Monday, 14 October 2013

The Marketer knows best? Timing and unsubscribes

It's been a rather long blogging break - It's fair to say I have had neither the brain space nor the motivation to pick up the laptop in the evening and think about it. The last six weeks have been an amazing, if somewhat daunting, period of adjusting into life as a Marketer instead of a PR. It really has been fantastic though, and I'm so grateful for how supportive my new team have been.

The inspiration to get back on the blogging-wagon finally came this weekend. Into my inbox on Saturday morning came my first Christmas marketing email, courtesy of M&S.

My immediate reaction was "Noooooooo!!!!!! Way too soon to be thinking about Christmas." I posted this on Facebook, and immediately got a response from a fellow Communications professional to tell me to "Unsubscribe." This came as a surprise to me. I generally like the marketing emails I get from M&S. I like the brand and you can guarantee that I will actually be doing a lot of my Christmas shopping in there. So other than hitting the delete button I wasn't intending to take any action. Should one bad email campaign turn me off to all future campaigns?

I found myself wondering how many brands get it wrong, with trigger finger recipients like my friend immediately opting out from all future contact. Given the number of email campaigns a large business sends out, the risk of damaging those customer relationships with the wrong call to action is pretty high. So how to counter this?

Well, for one thing, one could compare the brand advocacy involved. For me, the "wrong message" (from my point of view being too early) didn't please me, but it only dented what is a strong connection between me and the M&S brand. For my colleague, there could have been a much weaker connection between her and the brand for the reaction to be so extreme. Building relationships is a huge part of what marketing and communications is about. Building up capital is achieved by getting the right messages out at the right time, and providing a pleasing brand experience again and again. 

The other thing I've been wondering about is more complicated and isn't really a counter strategy at all: was the "wrong time" for me the "right time" for the majority of M&S customers? After the initial shock of thinking about Christmas in October was passed, I found myself wondering if it was me that was in the minority. There's actually only ten weeks of Christmas shopping left. That's a scary thought, but I guess some smart marketer knew that, and that October was the absolute right time to get people started on their planning. So basically, that premise that Marketing helps the consumer figure out what it is they want might genuinely be at play here…

Friday, 30 August 2013

I'm moving on

I've known for a while but it's finally here.

As of Monday, I join Palgrave Macmillan as their head of Academic Marketing.

This is a big shift for me, one that I'm both thrilled and excited by. It's a new challenge and new adventure, one that I'm very ready for. 

It was very strange to say goodbye to SAGE this week after nearly 6.5 years. I set up the PR function from scratch there. I joined as a team of one, and left as head of a department with 7 people in the UK and a parallel team set up to match my own in the US. 

I'm certainly leaving with my head held high. I learned so much in that time, and have been fortunate to work on some incredibly exciting initiatives, not least of all launching niche social media network Methodspace, overseeing SAGE's major corporate communications push around the social sciences (ranging from the launch of Social Science Space, Social Science Bites and many many corporate partnerships), and managing some tricky communications initiatives including four major business acquisitions. It's never been quiet, and although it has often been challenging I have loved my time there.

Despite all that, I have been ready for a new challenge for a while, and having met with my new boss back in May, I knew this role would give me the opportunity to learn and grow. I'm very glad to have found a position within academic publishing that gives me the chance to build on the nine years of experience I have in professional communications, and apply that in a new arena. Marketing has a lot in common with PR, but equally there's a lot I'll be doing for the first time. That is daunting but also very exciting.

When I started out as a Marketing Communications Assistant back in 2004, I didn't specifically plan to end up in Education, but I can honestly say I'm so glad I did. What a rich, colourful and inspiring sector. I love being able to work with such a broad array of genuinely interesting people, each undertaking the lofty challenge of uncovering useful knowledge and sharing that with the world. I'm thrilled to be joining a global publishing team doing some incredibly interesting work and I can't wait to get stuck in.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Best university websites?

Ok disclosure upfront: I am a massive Pixar fan. And before that I was already a massive Disney fan. When I was at university I seriously considered writing for Disney as one of my top job options (and I wrote a screenplay and music for a "Jason and the Golden Fleece" Disney movie for my A-Levels...).

So, with that disclosure out of the way, I have been loving the promotions for the new Monsters University movie.


How far do you go to make a campaign feel real? With Monsters U, there is so much more than the average movie promotion. They have created a whole brand that mimics a real world university, including university website and twitter feed. Neither is about the movie or writes about the movie. Instead it's immersive, writing as if Monsters U is a real institution, and you might really be reaching out to students or faculty with these channels.

As the Chronicle commented in this article, the website is so good it might generate some serious envy from real world institutions! It has everything from admissions information to staff notices, school course listings and of course the university news room. The videos are slick and the whole thing is incredibly realistic.

Now bearing in mind that for Monsters Inc, Pixar generated $62,577,067 at the box office in its first weekend, you can imagine that the marketing and PR budget for the film is pretty large, which enables a campaign of this nature which requires a lengthy content plan, a large number of man hours, not to mention the upfront costs of designing and hosting all this multimedia. I still vividly remember sitting at the ALPSP annual conference back in 2010 where Grace Baynes of Nature commented that they spent several hours each day updating a single Facebook page. So how can a campaign of this nature be replicated on a smaller scale?

To create something that has a real brand, outside of the publisher brand, would need careful planning to consider the time that could be invested, and over what period. I'm curious as to Monsters U's exit strategy too. Now that the movie has hit the cinema, how long will these channels be maintained?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Blurring lines between Marketing and PR

A few weeks ago I saw an offer on one of Amazon's local deals emails for an E-Careers e-Marketing and SEO course, so decided to sign up. It was around five hours of learning in total, all delivered online, so I finally managed to squeeze it in this week.

I'd expected there to be a lot of 'new' in this course for me. I wanted to find out more about what the key differences in the Marketing approach to digital would be from the PR. I didn't get that. Instead what I found was that a good portion of this 'e-Marketing' course was about PR.

