Embrace the Crazy!

embrace_the_crazyPick the content strategy of a brand or a person you know. Could be a brand you work on or the company you work at. Could be your own blog. Could be Coke. Anything or anyone.

Now imagine I’ve put a ten point linear scale in front of you, with 1 marked as ‘predictable’ and 10 marked as ‘bizarre’. Where on that scale are you going to mark the content of the brand or person you chose?

Chances are, if you’re really, truly honest, it’ll be on the lower end of that scale. And there are many reasons why that might be the case, from regulatory and legal limitations to lack of creative inspiration to lack of understanding of the social media mindset to good old fear.

But whatever the reason, you’ll never build a truly engaged online community until you can let go of the reigns, bypass your control freak tendencies and welcome in a bit of uncertainty and chaos.

Weird engagement is good engagement

The most engaged community I know of on the web is on the Spin Sucks blog. I am reliably informed by head honcho Gini Dietrich that their posts can gain well over 100 comments. When commenting on blogs is supposedly dying as conversation fragments across social networks, that’s pretty extraordinary.

But you know what? Spin Sucks also has the most random, weird and downright odd community of people I’ve ever encountered.

Gini et all have a name for them: the Spin Sucks Crazies. Maybe your [sic] one of them? If so, hello (he says, nervously). I’ve left you a little gift here – you’ll like it, I promise. I’ll wait for you.

A couple of years back I was formerly introduced to the Crazies via Spin Sucks’ FollowFriday feature. Amid the 55 comments on that post, I was subjected to what the army calls a ‘beasting’. I haven’t been back since :)

Joking aside though, what happens within the Spin Sucks community is a wonderful lesson in building trust and advocacy. Pick any post and many of the comments will be random conversations between two or more of The Crazies using the post to tease and joke with one another. But underneath it all, The Crazies totally respect Gini and her crew for their opinions and their knowledge.

I’ve worked with brands who’d go into crisis mode if someone mentioned something off-topic on their social channels, no matter how harmless. They’d certainly never encourage it. But the craziness and the creativity within a community is what makes it hum.

Where to find randomness

Have a think for a moment about your own communities. Where are those gems of random, fun conversation likely to happen? The truth is, you probably don’t know. And it differs from brand to brand and from person to person.

The inimitable Danny Brown says he’s seen massive uptake on Google+ recently and has now implemented a commenting system on his blog that relies heavily on that network. Personally, I’ve seen an uptick in (sometimes weird) engagement on my posts on Facebook over the last few weeks. Like I say, it varies.

But wherever that is, too many brands and companies are scared of having fun and desperately lack any sort of personality online. What they don’t understand is that you have to earn the right to market to someone through social media. And the way to do that is to build a relationship with them founded on trust, goodwill, openness and other very emotional, human characteristics. Like fun.

Authenticity and transparency are hardly new concepts to social communications. But so few brands truly understand what they mean.

So come on, social marketing types. When did life get so serious?

Going back to the scale we spoke about at the start of this post, have a think about how you can push the needle of your own content one point along that line. For you, ‘crazy’ might just mean removing your logo from images you post on Facebook (steady…!), but try bringing a little crazy into your life and into your communities. In the long run, it’ll pay off.

If you’re one of The Crazies, please leave a comment below and say hi! But no beasting… :)

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This post is part of the Spin Sucks Scavenger Hunt (see? Crazy…) You’ve still got time to join in the fun, but it’s running out fast!

Also, if you buy a copy of Spin Sucks the book before 8th March, Gini will send a free package of goodies your way. Just email your receipt and mailing address to iboughtspinsucks@armentdietrich.com. And even if you don’t, if you work in communications it’s a book you should read. When I reviewed it, I said: “Spin Sucks is a book that will scare the living bejesus out of some in the PR industry”. Quite.

Surely Experience Can’t Be More Important Than Skill in PR. Can It?!

experience_over_skillThere’s no point in sugar-coating it, the CIPR’s State of the Profession report makes for depressing reading. Pick a subject it covers – gender balance, pay equality, diversity – and there is very little to smile about.

