What’s trending this Spring?

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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It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on at the moment and it may be hard to keep up with the news – especially if you’re also trying to scour online for last-minute Christmas presents. So, in case you’re busy concentrating on getting that perfect gift or what size turkey you’ll need for your Christmas bubble, we’ve rounded up the biggest news in tech to be keeping an eye on.

With Covid vaccinations now underway, there could be some more good news on the horizon for the UK tech scene. British mobile networks are hoping to take up a leading role in emerging radio technology, OpenRan, which could be worth up to $21bn. The Daily Telegraph has the full story.

The end of the year is also set to mark a bumper month for tech IPOs. As a household name now, everyone has been watching Airbnb closely as it continued to raise the price of its shares ahead of its IPO on 10th December, making it one of the largest US IPOs of the year. Head to the Guardian to read more. The Guardian also covered food delivery company DoorDash’s huge IPO.

We’re also one step closer to landing on Mars, with SpaceX undertaking its first suborbital flight test, continuing plans to take that giant leap onto Mars in four years. Want to find out more and where to watch the live stream? Head to the Independent.

However, it’s not all good news for everyone. The future may not be looking so rosy for the big players of Silicon Valley, as the UK Competition and Markets Authority is asking for more powers to crack down on tech giants. You can find out more about what the CMA is proposing and what new regulations could look like on the Daily Telegraph.

Tech giants are also facing additional challenges. Google is currently coming under fire and receiving employee backlash after sacking leading AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru. To read the whole story of what happened and the response from other Google employees, head to BBC News.  Uber has also announced that it’s putting the brakes on plans to create its own self-driving car, putting a stop to the ambitious initiative by transferring its autonomous vehicle tech to rival Aurora, according to the Financial Times.

UK fintech and challenger banks, such as Monzo and Revolut, may also be in for a rough ride in 2021, as a new Accenture report has found that UK consumers are uncertain about their ability to survive long-term. CityAM covers the full report and analysis.

Following huge disparity revealed across different parts of the UK, leading industry body, TechUK, is also calling for the UK government to address the “Local Digital Capital gap” in the coming year. CityAM has more on this and the call to digitally level up.

Hopefully you’re a little more clued up now on what to watch out for in the world of tech as we move into a new year. But if you’re still struggling to find that perfect gift – or aren’t sure what to gift yourself from Santa – as a little Christmas gift from us, here are some of the best tech gifts and gadget round ups from GQ, Metro, The Sun, Glamour and the Guardian. Some of these are certainly on our Christmas wish lists.

“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.

Capturing a moment is done in so many ways these days – through an Insta story, a quick snap on an SLR, even by using a retro polaroid camera. But have you done it through an instant doodle camera?

Noticing we were missing having instant doodles in our lives, a clever man named Dan Macnish decided to build an AI-powered camera that creates a cartoon-like drawing, rather than a photograph. Dan used Google’s Quick, Draw! Project from 2016 to create a dataset of doodles, then the camera, which is powered by Raspberry Pi and uses object recognition software, produces the picture.

So, it does mean that you only get a doodle from the Google library of 345 drawings, but you could also get a curious interpretation of what you’re looking at. Dan writes in his blog, “The result is always a surprise. A food selfie of a healthy salad might turn into an enormous hotdog, or a photo with friends might be photobombed by a goat.”

This is just Dan’s DIY project for now, so who knows if he’ll make cameras to sell. I would definitely want one out of sheer curiosity!

The evidence is right there. Virtual assistants are here to stay.

The last time you spoke to Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google, it may have felt a little strange, but tech companies are pouring money into developing voice technology and placing their bets on the major impact it’ll have on our daily lives. Innovation in virtual assistants is all about making them as human as possible – Amazon’s Alexa recently announced how it rewards children who say ‘please’, whilst Match launched chatbot Lorna on Google Home, making ‘Lorna’ a source for dating advice, as well as your friends and family. It may seem a little surreal today, but the more intuitive and easy-to-use the technology becomes, the more likely we are to fully embrace it.

As voice technology develops, marketers must prepare themselves and start to think about how to optimise PR and marketing content for voice search. Wondering why exactly?