On reflection, I'm not sure that I should have been surprised about this. The more I think about it, the more blurred the lines between Marketing and PR have become now, thanks to the internet. A large chunk of the course looked at how the two disciplines now work in partnership rather than Marketing being 'advertising' and PR being 'Media'. Neither have this neat categorisation any more. Instead both groups share responsibility for engaging in a dialogue with stakeholders.

Both Marketing and PR are engaging much more in two-way dialogue. It's much less about a broadcast (although the traditional techniques of catalogues, DM etc haven't disappeared entirely, and nor should they) and much more about listening to customers, finding out what they need, and how to respond to them. I've been learning about this in PR since I first joined the CIPR back in the mid 2000s. So it was interesting and relieving to hear the same from a Marketing perspective.

It was also interesting to see how much emphasis was put on content marketing. The course pushed hard on the importance of delivering great content to stakeholders that is segmented to support their particular need. With my PR hat on, corporate blogging, thought leadership, good content and a company news room all sit within corporate communications. But this course was calling all of this 'Marketing'. So really where does the difference lie?

I found myself wondering if the biggest gap is in how businesses split up their PR and Marketing teams by stakeholder. PR remain the gatekeepers for the media and that's undisputed. They also often own what is classed as 'corporate': so news that crosses all stakeholders. But within Marketing, the stakeholders being owned by a specific Marketing team is perhaps more specific. For example within academic publishing the group that support libraries will be a Library Marketing team. And the group that support researchers will be a separate team. Or often they will be split by the type of product that they are selling. Either way, is that really the only division between a PR and Marketeer now? I'm curious for additional views on this.

A few comments on the course itself:

As I've blogged in the past about how highly I rate my MOOC experiences so far, I have to say this online course delivery was somewhat irritating in parts. The functionality was on the whole comparable: you listened to online lectures, took multiple choice quizzes, and got the option to link to further reading. Yet you couldn't pause, rewind or fast-forward through the video material. You couldn't even work out how long each segment was, you had to just wait for it to stop then click to move on.

I also couldn't quite believe that the resources being pointed to in the social media marketing section were dated from 2008. Twitter didn't even get a mention! E-Careers really ought to review how relevant their materials are.

I hate to be nit-picky, but I also fail to see how a half-day's worth of learning equates to 'mastery'. That wording on the certificates is more than a little cringey...

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Gail was leaning in

Gail Rebuck (Photo credit: Random House)
I haven't read the book yet, but when the publicity first began around Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In, I immediately signed up to the website. Similarly, as soon as the Guardian announced their new Women in Leadership network, I signed up straight away. Both set out to inspire, embolden, and fire up women to step up and take a seat at the top table.

I've blogged in the past about what I believe stop women from doing this (stepping up/leaning in). I write this blog just after two of the publishing industry's top female executives leave their posts: it's almost shocking that this news in itself is shocking; would it have been such a big story if they were not female? It's the fact that there are so few women at the top table that makes it such a big deal, and that is incredibly...well, shocking!

I wouldn't say I'm an all-out feminist. But I would say I want to know I've got just as much chance of reaching my potential as any male colleague would. There was a fantastic article with Gail Rebuck in the Times at the weekend, which is now pinned up on my fridge and will stay there for the foreseeable future. At just 38, she was made CEO at Random House. Whilst I can say with complete honesty that I don't see a CEO position in my future, I do see a long and exciting career ahead, and this article was a good reminder of what is possible for a woman in publishing. Gail managed to balance a home life and a successful career. It doesn't have to be one or the other. It's a shame there are not many more examples of successes like this within publishing; there just aren't enough role models.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

New projects are go

It's week two of the "post-show-post-holiday" world. It's amazing how much you can squeeze out of your evenings when you're not spending four nights a week in rehearsals! I'm filling my new-found time with a wide array of things I haven't had any space for in the past six months: some more challenging than others:

  1. I'm getting fit. Standing around watching other people dance for the last six months has meant I have had neither the time nor the energy to look after my own body! It's good to finally make this a priority again.My mum wasn't lying when she told me I'd start creaking. Sure enough, a daily stretch is a necessity, not luxury, these days. There are no goals being set here, other than to ensure I'm feeling good about myself.
  2. I've started a new Coursera module. I enjoyed the last one so much I've already signed up for three more. This time it's on Competitive Strategy with Tobias Kretschmer of LMU Munich. I was particularly interested in this one as a chance to think much more widely about markets, and how businesses consider positioning in them. The course will look at competition, collaboration, R&D and product launching amongst other things. On discussing the week-one course content with Dan, he laughed and pointed out that this is stuff he was learning in the fourth year of his Maths degree. Yes that's right, Masters level Mathematics. Man alive is it ever making me think hard. You'll therefore understand why I was chuffed with 9/10 on the first homework quiz. I've no doubt at all that it's going to get harder so expect some more blogs about this in the weeks to come.
  3. I'm working my way through a strategy for the CIPR's Education and Skills Group online presence. I took on the role of Digital Resources Officer at the last AGM and haven't given it the time it deserves. I've written a new post on using Storify for Higher Education PR this week.
  4. I'm also getting my own online presence back in order. Hence this list post.
  5. I'm sorting out our pigsty of a house. No more needs to be said publicly about this.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Normal service is resumed...sort of...

This was my view from 12-15th June 2013:

And this was my view from 16th-22nd June 2013:

So you can understand why there has been a lack of activity on the blog for a while.

I can honestly say there is nothing quite like the feeling I get from being involved in theatre. The production was thrilling to watch, and I am really proud of the six months of hard slog that went into making it happen. 

This was followed by a week of hard core relaxing. Quality time with my husband, balance is now restored.

I have a lot more free time on my hands, and I'm already filling these with plans. More on this to follow over the coming weeks...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Anything Goes 12-15 June 2013

Time for some blatant self-promotion. Today our crew moved into the New Wimbledon Theatre to take residence for our production of Anything Goes!

Tomorrow night we'll be on stage for the first time, working through the technical run. This basically involves running checks on every shift in the show from scene to scene, be that the lighting, set change or major costume change. It's also the first time the cast will really see what the space that they are working with is like.

