The value of being boring

Why older, later adopters of new technologies represent the future of social media

Why older, later adopters of new technologies represent the future of social media The author and social media theorist Clay Shirky describes how technological “tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” What he means is that even after the early adopters have inevitably moved on to something new, it is the adoption of technologies by mainstream audiences that ultimately determines whether or not they will have a positive social impact. Businesses such as Facebook, may have built their early appeal amongst younger early adopters, looking for something new and exciting, but they will make the bulk of their money from older, more loyal users.

Much of the talk in social media circles is how young people have started to abandon Facebook. A recent US report by iStrategyLabs has revealed that the number of teenagers using the site has dropped by 25% in the past three years. Conversely, the 45-54 age group is now the fastest growing demographic on Facebook and Google+ and the number of 55-65 year olds using Twitter has increased by 79% since 2012. Admittedly these growth figures reflect a low starting point, but they underline how even Facebook – which reaches this grand old age of 10 this month – has reached a stage of maturity.

When your parents, and even worse your grandparents, are on Facebook, it will inevitably lose some of its cachet. According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, as far as Britain’s 16 to 18 year olds are concerned, Facebook is “dead and buried” and quite frankly, they are “embarrassed even to be associated with it.” How the mighty have fallen. One minute you’re the hottest new technology on the planet, attracting a hyperbolic stock-price valuation, next minute, you’re as fashionable as your father’s record collection.

All technologies operate in a Darwinian ecosystem: they are always at risk of being replaced by something new. Remember when Sony dominated consumer electronics, IBM dominated PCs and Nokia enjoyed a 70% market share? History has shown that technology-based businesses with dominant market shares and apparently bullet-proof business models will eventually be replaced by younger, more innovative versions of themselves. As we speak, there are smart people working in sheds and cluttered labs in Silicon Valley or any other Silicon derivative – Silicon Fen, Silicon Roundabout, you name it – inventing better versions of Facebook and Twitter.

The latest hot new social media app is the typically idiosyncratically-named ‘Jelly’, created by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. The Jelly app allows people to pose questions, accompanied by a picture, to their Twitter and Facebook contacts. Some of the early uses of the app, according to the Jelly website, have included providing photography advice, advising on a winning chess move, fashion tips, saving a life (of a spider) and learning how to hang art on a brick wall. Admittedly, these don’t sound like the most essential things in life, but never underestimate the social value of the apparently trivial. As with most new social technologies, many people’s initial response is to question the need (‘what’s the point?’) and criticise the name. But Biz Stone’s track record merits respect. It took most people a few years to see the point of his Twitter app beyond trivial questions such as ‘should I have bacon or sausages for breakfast?”

There will always be another Jelly around the corner, grabbing the attention of fickle youth and potentially cannibalising the business models of more established technologies. The good news for the social media businesses trying to appease demanding investors and justify inflated share prices is that older users are more likely to stick with them. They are less worried that Facebook has become a bit boring and unfashionable. They like it because it is useful, not because it is trendy. The technology is tried and tested and just about everyone in their social circle uses it. It may be boring, but it works.

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Social media and the value of experience

For over 20 years the US retailer Nordstrom issued new employees with a handbook and a company rulebook. The rulebook featured only one rule, “Use good judgement in all situations.” When The Guardian’s management team was looking for a set of social media guidelines for its journalists, it borrowed Nordstrom’s mantra to emphasise the most critical behaviour it wanted to encourage: the ability to exercise judgement.

Social media experts are fond of proclaiming the immutable laws or fundamental rules governing social media success, but the most important quality that determines success from failure is this ability to exercise judgement. Do I respond to that negative Tweet, Facebook update or blog post or will doing so only make the situation worse? Should my response be informal and humorous or will this appear unprofessional and patronising? Should I wait to see if other members of the community respond on my behalf? Are these the ramblings of a professional complainer or is this the spark that has the potential to ignite a social media frenzy? These are all subtle judgement calls. And judgement is primarily a product of experience.

This is why some of the most proficient social customer teams are comprised of people in their 40s, 50s and even 60s: experienced customer service professionals who have spent years listening to customers, dealing with their moans and unpredictable behavior and learning how to judge situations. They may not be the stereotypical ‘digital natives’- the younger generation that we assume are most likely to thrive in a world of Tweets, Posts and shares – and they may struggle to get their heads around some of the more Byzantine technological innovations, but their life experiences have tended to fortify their judgment skills.

I run a social media course for the Institute of Directors. As you might imagine, the delegates tend to be experienced professionals in their 40s and 50s. They have reached the top of their game professionally – running some of the UK’s most successful businesses – but they can feel out of their depth when it comes to social media. They find the technology confusing and the behaviour of social media users bewildering, especially the willingness of the younger generation to share every aspect of their lives with complete strangers. They have also witnessed at first hand the changes in customer behaviour and expectations that have been unleashed by a decade of social media innovation. Traditional business hierarchies have been challenged and operating processes shown to be too slow and unwieldy, creating a whole new set of challenges for which their training, MBAs and experience have left them largely ill-prepared.

The mood at the beginning of these courses is a mixture of anxiety and mild confusion. But before they despair entirely of their ability to cope I remind them how their well-honed skill in making sophisticated judgement calls – balancing detailed analysis with the intuition that only really comes with experience – gives them a huge advantage in today’s fast moving, socially connected economy. You can train anyone to use social media technologies – their simplicity and usability has been fundamental to their growth – but you can’t train judgement. It takes time. It takes experience. Age is not a barrier: in fact it gives you an incredible advantage. Your children may still treat you as a technological dinosaur but your experience gives you the ability to not only survive but thrive in this new world.

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Appreciate Me

It is becoming increasingly clear that social media is more of a cultural phenomenon than a technological one. It is shaping our behaviours, our expectations and increasingly our view of ourselves. This is well illustrated in a new piece of research from the Future Foundation, which reveals that social networkers are 48% more likely than non-users of social media to “strongly feel the need to be appreciated by others.”

You could argue this this betrays a woeful insecurity, but it is a logical consequence of social media’s cult of affirmation. The quality of everything we do, everything we create, everything we say in the ubiquitous online world is determined by the opinions of others: their shares, likes, retweets, links. As an attendee at a focus group once told me: “If it isn’t worth sharing it isn’t any good.” Not surprisingly, the same Future Foundation study indicates that 59% of us “like it when people acknowledge my posts/photos/comments on social media sites.”

This has interesting implications for internal communications. Employees have always wanted to feel appreciated – for their unique contribution to be recognised and rewarded – but the Future Foundation argues that social media has magnified this fundamental human need. Like me, retweet me, share me … but whatever you do, don’t under appreciate me.

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Digging yourself out of the trough

It isn’t much fun in the ‘trough of disillusionment’. The heady days since you launched your breakthrough online business are long gone. Investors are demanding a return on their money. New, fresh faced competitors have spotted the gap you created in the market and are stealing your hard won fans and followers with the bravado that characterised your formative years. The joys of community power and crowdsourcing are starting to look a little less attractive, now that you need to start generating a sustained growth in revenue.

The ‘trough of disillusionment’ was coined by research specialist Gartner to describe the post-boom phase encountered by all technology business. It is a stage in the ‘hype cycle’ model that Gartner has used since 1995 to track the introduction of new technologies. All innovations move through five distinct phases in the Gartner model: an initial ‘technology trigger’ is followed by ‘the peak of inflated expectations’, when the enthusiasm and hyperbole is at its most intense. This is followed by the ‘trough of disillusionment’, when the technology or service inevitably fails to meet the exaggerated expectations of its launch phase. A gradual recovery through the ‘slope of enlightenment’ ultimately leads to a situation in which the technology becomes stable or mature, its benefits become broadly accepted and it is adopted by mainstream consumers: a stage appropriately described by Gartner as a ‘plateau of productivity.’

