May 212009
 

Last year I co-authored a book called “Understanding Digital Marketing“. It’s basically a foundation for businesses and marketers on how to harness the internet to sell your products and services and reach out to customers, which of course has very little to do with this column… or does it?

Researching the book meant I had to delve deep into the world of the online marketer, and increasingly the mainstream marketing masses who are adopting electronic marketing strategies to reach an increasingly “wired” customer base. And guess which segment of today’s society is among the most connected? That’s right… our children — especially as they enter their teens!

It’s frightening how much spending power teenagers seem to have these days, and with a ready, peer influenced market spending lots of time online, you can bet that marketers are reaching out across cyberspace and reaching into your wallet through your children.

Marketing to young people is nothing new of course… companies, especially larger brands with massive advertising budgets and seemingly limitless resources, have been targeting children for years. Television adverts for toys, games, fast food, snacks and confectionery do an excellent job of appealing to a younger audience, applying indirect pressure on parents to spend, spend, spend.

But there are a few important differences for parents to consider as mainstream marketing leaps the digital divide and brands start to engage with our children online.

  • What are they looking at?: When children are sitting in front of the television, listening to the radio or reading a particular magazine parents are generally aware of the kind of advertising they are being exposed to, but do you really know where your children like to “hang out” online, and whether the sort of targeted advertising they’re being influenced by is appropriate?
  • How much information are they sharing? Unlike traditional channels like TV, Radio and Print, online marketing is a two-way-street. This is not a broadcast medium, it’s a specifically targeted conversation crafted with the marketers’ goal in mind. How much information is your child sharing with the brands they engage with online?
  • Low barriers to entry mean more brands: compared to traditional media online marketing opportunities are still relatively cheap, and because young people are volunteering more information online campaigns can often be focussed to reach a much narrower and more responsive audience. It means more businesses can afford to engage online, which means teens are likely to encounter a far broader range of advertising than they typically do in other media.
  • No geographical boundaries: the internet transcends geography — so depending on where they go online, children can be exposed to advertising and marketing messages from around the globe — advertising that isn’t necessarily governed by the rules and conventions that parents take for granted in their own country.
  • It’s not just the computer: it’s very easy for parents to assume the computer is the hub of their child’s interaction with the online world, but increasingly mobile devices (like phones, MP3 players and organisers) can hook up wirelessly to the internet. Home games consoles too are often connected… and the in-game advertising your children see when they play the latest games are often streamed in real time from the internet in response to actions taken in the game.

There’s nothing inherently sinister about marketing to children online — in fact, if it’s done responsibly more targeted, measurable, open and accountable marketing can be a good thing. As parents we need to be aware of changes in our children’s use of media, of the way businesses are using digital channels to reach out to them, and the potential impact it can have. Ultimately it’s our job to shield them from harm — in the real world, and the virtual one.

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Apr 142009
 
The ten faces of the Doctor.
Image via Wikipedia

Appointments… a simple concept: you arrange a time and place to meet, both parties turn up as arranged, you do whatever business needs to get done and you both go on your merry way again. Easy, efficient and practical.

Easy, efficient and practical, that is, as long as it’s not remotely connected with the medical profession. The merest whiff of anything medical and the notion of fixed appointments morphs into something extraordinarily convoluted and apparently unmanageable. Why?

I’m writing this sitting in a doctors waiting room. My appointment was at 12:00pm, I arrived at 11:50am, it’s now 12:15pm and I’m still sitting here, surrounded by sick people, breathing in a noxious cocktail of contagious pathogens.

I have a business appointment at a hotel down the road at 12:30. I figured that half-an hour would be plenty of time to check out a lingering pulled shoulder muscle with the doctor. How wrong can you be? In business, if I make an appointment for 12:00 I’d better be ready to meet that person at 12:00, otherwise I can kiss their business goodbye. But somehow that logic manages to evade the medical mindset. Rather than a discrete and accurate sliver of time, appointments in the medical sense tend to be more of a fuzzy guideline indicating that you’ll probably get to see a doctor sometime that day. They’re designed, from what I can see, to keep self-important medical receptionists of questionable competence in work. The reality is that regardless of your appointment time you’ll be seen on a first-come-first-served basis, and frankly that’s simply not good enough. Continue reading »

Apr 142009
 
Clouds of Fire v2 / Nubes de fuego v2
Image by Sergio_One via Flickr

Losing your job can be one of the most traumatic experiences in your working life. Conflicting waves of emotion race through you: anger, frustration, disbelief, acceptance… even relief. You relive things in your mind… was it something you did, or perhaps didn’t do? Could you have changed something that would have spared your job? Most of all there’s the uncertainty and doubt about what to do next… where will you turn, how will you pay the mortgage?