On Tuesday, we will be on stage in full costume, with our full 16-piece orchestra, and a full run. This is it. No turning back.

On Wednesday through to Saturday we'll play six performances to paying audiences.

There really is nothing like the thrill of a show, Even though for this production I'll be watching from the front, I'll have my heart in my mouth all week watching the fruits of my labour (and the whole cast). It's been a fantastic show to choreograph and I can't wait to see it all come together. I'm so proud of the creative team and the company.

Tickets are still available from - I strongly encourage you to come along!

Self-plug over ;)

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Are new journal models changing PR for science and research?

I was asked to speak at an event last Thursday on behalf of STEMPRA, an informal network for science communicators. The event, it transpired, was put together after an article appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review discussing eLife's media policy, suggesting that the role of the Press Officer could be abolished and scientists could liaise directly with the media using eLife's plain language summaries (Digests). So the event was convened as an opportunity to hear directly from eLife's head of Marketing and Communications, Jennifer McLennan who was in the UK. The rest of the panel included me, representing a traditional publisher perspective, Faculty1000's Eva Amsen, and Zoe Dunford, Communications and Brand Manager for the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory.

From the group's perspective, eLife's policy was offering something that breaks with the conventions of traditional publisher policies and changes how PRs work with the journal. Their stated policy is that no researcher submitting to eLife is discouraged from sharing the results of their work before publication, and that every article is published with a plain language summary, with no media access under embargo. What was particularly interesting to hear from Jennifer about though was how this works in practice:

  • eLife has six (yes, six!!) writers on staff writing plain language summaries for every article that is published. These are therefore high quality journalism-ready summaries which could be issued directly to the media (and this is what the Columbia review article suggests)
  • Jennifer contacts every author two weeks prior to publication, and advises them to contact their Press Officer, making that plain language summary available to the press officer to use
  • eLife themselves issue a table of contents out to their database of contacts approximately a week ahead of publication, but this is literally title and author information, not the plain language summaries
  • eLife haven't actively issued any press releases to the media. What they are doing is using the contact via authors to the Press Offices to have them take on this role of dissemination. This seems really smart to me, as it builds what is currently a rather poor connection between journals and institutional PRs to help spread the word about new content from that institution. It does rely on the author actively seeking out their PR office though but it appears, from Jennifer's feedback, that this is proving effective. She also commented that, on the whole, institutions already knew about those articles which were going to be particularly newsworthy ahead of her reaching out from eLife
  • Every article from eLife has alongside its research article and plain language summary Digest an 'impact statement': a summary written by the author in less than 140 characters which you have no doubt guessed is used to send Twitter a tweet about every article published.

Although I say I was representing the 'traditional' publisher view, I found myself wondering how different SAGE's media policy really was from what eLife was claiming to be revolutionary. SAGE doesn't operate the ingelfinger rule and has never actively discouraged any researchers publishing with us from promoting their research ahead of publication. We do suggest when we are contacted by PRs that they wait to time their press releases to coincide with online publication, simply because that then supports the researcher in having access to the version of record, which we most often will make freely available for a limited period to support anyone looking for the article as a result of press coverage.

As I say above, what I was particularly struck by in the meeting is how eLife is strengthening the relationship between authors and their institutional PRs though. I've long been aware of the issue that we at SAGE have in not knowing the institutional PRs and how therefore to liaise more effectively with them when there's a particularly newsworthy article being published in one of our journals. With more than 700 journals now published from SAGE we know that there's just no way we could actively promote every article in the same way that eLife is, even if we had six writers on the team (which we don't!).

What was also interesting was eLife's insistence that media access does not need to be provided under embargo. There was a lot (a LOT) of discussion about this in the room. Mark Patterson from eLife was also in attendance and I was fascinated to hear him ask why journalists would care if one publication covered a story before another. Frankly, the definition of "news" and "news value" is having it first, or at the very least at the same time as other publications. So from this PR's perspective, allowing media to have embargoed access to stories is still important. As long as journalists continue to demand this, it'll continue to be how we issue stories wherever possible. It was really interesting to have Zoe Dunford actually give a live example of one of eLife's best received articles which has had widespread press interest: she generated the coverage by providing access to the article under embargo.

The other main topic of interest was the post-publication peer review model that Faculty1000 is operating. This again was fascinating, and really does shift where PR and media come into play in the publication cycle. If an article is "published" first and "reviewed" second, at what point is it safe for a journalist to cover an article? They run the risk of covering an article which may then later be subject to negative reviews. Eva commented that any article with two negative reviews is actually then de-indexed (not unpublished but removed from search). She rightly pointed out that there have been cases where articles in traditional journals with traditional peer review have gone on to be shown as poor research, the MMR Wakefield study obviously a key example. What she said that Faculty1000 advocate is that journalists wait until articles have been reviewed. However as many around the room agreed, the difficulty is how to get journalists to wait to report on a juicy story if it's available online. Again, how might a media embargo work, and if there isn't one, what's to stop someone stealing a scoop? Most certainly one to watch as I feel this conversation will continue to evolve.

I was told that it was likely to be storified and somone was recording a podcast, although neither are up from what I can see. If they do appear will add links to the comments below.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Gamification: snap the job's a game

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and 'snap', the job's a game" -
- Mary Poppins

Ahh, wise old Mary: you knew the principles of gamification long before it was ever a buzz word. I've been blogging on and off about the Coursera module on gamification that I just finished, and now for some takeaways.

Before I do though, I need to say again how impressed I was with the whole experience on Coursera. As my first ever MOOC, I'd say the entire package, from the course content, to Kevin Werbach's relaxed and watchable lecture style, to the multiple choice and written exercises, peer feedback and course support, it was all well designed and well executed. I enjoyed the learning experience immensely.Whilst MOOCs are being met with some (valid) trepidation from the academic community right now, there is a lot we can learn from why this works, I would say. But more on that another time. So now to the takeaways...

Gamification: For The Win
What I liked most about the principles of gamification was the simplicity of the message as quoted from Mary Poppins above. What makes gamification work is finding the fun in any task. So we're not talking about 'playing' per se (and the course goes some way to explaining the difference between games and play, and between serious games (e.g. simulations) and applying gamification techniques). We are talking about applying game principles to any activity that you either have to do or really want to do but don't have the motivation to do (exercise, or keeping to the speed limit for example). In other words, gamification gives you the tools to make participants (or talking like a game designer, 'players') feel motivated to do a task. And once you achieve that motivation? Yep, you guessed it: everyone wins. When applied correctly, gamification can help a business achieve its objectives in a way that is enjoyable and motivational for the players.

It's not that simple
Ok, so I know I said that I love the simplicity of the message. But the other key takeaway for me is that this isn't just a simple case of 'stick some points, badges and leaderboards onto your activity and there's gamification, job done'. The course builds up to a six-step design framework that encompasses:

  • Defining business objectives: like every good strategy, starting by considering what it is you want to achieve is critical.
  • Delineating target behaviours: this again isn't a new idea, it is something often done at the start of web design projects for example: what is it you want your players to do that meets those business objectives?
  • Describing players: again, applied to other good business projects, this just means working through who your target stakeholders are: what will they be motivated by? On the course we were taken through a good range of different ways to explore players, including looking at game research models such as Bartle's player types but also looking at basic demographics and market knowledge.
  • Devising activity loops: in other words, coming up with the structure that will move players through the game, and motivate them to keep playing. The course covers a lot of basic information from psychology, exploring how you can engage people straight away and then how to keep players motivated. Techniques such as scaffolding are obvious in many online games: for example keeping the range of options available to players limited to begin with, and making it easy to progress through the first few levels. The course also talks about how to build up from there, to keep players challenged. Motivation to play comes in many guises, and this was probably the biggest learning point for me, one which I'll want to do some more reading around. 
  • Finding the fun: one thing Prof. Werbach stresses many times is how easy it is to forget about this, and just think about game elements without thinking, 'is this really fun for my players'? I think this is one I've been guilty of without ever really knowing gamification is what we were trying to do. Why would players want to do what we're asking of them? Working through what makes it fun is key.
  • Deploying appropriate tools: as above, points, badges and leaderboards might be common game design elements but they are not the only ones. And in fact what was interesting was learning that leaderboards can in fact be de-motivating for some, where it feels like the target is just too far out of reach compared to their own performance. The course sets out so many different options. There's a vast toolkit available for those looking to explore applying gamification for themselves.
Motivation matters
The biggest takeaway is one I have already mentioned: motivation differs for every person and it's thinking through how to keep players motivated that I want to spend more time reading on now that the Coursera module has finished. It was a great introduction to what some of the issues with gamification can be: such as the introduction of points or other rewards de-motivating players to do something that they might have otherwise done because they were just driven to do it anyway (intrinsic motivation). Or manipulation: one example used on the course is where workers are given what on the surface appears gamification (e.g. leaderboard showing times taken to do an activity) but is in reality creating a negative environment to force workers to compete with each other. There are other examples of extreme manipulation (see this creepy film), where game systems are applied in what feel inappropriate settings. And there are examples shown where virtual rewards are substituted for genuine benefits (such as points instead of better pay). All these are areas that need further exploration.

Final certification still to come, but I think I've passed! Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about this growth area within marketing and it's something I'll be continuing to think about for publishing and education over the coming months.

Monday, 6 May 2013

On motivation, and more on the MOOC

It's a long weekend here in the UK and my parents are down visiting. They decided to use this trip to present me with a folder full of school reports, including this charming self portrait:

It forms part of a junior school record of achievement, where I was asked many questions: what was important to me, from friends to family, to how I rated my ability to work alone or in groups, what skills I thought I had, and what targets I was setting myself for senior school. It was basically a personality profile done way before I knew what one of those was. Impressive really, looking back!

What struck me was what it asked in order to identify drivers and motivators. And what was even more interesting is how what I recorded about myself as an eleven year old hasn't really altered all that much.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm in the final stages now of a Gamification course (my first MOOC). One of the key things I've been learning about has been motivation. What makes gamification particuarly worthwhile is its ability to take something otherwise dull or mundane and making it fun. Kevin Werbach's course neatly applies the principals of psychology, understanding what drives motivation, to creating game structures, whether that be external drivers, like points or badges, or intrinsic motivators like the desire to do something for others, or being part of something bigger than yourself.

What I identified about myself aged eleven was that I really hated not understanding something - I wanted to get it straight away, and even now I find it difficult being put on the spot and will spend hours preparing myself and knowing every minutiae about a subject when it's important (a typical introvert response). I also identified that I felt good learning new things. That is something that stays true now, and is one of the biggest drivers for me professionally. I like being challenged, and will go out of my way to find opportunities to increase my skill-set. I'm hungry for new information and am inspired by reading around subjects that stretch my understanding of business and communication. That's really what prompted me to sign up for the Gamification MOOC in the first place.

It makes me wonder what research has been done about the setting of motivators and the application of that knowledge for business. Definitely one to do some more reading around.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

A short whinge about Blogger

This isn't the post that I logged in to write about this evening, but having logged in I felt the need to have a little whinge.

Typically, I enjoy using my iPad for most activities. That includes writing for this blog. It's convenient, I can draft on the go, I can keep an eye on my stats, and until today I also thought I could reply to comments.

However it would appear that I can't post comments on Blogger. Not at all. Not replying to comments on my own site, not making comments on other people's blogs. That is pretty poor. I'm not impressed. I'm hoping someone is using a decent app that gets around this problem. Answers on a postcard please. In the meantime, no commenting for me...

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Goodreads could be a good buy for Amazon

I had been meaning for a while to follow up my previous comments on In conversations at home, I had speculated why it wasn't better connected with my existing Ebook purchases. I didn't want to have to search for the book I was reading, I wanted Good Reads to auto-update whenever I bought a new book for my kindle or from the iBooks store.

So from a user point of view, I was more than a little surprised by some of the backlash to the announcement Amazon had purchased the site. In my mind, this could be a really great collaboration.

