Sunday 18 January 2015

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Wednesday 8 January 2014

My year of possibilities & other people's stories - Trends for 2014 and the year before.

It’s flattering but quite daunting to be asked to predict the future of your trade by your peers, especially in just a couple of brief punchy paragraphs.  The best I can ever do is to try and give a feel for other people’s ideas, themes (and usually attitudes), that have looked strong and important to me. It’s not soothsaying, but I take inspiration from them and try and use their power and attitude to shape my own work and thinking.  

I state these things as my predictions for the future only in the hope that by highlighting them, they will be picked up by more people, rather than as any dead cert you could take to the bookies.  The upshot is that I then spend the year seeking out like-minded campaigns and brands - not to prove my point - but to reaffirm my faith that good ideas with purpose and passion can drive commercial success.

When Sonja at Valuable Content first asked me for my vision for 2013 I wrote hopefully, “I think that we’re going to hear a lot about ‘brand ecosystems’; where like-minded groups of businesses and their customers become more reliant on, and helpful towards, each other. 

Call it strength in numbers or even a positive pack mentality, but companies that work with their friends will have extra power and we’ll trust them more. It’s only natural; an ecosystem is reliant on symbiosis and collaboration and so is commerce. To quote brand Jedi Mark Sears, it is “the maximisation of self by ensuring the success of the whole.” Buying from and trading with groups of similar companies, with real purpose and mission (as well as profit), will grow super-loyal customers for life.”
And subsequently this year I found plenty.  There’s a grand Ecosystem flourishing on the west coast of Wales lead by The Do Lectures, Hiut Denim and Fforrest that now encompasses dozens of new businesses, food producers, farmers, chocolatiers and bakeries that both covertly and overtly work together for the greater good.  

The perfect illustration of this is the 25 mile eating house that sources all it’s food and raw ingredients from within 25 miles of their high street spot.  The idea is not only instinctively ‘right’ but is also a bold new ecosystem that consciously promotes and propagates great local suppliers.  And with that mission at its core it is far, far greater than just the sum of it’s parts.  

There is something very positive in the air over Cardigan and they welcome in anyone who asks for help.  They share their knowledge and experience freely and mentor potentially competitive entrepreneurs, before sending them off to do their own thing elsewhere.

Another great example is the Australian collective The Design Kids, who function as a mentoring and commercial ecosystem to nurture and amplify young creative talent and to help market their work.  They are not an umbrella brand or distributor; their whole raison d’etre is collaboration, help and mutually assured success.  As my friend Mark Sears taught me, the big old trees look after the young saplings to ensure they all continue to grow well together.

So it was not a great surprise when I started seeing and enjoying brands that were using their customers’ stories and their friends successes to very subtly market their own brands.  It was collaboration and mutual promotion in a different way but when I got the call from Valuable Content towers in December I was confident that this was what I wanted to write about.

“This year we are not going to be focussing on the stuff, or beautiful people using the stuff, but just on the things real people are doing with the stuff.   We’ll see a lot more companies telling other people’s stories and they’ll be truer, richer and more natural.  The kicker is that they might not even feature that company’s product; they’ll just share the same values or style.   

Case studies and endorsements have always been compelling marketing tools, but they are becoming more artful, more beautifully opaque and even a bit more obscure.  They’ll be whatever the opposite of ‘in your face’ is; subtle and sophisticated.  Quite often they won’t even feature a product; they’ll just show the possibilities.   Most products aren’t actually very exciting but the things people do with boring saucepans, cameras, shoes and computers never ceases to amaze us, to delight us and to inspire us.  

You won’t be sold to, you’ll be nudged; “This is what someone just like you is doing. You could do that too.  You don’t even need our stuff, you just need our attitude.” Content marketing will work best this year when it’s subtly gone beyond valuable to be inspiring.”

I don’t claim that this is in any way new, but the nuance and subtlety is, in a funny way,  far more honest than the kind of aspiration marketing that luxury brands have used for years.  It’s about loosening the restrictions of brand compliant taglines, colours and messaging and not worrying about master brand logo placement rules. Show some well-chosen snippets of your real world and then let the audience pick up the clues.  

Watch Finisterre’s Coldwater People and try and identify who is - or mainly who isn’t - wearing their apparel.  And the point is that it doesn’t matter.  They are all cold water surfers and that’s all Finisterre cares about. They are actively promoting the category of Cold Water Surfing way ahead of products and letting us find our way happily towards their state of mind and later, but surely, to their website.  It’s compelling and infectious.  If you’ve got ten minutes to spare then watch their Fv25 film.  There’s almost zero product, but it’s a frost-kissed, blissed out, winter surf trip and the tingle and crisp of frozen wetsuits will drive you to buy.   

