Almost three months into 2021 and despite lockdown still looming over us here in the UK, there finally seems to be a real end in sight this time following the government’s welcoming roadmap out of lockdown (Beer gardens to open in April? Yes please!).
Before we dive into the main tech headlines for March, it wouldn’t be right to talk about the UK news agenda without acknowledging the recent and tragic death of Sarah Everard in London and how it has highlighted issues of women’s safety in society. Many women, including myself, have reflected on experiences where we’ve felt unsafe or harassed while doing mundane, everyday activities and how these issues are often brushed under the carpet. This isn’t the first time violence against women and women’s safety has been highlighted in the media and online and it certainly won’t be the last either but it’s clear that change needs to happen – the government recently reopened its call for evidence to further develop its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy and the activist group, Reclaim These Streets, has already done a tremendous job of raising money for women’s charities, so there is plenty of movement on the topic, but we have a long way to go yet.
Back to the world of tech now, and both Facebook and Google have found themselves in hot water once again, this time with Australia and the news ban saga. In short, Australia passed a new, world-first law which would make Facebook and Google pay for news content on their platforms. The big tech platforms bit back with threats to block all news content to Australians before eventually agreeing deals with the like of News Corp to pay for content. It’s been an interesting story to follow from a comms perspective because while journalism remains a core communication pillar for people to gain knowledge and news from across the world, with Google and Facebook being the main drivers of this communication in some instances, it’s important for news publications to be protected but also have fair opportunity to thrive in the digital world.
Elsewhere, Bitcoin has made its way back onto our newsfeeds again following yet another surge in market cap, which saw it reach above $1 trillion in mid-March. The rise has seen calls for further regulation from the financial industry as it continues to break records, most notably from deVere CEO, Nigel Green, who said a regulatory framework for Bitcoin is needed for investor protection. Regulation or not, Bitcoin doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon!
Onto the automotive industry and some major green pushes from Volvo and Volkswagen, which both announced plans to sell more electric cars. Volvo announced plans to sell only electric cars by 2030, while Volkswagen says it will sell 1m electric or hybrid cars this year, a huge target that further shows the acceleration of sustainability initiatives among brands. No doubt once we’ve weathered the pandemic, sustainability and climate change will (and should) be our next global challenge to overcome and further develop. We’ve already seen a huge number of brands focus comms campaigns on sustainability as it becomes a key pillar in reputation building and shaping, and it’ll be interesting to see what other tech brands have in store this year to tackle the climate crisis.
Finally, Amazon opened its first checkout-free supermarket in the UK this month in West London, paving the way for a new kind of retail experience. Thanks camera and sensors, or as its aptly named, “Just Walk Out” technology, shoppers are able to simply pick up the items they want and walk out without the need to pay at a check out. Already launched in the US, the Amazon Go stores sure have that novelty factor that will no doubt entice customers to try it out but with the state of high streets in the UK at the moment and shopping habits shifting, it’ll be interesting to see how this technology plays out and whether it will help or hinder brick and mortar retail.
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Oh, February – the month of love letters and pancakes. It’s also been the month of smartwatches checking our heartbeats and companies flipping out about acquisitions. See what I did there?
Here’s a round-up of the tech stories that are hotting up right now and worth keeping an eye on.
Hands up if you’ve started a new form of exercise this past year? Maybe you are new to running or maybe you’re taking it to the next level? You’re not alone and the tech companies know it. Garmin has just launched a smartwatch, specifically for trail and ultra-marathon runners. Apparently, our trail running activities are up 70% during the pandemic! Meanwhile, Facebook is rumoured to be creating its own smartwatch for 2022. According to the Independent, Facebook will be integrating with apps from health and fitness companies including Peloton.
Facebook was also making the headlines earlier in February for the ongoing fight against problematic social media content. Facebook decided to reveal the full scale of its problematic content – with a view on being more transparent about how this is all tackled. The company also announced that it would scale back political content in its News Feed for the next few months, whilst Instagram will ban accounts which send racist abuse to others via direct messages. Sadly, this abuse is rife – with many footballers speaking out. More on this via The Metro.
