Category Archives: Brand

I want my apple to be technically savvy

A lot of people seem to be getting all bent out of shape at the prospect of technology replacing humans, or in some cases the fear that they will not just replace us but repress us. Whilst Stephen Hawking is predicting that AI (artificial intelligence) is the biggest long term threat to humankind, many people are more concerned about the more immediate threat to manual and lower skilled jobs. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons, the first being that the idea technology is only just about to replace humans is rather behind the times, and secondly because some of my recent experiences as a consumer make me scream for something more automated as the human run ones were infuriating.

I recently attended a conference called ‘Agile on the Beach’. It was a very enjoyable couple of days surrounded by peers and colleagues from the world of IT (and other sectors) discussing the approaches, benefits and culture of the agile way of working. One of the keynote speakers, Dave Farley (a pioneer of continuous delivery), discussed his three laws and one of them was rather apt…”People are rubbish”. What he meant by this is not that people are incapable, but that by our nature we make mistakes, we overlook things, we are infallible. It is true. In recent years Moore’s Law has allowed technology and software to progress to a point where the world is a drastically different place to where it was only ten years ago. We have replaced a secretary who opened the post and replied to correspondence with an iPhone and auto-messaging. We have replaced people on a construction line with automated machines. We have replaced health & safety officers with failsafe software. The list goes on and on. And that is somewhat the point. The idea that technology is going to start replacing people is old hat, because it has been going on pretty much since the beginning of time. We aren’t in some position where suddenly this is going to happen, it is just the natural evolution of society and technology. A good example is that a large proportion of us now use self-service checkouts at the supermarket, where we would have previously had a person sat at the checkout swiping our items for us. This has been going on ever since we invested industry. Once upon a time we used to row our ships, but then we invented steam engines. We hauled massive stones with hundreds of stoneage men, until we invented boats and realised we could roll them along on logs. At each step of our technological evolution we have replaced people with technology and in each case the people have moved on to new roles. So I don’t think we are yet at the point where we are all going to become obsolete.

But one of the things that did surprise me not so long ago was the lack of an automated experience at Apple. I recently had to go to the Apple store to have the screen replaced on my iPhone. I booked the appointment online and that experience was completely self-serve and automated. So what was then surprising is arriving at the Apple store, the mecca of trend setting and sleek experiences in technology to find it all rather backward. Having not been to an Apple store before I made my way to the ‘Genius Bar’ and sat on a stool awaiting someone to ‘check me in’. There wasn’t any guidance around to tell me the process so I waited for a staff member to help me. And I waited…and waited…and waited.

During my ten minute wait, for that is what it ended up being, I noticed at least half a dozen members of staff just stood by the shelves of products. This perplexed me as I am still unsure exactly what purpose they served. At one point I did see one of them talk to a customer browsing one of the products but after a short chat that I wasn’t privvy to the staff member resumed her security guard like stance and re-found her bored expression. At the same time no less than four separate members of staff wondered by me, determinedly ignored my attempts to grab their attention and generally seemed determined to prove that whilst they were apparently geniuses they were also rather dim!

Eventually I got the message that I wasn’t going to get any proactive help from the staff at Apple and so sought out someone who finally helped me check in and so my problem was dealt with. But as I then wondered around the shopping mall for an hour, waiting for my phone to be repaired and dwelling on the experience I’d just had I realised how counterintuitive it was. Why on earth does the biggest technology company in the world have an experience that is so uncoordinated and relying on people who are quite clearly letting down the side? Certainly my opinion of Apple employees was diminished to the point where I am almost entirely convinced they don’t really care about the customers at all. And that really isn’t great for a company that prides itself on providing the best user experience. With the technology they have at their disposal surely the experience at an Apple store should go more like this…

I turn up to the store and immediately make my way to one of the iCheck terminals. The bluetooth technology means that the terminal instantly picks up the signal from my iPhone and welcomes me, asking if I’d like to checkin. It guides me through a few quick screens and then tells me that I have been checked in and that they aren’t quite ready for me yet but a message will be sent to my phone at the correct time and that I can browse in the meantime. As I browse around the other products they have on offer I am able to select a complimentary beverage from the iDrink machine. As I’m fiddling with one of the latest gadgets my phone starts to buzz in my pocket. I take it out and a message is telling me to make my way to the Genius bar to a specific stool. As I get there a member of staff is waiting to take the device from me and already knows exactly what the problem is. They inform me that the phone will be ready in an hour and hand me a little device that will alert me when it is ready to collect.

This is just a snippet into how technology could make my experience better. Going to the Apple store was a frustrating experience. It was uncoordinated, awkward and I felt unloved as a customer, but the experience I have just described would make me feel very well looked after indeed. So what is the moral of this blog? Well there are a couple…the first is don’t fear technology is going to replace us because often it actually improves our lives, and history has taught us that it doesn’t replace us, there are just different jobs that we then take. And the second? Well the second moral of this blog is that Apple should employ me to transform their in store experience!

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Google Is Your Friend?

Richard Branson founded a tremendously successful brand in Virgin, based primarily on the principle that he looked after his employees, his employees looked after the customers, the customers looked after the profits and the profits looked after the share holders. It is a simple principal and one that works. If your staff are happy then they will do a good job, which in turn means your customers get a good service. So on and so, the company does well. So why is it then that so many big brands these days seem to be neglecting the most basic of customer needs?

Today it was announced that EE are going to be fined one million pounds for poor customer service. Well about time. I have moaned before about the appalling state of the usability on their online self service portal. It was one of the many reasons that I moved away from the provider when my mobile came up for renewal last year. But it isn’t just EE. The monopoly holding telecomm providing BT are well overdue for a massive fine. They seem to have developed a reputation for appalling customer service and seem to rely on their infrastructure monopoly to see them through. I know countless people who have been left with no service for weeks, to be offered compensation to the amount of £1.50. Is that really how you treat a treasured customer? But BT have been doing it for years. Let me share my own experience of BT with you, which is the sole reason I wouldn’t even let them come and clean out my toilet, let alone provide me with any services. Following a series of incorrect bills and service outages, where I had to make calls on my mobile, I finally managed to speak to a manager. He assured me they would refund all of the costs I had incurred. I took this very helpful mans name and a call reference and then waited for the remuneration I had been promised. And of course it didn’t arrive. What did happen was when I phones up to query it I was told that no such person existed and that wasn’t a valid call reference! The threat of legal action on the back of this fraud was enough to ensure my contract was cancelled, leaving my account in £2.61 credit. They have been merrily writing to tell me this every month for six years now. I wonder how much that has cost them?

This one little example of not just rock bottom, but non-existent customer service, shows not only a lack of engagement with the concept that making your customer happy is actually good for your business, but also shows an astounding lack of respect for the customer as well. As a result I will never use the company again. I won’t even start about the BT engineer who was trespassing on my property a couple of months ago, and when I asked him why he told me to “fuck off!”. That is top quality staffing in a fully branded BT Openreach uniform. Top marks all round.

But customer service is not just about the person on the end of the phone. And for every example of a tragic customer service team there is an example of a very helpful and pleasant team. But that is not the be all and end all of customer service. We now live in a world where self service online is a massive part of how we engage with our chosen providers. In fact in some cases that will be on the only way we ever engage with them. So the question is, why do so many of them make it so hard for us?

There is a common saying “Google is your friend”. And of course it is. We can go to an incredibly simple interface – a single search box – but in what we want to know about and we will get back results. Often before we’ve even finished typing! What is not to love about that? So why is it that, when they have proven that they can develop such simple and clever things, do they insist on the rest of their products being so damn difficult to use? A bone of contention I have with online services is when they have been built in a way where it is almost impossible to find how to do something. And when you mercifully do find some instructions on how to do it they refer to the previous version. It is beyond frustrating. Don’t get me started on PayPal, who represent a an example of some of the worst online experience I have ever found. But back to Google. Take the simple act of setting up a Google Places account. Trying to find where to manage the wallet settings, or where to shut down the account (I realise it is not in their interests to help you do this) is almost impossible. And considering the prompt to do this came from an email from them, you’d expect a link in the email taking you directly to the right place. But no, that is apparently too hard for the company who have developed the most complex search algorithms in the world to handle. It seems that the concept that smart people have no common sense is indeed alive and well at Google. In this case Google is definitely not my friend. It’s my annoying little friend that won’t do anything I’m asking of it!!

I have spent the majority of my career being concerned with trying to make an experience as intuitive and simple as possible. Whether that be a business process, an interface or a video. The general principle of simple is best works. And making it easy and simple for people to do everything also works. Even if the customer wants to close their account with you, make it as easy as possible to do this. Because at the end of the day they will remember that and may come back. If you make it almost impossible for them to do it then their last memory will be knowing that they were justified in leaving such an awful brand. Instead make their last memory a delightful one, because they will leave with that good memory and then when they are looking for a supplier again they may just come back. At the end of the day, not many people leave a supplier because they are happy with their experience. Plenty though can tell you why they would never use a particular supplier ever again!

iScotland – following the herd since 2007 / 1707

Last Tuesday (9th September) the world was split into two camps yet again; those who like good phones and those who don’t like Apple. This is a perennial prejudice that arises pretty much every time Apple launches a new product and doesn’t seemed to be based on anything other than an abject dislike of the Apple brand. One of the most perplexing things that has emerged as part of this in recent years is to start referring to those who do like the Apple brand as ‘sheep’. This is a term that seems to be bandied around quite a lot on the social media channels, as a way of poking fun at those who are excited about the launch of the new iPhone 6 models…and to a lesser extent the Apple watch.

The reason that this strange prejudice is perplexing is that the iPhone is the single biggest selling handset in the world. Whilst there may well be more Android users world wide, no other individual device has sold more units than the iPhone has, which means that it is, by matter of fact, one of the most popular devices around.

Apple naysayers clearly feel the need to denigrate the brand, and those who are fans of it, in some vane attempt to gain some sort of moral high ground. But what is interesting is that, by and large, there is no real reasoning behind it, other than simple not liking Apple. The fact is that the iPhone has been one of the leading edge mobile devices for some years. Whether we like it or not, it is almost singularly responsible for transforming the mobile market from the ‘telephone’ market into the ‘device’ market we now know and love. We don’t have mobile phones now, we have devices that are also able to make calls. In 2007, when Apple launched the iPhone, it was without doubt a revolution and they have continued to push the boundaries and lead the market in many ways.

There is justified criticism of Apple; they prefer their own technology to others and therefore don’t adopt things like NFC, other phones might have slightly better tech (for example, the Galaxy S3 had a better phone and video system) but side by side the differences are not noticeable enough to really say that one device far out strips another. And one thing that Apple excels in and has yet been completely unchallenged in, is its user experience. Across the board Apple interfaces are easier to use, have a more consistent UX and have a brand consistency that marks all of their products out from the rest of the pack. It is for this reason that Apple is synonymous with the vogue end of the market…people aspire to have the Apple brand in their hand.

With this in mind, it can only really be the dislike of the brand that people use as an excuse to criticise Apple followers, which seems rather churlish. Calling people who are fans of Apple ‘sheep’ because they like a very good brand, is like saying that if you like chocolate and eat the newest bar from Cadbury’s then you are a sheep. It is quite ridiculous.

And this point is very comparable with another, rather more significant, situation that is occurring literally as I write this. Today, on Thursday 18th September 2014, Scotland are going to the polls to decide if they should break away from the United Kingdom and become an independent country. It is complete coincidence that the launch of the iPhone in 2007 was the 300th anniversary year of the Union Act being passed in Scotland, but the ‘sheep’ description is being used for those wanting to stay with the Union in very comparable circumstances.

Many people will be going to the polling station to vote ‘Yes’, completely based on their pride for Scotland (and most likely their corresponding dislike for England…a long running theme between our two countries) and they will not be swayed for love nor money. It is their right to do this and we should respect it. Scotland, as a country, has the right to decide if it is part of the Union and that is the way it should be. But the worrying thing is that over the past couple of years, as this debate has waged on, a lot of people will have been pursuaded to vote ‘yes’ for devolution based purely on the emotional arguments presented and without any of the key issues being answered.

To date, Alex Salmond and the ‘yes’ camp, have failed to offer a strategy for how Scotland will retain and maintain it’s vast infrastructure, how they will secure a long term future for the country in terms of finance, a currency, political status within Europe and the international community and within the business world. There is a lot of detail up in the air but one thing is absolutely certain, if they vote for devolution then it will be a very rocky short term and the long term is entirely unclear. It seems very worrying that a possible majority of people would vote on such a big decision without any of these questions being answered, especially as the health and well being of them and their country will hinge on this.

Comparing the love / hate relationship the world has with Apple to the very significant changes occurring in Scotland seems, at face value, to be a little absurd. But that is the most worrying thing. Those who dislike Apple don’t really have very much evidence to offer when challenged on it, and when it comes to voting ‘yes’ for Scottish independence, unfortunately at this point the same is also true.

App-lying the lessons of design

Back to digital stuff this week. We’ve recently been working on a couple of app projects for release in the coming months and so I thought I would share a few of our learnings on the process. I’ve previously written about mobile and apps and specifically about the considerations when thinking about developing an app, but today I thought I would look at the specifics of the next stage – getting it to development.

Having worked in website and application development (in the IT sense) for many years, the process of design – development- test – release is one that is ingrained. But when it comes to app development there are some key nuances that should be considered. In generating the ideas for the two projects we have recently worked on, first we tested the ‘need’ against some key questions:

  • Does the process you are building live by itself?
  • Do your users need to be able to do it offline or do they need internet access?
  • Does it require features from the mobile device / does it require being ‘mobile’ in order to work?
  • Does the app provide a solution for a genuine need?

Additionally, the question that was in my mind is “will it have appeal?” Ultimately is the idea either useful enough or fun enough that people will want to use it? In the case of both our apps I wrote a small mandate and business case for the app, to test the concept. This provided the key foundation for specification as it set out the core reasons why the app should exist – which in turn become the core functional considerations for the app and the design.

In the case of our apps we started by keeping with traditional methods. I wireframed the user journeys and functionality for the app so that we could test the journey. Using the wireframes we created a crude clickable prototype and tested this with a couple of people to see if it not only made sense but that it achieved all that was intended.

App wireframe mockups

Feedback is key in app development, because the general principle for apps is that they should be intuitive. Keeping them as simple as possible is absolutely key if the app is going to be used.

When we were satisfied with the general specifications for the app it was time to apply a graphical design. There are plenty of templates available on line, we opted for a Photoshop based one. Again a key thing we discovered is knowing what the personality of the app is going to be before entering into the design phase. Also, doing research into the standards required for interface design is crucial. Apple have specific interface design guidelines, for example, that should be adhered to if you want your app to be approved. Also, think about the tasks your app is going to allow users to do and design the interface elements to suit this. If you want it to be playful then consider movement and transition, but if you want it to be formal and task driven then make things logical and as simple as possible. Consistency is a key consideration though, if you take an approach on one screen then try to make the rest of the app screens follow the same lines. This will help users to orientate themselves in the app and intuitively understand how it works, without instruction.

For our apps we had two very different personalities. The first is a Christmas related app for a local town so the design needed to reflect this. A nighttime scene with snow effects were the design concept. The second is a comical app related to a well known region of the country and so we created a character to reflect this. In both cases the general approach was then reflected throughout the app for consistency. At this point it is also necessary to make decisions on what platforms you are going to support, as each has different screen sizes. Designing for an iPhone 5 screen could mean that it won’t fit onto a smaller Android screen, so make sure you factor this in when designing. Another thing that it is worth considering is utilizing the existing style for the platform. If the ‘out of the box’ Apple style for certain things works with your design, then don’t over complicate it by designing something custom. Don’t forget, the users are already used to the existing standards so don’t mess with them.

When it comes to development, if you don’t have a resource available to you then planning who is going to do this work for you is something not to be taken lightly. There are plenty of dev houses available all over the world, but knowing you are going to get what you want is the difference between spending lots of money and getting value for money. In our case, we approached 3 agencies and asked them to quote. We prepared annotated designs and non-functional requirements for our app and asked them all to respond accordingly and then made a decision based on the detail, cost, timescales and approach. There are plenty of very reputable agencies based in India, Pakistan and eastern Europe that can supply very cheap development services, or you can get a freelancer. If you do go with a freelancer though, understand you are not protected by a company constitution so try and agree some sort of contract and scope of work to be delivered for a fixed cost. Time and materials will cost you more. Finally, make sure you have some way of tracking progress with them. We use an online tool called Zoho, so that we can see their progress and the tasks they are undertaking.

When it comes to development another key thing to make sure you agree with your development supplier is that you own the intellectual rights and code for the development. You don’t want them to own the right to do anything with the app. Making sure they develop using your Apple developer account / Google App account is also a good way to make sure you have control. Don’t forget that if you are going to charge for you app then it is the account the app has been built with that will collect the money!

So, your app is well thought through, planned, designed and your developers are beavering away. It’s all done surely? No…make sure that once the app is available for testing that you not only rigorously test it yourself in the context it is going to be used, but also get other people to try it out as well. Validating that it actually works for a normal user and isn’t confusing or clumsy will mean you get good reviews rather than bad ones in the app stores. Also make sure that they specification has been delivered correctly and if it hasn’t, get them to fix it. You’ve paid for a job to be done properly so make sure you get what you paid for. This is where dealing with a freelancer can be tricky!

So finally, once it is launched the final consideration is getting it out there. Make sure that you have a marketing plan for your app because if you don’t it will be easy for your app to just disappear into obscurity. A few key things to consider are:

  • Give free promo versions to influential social users and bloggers (and celebs if you can, they have huge amounts of lemming like followers) – Apple gives you 50 free promo codes for each release so use them wisely
  • Support your app with a social media and/or web presence – having a supporting promotional web page and/or social media page will mean getting the message out to those who don’t scour the app stores
  • Tie in additional products – if the app is fun then think about creating additional products to support it, such as t-shirts, mugs and posters.
  • If your app serves a particular type of person or business then target them directly, pushing the benefits. Even go and show them how it works if you can or produce a brochure to sell the product to them.

Last thoughts…allow plenty of time. A well planned app, even a simple one, is going to take at least 6 months to get to market. Also, don’t worry about getting the app 100% right on the first release and certainly don’t fill it with every piece of functionality you can think of. Simplicity is the key so start by just serving the key need you identified. You can then use the users to tell you how to develop the app if it is successful. For me, developing our first apps has been a lot of fun so try and have fun when going through the process as well. Enjoy!

You are the Apple of my eye

Forgive this post as being a bit of a product review. For a while I had been thinking of writing a blog article comparing the Samsung Galaxy Tablet and the Apple iPad (the new / 3rd one), looking at practicalities. For years I have resisted being a Apple fan boy, under much pressure from good friends of mine who are some what blinkered to anything non-Apple. But in recent years I have found myself (and my family) becoming more and more Apple focused and I so I thought it would be more interesting to look at why this has been the case.

UX (User eXperience)

Like it or not, Apple are exceptionally good at creating very usable experiences, which are consistent across almost ever facet of their interfaces. One of the ways this is most noticeable is in the way apps are created for the app store. As Apple have a set of guidelines (both technical and design) that have to be met before an app is approved this means that all the apps in the store are, by and large, easy to use. There are no doubt exceptions that crept through the net, but apps in general feel well crafted and designed. In contrast, the Google Play store doesn’t seem to have the same level of checking and as a result my experience has been that apps on the android simply don’t have that extra level of class and usability.

The way the Apple screen is set out is also incredibly easy to understand. My 4 year old daughter was using it, unaided, to find and play her apps when she was 3 with no problems at all and the consistent nature of icons only on the main screens helps with this. One thing I do like about the Galaxy tablet is the ability to have widgets on the homepage as well as icons, but in a lot of cases they seem not to refresh without manual prompting, which is frustrating.

Above all of this, one of the things I like the most about the Mac system is that it is so customisable. I can set up my tracking pad on my laptop to do thing that I want to do so that I can zip around the programs with ease. Apple seem to have taken the view of ‘let’s put the user in charge’ where as Microsoft seem to have said ‘let’s show the user how it is done’.

Responsive

The Galaxy Tablet lacks the crisp responsiveness that the 3rd gen iPad provides. Both the iPad and iPhone are incredibly quick to respond to touch whereas the Galaxy often lags. Whilst the Galaxy S3 mobile is much better it lacks the edge that Apple have long established in their models.

Cloud

Once you have more than one Apple device then the main selling point is the iCloud. There are, of course, similar services now out their for non-Apple users that do a similar job, but because Apple devices can easily be linked to each other it makes the running of our lives so much easier. We now forego an up to date wall calendar as my wife uses the iPad and her iPhone to keep up with iCal and I use my iPhone and Mac Book to maintain my half of it. We know what is going on all the time so it is easy to make decisions. Sharing becomes much easier as well and photos / videos (the main stay of our record as our children grow up) are backed up automatically. Facetime means that if one of us is away then we can see the other for free and talk to our children, who are too young to really get how to use a phone. Of course there are plenty of non-Apple apps out there that do the same thing, but once you are on the Apple network everything is at your finger tips, so it is just easy.

Cost

One big problem with Apple is the cost. Whilst you could legitimately argue that you get what you pay for, and Apple products are superb, the cost is often disproportionate to the alternatives that other brands can offer. The story of the Magic Mouse is a good example, in that I simply cannot justify spending that much for a mouse when the only major selling point over other brands is that “it is cool”.

Brand

The fact that Apple products are cool is a key selling point. Apple’s biggest asset is that people aspire to own their products. There is a techy class system emerging and Apple is the equivalent of the upper class in many ways. I know a lot of people who own the iPhone simply because it is an iPhone, rather than because it will serve their personal needs better. From my point of view, it was the iCloud which made my decision when actually I think the Galaxy in many ways is a better phone. But the wider Apple package means that for me there was only one choice. And if I am honest, I also think that Apple products are really cool!

Summary

Albeit a very brief overview, one thing I have tried to establish is how easy to it is to get sucked into the Apple whirlpool, probably never to escape. Brand aside, what Apple have done is create a whole suite of integrated products that allow ease of use and convenience in running almost every facet of your technical life. I started out with every intention of staying quite agnostic to brand, but I have increasingly found myself falling in love with the world Apple have created, even if I am not in love with their prices. The biggest change for my family is that now, through Apple devices, we have started to create our family network. And this is quite key, because the world in the future will be like this. We, as family units, will have a network of devices that we need to talk to each other, share information and keep us in contact with one another. So far Apple is the only brand that provides this easily and under one seamless banner, but others will no doubt come. For me, the most significant thing is the consistency of their experience across their devices and software. You don’t need a user manual because you already know how to use them and they are often so  intuitive that a child can do it without instructions. We are an Apple household at the moment because it is easy to be one…although I still have my Samsung Galaxy Tablet to keep me grounded!

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.

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.