Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Relationships - the future of business

Marketing Online Live interests and frustrates me.

It interests me because Paul and Alex have some good stuff to say, and I like the entrepreneurial way they think.

It frustrates me because they try to reduce everything to a system - which may well be the secret to their success. Even in their latest episode, Alex (who admits he doesn't actually run his own Twitter account) suggested coming up with a set of rules for Twitter ettiquette - as if everyone was on Twitter for the same reason.

I did some soul searching to figure out why this bugged me. Two reasons:

a) It oversimplifies reality.
b) It goes against my worldview, which is shaped by my Evangelical upbringing and the gospel message. In a nutshell, it says that life is not about keeping the rules, but it's about relationships. This resonates strongly with me, because most of my life, I haven't fit into the "norm" for whom rules are mostly written.

You don't have to be a Christian to believe that the universe is about relationships vs rules. But what about the world of business? Isn't that necessarily about systems?

I was willing to think so, and believe myself to be hopelessly idealistic, but it seems business may actually be about relationships after all.

The book Disrupting Class predicts that schools - in fact, any form of educational institution - will soon change (will need to change!) from a value-chain model where products are designed for one-size fits as-many-as-possible, to a facilitated user network model, where people use tools to help each other, in the way that suits them.

I haven't got to the bit that explains the economics yet, but it's an interesting shift away from monolithic systems, towards real human relationships.

Look out for my review of Disrupting Class in the next issue of Idealog.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Are you a meerkat, an ostrich or a beaver?

look around!

Last week in Wellington I realised something about the people I meet at conferences. There are three kinds of people, those who can count, and those who can't. Hang on, that's a different joke...

No, when it comes to social media - or change generally - there are roughly three kinds of people:

  1. Meerkats - overwhelmed but aware of the need to look around and see what's new. A lot of observing, not a lot of action.
  2. Ostriches - convinced that what is currently happening is mostly bad, and a passing phase. Their attitude is - let me know when everything's back to normal. Meantime, I'm getting on with some important stuff!
  3. Beavers - these are the ones who've discovered a tool that intrigues them, and relates to what they do. They're busy, building. Don't think of building websites, I mean building community. They're getting on with it.
That last point brings up a big question people ask - what if we invest a lot of attention and time into, say, Facebook, and then it's no longer flavour of the month next week?

It's a very real danger, which is why you should be focused on building community across as many social networks as you need to. It's not about the technology, it's about the people.

That's it for now. A more detailed post to come on the iJump blog.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The organisational zoology of Wellington (and other places)

It's been a pretty busy week, despite its unstructured beginnings, and I've been meeting people from all kinds of organisations while I'm here. Instead of organisations, you could say, "beasts" - as in, that's a strange beast - and then the title of this post will make sense.

The main two groups have been public sector organisations and startups. Very different beasts indeed!

Public Sector organisations...
  • Large (some would say oversized)
  • Uncomfortably comfortable (ie everyone gets paid market salaries, but as the recession bites they are getting budgetary pressure)
  • Reactive (especially in the comms department, and knowing that it's good to be proactive, but there's just so much to do!) As Jason Ryan told me today, there's always a crisis.
  • Siloed - perhaps even more than corporations, although I think they'd have some competition from some not-so-old but pretty traditional sectors (film industry, anyone?). Sam Farrow had some good thoughts on why this is endemic for public sector agencies - they're just mirroring the structure of Westminster democracy, which is founded on the separation of powers. Collaboration sort of goes against that, and it's hard to strike a balance.
  • Necessarily inclusive - while a business can decide to drop a particular audience or market, a public sector org must reach all its stakeholders. That's tough!
  • Not cool. While a business or a political party can gather passionate fans, evangelists even, a public sector org just has a job to do. While brands have pressure to stand for something, to have a point of view, public sector orgs are prevented by law from doing so.


  • Focused. Focused on audience, on revenue, on what will achieve their big goal. If they don't have this, they won't succeed. It's about survival.
  • Passionate. This ties in with the focus piece. You focus on what you're passionate about.
  • Changing ... actually this is just the same for larger orgs, but startups are more aware, and more responsive, to change. Again, it's about survival.
  • But when I say survival, it's sometimes ok to quit, and sometimes okay to let some parts of the business go. It's quick. It's exciting!
It's been an interesting trip, and my brain is just about full up with raw material ... I need to get some thinking done over the next few days while the raw material settles. I've been camping out at the spare desk at startup Ponoko, and I've let them convince me to make something before the end of the week - which is coming up pretty fast! :)

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Internal Corporate Wars - notes from the Media Relations Summit

 It's been a good couple of days in Wellington at the Conferenz 6th Annual Media Relations Summit. I haven't attended all the sessions, but the ones I have been to - and the conversations between sessions - have been yet another glimpse into the continuing evolution in the way organisations operate.