Whilst there’s a fight on bad content, many tech firms are fighting each other. Google and Microsoft have voiced their objection of Nvidia’s takeover of British chipmaker, Arm. The deal currently faces an in-depth investigation from the US watchdog – read the full story in CityAM. The European competition watchdog is being roped in over Epic Games’ dispute with Apple. The maker of Fortnite claims that Apple is abusing its monopoly in the market. Lastly, the UK competition watchdog has raised concerns over Adevinta’s acquisition of Gumtree, warning that consumers will face higher prices and less choice.
As some tech firms fight, others collaborate. Apple is reported to have approached Nissan to work on an autonomous car project. Meanwhile, Volkswagen CEO has been covered by Reuters saying that he’s not concerned with Apple’s electric car plans, “The car industry is not a typical tech-sector that you could take over at a single stroke.”
But accelerating too fast on electric cars could come with problems. The Daily Telegraph reports that UK public charging points aren’t growing quickly enough to meet demand, putting pressure on the Government.
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“Hello, can you hear me?”
“You’re on mute”
“Can everyone see my screen?”
Yep, you got it, it’s video conference call bingo! And it’s not only work video conference calls we’re on, you may also have family catchups or quizzes with friends. Zoom has been a go-to platform for many despite the security and privacy concerns, but the big tech firms have finally arrived with their products to take on Zoom.
Google has just launched Google Meet; it’s free and currently has no time limit, you just need a Google account to access. The Metro gives it the once over and walks you through the set-up. Meanwhile, Facebook is launching Messenger Rooms where you can chat in groups of up to 50. Here’s the story on BBC News, where Facebook also talks about preventing ‘zoombombing’.
And that’s not all Facebook has been up to. It’s also acquired Giphy – a popular site for making and sharing animated images – which it plans to integrate with Instagram. Read more about it on Reuters.
Another social site in the headlines this month is Twitter after CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all employees could work from home forever. He made a statement in The Guardian that he may have been one of the first to start companywide working from home, but he does not anticipate being one of the first to go back to the office.
While we adjust to socialising-from-home more, entertainment tech firms have our back. Spotify plans to roll out its ‘Group Sessions’ feature which mean people can queue tracks from their individual phones. The Independent has the full story. Meanwhile, the BBC is following in Netflix’s footsteps by adding co-watching functionality. CityAM has a write up of the new service, currently on trial via Taster, the online platform the BBC uses to test new technologies.
Well, well, well, can the internet handle all these video calls, working from home and co-entertainment? Ofcom says yes! In a new report, the regulator found that home broadband speed rose by 18% last year. Read more on BBC News.
Innovation. The introduction of something new and a word we hear about all the time in the creative industry. It can be crucial to the initial and continuing success of a business, but also crippling if you don’t commit to it and give consumers exactly what they want.
Customer service is often considered to be the key to a brand’s reputation, but part of keeping the customer happy and loyal, is to bring something new and exciting to keep them engaged. And that’s where individuality and innovation come in, because people will get bored easily. Remember how popular HQ Trivia was only a few months back? Now, the novelty of potentially winning £500 at 3pm and 9pm everyday has worn off, so people simply aren’t bothered by it anymore. Consumers are more intrigued by the concept of HQ Trivia, rather than the brand itself and frankly, the game became more of a trend than a sustainable brand.
A recent study revealed that UK CMOs are almost half as likely to see innovation as the primary role of the marketing function as their US counterparts – only 25% of UK marketers identify “leading disruptive innovation” as a core functional priority. Surprising, since you only need to Google “innovation” to see all the articles that express the importance of innovation in business. So, why are marketers so resistant to prioritise it?
Engaging with the right crowd
Understanding exactly what consumers want when it comes to new innovations can be tough, especially when there are so many other brands competing for the same crowds, and it can seem difficult to get noticed by anyone. In recent years, brands have attempted to create new marketing techniques, particularly on social media, to try and break through the noise. But some of these actually have a very minimal effect on the relationship between the brand and consumer.
Awareness day campaigns are obvious examples of this. “National Avocado Day”, “International Sloth Day” or “Bring a Potato to Work Day” are just a few of the many examples of this kind of activity that are constantly popping up and trending on social media. And brands are quick to seize the opportunity to create extravagant campaigns, even if the topic has no correlation with their brand. But because it’s trending and popular, they want to be in on it. Whilst some brands are capable of pulling something off – like Aperol giving out free Aperol spritz on National Prosecco Day (yes please!) – for others, the buzz and engagement only really lasts for the day, so is it really worth it?
