Why SEO Companies May Seriously Damage PR Agencies

SEO PRDigital media has long been both an opportunity and a threat to the public relations industry. For a long time it was touted that digital marketers were going to steal PR’s lunch. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it is, in fact, SEO agencies that are nicking food from PR’s plate while it’s looking the other way.

It should come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone working in marketing communications that PR and SEO are converging. It’s been happening at least since Google introduced the Panda search algorithm update in 2011, realistically since long before then.

Panda was four years ago. So why hasn’t the public relations industry taken the threat from SEO seriously? And could it be costly?

I’ve recently been speaking to a couple of very successful SEO agencies with regard to helping them integrate social media and PR more effectively into their technical teams. And it’s my firm belief that the SEO industry is now the single greatest threat to public relations.

PR needs to wake up and see this for the battle it is or suffer the consequences. Let’s consider why.

Why SEO is diversifying into PR

Around the time that Google introduced the Penguin update in 2012, old SEO tactics stopped working. Penguin penalises websites that use ‘black hat’ techniques to artificially increase the ranking of a webpage by manipulating the number of links pointing to the page. When Penguin hit, the SEO industry had to adapt. Fast.

And adapt it did. Or at least, adapt the good agencies did. And if you follow the breadcrumbs it’s not difficult to see why they set their sights on PR.

A couple of years ago, SEO switched its focus from high volumes of low quality links to high quality links relevant to specific search terms. But high quality links are much harder to achieve. They typically come from sites that feature high quality content. High quality content means editorial. And editorial means PR.

The SEO companies I’ve spoken to are making a conscious and determined effort to diversify away from traditional ‘technical SEO’ in the same way that PR agencies are moving away from traditional ‘media relations’ (or should be). The two are colliding in the area of content marketing and ‘storytelling’.

SEOs have realised what PRs have known for a long time; that the ability to tell a great story is extremely powerful. So they’re embracing the concept of gaining quality links by developing and pitching stories to the media and to influencers. And they’re approaching this in a far more methodic and process-driven manner than I’ve witnessed in any PR agency.

To call it clinical may be too harsh, but an SEO’s approach to identifying potential targets is much more rigorous than a PR’s. SEOs are used to using technology to do their jobs and more readily adopt and utilise software tools to help them with things like influencer outreach. PRs, well…don’t (in my experience).

Can PR offer anything that SEO can’t?

What PR people have always been great at, and still are, is building beneficial long-term relationships with journalists and bloggers. In line with their process-driven mindset, SEOs tend to take a short-term view of outreach: get the editorial and link, and move on to the next ‘target’.

This rather cold approach only goes so far, and SEO agencies are finding outreach tougher as bloggers and influencers wise up to understanding their own value and expect recompense for their time, effort and influence.

PRs know how to frame a story and how to pitch that story to a journalist in such a way that the chance of it being picked up is greater than if an SEO were to do the same job. And the relationships they’ve built over time play a major role in that.

That said, however, SEO companies are starting to address this weakness too.

Some are employing communications specialists and social media professionals, or contracting people like me, to help them evolve into more rounded service providers.

And here’s what makes the SEO threat so compelling: it’s easier for an SEO agency to extend its services into social media and communications than it is for a PR agency to extend into technical SEO and digital content creation.

Why is public relations so reticent about SEO?

SEO scares PR people. Fact.

It involves coding and analytics and things like domain authority and meta-data and other things that PR people just don’t understand. And as a result, the bosses of PR agencies don’t know where to turn and so bury their heads in the sand about it.

How many of the top 150 PR consultancies do you think employ at least one technical specialist, or are planning on doing so in the next six months? My guess would be about 10%. Probably fewer.

And yet, if they haven’t already, SEO agencies are making moves to bring in communications specialists right now.

PR is resistant to change. We know that already. But when you consider that SEO is an industry built on change, even before the likes of Panda and Penguin, the threat is all the more serious.

PR’s failure to adapt to data and technology isn’t news. SEO’s systematic and targeted methodology to take a large slice of the PR pie is.

The threat is real and it is now. React or die.