I have a number of issues with the Good Reads site. For one, the search functionality is poor. It is very unforgiving for spelling errors: we don't always remember how to spell an author's name, or the exact wording of a title. Amazon, in contrast, has incredible search. Regardless of whether you like or dislike Amazon as a service, if they were able to incorporate this into Good Reads then that is a great result for users.

I also really hope, as above, Amazon incorporate a link up with Good Reads on Kindle. I don't want to have to manually type in what recent ebooks I have purchased (and again be irritated when they don't show up in search, because I have forgotten the exact wording of the title).

There will also be great benefits for Amazon too. They tried, and (in my opinion) failed, to make a community work on Kindle, by showing what phrases people have highlighted or statistics for people who had read the same book. I'm not really interested in that. What I do want to see is what Good Reads has done a great job of capturing: what I've blogged about before as "friend-to-friend" peer recommendation. Even more powerful than the peer-to-peer word of mouth we have seen with TripAdvisor and other mainstream review services, this shows us what people who we have a genuine connection with are recommending. Amazon's reviews might offer some sense of what others make of a book, but think what power there would be in seeing reviews written by those you trust, whose opinion matters to you. That's where the power of this new relationship could lie.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

First thoughts on Coursera

Earlier this month I started my first MOOC (if I have to tell you that stands for Massive Open Online Courses, then really I need to ask, where have you been for the last year?).

I actually signed up for this course last September, after returning from the ALPSP annual conference all fired up after hearing an excellent presentation the fantastic Charlie Rapple of TBI gave on change in the industry.

Interestingly enough, as is usual in our household, my husband had not only signed up for a MOOC long before this, he had also completed two courses (both ridiculously hard mathematical modules), and had been wildly and enthusiastically telling me to check out Coursera.

So, with my new found excitement for the growth of 'gamification', I signed up for Kevin Werbach's Gamification course on Coursera. Werbach is Associate Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. There have been reports recently about the elitism of Coursera, in only working with the best schools. Having now engaged with a course, I can completely understand why they want to maintain this stamp of quality, and I sincerely hope that every course is as excellent as this one.

I didn't really know what to expect. I was feeling a little concerned actually when two weeks beforehand I still hadn't any more information about the course than a one paragraph summary of what it was. As you may have guessed from my enthusiasm above however, I needn't have been worried. Leading up to day one, I had two email reminders. I was also asked to complete a course questionnaire, asking about my technology and Internet speeds. It gave me a really clear summary of what would be available once the course started and where to access the information.

Finally April arrived, and the emails landed with course information. I get at least one email a week updating me on when new course lectures are available, and providing me with reminders about assessments. The Coursera platform itself is attractive and easy to engage with, and the video lectures work really well. I've been able to watch all of them on my daily commute over 3G, which I wasn't sure would be possible. The only downside is not being able to download video to iPad, but it's a small limitation only.

The course itself? Wow. I am so excited by what I'm learning. Gamification is without a doubt something all businesses should be carefully analysing, and I'm going to be blogging a lot more about what I'm learning and how it might apply for PR and publishing...

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Google Hangout on Air - easy live webcasting option

I put out a call on Twitter a week or two ago, asking for some feedback on some paid-for webcasting tools. Webcasting is something that can really enhance a live-person event, and I've seen it used to great effect at conferences over the past few years. Not only does it enable the reach of the event to be massively amplified, it also enables the conversation around the conference to be much richer, as you can engage with a much broader online community, not just the participants in the room.

I had been aware of some free Webcasting tools, but hadn't come across the one that a colleague recommended: Google Hangout on Air. I managed to coax a few people at the office to try this out this week and I have to say I was really impressed.

The requirements to use Hangout are very straightforward: a) creating a Google+ page and b) having a wifi connection. It would work well for a number of functions including:

-          Holding virtual meetings with multiple participants (privately)
-          Running webinars
-          Livestreaming an event

Hangout works for private groups of up to 9 people. You all need to be on Google+ to be able to participate.

The Hangout ‘on Air’ works as a live broadcast from a Google+ page. The person or people delivering the broadcast need to have an account, but viewers do not need to have a Google+ account or to install anything: the video appears publicly. Additionally, it automatically uploads the video to your YouTube account so is a very straightforward way of capturing live events to video.

I immediately deleted the test: it was hilariously bad. But I'll definitely be recommending this to colleagues for Webcasting solutions, and will be trying it out over the coming months. 

There is great information on how to run a Hangout on Air here.

Monday, 25 February 2013

New blogging adventures, have I bitten off more than I can chew?!

I've broken my excellent track record these last two weeks. Having finally settled into a blogging routine, last weekend I had to abandon my regular schedule as I took on ownership of the CIPR Education and Skills Group's online presence. I'm taking on their blog, main CIPR homepage, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Between getting a schedule together for this, and finishing my choreography for Anything Goes, it's been a few weeks with not a minute's downtime. I'm not fitting in my own blogging as a result. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?!

I'm feeling fairly confident that after things get settled, and once I finish my choreography, I'll be back on track. But for the next few weeks, this blog might be quieter than it has been for the past few months.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Hanging on the telephone: learning about communicating virtually

This week I listened in on a webinar session, entitled "Who are you talking to?"

It was billed as a chance to learn about communication in a virtual environment. I was excited: it's something I do a lot of, working for a company with headquarters in California and with remote members of team based both in the UK and abroad.

I have to say, on the whole I was fairly disappointed. It's expected that if I sign up for something free, or hosted by a sponsor, that I'll have to hear a little bit about that sponsor. But really, to set up a training session where 50% (20 min of a 45 min session) is a sales pitch is taking the proverbial.

There really wasn't much consideration of how to use communication techniques in a virtual environment. What I was hoping for was something that would consider how to compensate for the absence of body language cues, how to help establish common ground, or how to tackle flow when there are several people all trying to speak at once. It's really easy to be in a bad conference call, where people can't hear what is being said, or where everyone is trying to speak and good communication gets lost as a result. 

