Thursday, March 26, 2015

Description of essay topics for Corpus Christi College Cambridge 2014-2015
Corpus Christi College Cambrdige essay prizes
Yesterday I came across a great example of both content marketing and inbound marketing from a surprising source - the world of university applications in education.

There is tough competition for places at the best UK universities and applicants must market themselves well to increase their chances of gaining places or even interviews against stiff opposition.

Normally the university or college first hears about prospective students via their application which details their academic and other achievements as well as including a personal statement setting out their goals, strengths and specific interests.

But, particularly for colleges at Cambridge University, there is a way for applicants to make themselves known before this.  Colleges run essay prizes in many subjects and submitting an essay can bring yourself to the attention of a college before the application is even received.

Yesterday I heard of one girl who had entered an essay prize and produced a really good piece of work.  As a result, the college wrote to her and said they hoped she would apply to them and they would look forward to inteviewing her.  She had already passed the first hurdle of gaining an interview and could expect a warm welcome giving her a good chance of being offered a place.

So her essay had gained her recognition - a fantastic piece of content marketing - and then had caused the college to contact her - a brilliant example of successful inbound marketing.

It shows that the principles of content and inbound marketing, of gaining a reputation by producing and publishing valuable content and of stimulating people to contact you with their requirements, apply in many different walks of life.  In addition it demonstrates how these techniques build up interactions which can lead to strong continuing relationships.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Handling conflicts in groups and teams

There seemed to be no avoiding the topic of hadling conflicts yesterday.

First on LinkedIn one of my connections recommended a blog post by Bernard Marr, a LinkedIn INfluencer.  I read it and then continued to the next post: "The Vital But Forgotten Soft Skill of Truly Successful People".  In it he discusses how a vital skill for leaders is the ability to address and resolve conflicts rather than leaving them to fester.  His five point plan on how to address them is simple to understand (you could summarise it as - Breathe, Acknowledge, Listen, Focus, Respect) but, as he points out, takes a great deal of practice to implement well.

But it was the point made at the end of the blog that struck me most - conflicts can often be opportunities for "learning, innovation and even team building" with issues explored and people helped to listen and understand different views.

This article tied in strongly with another that I read shortly afterwards.  A post on the eFront blog about rewarding users of elearning referenced an article by Clay Shirky "A group is its own worst enemy".  Although the Shirky article is ten years old and the technology has moved on since then, the points remain valid.  You may not know the examples that he uses, but the risks of groups descending into internal squabbling remain today.

Clay Shirky suggested four ways that groups could be designed to avoid or deal with internal issues:

  1. Ensure users have an identity (a "handle").  Even it is a nickname it gives others a chance to learn about the views and approach of each user and so to form opinions about them
  2. Have a way for users to gain a good reputation and for this to be shown.  This allows the committed users to have a greater stake in the group
  3. Put more control in the hands of the committed members and do not allow a large number of not very involved people to determine the future of the group
  4. Work out how to scale the group so that it still retains a way for members to have conversations with close associates and for relationships not to become swamped in a large mass of communication
I have not done the article justice and you should read it yourself to find out more.  But like the Bernard Marr article I talked about initially, it deals with conflict resolution and with addressing issues that arise between people, though in the Clay Shirky case it is in relation to online groups rather than groups in physical organisations.

Synthesising the two different articles has lead me to three key points:
  • accept that there are always going to be conflicts between individuals in any groups and plan how to make the best of it
  • the conflicts can be beneficial if they result from different views of people who are committed to the group, and give members a chance to understand each other's viewpoints
  • there needs to be a mechanism for resolving the conflicts, which needs a leader or group with the power to listen to different views, try for consensus but then act to carry the group forward

Monday, December 30, 2013

Marketing opportunities in 2014

I have recently been reading PR20/20's "2014 Marketing Score Report" which was compiled by interviewing over 300 marketing professionals, executives and entrepreneurs who assessed their own and their organisations strengths and weaknesses in different aspects of marketing.

Amid a wealth of very valuable information, two areas stood out for me.  They are of great importance for the success of organisations and I was surprised by the low achievement ratings that marketers gave themselves and their companies in these areas. 

The good news is the potential this provides to marketers who are already expert in these fields or who can rapidly increase their competence.