5 Compelling Reasons I Ditched Spotify and You Should Too

spotify v google play musicI love Spotify. I’ve been a huge fan and a big user since it launched in the UK way back in 2009. I thought the updates the service made in late 2013 saw it take a big leap forward in terms of usability, and brought it closer to being a true music library. And yet…it’s not.

A couple of months back I finally took the plunge to digitise my entire CD library. But after many hours spent ripping 400 albums, I needed a home for them; a place where that music wouldn’t just sit idly on a hard drive in the way it had sat idly in boxes for the last few years.

I wanted to rediscover my music collection.

Spotify, for all its streaming beauty, doesn’t enable that. iTunes does, but it doesn’t cater for those who like streaming their music (yet). So I set about looking for a solution that would not only allow me to store and listen to my old stuff, but to discover and stream new stuff. All in one place. If something like that actually existed.

As it turns out, Google Play Music does it all and more. And after a free 30 day trial, I had no hesitation whatsoever in closing my Spotify Premium account in favour of the Google option. Here’s why:

1. Stream, upload, buy and discover

The major benefit of Google Play over Spotify is that you can upload your own music. So if you own a big (or small) library that you’ve collected over the years that you don’t want to just throw away, it provides a space not only to store that music, (it’ll store up to an amazing 50,000 songs in the Cloud) but also to play it from using any device (the mobile app is excellent, and you can play music offline if there’s no internet connection in the same way that you can with Spotify Premium).

But added to that, you can stream music (Play and Spotify both have approximately 30 million songs available), buy music (just like iTunes), discover new songs and artists, get recommendations personalised to your taste, create playlists and listen to ‘radio stations’ formed around artists you like.

Google Play does everything you can do with Spotify and iTunes, but all in one place.

2. User interface

If there’s one thing Google does well, it’s UX. Play has Google stamped all over it, as you’d expect, with a crisp, uncluttered, simple and easy to use interface. Take a look at the screenshots below (taken from the android mobile apps).

spotify v google play artists

When Spotify (left) first introduced it’s new redesign, I really liked it. I still do, to an extent. But it pales in comparison to the Google Play design (right), which is not only easier on the eye and better to navigate on a mobile device, but which also makes scanning through artists, albums or songs much, much quicker.

Which works better for you?

3. True library

Take a look at this screenshot of albums from the desktop version of Google Play. Can you see which of these I’ve uploaded from my CD collection, which I’ve purchased as a download and which I don’t own but have saved as a streaming file? (Click the image to see it larger.)

Google Play Music albums

No? Precisely. When I scan through my music collection, I don’t care what the source file is, I just want to listen to those songs.

The idea of integrating every type of file quite simply works superbly.

4. Search by genre

You know when you’re on Spotify and you’re not sure what you want to listen to? Frustrating isn’t it? 30 million songs; nothing to listen to.

Google Play has addressed this very effectively with ‘genre search’. Aligned with the more effective user interface, you can scan your entire library by genre and select an album or song(s) from within that.

If I’m in the mood for a bit of indie, I just click on genres, select ‘indie’, and I can then listen to any album within that genre or play a random selection of all of the songs within it on shuffle.

Google Play makes music discovery easy, and that is a huge plus point.

5. Customisation

So you’ve uploaded all your old music, you’ve imported all the music you’ve downloaded and you’ve saved other stuff that you’re going to stream into your library. Wouldn’t it be great if you could organise the entire library how you liked, not with the tags that the publisher insists upon? Oh wait…you can.

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate the way that genre tagging works when you download (or upload) any music. I want the music in my library to be easily accessible according to a dozen genres that make sense to me, not fifty bizarre sub-genres each with only five albums in (1970s folk alternative jazz blues rock, anyone?).

In Google Play you can customise everything. You can change the genre an album or song is listed under, you can alter the name of the album (if it’s preset with ‘2014 Deluxe Edition featuring 2 new songs’, or something equally annoying) and you change the album cover from the one the download says it should be to the one you recognise.

This is an awesome feature, believe me. Below is the way I’ve organised my library.

Google Play Music genre search

Twelve genres some of which I’ve made up, like ‘Mainstream’ (which to me means stuff like U2 and Crowded House that’s not ‘pop’ but nor is it what I’d call ‘rock’) and ‘Recent’ (which is stuff that I’ve added recently and so might be listening to more at the moment).