Ironically a good quarter of that 45 minutes was spent sharing feedback on what visual cues to look for in communication: so if the person you're talking to is looking up they're a big picture/visual thinker, looking to the side an auditory thinker (they apparently look at their ears), and looking down a kinaesthetic thinker. In a webinar environment there is no verbal cue: that would have been an interesting discussion to get into. Even on video conference this can be almost impossible, since screen resolutions or camera/screen size make it difficult to see more than a rough outline of the people in the room. I would love to come across more relevant advice/reading/training on how to do virtual meetings really well.

What it did do was reinforce some general good communications practice, such as thinking about your sphere of influence (Covey's seven habits) and how to use that sphere of control available to you to build a wider circle of influence. I also liked the trainer (Lynne Copp, founder of the Worklife Company): she consistently used a clear and varied tone that made the 45 minutes go quickly. She had some interesting ideas on using "words, music and dance", or in other words ensuring that body language and physical self have such a large impact on our ability to influence. I believe she said just 7% of our ability to influence is the words we use, the rest is all wrapped up in that frame of reference created by the "music and dance". 

It also reinforced some known truths about effective communication, which is never a bad thing: 

  1. Email is the worst form of communication. Ambiguity is so easy on email. Have a conversation face to face, or by phone. It's almost impossible to influence if you can't be in dialogue with that person. Email doesn't cut it.
  2. Unplanned attempts to influence will almost certainly fail. This was a point that really got drilled home to me on an excellent training course last month, where we spent two days considering personalities and how to influence these different types of people. You need to consider who it is you are talking to, how they think and what method of influence they are most likely to respond to.
  3. This in turn feeds the last important truth: two-way dialogue is key. They say that the majority of your time in influence should be spent listening, not talking. Get feedback, involve with open questions, and summarise the responses you hear. That all adds up to showing understanding, which in turn makes influence more likely.
Learning more about webinars is a focus for me this year, and I've already lined up some more reading to do on the subject. Two key takeaways for me from this particular webinar were:

  • Don't talk over each other. The webinar established this by only allowing input via Twitter or an online popup box - all attendees were muted. In a live meeting, another way to do this would be just to establish ground rules at the top of the meeting, and encourage people to be considerate to others on the call.
  • Use a varied tone of voice. I already mentioned how well Lynne did this on this particular webinar. It's important if you're the only person talking to do so with authority and keep the listening audience engaged.
I'm starting to compile more thoughts on running good webinars, and more on this to come.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Goodreads: another look at personal endorsements

I wanted to follow up on last week's post about the power of the friend recommendation. I'm convinced that this needs more investigation.

It reminded me to take another look at Goodreads. I signed up for this site a few weeks ago when I was prompted by a Facebook invitation from a friend. Interestingly enough, my husband had verbally encouraged me to join several months earlier, but it took that live prompt via Facebook from another friend before I finally got round to checking it out. That says something itself about how influential an online peer recommendation is: I didn't take the advice verbally given by my best friend, but I did take the offer when it was made simple for me by taking me straight from invitation link to online registration.

Once that initial hurdle is dealt with, what about registration itself? Goodreads uses the same authentication that a lot of sites now use to make this as easy as possible: Facebook Connect. This is doubly clever. For one, it again makes the whole process less burdensome as I only have to confirm my details, rather than enter them all in from scratch. And (even smarter) Goodreads now gets something much more valuable in return for my registration: an easy brand advocate. With no effort on my part, Goodreads prompts me to tell all my Facebook friends, and invite them to join too.

On the whole, the interface for registration is (probably on purpose) confusing. I wouldn't have actually invited everybody I'm connected to on Facebook had I understood what it was I was being prompted to do, but I was being too lazy to interrogate the interface so just kept clicking to get through the process quickly. However having already spammed all my Facebook contacts, here's an interesting little social experiment at work, as my theory (that you follow up on recommendations from your friends) gets tested as I can then see who goes on to register in turn for a Goodreads account. Several do. Several also display that same idiocy which I had and go on to spam their entire Facebook friends list. And so this goes on and on...

If it's so easy to make a brand advocate, why shouldn't more online businesses make use of this to promote their goods and services? I did nothing to become an advocate for Goodreads except click on a link (which I didn't even read). I'm not saying that such behaviour is actually a healthy or long-term conversion to brand advocacy, but oftentimes it's that initial contact that is the hardest to make. Getting people to stick around is definitely a challenge too (and I'll come back to that point more in future posts), and good functionality, good design, good content and good user journeys is all crucial.

For now, I'm still playing around with Goodreads: it doesn't do much for me, but I'm interested to see that several of the friends I "recommended" it to are using it: in fact two have just told me today that they are using it and finding it valuable. So that in turn has prompted me to go back and give it another look. Oh, look! There's that friend recommendation working all over again :)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Peer to peer recommendations - still important?

A few years back (2007) I completed the CIPR's postgraduate diploma in Public Relations. Part of that was undertaking a dissertation, and my chosen topic was on the value of social media for peer to peer recommendations for PR. I kept up a blog on the work at the time so feel free to check it out, although clearly no longer active.

The premise I had at that time was the effects that marketing research had shown for Word Of Mouth (WOM) could be harnessed by businesses using social media. People like hearing what their friends value, what they are buying, reading, eating.

Things have moved on a fair bit since 2007. According to the TripAdvisor website, there are now more than 75m individual reviews about hotels, restaurants or other travel-related guidance on their site. It's no longer just a small subset of in-the-know techies writing the reviews; it is you and me, your friends and even your parents. Amazon will prompt to you revisit and rate products you have purchased. Unlike 'review', 'rate' asks little of you as a customer, thereby further increasing the likelihood you will respond. Most ecommerce sites will also provide you with "share" options to tell all your friends about the service you have just used. Again, this is asking very little of you as a customer, and provides that business with a brand advocate without any investment of time or effort.