More than one person has pointed out the fact that this kind of marketing is easier for sexy lifestyle brands like surf gear and denim manufacturers or restaurants and holidays, where the seduction is easier to swallow, but that it’s harder with more prosaic and mundane companies.  That’s a little bit true of course but they are mainly missing the point.  The aim here is to show what can be done and what is possible in the most natural and resonant style so it simply has to be real and has to ring your targets’ bells.  We make business technology, which really isn’t anything like as sexy as jeans, but it is working for us too.

I am happy to say that this film is a pretty good illustration of 2013 & 2014’s predictions combined.   BeerBods is the central hub of a superb ecosystem that gets people drinking better beer, by telling the stories of ultra-small craft breweries.  And we’re letting founder Matt tell his own story, a small part of which includes a British built laptop.  

So 2014 is my year of possibility marketing (of course that’s its name).  We’re going to put our customers front and centre and we’ll tell their stories as simply and as beautifully as possible,  because as Vidal Sassoon used to say “If you look good, we look good”.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Why Novatech are keeping the PC in UK plc.

(I wrote this for my company's blog in October 2013) 

Building our own PCs is more important than ever, but it’s not the only thing we do.  It’s just the start.

In the current edition of Computing Magazine there’s a remarkable cover story; “Keeping the PC in UK plc.”, that not only features a very British bulldog on a Novatech Ultrabook, but also a background of our production engineers building PCs and laptops.  We’re understandably delighted.
Front cover of Computing
The article’s theme is stated bluntly in the first sentence, “Who would choose to manufacture in the UK, let alone products in a market as competitive as PCs, with its razor-thin margins, and peaks and troughs of demand to contend with?  How on Earth do they stay in business?”
The answer to the first question is, it turns out, pretty simple – us.  And we are doing far better than just staying in business; we’re growing every year.   The answer to the second part of the question is almost as simple – by supplying organisations that value what we do best, i.e. great products coupled with expert advice and exceptional support.
The article explains that, ‘The unique selling point for them (Novatech) is that by manufacturing in the UK, it can build custom PCs for SMBs faster than a company shipping in finished goods from Eastern Europe or Asia, while providing a higher degree of customisation and service. “We can build for purpose and for price, and have it delivered inside a week and support it.”’
Put our way, we are proud to say that, “this computer has our fingerprints all over it.”
This is not the kind of statement you might expect from a technology company, but we’re not talking about smears on the screen.  We’re talking about our care and attention.  A human, in a factory in Hampshire, has handled this device; checked it; configured it; loaded software onto it; carefully boxed it up and sent it off.  It has passed our stringent tests – both digital and visual – and is ready to carry our name.
At Novatech we sell thousands of brands from Apples and Samsungs to Toshibas and even Dells. In fact we’ll provide you with the best technology whatever the brand, as long as it’s what works best for you, the customer.    One of the main reasons we still favour building our own hardware, however, is to give the very best support, because we believe that buying a product is just the start. If we build it, we know it inside out and we can support it better than anyone else.  We are growing because of this philosophy and that’s why our customers look to us first.
Every system we build – from the simplest PC to our most complex server arrays – has been through a very human process to ensure that it will do the job it’s intend for and that it will give the user true worry free computing.  We believe that no large international brand can get close to matching the level of integration between production, support and customer service that we offer.  Have we ever mentioned the fact that the readers of Which? voted our PCs second only to Apple for reliability and support?  No? Well that integration is why the fussiest people in the country rate us so highly.
Last week RM, one of the UK’s largest and oldest PC manufacturers announced that it was to cease building PCsand laptops in the UK to concentrate on software and services.  This was not a huge surprise to us, but not because you can’t grow and make great technology here in Britain.  We believe that one of their main problems was a failure to look after their customers after they’d bought the hardware.  Their support was often outsourced; they lost the link between maker and user and as a result they lost their customers’ trust quite some time ago.
This is not about flag waving and we don’t use a Union flag on our machines, but this is very definitely about pride in making amazing machines.  We’re proud that we build them here on the South coast and we’re proud that we build things that work well and we’re proud that with our expertise and our own great support, they’re built to last.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

A yellow square-headed friend. How to build a tiny but perfect meme.

It’s hard to say goodbye to a friend, especially when they have been the one you always turn to in times of difficulty, but this morning my team-mates and I mourned the passing of just such a reliable buddy.  My colleague J, the social media Stig, relied on him most and on the company blog he posted a heartfelt and considered eulogy to a yellow, square-headed friend who had finally, like Elvis, left the building.

Unless you follow Novatech’s Facebook or Twitter feeds this won't make much sense, so a quick prĂ©cis: We are a business and ‘pro-sumer’ IT company, but at Christmas-time we used to get in some tech stocking-fillers and seasonal gadgets to boost festive web sales.  We’re pretty good at stock control and usually sell them all well before the end of December, but against our better judgement we bought a job-lot of SpongeBob Squarepants Digital Photo Frame/alarm clocks for Christmas 2010. They were not our normal fare; they were not a quality product and they didn’t sell very well.  In fact they hardly sold at all.  Unsurprisingly they became and in-house joke.  

For the first year, a small pallet of them sat, lurking, close to the main staff entrance to the warehouse as a silent rebuke to imprudent purchasing.  A bright plastic reminder of what happens when you forget your audience and forget who you are selling to. Reducing the stockpile was a very slow and convoluted process, but yesterday, almost exactly three years later, we finally sold the last one.

Over those three years, however, these unloved SpongeBob alarm clocks, in J’s hands, turned into something of a social media God-send. By pretending to offer the SBSP clocks as incentives/prizes and by featuring them in tweets and timelines, they gave us a gentle but unique way to send ourselves up. As he noted in his blog post,  “They allowed us to make fun of the company, relating to a product that wouldn't damage our reputation as a business technology provider (even some of our most important business customers have had these added onto their orders of expensive servers), and all of our customers, no matter their history with us, could join in with the joke. It became our very own meme”.  

Memes work by repetition and SpongeBob became a regular fixture in our timelines, mainly as J freely admits, when writer’s block struck and nothing else original was springing to mind..

Memes are strange and amorphous phenomena, but essentially they are internet in-jokes that are perpetuated and added to by anyone who cares to have a go.  There aren’t any rules, which is way the internet likes it, but the best thing about memes is that when you know what’s going on, you’re in an exclusive club. When you understand that meme and are contributing to it, well then you’re a senior player in that club. You belong. You’re on the inside, looking out at the suckers outside who just don’t get it. It’s an understatement to say that that is really quite a precious position for a brand.

So by using SpongeBob to react to everything from world events and festivals to the weather and staff errors, J created a ‘I get it’ club of people who wanted to be part of our gang.  Young gamers and PC-freaks frequently post, “I wish I worked at Novatech”, imagining that it’s some sort of technology Wonka factory with delicious rivers of edible code and endless testing tasting rooms of people playing 4D Splinter Cell, (alas no).  Our social media lets them in the back door and they get to see that it’s much more real than that.  They see what we’re all laughing at and it delights them because they are laughing at that exact same thing too.  

The most crucial point is that using SpongeBob was absolutely without artifice or forethought, J just thought it was funny.  All of this reflection and analysis came afterwards, there were no focus groups, no trend analyses and no brand positioning brainstorms; we just backed our own judgement and got on with it.   The alarm clocks not only allowed us to show our passion for what we do but also allowed us to create an in-joke that everyone and anyone could get. And they did.

Customers' joined in

The footnote is that we sold all of the product and people are asking ‘what’s next?’. ‘Love pays well in the end’ as the brand gurus say, and that’s the best summary really.  We sort of loved these hopeless, unlovable products and that brought a bit of humanity to a yellow plastic box, which in turn showed our own humanity.  And people really quite like that.

Thanks SpongeBob.  Hey J, what is next?

Tuesday 30 July 2013

A Valuable Content Guest Post: The golden rule for companies’ social media

A while back the lovely people at Valuable Content gave my company Novatech an award for our social media.  I've posted our manifesto here previously, but they asked me for some advice and simple golden rules which first appeared on their blog. 
“At times like this I wish I’d listened to what my mother told me.”
“Why what did she say?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen…”
Douglas Adams of course.

The golden rule? Back your own judgement

The best bit of maternal advice I’ve ever received was on how to raise our new-born son. “Listen to all the advice and then do whatever you feel is right,” said mum.  It’s a great maxim for life in general, but it’s particularly apposite when it comes to using social media for business.
Ignore anyone demanding that you use it as the ultimate brand engagement tool.  Sure, if you can afford to pay for a nutter to jump out of balloon in the stratosphere then do it (oh wait… that may have been done). But what would your customers (and staff) think if you started shelling-out for sky-diving spacemen?