So there you go. Five pretty solid reasons why I’ve given Spotify the elbow despite loving it.

Give Google Play Music a try and you’ll do the same. It’s free for 30 days (and then the same price as Spotify Premium) so you’ve got nothing to lose really. Let me know how you get on.

Lessons on Best Practice Facebook Post Boosting

Lessons on Best Practice Facebook Post BoostingFacebook post boosting is considered to be good value, but if you’re looking for tips on how best to utilise it from your peers, you might be out of luck.

That seems to be the conclusion from recent research I carried out.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a survey among my networks to try and benchmark how Page administrators are utilising post boosting with the intention of defining some guidelines for best practice.

Prompted by consultancy work I’ve been doing recently with different communications agencies, the topic of post boosting is one that I had an instinct that very few, if any, yet have a fully defined strategy for.

Most (all?) seem to work on gut feel and their own beliefs, and I had a hunch that this has led to two distinct approaches: posting frequently to social channels with minimal paid media spend behind any individual piece of content, or posting infrequently with a heavy spend behind each piece of content.

In turns out, if the results of this research are to be believed, that I was right. And that I was wrong. Let me explain.

Spend on Facebook Post Boosting

The first questions I asked the 87 people who responded were how much they spend per month on Facebook post boosting, and how many times they post per month on average.

The vast majority of Page administrators spend less than £250/$380 per month in total. However, nearly one in five spends between £500/$760 and £1000/$1520 per month. This points, in part at least, to the divergent approaches I have previously talked about, with some using small levels of paid media and others large.

average facebook post boosting spendThe average Page manager is posting 24 times per month, with very few posting less than 20 times per month or more than 30 times per month.

I then asked what percentage of those posts people boosted every month, and there is a very clear split between those who boost less than one in four posts and those who boost virtually all of their posts.

This is more evidence of the differing mindsets that have emerged when it comes to Page management. Some are relying heavily on organic reach generated through engagement, while others are boosting heavily to gain reach.

Facebook post boosting frequency

If I stop here, my theory stands up. A little more analysis of the results tells a different story.

Boosting Variance

When I worked out how much individuals are spending per post on average, the variance is huge and there is no identifiable correlation between average post spend and how often an individual posts, which was the crux of my hunch.

Nearly two in three people typically spend less than £15/$24 on any given post boost, with many closer to £5/$8. Indeed, only 14% of people typically spend more than £50/$80 on any given boost.

What is revealing is that how much an individual typically spends on a single post boost bears no relation whatsoever to how many times a Page posts or what percentage of those posts are boosted.

And it’s that which blows my ‘post frequently with minimal boost or post infrequently but boost heavily’ hunch out of the water.

There is no discernible pattern in how Page admins are using post boosting. It definitely seems to be the case that there are two camps of people, one which uses post boosting more heavily in terms of volume.

But your guess is as good as mine when it comes to best practice in how much to spend per post. There is little, if any correlation between how many times a Page posts and boosts, and how much they are spending per boost.

The Value of Facebook Post Boosting

The final questions I asked were who people are boosting to, whether they feel their spend is likely to increase or decrease, and whether they feel post boosting is good value.

When it comes to audiences, 92% of Page administrators use the option to use custom targeting, pointing to a strategic use of demographics and interests. Interesting, only 4% boost to current fans only, suggesting that most see this option as ineffective in gaining engagement or community growth.

Facebook post boosting targeting

In the next 12 months, nearly two in three Page administrators expect their spending on post boosting to increase, with only 12% expecting it to decrease. Those 12% are all among the top spenders, however, so this would seem a reasonable conclusion for them to have come to.

So do Page administrators see post boosting on Facebook as good value?

The answer is a definite ‘yes’, but with a number of reservations.

“If your content is great, it can be great value”, says Viki Coppin, my former protege and now Digital Account Director at Cirkle. “But I’m a little concerned with how competitive the market will become with so many brands getting the need to boost content now; great for ensuring we’re all producing high quality content but I can see the budgets creeping up year on year.”