Big picture, here are the trends I'm seeing:
  • Increased pressure from consumers/constituents for organisations to present a united experience/message/everything
  • Increased complexity and shifting boundaries as disruptive innovation... well, disrupts everything!
  • Communications departments are already stretched, just by monitoring the media environment. Social media feels like a whole other job, and even when they use something like Google alerts, communicators aren't aware of the rules of engagement ... so they hold back.
  • IT departments can either be great enablers - helping others in the organisation embrace and learn social technologies - or huge barriers, letting fear, security and privacy issues stifle innovation and collaboration.
  • The larger the organisation, the larger the potential gap between departments, for instance media relations/PR and marketing. For many smaller businesses, these two departments are usually handled by one person, but for a corporate, they can have competing biases and agendas.
This last point was clearly brought out by Westpac's media relations manager Craig Dowling, who gave a good briefing on branding to the audience of mostly communications people. Branding's normally a marketing thing, but with the first trend I've spotted (above), everyone in an organisation needs to understand what the brand is, and what it means.

Sometimes I don't realise how lucky I am, not having the deep training in any one discipline, but having a very rare glimpse into the worlds of marketing, communications, PR, technology and business development through the stories I write, conferences I attend and people I interview.

More on this later - I hate reading long blog posts, so I figure I won't write one that's too long :) 

Monday, 15 September 2008

Awards of Unease

Good morning from sunny Wellington, where I’m preparing to chair a roundtable this afternoon at the 6th Annual Media Relations Conference.

All things going well, I’ll post about it tomorrow. For today, I’ve got some residual thoughts about national identity from the weekend.

This thought had three spurs:

  1. The book Marie’s reading, Caught Between Cultures by Jemima Tiatia (couldn’t find it on the Internet). It looks at the experiences of New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders, who are caught between the communal, “young-people-are-seen-and-not-heard” culture of the islands, and the individualistic, challenge authority ideals of the West. Thoughts: NZ-born Pacific Islanders often feel out of place in both settings, but where they excel is on the sports field - often in teams, with rare exceptions (eg Valerie Vili). There’s still the team aspect to the culture, and the collectivism, but the rules actually make sense, unlike many of the rules of Fa’aSamoa (I can’t speak for other island cultures but I have experienced the world of Samoan culture close up!)
  2. We watched the Qantas TV and Film Awards and it was … kind of weird. What are we kiwis about? When we watch the Oscars, we “get” what Hollywood is about. When we watch the Baftas, we get a taste of the slightly more cynical British culture. But with us, everyone bar a few such as Wendy Petrie and Geraldine Brophy, came across as uncomfortable and out of place. The clothes and setting looked right, but the confidence, the magic wasn’t there.
  3. We watched snippets of the rugby (oh how I wish now we’d watched the whole match!) where we fought off the Wallabies to win the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cups. Got home after the match was over, had to ask Twitter for the score, and got it from (among other places) our friend Ron, who’s in Ecuador at the moment!

What connects these three things? I don’t know. That’s why this is a blog post and not an article :) Good luck seeing if you can find a connection!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

How to redesign your website

We've just relaunched iJump's new site, which has been a pretty exhausting exercise, but well worth it.

While we haven't been perfect in our execution, there are some lessons in the process I thought it worth posting here:

