Category: Strategy

Deception, Deflection and Disruption: the new rules of political communication

This is a post I have been meaning to write for at least 18 months. When first conceived it was in part a prediction. Recent events have conspired to make that prediction a reality, which has encouraged me to get it out there. It is post about the three Ds of modern political communication: Deception, Deflection and Disruption.


It all started with Deception. Many people have accused UK Prime Minister Tony Blair of being a liar. In truth, he was far too clever to deserve this label. Calling Tony Blair a liar is a bit like calling a successful poker player a liar. What Tony Blair and a successful poker player have in common is that the practice of deceit is fundamental to their success. Indeed the whole New Labour project was built upon deception. There was, of course, the grand deception designed to create support or justification for the Iraq war but at a more prosaic level there was the deception that New Labour was a party that was going to deliver on any of its promises, when in fact all they were doing was kicking the can down the road – just another variant of TINA (There Is No Alternative) politics. Labour confused being a party of opposition with being a party in opposition, a problem which exists to this day – but that is another story.

The Conservative-lead government of David Cameron learned a lot from New Labour. They didn’t use deception to disguise a lack of any policies or principles, rather they used it to disguise the ideology underpinning their policies. The Big Society was a case in point. Many people see David Cameron’s Big Society as a muddle-headed failure and its subsequent dismissal from the ‘narrative’ shortly after coming into office as proof of that. On the contrary, the Big Society was a brilliant success. It was never intended to last, it was always just a piece of election stagecraft.

The Big Society was actually a cover story for the privatisation of the State, legitimising the idea that government can withdraw from its responsibilities to manage public services and instead turn these into profit-making opportunities and hand these over to private companies and the ‘free’ market. Of course you could never admit to this in public because if you did, you would never get elected, so an alterative (alt) narrative was required. Cameron and his team were well aware of the fact that the previous Tory government had foundered on being seen as the ‘nasty party’ that was all about selfish individualism. In particular, the idea expressed by Margaret Thatcher that there was no such thing as society had come to represent everything he knew he had to distance himself from. Voters realised there was such a thing as society, because they could see it starting to fray all around them. What better way to address this by stating that you not only believed in society, you wanted to create a Really Big One.

The Big Society had an additional benefit in that it sucked-in support from left-of-centre politics. Charities, third-sector organisations and NGOs all got excited by this idea, mostly because they could smell the money that this approach seemed to imply would flow to them. This excitement was short-lived. Once in power it was clear that the money was going to the big private sector contractors that have established an alternative (alt) Whitehall in Victoria Street, another road leading to the seat of government in Westminster. “The problem with charities is that they have become too dependent on the State” was the cold retort of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maud as he announced cuts, rather than more money, to those charities responsible for delivering state-funded projects. It wasn’t so much the Big Society as the Big Business Society.


Things then progressed to deflection. The global financial crash of 2008 was a rather inconvenient refutation to belief in economic neo-liberalism and the supremacy of the free market. Here was a catastrophic failure of that ideology, due in part to the fact that loosely regulated ‘free’ markets can very easily be manipulated and also the tendency such markets have to cultivate greed and become little more than frameworks to preserve and enhance the interests of the rich and powerful. There was also the slight problem that, after more than 20 years of pursuing this ideology by governments of both sides of the supposed political divide (ref. TINA politics), things were starting to get a little ragged. Increasing inequality was becoming obvious, public services were in a bad way, social care had become little more than a profit-making opportunity – as had tertiary education, the cherished National Health Service was heading the same way and manufacturing industry was in decline due to the long-absence of any sort of industrial strategy since the only strategy in town was to hand everything over to the market and let that work out what to do.

The blame needed to be shifted and the Cameron government decided to promote the idea that the state of the public finances bequeathed them by the previous Labour government was in fact the cause of problem. This not only shifted the blame, but also legitimised a renewed assault on public services and the State under the guise of an austerity programme. A double-win.

I don’t think the Tories initially believed they could get away with this, but due to the total aversion of the Labour Party in opposition to the concept of offering-up any opposition, they found this ‘narrative’ actually stuck. Thus emboldened, they began a programme of mass deflection – blaming the state of the NHS on doctors/nurses/management/bureaucracy, the state of education on poorly performing teachers or local authorities, the welfare bill on benefits cheats, immigrants or just poor people generally. Everyone was to blame, except government or the fundamentalist free-market ideology that underpinned everything that successive governments had been doing.


This brings us to Disruption, where things get much more prescient, not to say scary. The master of disruption is Vladimir Putin and in particular his orchestrator of confusion, Vladislav Surkov. Putin / Surkov realised that you don’t attack your opposition by trying to suppress it, what you do is deflate its ability to operate by undermining its attempts to create any solid foundations. Thus Putin will erode human rights in Russia, while funding the human rights organisations who then subsequently criticise him. The result is confusion: people just don’t know what to think or who to believe. There are thus no certainties upon which to build beliefs or ideas which might challenge the status quo. This is an approach used to great effect domestically, but it has also been extended into Russia’s foreign policy – which at times seems to have no agenda other than to be as disruptive as possible in order to confuse opponents and keep everyone on the back foot.

It is this which explains the apparently bizarre connection between Russia and Donald Trump. There is an enormous level of admiration held by the elements in the Trump administration lead by Steve Bannon (and probably by Trump himself) for how Vladimir Putin operates. Putin has been able to disable almost all the institutions of the state associated with the maintenance of democracy, turning Russia into a country that is primarily structured to preserve and enhance the interests of a super-rich elite (this is the bit that Bannon likes). Yet he has been able to do this while maintaining the fig leaf of democratic consent based upon creating genuine public support for a populist, strong, nationalistic leader (this is the bit that Trump likes). Russia is effectively Breitbart World made real. It also bears a chilling similarity to the world of George Orwell’s 1984 with its newspeak, revision and reversal of history and state of perpetual warfare against largely unseen enemies without and within.

I would venture to suggest that the Cameron government and its chief spin doctor Lynton Crosby, experimented with disruption politics in its latter days. Witness the last Conservative Party Conference before Cameron’s resignation. Here, while positioning the Conservative Party as the party of working people, the government announced the scrapping of working tax credits – an initiative that all the independent experts pronounced would have the greatest negative impact on precisely those people the government was pledging its support to. Words and actions in total contradiction – was this incompetence or calculated disruption? We shall never know. What we do know however, is that it didn’t work, since government as forced to withdraw its changes to working tax credits in the face of public opposition.

We also need to know that we are entering an age of politics characterised by the practice of deception, deflection and disruption. This is a world within which people like Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Wilders, Le Penn and Farage can flourish. It is not so much a world of fake news, as fake politics and fake democracy. Rather than get caught-up in, and thus fall victim to, its daily vortex of manufactured madness, it is important that those who study and report upon these things remain focused on exposing its highly organised, but often hidden, dynamics.


A focus for marketing in 2017

I notice that I last posted in June last year and that this wasn’t even a proper post, just a reference to a speech I had given in Istanbul that was conveniently YouTubed. In my defence, I have been busy doing other things such as building a house and involved in an interesting experiment in online education. Interestingly, my blog views haven’t decreased dramatically over that time, which I think says something instuctive about the whole content thing. It suggests that content is not a volume game, where frequency or even timing of posting is key, rather it suggests that content is a relevance game that is not driven by the act of publication, but driven by the act of search. This is why content socialisation is far more important that content publication. As I have said before, spend only 10 per cent (or less) of your content budget actually producing content and the remaining 90 per cent on socialising that content. Socialised content is the gift that carries on giving. Once it is out there it will carry on working for you without you having to do anything else. And this socialisation has to start with an understanding of what content (information) people actually want from you – identifying the questions for which your brand is the answer. Remember, the social digital space is not a distribution space where reach and frequency are the objectives, it is a connection space where the objectives are defined by behaviour identification and response.

Here endeth the predictable critique of content strategies.

Given that it is still January I believe I have permission to resume posting with a 2017 prediction piece. I was prompted to do this by reading Ashley Freidlin’s extremely comprehensive post on marketing and digital trends for 2017. This is essentially a review of the landscape and it its sheer scale is almost guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of every marketing director. Perhaps because of this, Ashley’s starts with saying that the guiding star for 2017 should be focus, so in that spirit I shall attempt to provide some basis for focus.

Focus on value

First, I would suggest that the best way of achieving focus is to focus on value. I sincerely hope that 2017 is the year marketing people wake up to the fact that much of what they have been doing in the social digital space is not creating sufficient value to justify doing it – no matter how many likes, shares, re-tweets it might have been garnering. Drop the reach and frequency metrics: value in the social digital space is created by behaviour identification and response, not reach and frequency.