Others have published their own summaries of the findings, notably Stephen Waddington and Rachel Miller, but I wanted to focus on one specific area that really caught my attention; that of competencies.

I was given the chance to read the report last week ahead of its publication yesterday, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Or worse, depending on your perspective.

I’d just finished scheduling my last post suggesting that agency structures are outdated and that recruiting for roles not skills is doing no-one any favours. Having done so I opened up the CIPR report to read that in-demand competencies remain focused on traditional PR, and that that the digital skills gap is exacerbated by recruitment trends.

My heart sank. There are times when you you’d almost prefer to be wrong.

The Cycle of Doom!

The report says that a massive 79% of PR professionals believe that ‘experience’ is a professional’s most valuable asset. Don’t get me wrong, experience is important. But there is no way it should rank above skill. For me, this is something borne of the hierarchical structure that communications teams are so wedded to and drill into employees.

cipr_experience

Elsewhere in the study, which covered over 2000 UK PR professionals, 64% identified traditional PR skills (such as writing and interpersonal skills) as key competencies for new hires, with only one in five identifying digital skills (like SEO and HTML). In fact, digital and social skills don’t feature at all in the top five competencies sought by professionals seeking senior candidates.

It all points to a self-perpetuating cycle. Senior people are hired according to their experience in traditional PR; they drill into their teams that experience in traditional PR is important; and they then recruit for experience in traditional PR when they move up or change company.

So how are things supposed to improve?

No Professional Standards. At All.

A further disturbing finding in the report is that 55% of PR professionals believe that “satisfying clients/employers” is what defines professional standards. That’s just depressing and highlights the ‘we must please at all costs’ mentality that’s prevalent in PR due to the very fact that there is no professional standard whatsoever.

cipr_professionalism

Chiropractors need to comply with specific regulations protecting patient safety. Accountants have standards of performance enforced by several regulatory bodies. Even someone setting up a cake decorating business from home needs a certificate from the local environmental health department.

But to set up in PR you need nothing other than a computer. NOTHING.

This was posted in a Facebook group I’m a member of last week:

FB1

It highlights the problem more eloquently than I ever could. If this person who has “done a few bits for myself” could work on “making a brand a household name” (*le sigh*) with no possible ramifications, it doesn’t say a hell of a lot for the PR industry, does it? More so perhaps that this person is, technically speaking, as much of a “proper PR” as most of the rest of the industry, who have no specific qualifications anyway!

I’d love to hear your views on this and my last post (which are closely linked) if you have time. Does skill go unrecognised in PR? Does it matter? Do hierarchical team structures suck? Is the lack of professional standards a concern? Have your say below…

Why the Traditional Model is Failing Communications Agencies

agency_structureImagine, just for a moment, working in an environment where you are channelled into a role that solely concentrates on and celebrates your strengths. Your weaknesses don’t hold you back. Just think what you could achieve.

Now think about your own role. Does it match up?

If the answer is yes, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re lying to yourself. Because generally speaking we are conditioned to be defensive about our weaknesses and to put time and effort working on them if we want the promotion, the salary and the successful career.

The interview question everyone dreads and few know how to answer properly is ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ It’s asked because the interviewer wants to try and get a sense of what you’re really like to work with by the way you answer.

But should it matter if you’re not very good on the phone if you’re a web developer or if you’re a poor writer if you’re a media buyer? It shouldn’t, but it invariably does.

The things that give you energy

I was listening to an extremely interesting chat between Nathalie Nahai and ‘the wizard of Moz’, Rand Fishkin, on Nathalie’s podcast a couple of weeks back. Rand made some excellent observations about investing time in gaining a full and accurate understanding of what you’re good at and, more importantly, why you’re good at it.

He asserted that in doing so you can identify the things that give you energy, and you can start to invest continuously in enhancing the strengths you’re passionate about rather than spending all of your time on the things that drain you. It’s well worth a listen.

This is smart, right?

I know myself well enough to know that I’m good at and passionate about solving digital media problems. I love the challenge of digging into data, devising and testing communications strategies, and refining tactics that work. I also love passing on my knowledge and training people.

But once a problem is solved, the day-to-day work bores me. I find admin and process tedious. I’m not a great people manager and I have no patience for office politics and dealing with people I have little respect for.

It’s no coincidence that the business I have chosen to pursue concentrates pretty much entirely on the things I’m good at and that I love.

Hierarchies are not effective

So why, in the workplace, is so much emphasis placed on shoring up weaknesses rather than on developing strengths? Why are people not channelled in ways that do the opposite?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the hierarchical structures employed in communications agencies, prompted by Robert Phillips’ book and by an online debate I had with Gini Dietrich about the traditional agency model.

Hierarchical team structures make little to no sense whatsoever.

The Wisdom of Teams from the Harvard Business School defines a team as: “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”.

The key word in there is skills. What it is not is ‘job roles’. Effective teams work collaboratively with a keen awareness of interdependency. They pool people with the best skills to achieve the goal, regardless of how senior they are.

Hierarchical teams don’t. They pool people according to length of time in the job based on available capacity, often regardless of their individual talents.

That’s just dumb.

Why not get people to focus on what they’re good at and, rather than forcing them to address their weaknesses in order to fulfil a role, hire other people who are good at those things instead?

Using myself as an example again, if I ever decide to expand my business into an agency I will implement a very flat, skill-based structure and a culture where job title is irrelevant.

I’d want an analytics geek to provide insight and to help steer campaigns; I’d want an SEO guru; I’d want a media expert; I’d want someone who is great with people to handle clients; I’d want a top notch content marketer; and I’d want a specialist media buyer.

What I wouldn’t want is a generalist account director, two generalist account managers and four generalist account executives, no matter how bright they are.

I spotted this graphic from Brands2Life on PR Moment last week which sums this approach up very nicely.

modernagency

It is, admittedly, not easy to switch from the traditional role-based agency structure to a more progressive skill-based structure. But that doesn’t mean you can bury your head in the sand and ignore the way the world is developing.

More to the point, there will come a time when a square peg can no longer be forced into a round hole.

The Problem with ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’

pr_is_deadThe claim that PR is dead has been doing the rounds again recently with the release of former Edelman EMEA CEO Robert Phillips’ new book. It’s an old argument. A quick Google search for ‘PR is dead’ returns no less than 204 MILLION results.

With that in mind, I had no intention of writing this post. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

But after a Twitter debate with Mr Phillips on Wednesday, I feel compelled to offload my thoughts. So here goes. Buckle your seatbelt, put your tray in the upright position, and please take a moment to locate your nearest emergency exit.

The argument that PR is dead

Let’s first take Phillips’ book itself. As much as it is possible to summarise it in a few sentences, the central tenet to the firm claim that PR is dead is that the practice has failed to adapt fast enough (if at all) to the data revolution.

Phillips asserts that the industry is stuck in an age of employing and developing generalists at a time when specialists rule the roost. And that hierarchical agency structures are equally outdated. He says it is obsessed with bureaucracy and definitions rather than professional standards and working out how to prove its value.

I totally agree with all of this, and more. If you work in the industry and you don’t, you’re probably one of the very dinosaurs that’s holding it back.

The argument that PR is alive and kicking

If I agree with Phillips, what’s my issue?

One word: sensationalism.

Yes, PR has fallen behind the times. Yes, it can be a seriously frustrating industry to work in. And yes, if it doesn’t change it is indeed in trouble. But ‘dead’?

It will come as no surprise to Daily Mail readers that there is tendency in journalistic circles to use attention-grabbing headlines to draw people in. Headlines that are, by and large, unsubstantiated.

Only a couple of months ago, the marketing world was a-flutter with news from Ofcom that UK social media use dropped by 9% in 2014. It made for a great headline, but failed to consider the way use of social networks is fragmenting and evolving. At the time, I wrote a post titled ‘Everything is Dead’, calling bullshit on this.

The same goes for PR; it’s evolving, not dying.