Danny Brown is concerned not so much by the value, but by the way Facebook goes about business, and (as usual) doesn’t hold back: “Post boosting is good value, but only for audience/page growth. Facebook as a business tool sucks. They’re happy to take your money for ads, but then won’t let you organically reach the audience you’ve paid for. I can’t think of another business model that’s so shitty.”

Others, however, disagree.

“Facebook gives you a targeted response that is far superior to Google AdWords”, says Rich Hikins from IRepairTech. “My conversion is far better on Facebook. And not only that but I can get rated by the customer. They share, I share and I get more business.”

And, in a blog post that stemmed from my initial query and a resulting conversation, Gini Dietrich says that she’s “a big believer in organic anything – media, content, search engine optimisation – but there also comes a time when throwing a few dollars at your efforts amplifies it in ways you just can’t get with elbow grease alone.”

What do you make of this research? Is Facebook post boosting good value? And have you identified any best practice tips you’d like to share?

When is a Social Media Crisis Not a Social Media Crisis?

1millionLittle-known company Protein World has become the brand that everyone loves to hate over the last couple of weeks.

An extensive advertising campaign on the London Underground sparked a minor riot on social media when it went up in mid April, with the Twitterati up in arms about its ‘body-shaming’ approach to flogging diet supplements. It has been branded as sexist and insulting and a whole lot more less repeatable adjectives. As social media crises go, it’s a pretty big deal.

protein world advert

And yet…does it or should it even care?

In an excellent analysis of the storm, news website Breitbart reports that the ad campaign has resulted in 20,000 new customers and revenue in excess of £1 million in less than a week. Which is a rather astounding return on a £250,000 investment.

All the social justice campaigners and trolls have done by voicing their anger and sharing the Protein World ad over and over and over again is to create more reach and more sales for the company.

Doesn’t sound much like a crisis to me.

As someone who’s been watching the furore from a distance, I can say that the way Protein World has handled the situation has been at times jaw-droppingly awful and at times, arguably at least, admirable.

Where Protein World Went Wrong

As tends to happen, the original Twitter storm didn’t take long to hit the mainstream media, and a Google search for “protein world” now returns nearly 1.4 million results.

What Protein World did very wrong when it started to receive negativity was to ignore it. It was happy to amplify the good stuff, but just blatantly ignored anyone criticising the ad and continued to talk as if nothing was happening. This had the effect of winding people up further.

And then it went a step further and started to actually delete comments from its Facebook Page, reply to sarcastic tweets with generic sales messages and block critical users on Twitter. CEO Arjun Seth took to Twitter in defence of its approach calling people “terrorists” and coming across as nothing more than smug and arrogant in a series of now-deleted messages.

protein world arjun seth

At this stage, this was a great case study in exactly how not to handle a social media crisis. This week I’ve been working with Polpeo, running some crisis workshops at PR Week’s PR360 conference using its superb social media crisis simulation software. Pretty much everything we told the delegates not to do, Protein World did.

The Fight Back

But then something changed. Protein World took a stand against what Head of Global Marketing Strategy Richard Stavely called “this bullshit”. With the confidence that its campaign was producing results, it decided to stand up to the trolls and to defend itself. Which is a dangerous and brave but, I think, admirable thing to do. “What’s the point in pulling a campaign when you know you’re in the right?”, questions Staveley.

Whether you think Protein World is ‘in the right’ is a different issue. And with the ASA having today banned the ad and launched a probe into social responsibility after numerous complaints, it’s very hard to agree with that particular point.

But there’s little doubt that the social media crisis has been fuelled as much by mindless herd mentality and trolling as by intelligent, reasoned argument. Other brands have even got in on the action with their own responses.

dove protein world response

carlsberg protein world response

I’d have to question how many of the 65,000 people who signed a change.org petition to get the ad banned are genuinely, truly emotionally upset by an image of a slender model in a yellow bikini? And how many are just jumping on the latest bandwagon and will have forgotten it within a week?

The way this issue has been playing out on social media is fairly typical. There is no doubt whatsoever that Protein World could have handled it a lot better than it has, or that as an organisation it seems to be pretty reprehensible. But at the same time, among all the vitriol, negative publicity and ASA involvement, I can’t help but look at that figure of £1 million revenue.

