We must take more pride in analysing how stories are made

Source: http://rebelacademy.org/images/users/2dbb34b99a07d0edd21a495ad785c5b4/bb7846dbc808d5e760b10767ed3c3d19-brainstorm_660.jpg

There’s a common founder myth (read “cliche”) that goes something like this:

“From a young age, I found myself fascinated by how things worked. Once I took the TV apart to see how the little people got inside. Just like Steve Jobs, this is why I think the back of the cabinet/ inside of the device must be as beautiful as every other bit.”

I exaggerate somewhat. But you get the gist – people who end up in hardware talk about learning by taking things apart, scrutinising them and taking that understanding on into their work.

It’s a strong anecdote — but this quite literal tale neglects a broader, possibly stronger metaphor that applies to more abstract careers too . And I’d claim, if anything, it’s more relevant in that context.

My own epiphany here started with Kevin Bacon.

Streaky brainstorming

When Bacon started fronting EE’s recent marketing, many thought the company’s decision inexplicably Footloose and fancy-free – or worse, felt his character something of a Hollow Man at the centre of such an important campaign. (Forgive me, the puns are out of the way for now.)

My reaction was different. Immediately, my imagination conjured a corporate board room, perhaps with a whiteboard tripod in the corner and some Cadburys Celebrations/ Krispy Kreme on the table. Upon that whiteboard, in fading blue marker lay a single world in a big, misshapen circle: “Connection”.

The idea shower/ brain storm/ concept carnival/ perception party (delete as applicable) begins.

We have all been in this room, shouting out ideas fuelled by either too much caffeine, sugary snacks or both. As they say, there are no bad ideas in such a brainstorm – only bad people.

And in this case, that bad person is (through no fault of his own) Kevin Bacon.

Bringing it home

At some stage, starting with the word connection, someone brought up “seven degrees of Kevin Bacon”. This game involves naming any actor and then using various connections like costars, directors, relationships to map them back to Kevin Bacon in seven steps or fewer.

So, someone wrote that name on the wall. Then, months later, we have a former Hollywood A-listed doing a mockney English accent in a cafe and pretending anyone wants to use the Samsung Galaxy Gear.

This is one of the ways ideas are made. And this is when I realised how obsessed I have become with the construction of stories. Just as engineers constantly dissect and analyse physical creations, I think those of us in abstract disciplines like marketing are doing the same thing. But perhaps in the abstract process, we’re carrying on with this behaviour more constantly and unconsciously than we even realise.

It’s time we proudly embrace this. It gives us the context to justify sending a whole agency of employees to the movies for the afternoon (Danny Whatmough deserves a hat-tip for that idea), and subsidising them to explore the fiction and culture that their audiences are immersed in. Or better: encouraging them out of their comfort zone to even more diverse and varied material.

Some of us are better able to see the strings behind the scenes than others. Some of us may get so hung up on it that they can’t enjoy certain creations. However, if it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something, I’d assert that many of us are practicing more often than we think.

Poke fun at martini lunches, pitching to influencers, or the intense daily strain of PR (especially agency) life if you like. I think there are few places on earth that will push you in this area of understanding good stories like being part of a thriving, hungry PR machine.

July 15th, 2015

Press releases are the selfies of the marketing world


The press release was a document born of necessity. Nascent public relations professionals realised the best way to get ahead of the story and speculation was to distribute a short statement of the facts. And it took off.

Over time, the format has become a hyper real pastiche. Many PRs don’t think you should even create them, while many startups and marketers believe they should be cranking them out because it shows what a real company they are.

In the mean time, the language of communication has changed and the means of publishing have spread. What was once the only way to market has become just one option. And it’s amplified by its contrast to the alternatives.

In the current communications mix, the press release has become a pouting, superficial self-portrayal — often largely unwelcomed, leaving the subject disparaged behind its back. Duck-faced brands smile on obliviously, instead of thinking about what would encourage someone else to hold the camera.

Let’s dig into this further.

Context as the subject

The issue with selfies is that, by definition, they more or less render context moot. You can be standing in front of the Great Wall of China but an arms-length framing is always going to make you an artificial focal point.

By contrast, if you turn the camera around, you’re presenting your viewer with your perspective on the world around you. Taking care to turn a quick snap into an artful composition shows them something about you without you having to tell them. And it respects their time and attention. It’s also harder to hide from the fact you’ve trotted out something pedestrian, derivative or uninteresting.

Similarly, most press releases ignore the bigger picture around them. Part of this is formal — they’re not really made for it. So why not just write an announcement post that puts your news in context? Why not write a series of them? Why not record a short video about why the news matters.

See if you can do it without using the words “excited to announce”. See how short you can keep it while making your point. See what other relevant articles you can quote and link to. Maybe interview someone involved and ask good questions. Think like a journalist.

