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.

Subscribe now to follow my progress.

Is it Time You Binned Your Content Calendar?

content_calendarIf you work in social media marketing, you’ll probably have a content calendar. Whether produced with Excel or with professional planning tools like Hubspot or Scribble, content plans have formed the backbone of social communications for a long while.

But the world has moved on. And for me, content calendars are now largely redundant.

It doesn’t matter whether you use a content plan to look months or just weeks ahead, there’s a strong argument to say that it is no longer possible to plan much beyond a few days into the future.

The Price of Progress

We live in a world where everything changes so, so fast. Social platforms develop on an almost daily basis, and the way people use them evolves nearly as fast. Progression Paralysis is commonplace.

More importantly, businesses and the news agenda are in constant flux. The superspeed nature of modern life means they have to be. So how can you plan content when you don’t even really know what’s coming tomorrow in the news or in your industry, let alone in a week or a month’s time? You can’t. And does this not make the content calendar largely redundant?

I was interested to read a post on Spin Sucks just a couple of days ago where Gini Dietrich states openly that she writes without an editorial calendar, and yet goes on to make a strong case for using one. But why?

I too don’t work to a content calendar, and I hate using them for my clients (although there are times when it is necessary). I’d argue that such plans lock your mindset into a rigid structure that leaves little room for adjustment (and I really don’t buy the ‘but we’ll stay flexible’ line).

Working Smarter & Harder

The main problem I have with content plans is the psychology of using them. Once they’re in place, the tendency is to sit back and think ‘job done until the next one’s due’.

Far from it being lazy NOT to have a content calendar, as Gini states, I believe working without one means you have to be more on-the-ball, more creative, more diligent and more industrious on a daily basis. You’re forced to pay attention to the very latest news and cultural developments; to spot and to create opportunities.

I believe you work smarter by reacting to what’s happening in the here and now.

I know the idea of working without a content calendar might sound odd coming from a social media strategist. But my preferred working model is borne from just that; strategy.

I recommend investing time into gaining a full understanding of your marketing and communications strategy; what you want to achieve and what your key messages are. With that, you can pivot and react in real-time to generate content that may be off-the-cuff but is also highly topical and relevant. And it works.

That all said, the title of this post is a question. I’m aware I’m probably in a minority and I’m really interested to hear what you think. So over to you: is it time to bin the content calendar?

Progression Paralysis & How to Overcome It

progression_paralysisOne of the questions I’m most commonly asked by communications professionals in social media training sessions is ‘how do you manage to keep up with all of the changes?’

Social media technology moves extremely fast, and there’s a real fear out there that if you’re not all over the latest network announcement, trend or thinking, you’re behind the curve. In many cases, it leads to what I call ‘Progression Paralysis’, where the task of keeping up seems so overwhelming that an individual doesn’t even know where to start and so does nothing.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the fear of falling behind leads to doing precisely that. Well, there’s bad news and there’s good news.

The Bad News: It’s going to get worse…

In short, the rate of change and development in technology and communications is getting faster and faster.

Moore’s Law describes a trend where, in terms of technology, the number of electronic chips on a circuit doubles approximately every two years. This leads to the performance of computers, mobile phones and other communications devices increasing at exponential rates.

In the early 21st century, Ray Kurzweil proposed ‘The Law of Accelerating Returns’, stating that “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century; it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)”.

He says that whenever technology approaches a barrier to progress, a new technology is invented to cross that barrier. As we invent better technologies, we also discover more effective ways of doing things – like communicating.

So if you’re finding it difficult to keep up now, I’m afraid it’s only going to get tougher.

The Good News: …for everyone.

I’ll let you into a secret: everyone feels the same about trying to keep up. And I mean EVERYONE. All of those people you look at and think ‘how do they do it?’; we’re all in the same boat.

The difference between those who ‘do’ and those who don’t, is that those who ‘do’ try. And we’re actually fine with it when (not if) we miss things because we know that unless we sit in front of Twitter and the tech and social media news sites all day, we cannot possibly be on top of everything. Some things will pass us by. And we’re OK with that.

We’ve mastered FOMO (fear of missing out) and we don’t have a brain aneurism if we miss the news for a day or three. I do my best to skim social tech news and blog headlines on a daily basis. But when I’m really busy, I may go a week or more without doing so.

