Monthly Archives: February 2013

Are social media features helpful or just gimmicks?

One thing that we all appear to love on social media sites is being able to get involved with something. Whether it be the ‘Like’ buttons on Facebook, the ‘Retweet’ option on Twitter or the new feature on LinkedIn that allows you to endorse skills for your connections. But as fun as these little features are, what do they actually tell us? Are they an indication of popularity or approval or are they simply misleading and really showing that users like to be involved and so click them without  thinking through what they are associating themselves with?

I will give you an example; on LinkedIn I regularly receive endorsements via the new skills feature, and most times when I log on I will issue a handful of them as well. The way I approach this is that I select the ones that I really feel apply, as if I was giving a reference, so if a good developer I have have previously worked with pops up with HTML as an option then I will happily click to endorse. On the flip side, if a mediocre designer pops up I won’t endorse their design skills. My view is that if you wouldn’t recommend them to someone else then you shouldn’t endorse their skills. But is this how other people are using this feature? Well quite simply put, no.

To give another example; also on LinkedIn recently I received a notification that I had been endorsed for my CSS skills. This came as a bit of a surprise as I am not a developer and although I can fiddle around with a bit of HTML I am certainly not someone who would be recommended for his skills in this area. On closer inspection what was even more surprising was that the person who had endorsed me was a developer I have previously worked with, who is more than well aware that I do not possess these skills. What does this tell us about how people generally use this feature? It suggests that they do not actually look at what they are endorsing and therefore the validity of endorsements on LinkedIn becomes minimal at best.

But why is this concerning? In the not too distant past I went for a job interview and it was made known that my LinkedIn profile had played a significant part in the pre-interview preparation they had done. What I found particularly galling was that at the time I listed my Freelance Photography as one of my jobs, because it is relevant to my professional skills. This became a particularly significant line of questioning as something that they saw as a risk to their business if they hired me. In that particular situation there was nothing fabricated about my profile, it merely showed that as well as my main job I do a freelance job. So if LinkedIn is becoming a tool for recruitment how will the inaccurate endorsements skew opinion for or against a candidate?

Another problem with these features is that Social Media is hard to measure in terms of success. A lot of companies measure their success based on Likes, Shares and Retweets. But if user engagement is anything like LinkedIn’s endorsements feature then this could be misleading. I regularly see on my Facebook wall that people have liked a whole myriad of random companies, some of which they probably wouldn’t ever actually buy something from but liked the pictures, or perhaps their friends liked the company first and so they followed suit.

The ‘Like’ feature on Facebook is a particularly misleading one. It is incredibly common for someone to make a comment on Facebook that provides sad news or misfortune. In that situation the last thing you would normally do is ‘Like’ the comment. If a friend told you that they had cancer you wouldn’t respond by saying “I like that” would you? And yet on Facebook dozens of people will do this and only the savvy few will actually comment and saying “I won’t click Like, because it doesn’t seem right”. It seems that we have an impulse to associate ourselves with other people and their content, in order to connect ourselves and feel a part of it.

The problem for marketeers is gleaning some sort of meaningful statistics from these sorts of engagements. Endorsements, Likes, Retweets and the vast collections of other features out there do offer us one thing, an indication of engagement with users. But this shouldn’t be confused with approval and it shouldn’t be translated into some sort of sales potential. the big problem with Social Media engagement is the common misconception that these platforms offer a direct channel for sales. They don’t! Instead what they offer is the chance to build advocates of brands. There is nothing wrong with getting 1 million followers on Twitter or 1 million likes of your page on Facebook, but this shouldn’t be translated into 1 million potential sales opportunities. A lot of those will be there because of the group mentality to follow, lemming like. What this does mean however, is that there is potential for 1 million users to see your content and be influenced by it. Giving them a reason to see that content and engage with it regularly is the first step in creating advocates of them, and that means that your brand is likely to start resonating with them when they are not viewing your content as well.

