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 I kept up a blog on the work at the time so feel free to check it out, although clearly no longer active.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: