Next practice not best practice

‘Best Practice’ is one of those buzzwords that gets chucked around corporations with impunity. I get where it’s come from and I get why many like to rely on it – I mean, once you have found a way to do something successfully, why would you not want to replicate that experience over and over again?

Here’s why. The speed of change in human behaviour brought about by the speed of change in technology means that by the time something becomes enshrined as best practice, it is already likely to have been superseded. That’s because for the first time since the written word arrived, we are no longer masters of the message or the medium.

dinosleep2Best practice should no longer be seen as a blueprint for describing the standard way of doing things in an organisation. It’s too safe. It’s too comfortable. And it’s too predictable. I see evidence all over the place, especially in advertising, marketing and PR. If you’re going to cite best practice as your primary justification for doing things in a certain way, you may as well stick a sign above your desk while you’re at it saying “Quiet please, dinosaur sleeping”.

We need to think differently; with agility, fluidity, creativity and a bit more bravery. Best practise has served us well for decades, nay centuries – because we have been able to control the messages and the medium. We are losing this power with every day that passes. Carrier pigeons, telegrams, snail mail, faxes, email – same difference really – all had similar limitations when it came to reach, speed and spread. Social Media has democratised communication like never before and it’s turned us all into authors and broadcasters.

It’s time to forget about best practise. The pace of change is such that predicting ‘next practice’ is what will bring the bacon home.

RIP email. Is the writing on the Wall?

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in consumer technology, if you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today. And the latest figures say that only 11% of teenagers email daily. So email – I can’t imagine life without it – is probably going away”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made this bold prediction in 2009. She’s not alone. Experts have been predicting the demise of email for years.

I must confess, until my flirtation with Twitter and LinkedIn turned into a full-on love affair I remained sceptical about such claims, such was my appreciation of and dependence on email in and out of work.

Today, I’m afraid email has lost its sparkle. It has become nothing more than a tedious, ponderous and bloated utility. My use is pretty much confined to business, where it remains ubiquitous and, for the foreseeable future, will remain so until someone comes up with a better dashboard for managing ones private business communications, tasks and appointments.

The communication element of email at work for many of us has largely been usurped by Instant Messaging. Email tends to get used when speed is not important, the person I wish to communicate is not immediately available, or I want to keep an easily accessible record of a request or response. Outside of work I have stopped using it other than where someone else requires or expects an email from me.

Some social mavericks have made public declarations of their intention to work without email. Professor Paul Jones now expects his colleagues and students to use other means to contact him. IBM staffer Luis Suarez has lived and worked for the last 3 years without email. Good for them – not so good perhaps for some their colleagues who are forced to use unfamiliar and unwelcome technologies if they wish to make contact.

Going back to Sheryl Sandberg, what she describes is life before work. Teenagers don’t need all that work stuff. What they want is instant communication gratification. Email is too slow. It doesn’t match up to their social intensity. Blackberry Messenger has given Blackberry a new lease of life and a whole new generation to sell to. Who’d have thought Blackberry would produce a TV ad aimed at teenagers a few years ago? My kids don’t want an iPhone because bbm is so highly valued among their age group.

This graph from Morgan Stanley’s 2010 Internet Trends report shows that in July 2009, social media users overtook email users across the globe for the first time and I bet that the gap will have grown significantly by the time their next report is published.

One thing that will keep email figures artificially high is that all of the emergent social media channels use email to drive traffic to their sites. Around 85% of my own private emails are Twitter, LinkedIn or Empire Avenue activity notifications.

By the time I read them I have already seen the details on the sites themselves, which present the information in a far more digestible and accessible way, which is why my private email inbox tends to be my last port of call when I go online every day.

My main activity within my private email account seems to be deleting pages and pages of unread, unwanted and unimportant emails.

What do you think? Do you think email will survive in its current form?

The consumerisation of IT

A long long time ago, I was a young detective constable working for the Metropolitan Police. We used mechanical typewriters in those days and we had a typing pool where you would send up handwritten victim statements, which a week later would return for checking and approval. Any mistakes or corrections would be marked up and returned to the typing pool and a few days later the final version would re-appear ready for inclusion in the case papers.