The first wave of social media-empowered businesses has experienced its ‘peak of inflated expectations’ – when they could do little wrong and the breathless hyperbole was at its most intense – and are now trapped in the ‘trough’. Investors are starting to get restless and are questioning the ability of the people who founded the business to turn it into a viable commercial operation. The gimmicks and stunts that worked well during the early years are no longer sufficient to keep followers engaged and the media interested. Investing time and effort in social media and community management seem no longer sufficient to drive sales. New employees don’t appear to share the founding team’s passion for the business.

The good news is that, if the Gartner model is to be believed, business can make it through to ‘the slope of enlightenment’ and the ‘plateau of productivity’, so long as they recognise the need to change. This doesn’t mean behaving like a ‘big boring corporate’ or abandoning all of the things that made them special in the first place, but it does mean embracing grown-up concepts such as customer data analysis, propensity modelling, brand positioning and ROI. It means thinking strategically, rather than purely tactically and building a positive and resilient internal culture. It means recognising the need to support their investments in social media with more traditional forms of marketing communication, including advertising, and embracing the highest standards of customer service and employee training. Not every business is capable of making this transition. Many lack the experience, skills, motivation and the right external agency support to make the necessary organisational and cultural changes. They will continue to struggle in the depths of the ‘trough’ until bought-out by a smarter, more commercially astute competitor. Or they will simply fade away, to be replaced by the next business going through its ‘peak of inflated expectations.’

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Customer Service Goes Social

The application of social media that appears to be gathering the most momentum is its use as a customer service channel. The cost efficiencies of dealing with problems using social media – monitoring customer comments on Twitter and Facebook – rather than a call centre, are compelling, especially at a time when most organisations are looking to cut operational costs . According to Ben Kay, EE’s head of digital strategy: “not only are social agents four times more efficient than telephone agents, but they also result in better Net Promoter Score ratings” (the critical metric for most customer service teams). It would appear that customers would far rather voice their complaints on social media than spend hours on hold in call centre hell, waiting to speak to a real person. The social customer service specialist, Conversocial, claims that 50% of us are already using social media for this purpose. The cost efficiencies of social customer service are also highlighted by a statistic from British Gas: according to Laura Price, the company’s social media manager, “Each view of a YouTube customer support video equates to an £80 saving on call centre costs”. Producing a simple YouTube video, explaining the solution to common customer problems, can generate massive cost savings.

Another growth area is the concept of mutual support, in which existing customers help new customers solve problems. This has been standard practice within the technology sector for years, but it is beginning to be used in other business sectors. According to the consultants at McKinsey, “Using customer communities to solve customer problems costs 10% of traditional call centres.” Not only does this approach save a huge amount of money, but it also flatters the people providing the advice: they feel good about being a source of expertise.

The innovative giffgaff business – O2’s experimental telecoms brand – has taken this collaborative model to a particularly sophisticated level, offering financial incentives – in the form of discounts that can be redeemed against the cost of calls – if members of the giffgaff community help other people resolve problems with their mobile phones. It is so successful, that according to giffgaff’s commercial manager, Vincent Boon, “Customer communities handle 85% of our customer support.” The cost savings that result from not having to operate an expensive call centre operation allow the company to offer some of the lowest call prices in the market.

Social customer service is not without its challenges. It turns the act of complaining and the resolution of those complaints into a public act: anyone can follow the interaction between customer and company. Some organisations will recoil from this level of public scrutiny, but the smart ones recognise that being seen to handle problems quickly and professionally, especially when done in a friendly manner, can enhance their reputation. Conversely, mishandling a customer complaint or adopting an inappropriate, over-officious and unfriendly tone of voice can have serious repercussions. The fashion and homeware retailer, Next, recently found itself in the middle of a social media storm when one of its social media team spotted a customer complaint on Twitter. The language used by the complainer was a touch fruity, although the Tweeter was not directly addressing her complaint to Next – i.e. she didn’t address her diatribe to @Next but to her personal followers. The Tweeted response from the person at Next was particularly clumsy: “We kindly ask you to remove your original tweet as the language used may offend other readers.” Another Twitter user, tracking the conversation, wasn’t impressed: “Dear @nextoffical Perhaps address/sort the complaint first before ticking customer … off for language?” A veritable Twitter-storm followed, summed up by another Tweet from an interested observer: “Bad delivery service, bad twitter management … is there anything Next can do well?”

The other big challenge posed by the rise of social customer service is the need for speed. Customers complaining on social media expect their enquiries to be dealt with within minutes. Research conducted by Social Habit (a US-based social media analyst) indicated that 67% of customers expect a response to their social media complaint within 24 hours, 42% within an hour and an impatient 32% within 30 minutes. This is a major challenge, given the tortuously slow nature of most organisational decision-making, in which front-line staff are often forced to seek the approval from multiple layers of management before responding to a customer complaint. It will also force organisations to operate their customer service function beyond traditional working hours: consumers will expect a rapid response to their complaint, even during evenings and weekends.

Within five years, social media will be the primary customer service channel for most organisations. The cost efficiencies are compelling and customers seem to prefer this way of complaining, so long as the subject of their complaint is able to respond quickly and sensitively. Traditional call centres will be replaced by teams monitoring streams of social media chatter, increasingly 24/7. The smart businesses are already experimenting with different monitoring systems and training their customer service teams to operate the technology. The social media-empowered customer has arrived.

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The real spirit of sport

Sure Nike can do the celebrity razzle-dazzle – check out the latest McIlroy/Woods production number – but where the brand really comes into its own is the ability to capture the essence of grassroots sport. For Nike, the real spirit of sport is on the streets.

I have only recently come across this ad, in which the brand expresses the views of ice hockey supporters locked out of their favourite sport by a financial dispute between owners and players.  I can’t imagine that another sports brand would have even attempted this, let alone deliver something this simple and effective.

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The power of the Christmas message

There is one Christmas marketing campaign that continues to stand head and shoulders above all of the commercial rubbish: Lowe SSP3′s work for the Colombian government. For the past few years the campaign has used the power of Christmas – and the insight that even the most hard bitten guerrilla fighter are likely to be thinking about home and family at this time – to persuade FARC fighters in Colombia to demobilise.

This year’s campaign – Operation Bethlehem – involves the creation of beacons of light to mark safe havens for the wannabe deserters:

The campaign builds on the government’s previous initiative in which Christmas lights were left in parts of the Colombian jungle frequented by the guerrilla fighters. This simple use of Christmas imagery was enough to convince more the 300 fighters to demobilise.

A powerful insight. Brilliant execution. True ROI. Happy Christmas.

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The magic hour

The agility and responsiveness of an organisation can be measured by its ability to respond to a customer enquiry, comment or complaint within an hour. Those clever people at the Harvard Business Review have established that businesses that respond to customer enquiries within the hour are seven times more likely to qualify a sales lead than those that contact the customer even an hour later and more than 60 times more likely than companies that wait 24 hours or longer.  It is therefore  surprising to learn that the same Harvard study indicates that only 37% of businesses are actually able to manage a reply with the magic hour.

This is a simple, yet powerful dramatisation of the disconnect between real time and institutional time. Real time working and responding has become a mantra for our social age, but for the majority of organisations – hamstrung by tortuous internal approval processes, over-centralised decision-making and poor monitoring systems – it remains more of an aspiration than a reality. It demands a reappraisal and reorganisation of structures and operating procedures, but above all, it requires a change in organisational culture, empowering customer-facing employees to make decisions without the need to refer everything to their line managers.

It has become something of a cliche to reference online retailer Zappos as an exemplar of best practice, but it remains the poster child for employee-empowered customer service. One of the secrets to Zappos’ success is the quality of its customer-facing employees, who neither use scripts, nor are forced to keep their telephone calls with customers to a set time-limit: the longest call in Zappos history was a remarkable eight hours. The Zappos team can also, at their own discretion, send notes of apology or even flowers to customers who have had a bad sales experience, without having to go through the usual approval processes.  This is completely at odds with the tight way that call centres are typically managed, in which calls have to be processed in a set period of time, scripts cannot be deviated from and all decisions have to be referred to senior management. Zappos can operate in this loose way, not because it pays high salaries or bonuses – it doesn’t – but because it spends far longer recruiting and training its customer service reps than any other similar operator, putting them through a four-week immersion in culture, core values and service at its Las Vegas headquarters. New recruits emerge from this training programme with a profound understanding of the company’s culture and core values. Any recruit who doesn’t like it is offered $3,000 if they quit – a golden goodbye rather than the typical golden handshake. Around 10% of employees take the money and run.

This is what it takes to deliver within the critical one-hour time frame.  It isn’t complicated but it does demand investment, trust in your employees and senior management support.  Without this commitment to cultural and organisational change, real time customer service is merely an unfulfilled promise.

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The next big thing?

There have been plenty of false starts: for a time Quora looked liked being a contender, only to join all of the others on the list of social media platforms that almost made it.  But Pinterest – the visual social network – does look it will genuinely become the ‘next big thing.’  At present it is pretty insignificant in the UK with only around 200,000 users, but its spectacular growth in the US – where it was the fastest site to achieve 10 million users – suggests that it has a chance of becoming a mainstream platform.  It is easy to use, relies on a simple call to action – Pin It! – and appears to lend itself to commerce: it is apparently generating more referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube combined.  For any business selling products that rely on their aesthetic appeal - fashion, furniture, furnishing, cars, holidays – now is the time to take Pinterest seriously.

For a quick introduction to Pinterest, check out this video:

A marketers guide to Pinterest

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The end of the spinners

Few business functions have experienced the level of inflation in both status and salary enjoyed by the in-house PR professional. When I first started in the industry the corporate press officer was a relatively junior role, responsible for writing the chairman’s speeches and dealing with occasional press enquiries. The last 20 years has seen its elevation to the exalted status of the corporate communications chief – the person paid a substantial salary to polish the corporate reputation, keep the critics at bay and the stakeholders happy. They have done their job so well that far too many of their internal audiences – especially those occupying the c-suite – have bought in to the idea that the world around them can be controlled, critics silenced and crises managed. Unfortunately, in a world in which trust is at a premium, influence is dispersed and criticism is cheap, these masters (or mistresses) of corporate spin are struggling. Stories can no longer be buried with a quiet word to your mate on the city desk.

Many years ago I worked for a financial and corporate communications agency which used to go into client pitches with two boards. On one board was written the word ‘friends’ and on the other ‘control’. The message was simple, compelling and, given the spectacular growth of the agency since that time, highly profitable: ‘We are friends with the handful of people whose opinions matter most in the valuation of stock prices or forming of corporate reputations and we know how to control the messages that they receive and transmit.’

Things have certainly changed since those simple times. Authority and expertise have been dispersed to the extent that analysts are no longer reliant on personal briefings and are picking up their information from the web, and opinion formers are just as likely to be obscure bloggers operating out of their bedrooms as professional journalists or eminent academics. And the CEO is starting to ask why sites critical of the company are starting to appear at the top of the Google rankings. You are paid a big salary to stop this type of stuff from appearing, or at least that’s what you told them. Welcome to the new world of the public affairs or corporate communications director: chaotic, complicated and largely unspinnable. It requires a completely new set of skills, in which an understanding of social media, behavioural psychology and influencer marketing is far more important than a bulging contacts list on your BlackBerry. It is a world in which many of the people currently occupying the leading corporate affairs roles are going to struggle.

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