Similarly, brands who jump on the clickbait-, relatable-type Facebook posts, like the “Tag your friend so that they have to look at this pickle” or “Share if you think XYZ” posts, among others, will only ever get lots of likes, shares and comments on that post and that tends to be where the engagement with the user stops. Consumers are only liking, sharing and commenting because they can relate to the content, not because they want to engage with the brand. Converting leads is said to be a top priority for 70% of marketers, but jumping on social media trends won’t always deliver the best ROI.
Perceptions of innovation
Churning out new products or coming up with big, extravagant marketing campaigns is what most people expect when they think of innovation, and what brands think will gain them more customers. But innovation doesn’t have to be as big as that. In fact, small, more focused approaches to innovation can be more beneficial to the brand. Micro influencers, for example, are more focused than a huge, celebrity influencer because they have followers who are genuinely interested in the content that they post.
Likewise, engaging with consumers in a way that’s meaningful will be much more valuable for your brand in the long-term. Challenger bank, Monzo, has a community forum where its users can chat to each other about Monzo products and interact with a team of Monzo employees to discuss new ideas. It allows Monzo to properly listen to what their customers are thinking, and the customers really feel like they are part of the Monzo brand.
Jumping on the bandwagon of novelty marketing trends is easily done, especially when you see every other brand taking part. But it’s important to stay in-line with business values, making sure the customer is front of mind and asking yourself “will this really benefit my business and gain me loyal customers?”
Every brand has something unique and interesting which makes them who they are – otherwise they wouldn’t be a brand. Finding what makes a brand unique and exploiting that, instead of jumping onto current, popular trends, will be much more valuable in the long run – just because everyone might be talking about one thing one day, doesn’t mean they’ll be talking about it the next.
Facebook (and many of the social networks) have already been putting greater transparency measures in place in the recent waves of scrutiny and interest. For example, Facebook discussed openly how it deals with abuse and radicalisation, and Canada allowed consumers to see what ads a company is running at any one time.
Facebook’s latest move to be supportive is to help with the forthcoming GDPR regulations. Compared to many overly legalistic guidelines, Facebook’s information does a good job of explaining what businesses using Facebook need to know. For example – and I’m paraphrasing – it essentially says things like “when we do custom audience matching, we’re the data processor, when you decide the purpose of processing data, you’re the data controller”
Now back in January, Facebook approached this from the user perspective, giving consumers the ability to control how they were advertised to and it’ll be interesting to see how this evolves and how the ICO views this. At the moment, the privacy page is very granular, but it’s not the easiest page to reach or customise. I imagine that come May, Facebook will present a pop-up that users cannot click away from, forcing them to review their ad and privacy choices.
Otherwise, they’ll be marketing on the basis of legitimate interest rather than unambiguous consent – and whilst this is still legal, it’s on slightly shakier ground. After all, ‘legitimate interest’ could justifiably be argued based on a link to demographic groups (e.g. you’re 18-21 and list ‘music’ as an interest, so Facebook will serve you music-based ads) but it does rather put the onus for consent back on the advertiser. Since advertisers aren’t in control of the platform, and doing ‘per ad consent’ would be a nightmare, this isn’t a great solution.
In the meantime, if you’re one of the advertisers that contributes to Facebook’s $36bn ad revenue, use this page and know where you stand!
You may have started to hear about a new social network called Vero. The self-described ‘relationship-first social network’ had a surge in popularity recently after saying its first one million users wouldn’t have to pay for a subscription in future, causing mass sign ups, a lot of press headlines about how this may be ‘the next Instagram’, and ultimately creating major service interruptions for the app due to the influx of users.
But why all the fuss? Do we really need another social network? Probably not, to be honest, but Vero’s supposed USP over other networks is a non-algorithm-based feed and a paid subscription model (eventually), meaning it won’t rely on ad revenue and serving users content they don’t necessarily care about. In its own descriptors, it aims to align physical world relationships to the online experience, providing a seamless way to share content with your network. You can read its full manifesto here.