Just the facts

But this can go too far.

There’s nothing worse than trying to write up a story from a document that buries and obfuscates its facts in reams of insignificant detail. Great photos don’t come with the details on ISO rate and shutter speed hidden “Where’s Wally” style somewhere on their canvas. These details are included like metadata through standards like EXIF — or key details are included on an accompanying note in the gallery.

Keep your facts clear. Try 3 credible, quantitative bullet points. Maybe you can use each as a heading for another sentence or two that provides more context but keep it short and link elsewhere if there’s more relevant detail.

Dividing facts and context means you can still reference the former in the latter but ensures they are at a reader’s fingertips when they need them. If the facts don’t show why your story is interesting, maybe it isn’t. This exposure of the truth alone may be worth the price of entry.

Confront it — and if there’s no way to express the story without achieving this, perhaps it’s time to consider another way to publish. A short interview might be a better way to express what makes this story point matter. Or maybe you should just release the data? Or perhaps it’s worth an email to a small subset of your customers/ audience?

There is no one size fits all. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — but the facts should give you an apparatus to identify whose eyes to aim for next.

The holy grail

It’s likely the best photo of you is not a selfie. You probably aren’t looking straight at the camera. Maybe you didn’t even know they were taking a photo. You’re just doing your thing, perhaps in good company and in a place that makes you happy.

More than ever, we’re a society used to recording moments in each others’ lives. From the big days like weddings and babies, down to the mundane but shared ground of daily life, there’s something inherently social about these snaps.

The best marketing today is similar. Showing up on communities like Reddit or being submitted naturally to a site like Product Hunt shows something significant about you. Someone writing about you because you’re worth talking about is them capturing a natural moment in your company’s life.

You’re not always going to enjoy it. You have to accept that sometimes it’s going to be unflattering. But if your company can’t stand the scrutiny of your audience exposing you from every angle, or nobody is talking about you at all, it’s better that you know.

No amount of selfie sticks, ‘beauty’ filters or orbiting drones are going to hide the fact you are holded up, alone in your room taking these snaps. It’s time to ignore these distractions and turn the lens on the world around you. If you make it the subject, you’ll be surprised how quickly it may return the interest in you.

May 6th, 2015

Digital Wake: a new experiment

Having recently got heavily into podcasts, it seemed a good time to give it a crack with @DannyWhatmough. Thoughts and feedback always welcome.

November 28th, 2014

PR for PR

Have been meaning to write up similar thoughts about the Guardian’s “anon PR” feature. Was invited to write one and explained that I think anyone who would contribute is rather missing the point of our industry.

Found it interesting how often the comments on Wadd’s post included: “I’m in”. Maybe one thing that will make a big difference is more people and agencies saying “we’re in PR” instead of hiding from the phrase. And even better, companies confirming PR is a high and valuable priority provided by professional and essential partners.

For me, there are lots of disciplines hitting overlapping marketing+management areas at the moment — but what makes the difference is the background from which you’re entering that challenge. That’s where I thank God I got started in the PR world instead of the many others competing today.

We aren’t just trying to slam links out there like SEOs or fill expensive ad space. As far as I can see, the best PR was always about building growing, sustainable and valuable relationships with key people by providing something that helped them achieve their own goals.

Great ideas, strategically managed, delivered without just throwing money at the problem. Using journalistic instinct to scrutinise the company and help them tell a credible story that creates growing value. Providing a better editor for their work.

I’d love PR to reclaim its meaning as something more than “I’m going to pull strings with the newspaper editors I take for lunch.”

November 15th, 2014

The journo who replied to every PR email missed the most important point

I love the idea. Obviously. But I think there’s a missed opportunity in the execution.

Let me start at the beginning.

The problem

In a world where PRs outnumber journalists so hugely, the biggest obstacle to improving our industry today is the broken feedback loop.

If every journo could reply to every single PR email, good PRs would gradually refine what they send and who they send to, reducing volumes. Meanwhile, careless PRs would receive large quantities of replies and be unable to escape that there are real humans on the other end, whose time they are wasting.

If every journalist took a week out to do what’s described in this article, even just once, it could help close this loop. Spending a little time could reduce future unwanted email, help PRs understand interests and refine one of the most important but frustrating systems in a modern journalist’s life.

Sadly though, the execution in the article rather limits this potential, even from day 1:

It’s Saturday, so my inbox is mercifully quiet. I do receive an email titled “Lion who attacked teacher in Peru in care of animal organization helping to enforce circus ban”; attached is a press release that says about the same thing, but in more than 950 words. I reply “Hi, thanks for sending this, will look into Operation Spirit of Freedom rescue mission” and resume my weekend.