There’s no doubt that losing your job is an incredibly trying experience. I know… it’s happened to me twice in my career, and when you’re living through it it’s not fun. But looking back now, I have to say that on both occasions being made redundant was categorically the best thing that could have happened to me, spawning a new chapter in a career that’s been interesting, diverse and rewarding.

The last time, back in 2001, I was working as a project manager for a start-up technology company. Being suddenly made redundant led me to take the plunge into self employment as a freelance writer. Since then I have become a columnist, feature writer, marketing copywriter and, most recently, an internationally published author. My first book, “Understanding Digital Marketing“, co-authored with Damian Ryan, was release in January by publishers Kogan Page in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Things are looking exceedingly positive for 2009, there’s another book deal in the pipeline, and several other projects that will keep me busy well into next year and beyond.

And the catalyst to all of this was losing my job.

If you find yourself caught in the cross-fire as companies battle to survive the recession, try not to despair. Yes, on the one hand losing your job is a potentially devastating blow — but only if you allow it to be. The first, and perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it’s your role, rather than you as a person, that’s being made redundant. The fact that your position is no longer required by the organisation isn’t a reflection on your ability to do your job. Secondly, remember that, at the end of the day, the only thing you’ve lost is a job. Unlike your family, your friends or your health, your job is a disposable commodity that can be replaced, often by something better.

Top tips for coping with redundancy:

  • Take stock: redundancy gives you a great chance to re-assess your career, your life and what’s important to you. Look at it as a potential catalyst to bigger and better things; something to force you outside your comfort zone and prompt you to take action.
  • Talk to other people: talking to people you know who’ve been through the experience will help. You’ll be surprised by how many of them look back at their redundancy in a positive light.
  • Get what you can: many companies only offer the statutory redundancy packages they’re obliged to under Irish law. Don’t let that stop you from negotiating for more: the more you get the easier the transition between jobs will be. If you’re affiliated to a trade union, see if they have negotiated preferential redundancy rates for members.
  • Sign on immediately: this is important to maintain your PRSI contributions, and the money every week will help supplement your savings while you look for work.
  • Start job-hunting: finding a new job can take a while, so start looking immediately. Your employer is obliged to give you time off during your notice period to look for work.
  • Tighten the belt: cutting back on unnecessary spending and sticking to a strict budget while your income is suppressed will help reduce financial pressure.

Most of all, try to stay positive, and look at your redundancy as a stepping stone to the next stage of your varied and interesting career.

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Mar 192009
 
Board meeting room
Image via Wikipedia

It’s difficult to think of anything that wastes your precious time more than attending meetings.

Working parents around the country lament the fact that they don’t have enough time to spend with their children. But if you add up how much time those same working parents spend travelling to, waiting for and sitting around in pointless meetings you’d be shocked at the results. A huge chunk of the working population waste days – weeks even – every year sitting in meetings. And for what? To talk about things that could have been discussed on the telephone or online, or to listen to things that don’t really concern them at all. What a waste!

Sometimes in any business you need the face-to-face collaborative communication that only a meeting can provide. But the truth is those occasions are much rarer than you might think. These days days, thanks to the internet and the wonders of digital communications technology, there’s usually an alternative that would work just as well, if not better, would be quicker, and would prevent participants having to travel long distances to attend. Ireland just hasn’t been open to exploring the opportunities. Continue reading »

Mar 052009
 
The Passage of Time
Image by ToniVC via Flickr

Time… there’s never enough of it these days!

You’d think, being linear, that time would be an easy thing to manage — sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, 52 weeks in a year and so on. It’s steady, predictable, and one of the few things in this world that really is a constant. But the reality, of course is that managing time is anything but simple.

The human mind is an incredibly powerful piece of kit — and nowhere is that better illustrated than in the way it takes the steady, linear progression of time and warps it into a convoluted mess that leaves us wondering what day of the week it is.

Time stretches out…. time compresses… time stands still… time accelerates. Time is, indisputably, a constant, and yet our perception of it is anything but. It’s fluid, dynamic, and it drives me insane.

Take this morning for example. I have several deadlines to meet — this column, for one, and I can guarantee that because I have something I need to get done by a given time, this morning will zip along at breakneck pace. Hours will evaporating faster than I can tap keys on the keyboard. But if I was waiting for something then the tables would turn… each second, minute, hour would draw out to eternity.

Why can’t we just see time as the constant it is? What cruel twist of evolution instructed our brain to twist it so? To what end? How is it helpful in the slightest?

The one consolation I guess is that this happens to everyone. There’s never enough time when there’s something you need to get finished, and there’s always too much time when you’re waiting around for something to happen. It’s a universal illusion that affects the entire human race. Time marches along its merry way at the same pace regardless of what’s happening in our lives, but somehow knowing that doesn’t seem to help.

Our perception of time fluctuates enormously, and that’s never truer than when you have children. They imperceptibly steal huge chunks of your day: getting them ready for school, helping with homework, resolving the inevitable disputes and, occasionally, averting all-out-warfare all take time. Some days it seems that I only have to blink and it’s bedtime, and another huge chunk of time falls into the temporal black hole that is parenthood.

With work, jobs around the house and the inexorable demands of parenthood to deal with it’s little wonder that 2009 is disappearing fast. I hardly seem to have drawn breath since Christmas, and without warning it’s March. How did that happen? To say it’s been a blur would be an understatement, but the real issue looking back at the first two months of this year is that I can’t really remember spending quality time with the family. A stolen hour here, an afternoon there, but certainly not enough, and always with the distraction of a busy life lurking on the periphery of my subconscious.

I’m self employed and work from home… a conscious decision to give me the flexibility to spend more time with my family. Somewhere along the line the pressures of earning a crust and the duplicitous nature of time have contrived to steal that away. It ends here!

If you can’t make the time to go to the beach with the kids, to take an hour in the evening to read with them, to play the occasional mindless game just for the hell of it… to share in the boundless fun and enthusiasm of their childhood… then what’s the point? We can’t control time — but we can control how we make use of the time we have, and it seems that it’s time I re-aligned my priorities. How about you?

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Jan 142009
 
Thursday Afternoon City Hall Wedding
Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

I just read a post in my Feedreader from Damien’s corporate portal, Mulley Communications, where he looks at the difference between marketing and PR — the former, he surmises, is akin to a “quick shag”, while the latter is more of a long term relationship….

I can see what he’s getting at, but to my mind PR — the building of relationships and reputation for a brand — is part and parcel of the bigger overall concept of marketing. Marketing encompasses pretty much everything from the inception of a new product or service (what does the market want, need, demand?), it’s design (to meet that want, need, demand), it’s promotion and sale, follow up support… everything! Including PR.

So yes, there are companies out there who subscribe to the “short-sharp shock” approach to marketing and to PR — snapshot advertising campaigns, a flurry of press releases / coverage for a new product or service… and then silence. There are also companies that understand the value of building long-term productive relationships with their customers, with influencers online and in traditional media, with society at large.

I think it’s probably more useful — borrowing Damiens relationship analogy — to compare businesses with people. There are those of us who perpetually lurch from one short-term relationship to the next, but have commitment issues when it comes to investing in a long-term relationship. They have plenty of fun, and can see great short-term results, but ultimately end up lonely and unfulfilled.

Then there are those who come to appreciate the value of building a relationship over time… of getting to know the subtle nuances of another person’s character, and yes, in some ways, even compromising a bit of our own to mesh more effectively and make that relationship work.

Of course most of us start our adult life in the former category… but over time, as we realise there’s more to life, we gradually see the value of commitment and long-term relationships. It’s an evolution — one that I think applies equally to businesses.

Short-sharp-shock marketing (including PR) is typical in the early stages of an organisation — it’s the old-way of getting the message out their in a blitzkreig of advertising and press coverage. Hammer home the message, build an audience. And then, silence, until the next campaign.

As the business grows (smart businesses, anyway) it begins to realise that there’s more to this equation… that it could be missing out on something much more rewarding and fulfilling. It realises that it needs to start listen to and interacting with its customers, to deliver more value, refine it’s offering. It needs to get over its commitment issues and engage in a long term relationship.

Call it marketing, call it PR, call it whatever you want — but if you want your business to become more than a one-night-stand get over your commitment issues and start engaging with your audience…. Woo them, before another suitor proposes and you lose them for good!

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Nov 182008
 
Aer Lingus A320 EI-CVC

Image by caribb via Flickr

Last week Irish trade union SIPTU sent a letter to Aer Lingus letting them know that its members have approved strike action if the airline proceeds with plans to axe around 1,300 jobs.

While I feel for the Aer Lingus workers’ plight… I really do, reading part of the letter (released into the public domain as part of a SIPTU press release) made me cringe.

