express it properly? In a world where sarcasm and irony are used to decontextualized commentary, how you express something is often as important as what you are trying to say.

But if the importance of social media is that it does allow us to talk about what we chose, where and when it suits us, then presumably there are going to be more interactions like the above not less. Which is course begs the question is this really a good thing?

Isnt it going to create a world of ever greater noise, where anybody can comment on anything, and where we all get lost in the welter of confusion and conflicting messages which surround every experience or idea.

I think this is not the case. In fact I think we have good evidence to show that the converse is already proving to be true.

Its not information overload. Its filter failure. Clay Shirky 

Quite simply we have to learn to deal with the abundance of information that is coming our way for no other reason that it is in our own objective interests to do so. We have to begin to curate our own needs and requirements as we cannot rely on the traditional outlets here.The press are slowly disappearing and broadcasters are increasingly struggling to deal with the problem themselves. And of course both devote much of their time and space to information generated by social media in the first place.

Unless we decide where we source our information, from, then things quickly become overwhelming. And lots of us are becoming adept at this quite quickly. Just look at how we already segment our (electronic) social-selves between various channels

According to OFCOM on average in the UK we (the average we that is) spend 35 hours a week online which for a lot of us is an entire working week. And within that expansive period, a quarter of all time is spent on just four or five Social Media sites. This is an enormous commitment of time in many peoples lives.

While the plethora of sources makes this more challenging in many ways, it also offers more diversity. Instinctively we look for those that reinforce our accepted ideas and opinions but its increasingly impossible to avoid the wider discourse and debate. If nothing else the matrix of sharing and interconnectivity opens us up to more sources, ideas, individuals and organisations, many of whom were unknown to us previously.

With both our personal and professional lives now open to these opportunities, we find ourselves increasingly taking a similar approach to both.

Individually, we fail to discriminate between the two, and we will happily use either, where it is useful or expedient to do so.

Which is great.

Unless your job involves trying to reach clients and markets as part of your companies messages and products. Because if our audience (i.e. us) are individually starting to control and curate our own information needs and only trust those which we choose to connect with - then how do those traditional models of companies identifying, targeting and tracking their targets stack up in a networked world.

In short, they dont.

Quite simply our personal adoption of disruptive technologies is, perversely, disrupting a function (marketing) which has always prided itself on being disruptive. For a long time now marketers have been warming up leads, creating communities and executing engagement strategies. Many of which are no longer credible activities because the exchange of information between individuals within any specific personal network (cohort) is regarded as more trustworthy or actionable.

If one person is recommended to do something by somebody else in their network (even if its just, read this article) then its more likely that it will happen than if compelled to do so by a random email.

It might be convenient for a large organisation to ascribe attributes to their clients and targets and call these communities but in an age where we are all bombarded with information, unless what is sent out is clearly actionable and of immediate interest to the recipient, it will be rejected and ignored.  Aggregating content into products, based on such broad assumptions, is increasingly difficult to justify in a world where information flows so freely.

In the wider social context this is not a new phenomenon. In his 1958 paper, Community and Society sociologist Ferdinand Tรถnnies, identified the shift from smaller communities, which were regarded as definable unitary entities to a more urban society comprised of fragmented networks of association or cohorts.

The crucial difference being that such associations were made through personal choice rather than external ascription, strengthening an individuals trust in their specific cohorts rather than the arbitrary groups (communities) to which it was assumed they belonged.

Which is where it all gets interesting. Businesses require structure and organisation to operate efficiently, but also to measure and tailor that efficiency. As such it makes sense for areas of knowledge and expertise to be grouped together internally, and similarly it makes sense to rationalise the marketplace into discrete areas that can be targeted through marketing, business development and sales activity.

However, there is an increasing mismatch between the structured groups used to target individuals and their view of how they wish to find, accept and consume content. As information becomes an increasingly key commodity in business decision making it is imperative that we all understand the nature of this change and operationally adapt to its processes to meet the needs of a world where information is more readily distributed through cohorts rather than to communities.

So how do we do this? The good news is that a crucial element of it is relatively straightforward. Just start creating and distributing useful content. Think of information as a utility rather than a support mechanism.

Content has become devalued partly because it has become a commodity and partly because its role is so ill-defined. Much of what we see today is borne out of the last major information revolution in the mid-to-late 1980s, when desktop publishing technology allowed organisations to emulate the processes of the mass media and produce their own print-based publications.

Companies then began aggregating multiple pieces of content together into magazine or newsletter style products aimed at so-called communities of interest. The bigger the community the more content could be packaged together, the bigger the savings in distribution. This approach is still the norm in many organisations. It also dominates thinking around the commissioning of content. However, this model no longer really works.

The internet demands content be stripped back to its core messaging and is readily available as unique components, be it a publications, white papers, videos, webcasts, podcasts etc. This is how the material is indexed, this is how it is searched and this is how it is found. But while businesses continue to bundle content together in ready-made packages the bulk of its intellectual value is lost.

And this despite the fact that engaging video and audio products are almost as easy to create, edit and distribute as print documents.

We also know that users consume content one piece at a time, and they do not necessarily know nor care about the provenance of the information as long as they trust its referring source. This is what is hurting traditional newspaper publishers. They are now competing with each other on a story by story basis and cannot rely on discounts in cover price to shore up a title.

Similarly, we can no longer rely just on our brand image, size or reach. Clients and targets may initially think of looking to organisations like ours for their information needs, but now it is easier to type a query into a search engine and find the answer to the question on your mind, then that reliance can no longer be trusted.

If the aggregation of content into a greater whole actively damages the chances of it being found and read online, particularly if you use content to distribute thinking and look for client engagement what has become known as content marketing. Our content distribution model needs to be adjusted to one which sweats every asset produced to ensure the maximum value can be extracted.

This is best done by publishing information individually, in multiple formats, via multiple channels to the widest possible audience through atomisation.

But as the user experience continues to diversify, towards video and audio, personal blogs, social networks etc the onus is going to fall on companies, to connect on their audience's our terms.

If you are investigating a question and you are pre-disposed towards watching videos rather than reading documents then youll choose a You Tube link over Wikipedia. Similarly, if you think someone in your network will know the answer to a question you may well ask them via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. As a result it is crucial that we ensure our content is as portable, mobile and sharable as is possible.

The basic challenge here is simple enough in an information rich environment how do we best reach our clients? Which brings us back to the central importance of networks.

Our established methodology still groups people together based on forms of market segmentation. But the fragmented nature of peoples roles and lives means that these ascribed groups are not necessarily understood or recognised by those in these target groups.

Finding the moment when somebody is interested in and what a company is talking about is an inexact science but if it addresses the issues on the mind of its audience, in the language they chose, and make it available where they are likely to look, then its chances of success increase exponentially.

It sounds easy because it is. But only if you understand why so many organisations find it so hard.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Content should open doors - not keep them ajar

We all love a good bit of content. We must do as we produce enough of it. Given most organisations struggle to maximise the impact of much of what they publish, I’d suggest we all produce more than is strictly desirable.

This move towards quantity is a problem on many levels. While every individual piece clearly has taken time, thought and application it doesn't always mean that the usefulness of that content has been given due consideration. Having something as a "leave behind" is an oft heard mantra - and one that is rarely challenged.

But at the same time the real point of most content is its ability to help open doors not keep them wedged open for later.

These two functions are rarely complimentary. Which is why we need to think about what we produce, what we say, how we say it and how we make it available. The classic idea of content as an inert substance that is left lying around in people's office (or desktops) is thoroughly outdated.

We should be providing information that informs not clutters. Content that doesn't help our clients to understand issues, or persuade them of something they need to be aware is rarely worthwhile. It doesn't have to always answer a question as its often more useful to ask a question to encourage collaboration.

How often does do these challenge come when planning content projects:

  • how many meetings will I get off of the back of this
  • how many clients can I share it with and follow up with a discussion
  • how can we begin collaborating around the ideas contained within it

The answer I suspect is not often.  Until we start thinking more carefully about what we produce and how we produce, content is going to be dismissed as a commodity with equally low value.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lorem ipsum mortuus est

The minority who studied Latin or the majority with access to, may wonder why I have decided to declare that paragraphs of random text are dead. The simple answer being that I cannot find a latin translation for "mocking up" which is what should really on the digital coroners slab.

In one of those handy yet ultimately fruitless moves, "mocking up" is one of the many practices that have been transitioned between the print and online environments, despite being utterly unfit for purpose.

When working in print there are a few important variables that revolve around content, design and readibility. However, in the digital environment this list expands to content, interaction, usability, accessibility, response and readibility. If we put the primacy of content to one side for a moment you are left with two quite different lists, where the former is largely down to aesthetics and the second more defined by function. In this instance a flat Photoshop document is of extremely limited use as it fails to address any issues of function which ultimately are far more important than physical design.

How something reads, works and responds when put in front of a user is not defined by design but by its architecture and build. Its why studies show that users make decisions around web page design in microseconds, as these are simply not what the mind is focussed on. Look at the web pages you use the most - are they fantastic designs or are the the most useful to you (think Google).

Which is where the problem really comes to a head. You cannot have function without content on the web. A link that doesn't go somewhere isn't a link its a dead end. A page without meaningful content that you can react to and with, is a dead loss.

In the digital environment we need to be thinking of user experience, content streams, wireframes and usability. Not flat designs and mock ups. Think of your favourite movie and then think of it again "mock up" with meaningless content. It won't be your favourite movie any more? So if you find yourself wanting a mock up of a site, an app or anything else then you are probably asking the wrong question, as it will have the opposite to the desired effect.

PS I realise the incongruity of using a latin headline on a page demanding clear content, but that is the point, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How much?

It is not that long ago that TV viewing figures used to be compiled by a selected group of viewers filling in diaries. When this was changed to being measured by actual usage, somewhat unsurprisingly, overall viewing time leapt.  It also showed that viewers were more fickle than had been recorded a wider number of channels were watched more frequently than had previously been suggested.

Rather like the teenager claiming only to have been on their Xbox for an hour when its clearly been twice that, it is not because we are inherently dishonest, but simply because we are not good at monitoring our own activity.

So it was no surprise when a recent study by Forrester Research found that in US users claimed their online usage fell by around 10% from 2011 to 2012. The reality of course is the opposite (and by a lot more than 10%). Quite simply in this case the participants in the study no longer release when they are online, as that used to involve a physical act of going to a computer and starting up a web browser.

Now (or around about now) more people are accessing online services via mobile devices hour by hour then ever before. But finding your way using Google maps, or checking the availability of a product in a stores app doesn't feel like "going online", so in some minds it doesn't count.

The result of this phenomena is that the reality of take up of new digital services is invariably far ahead of our expectations. For no reason other than the fact that we tend to extrapolate from our own experience which is invariably underplayed.
And when you really start digging into how people behave online it becomes even more interesting. We know from many sources that app viewing figures do not confirm to expected patterns either. That peak usage time is not commuting time (as expected) but between 10pm and 11pm. Not many people ever guess that. Yet no organisation has yet to really make the most of the challenge/opportunity that this presents.

Only when you take time to measure activity can you truly understand and respond to it.  Look at the numbers, not your instincts.