That’s a nice proposition if they can make it work, but whether this will be enough to surge it to mainstream adoption and popularity remains to be seen. For now, here’s my first impressions to help you can decide if this is the network for you.
No advertising and a chronological news feed
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Not just visuals
Vero allows users to post photos, links, and recommendations for music, films, TV shows, books and places, and the news feed actually looks a bit more like Twitter than Instagram or Facebook to me. There’s no option for a free-text post, which suggests you might get less Facebook-esque rants from friends and more ‘meaningful’ content. This could be great for businesses, as it will help the spread of more natural word-of-mouth recommendations but is less good if you happen to follow anyone who starts sharing ‘Fake News’ links. Perhaps it’s just my PR cynicism, but I also think this kind of sharing just encourages more Instagram-influencer style posts that are clearly advertising rather than genuine expression, and if there’s too much of that, I suspect people will tune out.
Prioritise your connections
In line with it’s chronological news feed, Vero helps you prioritise your connections. You can choose to ‘follow’ or ‘connect’ with people, and when you connect with them you can specify if they’re a ‘close friend’, ‘friend’, or ‘acquaintance’. The default setting for a new connection is ‘acquaintance’ and only you can see how you’ve classified connections, which is handy. When you share content, you can also choose who will see it – be it close friends, acquaintances, everyone etc.
Poor identity verification
Vero does use verified ticks for high profile users, but it doesn’t have usernames. It strongly encourages people to use their real name when creating their profile (a la Facebook) and does ask for your phone number and email upon sign up to help verify you, try and prevent false identities, and help you find connections. However, it’s a bit simple and there’s no reason why someone couldn’t make a fake profile – and it seems there’s already plenty on there (here’s looking at you ‘Taylor Swift’), as with other social networks.
Confusing interface and functionality
This is the most annoying thing about Vero for me. It’s a bit hard to use, I don’t like the colour schemes, and it’s just not as intuitive as other social networks (yet). In many ways it is like a re-skinned Instagram, but the explore page (pictured below) makes it hard to find the kind of people I’d want to follow (or perhaps they aren’t on it yet) and I’m finding myself darting between different parts of it trying to work out where to go. The collections section could be useful for curating content once you’re following the right people, but right now the whole thing is a bit of a turn off. I also read that pictures sent to you in private conversations will appear in your news feed (albeit only visible to you), which has a bit too much disaster potential for my liking!
You’ll have to pay for it
Vero users will eventually have to pay a yet to be specified ‘small annual fee’ to join, and Vero will also take a cut from businesses that sell via its ‘buy now’ feature. While constant advertising on other social networks is frustrating, Vero will surely have to knock other networks off their pedestals in order to make its paid subscription model work. Why would I pay to speak to my best friend when I can WhatsApp her? Why would I pay to see content from my favourite musician when I can follow them on Instagram and hear their music on Spotify?
I suspect that Vero may argue that through its app you can do that all in one place, but multiple platforms for this don’t bother me enough right now to be switching entirely.
My Vero verdict
Vero definitely has some positive aspects, but I’m just not sure we need it. I already see the same content from friends on Instagram and Facebook in particular, so I don’t need to like the photo a third time on Vero, surely?
I can see the opportunity for aspiring businesses and influencers – particularly creative artists, musicians, and retail sellers to have another means of selling to consumers, but when Vero doesn’t want to be filled with advertising, this opportunity is unlikely to pay off unless consumers are willing to see all that brand-filled content.
All that said, I’m not going to knock it until I’ve tried it more, and it’s worth a go while it’s free anyway – even if you delete it soon after!
Facebook Live has been brilliant for communicating with audiences globally, but recently people have been using Facebook Live as audio only, whilst having a still image to accompany their broadcast. Facebook has spotted this trend and has sought to develop a new platform for brands to reach their audience, Facebook Live Audio. The premise is the same as Facebook Live, one click, and you’re live on the internet.
Facebook hopes that brands will use Facebook Live Audio for book readings, interviews and of course talk radio, bringing low-bandwidth, real-time audio broadcast content to news feeds and Facebook pages.
Another thing Facebook hopes to see on this service is podcasts – with the idea being that podcasters use Facebook Live Audio as a new distribution platform for their episodes. This would be attractive for many, being a free streaming format and having huge audience potential.
For businesses, podcasting is a great way to show that you know what you’re talking about and help to win business, so whilst it has a consumer focus, the potential of Facebook Live Audio as a platform for the corporate world is high. The power of the human voice lets you get your personality and expertise across and assure listeners that you’re someone they can trust and do business with. By developing discussions and Facebook Live sessions about industry topics and then promoting these events via social media and emails, you can draw in an audience to listen to your spokespeople using a highly accessible social media platform.
Facebook Live Audio is something that you should definitely keep on your radar should you have plans for boosting your thought leadership PR programme this year, providing an alternative way of reaching out to your target audience.
Firefly had some very interesting ‘community’ experiences recently which got us thinking. As brands struggle to win the attention of their friends, fans and followers, they need to be more inventive to draw people towards them, go and find them individually or reel them in voluntarily. A PR agency is no different: we have our business development needs as well.
Our own community experiences were a couple of sad occasions which brought our alumni together for all the wrong reasons, and more recently the occasion of our 25th anniversary gave us the opportunity to track down, connect with and build an extended Firefly family. We organised a campaign to reconnect with many alumni, all wonderfully talented people, many of whom have gone on to enjoy glittering PR careers and are now PR industry luminaries. As part of this, we held a private event for people who have worked with or for us over the years. For a company that is 25 years old, finding ex-clients, colleagues and other alumni that pre-date social networking is more challenging than you might expect!
We have lists of clients and prospects, as would any business, and our own LinkedIn networks served up a good number of ex client contacts and ex Firefly alumni. Facebook caught alight quickly at the mention of the party and we soon began building numbers of attendees in the hundreds. These were all from our dispersed community, but people who had a connection, an affinity, perhaps even affection for our brand. Bringing so many people together for the evening was wonderful, watching friends and colleagues recognise each other and exchange stories and contact details, meanwhile asking about Firefly’s fortunes and future. The Firefly community is strong and vibrant and in time I am sure we will all meet up again. Meanwhile the posts, updates and comments flow and interestingly it’s the two minute photo album and two minute video that have reached four times as many people than who attended the party – so, virtually, the party lives on (even though the bar bill is thankfully closed)!
In developing this campaign and bringing together our community we learnt a number of lessons. Here are some of them:
It’s personal – your company doesn’t own you: Everyone has their own personal business network and that in itself is a community – this is best served through LinkedIn. My LinkedIn network has been a huge source of strength and opportunity over the tricky recessionary years. People like to do business with people they know – and trust. Firefly has spent a fortune on CRM systems in years gone by, and there is still a need to capture that data, but everyone’s LinkedIn connections are your personal resource. They should be nurtured and travel with you to your next job – those contacts and relationships are yours (restricted covenants notwithstanding).
Don’t under-estimate Facebook: Many marketeers will tell you that Facebook is not a business-to-business social networking tool, but that’s not been my personal experience. While some people shy away from connecting with colleagues and clients on Facebook, this is often relaxed when the business relationship ends or someone leaves. Assuming you get on personally as well as professionally, this is a great time to connect and stay in touch. You never know when the wheels go full circle and they might become a professional contact again, either directly or to make a recommendation.
We saw the effect of these personal connections with our 25th anniversary celebrations and one of the places where we saw most engagement and content views was through our company Facebook page.
I’m in a graveyard community, ‘get me out of here’: We are lucky that our recent 25th anniversary campaign worked well for us and we worked hard at making it a success for everyone. But sometimes communities can spiral off into dangerous negative areas, in which case you need to communicate even more and take heed of what is being said. Just ask British Gas!
It’s a sad moment when the unifying bond is a shared dislike or dissatisfaction for a brand or business but at least there is passion there, and you need to turn it around.
Worse still is when your community doesn’t connect at all. Without common ground such as a passion for something or a shared experience, communities quickly become virtual ghost towns with tumbleweed blowing through the months and weeks of no engagement. These deserted communities do more harm than good. No-one wants to be the only person at the party. If this happens, you need to reignite that community, find a different location or vaporise that community fast (metaphorically speaking of course).
Claire Walker is founder and CEO of Firefly Communications. Get in touch with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.
On Tuesday evening Facebook launched Graph Search which is essentially an overhaul of its search service. Most commentators agree that Search has been an Achilles Heel for Facebook, so this is a welcome announcement. People will now be able to search through information and photos that their friends have posted as well as find places friends have recommended.
With a company page on Facebook being a key element in a lot of brands’ digital strategy, we caught up with Firefly partner, Ben Gibson at The Search Agency UK to find out what Facebook’s latest announcement means for companies.
Following this announcement, Ben highlights the importance of three elements in order to ensure a brand gets the best out of Facebook – Implementation of SEO practices on Facebook, local search optimisation and quality (not quantity) of Likes.
To ensure Facebook pages are optimised for SEO and easily searchable on the site, Ben says that “A basic SEO framework, including vanity URLs and business information, needs to be applied. We expect that brands will have to further develop their search strategy that optimises their placement within the Facebook ecosystem. Edgerank has long been important, and will be more so now that there is a new way to access information and objects. However, there is a challenge when it comes to assessing impact of search strategies; the data on search volumes, ranking etc will remain with Facebook. A proxy for this may be greater analysis of Bing ranking data. ”
“For local businesses or regional branches of larger organisations, ensuring the correct information is prominent on the page means that there is the opportunity to nurture a good local Facebook community to gain greater prominence within Facebook results.”
Achieving a good ranking in Facebook Graph search results will also be dependent on Likes. Once upon a time, the number of Likes was a way of measuring success on Facebook, to the point of people buying fake Likes (something Facebook has been cracking down on). Now the emphasis has shifted to quality Likes – i.e. the recognition from individuals with large networks who are deemed more influential.
“There has been much discussion over the last few years regarding the value of a Facebook Like but Graph Search will make it even more important for brands to generate quality Likes so their pages can be found. Buying Likes is highly unlikely to be a shortcut for success!” he said.
“Because Facebook will allow users to search by people, places, photos, interests, it means there’ll be a focus on quality content that ticks all these boxes. For example, if your business has a physical presence, you’ll want to think about location indicators.”
A high ranking in Facebook will be something earned by companies. Facebook’s Graph Search is currently in beta test so it is early days yet, but one thing’s for sure, social search is evolving. Google + is the other contender is this space and brands need to prepare as these two tech giants make changes and do battle. According to Charles Arthur at the Guardian, Facebook and Google are like two icebergs on a collision course. We’re braced for impact.
There is no such thing as a fully online or offline world anymore. We’ve been used to broadcasting our offline life on our online platforms – classic examples including tweeting about public transport frustrations or adding a picture on Facebook of the amazing meal you’re having (I did say ‘classic’ examples, not necessarily the best). Now, clever ways of using technology is fast closing that gap, meaning our online life is increasingly appearing offline. Some of you might be saying ‘what is she on about?’, so, here are some examples:
Trend Watching recently wrote about how C&A in Brazil has included the number of Facebook ‘likes’ onto the clothes hangers. The brand’s Facebook store has its hangers update in real-time showing shoppers the popularity of the items on sale.
Third example, which was happening last week in fact, is Kellogg’s Tweet Shop. To promote its Special K Cracker Crisps, Kellogg’s opened a pop-up shop inviting customers to pay for the snacks with a tweet.
For these initiatives to work, of course, you need that great idea but, importantly, you need a thriving online presence to support whatever you’re doing offline. Had C&A not had a passionate online community, Real World Liking would not have been born!
For years now, we have been running PR programmes based on increasing and managing a brand’s online presence. For our client Give as you Live we have run several ‘Twitter parties’ to broaden out its Twitter following. Our newest recruit, Phil Szomszor, was telling me that PR’s are getting into the content creation and seeding game, citing the example of one of his agency’s former clients Virgin Money’s bank launch, where a high budget 3D building projection celebrating its new bank status was promoted by engaging with bloggers, filmed and seeded to achieve over 450,000 views.
Especially now the online world is going offline, digital campaigns should been deemed as important as the more ‘traditional’ PR campaign. As we say at Firefly, ‘we offer the perfect blend of online and offline PR’ – I say, get ready for some onffline PR.