Social media crisis? What social media crisis?

Paid v Organic: What’s Your Social Media Marketing Philosophy?

social media marketing philosophyThere are two schools of thought starting to emerge around how best to implement social media marketing now that paid media has become pivotal to running a successful Facebook Page. And the increasing acceptance of promoted tweets and the advent of sponsored posts on Instagram are reinforcing this emerging split.

Each philosophy has its own merits, and each can achieve good results depending on how well it is executed.

Social Media Marketing Philosophy One

This involves posting frequently to any given platform (once a day to Facebook, a couple of times a day to Instagram, multiple times a day to Twitter) with minimal paid media spend behind any piece of content in order to encourage interaction and create reach organically.

It relies on the frequent generation of creative content that is interesting, informative and/or entertaining, but relies less on hitting the mark every single time as there is more room for error. This has always been my approach and it has served me extremely well.

Social Media Marketing Philosophy Two

This involves dropping the post frequency significantly (every few days on Facebook or Instagram, one or two tweets per day) but amplifying each piece of content more using paid media to generate reach.

It removes the demands of having to create good content on a daily basis but, arguably, necessitates content being spot on every single time; something that is very difficult to achieve.


With both approaches, content quality is paramount. No amount of paid media or post frequency will achieve results with poor content. Equally, philosophy two does not necessarily mean putting less money into paid social; it’s simply the case that the budget is utilised in a different way.

Philosophy one seeks to create ongoing, frequent interactions among its communities. Philosophy two seeks to generate short, sharp bursts of interactions. But the sum of those interactions, and the reach, may well be equal to one another.

social media marketing strategies

Personally, I would argue that philosophy one is inherently more social. It’s more about galvanising a community, about loyalty and about advocacy. But it also has limitations where short-term campaigns are concerned, when it’s important to generate large reach quickly.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying one philosophy is right and one is wrong. And which you choose can depend on your objectives, your resources and your audience.

But broadly speaking, where do you stand on this? Does your head and your heart tell you organic or paid?

UPDATE: On the back of this post I carried out some research into how Page administrators are using Facebook post boosting. You can read about the results of that research here.

Don’t Be a Dick

ACTIONSWhen it all boils down to it, life is pretty simple.

If you do good things, good things happen to you.
If you do bad things, bad things happen to you.

I know this is a generalisation and that very bad things do happen to very good people. I have a friend who was involved in a nasty accident that wasn’t her fault. I have a six-year-old nephew who has just had to undergo a bone marrow transplant, which he had no control over.

But as a general life rule, if you treat others with respect, kindness and generosity, life will repay you.

I’ve been through some difficult times in my 40+ years, but I’ve also done some pretty stupid and irrational stuff. And when I look back, the former is usually a direct result of the latter.

What I’ve learned is that all of your actions have consequences. It’s a form of Buddhist karma (if not the reincarnation part); if you behave like a dick, life will treat you like a dick. (I don’t think the Dalai Lama uses those exact words.)

So whatever you apply it to – building a business, creating networks of influential acquaintances, social media communications, customer service, internal policies – there are four words that I would tell my teenage self if I could travel back through time:

Make the right choices.

Freelance Diaries: Lessons from Q1

freelance_diaries_q1The decision to set up as an independent consultant, no matter in what field, is a big one. Though it sounds a bit ridiculous, for me it was a decision that actually took years to make.

I’d been drawn to the idea of working myself for a long, long time. The ability to be able to choose who I work with, what I work on and when I work on it was something I found hugely attractive. But for a number of reasons, mainly family-related ones, the timing never seemed right. The security of a regular wage was of too great a value.

Having eventually made the leap, I’d recommend it to anyone. Being able to make your own decisions is nothing short of liberating. I’ve previously written about the things I learned in the first few weeks of working for myself, and three months in I’ve encountered a few more ups and downs.

Variety is the spice of life

One day last week I spent the morning talking to microbusiness owner in a town near to my home, helping him to devise a strategy to drive footfall to his bistro using social media. I then spent the afternoon working on the high level strategic rollout of a content management and analytics platform across multiple European countries for a global motor manufacturer. The next day, I ran a digital media and SEO training session for a PR agency.