The way I see, if anything really important happens, the news WILL make its way to me somehow.

How can you avoid Progression Paralysis?

Here are my five top tips:

Build

Establish a process that enables you to check social media in super quick time using relevant tools. I use Currently to check Twitter trends, Google trends to check search and Facebook Trending Topics for Facebook. It takes five minutes to cover off social media.

Subscribe

Research and subscribe to blogs in your niche using their RSS feeds. The benefit of RSS over email subscriptions is that you can skim headlines in double quick time. I use Feedly as my RSS reader of choice as it works equally well and syncs across desktop and mobile devices. You can read blogs in 15 minutes using RSS.

feedly
Scanning headlines on Feedly is quick & easy

Experiment

Spend time playing with the tech that you read about. Curious about Ello? Then login and have a look around. Heard about a promising app, like Feedly or Currently? Then set up an account and test it out for a week or two. You’ll soon learn to pick out the the good stuff from the bad.

Plan

Set aside 30 minutes per day to do this stuff and be disciplined with it. Or if you really don’t have half an hour and can’t make half an hour, then 20 minutes. I do this first thing in the morning. But maybe it’d suit you better on your lunch break? Or after the kids are in bed? Doesn’t matter, but make it part of your routine.

Forgive

Don’t beat yourself up if you miss something. The simple act of building, subscribing, experimenting and planning means you’ll catch far, far more than you’ll miss. And that’s better than being paralysed by FOMO, right?

At the end of the day, it’s up to you. You can make a start today…or you can leave it until tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the day after that. It’s your career.

Thank You

thank_youBefore I stop bleating on about having gone solo in the big wide world of digital communications (I’ll be back to my normal, snarky self next week, I promise), I wanted to publicly say a quick thank you just a few of the people who’ve offered support, given me advice and helped me out while I worked this thing out.

I’ve been truly, genuinely humbled by the response I’ve had from friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers since I announced my news on Monday and I can’t possibly thank all of you individually here (though I hope I have already somewhere else). So if I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologise!

The last few days have been a massive reminder (if I needed it) of the power of social media in making meaningful personal connections. If anyone ever questions the value of the friendships you can build across the web, just send them my way and I’ll have a (not so) quiet word in their ear.

Anyway, please look these guys up. You could do a lot worse than make them a part of your network.

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Gemma Went (@gemmawent) and I have known each other for several years in and around the social web. She wrote a guest post for me as far back as 2010 when my blog was under a former guise. And she’s been immense in offering advice and support over the last few months. The thing is, Gemma and I have only met two, maybe three times (correct me if I’m wrong, Gemma), and yet when I have asked for her advice she has gone out of her way to answer my endless silly questions about working independently. Thank you.

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If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’ll already know my old sparring partner Gini Dietrich (@ginidietrich). She’s one of the most respected PR people on the web, has written a couple of fantastic books and I’ve quoted and referenced her more than any other individual since I started blogging. I have semi-regular debates with her about social media topics, and though I don’t always agree with her, I totally respect her opinion. (And don’t tell her this, but she’s normally right, much to my annoyance.) Despite living 4000 miles away, Gini’s been one of the most effusive in her best wishes and offers of help since I told her I was setting up on my own. Thank you.

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Jan Minihane (@janminihane) offered me some fantastic advice from her personal experience of setting up and running an agency when I first seriously considered doing this thing. That was way back in August. She even responded to a silly little question I asked her when she was on holiday (I didn’t know that when I asked it!) and has since offered more help and advice should need it. You’ve got to respect that, right? Thank you.

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Kate Hartley (@katehartley) and I served together (if that’s the right wording – it wasn’t a prison sentence!) for a couple of years on the PRCA Digital Group before I left due to lack of available time a year or so back. She knows her stuff when it comes to the communications field and she’s also one of the nicest people you’ll meet. Kate took the time to meet me for a coffee so I could pick her brain when I needed it. Thank you.

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Jo Porritt (@brandguardian) is another person I’ve never met in real life but have known for a long time through social media. (I’m still waiting for the invitation to Guernsey on holiday with my family though.) Jo’s run her own agency from the Channel Islands for the last four years and gave me some fantastic and more cautious advice that balanced the gung-ho “go for it!” stuff really well. It gave me something to consider. Thank you.

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I had a really good chat with Meg McAllister (@megmacpr) back in the summer that helped me think about my career at that time and how any potential move may affect me personally. I’m not going to reveal any more details about that, but Meg, it helped. Thank you.

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Last on the page but without doubt top of the list is my wife, Michelle. You won’t find her on any social networks other than Facebook, and she’s only ever sent one tweet. It was to tell me to leave work on time as I hadn’t responded to a text :)  She’s always described my job as “talking to people about talking to people” (© Michelle Sutton, 2015), which is insightful, funny and, hey, accurate. Like her, in fact.

Michelle has been a rock over the last six months since I first tentatively suggested that leaving well-paid, full-time employment to gamble with our family’s future by setting up independently might be a good idea. She’s been supportive, encouraging and all-round awesome. For that, and for much, much more, thank you.

Now, on with the job of making a living…

Independence Day: Why I Believe Freelance is the Future

freelance“Are you sure?!”
“Yeah, I feel like it’s something I need to do.”
“But what about the family? Can you afford to take the risk?”

In my last post I announced that I’ve left the agency environment after many, many years and set up as an independent communications consultant. This was the response of someone close to me when I told them last year, but which pretty much sums up the reaction from a few people. Words like ‘brave’ and ‘bold’ have been used.

So I thought I’d share why I think becoming freelance is the way forward not just for me, but for others with my skillset and experience.

The Problem

I specialise in digital, and primarily, social media. And though Facebook marketing has been around for seven or eight years and Twitter went mainstream over six years ago, it’s now 2015 and marketers of all types are still struggling to get to grips with how to communicate effectively through these “new” channels.

Generally speaking, digital, advertising and, to a lesser extent, SEO marketers produce great content but don’t necessarily have people in-house with the right mindset to activate it through a primarily conversation-led medium. On the other hand, the conversation specialists, PR professionals, are struggling to turn their skills into direct-to-public interactions or to adopt the data-led approach that enables them to measure success.

This isn’t a criticism; it’s just the way it is. The problem is that there’s a lack of specialist social media knowledge and skill within not all but most marketing agency and in-house environments. And it’s explained by looking at their core functions and the way they have developed.

The creative teams employ designers and media buyers. The tech teams employ very clever nerds. The comms teams employ media specialists.

And all of them are drilled into ‘selling’; selling products through ads, or search rankings, or media coverage. But people on social media don’t want to be sold to.

To make the structural changes necessary to redefine those agency models and roles is a massive and arguably unrealistic undertaking, especially for larger organisations.

The Solution

Marketers essentially have two options when it comes to covering this ground: invest in employing someone senior on a permanent basis, or draw on the knowledge of a specialist freelance consultant on a project basis.

Both options have their benefits. But the former is limiting for small and medium-sized teams due to the not insignificant salary involved. I personally believe that the latter is the future for most agencies and in-house teams, and that’s essentially why I’m moving in that direction.

Given the challenges faced by many agencies and communications teams, it makes sense to me that partnering with an experienced freelance social media consultant provides the expert advice and counsel that clients require, while gradually building literacy in digital and social media to a point where they no longer need that external help.

It’s a win/win situation. Isn’t it?

Back to that conversation:
“For me, the risk is in not going independent.”
“But what if it doesn’t work?”
“If I’m wrong about all this, then I’ll have to try and get a full-time job! But I’m convinced freelance is the way forward.”
“I guess we’ll find out in a few months!”
“Indeed.”

An Announcement!

announcementBack in July I spent a couple of weeks holidaying with my family. It was nothing special or flashy; a week in Devon with my parents and a week in Cornwall with my wife and kids.

We spent quality time on the beach rescuing my one year old from continuously face planting herself in the sand, dipping my wailing two year into the sea, and eating crunchy sandwiches with my five year old. You know, standard family staycation stuff.

But like many people do nowadays, I unplugged completely for a couple of weeks. Well, almost. The cornish (bless them) have largely yet to discover the delights of 3G, let alone 4G. So for the best part of ten days or so I had no emails and little in the way of Facebook or Twitter.

And something happened.

Over those two weeks I came to the realisation that my time is now.

Or, more accurately, now or never. Without the distractions of clients and colleagues, I had time to reflect on my professional life and what I want from my future.

I’ve been thinking about freelance work for at least two years, if not longer. I’m drawn to the opportunity to work with clients and people of my own choosing; to make my own decisions; to control my own destiny. I see opportunity.

But whenever I’ve given it consideration, my head has told me: “You have a young family. You cannot take the risk of giving up the security of permanent employment.” And my head was always right. But now, for a change, I’m following my heart.

And so I’m delighted to announce that, as of now, I am working as an independent consultant, offering digital and social media consultancy and training to agencies and in-house teams.

I’ll miss working alongside the talented and supportive members of a team that I built and developed at BOTTLE. Together we’ve done some great work that I’m extremely proud of. 16 awards in just three years is testament to the quality and creativity I’m used to. But all good things come to an end.

The time is right for me to set up independently.

I love talking strategy with marketers and business owners. I love the buzz of analysing digital communications programmes and devising creative strategies that improve them. And I love seeing my own experience and knowledge benefiting individuals and communications teams.

In short, I’m stupidly excited to start working with a wide variety of brands, organisations, agencies and people. And if you’re reading this and think that we could work together to achieve something great, then check out this brand spanking new website, and let’s talk!

Everything is Dead!

Social Media is DeadSocial media is dead! announces Ofcom.
PR is dead! proclaims Robert Phillips.
SEO is dead! screams Business2Community.

Man, what a crappy state of affairs. Three industries wiped out, just like that. 2015 looks like it’s going to be one hell of a shitty year, huh? Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.

Only…it’s not.

Take the sensationalist headlines created last week around data from Ofcom reporting that UK social media use dropped by 9% in the last 12 months. What about Instagram? Use up. Vine? Use up. Snapchat? Use up. Google+? Err…

The truth is that social media is fragmenting.
The truth is that PR is evolving.
The truth is that SEO is adapting.

And as I see it, that’s an opportunity. It’s a chance for the more progressive and informed among us to think bigger. And wider. And to add real value to the brands and companies we work with and for.

So buy into the hype if you want to. But personally I’m feeling more optimistic about 2015 than I have in a long time. And if you are, let’s do it together!

Merry Christmas!

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Posted by Paul Sutton

A Masterclass in Influencer Marketing [case study]

A Masterclass in Influencer Engagement
Image Credit

There have been books written on influencer marketing. Long and complex books. Books that talk about context, strategy, the buying cycle, monitoring, evaluation, ROI and much, much more. In this post, I’m going to save you the time of reading them* with one, powerful example.

Emily Leary is one of the very top parent bloggers in the UK. In the two and a half years since she launched A Mummy Too, she’s established herself as the go-to person for all things family and food.

On Tuesday, she received this tweet:

Many (dare I say it, ‘most’) brands and organisations should take a long hard look at this and compare it to their own ham-fisted, impersonal and lazy approaches to contacting influential individuals. So what can we learn from this?

It’s Personal
It’s very clear that Ramon Bilbao did their research. They knew that Emily’s audience is the same as theirs, they identified that she is influential in her niche and they approached her on a one-to-one basis.

It’s Focused
Central to Ramon Bilbao’s approach, they read Emily’s blog. They spent time investigating her content to find a link between meals for families and red wine! To their detriment, too many brands skip this step.

It’s Original
The use of Vine in the outreach is not something I’ve seen before. This sort of thing normally takes place through email or a tweet. Which is fine. But Ramon Bilbao grabbed attention by doing something different using a different medium.

It Goes The Extra Mile
The fact that the brand went to the effort of actually making one of Emily’s recipes to pair it with the product is outstanding. It tells Emily that they really value her as a potential partner and would love to work with her. It’s what makes this example of influencer engagement so special.

There’s No Hard Sell
No email saying ‘try our wine’. No ‘we’ll send you a bottle if you do XYZ’. A gentle, personal approach that resulted in offering a bottle of wine “if you’d like to try it” only after Emily had responded to the tweet to say thank you. Spot on.

In summary, Ramon Bilbao’s approach made Emily feel valued. And for someone like Emily, who I know gets approached on a pretty much daily basis by brands wanting to work with her, that’s quite some achievement. Kudos.

* I jest. The book Influence Marketing by Danny Brown and Sam Fiorella is a must-read if you’re serious about influencer engagement.

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Posted by Paul Sutton