Is not a marketing tool; it’s a human contact device

One of the biggest mistakes small businesses make when planning their social media strategy is to introduce a sales performance element. How do you measure the performance and efficiency of the person who answers your phones or greets customers in your store?  How do you judge their impact on sales and the bottom line?  Nowadays those tasks are usually just parts of a bigger role, but they are the essentials to how your customers first perceive your company.
If they are greeted with a smile, engaged with good conversation, and pointed accurately to the thing that they’re looking for, then social media has done its job for your company. The gentle personal touch trumps aggressive product-led marketing. That might sound unambitious but advertising, PR and direct sales are still very effective so allow social media to just give human warmth to some otherwise cold digital exchanges.

Be yourself. People like it better that way

You know your business and you know your customers better than any agency so have confidence and talk to them on social media the way you would in person. Remember who they are; imagine that they’re all smart and funny and then talk to the highest common denominator. Be confident that if people are interacting with you on social media, you’ve already got a high level of their interest so yes, show your best side, but be always yourselves.
Choose the people to run your social media carefully, assuming that they may well not be in the marketing team, but they’ll be the people that exemplify your values and highest standards. And they’ll be garrulous and chatty and prone to fun not only because well-thought-out tomfoolery is very endearing, but also because people have a lot of affection for companies that let you see the characters behind the scenes. So allow your social media operators to be frank, honest and approachable. It’s vital that you let them be themselves and back their judgement too.
Talk to them regularly and ask why they are posting certain things, but be ready to be very pleased when they say, “because it feels right”.  You have to trust your intuition to judge if they’re having a positive impact on the company’s image and performance but your customers will be quick to tell you if they don’t like something, and especially if they do.
Start with low expectations and don’t expect a massive sales spike, then soon you’ll be collecting positive anecdotes of transformed perceptions, and will start to appreciate the immense power and value of a tweet from a customer that says “ha! love it. lol.”

Tuesday 4 June 2013

The New Blue Sky Thinking Revolution

There's not a cloud in the sky so it's a perfect day to do some quality blue sky thinking. And yes, I am serious. I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the Mind Your Own Business magazine, which is put together by Evereti - a super-sharp young agency with big ambition. 

It called for something provocative and reclaiming the Blue Sky Thinking phrase seemed like a good place to start. I truly believe that nature has a lot to teach companies that care to listen and outdoors is always a superb place to do business.  

(There's lots more good stuff in the free download on the the MYOB site as well).

Tuesday 14 May 2013

To Be Awesome - A Social Media Manifesto

“Help, don’t sell; talk, don’t yell; show, don’t tell.”

Two of us look after our company's social media and, inspired by our Do Lectures workshops, we drew up a manifesto to explain how and when we use Facebook and Twitter to our often bemused colleagues.  Like all good things, much of it is borrowed from/inspired by others' work. 'If I have seen further... shoulders of giants... etcetera, etcetera'

Rules are of course there to be broken, so they are not set in stone and are easy to break well, but the only utterly unbreakable, inviolable, golden rule is aim four. 

1.To capture the hearts and minds of the IT managers and directors of tomorrow

2. To own ‘worry free computing’ on social media – both the phrase and the sentiment

3. To drive positive brand associations and a wider understanding of what Novatech really does

4. To be awesome

What we do & why we do it:
1, We will be useful.
We help, inform, inspire and entertain.
Our social media are customer contact and engagement channels not promotion and sales devices. We will feature and highlight our best products and services, but PR, Advertising, direct marketing, direct sales and retail are better sales tools.

2, Meet and greet; don’t sell.
We will build trust by being a friendly and informed first impression so people can choose to take the next step in the buying cycle.

3, We will let people in.
Reacting quickly and wittily humanises cold digital exchanges. Showing the people behind the scenes personalises the impersonal and illustrates our unique ‘all under-one-roof’ integration between departments.

4, We don’t chase a bigger number. To quote someone wiser “The thing we should be trying to do is to try to make our followers more engaged with what we are doing. Ultimately, how engaged our followers are will say more about us than just how many there are.” The number of followers is less relevant than how they feel when our posts appear in their timeline. RTs, Shares and follower numbers are a just a base KPI – reputation is all.

5, We don’t overuse it.
“Got something good to say, then say it. Got nothing good to say, then let’s be comfortable with silence. Like any work tool, continual overuse can make it blunt.” We have to trust that if we are good, then good will out. People will share and recommend but it’s very hard to force that through repetition.

6. We are comfortable with being ourselves.
We use “I” not “we”, to give a persona to ‘people who make technology work’. The voice of worry free computing is a sharp, bright helpful tech enthusiast – “If I don’t know the answer I know someone right here who will…” The personality is a mirror to our customers; the kind of person they would like to hang out with. Or even who they’d like to be.  

Follow the timeless wisdom - always be yourself.  
Unless you can be a pirate, then always be a pirate.

The Do Lectures' own manifesto is here and we highly, highly recommend their one day workshops.