Instead of clarifying the kind of thing that might be of interest, Zach is providing positive feedback for topics outside his remit – especially in a world where they are used to deafening silence.

Two days later, more inaccurate positive feedback:

I do get a note about Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott throwing a “Lavish, Snackeez-Themed Birthday Party” for their son’s second birthday party, so I reply “Thanks! Sounds like a fun party,” which is a weird thing to write about a birthday party for a stranger’s 2-year-old, but whatever.

In fact, twice in the same day:

I listen to it in bed anyway and muster up a bland “Thanks—I’ll give it a listen” in reply and wonder what sort of toll the five days that lay ahead will take.

Monday hits and he issues another self-defeating barrage:

I respond to a release about a French company specializing in the production of mechanical components with a chirpy “I don’t know much about drilling and optronic assembly, but thank you for sharing!”

By Wednesday, he may have realised the damage he was doing — things turn around a bit:

My favorite ones are invites to events happening in other cities, like a brewery party in Chicago and an exhibit of photos of Chartres Cathedral in Paris sent to me by a publicist with an AOL.com email address, because then I can respond by politely and usefully announcing that I live in New York

Useful feedback. A good PR will use this detail to save further irrelevant pitches in the future. After all, they don’t want to waste their own time either.

Then, an even better move:

Things slow by midafternoon, but there’s a weird surge in sports-related PR (a study on NFL coaches, a “Swing for Education Golf Classic”) so I take the opportunity to inform publicists of Newsweek’s sports guy (it’s not me!).

This is incredibly useful feedback. If it’s not relevant, making that clear is great — but if it’s a half decent story then pointing toward your colleagues will, again, help in future.

This turn around reveals something I think is interesting — journalists inherently know that there’s a possibility to save themselves future aggro. But the fact is, most journalists have stopped trying.

The aftermath – what can journalists do?

From Zach’s followup:

 Now I’m the most revered journalist in PR agencies nationwide, an earthly god among flacks.

I was forced to a startling conclusion: My week-long immersion in the gaping uselessness of PR emails had produced something…sort of…useful to PR people? Essential, even?

Nearly. So nearly. And so nearly to journalists too — but I think it just fell short of being actually quite revolutionary.

With that in mind, I thought I’d supply some options to help journalists manage the incoming PR flow, based on my perspective halfway between the two worlds.

1. Tell us what interests you and how to pitch you

Every writer is different. Zach mentioned in his follow up how to catch his eye: “Consider me the last writer on Earth who still loves receiving physical media in the mail.” But for a million other journalists, they can’t stand the idea.

Yes, PRs should read your writing and ideally tweets before making unsolicited contact. But if you can supplement that with a short note about how best to contact you, what your current agenda, commissions or core interests are, you’re only going to help them do it better.

2. Use auto-responses

Plenty of tools will allow you to either juggle multiple items on a clipboard, expand text from little shortcuts or even just keep multiple responses that you use often. Write some up — perhaps a simple “I don’t cover this patch, I write about XYZ, see my statement here” or “I will never write about this, please take me off your list”.

How about including links to your colleagues on various topics in the response too? If you’re worried it’ll increase emails you receive, include a clear statement: “no need to respond to this message”.

3. Use email properly

Know your weapon. Email isn’t going anywhere. You’re not about to be pitched any less. Developing rules as the first line of processing makes sense but try to focus on highlighting the unmissable messages instead of filtering out all the noise.

Take it seriously. Read Getting Things Done. Consider how you might link Mailbox into the workflow so you can get through it quicker. This isn’t just true of journalists, it’s true of everyone in an email-heavy environment.

September 22nd, 2014

Likes labours lost: You get the Facebook you deserve

Recently, Wired reporter Mat Honan conducted an experiment to see what happens if you Like every Page that appears in your Facebook feed. The result was his Friends’ stories being crowded out by updates from noisy brands. No great surprises there.

But here’s a question. If we’re saying that brand stories blocking updates from your friends is a bad thing, what exactly is the logic of Liking any Facebook brand page?

Even if an interest in something suggests you may appreciate news about it, the idea that you would choose for those to be injected in and around stories of your friends’ lives is pretty insane.

It’s also one of the reasons that Facebook can start to feel so repetitive and numbing. The newsfeed puts the commercial, the mundane, and the largest life events all side by side. And they’re further trivialised by the act of idly thumbing through on a tiny smartphone screen at Thursday lunchtime.

Partly to blame is Facebook’s smart use of language. Equating like with Like isn’t like for like. And the problem continues with another core feature: there are friends.. and then there are Friends.

Many users have long passed the magic ‘Dunbar number’, which states that humans can only maintain around 150 stable relationships at any time. As a result, it’s inevitable that people you care about are going to get lost.