In the end Social Media is about networking, not about selling, and understanding the mentality behind this is key. People use social media sites to feel close to each other, to have conversations and to feel involved, not to be sold to. This is invasive and we, as users, don’t like our personal space to be invaded. The industry is trying shift the focus of social sites to allow selling to take place. Advertising is creeping in all over the place, but there is a lot of disapproval from users for this. The social media fad may dip or it may retain its strength, but the sites that will succeed with users will be the ones that maintain the social feel and try to hold back the sales element. Unfortunately this is at odds with the business needs of the companies who build the sites. A cold war is churning away and it will be interesting to see how it is played out. Until then, get sensible with your social media and value your users…they will value you in return.

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A penny for your thoughts?

Telepathy is something usually reserved for sci-fi or fantasy novels, but in recent years scientists have been making significant steps towards actually being able to implant chips into the human brain that will enable interpretation of thought. Professor Kevin Warwick is one such scientist who has been pushing the boundaries of integrating biology and technology, as he discusses in this article.

There is no doubt that integrating technology with our bodies will present a whole host of benefits. Being able to control things simply with thought is something that would be incredibly useful, especially for creative tasks or interacting with software. In Switzerland they have recently been developing medical implants that can be powered by the human body and the implications of an implant that could therefore communicate directly with a Star Trek style medi-tricorder are amazing. Imagine a doctor being able to turn on their tricorder, scan their patient and the implants instantly give a full read out of the patients vitals. It would be possible to diagnose people instantly, see problems before they have occurred and monitor recovery of internal organs after accidents without invasive procedures or x-rays and the like. And this is just one possible use.

But what of the drawbacks? Well imagine that really useful brain implant, which allows you to control your devices and software with your thought. You can send and receive messages, skype style, with a clear glass display in your glasses showing you all your alerts (or maybe it would just appear in your sight, through your eye) but your mind controlling your responses to them. Brilliant, but all this relies on hardware and software to run and if there is one thing we know about software it is that some people rather enjoy to mess around with it.

Computer hacking has fast become a favourite subject of the media. A quick keyword search of BBC News will show just how often it is talked about. It is a reality of the software industry. So imagine that your brain implant, that allows your life to be so easy, is hacked by some unscrupulous person. In theory, your thoughts would then be available to them. Anything you think about could be collected and transmitted around the world. That passing thought about your work colleague or that insult you thought but didn’t say could be extracted and used against you. Even worse is the concept that you could be ‘tapped’ and monitored, perhaps by an Orwellian style government organisation, completely without your knowledge.

This is all rather sci-fi at the moment, but this technology is fast becoming reality. The TV series Homeland recently featured a story line where terrorists hacked into a congressman’s pacemaker and induced a heart-attack. Just image what would be possible if you had more of these implants throughout your body. Would it be possible to influence a person’s behaviour by feeding impulses and thoughts directly through a brain implant? You could commit murder through someone else, without ever meeting them or their victim.

The possibilities, for fiction writers, philosophers and scientists, are endless. There is no doubt that biotechnology can and will offer huge benefits to the world. But the need for security and control will be beyond anything we currently have to deal with. It will be very interesting to see how this area of technology develops, and it will be equally interesting to see how we learn to deal with and control these technologies as well.

Has the high-street brand bubble burst?

History has taught us something about empires, they will inevitably fall. Why is it inevitable? Because the bigger an empire gets the harder it is to maintain and eventually it’s own success will be the reason it crumbles. This isn’t something which is unique to physical empires like the Romans either, the dot com bubble is a digital example of an empire that fell in on itself. Countless companies popped up practically overnight, providing specific web services and because there was a huge amount of money available they all thrived. But the money was the result of a buoyant market that couldn’t sustain itself and when the market dropped so too did the investment and most of the companies folded. The lesson is the same as the Roman empire, in that it became too large to sustain itself and as soon as the environment shifted against the empire then the empire fell, unable to protect itself.

So why am I talking about this now? Mainly because I see a lot of similarities with the rapid decline of the high-street. In recent months major household retail brands have gone into administration. Jessops, Blockbuster, HMV and most recently the fashion chain Republic have all suffered and this is systematic of a bigger problem. The onslaught of online shopping, mixed with the lingering and deep-seated effects of a double dip recession have changed the way we shop. Not only are we more frugal but we are more likely to shop around to find the cheapest suppliers. We are more likely to buy online than in the store, even for clothing, and we don’t buy as much as we used to either. For many shopping is becoming a treat again, rather than a pastime. The problem is that this change in shopping habits has coincided with the height of a high-street brand boom, with lots of similar chain shops springing up all over the country. It also bears a striking resemblance to the way the dot com boom came about, with lots of suppliers popping up providing the same sorts of products, but with a limited audience to purchase them. Now that the audience is reducing its spending the suppliers are suffering and starting to fall. They are spread too thinly.

So what is going to happen? Well, like all empires, the high street brands are going to fall from grace. I think the distinguishing factors for who will survive and who won’t will be around who makes their own products and who relies on selling the products of others. If a brand has its own products then people are unlikely to be able to shop around and get them elsewhere cheaper. If those brands also provide the online shopping experiences people want then they will survive. But what of the others? Well unfortunately they are likely to start disappearing if they can’t compete and those brands who have already gone are just the start. It is likely that a core of brands will be left, those who are strong enough to weather the storm, but with spending habits changing there won’t be enough money to support the non-specialists who sell lots of other peoples products. In there place, however, we are likely to see a resurgence in local suppliers. As rents fall the availability of high street slots to smaller businesses that are specialist to local areas will rise. It is possible that the high street will start to look like it did decades ago, with local shops rather than national brands and this may further promote community.

What is certain is that currently our economy cannot support the variety of stores on the high street. The growth of the high street big brands is exactly the same as the growth of an empire. It grew fat on high spending habits but was also reliant on those habits. Rents rose with the competition for high street slots and with that the small local businesses were forced out. But when the bottom fell out of the economy this all changed and continues to change. Now the money they relied on has dried up and very few of them have a contingency plan. The empire is falling, what will rise in its place? We will have to wait and see.

Why the long face?

So what is the big issue really? So what if a bit of horse has turned up in some burgers, the French eat horse after all. Well at the nub of it, yet again, is trust. The major issue with the horse meat fiasco is that there is uncertainty about where this meat came into the system and therefore issues around the quality and whether it is fit for consumption. As consumers, we put our trust in the providers of these products and assume that they are assuring that the quality of that food is as it should be. Critically, we assume that what the packet says it contains is actually what it contains.

This situation is just the latest in a long line of ‘let downs’ for the consumer, and they occur in every sector. The worry for the food industry is that this could be just the tip of the iceberg and once people lose their trust in a brand it is very hard to restore that trust. In digital the situation is very similar and our responsibilities to our users is exactly the same. Users instill trust in us when they interact with brands and with online assets, assuming that we are being responsible in the way we operate.

I have previously written about the EU “cookie law” and the principle that at its heart it is about trust. This recent news in the food sector highlights basic trust issues that we need to consider, because as digital practitioners cookies are just the tip of the iceberg. Take, for example, app development. If you download a new app and it has no location based features then when you load it up you wouldn’t expect to be asked if the app can log your location. Similarly, if you are using a navigation app then you wouldn’t expect the app to need your personal details in order to work. For a lot of people this is a very real imposition because the app, for no particular reason, is collecting personal information. The immediate question for a savvy user is “why do you need that information, how are you going to use it?” and the resulting response is likely to be a lack of trust, suspicion and possibly even deleting the app.

Storing data is another area of real concern for users. As I mentioned above, the first issue is asking for ‘unnecessarily’ data about someone. The second is how that data is being used and if it is being stored securely. The media is filled with stories about data disks being left on trains, people hacking into websites and stealing information and so called experts assuring us that data is never secure. Whilst this media attention is unhelpful, it highlights how much of an issue the normal person considers this to be. Our responsibility is to take the right steps to make sure that our builds are as secure as possible, including robust testing. It is also our responsibility to make sure we only store the data that is actually needed and that we explain, clearly and simply, why we need this data and what we do with it. It is also important to give users the chance to remove their data as well. Not least, this complies with the data protection act, but more importantly it shows a two way trust.