Mashable recently posted a somewhat sceptical piece on the current value of a LinkedIn endorsement. It suggested that the service has made it so easy to just hit a button and endorse for skills that the reader - be they recruiter or potential business associate - has no way of validating whether those recommendations are genuine or just the result of someone logrolling (giving in expectation of the same favour in return). If you apply that same logic to the rating options on other websites, do brands still benefit from providing this as a way of showing peer to peer recommendations? Do we, as consumers, see this as valuable, and does it affect our purchasing decisions?

I have begun to consider whether there is the same value in "peer to peer" review as I had originally suggested, and whether instead it's time to discuss the value of "friend to friend" review. Going back to the huge increase in users of peer to peer review sites such as TripAdvisor or TopTable or CheckATrade, do we (as potential customers) still hold these views of strangers to be valid? I know I'm not the only one to have been paralysed by checking out a hotel over and over on TripAdvisor then getting to the hotel and had a fantastic time anyway. Similarly with Amazon reviews: reading is subjective; just because one person hasn't enjoyed a title, why shouldn't you?

I'm not saying I don't believe these review services offer value. There is always value in seeing crowdsourcing as a measure of popularity: if a restaurant gets 50 five star ratings, there is a good chance that it will be better than the restaurant next door with 50 one star ratings. What I am saying is could there be something even more valuable on offer if we start to look at a more granular level at who these people are?

TripAdvisor already does this to some extent by allowing for filtering by type of review: romantic, business, family etc. This goes back to the original premise of 'peer to peer' social media WOM for PR, which was that you are influenced in purchasing decisions by 'other people like me'.

This is intensified if those reviews are from the people we actually know are like us, in other words our friends. Consider for example services like Spotify where you are connected in with Facebook friends, seeing what tracks they are listening to. You are much more likely to only be connected to people you genuinely 'know' on Facebook. At least much more so than we 'know' our Twitter contacts, or know any of the people whose reviews we are reading on TripAdvisor.

So how much more powerful could these recommendation services become when we start looking at what our genuine friends, with whom we know we share interests, are sharing? And could we begin to look at how to harness this network even further for brand advocacy?

More to come on this topic over the coming weeks.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

How do you generate your ideas? Lessons from dance

So the last two weeks for me have mostly been about using every spare minute to start setting out ideas for my new choreography project, Anything Goes, which is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre this June.

People often ask me how easy it is to do choreography, or where/how I learned how to do it. Part of it was an obvious transfer of skills: I first started teaching kids to dance at my local ballet school when I was 14. At that stage, I was being taught a routine, then being given responsibility to re-teach that dance to a large room full of small girls and boys. That was fairly easy as, by that stage of my own dance training, I'd been taught to pick up new combinations of steps pretty quickly. Layering on from that, i.e. from remembering an order of steps, as a junior teacher I was then learning how to pass on knowledge about how to recreate those steps. You learn how to break down an action into its most basic component parts so that people learning from you can see how to build it back up.

Those two parts are the fundamentals of dance teaching. The last layer for choreography is then of course the creative part: listening to a piece of music and feeling what movement would look good/express effectively what is happening to a viewing audience.

Me, appearing in Follies, 2008
You first start learning to express to music pretty much the first time you go to a dance class, aged as young as three. They will put on a piece of classical music and tell you to "be a fairy", or "be a monster", and you will throw your little self around, twirling, hopping and crouching for the thirty seconds or so until the track ends. It's essentially just another kind of creative play, which young children do extensively as part of learning and development. It's imaginative, not to mention a lot of fun as you learn to be completely individual (and generally at aged 3 you're not learning to twirl, just point your toes, so that's great too).

Most of us lose the opportunity to be truly creative as time goes on. But having an outlet for creative expression is such a joy. Everyone should have something - whether that's dance, writing, cooking, music, craft or something completely different. I think people sometimes have a fear of being creative, or think that they can't do it. But I honestly think that it's the same as anything else; you get better at it the more you do it.

I'm completely in awe of great choreographers. A great piece of theatre makes you literally gasp. I can remember sitting open-mouthed through some great productions over the years, my heart beating faster, my spine tingling, my toes tapping. I would never claim to be as good as anyone who does this for a living, and consider myself lucky to have had so many opportunities to do this on an amateur basis. I can't claim to have had any formal training, and couldn't claim that how I do it is the "right" way. But this is how I do it, and it's worked ok for me over the years!

By the time I left home at 18, I was regularly teaching new routines to other children at my dancing school: single dances for exams, larger group dances for theatre performances, as well as drama classes. For each new thing, I would be listening to the track, and "hearing" what sorts of steps would fit with that music. I'd also be thinking about the style of the music, drawing on influences from that genre. Most often with this kind of dance it was purely about expressing the feel of the music rather than a huge amount of story telling.

It was when I got to university and moved into more choreography for stage shows - mostly musicals - that I began to also think about how what was happening in a dance reflected the story that was being told. I'd be looking at similar stories told through dance, researching styles on the web, looking back at dance DVDs, and reading what I could from the text if there was a song as part of the music. I'll spend a lot of time sitting, thinking about a piece before I'll even get up and try any combinations out. I'll also draw a lot on influences from other dances I have seen, taking combinations of steps and re-weaving them in a way that fits for the new thing I'm working on. I'll also be thinking about the stage available: looking at patterns and shapes that will make something visually pleasing to someone watching.

Thinking about it, there are a lot of parallels in coming up with dance ideas to any other new creative process. Generating new ideas relies on a combination of:

  • Research: identifying what has worked successfully for others before
  • Learning by example: building on the above, I feel no shame in saying I am inspired by great work I see others do, and use that as inspiration for my own creative direction
  • Auditing: consideration of needs, motives, what is the message trying to be put across
  • Brain-storming: you'll come up with as many crap ideas as you do good ones, but that's an inevitable part of any creative process
  • Chunking: I'm a massive fan of breaking down something large into many smaller parts (see previous comments on this): tackling small sections makes a difficult project more manageable
  • Setting structure: the chunks need to hang together as a whole: taking a bird's eye view is important in all projects before you start to lay anything out. In dance I do this by story-boarding before I choreograph anything
  • External feedback: if I'm ever really unsure, getting third party feedback is always a safe bet. It's likely that you'll also be able to improve your ideas by shaping and building on what you already have with a fresh perspective from someone else.
I've been teaching dance for more than half my lifetime now, so it's fair to say I have experience when it comes to doing this. Yet it isn't always easy. Some days an idea will just flow, others will take agonising amounts of time, and at the end of it I'll still not be 100% sure whether what I have is quite right. It's easy to feel stuck in a rut, or to worry that new ideas really aren't all that "new". In business, getting around those same concerns involves stretching your creative brain and being able to tease out something innovative. Over the Christmas break I finally got around to reading the CIPR's innovation and creativity toolkit. As well as laying out how creativity works, it presents a range of different techniques, from mind-mapping to questions to stimulate story ideas. It also has a fantastic number of links to tools and resources. The CIPR also run some excellent creativity seminars - it was a while since I attended one but a great way to refresh if you're feeling stuck for ideas generation.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

New beginnings

A very Happy New Year!

It's fair to say that 2012 isn't a year that I'll look back on with great fondness. Turning thirty brought along with it a lot of soul searching, and wondering about whether I'd achieved everything that I'd intended to in my twenties. That said, I have a habit of dwelling on the things I'm less pleased with than I do on those that I am proud of. So I wanted to take a moment to remember what was great in 2012. Not least of all because I am incredibly thankful for all these experiences, but also because this gives me a chance to consider how to keep - and to mobilise - all that was good in what I hope will be a wonderful 2013.
  1. Getting back into reading. At the start of last year, one goal I set myself was to read more, and that included stretching myself, reading outside of my comfort zone and being open to new genres. This has truly been a pleasure. Buying the iPad back in 2011 played a significant factor in enabling me to constantly have a book (or more than one) on the go at any time. I have forced myself to read in genres I wouldn't otherwise have considered, and as a result have enjoyed amazingly rich experiences. Notably I have really enjoyed reading about personal experiences in Marketing, and that's an area I'd look to find more good titles in. Access to Audible through 2012 was another really rich experience, which I had been very sceptical about when I first got started. Here, what I've found especially interesting are stories told by the author themselves. So biography is a genre I'm really beginning to enjoy more. One thing I didn't do enough of is write short reviews on every title. I have a small regret about that and it's something I'd like to get better at in 2013. 
  2. Self-improvement. A key part of the above was focusing on developing my personal skills - about a fifth of the books I read this year I selected to challenge me to think about my communication, management and leadership. From Covey's seven habits, to selected psychology, to transactional analysis, these all provided ample food for thought. I'm including a full list of my reading from the year here
  3. Curtains. This Kander and Ebb show was without a doubt one of the most exciting I've ever worked on. As joint choreographer for the Wimbledon Light Opera Society's production back in May, I was so proud of the team and cast - it's a wonderful show that I thoroughly loved being a part of. With the new year I'll be starting rehearsals for our next production: Anything Goes. I'm already looking forward to this so much.
  4. Granada. For my birthday I planned an escape to a city I have longed to visit since I first read about the beautiful moorish palace, the Alhambra, a few years ago. The trip was brief, but felt like a few days in paradise nonetheless. Advice to anyone considering it: stay in the old quarter, it still has that charm and sense of being lost in time. Leave a whole day for exploring the Alhambra. It's enormous, and beautiful. Make the most of the fabulous and inexpensive Cava.
  5. Podcasting. For SAGE, there was certainly a lot about podcasting this year! Although not recording them myself, it was great to learn a lot about the process, the hosting, and the promotion for two new series. As with audio books, podcasting really isn't something I'd had much previous interest in. Learning about what's available was eye-opening.
  6. Blogging. Getting back into blogging regularly isn't easy when there's always something else that needs to get done. But the impetus of being listed by the Guardian late in the year was the kick I needed to make this high on the priority list. I've also committed to taking on the CIPR Education and Skills group blog and website for 2013. That's a challenge that I anticipate will keep me focused on what's important for Public Relations in HE in a much deeper way, and help my development as much as it provides a service for the wider PR community!
  7. Eating! Dan and I enjoyed some intense culinary adventures in 2012, not least of all our summer vacation in the Lake District, where we sampled three Michelin-starred restaurants over the course of our five nights in Windermere. Cooking and eating great food is a luxury but provides a lot of enjoyment, and I'm very fortunate to have been able to do so much of it this last year.
  8. Zumba. I have to admit, I was really not looking forward to starting a generic exercise class, but in the absence of a show to work on in the second half of the year I took up Zumba, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I've been lazy and undisciplined at the end of the year, but will be doing my best to get to a class a week whenever I can, outside of the rehearsal schedule for Anything Goes.
  9. Networking. Both for work directly and for professional PR networking, there have been some fantastic opportunities during 2012 to meet like-minded contacts, building existing connections and establishing new ones. It's such an important way to stay on top of trends, ensure best practice, and importantly just to remind yourself that you are not alone! I've been grateful for the many self-affirming conversations I've had through these events over the year.
  10. Turning thirty. So I did start the post by commenting on the dissatisfaction I felt at turning Thirty in 2012. But it was also a year of many 30th birthdays, a lot of celebrating and seeing good friends. It's good to step back and evaluate from time to time, but not to dwell. This has been a hugely positive time for me, and if anything it's made me determined to take risks, do new things, be more confident, say yes more!
I'll start the new year by looking back at just one more 'new thing' from 2012: my first (probably last too) flash mob, helping a complete stranger propose to his girlfriend. A friend received an email out of the blue, asking for singers to help him propose by singing 'their song' to his girlfriend while he proposed. Ever suckers for romance, we got together, rehearsed this number. We posed as tourists in Trafalgar Square on a cold October evening, springing on the couple as they returned from a trip to the theatre. You can see from the video the genuine surprise and delight! I can honestly say it will go down as one of the nicest things I've ever had the chance to do for someone else and reminded me how lucky I am to have someone to love too. Disgustingly soppy I know, but I've a lot to be thankful for. Enjoy: