[Note: A slightly reworked version of this post now appears on LinkedIn]

A new research report by a Forrester analyst, suggesting that brands are wasting their money on Facebook and Twitter, has generated lots of interest this week. The report itself is behind a pay wall, but has been covered on the Wall Street Journal CMO blog.

“You don’t really have a social relationship with your customers,” analyst Nate Elliott wrote in a new report titled “Social relationship Strategies That Work.”

According to Mr. Elliott, top brands’ Facebook and Twitter posts only reach around 2% of their fans and followers, and less than 0.1% of fans and followers actually interact with each post on average. What’s more, Facebook announced last week that another tweak to its news feed algorithm will soon make it even less likely brands’ unpaid posts will actually be seen by users.

As a result, marketers hoping to interact with consumers online  might be better off investing in social features that exist on their own websites, or in smaller, more niche social networks, Mr. Elliott said.

I couldn’t agree more with the view that many brands are indeed throwing their money at social media programmes that don’t generate measurable progress towards strategic outcomes, but it’s the lack of strategy, rather than the platforms themselves, that’s primarily to blame for this. It doesn’t matter if .01%, 2% or 80% of a brand’s fans and followers see a post if having done so doesn’t boost awareness, improve perception, give the consideration process a nudge, drive a lead, generate a purpose, or tighten the embrace of an advocate.

The shift that Elliott speaks of, from the larger social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter towards more niche platforms and functionality provided by a brand’s owned web properties isn’t just about seeking refuge from news feed algorithms. It’s about ownership and control over users and their data and also enhances the ability of brands to establish and nurture smaller, better, more focused communities connected to business outcomes.

A collection of fans and followers on a branded Facebook page is not a community because there is little shared sense of belonging or intention of those fans and followers to work together with the brand towards a common goal. This can only happen within a smaller community where stakeholders can be brought closer together, and closer to a brand, through the creation of meaningful participatory frameworks.

It’s not the fault of changing algorithms that brands find it difficult or impossible to build genuinely meaningful “social relationships” with customers. The approach of most large brands on social media has been to apply a broadcast model on a medium that demands something more direct, personal and engaging. If the strategy is broadcast, then changes to news feed algorithms will diminish the potential for brands to succeed in social, but if the strategy is to engage in ways that are meaningful for customers, and generate outcomes important for the business, the algorithms are much less likely to impact whether brands succeed or fail.

03 Nov 2014

10 ways to be a great agency client

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Below are some top tips on how to have a successful relationship with your agency…

1. Involve stakeholders early on

I’ve been involved in situations where clients share too little too late with their own internal stakeholders. The reality is, organisational silos inhibit success, so keeping things to yourself is unlikely, in the medium to long-term, help anyone achieve what they set out to.

 
2. Disclose budgets

In the real world, whenever we want to purchase a product or service, we outline the budget we have in mind – otherwise, how would the car dealership know what you mean when you say you want a “great car” or an estate agent know what you’re looking for if the only parameter is that your seeking “the perfect home”? Disclosing your budget, even as a range, helps your agency develop a proposal aligned with your expectations.

 
3. Treat your agency as an extension of your team

If you don’t trust your agency, you probably shouldn’t have hired them. Every piece of great client work I’ve ever been involved in has shared the same characteristic – namely, the client treated us as an extension of their own team that brought capabilities and capacity that wasn’t present inhouse.

 
4. Establish clear boundaries of responsibility

There’s few things worse than balls getting dropped simply because no one knew they were responsible for picking things up. Make it clear in your Statement of Work, and any plans developed subsequent, what responsibilities are owned by who.

 
5. Respect that they are a time based business

Agencies are usually time based businesses, billing by the hour. It’s fine if you’d like an hour long conference call with the entire team each week, but this eats of time that people could be using to deliver. Don’t get me wrong – regular communication is very important, but budget for it upfront.

 
6. Understand and communicate your own objectives clearly, as well as their motivating factors

It’s important that your agency clearly understands your objectives and the motivating factors behind them. This isn’t just about aligning with your corporate strategy – it’s about helping you look good by helping you contribute towards meeting that strategy.

 
7. Deliverables and processes should be iterative – encourage failure where it contributes to future success

Throughout the client/agency relationship, you’ll be continually learning through success and failure. Identify and leverage these learnings early, making iterative adjustments that capitalise on them. Just because the SOW states your agency will do something a particular way doesn’t mean that, with your agreement, 6 months from now they should be sticking to the letter if your interests are better served by some adjustment.

 
8. Flag dissatisfaction early and offer a chance to improve

Sometimes agencies don’t get it right – they put the wrong people in place or misunderstand a process or deliverable. When that happens, let them know as soon as possible so that they have a chance to rectify the situation. Letting things simmer beneath the surface until you can’t take anymore can ultimately lead to a time consuming re-pitch that diverts agency resource as well as your time.

 
9. Don’t let procurement weigh cost greater than capability and creativity

You know what you want from your agency, so don’t let the generalists in procurement tell you any different – it’s better to get what you need from the agency you’d prefer to work with than to be saddled with a procurement led decision where cost is the most heavily weighed factor.

 
10. Recognise that commercial and professional incentives are different

Agency people love to do intellectually challenging, creative work. The agencies they work for may very well love the awards that type of work might bring, but are ultimately a commercial entity so are driven by revenue, profitability and margins. Many agency people feel awkward having commercial conversations with their clients – it’s not why most of them joined the industry they’re in – so make it easy: define the amount of time based budget that should be spent on activities upfront.

 

Like all relationships, those between clients and their agencies take a bit of work but it’s worth a bit of give and take to get this right.

(Please note that the opinions expressed in this blog post are entirely my own and may or may not be shared by my employer and/or colleagues.)

Being StrategicMost Communications professionals spend their time focusing on tactical executions – crafting outputs and pushing them out hoping that that they’ll create outcomes in the form of events or, if they’re lucky, events that generate patterns.

I’ve long argued that the role of Communicators can and should be more strategic. To do that, we need to get involved in the development of structures and new organisational mental models.

Findings from FleishmanHillard’s proprietary research on Authenticity identified 9 key drivers of brand authenticity. Only one of those drivers, Credible Communications, is directly under control of the PR and Marketing function. The rest, which include Innovation, Consistent Performance, Better Value, Customer Care, Care of the Environment, Employee Care, etc are mostly the sort of things that are determined at the Structural or Mental Model levels of the business, long before the PR team find out about it.

AuthenticitySo how does this reinforce my argument that Communications can and should play a more central, strategic role in business? Because we’re the best placed to connect up the dots between what stakeholders want and expect from a brand – through it’s offering but also through it’s behaviour in the World -  and what the brand stands for and communicates about itself.

Business models are shifting and approaches that put Communications at the heart of efforts to understand and address that change are the most likely to succeed.

The evidence for this is all around us, from crowd-funding to public-private partnerships to the Internet of Things.

Here’s what Harvard Business Review recently had to say:

“As the Internet of Things (IoT) spreads, the implications for business model innovation are huge. Filling out well-known frameworks and streamlining established business models won’t be enough. To take advantage of new, cloud-based opportunities, today’s companies will need to fundamentally rethink their orthodoxies about value creation and value capture.

(Source: Harvard Business Review)

(Source: Harvard Business Review)

Value creation, which involves performing activities that increase the value of a company’s offering and encourage customer willingness to pay, is the heart of any business model. In traditional product companies, creating value meant identifying enduring customer needs and manufacturing well-engineered solutions. Competition was largely feature-versus-feature warfare. And when feature innovation eventually proved to be too incremental, price competition would ensue, and products would become obsolete. Two hundred and fifty years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, this pattern of activity plays out every day, at your local big box electronics retailer or department store.

But in a connected world, products are no longer one-and-done. Thanks to over-the-air updates, new features and functionality can be pushed to the customer on a regular basis. The ability to track products in use makes it possible to respond to customer behavior. And of course, products can now be connected with other products, leading to new analytics and new services for more effective forecasting, process optimization, and customer service experiences. A variety of consumer products and services, from Nest thermostats to Philips Hue lightbulbs to If This Then That (IFTTT), highlight these new possibilities for IoT-based value creation.”

Value creation isn’t just about clever engineering anymore. It’s about creating evidence-based, insights-driven, creatively-led and socially-optimised experiences that are authentic. To do this, brands need to understand audiences, to engage them directly with opportunities to generate shared value, to monitor and react to customer experiences in the real world and in real time. Brands that get this right – brands that realise Communications is the strategic heart of the business of the near future – are likely to thrive.

Clearly, as someone who has earned a living off helping brands devise and implement social media strategies for around 15 years, I’m off message with this post. Or am I?

Social platforms come and go. I remember setting up my first bulletin board system on an Apple IIe back in the mid-eightys. I clearly recall building a 5000+ person email list on Yahoo Groups in the early 90′s. I ran facilitated web chats with a variety of experts in the mid-90′s. And I created a whole slew of bulletin boards, both personally and professionally, around the same time.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic (usually) adopter of just about every social platform to emerge, and sometimes die, from the late 90′s until today.

For some time now, I’ve realised that my use of social media has segmented across three distinct use cases, based on my perceptions of time and the usefulness of contacts and communities across it. Let me explain:

The Future: I use LinkedIn, almost exclusively, to connect with and keep track of people who, in the future, might be personally or professionally relevant to me. LinkedIn is like a safety net. People I can call upon later to provide support for a project as a freelancer. Who I might want to employ. Who I might want to work with or for. I have friends, as well as professional contacts, there. But the key thing is that I want to stay in touch with contacts on LinkedIn because, if they aren’t relevant today, they might be tomorrow. That and it’s my number one source of professional content, these days.

The Present: I use Twitter for the present – through the people I follow, and those who follow me, I learn, in real time, about the world. They aggregate and filter content, then deliver it to me. Twitter has replaced RSS and google alerts for me, and the human filters it applies are, for the most part, better than the technological one’s that proceeded my enthusiasm for the platform.

The Past: Facebook has, for a long time, been sort of a storage closet of my past. It’s where I learn, usually after the funeral, of the passing of a friend from years ago. Or of a fundraising effort for a friend in need. Well, that or a fundraising effort by a friend from long ago who wants their mates to finance a charity walk the length of the Great Wall of China.

Basically, Facebook is dead to me as a social platform of preference. And it’s not just a personal thing. I’d have a really difficult time, in most instances, recommending that a client focuses their energy, or budget, there. How many brands do you follow on Facebook? What’s the last piece of branded content you engaged with? I’m guessing those two questions are ones that most people, most of the time, wouldn’t be able to answer with any accuracy or conviction.

“I loved what brand X posted the other day”. Yeah, right.

The thing is, on LinkedIn, where your professional reputation is at stake, a like means,”share this industry news with people who I might, now or later in life, have a commercial or industry related interest in connecting with.” It has meaning.

On Twitter, a re-tweet is an expression of interest, maybe professional, possibly personal. A nod to collaborative filtering and sharing. Again, it has meaning.

On Facebook, a like is more of a bookmark of something you might wish to go back to later, or possibly a nod that you’ve seen something, but not necessarily a sign that you wished to share that content, saw value in it, or agreed.

I realise, probably more than most, that Facebook is the dominant social network. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a bit shit. To me, anyway, it’s like Friend’s Reunited – a curiosity to those who care about the past, but not something that will have much value to those focused on the now or the future.

 

 

 

 

I’m always on the hunt for fresh, well presented, statistics on the use of the internet, mobile and social in different countries and regions. There are loads of sources, some presenting conflicting views. Regardless, it’s handy to have a single go to point when you’re in a rush and just need some top-line insight.

Kudos, then, to the people at WeAreSocial who have created a treasure trove of such insight:

I’m going to be presenting at the European Communication Summit, Europe’s top event for in-house Communications leads.

The event takes place in Brussels on the 10th and 11th of July and has a start-studded line up of presenters including AOL’s David Shing, Lars Silberbauer-Andersen from Lego, Jimmy Mayman, CEO of the Huffington Post and many others. Details here: http://www.communication-summit.eu/

I’m speaking at the Global PR Trends Summit in Doha, Qatar on the 1st and 2nd of June before heading over to our Dubai office for a few days. If you’re in planning to attend or are in town whilst I’m around, drop me a line.

On Thursday and Friday of this week I’ll be representing FleishmanHillard at the Global PR Trends Conference in Istanbul.

I’ve based my presentation, or at least the 80% of it that will be done before I arrive at the hotel and find a wifi connection, on the post I wrote a few weeks ago on how social business offers an approach for communicators to break out of their functional silo to be at the centre of coordinated, cross-functional collaboration that leads to better results internally and externally.

I’m calling the presentation “Communications is Dead. Long Live Communication.”

In a nutshell, here’s my argument:

Communications (PR) as it has historically been perceived – a stand alone, siloed business function – is dead. This is supported (my personal interpretation rather than an official one) by FleishmanHillard’s award winning Authenticity Gap research, which describes the 9 fundamental drivers of reputation (pdf). Guess what? Most of those factors fall outside the usual responsibilities of PR… but absolutely should be of interest to the reputation builders and guardians of our industry.

Communication, the human behaviour, is thankfully for us, essential to the entire human experience, including in business. As we shift from mass production towards mass bespoke (3d printing, Firestarter crowd funding, etc) as a new business model, not to mention the more familiar (for us) broadcast model to direct engagement as a communications approach, we – communicators – are well positioned to become the essential connective tissue, conversation starters, and conduit of organisational ebbs and flows of information due to our well honed skills doing exactly that over the past 50-75 years we’ve existed as a proper profession.

To seize this opportunity, created more by the shifting landscape around us rather than any deliberate act, we have to think broadly, and boldly, about our future position within the clients we serve. If you think like me, there’s a strong future for our industry indeed.

I’ll post my slides when I have the final version done. See (some of) you in Istanbul where, by the way, we have an a great affiliate.

[As always, this blog posts contains my personal views which are not necessarily shared by my employer.]

The Public Relations industry has long argued for a place at the top table. We’ve been held back in this ambition by the perception that we become useful only at the tail end of the corporate value chain and by our lack of rigour with regards to measurement. Social Business and Big Data offer PR the opportunity to reposition itself at the strategic heart of the businesses and organisations we serve.

Communication: Central to the Human Experience Yet Organisationally Siloed

Communication, not as a siloed organisational function but as a human behaviour, has always been central to how organisations and brands, from political bodies to major industrial manufacturers, organise themselves and progress – creatively, politically and economically.

Humans identify, through communication, a need or market to address. We establish partnerships around shared objectives and build alliances of shared meaning. Communication allows us to nurture advocates and embrace diversity. In the commercial realm, this isn’t something we see only within more collaborative, horizontally organised businesses – even the military, probably the most top down, command and control of all organisations, is communication-centric: orders are given, targets identified, firing authorised, seize-fires negotiatiated, and amnesties granted.

Communications the business function, however, nearly always exists within a silo with defined boundaries somewhere close to the nexus of a brand’s aspirations, how it communicates this to stakeholders, and the actual experience of those who engage with the brand or it’s offering. [See FleishmanHillard's award winning Authenticity Gap research for insight into how the gap between expectations and actual experience impacts brands.]

Part of the problem is that PR Professionals are often only called in after the fact:

* once a strategic decision is made, we communicate it’s necessity
* once a campaign is defined, we are asked to extend it’s reach and build engagement
* once a product or service has been devised, we’re brought in to communicate it’s usefulness
* once an industrial mishap has occurred, we’re called in to contain the reputational damage

Yet the good news is that Communications does have a privileged perspective within most organisations of any scale, with visibility across operations, strategy, outcomes and, yes, risks, that few outside the closed doors of the board or C-Suite have awareness of.

Social Business – A Magic Pill?

Social business is a human-centric, insights-led approach to the development and implementation of strategic programmes that bring stakeholders, both internal and external, closer to business critical processes in ways that generate shared value.

Social Business is the lever that agencies, and their functionally ring-fenced clients, can activate to break out of our box to become the facilitators of communication and connectivity, helping create richer human experiences and strategic progress. Doing this – being the connector, listener, valued collaborator and thoughtful advisors we can be – catapults us, Communicators, to the centre of organisational strategy.

A Model Social Business Programme

Usually, it starts with an indepth insights gathering process where methodologies borrowed from ethnography, user experience design and management consulting are leveraged to identify and prioritise strategic objectives, stake holder motivations, existing processes and workflows.

Social business practitioners also look for obstructions such as lack of employee engagement, unnecessary constraints upon collaboration, poorly thought out infrastructure and, for lack of a more revealing description, competing egos. We conduct workshops and stakeholder interviews, interrogate data from a variety of digital and social media listening and analytics tools, undertake desk research, and ask tough questions about our  client’s business strategy. The same methodology can and should be deployed to gain insights from both internal and external stakeholders.

We then map the two views so as to identify commonalities and connections between objectives, people, processes and platforms. The final step is to build participatory frameworks that drive collaborative action and strategic progress.

It sounds easy, but it requires an extraordinary depth of immersion within a client’s corporate culture and the context in which it operates to fully realise. I’ve been involved in social business programmes that last a month or two, and several that have taken as long as 18 months to complete.

Staffing for Social Business

If the PR industry is to claim Social Business as an approach, we must recruit, nurture and deploy the right kind of people: those with a strategic mindset, intellectual curiosity, willingness to challenge assumptions, appropriate levels of empathy, and a knack for coalition building. A Social Business strategist is an ethnographer, a journalist, a management consultant, a user experience strategist and a communicator.

I’ve worked with many people in our industry with some or all of these characteristics. Being “good at social media” is not a prerequisite, although understanding how technology can enable processes and workflows can come in useful.

Can PR survive in a results focused, Big Data, World?

The crumb trail of data meanders through the functions of our clients businesses. The Communications industry has been lazy about tracking down the data that demonstrates our value and, instead, often relies upon fuzzy metrics including the counting of outputs and questionable correlations. I strongly believe that PR can contribute to the good fortunes of our clients, but we need to get better at supporting this thesis and Big Data is our opportunity to do exactly that.

There is a strong connection, in my view, between social business and big data. Social business is about connecting the dots between people and processes important to strategic success, big data is about measuring, understanding and acting upon the signals that those people and processes generate.

Social Business sees no firewalls – in fact, it purposely permeates them – nor does big data. We can, with big data, go well beyond measuring reach, engagement and perception:

  • How many new connections are made amongst geographically distant members of the workforce or across functional silos? Has this led to new business wins that otherwise wouldn’t be possible?
  • Was a software bug in a consumer product fixed before the next batch of 100,000 products were pushed out the door because the software engineer had early visibility of the issue through the social media monitoring of customers and, if so, how much customer care resource has this refinement saved?
  • Did a new product or service idea emerge faster due to a conversation with a customer and, if so, did this reduce time to market or R&D costs?
  • Was an aerospace engineer who graduated from Michigan State able to recruit a high value hire from that same university who hadn’t been interested when initially approached by a generalist in recruitment?
  • Was repetitive spending on software licenses procured by different departments identified and reigned in once those departments started working more closely together?

To join up the crumb trail of data, we must first join up our client’s organisations: the social business chicken needs to come before the big data egg. We must share functional objectives and make our activities and the data they generate visible to colleagues more broadly, regardless of who commissions or owns them organisationally. We must learn to share success broadly, giving credit to all those who contribute. It’s a new way of organisational thinking, but one that a social business programme can help embed. Communication is at it’s core, even if the above bullet points of the type of measurable outcomes a social business programme might generate don’t, on the face of it, look like the traditional responsibilities of PR.

Communication is Central To Everything Social. Business Too.

It’s difficult to think of any aspect of our social lives – the way we perceive, interact and engage with individuals, groups, communities organisations and brands around us – that isn’t centred upon communication.

History, it is often argued, defines us yet communication of our shared history is essential for that statement to hold any truth. Economics is the root of all power, yet without the communication of the reality that others have more, or less, there is no supply and demand, no poll tax riots, no Occupy movement, no feminism. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet beholders communicate their likes and dislikes and when enough of them do so it results in a fashion trend. Emigres returning home to communicate new ideas leads both to diversification – new experiences, such as NY loft inspired cafes in Krakow or the launch of a Swedish fusion restaurant, Casa Miglas, in Havana – whilst, at the same time, chipping away at the distinct differences between Havana and Stockholm, Krakow and New York.

Communication simplifies and complicates. It brings together and tears apart. It both diversifies and chips away at diversity. It is a force for stability and for change…

Communication is central to our entire experience of being human, including the businesses we create, work for, purchase from or otherwise engage with. Social Business is a methodology that puts communication, in all it’s guises, at the center of a more collaborative – more human – approach to creating profitable and sustainable businesses. Big Data can guide iterative evolution of our strategies and tactics, and help us understand when, where and how our activities have contributed to success. The strategic heart of business is – with a bit of help from Social Business and Big Data – a natural space for the Communications to claim as it’s own.

[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are my own and may not reflect those of my employer.]

Update: This article about Social Business on Microsoft’s Business Re-imagined website is worth a read: http://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/enterprise/business-reimagined/articles/societies-potential.aspx

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 1.14.19 PMIf you’re a recent graduate or planning to graduate in 2014, you can now apply for a place on FleishmanHillard’s (UK) Graduate Programme.

During the one year programme, successful applicants will have the opportunity to rotate through three of our specialist practices and to work across a variety of sector areas.

The programme is a great first step towards a career at one of the World’s leading integrated Communications and Marketing agencies. Come join us.

Full details here: http://fleishman.co.uk/careers/graduate-programme/


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About Robin Hamman

I've been helping some of the World's most widely recognised brands and organisations devise and implement strategic digital and social media programmes since 1999.

I'm currently the EMEA Digital Network Lead at Fleishman Hillard. I've previously held a variety of roles including Managing Director of Dachis Group Europe, Director of Digital at Edelman, Head of Social Media at Headshift, Acting Editor of the BBC Blogs and Executive Producer at ITV.

In addition to my day job, I help my wife run an online retail business selling wool blankets - if you're feeling chilly, check out JustSheep.co.uk

I hold a BA in Education, MA in Sociology, MPhil in Communication Studies and a PgDip in Law. I've also been a Non-Residential Fellow at Stanford University Law School and a Visiting Fellow of Journalism at City University, London.

Why cybersoc.com? In 1995, I tried to register, for the purposes of researching "ordinary users", the username Cybersociologist on AOL. They truncated my name and I stuck with it....

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