It is paramount that we show respect to our users and in return they will engage with our brands. Trust needs to be at the heart of everything that we do, whether it is communicating with them, the way we design our online presence for them, or in the way that we treat them and their data. Without trust there is no loyalty in a customer and that will ultimately mean it is harder to make them spend their money with us. Instead, we shuold cultivate good and trusted relationships with our customers and ten they will become advocates of our brands.

Puntastic

I recently read an article in the BBC news, written by a New York journalist, about the use of puns in naming conventions. The general gist I took from it was that it wasn’t a great thing, although apologies to Sally Davies (the author) if this wasn’t her intention – and I don’t think she necessarily shares the negative view of puns. But it did start me thinking a bit more about this. You see, it is clear that we English like a pun based name or two. Word play is wealthy fodder for our British sense of humour. Indeed, I remember one particular 4 hour drive from Chester (Cheshire, England) to Reading (Berkshire, England) where my colleague and I got on to the subject of cow jokes. This quickly descended into an hour of relentless word play puns that probably demonstrated my low standards in comedy more than anything else. But nonetheless it was a couple of hours of enjoyable British fun.

There is no doubt that the British sense of humour is geared towards word play, and I don’t think it is limited to us Brits either. In her article, Sally Davies mentions a number of examples of pun related naming conventions; ‘Fish & Sip’ for a coffee and seafood place and ‘eyediology’ for an optician. Of course most people are familiar with the coffee shop ‘Central Perk’ from the sitcom Friends. But this has spread to the online world as well. Pinterest is a good example, where the principle of the site is implied in the play on the word ‘interest’. There are countless examples of this sort of thing out there, the app store is full of them.

The Merchant of Tennis The Cod Almighty

But why do we use wordplay? Well the simple answer is because it makes something more memorable. It makes a name standout from the others in the crowd. It adds a new semantic level to a name that triggers some sort of response in us, either emotional or humorous, that means we remember it. This technique also often means that the function of the place or site is also implied in the name and that serves to tell us a little more about the thing than we would otherwise know. And that is why it is useful. Take a company just down the road from where I work, Tibco. There slogan is “The power of now”. I drive past them everyday but I had no idea what it was they do because I cannot glean anything from their name. One day I looked them up and it turns out they produce real time event enabled infrastructure software. Now I know this “The power of now” does seem to make a little more sense, but it was only out of pedantic curiosity (and writing this article) that made we look them up. There was no natural curiosity, no inclination or implication about what they do and it didn’t trigger any sort of emotion in me (other than indifference).

Word play puns are part of our sense of humour, and they therefore serve as a great thing for us to consider when thinking of names for apps, services, software or even brands. It makes things more memorable, even if it isn’t funny, just practical. Twitter has made it’s own name mean something and now we all know what it means. Facebook implies an element of what it is in its name. Google is the one that shows this sort of approach the best. It is a wordplay from the mathematical term ‘googol’ meaning  a number that is equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros and expressed as 10 100. For a company based in data it was a logical name choice. But now the noun has become so much more:

verb (used with object): often lowercase  – to search the Internet for information about (a person, topic, etc.): We googled the new applicant to check her background.

verb (used without object): often lowercase  – to use a search engine such as Google to find information, a Web site address,etc., on the Internet.

Of course it was no coincidence that Microsoft chose the word ‘Bing’, already a noun with onomatopoeic value, for their search engine , no doubt with the hope this too will become a verb. I suspect they will struggle to have the same success.

So what is my point? Mainly that the name of something is all important these days. With competition on and off line being higher than ever before having a strong name that works on more than one level is a great way to stand out of the crowd. This seems especially important in the app world, where having a ‘zingy’ name will be the difference between a lot of downloads and shares and disappearing into the ether, never to be heard of again. Of course this doesn’t take away the focus of developing something that is well thought through and designed.

In the end I love names that have multiple meanings and particularly ones that make me smile. They appeal to me, like they do to a lot of other people, and make me more interested in finding out more. Make someone smile and they will value you, but make sure that once you have them hooked that the service behind it is just as appealing!