The first area is content marketing.  Among the 13 elements of content marketing that were assessed, the top score was only 4.4 out of 10, which was for blogging.  The lowest was 0.8 for podcasts.

Now a number of the content marketing elements are fairly new (e.g. infographics) so it is understandable that many organisations are still working out how to include them in the marketing mix and finding, or training staff, to implement them.

But elements such as blogging, case studies, PR and white papers have been core parts of marketing activities for a long time.  Moreover, the report also shows that those who rate their performance highly in content marketing activities such as blogging are those who perform best in generating website traffic and leads as well as converting them to sales.

Of course, this does not prove causality - that more blogging leads to more website traffic, leads and sales.  But the fact that the companies that prioritise and generate content for their different audiences (prospects, partners, suppliers and other influencers) do better than those who do not suggests it is worthwhile adopting and testing a stronger focus in this area.

Given the way that customers, both businesses and consumers, research products and services more and more before buying, it would be stupid not to put more effort into creating content that will bring your company's name and expertise to their attention while they are doing their research.  Content marketing enables you to be involved early in the customer journey.

The second interesting area in which marketing competence is rated surprisingly low is that of diversity of lead sources.  The results show a particular weakness in gaining leads from digital sources with the best digital channel being organic search with a rating of only 4.3 out of 10.

Once again the best performing organisations rated themselves significantly higher for digital leads;  and again this is a sign of the need for most organisations to investigate the new digital sources for leads that leading companies are exploiting.

So both content marketing and digital leads are shown to offer many companies huge scope for growth, and they are areas in which they do not currently have sufficient in-house expertise.  

That is great news for marketers who have the expertise and energy to exploit these opportunities.

Happy 2014. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I'm not human enough for Instagram

I have given up on Instagram.

This morning I wanted to try it out - it might be fun and it might be useful for marketing.  At least I thought I ought to know about it.

So I tried to set it up on my Samsung Galaxy II phone.  No problem installing but then I tried to register using my Facebook login and reached the point where you are asked if Instagram can message all your friends.  I changed this for private messaging to begin with (until I knew what I and Instagram were doing).  But this just led to an error message about an unknown page. Has nobody tried the privacy option before?

How do you report or sort out bugs in apps?  I have no idea, so switched to the Instagram website on my desktop and tried the "Forgot Password" option since I was having trouble with the Facebook login.

Before sending me an email, Instagram asked to use a Captcha to prove I was human.  Sometimes it takes 2 or 3 goes to get the Captcha right but this one I tried 8 times without success.  Also I tried the audio version but it was so fuzzy I was unable to make it out.

So I gave up with Instagram.

Apparently I am not human enough for them.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Digital OAPs

The maximum age for a true digital native is probably 30 - someone who grew up with a mobile phone that they used to communicate with their friends, with online social networks for sharing, with widely available e-commerce for purchase..  If digital natives want to find out a fact they use Google search, Wikipedia or ask questions on social media and are hardly aware of offline methods.

But while those of us from previous generations did not grow up with this technology, most of us have come to accept it and use it as the best tool for many personal and business activities.  Some may be reluctant but there are many older people, including silver surfers, who have embraced it enthusiastically as a way to enrich and simplify their lives, from being able to see and talk to remote family over Skype to automating their small business accounts.

So are the digital natives really a breed apart?  Until recently, I was not convinced and felt that there were already ncreasing numbers of OAPs equally at home in the new world of technology.  I liked to think of them as digital OAPs.  But a couple of articles that I read last week made me think again.

Firstly, John Naughton's article in The Observer ( in which he talked about the NSA and their PRISM program and concluded that however much people might be horrified by the way PRISM is collecting so much personal data, they could not envisage stopping using the main internet services that provide the information to the NSA, particularly if they were under 25. 

The other article, by Brian Halligan, was on the culture of HubSpot, the firm he co-founded ( He talks about the different values of younger employees - how they want to buy into the goals of their companies and value transparency in their organisations. This attitude towards work ties in with the freedom with which digital natives are willing to share so much of their life online even though it becomes visible to so many people.

So maybe digital OAPs (as well as those slightly younger, like myself) can be as good technically in using the new technology.  But do we have the attitude of relying on it entirely that the digital natives have?