With this in mind I hope 2017 will see the death of content marketing as we know it. Ashley suggests that content marketing is approaching its ‘plateau of productivity’ as per the Gartner Hype Cycle. I think it is approaching its ‘peak of inflated expectation’ and is about the slide into the ‘trough of disillusionment’ (for reasons I have set out many times before).

AI, Big Data, Internet of things, marketing automation, conversational interfaces, identity management, segmentation, augmented reality.  These are all the same thing

There is one thing that links all this stuff together and that is the algorithm. Understand algorithms and how they change the way we understand identity and all of this seemingly diverse stuff will fall into place. Critically, algorithms shift the way we understand  identity from seeking to understand who or where people are (old-fashioned segmentation and targeting), to understanding what they are doing (algorithmic segmentation). It is about behaviour identification and response again. That is why mobile is becoming so important because a mobile (and a wearable) is not as channel – as most people think – it is a behaviour detection device and also a data gathering device.

If I were to call out any of the above it would be augmented reality. This is vastly more important than virtual reality. Augmented reality allows you to place an algorithm between a person and the real world (not a fantasy world), the real world where transactions happen. Imagine a retail environment where an augmented reality app allows a brand or the retailer to create an individually customised offer to any shopper. Pokemon Buy, rather than Pokemon Go. And that is only the start. Augmented reality and the heads-up screen is the gateway to the world of the algorithm and real-time, real world customised and personalised experiences. It can be used, quite literally, to control how we see, experience and relate to the world around us.

The race for data

Linked to the above is the race for data. Organisations need to build what I call their data geology: layers of data sets they can then stitch together with algorithmic needles in order to understand and predict consumer behaviour. As a more general rule, the more data layers you have, the better. Volume of data trumps accuracy or precision of data in the world of the algorithm. The NSA and GCHQ have shown us how to do this and it is why these organisations are potentially the most powerful marketing agencies (indeed most powerful anything agencies) in the world: it is just that they have chosen to use this power only to identify terrorists and criminals at this point (at least as far as we know). Identifying, adding to and locking down your data is a critical task for any organisation, even if you haven’t yet hired the data scientists to help you work out what to do with it.  Which brings us to…


Data scientists. Get some. That’s it. The most important hire any marketer could make this year.


Getting my head around Blockchain is at the top of my 2017 to do list. Blockchain has the potential to do to the distribution and sharing of value, what the internet did to the distribution and sharing of information. It could usher-in the end of the trading era where information about money is more valuable than actual money. I don’t yet now how it is going to do this, but the place I would recommend starting is Jeremy Epstein’s blog. Jeremy is now focusing on Blockchain and he has always been a guy who is one-step-ahead. I was sort of interested in Blockchain, but when I heard Jeremy was focusing on it full-time, I became very interested.

And finally, advertising (it is not dead or dying)

Or more precisely the good old-fashioned world of audience-based marketing. This world hasn’t gone away. If a brand still wishes to be ‘a brand’ it has to put on a show for the audience, as well as becoming a fragmented ‘personalised experience’. Indeed the more personalised brands become, the more important it is to have a collective experience at the centre. Of course, brands as we know them might disappear and the whole brand landscape may become commoditised. In fact this could become one of the effects of Blockchain, but this isn’t gong to happen any time soon and there is nothing to be gained (for current brands) in hastening its advance.

However I do think audience-based marketing has to evolve if it is to survive and this will involve breaking the dependency on channel. Currently most marketing activity is defined by the channels it sits within, rather than defining the channels it sits within. As these channels have proliferated and as consumers have gained greater control over channel use selection the response has been to develop ‘multi-channel marketing’ and we have conjured into existence this mythical beast called ‘the omnichannel’. This is the wrong approach. Rather than focus on the channel, marketers need to focus on the ideas than can boss (and sit on top of) the channels.

Last year I ran a workshop for a TV company. I pointed out to them that in the past Red Bull used to pay them large amounts of money for the privilege of renting a 30 second window in their channel (i.e an ad) to get their message out to their consumers. Today, the TV company pays Red Bull money to allow Red Bull to have a 60 minute window in their channel in which they can get their message in front of consumers. Who is the boss here? Red Bull as a brand has become a series of events which define and ‘boss’ the channels they sit within. Its approach to F1 is the same, rather than sponsor an F1 team (traditional channel-based sponsorship idea), it became an F1 team. Brands need to look at Red Bull and learn.

Creating ideas that define the channels they sit within should be the principal creative challenge for brands and their agencies in 2017. I also did a workshop for a large agency group in Milan last year. The creative people here were spending their time pulling their hair out desperately pumping out vast amounts of content for their clients: feeding the multi-headed channel beast that is Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and… What a waste of time, energy, creativity and money when they should have been focusing on creating and bringing to life channel-bossing ideas.





Success in the digital future: talk at Digital Age Summit 2016

IMG_6708A few weeks ago I was in Istanbul speaking at the Digital Age Summit. A video of my presentation is now on YouTube and I have finally got around to posting it.

See also below the summary slide, which pretty much covers what I said. Some other soundbites include, why a mobile is not a channel but is a behaviour detection device, why consumers don’t want content, why marketing has been in the Ice Age and why the algorithm is the most powerful instrument of social control invented since the sword.

Digital Age 2016 minus video

Also – check out the presentation by Matt Wallaert from Microsoft for a new way of thinking about your business / market and competition.

I especially like the idea of creating value by reducing levels of engagement, given the senseless chase for ‘engagement’ in social media. It correspond to my idea of a brand as a waiter – just tell me about the specials, take my order, bring my drinks but at all other times just stay out of my life – don’t think that because you are a waiter you have a right to ‘join my conversation’. (I don’t think I got into this in my presentation – there was probably already too much in there).

Marketing technology: it is confusing but it is going to be big

This post is a marker.  It is post-it note that says “remember to watch this space and try and get your head around it because this is going to be big”.  It also is an excuse to log what I think is a very useful, if slightly mind-bending post by Scott Brinker.

My current mantra for marketing folk is that the future of brands involves getting your head around three things: the shift from the audience to the individual, the fact that community is becoming the new media, and the emergence of the world of the algorithm (i.e. Big Data).  I also continually bang-on about social media being a process, and of course, one of the things we use technology to do is management of process.

To a large extent, eveything that Scott is talking about in his post plays against these  issues.  To manage relationships with individuals at any sort of scale will require a process supported by technology.  Scott also talks about tag management – which (as I have already written about) will become the foundational process for the operation of communities.  Likewise, it is clear that the algorithm will become the tool that makes sense of the data that could be seen to live within the marketing cloud.  And, as Scott points out, Amazon is already starting to offer algorithmic products to do just that.

Scott also observes that things are currently very complicated and confused.  Or, as I flagged in my previous post, this stuff is ‘legitimately difficult’.  I definitely do no know enough about it – but from what I can see, I think I know enough to say that this is the future.  Technology is going to play a huge role in the management of the relationship between brands and consumers – because technology facilitates process, and this future relationship is going to be defined by process (behaviour identification and response) not by channel and message.

I think I can also predict that the key to really embracing this future is to shed yourself of the snakeskin of the past.  Big data is totally different to small data, to the extent that you can’t build your way to a big data future from a small data starting point or mindset.  Likewise, current marketing technology deals with stuff like CRM but the only way you will be able to deal with the new marketing technology is to free yourself from a CRM mindset (and possibly your CRM people).  If you look at this new stuff through the lens of the old stuff, you will probably fail to see or understand its potential.

I can Get (now) Satisfaction

GSIn view of my previous post about the three key tools of social media (Sprinklr, WordPress and Get Satisfaction), you can only imagine my own sense of satisfaction – indeed smugness – to see that Sprinklr has just announced it has bought Get Satisfaction.

Clearly there are sensible people, with money, out there who think as I do – which is always a reassuring thought.

The interesting thing about Get Satisfaction is that when it first launched it was a customer, rather than a corporate, tool. It was designed to allow customers or consumers to create their own community around the brands they wanted to talk to, or report upon. It was a bit like Trip Advisor – but for any organisation. It was a community owned by the customer to which brands were then invited to join. Indeed for those brands that didn’t join there was a wonderful one-liner “No-one from company X has sponsored, endorsed or joined the conversation yet” which I thought was a great metaphor for the state of social media at the time (notice the usage of the word ‘yet’). I used this in all of my presentations  (see pictures) and I was convinced that this marked the dawn of a new era where control of corporate reputation would shift to individual customers operating within structured or semi-structured online communities.tomb

Things haven’t worked out quite like that (yet). Get Satisfaction itself shifted to become a corporate-based product, probably because it’s management decided (sensibly as it turned out) to commercialise first and then build a corporate user base rather than build a big consumer user base and then try to work-out how to commercialise it. However, I think the fact that it started out as a tool for the customer has given it an edge as a customer service tool for brands. It has a recognition that all things start with the customer (rather than the brand) coded into its DNA.

As a brand, if you use a tool like Get Satisfaction you cannot fail but become more connected, in real-time, with your customers. It’s four imperatives – ask a question, report a problem, share an idea, give praise – represent all the things that customers want to base their relationships with brands upon. Creating a customer service community may not be easy because doing it effectively means building a new process which will have tentacles that reach out much further into your business that the traditional marketing, sales and communication processes ever did. It will certainly be harder than simply pumping industrial volumes of content out into the social void. However, it is worth remembering that the easy things to do are not usually the best things to do.

I hope that this acquisition marks an end of the phoney-war of social media – and also an acquisition that cements Sprinklr’s position as the leader in ‘enterpise social media solutions’ (I hate that phrase but you know what I mean). I hope it marks at least the begining of the end of the phase where brands thought they could simply put a ‘social patch’ onto their traditional, audience and content based approaches and then carry on as normal. I hope this marks a growing realisation that brands have to adopt a fundamentally different approach to creating relationships with customers in the social digital space, the world of the individual rather than the world of the audience. A world where brands understand how to harness the power of connection rather than distribution. A world where (as I have said in my ebook) you are successful by not speaking to 97 per cent of your audience – just the three per cent (frequently much less) who, at any given time, want to talk to you.

Or, as I have also said, there are only ten customers critical to your business and social media can help you find them. The only catch being these are the people critical to your business right now, and in 10 minutes time it could be another ten people. I.e. these are the people who, right now, want to ask a question, report a problem, share an idea or give praise.


Social media: the three (wise) tools

I am often asked about which social media tools to use. My stock answer is to say “the answer is never a tool, social media is not a tool-based challenge.” I then invoke the analogy of the carpenter and the chisel, i.e. a carpenter will probably use a chisel, but having a chisel won’t make you a carpenter – carpentry, like social media, is a process-based challenge, not a tool-based challenge.

3 toolsHowever, I am prepared to make an exception in three cases. The tools I recommend are linked to the three pillars of any successful social media strategy: conversation, content (information management) and community. The reason I recommend them is that none can be misunderstood as a channel (like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram et al can) and all involve construction of a process in order to use them effectively.

Netvibes as a path to Sprinklr

The first addresses conversation (i.e. listening and responding to the things people are saying about your brand which is the only conversation brands have permission to join). The tool I initially point people to is Netvibes. Netvibes is still the only decent free tool that you can use to establish a comprehensive monitoring dashboard. When I show people a Netvibes dashboard their response is almost always “wow – I want one of those”. Hootsuite does this a bit, but Hootsuite is more set up to publish outgoing than it is to monitor incoming. However, if you are looking for an ‘enterprise solution’ – and if your organisation is of any sort of size you will need to do this – the solution is Sprinklr. Sprinklr has now swallowed so many platforms and technologies you cannot really call it a tool, but the reason I recommend it (them) is that of all the major platforms players they are the only one that fundamentally ‘gets’ the fact that social media is a process management challenge rooted in behaviour identification and response. I note they have just announced another new service, the ‘Customer Experience Cloud’. Now I am a bit sceptical about the concept of customer experiences, but this is when a generic (sometimes called consistent) customer experience is broadcast down this thing called an omni-channel. However, the Sprinklr approach seems to be more about how you manage your response to individual consumers – i.e. giving your customers the individual experience they want, rather than forcing onto them an experience the brand wants them all to have. It could also help in the important business of identifying and recruiting superfans (see point 4 in this post).

WordPress (social hub)

The second tool is WordPress. Now I know WordPress has finally become all conquering (although I can remember the days when you had to torture digital agencies to get them to use it), but the more specific usage of WordPress I recommend is the creation of a content / social hub. Without something like this a brand cannot have a real-time voice: it cannot provide answers to questions or link together its usage of any of the other tools such as YouTube or Twitter. A website can explain what you do. But a social hub can demonstrate how you are doing it. It will also help you target Google spaces (i.e. the places where people are asking the question for which your brand provides the answer).

Get Satisfaction

I really enjoy recommending the third tool  – because no-one has heard of it. This tool is Get Satisfaction. Get Satisfaction is an out-of-the-box customer service community. I believe that within a few years every single organisation will have to have one of these in place in the same way that it became expected that every organisation needed a website. In fact I think websites will basically morph into one of these anyway. Why? Well, as I highlighted in this post on Edelman’s recent Brandshare report – consumers are telling brands they want them to do eight things – and the four most important of these can easily be addressed with an online customer service community.

I have looked back over my presentations and noticed that I first started talking about Get Satisfaction at a conference in Budapest in 2008. I keep waiting for it to become ‘big’ and remain disappointed, in fact appalled, at the extent to which so few ‘social media experts’ have latched onto it – but I think this just reflects the extent to which we all still see social media as a distribution challenge, not a connection challenge. Community is all about connection, in fact I think community will become the new media. Wherever we look we see relationships between brands and consumers being disrupted by the intervention of communities (Trip Advisor, Airbnb, Wikipedia – even Google itself). Brands need to understand how to operate within these new community spaces, but also how to create a community space for their brand. People would much rather talk to a brand within its own community space, rather than have a brand invade their own spaces in networks such as Facebook. Facebook (as it is spending advertising dollars saying) is for friendship – and you will never be friends with a brand.

We are starting to see what communities such as Yammer, Jive or Lithium can do in creating more efficient relationships between people within your business. Get Satisfaction can do the same for creating more efficient relationships with your consumers or customers. Better still, if you create an online customer service community, the process you will have to build around it will force you to become more effective in the way in which you operate the rest of your social media strategy. This community will become the hub which defines the rest of your activity.

So – let us kill of the age of brandfill (content) and bring on the age of community.

Must read: Haydn Shaughnessy on the new ‘creative’ economy

FireShot Screen Capture #212 - 'Shift_ A User's Guide to the New Economy_ Haydn Shaughnessy_ 9781941420034_ Amazon_com_ Books' - www_amazon_com_gp_product_1941420036_ref=as_li_tl_ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creat“A decade ago we were wondering what the Creative Economy might actually mean. Now we can see it: it takes the form of delegation of responsibility to individuals who have to find ways to cooperate and ways to innovate while taking risks with their time and income.”  So says Haydn Shaughnessy in a fascinating interview with Forbes’ Steve Denning.

It is an article that raises a host of hugely important issues, so many that it is difficult to know which to highlight or how to summarise them.  For a start it recognises that what is going here is not simply about new technolgies it is about a change to societies and social relationships – especially the relationship between institutions and individuals.

It also makes the critical point that, despite what we all like to think about the ’empowerement’ of individuals in this new creative economy, that is not what is really going on.  Businesses are essentially outsourcing risk and while this is efficient from the perspective of the individual businesses concerned, it is generates much greater costs and inefficiencies for the wider economy and society as a whole.  In a nutshell, if you can outsource innovation to a ‘creative community’ of  10,000 individuals, you can then just choose the one that works best and discard the 9,999 others.  Great for you, and the people behind the one you picked, but not so good for the 9,999.  Not only does this create a society of chronic insecurity, it is also hugely wasteful of effort.

Shaughnessy also makes the point that while this may work in the short-term, if business as a whole is to rely on this approach, it needs to create greater certainty of supply.  In his words “The start-up culture is self-congratulatory. They celebrate several hundred Fintech start-ups in London. But in reality, we need thousands or even tens of thousands of start-ups. To get to 300 successful firms, you need 10,000 start-ups. We are not addressing that kind of issue. What it means is that we also need to prepare people for a different journey through life.”

I was also pleased that Shaugnessy deals with the issue of scale and the extent to which scale no longer confers an advantage (something I have written about before).  He highlights the ability of many new companies to grow huge revenues and operate globally with very few employees often as a result of the fact that they are ‘born social’ and have a social purpose as a facilitator.  In the process organisations such as WordPress and TED they can create an intellectual asset base of goodwill that outstrips the ‘bought’ goodwill inherent in models of many supposedly successful ‘brands’ such as Coca Cola.

Anyway – read the interview (and the associated book).  It is one of the most important things I have read in a very long time because it doesn’t just paint a picture of what is going on, it explains why it is happening and what we need to do about it.


Organic social media is dead: but was it ever alive?

It appears to have become an article of faith that organic social media reach is dead. The reason for this, so the idea goes, is that the social space has become so cluttered that achieving cut-through is now too difficult. From this it proceeds that the way forward is to look at paid for solutions, or at least to ensure that any organic activity has paid for boosters attached.

My question though is this. Was organic social media reach ever alive? OK there may have been some examples where brands have managed to get themselves in front of a large number of people in the social digital space, but I would contend that these were, and will remain, the exception. I don’t think the social media space has ever delivered reach on a consistent basis and all that has changed is that we are waking up to that fact. For example engagement levels, on average, with brand Facebook pages have always been abysmally low. This is not a recent phenomenon, it is simply that we haven’t wished to believe this.

It has nothing to do with the fact that the space has now filled up, or, as has been suggested, we are arriving at an impending content shock. The trouble with this type of thinking is this leads to the conclusion that we simply have to make our content more engaging / competitive in order to achieve sufficient reach when, in fact, what we should be doing is abandoning the idea of reach altogether. Continue reading

What next after content marketing?

(Way) back in 2008 I wrote a rather lengthy paper on the theory of social media.  Interestingly, it has become the blogging equivalent of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in that it has hung around in my list of current popular posts ever since.  Within this I suggested that the key assets for operating in the social media space were content, conversation and community.  I also proposed that we were likely to move through these in sequence: content being the easiest thing to deal with, followed by conversation and ending up with community.

Well – we certainly have embraced the content thing.  So, if my theory holds – could the next big thing be conversation marketing?

Presentation1So I turned to Google Trends.  What this showed (see blue line in the diagram above) is the extent to which content marketing has exploded over the last two years (albeit four years after I proposed it in my paper).   Interestingly, this is plotted against Facebook marketing (green), which we can see peaked as a subject of interest in late 2011 and Facebook engagement (purple) which peaked a little later.  We now talk more about content marketing than we do about Facebook engagement (at last).

As an aside, the content marketing that brands are doing, doesn’t really correspond to the type of content marketing I envisaged.  I was proposing an approach to content that was about creating a network of information threads within a brand’s relevant digital space, not simply ramming the channels with stuff.  However, I think we will come around to my way of thinking in time – possibly as brands become more conversational, and thus more in tune with what content (information) consumers want, as distinct from the content brands want them to have.

However, Google Trends didn’t really turn up any evidence to suggest that conversation or community might be the next things.  In its (or my) defence, this is probably because we haven’t yet created ‘the word’ for what conversation or community based marketing might be.  Key to the birth of any new thing is christening it with a name.  So I guess we have to look elsewhere for evidence.  Here I would return to the post I wrote a few week ago about Edleman’s Brandshare Report.  Here we see very clear evidence that consumers want to have conversations with brands, albeit conversations that start with the issues consumers want a response to, rather than the issues brands might want to have conversations about.

Content marketing, even when you do it right, is actually very easy.  It doesn’t involve changing the model of marketing or actually involving the consumer too much.  That is why I suggested content would be the first big thing to arrive (once brands had got over their initial obsession with Facebook and Twitter).  Conversation marketing is harder because it involves seeding an element of control, if only in terms of letting the consumer decide what conversations they want to have.  It involves changing the configuration of marketing resources with a shift towards investment in people and processes, rather than agencies and media.  It also involves recognising that you can’t have a conversation with everyone all at once – and thus you only create positive ROI by extracting much higher value from a much more limited ‘reach’ (subject of the e-book I wrote last year).  In fact it involves abandoning the idea of reach as a sensible metric altogether. It also corresponds to what I am calling the concept of ‘Hot Marketing’ – the creation of genuinely valuable (hot) relationships, albeit much fewer of them at any one moment in time than when were creating (cold) relationships with entire audiences.

This additional level of difficulty is the reason I think it is going to be a couple of years before brands really get to the place where they understand how to create value from conversation.  I also think brands will need to get over the current obsession with ‘brandfill’ content strategies before they will have the operational space to move onwards.  I guess this puts the concept of community marketing back to at least five years’ out.  This is a shame, especially since I have spent most of this year banging on about forms of community!  However, effective communities involve creating a much greater level of shared interest and collaboration between brands and consumers than most marketing folk are prepared to countenance.  In fact, we will probably only get to the community phase by reinventing the concept of marketing as we know it.

Looking back at my 2008 piece, I am still pretty happy with its core conclusions.  I would stand by everything I said within it and I think what I predicted is basically panning out – although perhaps not as quickly as I thought it might.  But there again, I am aware that one of the features of any revolution is that one tends to overestimate its impact in the short term, but underestimate its impact in the long term.



2015: The Year of Hot Marketing (you heard it hear first)

Marketing has always been a cold business.  We may not have realised this in the same way that our ancestors in the Ice Age didn’t think it was especially chilly.  As they were huddled round their fires, drapped in layers of woolly mamoth skin, they were not dreaming of laying out on a sunny beach in their fur-lined swimwear.  We only call it the Ice Age because we are looking back at it from the perspective of a warmer world.  We can now see that pretty much eveything our ancestors were doing in the Ice Age revolved around the fact that keeping warm was difficult, but to the folks at the time, this was just business-as-usual.

Marketing is the same.  The rules of marketing were established to deal with a ‘cold’ environment where distributing information (like staying warm) was expensive and difficult.  But because these rules applied to everyone, we didn’t notice them.  Instead, we simply focused on playing the game better.

But marketing (especially consumer brand marketing) is now in trouble.  In fact, I think 2015 is shaping up to be a very tough year for marketing.  The reason for this is that the brand climate is warming up, and brand marketers haven’t got themselves a hat and some sun-screen.  Instead, to continue to stretch an already rather mixed analogy, they are trying (unsuccesfully) to make a fur parasol.

The social digital revolution is melting the problem that marketing was based around.  It is now not a problem defined by the difficulty of distribution, it is a problem defined by the opportunity for connection.  It is not a world defined by relationships with audiences, it is defined by relationships with indivuduals – and relationships between individuals are always going to be ‘warmer’ than relationships with audiences. We may have believed that we could create a warm relationship with a ‘target audience’ but that was only relative.  The best audience-type of relationship can only ever be at the warmer end of a fundamentally cold scale.  It may have seemed like a warm relationship to us at the time, but only in the same way that 1 degree above freezing might have seemed a pretty balmy day to the folks in the Ice Age.

Any strategy or set of tactics designed for a cold world will become increasingly less effective as the world warms up.  This is the problem we see with marketing.  Everything we know about how to ‘do’ marketing still works, it just works less and less effectively as every year passes.  And this is why marketing directors are tearing their hair out and coming under pressure from finance directors and CEOs – pressure which is then translated to their agencies.  It makes no business sense to keep pouring progressively more and more money into something to compensate for the fact that it is delivering less and less.

But – there was a Great Hope.  We could all see that the problem seemed to be coming out of the digital space, so we therefore assumed that the digital space would offer up to us a solution.  The tools, the things, the channels that came out of this space would deliver for us the results that the old tools and channels were failing to do.  Or so we believed.

The reason I think 2015 is going to be the year of reckoning is a dawning recognition that the Great Digital Hope (in all its iterations) – is failing to live up to the promise.  It might be delivering a bit, but it is not delivering enough.  Indeed, in many instances it is turning out to be an even more unproductive environment in which to spend traditional marketing dollars.  For example, we have now realised that ‘organic reach’ in social media is no sort of reach at all.  We can bolt advertising solutions onto this, but this advertising works less effectively than it did when we were doing it in traditional media.  We can become more targeted in our approach, but the more targeted we become, the less receptive people are to being targeted (or less responsive to what we have to target them with).  The metrics we have all been chasing: engagement, followings, ‘likes’ are turning out to be both hard to achieve at any sort of scale, and also pretty worthless if you achieve them.

Of course it is not the digital environment that is failing to deliver, it is simply that the old approaches don’t deliver in this new environment.

In the new world, you don’t deal with audiences, you deal with individuals.  But, you can’t deal with individuals all at once (or else they become an audience again).  So if you can only deal with a small number of people at any one time, the value you have to extract (the heat if you wish) has to be dramatically greater.  And generating sufficient heat will inevitably involve ceding elements of control back to the consumer, because productive relationships have to be balanced.  Brands have not been giving consumers what they really want, they have been giving them what it is economically efficient for them to provide.  But while brands are all playing to the same rules, it can appear as though we are responding to our consumers – when all we are doing is being a tiny bit less-responsive than the next guy.

The logic behind ‘hot marketing’ is pretty compelling, in much the same way that the logic behind global warming is pretty compelling.  It is also relatively easy to start to identify how to create value through the power of connection (rather than distribution).  But, as with global warming, recognition of the problem doesn’t make the solution easy – because it involves surrendering the old certainties and doing things differently.  This isn’t going to happen overnight.  However, the first step is for brands to understand the rules of ‘hot marketing’ as well as recognising how fundamentally cold the previous rules were.

My mission for 2015 is therefore to be an evangelist for Hot Marketing.