Much like search marketing changed the value of PR, so will voice. As a reader of Firefly blogs, you’ll know that for some time now we have put a large emphasis on optimising PR for search, given the changes in search algorithms from both Google and Bing. Essentially, PR brings SEO value when you target the right media sites with the right content, and get that sought-after link to your website. It’s not just about awareness and share of voice, improving SEO is a legitimate PR measure too.

Of course, voice search is a completely different beast. For starters, the way you type something into search engines and the way you speak to a virtual assistant are completely different. We’ve adapted to speak to Google in a way that we get the information we want as quickly as possible – ‘burritos Farringdon’, for example, if you’re on the hunt for some Mexican for lunch. Whereas virtual assistants we expect more, and we don’t naturally speak like that, we’re more likely to say, ‘where can I get a burrito near here?’

Then there is the number of devices and voice technology applications – it’s not just a case of monitoring search engines’ changes in algorithms. Here is an extract from our latest whitepaper on PR in the age of voice search which highlights this complexity:

 When Alexa is asked who the CEO of Facebook is, she gets the answer correct – Mark Zuckerberg, of course. When she is asked where she got that information from, she says that ‘that’s tough to explain’.

 Different devices use different applications to source information. With Siri for instance, the same Facebook CEO question pulls up the answer on ‘Knowledge’, through Cortana the answer is pulled up on Bing and with Google Home, unsurprisingly it comes through Google search.

 A location-based question like ‘where is the nearest Italian restaurant?’ will use a maps application to give you various options.

 The market is also in a state of growth and development, and it is not clear yet which virtual assistant will maintain dominance. In 2017, Amazon and Microsoft announced a partnership in order to strengthen Cortana and Alexa by combining both virtual assistants. Essentially, within Alexa you’ll be able to open Cortana and vice versa. The idea is that people can use the functionality in both assistants like sending an email in Cortana or using an Alexa skill to order a pizza.

With some of the virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana, your search marketing efforts will already put you in a strong position. Asking a question such as ‘Who are the top entrepreneurs in the UK?’, Siri and Cortana will refer you to the top web results. However, with devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home being ‘screenless’, there is added pressure to be THE answer that is read out. And you thought being on page one of Google was tough!

Though the market is still in a state of flux, key players are emerging and there are ways you can prepare today – all included in our whitepaper, of course.

As search marketing evolves, the most important thing is to be ‘found’ by people genuinely looking for you. There are so many ‘secret’ quick wins with voice search, much like online search, but you have to build and maintain your profile so that when the opportunity arises, you reach your customers.

Want to know more? Download our whitepaper on PR in the age of voice search here.

Building chatbots is all the rage, but if you don’t have the time to learn code, there’s now a bot that will develop your bot for you! Check out BotBot if this takes your fancy: Simply select your template from answer bot, food bot, fitness bot, delivery tracking bot or shopping bot, and the bot will integrate with other common services, such as fitness class booking systems or food delivery services and automate the process.

At the moment, there are only five templates, but we’re certain that more will be added before too long. And of course, it can’t be long before there’s another service that creates bot-creating services like this on demand so that you can offer even more complex and recursive services…

Are you artistically inept? Can you barely draw a stick person? Well look no further, we have found the perfect platform for you – Autodraw.

Google’s Autodraw allows even the most artistically challenged to turn their drawings into beautiful pieces of art.

The drawing tool allows you to scribble some shapes on a blank canvas and, through machine learning, it will guess what you’re trying to draw by replacing your original drawing with a significantly better one. The platform uses drawings from talented artists to help you create anything you fancy and it provides some ‘best guesses’, allowing you to pick your favourite templated picture and pass it off as your own.

It works on desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets and it’s completely free.

So, go and draw some weird lines and shaky shapes and see how Autodraw can turn your basic drawings into a masterpiece.

pandaAll brands want to score highly in search rankings and Google’s latest move changes the goalposts again –but in our view, this time it’s for the better. According to the latest update to Google’s search algorithm Panda, web pages will now be judged by content quality, as well as links, mobile-friendliness and a host of other metrics.