If we are like those learning a foreign language compared to native speakers of that language, then while we have to work very hard to speak it fluently, once we master it we may also be able to see its strengths and weaknesses in context.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Does a "Like" button give enough feedback?

Reading a recent article from the Nieman Journalism Lab about testing a "Respect" button instead of a "Like" button for news items led me to think more about the benefits and disadvantages of "Like" buttons.

Facebook is well known for its "Like" button which allows users to "give positive feedback and connect with things [they] care about" but other sites have their equivalent: Google+ with "+1" to "give something a public stamp of approval" ; Twitter with "Follow" ; YouTube has thumbs up or thumbs down icons; Pinterest has "Like"; and Tumblr has a like.

So most of the major social media sites have one or at most two simple ways for a viewer to show approval and YouTube is the only one that allows viewers to rate an item negatively as well as positively with one click.

Allowing users to give positive feedback or approval with one click has the obvious benefit of making it very easy for users to interact with content.  It only takes a second to "Like" whereas adding a comment could take a minute or more.  So one-click approval encourages more interactions and keeps a site lively.

But how much does it measure, and more importantly, increase customer engagement?  More sophisticated ratings or comments provide much richer feedback, including making it clear whether the user finds the views expressed in the content interesting and worth sharing or perhaps just the topic itself, while not agreeing with all of the views expressed.  There are some interesting ideas on increasing customer engagement through social media in this prezi (and the Nieman article mentioned up front has some interesting insights on comments and polls)

Which is more important for a site?  Volume of instant feedback or in-depth engagement?

Well, of course you can have both with buttons and comment fields.

But maybe there is a way to gain more information from buttons without losing significant volume, and possibly encourage more comment by just making some users reflect a little more on the feedback they are giving.  How about one or two more buttons to record better the positive and negative sentiments and to rate the importance of the topic being discussed?

I feel most sites are in a rut of just using one standard button.

Time for an experiment?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Who owns the online community?

The biggest online communities are businesses that tap into people's general or specific interests and offer great value to users and contributors.  In today's world they often do not charge any money for the use of their services, instead making money from selling adverts on their sites or from services sold to premium users or to companies providing add-ons.  Think of Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn for example.

Looking at these communities today, it is hard to think of a future without them, but they face constant pressures not to go the way of previous stars such as MySpace (now growing again slowly), AOL and SecondLife.  For example, Facebook experiences considerable pressure from younger rivals as it tries to maintain growth and the amount of time users spending on the site as noted in this CNBC report on Facebook growth from May 2013; while it is growing fast in emerging markets, there are signs of a loss of interest by users in established markets such as the USA and UK.

These pressures highlight the fact that the communities depend on their users who are free to go elsewhere if something new grabs their attention (for example Tumblr or Pinterest), if the site annoys them (e.g. not addressing privacy concerns) or just if they grow bored with the activity on the site.

Are there ways to combat this and create longer-lasting online communities?

One possibility would be to involve the community itself much more in running and setting the direction for the site.  Could the community actually co-own the service?  A real sense of ownership would increase loyalty and should also ensure that the site develops in ways that the community wants.  But if the online site was run as a business, this would inevitably create tension between the profit-motive of the company running the service and the demands of users.

There are two other drawbacks to the idea of community involvement or co-ownership.  Firstly, most users do not want to get involved.  They want a service, one that is useful and is used by their friends but do not want to spend time or effort on working out how it should be run; if it stops meeting their needs, then they will just go elsewhere.  Secondly, the active members who would be willing to participate in setting direction are not necessarily representative of the majority, let alone new users whom the business might want to attract.

All of these drawbacks can be overcome, in my opinion, (after all, two of them exist in democratic governments) by adhering to three principles

  • clarity on the aims of the community and how both the company running it and the users will benefit
  • balance of benefits between operator and users with limits on both sides
  • realistic controls that meet the long-term objectives and concerns of the users while allowing the business to operate commercially from day-to-day

I am working on building these principles into a new community for the travel industry.  By focusing on a specific part of the travel industry, the community should also cater to a long-term interest that will help the community to survive (as long as it is well-run).  I will share my plans in more detail in future posts.

Maybe you have any experience of building or even just participating in communities that have long-term success in maintaining user commitment or enthusiasm?  If so, it would be great to hear your experiences.