You know what’s dead? The manufacture of penny farthing bicycles. To my knowledge, there was not a single person doing that in the UK last year. On the other hand, there were approximately 62,000 people working in PR in the UK in 2013 [source: PRCA Census].

I put this point to Phillips on Twitter:

‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ is certainly a call to arms, of that there is no doubt. It’s a superbly written assessment of what PR should be about in 2015.

But it’s not what the sensationalist title promises it will be, and above all, it’s nothing new.

An out-dated argument?

I myself have been extremely vocal in calling for change more times than I care to remember, and I’m far from the only one. As long as five years ago I wrote a post entitled Are PRs Really Up To The Social Media Task?, which addresses some themes similar to Phillips’ book.

That was five years ago.

I had a major rant about ‘what’s bloody wrong with PR’ back in July 2012.

And, for me, that doesn’t reflect well on Phillips himself. There were plenty of us pointing to the warning signs years before he resigned from Edelman in the summer of 2012. So did it all suddenly catch up on him?

This tweet from Gus Ferguson kind of sums it up nicely for me:

I pressed Phillips further on Twitter: 

And this gets to the crux of my issue with the book. Phillips says in this tweet: “The practice of old-form PR is dead”. I repeat: the practice of old-form PR.

I don’t think anyone would debate that. But just because old-form PR is on its last legs does not for a moment mean that one can call out an entire industry of 62,000 people as irrelevant or dead.

Former President of the CIPR Stephen Waddington tweeted this on Wednesday:

Change is occurring

I get frustrated at times by the lack of speed of evolution in PR. All of the things that wind Robert Phillips up wind me up too, and the short-sightedness of many in the industry is breathtaking.

But I have seen change in the last five years. The industry is, if not marching, then crawling towards a new future. It is far from dead.

Had Phillips’ book had a different title and a slightly different approach around reformation, I’d have been the first pushing it to every manager of every PR agency I know and come into contact with.

But without the sensationalism would we even be talking about it? Would it even sell?

To his massive credit, Phillips himself is a master of public relations. The way he’s whipped the industry up into a frenzy over the last year is a fantastic example to anyone of how modern PR works. And work it does.

The final irony of using PR to such great effect to generate publicity around a book that says PR is dead has not gone unnoticed.

Over to you. Is Robert Phillips right? Is PR dead?

[Disclosure: the original title of this post was “The Massive Issue with PR is Dead”. More on the reason for the change in a future post.]

Freelance Diaries: Four Lessons from Month One

freelance_month_oneI’ve now been working as a freelance social media marketing consultant for about five weeks. Which really isn’t long in the great scheme of things.

But during that time I’ve spoken to lots of people, I’ve ‘won’ some fantastic work and I’ve missed out on a potentially lucrative project that would’ve been massive fun (think luxury lingerie brand + Fifty Shades of Grey).

I’ve spent lots of time travelling in the car and, as a result, immersed myself in the world of podcasting and become addicted to Serial. I’ve drunk a lot of coffee with a lot of different people.

And I’ve loved pretty much every minute of it.

I’ve also already learned a lot about independent working. These are the four biggest things I’ve noticed so far:

Freelance freedom

Probably the most overwhelming feeling I’ve had in the last month, and one that I wasn’t expecting, is freedom. It’s difficult to really put into words, but the knowledge that I can choose what I work on, from where and, more importantly, who I work with is wonderfully liberating. I recommend it, I really do.

People are everything

Something struck me within the first week of being out on my own.

I’ve already written about the response I received when I announced I was going freelance, and I’m still astounded by the sheer volume of good wishes and offers of help I’ve received from friends, acquaintances and even strangers.

If I’d been able to accept all the invitations for a coffee and a chat I’ve had in the last month, I wouldn’t have slept due to caffeine overload. But I’m hugely grateful for every single one of those invitations and I do intend to take all of them up over the next couple of months.

And then…there’s the very, very small handful of people who have been less helpful. The people who said all the right things but obviously want everything on their own terms. Whatever, dude: see ‘Freedom’ above.