And why is this important for us PR folk? Well, not only will most PR agencies have written web copy, blogs and white papers at some point, but press coverage itself can also (sometimes) contain links back to a website which can drive your brand further up the search rankings. Furthermore, publishers themselves will almost certainly start to scrutinise which articles contributed by brands and PR agencies are performing best and this in turn will have an impact on which articles and news are accepted in future.

This is no pie-in-the-sky: for a while, Forbes paid its freelancers a lump sum for stories, but then a certain amount per hit on the story, encouraging the creation of stories with a long lifespan. Perversely, this frequently encouraged clickbait-style headlines to drive traffic and keep the money flowing to the freelancers.

The good news is that old content isn’t necessarily going to rank lower – which shows PR folk that Google’s search is getting far closer to a ‘human’ way of thinking. It’s analogous to how we think about classic books – the fact that Pride and Prejudice is over 200 years old doesn’t detract from its biting social commentary, pacey plotting and tight characterisation.

But in Google’s mind, what is quality? And what constitutes ‘old’? Well, whilst Google’s AI might be able to beat a European board game champion, it’s not Skynet yet. At the moment, the ranking is determined by ‘satisfying user queries’. So if a page is getting a lot of traffic for goldfish feeding techniques, you’d better make sure you’re providing information on exactly this because higher bounce rates will mean low relevance and consequently, a low score. As for what ‘old’ means, there’s no hard and fast answer. Content over a year old will certainly be judged more harshly than week-old content, but we’ve seen posts from Google execs admitting that age is generally less important than quality.

There are a few other interesting developments from the Panda update, both along the same vein. For example, comments and user-generated content on-site will now also be judged by the same criteria. Whilst comments give a benchmark of content quality – like a book review, reverting to my Pride and Prejudice metaphor – spammy comments will also detract from page quality, so keep moderating or using CAPTCHA codes.

So without further ado, here are some of our recommendations for dealing with Google’s Panda:

Know what you stand for:

Having a pragmatic understanding of what you sell, stand for and why people buy from you or visit your website is an absolute must to informing your content strategy

Make sure everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’:

If your website talks in a different way to your Twitter feed, and that’s different to how your chief exec speaks in public, then you’ve got problems. Consistency helps Google – and by extension, you

No clickbait:

It’s rarely relevant, people are getting sick of it and now, tenuously linking your brand to Cara Delevingne or Khloe Kardashian will get you penalised in the long-run

Focus on unique, quality content:

This will help your general online influence; developing content which appeals to your audience, can’t be found anywhere else and has lasting power may be more intensive, but it’ll pay dividends in the long run

Don’t worry about age … but keep it fresh:

Fresh content will always score more highly in Google, so you can’t just create a raft of content, post it and expect high search rankings. Old, good quality posts are your allies, but you will constantly need to create new content to stay high up in search rankings

Overall, Google’s Panda update is great news for communications practitioners – and terrifying news for others. Poor-quality, ‘spammy’ content which shuffles around your website like a sci-fi zombie frequently gives the industry a bad name. But unlike Pride and Prejudice, adding zombies is never a good thing – and with Google’s update, perhaps we’ll start to see this ‘undead’ content gradually put to rest.

We have all heard people saying that PR has been “turned upside down” by social media or that traditional PR is dead. But, is it?

Since the very beginning, the aim of Public Relations has been to manage reputation of an individual or an organisation. Has the goal changed? No, it is still very much the same.

That said, one thing has indeed changed: the tools. It is just like how PR has evolved with new technologies; when the telephone became widely spread, when the fax arrived in every office or when computers and email quickened the exchange of information (do you remember the time when PRs would hand write envelopes to send press releases?). This is why, today, any PR professional has to integrate social media into its portfolio of tools – just like they did for all the previous technologies – and decide whether or not it is the right communication channel for their tactics.

Yes, social media has transformed reputation management. The influence hubs have shifted away from traditional media and the information lifecycle is shorter than ever. Take, for example, the speed at which Google’s leaked financial results were commented on this week. This is now a real-time process and this is where PR consultants can have their say, especially as the core of their skills is handling the media.

So, what does that mean for agencies today? Tune in, turn on or drop out! Accept that technology changes, but keep on doing the same job – managing the perception consumers have of their clients, as we have done for almost two centuries.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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