  1. Work with a designer who has vision and is genuinely creative. We had a pretty open brief, but we did make sure we knew what the brief was about. The good thing is, it's not just a website redesign, it's an entire rebranding. We started iJump on pure imagination and little else, so this is the first time we've involved a professional, highly creative designer.
  2. Rapidly prototype, rapidly iterate. Just like Ideo does with products, move fast and loose when you're introducing new things. Also, keep it simple. Don't get lost in the details until you've figured out the core elements of your site. As you'll see from the new iJump site, it's a little bit simpler than our old one, which had plenty of features but a lack of focus.
  3. Keep the same CMS if it's humanly possible. No-one fully understands how Google ranks your site, but the longer your pages are around, the more trustworthy they are to Google and other search engines. We managed to incorporate the design Joi did with our WordPress content management system, thanks to the genius that is Hamish Campbell. (And how did I meet Hamish? Through Twitter! Who says it's not useful.)
  4. Decide what your site helps people to do first of all. Then work out how to accomplish that. That's the great thing about working with a designer, and the weakness of working with templates. Templates were designed with someone else's goal in mind; sometimes there's an overlap with your needs, most times not.
  5. If you're working with separate designers and developers, like we were, keep the channels of communication open, and respect their time. That means carefully digesting what one party says, and bringing together key things to communicate to the other party. We kind of did this ... other times it got a bit hurried and it was really helpful to be able to chat with Joi and Hamish online.
  6. Make sure your designers/developers have a broad understanding of HTML and CSS and whatever programming language your site is in (in the case of WordPress, PHP). I don't know much about all of these, but I really appreciate a) Joi's designer Sam, who creates beautiful, clean HTML and CSS that looks just like the graphical mockup we were sent, and b) Hamish, who did some great detective work when we had some weird bugs in implementing the site. Open source software's weakness is that it can get pretty complicated. It helps to have someone who understands the underlying principles, not just a particular package.
  7. Write your copy iteratively. First, work out what you want each page to say. Then, where do you need to link within the site? Then, what is the big idea of the page? Is there a word or phrase that sums it up? Make sure that word is repeated a few times through the text, to make that page search engine friendly.
  8. Check all your links. This is hard, and can be really crazy if you have a wordpress plugin that automatically "fixes" some broken links. Problem solved, but we're still finding a few of those broken links.
  9. Get feedback regularly, and from a variety of people. Pay the most attention to the people who are in your target audience.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Movie Review: Taken

Even though I was pretty sick on Friday, I needed to get out of the house, so I saw Taken with Marie.

It came with her sister's recommendation - and this is a sister whose favourite film is Legally Blonde. Not an action flick fan.

But there was action aplenty. It was kind of strange - like Kramer vs Kramer meets James Bond. That's strange in a really good way - it's good to see an action film with 3-dimensional characters and believable backstories - and in a bad way, too - once the action was over it reverted to a "family issues" film, and that kind of felt unsatisfactory.

I also found myself overthinking the whole thing - a bad habit of mine - and wondering what message the film was sending.

In many ways it was a typical hero story - that our protagonist is the only guy who knows how to save his daughter, that the whole system is against him, he can trust no one and must rely on his wits and his fists (used in equal amounts, and very proficiently) to get through.

It was extremely exciting, and yes, the hero wasn't completely invincible (only 99%). But it made me reflect on why I enjoyed Signs so much. Hero movies where the main guy is always in control are sheer escapism. Life can be much more like Signs - overwhelming and confusing, and a reason to turn to one another for help.

So my verdict on Taken - a terrific ride, but reflective of an individualistic mindset that is gradually fading away as we all seek to rediscover what it means to live in a society.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Sapphire and Steel

Like many of my generation, YouTube has given me the ability to analyse some of the key media experiences of my childhood - experiences like Sapphire and Steel.

That program used to give me the willies! Whether it was the music, the weird storylines, the sense of muted discomfort - it was just such a well-done show.

Sometimes when you look up a show from your childhood, you find that your imagination was doing all the work, and it was actually poorly done (a lot of Doctor Who's special effects come to mind here!).

But with Sapphire and Steel (as well as The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) it was just as good as the memory. And even better, consumed as a grownup.

I wonder if JJ Abrams ever watched Sapphire and Steel? They put into practice the idea of a Mystery Box like no-one else I've seen. We viewers didn't have a clue who Sapphire and Steel actually were, or why they were doing what they did, but we sure wanted to find out what happened next!

After staying up way too late last night watching Sapphire and Steel on YouTube, I'm going to take some of that mystery and incorporate that into today's writing projects. Will it help me? You'll just have to find out ...

Friday, 5 September 2008

The blog post about nothing

Blogging every weekday is kind of addictive - most days I have something interesting to say.

So I find myself sick on a Friday, with very little in my head, and yet still I want to blog.

But scratch anyone these days, and you'll find something they have to share. I'm the same ... so what can I share?

  • Blogging every day must be something Google likes - or something - because just about every post I've done has received a comment or two. Is this because I'm posting every day? Or because I'm posting on consistent(ish) topics? Is it because of Twitter?
  • Or is it just that blogging and commenting has become a mainstream part of society, compared with my other blogs in the past, which didn't often get comments?
  • Or maybe I've just become a better writer? That's always a possibility...
I've also been thinking about how Twitter is kind of like blogging, only better. Just this morning, I posted a link which in turn led to a minor conversation. In the past, that kind of conversation could - theoretically - be held through a blog post and comments. Twitter speeds up conversations and helps us learn things from multiple perspectives. Which is a really good thing.

So there we go... this post wasn't about nothing, after all!


Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Learning through pop culture

I don't know much about history...

Well, actually I do, but not because of my Social Studies classes. The things I find most useful now, I learnt through wasting time.

(the image doesn't have anything to do with this post - but ain't it cool? Find the original here)

I learned what ambergris was from a Donald Duck comic. I got inspired to take Latin classes through Asterix. I got interested in geopolitics through the expanding, imaginary Star Trek universe.

And I learnt about branding from just about everything around me. Part of the Generation X experience, I suppose, although it probably started in earlier generations.

I look at my childhood passions, some of which have survived into adulthood:

(Actually, this is almost in order of appearance)

Reader's Digest (seriously!)
The Smurfs
Knight Rider
Dr Who
Star Trek

They're all brands, and they all needed managing. So it's kind of cool as a student of branding, to be able to delve into the myths and legends of my childhood and discover some solid business lessons.

What about "young people today"? What's the time-wasting stuff they're learning?

You already know what I'm going to answer, don't you. Social networking, social media, etc.

What are they learning?

They're learning about branding, but as producers as well as consumers.

They're also learning about how to get along. Look at the reality TV shows that are popular - they're kind of cruel (notice how the Joker's evil plans in Batman are just like reality TV?) but they expose the way we relate to each other and make ethical (or unethical) choices.

Where did your most valuable learning come from?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Why you shouldn't live as if today was your last day

Sometimes people lay that out as an instant key to know what's important in life. It's not ... if today was my last day, I'd probably try to do everything ... and not do anything well.

More inspiring for me is ... what would you do, if you had 50 years, and could only do one thing? Even forgetting 50 years, what about if you could do only one thing TODAY... ?

Of course, life's not like that, and neither is business. Businesses especially have to diversify their operations in ways that don't always feel comfortable or make brand sense. That's why we have brands - for ourselves as much as for others - to know what it is we're about. And why we do the things we do.

But having that thought - what if I could only do ONE thing? - is a great place to start. Who knows, you might actually get something done, and in a lot less time than 50 years!

Writing for B2B magazines

Ben's writing an article for Startup Mag, and he asked me what I wished I'd known about writing for business-to-business print magazines when I started, 8 years ago.

(a magazine I haven't written for)

Here's what I told him:

Biggest thing I've learnt in writing both for print and screen is to
outline first. Think in outlines, in skeletal structures. Make sure
you have a solid backbone to the story then flesh it out.

Secondly make every word count. It's very tempting when you're paid by
the word to pad out, but resist the urge, and you'll create stuff that
people actually want to keep reading.

With quotes ... use direct quotes sparingly. Before I did print
journalism, I did radio copywriting, so my early articles are filled
with speech marks everywhere. Synthesise, rather than quoting.

And - I always forget this - always ask for a high-res photo of the
person you're interviewing at the time you're interviewing them.
300dpi resolution, JPG or TIFF format should work for most publishers. Not that you'll be taking these photos; these are often provided by interviewees or their PR companies.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Dark Knight and Word of Mouth

"You've changed everything."

Batman changed the face of Gotham City's crime, and we've changed the face of trusted recommendations.

To be honest, The Dark Knight's trailer didn't grab me. At all. But when friends offline and online started raving over it, unanimously, without one negative review, I paid attention.

I'm glad! We finally saw it on Friday night on the big IMAX screen. So, so good on so many levels. An immensely satisfying filmgoing experience.

Then last night I was weeding out the RSS feeds in my Google Reader. My criteria for what stayed:
  • relevant
  • consistent
  • consistently relevant :)
  • helpful
  • made me feel connected
  • informative
So now I'm trying to apply the same ideas to my own blog. Please let me know how I'm doing? I've opened comments to anyone; you don't need to login to comment. Thanks!