Goodbye pitching

It’s an inescapable fact of agency life that thou shalt pitch. And thou shalt pitch lots. Thou shalt spend hours and days researching and preparing work that there’s a very good chance will never see the light of day. Added to that, the average cost of preparing a pitch in the PR world has been stated as around £10,000. Pitching sucks.

But unless I’ve got this very wrong, as an independent consultant one doesn’t pitch. At least, not in the agency sense of the word.

Sure you have to convince people you’re the right dude for the job. But you don’t go up against three other freelancers for every single project. And you don’t waste half your life designing Powerpoint decks.

Instead, you talk to people. And you spend your time devising strategies and doing work that actually has an impact. Crazy, huh?!

There’s nowhere to hide

Last week I was knackered. By the middle of the week I was completely exhausted, and had I been in an agency environment, chances are I would have kept myself to myself and taken it easy for a couple of days. But not as a freelancer.

I’m working with several clients, each of which has every right to demand of me value for the money they’re paying me. Besides which, I want to give them value for the money they’re paying me.

That’s the flip side of the aforementioned freedom. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. And if you’re physically or mentally shattered, or you feel rough, or you haven’t slept, well, tough. Suck it up.

As I say, one month isn’t a great amount of time to be independent. The dinosaurs lived for 170 million years, so it doesn’t rank hugely high up the scale of universal longevity. A fruit fly lives the same amount of time as I’ve been working for myself, for heaven’s sake.

But if my first few weeks are anything to go by, I recommend freelancing to anyone.

#KleenexKiss: Would You?

hashtag_failsIt never fails to stun me how naive brand marketers can be when it comes to hashtag fails. The point was brought home to me, yet again, on Tuesday by everyone’s favourite tissue brand (?) Kleenex.

#KleenexKiss is, for me at least, a tad bizarre, consisting as it does of filming yourself kissing a tissue and sending it to a deserving friend. Huh? You know, rather than just saying something to them. Or messaging them yourself. And I’m not the only one this is completely lost on.


But let’s park that, move on and turn our attention to the hashtag itself. In the great history of hashtag fails this might not make the top ten, but come on…it’s 2015, folks. Anyway, so the hashtag: 

#KleenexKiss.

Just let that settle for a moment or two.

#KleenexKiss.

Ummm…listen, I’m not going into the detail myself, suffice to say you should probably read this from the Urban Dictionary (warning: features the phrases ‘love juice’ and ‘wet spot’). I’ll just leave you with a few choice tweets from the many I saw. Make your own mind up whether this was a good idea or not. 

Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em

pr_yourselfI’ve recently been making a lot of noise in PR, social media and communications circles. ‘Noise’ as in ‘getting my name out there’. I wanted to make sure that potential clients heard about my new independent status. Maybe a couple of times. Or three. Or four :)

And I’ve been pondering whether such shouty behaviour is tiresome?

The thing is, I’m not one for blowing my own trumpet. Well, that’s not strictly true. I was told something by my former MD at BOTTLE about five years ago which I’ve not forgotten. He said to me that I needed to PR myself better, both within and outside of the agency.

I took that on board and I learned to blow my own trumpet. And I credit that, at least partly, to where I am now.

When my work won an award, I made sure everyone knew about it. When I was given the opportunity to write an article for a magazine, or supply a quote for a blog, I took it. When I was offered a speaking slot at Internet World, I snapped it up despite at the time being ‘unaccustomed to public speaking’ and being, to be honest, completely terrified.

Self Belief

As all this happened, I grew in confidence and things like training a room of 30 people or sitting on a conference panel not only ceased to phase me, but actually became really enjoyable. Nowadays, I love the buzz of helping strangers with stuff they can put into practice or speaking to a room full of professionals about something I’m passionate about and can pass on to them.

This all came back to me while having a chat the other day to Ann Hawkins, who has just had a book published. She casually dropped into a conversation that she had a call with her publisher…and then admitted that she shamelessly loves plugging that line. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it “, she said.

I agree with her.

To my original point, self-promotion doesn’t have to mean being arrogant or up one’s own arse. I would certainly hope that I don’t come across that way (although you’d know better than me).

It’s Up to You

If you want to get on in your career, you’ve got to make the most of the occasions when you deserve praise and kudos. If you don’t PR yourself, no-one else is going to. From personal experience, I’d thoroughly recommend putting yourself out there, developing your voice and stepping outside of your comfort zone. Help people: what you give, you shall receive.

It’s within your own power to develop your reputation and to control what the future holds for you.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re an account executive in an agency environment, a marketing director in a corporate organisation or the owner of a business, this something you can learn to do. And if you’d like some advice, mentoring may be something that would benefit you.

The key thing is to get over that initial awkwardness that comes with talking about yourself, to stop worrying about being shouty, and to learn how to PR yourself without being a jerk.

In the words of Fun Lovin’ Criminals:
Smoke ‘em, smoke ‘em, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em;
If you ain’t got ‘em, then you hit rock bottom.

How to Completely Miss an Opportunity

social_mediaA man walks into a bar.

“Why don’t you try this ale?”, suggests the barman. “It’s new.”

“Sure”, says the man, and the barman pours him a pint of what turns out to be a delicious, creamy brew, full of malty flavour. “Wow, ” says the man to the barman, “this is lovely.”

The barman hands the man a glossy, colourful leaflet from the brewer inviting him to ‘join us’ on Twitter and Facebook. The man pulls out his mobile and fires off a tweet to the named handle waxing lyrical about the pint he’s enjoying.

A couple of days later, the man finds the leaflet in his coat pocket and realises he didn’t get a response from the brewer. He looks the brand up on Twitter to find a largely dormant profile; a couple of self-promotional tweets each day with no conversation or attempt to reply or to talk to people.

Feeling somewhat let-down, the man visits the brand’s Facebook Page. Same story. A couple of updates per week, all self-promotional nonsense.

The man was me. The brand shall remain unnamed.

And it’s typical of many of the brand profiles I see and hear about.

Let’s be clear about this: having a profile on a social network is not the same as using social media. Not by a long shot.

I’m sure we’ve all witnessed this: the brand that never replies or the company that takes two days to respond to a customer service query. Maybe you’re one of them? The thing is, this type of behaviour does a brand a lot more harm than good.

Stop ticking the social media box

In simple terms, there are still too many organisations dabbling with social media. And they need to stop. Do it, or don’t do it. But stop investing time and money into social networks if you don’t really know why you’re doing so, if you don’t have any kind of strategy behind it, if you’re just copying others or if you’re just going through the motions.

Either that, or invest in the expert help your business so obviously needs.

It wouldn’t have taken a lot of effort on behalf of the beer brand to have hooked me in. An upbeat reply thanking me for my compliments would have been nice. An attempt to engage me further in relevant conversation would have been better. Some information on where I could buy the beer would be great. And some kind of small incentive to purchase again, such as a coupon, would have been amazing.

For a new brand, they’d have turned a first-time drinker into a repeat customer with minimum effort. But alas, no. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Opportunity missed.

The lesson is pretty simple, really: you get as much out of social media as you put in.

If you’d like to learn about putting more in, let’s talk.

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Comms Bloggers

marketing_communications_bloggersThere was a time not so long ago when you could hardly move on the internet without running into someone writing about the marketing communications industry. Social media, PR and digital marketing were all the rage. Everyone had an opinion and communications blogs were abundant.

Now? Not so much. At least, not where the UK is concerned.

I was recently performing a new year clean up and refresh of my RSS feed. And what struck me was the lack of decent quality blogs emanating from British shores. Less than one in five of the blogs I’m now subscribed to are UK-based. And of those, only a small handful are updated at least once per week.

Most of the blogs I now subscribe to are written by professionals in North America. Which isn’t a problem in itself, but the lack of UK voices does concern me.

What happened? Where’s everyone gone?

I figured that maybe I’d fallen behind; that there were new individuals out there I was just not aware of. So I asked around some of the influential British marketing communications bloggers I know and follow for recommendations. Who do they read? Who should I subscribe to?

The response was depressing to say the least. Or more accurately, mildly alarming. “There’s not many”, said one person. “I mainly read US”, said another. “It’s a very short list”, said a third.

Between the three of them, I was given a dozen names. Half of those were either each other or people I already had on my list. The other half were niche bloggers, writing about the public sector, charity or small business.

And other than the small handful of people I originally followed, I’ve not added a single UK-based name to my RSS feed.

The vast, vast majority of Brits are, or have become somewhat predictable and dull, unprepared to challenge the status quo or say anything different. We’re not publishing ideas or creating discussion or pushing thinking forward.

And that’s a pretty shocking state of affairs, if you ask me.

Can it really be the case that there are so few quality marketing communications bloggers in the UK now that you can’t even draw up a decent list?

I’d like to try, but it’s very obvious I can’t do it alone.

So please can I ask who YOU read? Drop their name or blog address in the comments and I’ll publish a list of recommended writers in the near future. It’s time to give the UK comms industry a shot in the arm!

The Chromebook Experiment

chromebook_experimentIf Microsoft and Apple both fell into a black hole tomorrow, could you survive? And more to the point, could your business?

With Windows and iOS dominating the operating systems of desktop PCs and laptop computers, my guess is that the answer to that question is a very solid ‘no’. And yet there is another alternative; one that is slowly making inroads into personal computer use, if not quite yet into the business world.

Chromebooks have been around for a few years now. For anyone unfamiliar with them, they run on Google’s Chrome operating system, bypassing Microsoft and Apple completely. They were devised primarily for the low end of the market, suitable for first-time computer users and households wanting an additional machine. And they work entirely from the web.

So no wifi = no (or little) functionality.

Given their value proposition, early models were criticised for poor build quality, with many reviewers recommending that people were better off spending a little more money on a cheap laptop with more features.

But things have changed in the last 18 months. There are now several available models with high spec screens and all-round better hardware, and these are serious contenders if you’re looking for a reasonably-priced laptop.

But can you run a business from one?

To be clear, that means no Microsoft staples like Outlook, Excel and Word. It means no ability to install and run additional software. I intend to find out.

Welcome to the Chromebook experiment.

One of the many decisions I faced when setting myself up as an independent consultant recently was whether I should go down the Windows laptop route or the Apple Macbook route. I decided on neither, and am writing this from a shiny new Chromebook.

I made the decision for several reasons.

1. Cost

I may have forecasts in place, but it’s very early days for me and I don’t how how much revenue I’ll generate in the next six months. I’m very mindful of keeping my costs as low as possible. The Chromebook I’ve purchased only cost me around £300, despite having it shipped from the USA.

2. Portability

I’m going to be travelling around a lot between offices and clients, and I wanted a laptop that is light and compact. My Chromebook weighs just 1.4kg and is only 19mm thick. And check this out – the battery lasts more than a full working day on constant use without needing to be charged.

3. Functionality

OK, so cost and mobility are important to me, but that’s no good if the machine doesn’t do what I want! So I was looking for a laptop with a high res, decent-sized (at least 13”) display and a decent keyboard.My Chromebook’s 1080p full HD display and webcam are probably the best I’ve seen on any laptop, while the machine boots in 8 seconds. Yes, that’s correct – I can be online and working less than ten seconds after I turn it on. That’s three times faster than an iPad.

4. Usability

Given my need for mobility, I wanted to work entirely from the cloud. As an Android devotee, I was already embedded in the Google ecosystem, and so using Drive for my storage made perfect sense. The added 100Gb of free cloud storage that Google threw in with my purchase was an additional incentive, and with the Google Docs suite dealing easily with Microsoft Office files, this was the final piece of the puzzle.

That all said, this is an experiment and I go into it with my eyes open. It will present challenges (and already has, in fact) . For a start, there’s no Skype or Photoshop. And what should happen if I need to download software to a machine that works entirely from the cloud and has next-to-no local storage?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to write about my Chromebook experiences. The good stuff, and the bad stuff. And one way or another, in a couple of months’ time we’ll know whether it’s possible to run a business without Microsoft and Apple.

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