I absolutely love the fact that no two days are the same as an independent consultant. My client base currently ranges from a three-person boudoir photography studio to a forty-head communications agency to an international consumer brand. Each has very different challenges, and that keeps life extremely interesting.

The best laid plans…

Like any professional services business, you have to plan ahead when you’re an independent consultant. I have a working plan that looks three months ahead to projects that I have already secured or can see on the horizon. That’s the (relatively) easy part.

The difficult part is what happens when you carefully schedule projects in so that you’re busy but not overworked…and then one or more projects slip through no fault of your own. This happens all the time in the agency world, but as an agency with multiple staff you can shift things around and absorb the impact fairly easily.

When you’re on your own, the impact is far greater. In the last month a shifting project has left me with a quiet spell followed by an insanely busy spell. As an independent consultant, you’re somewhat dependent upon clients delivering when they say they’ll deliver.

Honesty is the best policy

One thing that has always wound me up about agency life for as long as I can remember is the ‘yes culture’ that exists.

“I know it’s last minute, but I’d like a meeting tomorrow to talk about the project.” “Yes, Mr Client.” “And I’d like a comprehensive presentation reviewing the status so far with together with all progress.” “Yes, Mr Client.” “Can we make it 5am in the Outer Hebrides?” “Yes, Mr Client.” “And please hop on one leg for the entirety of the meeting.” “Yes, Mr Client.”

I jest, but ‘yes culture’ is not healthy. It’s borne from a desire to exceed client requirements, but it leads to lots of stress and unrealistic expectations.

When I went independent I promised myself to be honest with people (at least as much as possible) and if that meant saying ‘no’, then so be it. And you know what? The world doesn’t collapse. As long as you explain why you’re saying no, people are reasonable.

The same applies if you haven’t been able to do something you said you would. Don’t spin it, just be honest. Explain why. People respect you for it.

Who knew?!

The Tale of Fast, Cheap and Good

fast_cheap_goodOnce upon a time, there were three friends named Fast, Cheap and Good. One day they decided to seek their fortune in the big City. They loaded their packs with bread and mead and set off from their small village home in the country.

After nearly a day’s travel, Fast, Cheap and Good came across a river. The river was wide and deep, and there was no bridge in sight.

“What shall we do?”, asked Fast. “We cannot cross by bridge, and we cannot swim across as our packs will get wet.” The three friends sat on the bank and pondered their predicament, but could not come up with a solution.

Deeply saddened, they had all but given up and were preparing to turn back to their village when a man appeared further along the river bank, dragging behind him a rowing boat.

“Please sir,” shouted Cheap, “would you help us cross the river? We can pay you for your kind assistance with bread and mead made by our very own hands.”

The man looked at the three friends, and then looked at his boat. It was decrepit and falling apart in places. There was a small hole in the bottom.

“I would gladly help you”, he said, “but I fear this old boat is not strong enough to hold all of us. I am on my way to the big City to seek my fortune, and had only planned on using it once to cross the river. It will not last a second crossing.”

There was a moment’s silence as the man looked at Fast, Cheap and Good. They looked very glum.

“However,” he said, “let us see if the boat will hold us all.”

The three friends thanked the man profusely and helped him drag the boat into the river. The man stepped into the boat and sat down with the oars. A small well of water immediately seeped through the hole in the boat’s bottom.

Next, in stepped Good. More water started to seep in. As Fast followed him, the boat sank further into the river and the bottom started to slowly fill with water. However, it remained stable.

When Cheap also stepped into the boat, the leak grew rapidly and the boat started to sink. All four men jumped out quickly and dragged it out of the river to avoid it being lost.

“I’m very sorry,” said the boatman, “but I can only take two of you with me across the river. My boat is simply not strong enough for all of us. How do I pick which of you should come with me?”

The moral of the story

When it comes to service, you can offer (and expect) Cheap and Fast, but it won’t be Good. You can have Cheap and Good, but it won’t be Fast. Or you can have Good and Fast, but it won’t be Cheap.

You decide.

Hat tip to Louise Lloyd at Popcorn PR for providing the inspiration for this post.