I wasn’t in a position to change such an inefficient process. But I knew there was a better way, so I just did it. I bought myself a portable electronic typewriter with built-in word processor and I taught myself to touch type. I used to take it with me when I was taking statements from witnesses or victims and I’d write down their accounts and print them off there and then and get them to sign them. It was faster and more legible than writing them by hand. And I’d return to the station with a case ready statement.

A few years later I purchased a Rabbit phone. Mobile phone technology had a long way to go in those days. Mobiles were too expensive and too big and the Met Police were not ready to provide them to staff. So I bought a Rabbit, stuck the base unit on my desk and hey presto had the first hands free phone in the Met (probably). It worked a treat. I could move around the office and speak to people on the phone at the same time. And occasionally I’d take it out with me because I knew where all of the local Rabbit transmitters were so I could make calls while out and about if I needed to.

Hardly revolutionary stuff by today’s standards but actually back then it was far from normal behaviour. I took a fair bit of stick for both investments from colleagues who couldn’t quite get why I’d spend my own hard earned money on buying equipment to use at work. In those days the norm was to accept the equipment and technology supplied by your employer and you just got on with it.

Things have changed.

A recent survey indicates that 95% of employees these days have at least one self-purchased device they use for work. I suspect the iPhone is largely responsible for this change in sentiment. These days it is completely normal to see colleagues carrying their own iPhones, iPads, and HTCs around the office and they think nothing of using them for work purposes if they can.

Despite this willingness to buy and train themselves on their own consumer technologies, according to the same survey around 70% of IT departments persist with traditional models of purchasing standardised technologies, which are often seen as a bit of a compromise by the end users.

At the same time, the explosion of social media channels is changing the way we all communicate. Let’s face it – do you know anyone who does not use at least one or more of the following on a daily basis – Facebook, IM, Linkedin, Twitter, Blackberry Messenger, or YouTube?

I read a lovely quote in CIO Magazine the other day that sums it up for me:

“Imagine how a 2011 college grad reacts when she arrives at her new desk and turns on her PC to discover that it’s running a locked-down version of an operating system that was first released when she was 12.”

Be under no illusion. The consumerisation of IT together with the democratisation of communication is changing the face of the modern workplace.

As Internal Communicators we need to keep right on top of this if we are to add value to our organisations.

Tackling social media

A lot of companies misuse and abuse social media. They know they have to do something. They’ve been to one of those crazy overpriced social media conferences and talked to a few agencies and vendors. They keep reading scary stories about it in the papers. They are exposed to the risk of last mover disadvantage and they know it.

So they jump in to tackle social media with both feet off the ground and their studs showing.  Little wonder their customers show them the red card.

So where did they go wrong?

They invited a bunch of senior bods from the Communications, PR, Advertising and Marketing teams to form a squad.  All good people – top performers and experts in their chosen fields – after all, this is important stuff.

The only problem is none of them were active users of social media.

And so they kicked off by applying tried and tested old world communications values to a medium they didn’t really get. They applied military style planning to detailed and time bound communications campaigns. Not realising that command and control does not work in the world of social media, the downward spiral of selling and spamming began.

All they had to do was leverage the existing expertise and enthusiasm of the growing band of natural born social mediarites already on the payroll. The people who understand that social media is not a broadcast channel but a place where people converse and create meaningful relationships.

They should have listened to self-styled Community Evangelist at LinkedIn, Mario Sundar, who made the following observation two years ago:

“Your employees, starting with your executives, influence your company’s employment brand more than any advertising campaign that you will ever craft. They do so through their blog, word-of-mouth sites like Twitter, and of course on LinkedIn, where they build their “professional brand” in ways that are intrinsically tied to your company’s brand.”

They do this through natural authentic daily interactions with their personal and professional networks. They don’t sell. They don’t spam. They don’t follow orders. You cannot script them. All you need to do is allow them the freedom to express themselves and allow their natural advocacy to shine through.

These are the people who should be involved in formulating and delivering your company’s social media strategy.

When is a Blackberry not a Blackberry?

I’m no longer on the cusp of leaving my current mobile phone provider. I’m feeling much better than yesterday thank you very much. Two things have helped.

One is simply the cathartic effect of writing.

The other is the reaction the ‘deliberately provocative tweets’ I published as promised. It only took two tweets. The first one was too late at night to be picked up.

The second one did better.

First to react was T-Mobile.

Swiftly followed by Vodafone.

I responded to both, which prompted the following responses.

These interactions helped. They did not solve anything as I had to do that myself. But they did take away my anger and went some way to restoring my faith in humanity (or something like that). Not sure what happened to O2; they either missed my cry for help or decided not to play.

It matters not. I’m no longer on the cusp of leaving my current mobile phone provider.

And in the unlikely event that I do in the near future, it will be Vodafone that get the call.

When is an iPhone not an iPhone?

I find myself on the cusp of leaving my current mobile phone provider.

Not because I can get a better deal elsewhere. And not because their competitors offer better handsets or have erected more masts.

Let’s face it, an iPhone is an iPhone, a Blackberry is a Blackberry and a signal is a signal. Does it really matter which company you choose to provide yours? OK, so price can be a differentiator, but fierce competition means narrow pricing spreads. Which is nice.

For me the real differentiator is customer service.

On two separate occasions recently, one over the phone and the other in the flesh, my current mobile telecoms provider has stretched my patience to the limit and caused my blood to boil. The crime on both occasions was borne out of nothing more than indifference and laziness.

I’m not usually this tolerant. A single piss-poor customer experience is usually enough to push me into the outstretched arms of a competitor; something I have done twice in recent years, once with my digital TV provider and once with my mobile phone provider. That said, I’m normally a very loyal customer. Ask First Direct; I’ve been with them for 22 years and I still love them because of their exceptional telephone operators.

On this occasion it’s going to be a question of 3 strikes and you’re out, because in fairness up until a month ago they had been pretty damned good. But given that 3 out of the 4 mobile contracts in my household are with them, I’d say they are in a state of high risk.

I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’ve read quite a bit about how enlightened companies are using Twitter as an additional customer services channel by intercepting negative sentiment and proactively engaging with unhappy customers and turning them from public detractors to advocates. I even wrote about it myself back in April.

I thought I’d try my current mobile provider out. I’m going to give them a chance to redeem themselves by identifying me as a seriously pissed of customer and go some way to restoring my faith in them by showing some interest and offering me some assistance if appropriate.

Instead of complaining openly on Twitter in the traditional manner I’m going to try something a bit different. Through a few deliberately provocative tweets I’m going to give them the chance to identify me as their customer without me actually telling them that I am.

I’m hoping one or more of my tweets will lead them back to this page, where they can read that they have my explicit permission to call me, DM me or email me to discuss the reasons why I am so upset with them.

If they manage to do this I will not publish details of the two very shoddy customer experiences they have recently forced me to endure.

In order to narrow the field, I will merely say that O2, Vodafone, T-Mobile or Orange – it could be you…

The Social Media Revolution

Ask anyone which invention had the greatest impact on mankind and you’d probably get a mixed response. The wheel, gunpowder, the compass, the steam engine, electricity, sliced bread; take your pick.

Me? I’d go with the printing press.

Think about it. Over the history of civilisation, who has held the keys to social and economic power? Answer – the aristocracy, aided and abetted by the Church. In other words, those with access to education, culture and knowledge.

The printing press democratised education, culture and knowledge. Its contribution to spreading knowledge and learning destroyed the age of belief and blew apart the Church’s claim to a monopoly on knowledge. It paved the way for the Reformation, the Renaissance, Nationalism, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and pretty much everything else we see around us today.

So here’s the thing. If the printing press had such a profound effect on the advancement of mankind, what on earth is Social Media going to do to us? OK, so a single printing press in the 15th century could churn out 500 books in the time it took a scribe to write one. Those 500 books still needed to be distributed and consumed.

Just 20 years ago the giant publishing houses controlled much of the printed word. Today it is truly democratised. Anyone with access to a computer and the internet can publish whatever they want in a matter of seconds.

It is estimated today that there are around 1.4 million blogs in blogosphere, and around 900,000 million blog posts are published every day. Facebook has 500 million active users, who share over 30 billion pieces of content every month. Twitter has 100 million registered users and is growing at the rate of 300,000 per day, with 55 million tweets a day. 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, while the site enjoys 2 billion views per day. I could go on but I think you get my drift.

But before we get carried away on the tidal wave of social media euphoria, hold onto this thought. If you spit in someone’s face you’ll get their undivided attention. If you spit into the middle of the Pacific Ocean no one will ever know.

The power now resides with those who can help us navigate through all of this stuff.

Ghost blogging

I guess I probably still qualify as social media virgin. Lots of frantic petting as I try to make up for lost time, but the truth is I’ve only been blogging for 5 months, active on Twitter for just over a year and still cannot really be arsed with Facebook.

Like all virgins, I am therefore somewhat by definition a touch naive. I like to believe that when I follow someone on Twitter or subscribe to a blog, I get to connect with the actual individual I’m interested in.

For example, I enjoy following Duncan Bannatyne on Twitter. I have enjoyed reading his books; he has a very interesting life story, which in many respects he lives out on Twitter, and I enjoy the opportunity to feel part of it. Now if I ever had an inkling that he was not responsible for his own tweets and that he employed a ghost writer or even shared the job out with his PA, I’d be off like a shot.

I’d feel cheated. It’s as bad as a doting fan paying big bucks to watch a mega recording artist perform live, only to discover half way through the show she was lip-synching. It’s probably as bad as removing ones wedding ring before entering a singles bar….

I only found out recently that there is a massive ongoing debate on this very issue. It’s been raging for years.

In the red corner you have the PRs, the seasoned command & control communications veterans and the ghost bloggers themselves. These guys think ghost blogging is an honourable and essential profession, given that their clients are far too busy and important to actually write for themselves.

And if they didn’t do it for them the world would be an emptier place because we’d all be missing out from their nuggets of wisdom, and sparkling wit & repartee.

Of course their clients don’t like them to disclose who they write for – that would be embarrassing right? That could lead to reputational damage right? So it’s OK to do it provided no one finds out. Oh dear. So where is the integrity and honesty in that?

So the red corner argues that professional communicators have always supported CEOs, celebrities and politicians by writing their speeches, their books and their letters since time immemorial. It’s true, and I have no issue with that. But these media are not social. They are not blogs; which have fundamentally changed the rule book.

Needless to say, I am in the blue corner. If I want to read facts about a company, I will read its annual report and check out its website. If I want to understand what makes a company tick I’ll subscribe to its employee blogs and follow its staff on Twitter, where I can connect with them directly. And part of what makes the experience so interesting and the connection so compelling is the blend of work and play; the immediacy; the shared pleasure in sharing; and the free-flow of consciousness.

Actually this blog post was triggered off by a comment I read a few days ago in a piece on called It’s just ridiculous to argue about ghost-blogging

Try the link, it may work for you. I cannot access it now unless I pay a rather chunky subscription fee.

An anonymous contributor added this in a comment in his or her anonymous defence of ghost blogging (spot the irony): “a highly polished, marcom speak-laden entry, is highly preferable to undisciplined, poorly constructed, rambling from a great CEO who is not a writer”.

I’m sorry I don’t buy this. I don’t read blogs to be entertained by brilliant writing. I read blogs because I am interested in listening to that person. I want to feel connected to the author. I can’t do either if I know the blog is ghost written. If you don’t have time to blog, don’t do it. That’s fine. I won’t think any less of you! But if you are going to blog, be genuine and be real.

I like the advice that Kodak give on the subjectin their Kodak Social Media Tips: “Always be transparent. When you are communicating in social media say who you are and who you work for. Don’t try to be sneaky and plant comments, don’t hire people to go out and say nice things about you and stay away from ghost writing. Be genuine and be real.”

I’m going to leave the last word to an old pro who knows what he is talking about. If I’m a social media virgin, I guess Robert Scoble, is the Casanova. In his 2003 blogging manifesto he wrote: “Use a human voice. Don’t get corporate lawyers and PR professionals to cleanse your speech. We can tell, believe me.”  Scobleizer – The corporate weblog manifesto

Wise words indeed from the undisputed heavyweight champion of the blogging world!

Feeding frenzy on Twitter

Perceived wisdom is that Twitter offers companies exciting new ways to reach out to their customers and build authentic relationships with them. Quite right too – I follow many of my favourite brands on Twitter and certainly feel closer to some of them as a result.

One particular area that attracts a lot of attention is Customer Services. Some companies have received very good press through the extension of their customer services offering onto Twitter, and off the top of my head I can think of a few that seem to do this very well: @virginmedia @easyJetCare @starbucks @SouthwestAir for starters.

The company I work for has been experimenting in this area and has had some very positive reactions to real time monitoring and intervention when one of our customers has cried out for help on Twitter.

The recent Vodafone ‘twincident’ was an interesting lesson to all of us exploring the value of using  Twitter in this way. However, on that occasion it appears to represent poor judgement and a non-malicious error by one individual. What happened to a friend of mine last week is very different and just as scary. His company name has been changed to Feeding Frenzy to protect confidentiality.

He noticed a tweet from a customer who was clearly finding the experience of using his company’s core product frustrating. He contacted his customer services team who rolled into action in the hope of helping the guy out and potentially turning a poor first time experience into a much more positive one.

They quickly identified the customer from his profile information on Twitter and put in a call to him to see if there was anything they could do to help. Within seconds of making the call, this was his reaction, live on Twitter:

“Extraordinary. Feeding Frenzy just called me on my mobile, after I tweeted earlier about how fucking hard it was..unbelievable.. Still in shock” 4:57pm

“Not kidding, the bloke says “We see you’re having issues with Feeding Frenzy and mentioned on Twitter” fuck that. Madness madness madness” 4:58pm

“yeah, now I’m over the shock I feel all terroristy, like fuck them.” 5:09pm

What followed resembled a pride of lions feeding on a freshly butchered zebra. A small number of his followers started biting chunks out of the company at the suggestion that the comments were hilarious and they should try and get them trending.

Eight individuals with a combined total of 3,700 followers created sufficient noise to represent over 20,000 ‘negative reads’ within an hour. The story did not trend because it never spread beyond the small group.

I guess Feeding Frenzy were lucky.

I was quite taken aback by this tale. I could not understand how this kind of reaction could have resulted from a genuine attempt to help someone out.

And then it twigged. Feeding Frenzy had intruded on his personal space when they looked up his phone number and rang him. And like a lion feeding on a zebra’s carcass, he reacted violently when an intruder tried to get in on his feast.

So here is my question. Was this an isolated incident representing wholly untypical behaviour which we can all afford to dismiss, or should the lesson from this tale be that Customer Service interventions based on Twitter comments should be restricted to offers of support via direct interaction only on Twitter?

What do you think?

Asda’s Green Room

I’d heard great things about Asda’s Green Room, an online portal where Asda staff can get together to find out what’s happening around the company as well as share their own stories, pictures and videos. What excited me most about it was that anyone can join in. The whole shebang is exposed to Asda customers, shareholders, media – anyone with a passing interest in Asda can and is encouraged to take a look around.

Given that I’m hugely interested in what I see as the inevitable convergence of internal and external communications, driven primarily by growth of social media, I had huge expectations when I paid my first visit. First impressions were mint. It looks great and sounds great. So I scratched beneath the surface a little. I have to say, by the time I left I was feeling pretty disappointed.

OK, so it has only been going for about 5 months. Actually 5 months in social media is probably the equivalent in several years in real-time. There are some signs of genuine interaction with ‘colleagues’ (that’s what Asda call their staff) and customers who have commented on the stories posted by the Green Room team. However, many stories have attracted no comments at all.

When you consider that Asda employs over 150,000 people in the UK, 90,000 of whom who are part time (and therefore presumably have a bit more time for social networking) this does not feel like success.

Lifting the bonnet slightly, I then saw that the Green Room’s own Facebook site has only 200 fans and despite almost daily updates, 2 ‘like its’ were the only sign of interaction going back to November 2009. I didn’t see a single comment on any of the wall posts during this time. The Green Room’s Twitter channel only has 51 followers (52 now – hi Steve!).

Please don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love what Asda have done here, it is ground breaking stuff – truly. I’m just a tad disappointed that Asda colleagues do not appear to have embraced the portal with as much enthusiasm as the very capable Green Room Team clearly have.

Watch this space – I intend to find out why.