The most honestly named feature in all of Facebook is the Newsfeed. But the rest of the language around it stops us from asking the simple question: How do I tell it only to give me the stories that matter.

So here’s a new approach. Every time you see a story that doesn’t interest you, click the little menu button in the top right corner of that card and Unfollow (not unfriend) that person. Go to your likes page (Facebook.com/(your username)/likes/) and consider who you might want to ditch.

Nobody is making you live with your current Facebook experience and it doesn’t take long to fix. What’s stopping you?

September 8th, 2014

Google Authorship is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of search

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate a minute.

Google has said it will “stop showing authorship in search results.”. It has not said that it will stop using what it has learned about authorship to impact rankings.

Over the past few years, it has registered a huge range of major publishers in one form or another and you can imagine it has gathered a lot of useful data. Its map of where writing comes from and how authors behave is more complete than ever.

Like moths to a flame, every SEO and their content-marketing best friend has splurged out rel=author in the hope it would positively affect their rankings. The issue with something so visible is that it immediately tempts manipulation.

Google must realise it doesn’t need to know about the long tail of EVERY author, just important authors. It has them. In the announcement it also reaffirmed its commitment to structured markup, the long time future of a more organised web and the area authorship fit into.

This isn’t a Google+ story, as many have tried to make it. It’s an interesting example of user experience vs ranking factors. Making authorship a visible element in search results was not an improvement – so Google has removed it. But I don’t believe that it has turned its back on better understanding sources and producers of content vs the simple pages they generate.

Like Obi-Wan, the corporeal form of authorship may have been struck down — but if the data so far has made it more valuable to Google as a ranking factor, it may have become even more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

September 5th, 2014

I’m generally quite relaxed about privacy but this whole presentation is great

I’m generally quite relaxed about privacy but this whole presentation is great:

It should be illegal to collect and permanently store most kinds of behavioral data.

In the United States, they warn us the world will end if someone tries to regulate the Internet. But the net itself was born of a fairly good regulatory framework that made sure de facto net neutrality existed for decades, paid for basic research into protocols and software, cleared the way for business use of the internet, and encouraged the growth of the commercial web.

It’s good regulation, not lack of regulation, that kept the web healthy.

Here’s one idea for where to begin:

  1. Limit what kind of behavioral data websites can store. When I say behavioral data, I mean the kinds of things computers notice about you in passing—your search history, what you click on, what cell tower you’re using.

It’s very important that we regulate this at the database, not at the point of collection. People will always find creative ways to collect the data, and we shouldn’t limit people’s ability to do neat things with our data on the fly. But there should be strict limits on what you can save.

  1. Limit how long they can keep it. Maybe three months, six months, three years. I don’t really care, as long as it’s not fifty years, or forever. Make the time scale for deleting behavioral data similar to the half-life of a typical Internet business.

  2. Limit what they can share with third parties. This limit should also apply in the event of bankruptcy, or acquisition. Make people’s data non-transferable without their consent.

  3. Enforce the right to download. If a website collects information about me, I should be allowed to see it. The EU already mandates this to some extent, but it’s not evenly enforced.

This rule is a little sneaky, because it will require backend changes on many sites. Personal data can pile up in all kinds of dark corners in your system if you’re not concerned about protecting it. But it’s a good rule, and easy to explain. You collect data about me? I get to see it.

  1. Enforce the right to delete. I should be able to delete my account and leave no trace in your system, modulo some reasonable allowance for backups.

  2. Give privacy policies teeth. Right now, privacy policies and terms of service can change at any time. They have no legal standing. For example, I would like to promise my users that I’ll never run ads on my site and give that promise legal weight. That would be good marketing for me. Let’s create a mechanism that allow this.

  3. Let users opt-in if a site wants to make exceptions to these rules. If today’s targeted advertising is so great, you should be able to persuade me to sign up for it. Persuade me! Convince me! Seduce me! You’re supposed to be a master advertiser, for Christ’s sake!

  4. Make the protections apply to everyone, not just people in the same jurisdiction as the regulated site. It shouldn’t matter what country someone is visiting your site from. Keep it a world-wide web.

June 11th, 2014

A good read on the uncomfortable benefits of buying followers

A good read on the uncomfortable benefits of buying followers:

Even more interesting, at least to me, was what my fake followers did for me. My Klout score almost instantly shot up. I was not impressed by that until I realized that Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, collaborates with Klout, so that a higher Klout score put me higher on Bing’s search results.

The followers thing is always a strange consideration — I have something like 4k+ now but that doesn’t mean these people are all still active, wildly engaged with what I do or anything else of value. And yet, because they appeared organically over the years, there’s a sense they mean something more than if they were bought and fake.

I think this chap got the right idea — find an excuse for an “experiment” that let’s you have your (integrity) cake and eat it.

June 11th, 2014