Agencies or Freelancers: Which Are Better?

agency v freelanceI’ve written a couple of times recently about why I believe the traditional model is failing communications agencies and why freelance digital media consultants are the future.

As a result, Gini Dietrich from Arment Dietrich in the USA and I recently had a debate about the issue for The Social Media Show, the video for which you can watch at the bottom of this post if you want to. We don’t, as you might expect, see eye-to-eye on the matter, so we’ve agreed to let you in on the action, have your say and, ultimately, decide which one of us is correct. (Hint: it’s me.)

Below is Gini’s point of view, followed by mine. Take a read and leave a vote at the end.

And just so you know, this is important: bragging rights are at stake here!

The View for a Communications Firm

by Gini Dietrich

Any business owner starts out with the idea that he or she can do things differently. They either have a great idea or they have a different way of doing things.

The latter is why I went into business. I really believed communications could drive sales and I was working on a way to prove it. Now I have a way to prove it and all of our clients enjoy a hefty return on their investment with us.

But I couldn’t have done it alone. In fact, if I were still freelancing, I would be bogged down in the work and not have time to think about how to innovate.

A few years ago, a friend and business advisor said to me: “Do you want to be a kick butt communicator or a kick butt business owner?”

He said I had to decide; it’s impossible to do both.

I thought about it and decided I had to forgo doing the work (for the most part) to focus on growing the business. That decision afforded me the opportunity to grow the SpinSucks blog, write two books, and go out on the speaking circuit, which all drive new business efforts for us.

Now my job is coaching and training—both employees and clients—and business development.

My job is no longer the day-to-day work (I think the last time I pitched media was in 2007!), but I have a enormously talented team to do that work.

Here is the advantage to our clients: They have an entire team of experts to work with. If they need someone who has earned media expertise, they can call the director of that department here. Likewise for shared, paid, and owned media. They also have a director of operations to better understand how it all integrates and the types of metrics to track. And they have me for really strategic stuff, for stakeholder communications, and to trot out at their big sales meetings.

So, while a freelancer might be really skilled at one of the four media types (or even two), they are still only one person.

A communications firm gives you lots of brains, lots of talent, lots of expertise, and lots of arms and legs to get lots of work done.

The View for Independent Consultants

by me

I’ve skirted around this a lot recently, but for this debate I’m not going to sugar coat things.

The fact is that agency structures benefit agencies not clients.

Agencies are structured around hierarchies based on experience. In the pitch you buy into what the directors (the most experienced team members) say. But in day-to-day life you deal with account managers, and much of the actual work is done by juniors (the least experienced team members).

This simply does not reflect the way business has moved. The days of recruiting for roles rather than skills should be long gone, but they’re alive and well within communications agencies.

The major issue with most agencies is that they haven’t adapted. The account director/ manager/executive model is outdated. It puts constant pressure on the firm to meet payroll, and the best way to do that is to sign clients up to long retainers.

But more and more clients want to work on short-term projects, or series’ of projects, which is an environment in which experienced and skilled freelancers can and do thrive.

With communications, you get what, or rather who you pay for. If you hire me, you hire ME. Just like Liam Neeson, I have a specific set of skills. Hire me and you get those skills, not the dubious knowledge of someone who’s been in the job for less time than they spent in diapers.

Agencies, due to their nature, are inconsistent. Pick a good independent consultant and you get far better value.

If you’d like more detail on this debate, you can watch the video if it takes your fancy. (It gets going after the first five minutes!)

Now Over to You

Which is Better: Independent Consultants or Agencies?

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And now you’ve voted, tell me why you chose the option you did…

This post (and poll) is running concurrently here on the SpinSucks blog, so pop across and check out what’s happening over there too.

The Chromebook Experiment: As Yet Undecided

chromebook_experiment_2A couple of months ago I posed the question: if Apple and Microsoft fell into a black hole, could your business survive?

Chromebooks, running on Google’s Chrome OS, do away with Windows and iOS completely. They’re cheap, they’re fast, they’re portable and they’re highly functional. I bought one instead of a Windows machine or a MacBook when I set up independently with the intention of finding out if they’re now a viable alternative for personal and, ultimately, business use.

