Long hours: a labour of love or toxic work culture?

This week Business Insider ran an interview with Revolut founder Nickolay Storonskyon his startup’s culture. As one of the world’s fastest-growing startups there’s no question Revolut are, to quote Storonsky himself, getting s**t done.

In the interview, the CEO claimed his team are “really motivated, really sharing the vision of where we want to go and as a result, they work long hours — they work at least 12, 13 hours a day. All the key people, all the core team. A lot of people also work on weekends.”

But this exemplified, to me, the very worst of the long hours culture that’s endemic in banking, tech, startups – and especially where those all meet in FinTech. So I shared this on Twitter, adding “and people wonder why there’s a gender diversity problem in Fintech”.

This generated quite the heated debate with replies coming from those (mostly women) who agreed with me, a handful of wearyingly predictable mansplain replies, and a bunch of more thoughtful contributors who believe there’s nothing wrong with employees working those hours if they want to.

I can understand why people might say that, but here’s why I think that argument is wrong.

Storonsky’s quoted as saying “No one is sitting there telling them they have to work long hours”. Which is probably true. In my experience, rarely are employees told to work 50, 60 hour weeks – but instead find they’re overlooked for projects if they don’t, side-eyed for leaving at 6pm when others don’t, looked over for bonuses and promotion, and generally saddled with guilt at not pulling their weight compared to others.

While there is a difference between people who work those hours for the love of the product/company and those who are coerced into doing so, it’s rarely clear-cut – and plenty of orgs harbour under the illusion they are the former when in fact they’ve just created a culture which normalises unhealthily long working days. Been there, done that – more than once – and while at the time it felt like passion, on reflection it was more like Stockholm Syndrome.

And if you like the people you work with, then of course you want to spend time with them, in the office and in the pub afterwards. Work quickly becomes your primary social circle, especially if you’re young and new in town. I get that too. Some of my closest friends are people I worked with and bonded over impossible deadlines, late-night tubs of M&S mini bites and rather too many glasses of post-work sauv blanc.

But there’s a fine line between healthy camaraderie and the siege mentality that comes from teams being under extreme stress (and for some this ‘work hard, play hard’ team ethic is a byword for an unhealthy dependence on alcohol for stress relief).

While of course it’s necessary to burn the midnight oil at crunch points to get a product over the line, if people are doing it all the time that’s poor planning and resourcing. As one commenter on the increasingly useful fintechinsidernews forum said:

“If you’re building software in a sensible fashion with a project plan, a project manager and product owner and a skilled, empowered team, then if they’re having to work 12-13 hours a day on a regular basis, your plan is wrong and your project is doomed. it might not show immediately, but give it 6 months and the signs will become clear. People will burn out, quality will drop, team members will leave and the end result will suffer. It’s not sustainable.”

Working at that pace long term is bad for business. People burn out and leave; replacing people and the organisational knowledge they take with them costs money.

It also makes the business less resilient. When a real crisis hits you won’t have any goodwill or energy from your team, or any slack in your resourcing to plug the gap as everyone is already at 120% burn.

And there is a limit to what people can really achieve in a day; when people are tired and stressed they make mistakes and bad decisions. What should matter is what you deliver, not how long you hang around the office doing it.

Excessive hours culture is bad for the product, too. If your team never experiences real life because they rarely leave the office and only socialise with one another, how is your product going to meet anyone’s needs?

If your team is drawn from the narrow demographic who can (or want to) stay in the office until 10pm, will they really understand how to develop products that meet the needs of a wider group of normal humans with social lives?

Reading Storonsky’s description sounded like a classic case of toxic work culture.

“The majority of people, they pass through but some of them, they just realise it’s not for them. It’s not because they are stupid – they just don’t share our vision and our passion.”

That reads to me like people who don’t conform to that culture – who aren’t sweating spinal fluid and pulling all-nighters – are considered lacking in the necessary passion and exit the firm. Still more, I would imagine, are put off joining in the first place. I’ve lost count of the number of capable developers and product managers in their 30s and over in my network who, when touting around for work, will explicitly say they’re not interested in fintech because of its perceived long hours bro culture.

Companies which make a virtue out of long hours are missing out on a wealth of experienced talent. Particularly, but not only, female talent.

I write this having worked the weekend, again. But I’m self-employed, so I have skin in the game and the only person making me do this is me.

As a leader, however, in bragging about the core team doing 12-13 hour days and weekends, Storonsky either explicitly or tacitly creates an expectation among those who work for him that they should do the same (perhaps to demonstrate sufficient commitment or passion).

When it’s your own company of course you’re going to give it all you have. But be wary of the example you set to your team or you risk creating a toxic work culture. Good leadership means modelling healthy ways of working yourself, and telling people to go home before they burn out or screw something up – because ultimately it’s you who carries the can when they do.

Startup life is demanding and isn’t for everyone. But for startups to truly scale they need to morph into sustainable businesses – ones which normal people can and want to work for long term – delivering great products in realistic, properly resourced ways, meeting the needs of real people. I hope high-growth players like Revolut can make that shift.

Jamming: creating conditions for enterprise innovation

An orchestra is a bit like a well run company. All of the elements of the orchestra – the strings, the brass, the percussion – are able to come together with a visible, engaged leader to make something better than the sum of its parts.

But in the modern world, is it enough? The orchestra plays beautiful, complex music – but while they may do it brilliantly, it is still old music performed just as thousands of orchestras have done before.

To maintain competitive advantage, companies need to innovate. If banks, for example, want to be around in 20 years they need to create new and different products to complete with a host of startups.

In other words, they need to do more of this…

Musicians, jamming

Pic: travellingwithoutmoving/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Jamming is the activity of getting a few musicians together in an informal setting to do their thing, simply to see what happens. There’s a fluid coordination there, with people working together as equals. From this collaboration exciting new sounds can emerge.

Regardless of the output, the process of jamming is also a rewarding one for participants. Jamming is fun; doing it helps people to become better musicians. When they play something magic happens for the individuals, and for the group, and potentially for the wider world too.

I first became interested in the concept of Jamming last year, when I read an essay by academic Eric M Eisenberg, Jamming: transcendence through organising.

“Jamming experiences are worthy of study because they are an often ecstatic way of balancing autonomy and interdependence in organizing. As such, they offer a different route, other than reciprocal disclosure, to community.” (Eisenberg, 1999, p. 139)

It struck me that Eisenberg’s description of jamming as an organisational approach is also a perfect description of the balance we need to achieve inside organisations if we are to help employees be productive, rewarded, engaged and innovative.

Researchers overwhelmingly agree engaged employees drive innovation. Engaged employees are empowered to find ways to innovate, whether that’s developing new products, improving the customer experience, or finding more efficient ways to do things.

And, in a neat circle, innovation also drives employee engagement. Help employees innovate and they become more engaged, which makes them even more likely to innovate, and so on.

Organisations bring in Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), ideation programmes and the like in order to deliver this virtuous circle. But few use them successfully to drive innovation because they’re focused on stopping things going wrong – not helping them go right.

Leveraging collaboration tools inside the firewall can transform communications and engagement, providing a means to break down silos and help people work better together. But concerns around risk can prevent them driving real benefits from collaboration tools – particularly in regulated industries like banking.

On the one hand, they need to ensure policies, systems and processes minimise any risks of compliance failure. On the other, too many rules create a culture of fear and inhibit people from taking the risks necessary for innovation.

For most organisations that balance tips in favour of minimising risk. And not without reason, as the financial and reputational costs of failure are huge.

But in this post I’ll argue that if organisations want to build the kind of successful innovation culture that’s essential to their future growth, they need to create the right conditions for jamming.

What is jamming?

Eisenberg noted jamming has four key characteristics:

  • Jamming is transcendent. It allows people to become part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing is just the group itself
  • Jamming embraces diversity. For it to succeed participants need to have different skillsets and knowledge that complement each other
  • Jamming is fragile. It is rare and temporary. No one can force it to happen, and participants need to go into it with an open mind about the outcome
  • Jamming is risky. When people improvise they are, by definition, venturing into the unknown. They must accept and embrace the vulnerability that comes with the potential for failure.

These characteristics don’t come about by themselves. Jamming requires a number of preconditions – skill, setting, structure and surrender.

“To facilitate jamming experiences, an organization must create a structure for surrender, within which risk is rewarded, not punished, and work groups are kept sufficiently autonomous to ensure the development and survival of novel ideas.” (Eisenberg, 1999)

In other words, jamming thrives when leaders give highly skilled people the freedom to take risks together in pursuit of common goal.

Enterprise Social Networks and innovation programmes could provide an ideal basis on which organisations can provide the conditions for jamming, if done well. Let’s look at each of these preconditions, and consider at how they can exist within the enterprise.

Skill

Once you have a reasonable level of competence you can really get stuck into – and start to enjoy – a task. We sometimes talk about being in the zone when someone is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus and enjoyment in an activity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this as a state of flow – a highly focused and creative mental state.

Video games have perfected this flow concept, becoming more complex as the player progresses and learns. Winding your way through Dark Souls III provides both experiences of failure (from which you can learn), but also more rewarding moments of success, giving a sense of achievement. Once the player has developed sufficient understanding of the environment and controls, they can get ‘in the zone’ and really enjoy playing while being neither over- nor under-challenged.

The same is true in most collaborative contexts at work. For a group to work together effectively everyone involved needs to be unselfconscious enough about their own mastery to get on with the task. Collaboration requires a minimal level of skill at the task in hand.

So to create the conditions for jamming, organisations need to help people reflect on the skills they have and what they can bring to collaboration. This could be through your performance process, through connecting the ESN to your learning and development platform, or providing other ways for people to identify their own skill and knowledge levels.

In the context of the large enterprise – where people are collaborating as virtual or dispersed teams, it also requires a minimum level of skill at collaborating itself.

First, people need to know need to know how to use the tools provided (such as Office 365 or Jive) so this doesn’t present a barrier to collaboration.

But they also need to adapt working practices so they enable collaborative working in virtual teams – from managing linguistic and cultural differences to being able to motivate others when separated by distance.  Martin White’s paper on Managing Virtual Teams sets out some of these challenges.

To make the most of collaboration tools, organisations need to upskill their people on both the technical and cultural practices of virtual teams.

Jamming requires participants’ skill levels to be comparable. Professional footballers rarely enjoy playing with amateurs, because their inferior skills stop them scoring. A band jamming is only as good as the weakest member; a poor bassist will let the rest of the band down.

But that doesn’t mean they have to be the same. People need to have different sets of skill and knowledge that complement each other in order for it to work well. A football team needs a good striker as well as a good goalkeeper.

To create the conditions for innovation and collaboration at work, organisations must help people of comparable and complementary skills to come together.

A good people directory and people profiles that feature skills experience could support this. In the future this could be developed further to use AI to match people with comparable and complementary skills and interests and proactively suggest who they could work with toward a particular challenge.

Structure

As I said above, too many rules and too much governance close down the possibilities for innovation. Excessive structure represses creativity.

Yet structure can be liberating. Contradictions arise only where some things are inflexible. Necessity is the mother of invention. So in the workplace there are defined roles and rules – from what job you do to how you book a meeting room – but at the same time people are given freedom to approach their work as they choose.

When musicians jam they don’t make a random noise. Instead, they work within established conventions of their chosen musical genre and riff from there. So 90% of what they do is predictable; it’s the 10% that’s unpredictable that makes it all exciting.

Organisations have formal rules and processes that everyone needs to work within. In addition there will be informal ones like behavioural norms and communication conventions.

When groups form to work together, they might also wish to set their own rules of engagement – for example decide who will do what and how long they will spend on the work.  This helps people to understand what is expected of them, enabling them to feel comfortable enough to work with others.

People prefer to play by the rules. But those rules must allow enough flex and autonomy in the structure for people to be able to self-direct and take some risks.

Setting

Jamming happens best when people step away from normal life, so those involved can approach the task as equals, based on skill alone.

Eisenberg talks about the behavioural coordination that happens in jamming as being characterised by minimal disclosure. That is, that it’s because people know so little about the other participants that they perform so well.

In other words, jamming is easier with strangers. People who already know and work with one another have to work to set aside their established interactions and ways of doing things. With entirely new people it’s much harder to fall into established patterns and habits.

At work we have little reason to work with complete strangers – and are unlikely to have the time to do so. So organisations need to more proactively bring together strangers and give them the time, space and permission to try something new.

Intrapreneurial work teams need to be sheltered from normal organisational constraints and rewarded for their efforts. For innovation and creativity to happen organisations need to think differently about employee performance and reward so that seemingly unfocused collaboration is considered a valuable use of staff time – regardless of what it delivers.

Surrender

By definition jamming isn’t something that can be forced, and has no predefined outcome. To jam successfully everyone involved needs to accept a loss of some control.

That’s not to say successful jamming is entirely dependent on luck. Good preparation and innate skill are important, and it’s absolutely critical to approach this kind of unstructured collaboration with the right attitude.

That means being willing to cede control and feel comfortable with uncertainty.  This concept of surrender is particularly common in Eastern philosophy. My yoga teacher, for example, often talks about surrendering into a pose. That means just accepting that it might feel a bit odd or uncomfortable, and being ok with that.

As kids we are creative all the time; as we grow older we stop being creative as we fear being judged by our peers. To innovate we have to expose a little bit of ourselves and accept that vulnerability.

To really get value from ESNs as ways to drive innovation and new ideas, people need to surrender and accept that it might feel strange. To accept the risk that nothing might come of it in order to create the possibility that it will.

But to drive innovation, organisations need to surrender too. They need to be open to people finding new and innovative ways to use to solve problems, and in so doing deliver tangible value.

They need to accept that not every unstructured collaboration will result in something exciting, but by encouraging it they create conditions for great things to happen in time.

Structure for surrender – and innovation

To identify and develop new and innovative ideas, organisations need to provide a structure for surrender.

Enterprise Social Networks are in many ways ideal tools to do that. They enable people to identify others with comparable but complementary skills, using people search and facilitating connections. They provide a setting in which these self-organising groups can collaborate without any baggage. The organisations they support provide familiar rules and structure in which collaboration can take place.

But to take collaboration up to the next level – to really jam – means organisations need to pivot their approach, and create an environment in which risk is rewarded, not punished, and collaborating groups are given the autonomy to develop their ideas.

It’s clear collaboration presents a governance challenge for organisations; the more tightly they prescribe how a tool should be used, the more they close down the possibilities for innovation and engagement.

To enable innovation organisations need to focus less on managing risk and more on driving value. On creating the conditions for jamming so they can reap the benefits of serendipity.

What if Twitter isn’t broken?

Earlier this month writer Lindy West left Twitter, claiming in a blog for the Guardian that it’s now unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.

This came as something as a surprise to me, as I’m none of these things and I still find it useful every single day. So this left me wondering: is Twitter really unusable thanks to trolls? Or is it simply that media commentators see this as an overwhelming problem as they’re the ones disproportionately targeted by trolls?

West is by no means the first high-profile user to walk away from the platform; her flounce is the latest in a long series of op-eds exclaiming Twitter is dead.

No one can deny there’s an abundance of arseholes on Twitter, ready to dole out abuse from behind a Pepe avatar. It’s hard to quantify quite how bad the problem of abuse is on Twitter, but research by Brandwatch found 15,000 instances of misogynistic hate speech used on Twitter every day. A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) counted a whopping 2.6 million tweets containing anti-Semitic language in a year (that’s over 7,000 per day).

That volume of abusive language – and the failure to tackle the problem – is said to have been behind Disney’s decision to drop their bid to buy Twitter late last year.

Yet I’ve been an active, daily Twitter user for almost a decade and haven’t experienced much abuse or trolling at all. I still find the platform invaluable.  And I put this question to my network of mostly-not-high-profile Twitter users, who overwhelmingly felt the same.

Different filter bubbles deliver different experiences

That’s because your experience of Twitter is not like mine, or anyone else’s. Twitter is a vastly different experience depending on who you follow, who follows you, what you tweet about – and, perhaps to a lesser degree, your approach, style and tone.

I follow around 3,000 people who tweet about things I’m interested in – intranets, the digital workplace, digital engagement, data, innovation, FinTech, user experience, travel, London life – and broadly tweet about the same topics myself.

And while I follow a bunch of people and organisations talking about politics and current affairs, because I work for the government I steer clear of talking about politics myself. That, it would appear, is the critical difference; while Twitter began as a network for nerds, now it’s a highly political arena in which influencing and winning arguments is believed to shift mainstream public opinion enough to win or lose elections. In that super-charged environment controlling the message matters, and trolling is one way that control can be taken.

However, these two positions aren’t incompatible; while there does seem to have been a surge in abuse on Twitter in recent years, a great many users – probably the majority – using it to talk about work or what’s on the TV don’t experience this at all. 15,000 daily instances of misogynistic hate speech is a huge number – but that represents just 0.00003% of the 500 million tweets published daily. Tens of millions of people still enjoy using Twitter to talk about all manner of topics every day.

Asymmetry

Much of the differences in experience are down to volume; have a handful of followers and you might get the occasional rude tweet, but the bigger your following and the higher your profile, the more you experience the dark side of Twitter.

Nick Jones noted: “I think those under attack are often in very asymmetric relationships. I am followed by people like me who share similar interests. It is symmetrical.”

If you’re in the public eye you have far more people who want to talk to you, and a small but noisy proportion of them are pricks. This is particularly difficult for anyone who relies on their public profile to make a living – like journalists and authors, who these days are expected to build and manage their own fanbase online.

I was discussing this (online, natch) with a journalist friend – herself with a large Twitter following and with it a regular stream of keyboard warriors taking it upon themselves to Tell It How It Is. In her view the suggestion the trolling problem is overstated because it disproportionately affects media commentators comes across like a teacher saying that bullying doesn’t need addressing “it only happens to some privileged kids and most pupils love this school!”. Which is a fair challenge and an excellent analogy.

But no one’s saying the troll problem doesn’t need addressing. It does. However, there’s an important distinction to be drawn between the kind of stuff journalists are complaining about – essentially the comments section writ large, stuff they used to be insulated from in the days “letters to the editor” were the only form of feedback – and the general deterioration of civility on Twitter.

Twitter have been too slow to address abuse, and the steps they’ve taken to protect people have been inadequate. But solutions need to be designed for all users, not an unrepresentative group of power users.

Chilling effect?

For most average, unfamous social media users, abuse isn’t a daily experience that needs a mute button. Instead the presence of widespread trolling may have a chilling effect, with many – particularly women and minority ethnic users – consciously or unconsciously steering clear of controversial topics for fear of a potential backlash.

Anne McCrossan commented: “I think there is a mob mentality out there, and that some people find that out pretty decisively if they get on the wrong side of their prevailing opinion, whatever that happens to be.”

Social media strategist Rina Hiranand concurred, noting wariness of trolls “definitely stops me from tweeting now. It’s not that I think my views would attract anyone, but I’m aware that all it takes is one tweet for it to start.”

Nick Jones also admitted to self-censoring online: “I am very, very careful to think through how what I tweet might be misconstrued or used against me at some future point. It’s partly good training for the day job and an intellectual challenge.”

Regular users might experience a fraction of the bullying newspaper journalists do, but it’s likely they have a far lower tolerance for it too – and so need different mechanisms to deal with or report this behaviour. So trolling and bullying aren’t problems that can be fixed for the mainstream with a few code updates.

Blog posts like West’s, and the many hundreds of similar ones that preceded it, both overstate the issue – potentially exacerbating the chilling effect – and, by focusing on the problem only as it is experienced by high-profile individuals rather than the full spectrum of users, misjudge the solutions too.

Or, to use the school analogy, these flounce-pieces focus only on the privileged kids and not on the rest of the class.

Twitter has myriad problems; a lack of focus, obsession with new user growth over existing user delight, falling stock price, failure to monetise, and a decline in trust in the information it presents, not to mention inadvertently ushering in a kleptocracy. Against this backdrop, its failure to deliver an effective anti-trolling mechanism for minor celebrities is perhaps the least of its problems.

Instead, media commentators would do well to remember that for people (like me) who follow nice people talking about social innovation and user experience and other such non-controversial stuff it’s as useful as it’s ever been. Writing the platform off as irretrievably broken paints them as out of touch with the reality of how online abuse is experienced by the mainstream and its effects on public discourse.

Many thanks to Alex Blandford, Alex Hilton, Ann KempsterAnne McCrossan, Hadley Beeman, Ingrid Koehler, James Royal-Lawson,  Jonathan Phillips, Laura Marcus, Mike ButcherMike Wilkins, Nick Jones, Paul Clarke, Rachel Clarke, Rina Hiranand, Sarah Lay and Stuart Bruce for their input on this post.

What’s setting social alight in 2017?

It’s a year since I got out my crystal ball and made some predictions for social media in 2016. Was I right? Partially.

It was indeed a steady-as-she-goes kind of year on social, with brands focusing their resources on a smaller number of channels rather than experimenting with new ones. Meanwhile, the platforms themselves have evolved, driven particularly by a desire to compete with upstart mega-unicorn Snapchat. Chat and real-time interaction grew. But the financial services sector has been slower to move than I predicted, so my suggestion that banks would finally embrace Instagram and move mobile wallets to social wasn’t as accurate.

You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to see where social media is going; it’s becoming more visual, more creative, more interactive – and more commercial. But that’s balanced by growing demands for quality and veracity. So what’s going to set the social world alight in 2017?

Going live

The biggest new trend this year was live video, which burst on the scene in 2015, but really took off this year with Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Instagram Stories all trying to copy Snapchat. Live social video was at the centre of several big news events, and it quickly became a key tool in the news producer’s armoury.

Forward-thinking brands such as the FT are already on board with this. My guess is that the ‘mass market’ will follow suit soon, as a means of giving audiences a view behind the scenes while delivering engaging content quickly and cheaply. The platforms themselves are starting to roll out support for pro users (such as Periscope Producer) and by the end of 2017 brands should have live video as a central plank of their social media strategy.

Twitter: turn it off or turn it up

It’s been a tough year for Twitter with its share price dropping following failed takeover talks. But it’s responded to rumours of its demise by pivoting from a social network to a real-time news and entertainment company and embracing its place as a second screen in an attempt to regain lost audiences.

As a result brands will question the value of Twitter as a delivery mechanism for content and links to websites. Some will close their channels, but more switched-on communicators will up their Twitter game to capitalise on the strong relationship between Twitter and TV.

Twitter audiences are smaller but highly influential compared to those on other channels. 35% of Twitter users regularly share their opinions on people and brands; these people are a third more likely to actually convince people of their opinions. They have a discovery mindset and seek content that is live, open and shareable so they can influence and engage others in an informed way.

Top-performing social brands can leverage this by using their feeds to provide the “pub argument ammo” this influential group want. That means shareable visuals which inform and educate, plus key facts that help them back up an argument.

Twitter’s not dead, but it’s a very different beast to 2008 so brands need to revise how they use it to make the most of its current strengths.

Enabling self-expression

In this year’s Internet Trends Report Mary Meeker charted the evolution of social tools that enable people to express themselves by creating an artefact – beginning with simple emojis through to Bitstrips and, more recently, Snapchat, with its simple-to-use lenses.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, with apps like playground phenomenon musical.ly  taking off this year. In 2017 brands will need to find new ways to enable their customers to be creative if they want to win the battle for eyeballs.

Hybrid public-enterprise social

Facebook’s now well established as a customer service channel, but the long-anticipated launch of Workplace, Facebook’s first foray into the enterprise market, creates new possibilities for conversation to flow in and out of organisations seamlessly.

So for example a customer could raise a query on the brand’s public Facebook page, a customer care team could pick it up and use Workplace to investigate and discuss it, before responding to the customer via Messenger. Workplace’s app platform could make it easy to track conversations flowing between public and closed social spaces in order to deliver better customer experiences.

Quality filters

With the rise of fake news, inaccurate polls and political attacks on experts, 2016 has been a challenging year for the concept of truth – and nowhere more so than on social media. The tech firms have already announced drives to clean up their newsfeed, but this is likely to be a race to stay ahead of the spammers.

The desire for quality could push users to seek out trusted names to help them filter, using humans rather than algorithms. So while some have declared the reign of the celebrity influencer to be over, the demand for content quality could create a new generation of influential ‘quality filterers’.

Facebook have released Signal for journalists to help them with the task of curating content to improve content quality, and I expect further moves from all the main platforms to rebuild trust in shared content.

Inside-out advocacy

The dawn of the post-truth era brings new challenges for organisations and brands, who need to find more creative ways of getting their messages through to an increasingly cynical public. This year’s Ipsos-Mori Veracity Index highlighted how little faith the public have in business leaders, politicians, economists and civil servants – yet trust in ‘the ordinary man in the street’ remains strong. Brands can take advantage of that trust by equipping and encouraging ordinary employees to share on their behalf.

There are a host of social amplification apps on the market which allow comms teams to upload content for their employees to share. But this has to be a voluntary process – the employee needs to choose to open the app, choose content and share it on.

Faced with the need to make content appealing enough to be both read and shared, companies who want to leverage their employees’ networks will be forced to up their content game. 2017 could be the year companies start giving employees content as compelling and engaging as that given to customers.

Chatbots take off

Customers increasingly expect prompt service via social channels, placing pressure on companies to resource real-time social customer care. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help manage that demand, in the form of chatbots – computer programs that you interact with by “chatting”, for example in threads in messaging apps. These are an important new human/machine interface, simulating intelligent conversation, answering queries and managing simple workflows, increasing the speed of engagement with customers.

Mark Zuckerberg opened the Facebook Messenger Platform to third party chatbots in April, and in the months since more than 30,000 have been built.

2017 will be a year of conversation, with customers talking to brands on Messenger, WhatsApp or Slack. Bots will enable that growth as they become more realistic and more human.

Chatbots are able to bridge the gap between services designed for humans (like text message) and those designed for machines, by breaking complex transactions into conversations. And these conversational interfaces will open up digital engagement to groups who have previously struggled to use online services, by making them more human in design.

Conclusion: convergence creating complexity

The most notable trend for 2016 has been the race for each of the main platforms to ape one another. Snapchat copied Facebook by adding Memories. Instagram encouraged users to share Snapchat-like content by adding Stories. Facebook is testing Snapchat-like disappearing messages and added Twitter-like trending topics.

This creates more complexity for users – and for brands, who now have to plan for multiple different content types within each of their channels. In the short term this gives communicators the option to experiment with different, visual content types to see what works. But by the end of 2017 I expect most will have worked out where they get the most bang for their buck and will settle into a more regular publishing pattern that’s more focused in order to reach the right audience with the right content.

Making sense of SharePoint with out-of-the-box intranets

It’s reckoned that 70% of intranets run on Microsoft SharePoint. It’s been the lead in the Gartner quadrants for enterprise content management and enterprise social for as long as either has been around. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that only once in my decade-long career as an intranet practitioner have I actually recommended to an organisation that they choose it.

That’s because while it’s packed with features and eternally popular with IT departments, it remains painfully difficult to deliver a simple, usable intranet with it. While it improves with every new edition – and 2016’s offering has made considerable steps forward in usability – the complexity and flexibility of this hydra of a product too often results in intranets that are over-complicated, ugly and hard to use.

The search continues to suck, the branding and customisation options limited, and the analytics it offers lags behind its rivals. Sure, it offers a lot of functionality – but much of it is stuff that few organisations want or need, merely making the intranet harder to use.

More often than not SharePoint intranets are an afterthought tacked on to any Office upgrade or rollout rather than actively chosen as a tool to deliver a best-in-class digital workplace and intranet. Where user research and planning does happen, and real investment is made in design, user experience and content, SharePoint can – and does – deliver truly great intranets.

Nine of the 10 intranets named as the world’s best in this year’s Neilsen Norman intranet design annual were SharePoint-based, as were around half of Intranet Innovation Awards winners. What sets these organisations apart is that they’ve invested planning and resources in really making a success of SharePoint – focusing on user needs, design and usability. But for everyone else this almost never happens.

So what do you do if you don’t have these resources and for whatever reason you’re stuck with SharePoint?

The last five years or so has seen the development of a wide range of products built on SharePoint that claim to quickly transform it into a useful, usable and fully-functioned intranet.

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to look more closely at a number of these products, as one of the team of reviewers for the second edition of SharePoint Intranets-in-a-Box, from Clearbox Consulting.

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The report looks at 26 of these products in all. They each had a slightly different focus and approach, but almost all delivered significant improvements in usability compared to a standard implementation. Some so much so that you hardly knew you were using SharePoint at all. Some products built on the SharePoint platform to deliver key transactional functionality for intranets, like HR or IT, while others had a heavier focus on enhancing and streamlining SharePoint for internal communications and engagement.

What they all had in common was the speed and ease of implementation. While the NNg award winners took an average of 1.3 years to deliver their intranets, out-of-the-box solutions can be up and running in days – or even hours. This makes it possible to deliver a decent intranet on top of SharePoint even with a limited budget and few development resources.

The SharePoint Intranets-in-a-Box report is out now. It’s packed full of practical advice and honest reviews (bad as well as good), and gives a useful overview of the available options at-a-glance. Between the team we’ve done over 200 hours of research to help you choose the right product for your requirements and budget.

Confession: I’d probably still recommend organisations starting from scratch consider alternatives. But as a self-confessed SharePoint Skeptic I’m delighted to see vendors come to the rescue for those who are tied into the Microsoft ecosystem, doing the hard work to make SharePoint suck less, so you don’t have to.

If you’ve read this far, reward yourself with 10% off the purchase price using my discount code IIAB2CBOX10.

Other blogs about Sharepoint Intranets-in-a-Box:

 

What impact will Facebook at Work have on the digital workplace?

Ahead of its rumoured launch later this year, excitement has been building about Facebook at Work – the enterprise version of the billion-strong social network – among intranet, internal comms and digital workplace pros.

It’s not hard to see why. While social intranets have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, thanks to products like Jive and Yammer, there’s also a sense that ESN hasn’t yet been as transformative as many would hope.

facebook-work-ft

Facebook at Work brings the platform’s functionality into the workplace

With its familiar features and user experience, earlier adopters of FB@W have seen exceptionally high levels of adoption and use compared to Yammer, Jive and the like. If this can be replicated elsewhere it could be a real game-changer in the workplace.

There’s little official information out about FB@W, but with a growing number of early adopters on board more details about its functionality and specs are starting to emerge, and I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ve seen a preview and there’s no two ways about it – it looks awesome.

I’m keen to discuss what some of the implications might be for comms, so I’ve arranged to discuss in a live videocast on Blab with scarlettabbott’s Tony Stewart and enterprise collaboration champion Luis Suarez. And we’d like you to join us too. You can jump on your webcam and join us on the video, or ask questions via the Q&A panel.

We’ll be discussing:

  • What we know about Facebook at Work and what it means for the ESN space
  • How communicators might use it
  • What impact it might have on organisations
  • What the challenges may be to successful roll-out

We’ll be live here via Blab.im from 3pm BST (10am ET) on Wednesday, 10 August. Subscribe and join the conversation then, or leave a comment below and we’ll try our best to answer as many questions as we can.

What the 2016 Meeker report means for the digital workplace

Each spring analyst Mary Meeker releases one of the most hotly anticipated slide decks of the year (arguably, the only hotly-anticipated slide deck…). Packed with stats on adoption and use of internet technologies, over the past decade it’s become the most comprehensive analysis of the State of the Internet around.

Her 2016 report was released a few days ago (1 June), and I’ve had a chance to pick out some trends which I think may create demands on digital workplace professionals in the coming years.

Arise, the Snapchat generation

In last year’s report Meeker noted Millennials were no longer an opportunity or threat to prepare for, but now the majority in the workplace.

This year she talks for the first time about Generation Z – a group she describes as “tech innate”, using five screens at once. While Gen Z aren’t yet making themselves known in the workplace, they’re only a few short years away from doing so.

Gen Z, Meeker notes, have a notable preference for image-based platforms such as Snapchat over text-based ones. In my last blog post I warned against lazy generational generalisations – and that’s borne out by the report too.  While Snapchat use has ballooned amongst younger people, use of it and similar image-based tools is growing (albeit not as fast) among all age groups.

That’s because images work; they impact us both cognitively and emotionally, which makes them able to tell a story in the blink of an eye. By embracing the power of images and design we can make digital internal communication more effective. But at the same time this creates challenges; image-based communication is difficult (often impossible) to index for search, and problematic for accessibility. Proceed with care.

Messaging is massive

There are now an astounding three billion messages sent daily on Snapchat, Facebook (inc FB Messenger), Instagram and WhatsApp.

And a significant proportion of messenger-based conversation will be about work. Most DW practitioners will admit that WhatsApp has become the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise collaboration. With employees now carrying more advanced and more usable technology in their pockets than they’re given by corporate IT, they’ve voted with their feet and opted for shadow IT on an unprecedented scale, particularly tools like WhatsApp and Slack.

Too many corporate IT teams have their heads still firmly in the sand on this one. It’s particularly challenging for those in regulated industries to admit their employees are eschewing corporate channels for untrackable personal tools – but it’s now far too widespread to ignore.

Beyond conversation

With Facebook now over a decade old, people have become more sophisticated in their use of social tools, which they now see as delivering far more than simply messaging with friends. The growth of business-focused conversation is driven in particular by Asian IM2.0 apps WeChat, Line and Kakao.

People aren’t content to be passive consumers of information anymore; SnapChat is simply the latest in a long line of tools which enable self-expression and creativity.

Corporate communicators need to consider ways to embed and leverage this innate need to create and converse in their communication processes and tools. Lengthy news stories haven’t cut it for a long time, and they’re unlikely to win in a battle for attention with a sponsored Snapchat filter.

Messaging apps are fast becoming platforms for commerce, and it follows they will soon expect to be able to transact in a similar way using their enterprise tools. Smart companies need to start thinking now how they can use things like Slack integrations to deliver this.

People have become adept at filtering out unnecessary information, demonstrated by the explosion in use of adblockers that Meeker notes. 81% of people will mute video ads – and chances are they’ll do the same with your dull corporate internal comms video too.

But good content still works, if it’s relevant. People have come to expect hyper-targeting, and they expect something of value in exchange for their attention. This requires corporate communicators to have a radical rethink of the way they create and share information – an app or mobile intranet isn’t likely to do the job.

You talkin’ to me?

One of the most talked-about stats in this year’s report was a prediction, from Baidu’s chief scientist Andrew Ng, that 50% of searches would be via voice or image search by 2020

Voice recognition accuracy has come on leaps and bounds, averaging around 90% accuracy – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by users. Already 65% of American smartphone owners use voice commands.

The growth of voice interfaces has a huge commercial and productivity benefits; the average human speaks at 150 words per minute, but can only type at 40 words a minute. Moreover, freeing people from keyboards makes connectivity vastly more convenient when on the move, and opens up greater possibilities for information to be more targeted and contextual.

If voice interfaces and voice search goes mainstream as predicted, people will quickly expect the same from their enterprise tools and systems. How can your digital workplace adapt to a switch in primary interface from keyboard to microphone?

Have you read this year’s Meeker report? (If you haven’t, here’s the slideshare). What were they most interesting – or controversial – points for you?

We’re all Millennials now

Another week, another report on how the demands of the millennial generation are disrupting long-established companies and industries. This week it’s the turn of Oracle, who have produced a report on banks’ urgent need to redesign themselves for the future.

Like the slew of reports that preceded it, Oracle’s Banking is changing… with or without the banks report concludes that established players are facing an existential crisis. Millennials demand more from their service providers, it contends. Banks have been slow to change, but there are a host of FinTech challengers poised to grab their custom.

Study after study shows that banking is the industry most at risk from disruption, but it’s hardly alone – insurance, law, accountancy, real estate, retail and… well pretty much every industry is on the verge of collapse under the weight of millennial demands.

Every day, hundreds of new articles and blog posts about millennials appear. Despite this, no one seems to have a clue what a millennial really is. The mental image it conjures up is of a young person, replete with a printed shirt, reasonable beard and a taste for craft beer. Yet the definitions are much broader than that; even the Wikipedia entry highlights the lack of consensus:

“There are no precise dates for when the generation starts and ends; most researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to around 2000.”

Overall, the earliest proposed birthdate for millennials is 1976 and the latest 2004.

I was born in 1980, which means I’m either a millennial or I’m not, depending what definition you use. This incoherent infographic explains why I am so awesome:

According to this I’m also unproductive and self-obsessed, so I couldn’t help myself procrastinating further by finding out one way or the other. Pew Internet have a helpful diagnostic which told me I’m 86% millennial. That I listen to Radio 4, have a few grey hairs, live in the suburbs and spend my weekends gardening in my allotment suggests something rather different.

All manner of often contradictory behaviours are typically ascribed to this group. They’re simultaneously narcissistic and self aware. Selfish but socialist. Lazy and entitled, but lacking access to secure jobs and housing. Careerless but ambitious. Fat but fit.

All of this is philosophically damaging in the extreme. My own experience of being – or not being – a millennial highlights just how meaningless the term has become. This demographic window includes people who are pushing 40 as well as those who are still at school, yet are portrayed as a single and very different cohort who are about to disrupt everything.

Millennials’ expectations, we’re told, are shaped by the experience of being digital natives and growing up in a consumer society. A study from PwC on how millennials view work found:

  • They place a really high value on flexibility – 66% want to work from home
  • They also value workplace culture – they want a work environment that emphasises and enables teamwork and collaborative working, and a sense of community.
  • They want transparency and two-way communication and expect to be able to input on decision-making
  • They want recognition for their work and the contribution they make

Millennials have high expectations of their consumer experiences, too. Oracle’s banking report recommends that banks invest heavily in delivering the omni-channel experience that the next generation of customers demand, using data to develop and deliver products that suit millennials’ lifestyles.

Those lifestyles aren’t, however, looming on the horizon for corporations and governments to prepare for; they’re already here. The oldest millennials are, like me, in their 30s, married with a mortgage. They’re leading organisations. Making purchasing decisions. Changing the world by designing amazing products.

Millennials already make up the majority of the workforce in much of the world. By 2025 three quarters of working people will come from this generation.

What’s strange, then, is how millennials continue to be portrayed as ‘other’. Their expectations – of flexibility at work, for example, or banking services that better meet the needs of the modern consumer – might be second nature to millennials, but Gen X can and increasingly do demand these too.

Millennials might have grown up in the era of instant communication, one click purchases and 24 hour delivery, but they are far from the only users of these services. Brand loyalty might be a mystery to them, but consumers from Generation X (and older) aren’t averse to voting with their feet either. Millennials are posited as the smartphone generation, but half of all Apple products are sold to baby boomers.

Rebecca Onion wrote last year that “Overly schematized and ridiculously reductive, generation theory is a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history. It encourages us to focus on vague ‘generational personalities,’ rather than looking at the confusing diversity of social life.”

By decoupling consumer and employee demands from age brackets, we could remove the sense of otherness that has come to characterise future-scanning reports into millennial behaviours. These trends aren’t ones for the future, but for now.

The desires and consumer needs of millennials are those of the mainstream, and that trend will only increase. Successful brands are those which establish appeal across generations. Conversely, those organisations which continue to view millennials as different to the mainstream will quickly find they fall behind.

We’re all beginning to expect personalised well-designed services, delivered across devices and channels around our needs as customers. Those trends might be most visible amongst millennials, but they’re almost as commonplace amongst those born in the sixties, who are at least a little bit millennial too.

As notable modern philosopher Kanye West, who is almost 39, said at last year’s VMA awards, “we the millennials, bro”. And he’s right; when it comes to consumer behaviour, we’re all millennials now.

What Mondo taught me about the future of banking

Mondo are one of the most talked-about new players on the consumer/retail banking block (just this month they reached a $1m crowdfunding target in 96 seconds), so I was delighted to get a place on their Alpha. Here’s a few early thoughts and observations on my experience and what it might signal for the future of FinTech.

It didn’t start well, for me. Specifically, I managed to destroy a coat rack within moments of arriving in their offices, sending a pile of jackets and scarves to the floor. But within half an hour I was up and running with an app and a fluorescent pre-paid Mastercard, ready to take a look at the future of banking.

As a nerdy consumer I’ve been looking at the future of banking for a long time now — I think I got my first online bank account around the turn of the century, which was roughly the time I started earning money. For most part from an experience point of view the future of banking tends to look a lot like other online user experiences did five years previously*.

* Except my bank account in Asia. That’s more like every other user experience in 2001.

So I’d agree this is a market ripe for disruption, and that customer needs are probably better served by attempting to build a new bank from the bottom-up, based around user need, than building marginally nicer front ends for terrible legacy infrastructure.

Mondo is one of a number of UK startups attempting to do that. Fellow challenger Atom has a banking licence, unlike Mondo, but is yet to have a releasable product. Mondo is taking the reverse tack, developing its app-based bank in public, offering a pre-paid card to several thousand Alpha users and asking for feedback, while working with regulators behind the scenes on getting their banking licence.

I’ve seen the future. It’s pink with a liberal sprinkling of emoji.

Mondo is, in short, a card and an app, with ambitions to turn this into a full service retail bank in time. The app itself is neat; every time I use the card, I get an alert on Mondo, replete with carefully-chosen emoji, before the sales assistant has printed the receipt. These guys must spend a scary amount of time choosing emoji.

It’s a pre-paid, luminous pink Mastercard, and while topping up is simple this does limit its usefulness as there’s no auto top-up option. I was about to pay for a few things at the weekend but only had £20 left on the card; as Hammersmith is a weird mobile phone coverage blackspot I couldn’t add money to it, and had to fall back on my regular debit card. It doesn’t yet work with ApplePay, but the team have said this is on its way.

As it’s linked to your phone, it’s smart enough to work out where you are and how this might impact your spending. If you’re in Singapore and but your card’s being used in Swansea, it can let you know immediately. Which is refreshing change from ham-fistededly blocking your card every time you travel.

The app makes it easy to see what I’ve spent by vendor and category, and gives me the option of adding tags, notes, receipt images and so on to each transaction. It’s easy to see my balance and spending at a glance. A particularly nice feature is the ability to freeze the card when you can’t find it, and unfreeze again when found — rather than the big banks’ standard option of cancelling the card and waiting a long, cashless, cardless week to have a new one sent through the post.

And these are all great features. In fact, if I were my flaky 21-year-old self — on a tight budget and prone to losing my cards — the features offered by Mondo would easily tempt me to switch to it as my main vehicle for day-to-day spending.

But I am not 21. While Mondo does give me a vague sense of guilt over my cumulative spend in sandwich chains, I’m at a point in my life where I’m lucky enough not to be too concerned about £10 spent on wine or nail polish. My digital banking needs are different now I’m a proper grown-up.

I have savings. I’d like to have more savings, and I’d like my bank to help me to make saving a habit rather than an afterthought. Knowing I spent £6.38 on juice and yoghurt is all well and good, but if my bank could tell me, at the right time, that if I bought fewer cakes I could pay my mortgage off two months earlier, that’s useful to me.

I like data, but for my accounts data to work for me I need to be able to see it in one place, and I need it to be interoperable. Spend-specific emojis make me smile, but I can’t use them to reconcile transactions in my freelancer accounting software. My regular bank account has an API and allows me to download transaction data so I can interrogate it.

I also like free stuff. I chose my bank account when I began university, because they gave me a hefty fee-free overdraft and a student railcard. Like most people I have never bothered to change my bank account since. These days I have a reasonable credit rating and a taste for far-flung destinations, so I do all my spending via my credit card in order to build up airline points. A year’s worth of hotel bills, work expenses and pub visits were enough to get me two free flights via my credit card’s reward scheme. I’m willing to put up with some seriously bad UX in return for a free holiday.

Banks for brogrammers, by brogrammers

I like Mondo, and I like what they’re trying to do. What they do, they doreally well. For payments and day-to-day usage, its UI, UX and FX is streets ahead of my high street bank.

But right now it isn’t enough to make it my everyday bank, because it doesn’t (yet) meet my needs as a solvent thirty-something woman.

In that respect, it’s not so different from other startups, very many of which have cropped up to solve the problems of the unrepresentative sample of people who build apps. From Uber to Airbnb to laundry pick-up and gas delivery services, Silicon Valley et al are focused on solving problems faced by people like themselves.

To be fair to Mondo, they have at least recognised this and sought to get more women on their Alpha in order to get a wider range of feedback. But if any company truly wants to transform its sector, it needs to solve the problems of a full cross-sector of consumers. Elderly ones with rubbish phones and failing eyesight. Poor, underbanked ones. Even boring ones like me with low-risk investment needs and unsexy pension arrangements.

As my 300 Seconds co-founder Hadley Beeman said at our opening event three years ago, if we want to change the world, we need a good cross-section of humanity to be involved at every stage — to articulate their user needs, and develop products to meet those needs.

If you want to change banking, you need to solve for more than coffee budgeting.

Banking is a fully digitisable business. In a business which doesn’t deal in tangible things trust is critical. This gives traditional banks a major advantage; most people prefer to entrust their money to an FSCS-backed institution than a startup.

My short experiment with Mondo has shown how quickly a challenger bank can win the user experience battle. While my high street bank has the edge in terms of both functionality and trust for now, challengers are engaging with regulators and fast catching up.

Where traditional banks can maintain an edge is their knowledge of and relationships with a much broader range of customers, recognising that customers don’t just need an app, but a range of products and services to meet their diverse needs at different life stages. Banks have access to a wealth of data on customer behaviour and needs that they could use to develop smarter, easier solutions for customers.

Yet right now neither side seems to be getting it quite right. Startups are focused on solving too narrow a set of user needs to serve the mass market, while traditional banks are attempting to make old systems and structures deliver better digital experiences and coming up short, and resting on their laurels in the hope customers are too lazy or untrusting to try the competition.

Trust in banking and finance continues to lag far behind that of technology firms. Startups are rapidly breaking down regulatory obstacles, gaining consumer trust and building brand recognition. While what Mondo et al haven’t yet got a strong enough product to make me ditch my bank, if they can beef up their offering and combine this with quality user experience, they’ll get my money soon.

Seven signs of the social media snake oil salesman

Being on the internet doesn’t make you a social media expert any more than going for a jog makes you an Olympic athlete.

Yes, anyone who goes for a run is more qualified to talk about running than someone who sits on the sofa; but simply having a Twitter account doesn’t mean you know how to deliver real business outcomes using social channels.

Yet while it’s easy to tell the difference between a truly talented and experienced athlete like Mo Farrah  – who is considerably faster than your average Joe – and someone (like me) who finishes a marathon in over five hours, it’s not so easy to quantify someone’s expertise in something as subjective as social media.

As organisations recognise that making a mark in the social space is essential, they’re looking to hire in expertise – but often they have no idea what they’re looking for. And this provides rich pickings for a growing army of social media charlatans, peddling bad advice to unsuspecting punters.

How can communicators, marketers and executives spot – and avoid – these types? I asked my network: what marks a social media ‘expert’ out as a chancer? Suffice to say, this generated some Strong Views, which can be grouped under seven themes. Here’s the seven sins of the social media snake-oil salesman – and how to spot them.

1) Robo-posting

There’s a host of web services which post to social media on your behalf. Used well, these can be valuable – but they can’t be a substitute for real two-way interaction. Buffer, for example, can be a useful service for sharing links to interesting blog posts, allowing users to schedule posts in to create a steady stream rather than spamming your followers.

But if someone’s just spending half an hour a week lining up a stream of links, only sharing headlines – quite possibly without even reading the posts themselves – they’re no more useful to the audience than a bot. The giveaway here is if they seem to post all day, every day, but rarely reply or engage in any real conversation.

“Thanks for the value add. At least follow web best practice 101 and make it easy for your reader to get the crux of the message.”
Marged Cother

But mark of the true amateur, however, is the use of spammy services such as Rebel Mouse – what Anne McCrossan called “robo-posting, content-aggregating, click-baiting waste-of-attention platforms.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 21.09.58

Stephen Waddington agreed, “Get out of my feed. You can’t automate a conversation.”

2) Quantity over quality

Social isn’t a numbers game – it’s about generating value for your brand or company. This means giving the audience something of value to them – insight, information, even just a laugh – in exchange for their attention. It’s a value exchange.

Steer well clear of anyone who advises generating huge volumes of low-quality content – think “ooh, it’s Friday” pictures – to post multiple times daily to grow reach. You’re almost always better off posting one good piece of content daily than ten bits of crap – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Instead, look for people or firms who will help you develop and deliver content that your audience will find useful, engaging or interesting. The target here isn’t volume – of content, or engagements – but delivering outcomes such as conversion or brand awareness/consideration.

3) Self-describing as a guru

“People that write how to articles and guides that have plainly never actually worked in a crisis, managed trolls, planned a campaign or created a measurement framework.”
Stephen Waddington

“My feeling is that I/we will be the judge. It is not for them to declare themselves a guru.”
Jonathan Phillips

Like hotels called ‘Palace’ or countries with ‘Democratic’ in their name, it’s only necessary to mention this if it’s not immediately obvious from their reputation.

Look past the LinkedIn headline “Joe Bloggs – Social Media Marketing Expert” and keep an eye out for extensive, real-world experience managing social media – and showing tangible results from that.

Closely related this this are the constant ego-promoters:

“Resharing content that mentions you. Don’t get me wrong we all do it occasionally. But I’ve nothing but contempt for people who constantly reply to tweets with the RT comment function”
Stephen Waddington

4) Suspicious follower counts

There are two legitimate ways to get a big Twitter following: join in 2008, or be a celebrity. If someone’s not famous, and not a Twitter old-timer, yet has more than 10,000 followers, then often it’s because they follower-farmed or bought followers in order to inflate their influence to those who don’t have the nous to spot it.

Social media is not a numbers game: “reach” is meaningless. 10,000 followers gains you nothing if those followers aren’t real people who might spend real money.

fake-followers

Be sure to look at someone’s follower list. Are their followers real people with photos, descriptions and followers of their own? If they have a large number of followers with no profile picture, low follower numbers and/or little obvious reason to follow the person in question, it’s likely they tried to buy a following. And if they’re willing to do something so embarrassing with their personal brand, they shouldn’t be trusted with yours.

5) Sucking at search

If you’re hiring anyone, or considering an agency to provide any digital service, the very first thing you should so is Google it/them. Firstly, do the first three to five results clearly relate to them? If someone can’t even get their SEO act together to clearly own the first page of results themselves, they won’t be able to do the same for you.

Next, look at the successive few pages. Any individual who claims to be a digital specialist but isn’t visible – positively – on Google is either bullshitting, or has something sufficiently awful to hide they’ve made the effort to have it removed. Either way, it’s a big red flag.

Finally, take a look at both the agency and any named individuals they offer you to work on your account to see how they manage their social presence. If they don’t have one at all, or they have a Twitter account they barely use, that’s a warning sign.

“An eyebrow is always raised when I hear ‘but I don’t use social in my personal life…’. Say whut?”
Tony Stewart

You wouldn’t hire a Head of Press who said they didn’t read the news. Likewise, it simply isn’t credible for someone with responsibility for social/digital media not to have an active social presence. To really succeed on social you need to really get it – and that means using it, gaining a deep understanding of the community you’re trying to engage with, and demonstrating that through your own and your agency/company’s digital footprint.

6) Offering second-hand expertise

Alarm bells ring when a supposed expert relies on case studies they weren’t involved in in their sales pitch or conference deck; it’s often a sure sign they lack hands-on experience of their own.

“My issue is with those where the main parts of the conference speaking and/or training isn’t delivered from first hand knowledge” said Stuart Bruce. “Some of it inevitably won’t be and can’t be… But they should at least offer some inside knowledge gained from speaking to the people involved.”

“The same is true with ‘bad’ case studies where the reality of what happened internally isn’t what the gurus on the outside are saying as they throw criticism without understanding of the realities of operating in challenging environments”.

If someone offers a case study that’s delivered second-hand, challenge them on what inside insights they’ve sought to add value for you.

7) Claiming there are hard and fast rules for social media

Social media is ultimately about people, and like anything that relates to human behaviour, there really are no hard and fast rules.

Take, for example, the one I made above about robo-posting. I detest it, so much so that I have paper.li and all Facebook quizzes muted. And yet there are real and powerful use cases for both of these things, in the right context.

But no one can tell you that your brand is best conveyed on social by, say, posting six times a day at these specific times, because every audience will be different.

“There are no blanket rules or guidance – best time to post, when to use images, frequency of posting, this network or that network. It’s always going to be different as it depends on what your objectives are and the make-up of your community/audience/stakeholders (delete as appropriate).”
Stuart Bruce

The only hard and fast rule is that you should listen, try, measure, learn and iterate. Post different types of content at different times, measure what works – and by works, I mean delivers actual outcomes, not just ‘reach’ – and keep on improving.

People who promise to deliver big social media results using shortcuts – like robo-posting, or follower-farming – could give you some good social media stats, but these are numbers which offer little real-world value for your brand and reputation. “We should be focusing on KPIs and measurement that relate back to business objectives, not to pathetic 0.5/2% engagement rates” said Julio Romo. “What about the 98% who don’t engage?”

Why do people fall for it?

“We should be calling out these snake-oil tradesmen. But then again, is all this their problem? Or is it a case that there is still a basic understanding of social within many organisations?” Julio added.

That’s a large part of the problem – if the people who are buying, commissioning or hiring in social media expertise don’t know their digital arse from their elbow, it’s no surprise there are chancers ready to cash in.

If you were to task me with buying a car, I’d make a crap job of it since I don’t drive and know nothing about cars. I’d have to bring in people who do know about cars to help me choose. But when people fall for these chancers they’re doing much the same – admitting they lack the expertise themselves and attempting to plug the gap. So the problem is perhaps that those buying don’t know what to look for.

Maybe that’s where organisations like CIPR, CIM and BCS can help – each of these organisations can offer accreditation in their respective areas. As social is changing every profession/discipline, they have a role to play in championing good practice; by evolving their certification and advisory offers they can help buyers navigate their way to worthwhile social media advice.

Meanwhile, snake-oil salesmen give true social media specialists a bad name. To protect our own reputations and that of social media as a practice, the rest of us should be braver and call poor practice out when we see it.

Many thanks to Stuart Bruce, Paul Clarke, Amanda Coban, Marged Cother, Carol Ferro, Anke Holst, Ingrid Kohler, Anne McCrossan, Julio Romo, Tony Stewart, Steve Waddington, Steve Way, Louise Woollam for their input on this post.