In a couple of paragraphs it demonstrates everything that’s wrong with communication in the workplace. It’s pompous and utterly unintelligible business writing at its very worst. Here’s an extract from the letter to show you what I mean.

This decision of our members in the Aer Lingus Branch, Cork No. 5 Branch and Shannon Aviation Branch has now been sanctioned by the National Executive of SIPTU and you are hereby served with fourteen days official notice of same.

Following the expiry of notice the decision will be activated as decided by the Union arising from the unilateral implementation by the company proceeding to implement new or changed terms and conditions of employment without agreement contained in their proposals of October 6, 2008 or any variation thereof. In this connection you should note that the sanction covers strike action and the full withdrawal of labour with the placing of pickets on the company locations, and [for] industrial action which is [for] limited work stoppages with the withdrawal of labour and the placing of pickets on … company locations. The nature, timing and duration of any or all of the foregoing will be determined by the Union.

Again, please… clearly, and in English this time! Reading the above made my heart sink, and my head hurt.

If workers, or anybody else for that matter, really want to get their message across they need to stop trying to sound important by throwing in formal, over elaborate and superfluous verbiage (much as I did there ;-)), and start writing clearly in plain, easy to understand English.

The latest entry in the Plain English Campaign’s “Gobbledegook of the week” reads as follows:

"By aggregating a range of public and commercial datasets, including global addressing and Directory Enquiries, voter databases, commercial data and documentation including dates of birth, and voice-based verification solutions, 192.com Business Services delivers the most comprehensive global online ID verification solution available. "

(from www.192.com)

I think the SIPTU letter trumps that with ease: it’s in a league of it’s own. Or rather, it isn’t, which I guess is the material point here. All too often business and workplace communication is bloated, jargon riddled dross written by people who think that throwing long words into overly intricate prose makes them sound more important than they really are.

But here’s the rub… when the name of the game is getting your message across, you’re audience doesn’t care how “important” you sound, or how many syllables you can cram into a single sentence. They care about the clarity with which you deliver the essential information. People are busy, they don’t have time to decrypt your missive – they need to understand it instantly, first time round.

Communicating clearly with your target audience – whether that’s your customers, your co-workers or your employer – is critical to any business, and never more so than during hard economic times. So, before you send anything – letters, e-mail, blog posts, comments… anything at all – read it through to yourself at least once, aloud if necessary, and ask yourself truthfully “does this achieve what it sets out to do efficiently and effectively”? If the answer is no, perhaps you should stop and take another look.

And by the way, if you happen to be a national union executives looking to serve strike notice on the CEO of a major company, and you’d like some help writing your letter, you could always drop me a line ;-).

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Oct 252008
 

Had to write a quick post to announce the launch of a unique new wedding date site for couples in Ireland. I have an interest in wedding sites, mainly because we run our own photo wedding invitation business, and naturally we keep an eye on what’s happening online in the weddings space. (NB. I know our site is in dire need of a facelift – it’s on the To-do list).

Last week saw the launch of an exciting new website on the Irish wedding scene: Weddingdates.ie opened its virtual doors on Friday (24/10), and offers a unique facility that helps engaged couples in Ireland to select their ideal wedding venue.

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Simply enter your preferred wedding date and the county you want to get married in and Weddingdates.ie will return a list of venues in that county with reception availability on your date. It’s simple… and priceless. No more trudging through the golden pages and ringing around laboriously to come up with a shortlist of wedding reception venues who can accommodate you: Weddingdates.ie does it all for you.

This is very different to the swathe of run of the mill “Wedding directory” sites that simply list service providers. This is an indispensible tool for engaged couples.

When you’re planning a wedding anything that can reduce the time, effort and, lets face it, the stress involved is certain to be a huge boon. And that’s exactly what Weddingdates.ie offers.

If you’re getting married, or know someone else who is, why not head on over and take a look. If you’re a hotel manager, and your hotel isn’t featured, you might want to remedy that pronto!

The site is the brainchild of Ciara Crossan, who I had the pleasure of meeting briefly at a SOHO Solo / Cork Open Coffee joint meeting a few months back. Congratulations Ciara on a great concept, a great looking site and something that I’m sure will make life easier for countless Irish couples over the coming months and years.

Oct 072008
 

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Louder Voice knocks the socks off other peer review sites in terms of usability, design and its community-centric features. Another example of an Irish tech-company delivering a product / service that’s truly world class.

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And the newly launched Louder Voice for Business offers similar reviews functionality for your business website… which is excellent news for businesses who “get” the shift towards conversational marketing and online consumer engagement.

What is the Tuesday Push

I figured it was finally time for me to engage with this Tuesday Push malarkey (… I, know, I know… better late than never is probably going to be carved on my tombstone).

According to Damien Mulley, orchestrator of the “push”:

The Tuesday Push is a way for the small but growing tech community in Ireland to make some noise about ourselves by picking a good example of an Irish Tech Company and highlighting their product(s) every second Tuesday.

Louder Voice – reviews the way they were meant to be

The worthy recipient of this week’s “push” is LouderVoice (LV) – a great peer review site that makes reviewing products, services and anything else you can think of intuitive, easy and convenient.

You can post reviews via a variety of media: directly on the LouderVoice website, via SMS (so you don’t even need an internet connection – delighted or otherwise with that restaurant? Post a review while it’s fresh in your mind), through micro-blogging services like Twitter, you can even post reviews to your own blog and LV will pick them up from your RSS feed.

Cross-posting of reviews can work the other way around too (I think, although I haven’t done this yet): you post to LV via the web, SMS, Twitter or wherever, and LV will publish the review to your blog… which is a great way to keep things fresh and varied.

One of the best things about LV is the vibrant community of reviewers who contribute, which means that there’s plenty of conversation on everything from the best value wine to the latest tech gadgets to the most popular TV show and everything in between. It’s a community that’s growing all the time as word spreads and LV gains momentum, and as a consumer the benefits of exchanging information, ideas and opinions is obvious and compelling.

Reviews and your business….

But there’s another aspect to this conversation and interaction that’s often overlooked (and the reason I featured LV, complete with screenshot, as a great example of a review site in the Social Media chapter of “Understanding Digital Marketing”). This is a conversation you can participate in, yes, but as a business it’s also a conversation you can learn from.

Listen to people, find out what they’re talking about, what they like and don’t like. Even if they’re not talking about your product or services directly there’s a wealth of information and intelligence there that can help you to serve your customers better.

Of course, one of the best ways a business can use reviews in order to gauge consumer sentiment is to integrate review functionality into their own website – and if you want to explore the possibilities the all-new LV for business offers a suite of review services that are ideally suited to the purpose.

Anyway – the best way to find out more about LV is to start using it – so off you go and start reviewing – I’m looking forward to reading what you think.

NB. If you want your company to be considered for the Tuesday push you can submit your details online.

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Sep 122008
 

profile I’m working with CorkBIC at the moment to help revitalise the West Cork chapter of the small business networking group SOHO Solo.

Networking is a vital part of running any small business, and over the years I’ve found belonging to SOHO Solo invaluable in all sorts of ways. Yes, I’ve gained business directly from other members, and referrals, but for me the true value of the network goes far beyond attracting new business.

The true value of small business networking

When you’re working from home you’re often working alone. As I writer I spend much of my working week sitting in my office tapping away at my keyboard, as I’m doing right now. While I’m in constant contact with lots of people through online social media, e-mail and even the telephone (hey… call me old fashioned!), sometimes it’s important to get some “face time” with other people.

Meeting other people in person helps to keep you sane, and to realise that actually, there are other people out there facing similar challenges to you. Perhaps more importantly, you also find that there are people who’ve already overcome those challenges successfully, and are more than willing to share their experiences.

Attending a meeting is a break from the routine of the home-office, and is as much about human social interaction as it is about business, for me at least.

I find that SOHO Solo is a gateway to new connections, interesting perspectives and a vein of untapped expertise and potential. An exercise we conducted a couple of years ago unearthed a staggering wealth of experience in the SOHO Solos in west Cork.

We unearthed a former shipping executive running a wedding card business, a Swiss banker running an organic wine importation business, a marine biologist/Mexican taco vendor/IT Project Manager now running a freelance writing consultancy and wedding invitation business (that would be me :-)) and a whole host of other histories spanning an eclectic mix of industries and disciplines. The point is, SOHO Solo’s – or independent entrepreneurs as I like to call them – weren’t always “solo”, and bring a whole host of skills and expertise to networking events that aren’t necessarily related to what they’re doing now.

And the great  thing is that they’re only too willing to offer their help advice and support. They say a problem shared is a problem halved… but more often than not, with SOHO Solo I find that a problem shared is a problem solved.

Come and join the party

On Wednesday 17th September in the Celtic Ross Hotel, Rosscarbery I’ll be facilitating an open discussion on how SOHO enterprises can harness the power of social media to help their business. From market research to networking with peers to gauging opinion, online PR and consumer engagement, social media offers a suite of tools and opportunities for smaller businesses. Let’s explore some of them together….