I’m two months into the experiment now. The good news is that I’m still writing this from my Chromebook, and that I love using it. The bad news is that I’m not prepared to commit myself and tell you to go out and buy one. Not yet, anyway. Here’s why…

Chromebook Plus Points

My Chromebook is fast. Really fast. It boots in less than 10 seconds and without bloated Windows software it runs like a dream. And not having annoying system updates (as updates are done in the background) and Java prompts is amazing. That is, in itself, almost reason enough never to go back to Microsoft.

It’s also simple to use. The Chrome OS, though different to other operating systems and so something you initially need to get used to, is designed to make carrying out all tasks intuitive. So much so in fact, that when I’ve occasionally used other computers over the last few weeks I’ve been frustrated with the way they’re organised. Chrome is logical and well,  just makes sense.

This all makes the Chromebook a brilliant ‘pick up/put down’ machine if you work in different locations. Which is one of the main reasons I bought it. Log on to any wireless network in any location and you have access to everything exactly as if you’re working from your desk. And with a battery life of over 8 hours, the chances of even needing a plug socket when you’re out and about are limited. I’ve never, ever needed one, put it that way.

In conjunction with my HTC One Android mobile and a Chromecast I was recently given for my birthday, the Chromebook forms a complete communications ecosystem that is a joy to use.

Chromebook Downsides

So why, given all that, am I not yet willing to commit to Chrome for the long term?

Essentially, this is due to the way others work. Most people don’t even know what a Chromebook is and have never used Google’s suite of programs, let alone understand the differences.

The first glitch is printing. As with everything else they do, Chromebooks work by printing from the Cloud, so you need a Cloud-connected printer or a wireless connection to a network. I’ve worked in a number of client offices over the last couple of months, and not one of them uses Cloud printing. So I’ve had to email docs to others to print for me, which is far from ideal.

The second area of annoyance is document formats and sharing. First, let me clearly state that all MS Office documents are supported in Google Docs; working with a Word, Excel or Powerpoint file started my someone else on a Windows machine is easy. It’s when you’re done that you can run into frustrations.

Surprisingly, not everyone knows what to do when you send them a link to a file stored on Google Drive rather than as an attachment. So I have found myself having to download to MS format and send conventionally, which is frustrating not because of the process but because it limits (and sometimes negates) the benefits of working in the Cloud.

There is, of course, Microsoft Live which enables you use to use the full Office suite online. But essentially, the efficiencies of Chrome and Cloud-working, which I love, are lost.

Next up: software. For the most part, you can do everything on a Chromebook that you can do on an Apple or Windows machine. But there are two areas where it can be frustrating. Neither Photoshop or Skype are currently available as web applications, so you can’t use them. There are alternatives of course, notably Pixlr and Google+ Hangouts.

Pixlr is a fantastic alternative to Photoshop unless you’re a graphic designer and use it very heavily. In some areas, in fact, it’s better than Photoshop. The one annoyance is custom fonts. There’s no way of adding fonts easily like there is on other operating systems, and I’ve hacked into my Chromebook to add custom fonts for client Facebook graphics; again, not ideal.

When it comes to Skype, some people are just wedded to Skype in the same way they’re wedded to Office. Suggest you use a Hangout instead is like suggesting they go to the top of their building and jump off. They’re just not going to do it.

The final area of concern is the need to be connected to wifi all the time. 95% of the time, not an issue, but there are times when you want a file and don’t have wifi access. You can work locally on a Chromebook without wifi, you just can’t access saved files unless you’ve previously saved them locally.

That said, tethering to your mobile phone’s internet access negates the issue for the most part, and I’m not really sure this would be any different with any other machine if you work in the Cloud, as I prefer to do.

Keep or Kill?

So there you go. As I say, I love working with my Chromebook. But I find myself limited by others’ lack of technical nous and the way others work. Hence, though I want to commit long-term to this way of working, I can’t quite endorse it 100% just yet.

I’m going to give it a bit more time to see if I can work around the frustrations I’ve encountered and to really consider whether it would be any different were I using a MacBook or a Windows laptop, or whether it’s just a symptom of working as a freelance consultant in a very mobile way.