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 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.

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.

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.

Is the homepage dead?

Amongst the bits of digital lint that landed in my browser’s belly button last week was an intriguing blogpost which argued that the company homepage is dead, killed off by the rise of social media.

“There is a new Web”, John Brandon argued, “and it’s the Web of social media and links, not the Web of domains and dotcoms”.  Businesses need to accept this reality and figure out how to make it work.

And to a certain extent he has a point. The social web has transformed the way consumers find information. It’s been a long time since your actual domain name mattered; Google is everyone’s homepage now. But that simple fact means that your website still matters.

Every page is the homepage

While it’s certainly true that the number of people typing http://www.yourdomain.com and arriving at your homepage has dropped like a stone, the number of people visiting websites hasn’t. They don’t arrive through the front door anymore, but via search directly to the relevant content.

That means every page on your site is as important as your homepage. So it needs to make the right impression, answer the visitor’s question, guide them through to a specific transaction, or whatever function the content needs to serve. And it has to do all of that quickly as over half of website visitors will spend less than 15 seconds on a site before deciding whether it’s worth engaging with any further.

The actual homepage still matters too. People may not arrive through the front door, but if they’re seeking out more information on your company, chances are they’ll take a look at it. It serves both as a means of navigating to more information, and creating proof that the company is one they’re comfortable doing business with. Just as you’d keep the porch tidy and the front lawn mowed if you were selling your house, you need to keep your homepage up to date if you want to create the impression you’re a thriving business you need your homepage to reflect your brand and narrative with steady flow of relevant content.

Content without context

There is a shift happening in the way people consume content, with a growing proportion of content now read on other platforms. I read the blogpost that inspired me to write this one within Flipboard, for example, rather than on the website that published it.

That shift means your web content needs to be produced and published in such a way that makes it easy to read both on-site and within aggregators – and performs the function you want it to even when stripped of the context your site design and navigation provides. That means thinking carefully about content design, taking into account changing patterns of consumption that the mobile web has created, and of the user needs at the point of consumption.

Why not just put your content on social media?

The article’s author argues companies could skip having a website altogether. If you’re selling widgets, he contends, you’re better served having people go straight through to Amazon to buy them.

But what if you’re not selling widgets? His suggestion that legal or insurance firms looking to attract clients can use Facebook instead seems a little naive, given the awareness-consideration-conversion process that typically precedes a transaction in the world of financial or professional services. Put simply, people just don’t buy such services that way. They seek out information, go away and have a think about it, seek out information from elsewhere, and come back later, with conversion potentially taking place via a different channel (some marketeers call this the Zero Moment of Truth).

If I were looking for a new credit card, for example, I’d start with search, maybe look on a product comparison site, Google around to see if there are large numbers of people complaining about the provider on social media. But I’d also look on the firm’s own site to get authoritative, updated product information, for example on introductory offers, as information on social media or third party sites can often be out of date, or laid out in ways that are difficult to consume or understand.

Of course a brand’s social media presence matters. But web and social aren’t a zero-sum game – being on one doesn’t negate the need to manage content on the other. Quite the opposite; they need to reinforce one another in order to gain the best returns on investment in content.

The rise of the walled garden brings new challenges

One of the arguments for being on social is to extend the reach of content and drive traffic back to your site. But this is shifting as social networks are developing ways to keep users within their ecosystem.

Facebook have long encouraged brands to publish to the platform rather than link out – for example using Facebook native video rather than sharing a YouTube link. They’ve developed this further in the past year with the arrival of Instant Articles, where articles are published to Facebook directly, ostensibly to speed up the user experience. Twitter is said to be getting in on the same game, with a new feature allowing content of up to 10,000 characters said to be coming in the first quarter of this year. While these developments will inevitably impact on the volume of referral traffic, they won’t do away with referrals altogether.

All of which places new and increased demands on digital teams. While the mechanics of publishing have been getting easier every year, the demands for digital expertise have not as the number of channels and touch points continues to grow, as does the competition for eyeballs online. Gaining most value from this increased channel mix means understanding the ways in which people consume content on each platform, and designing it accordingly so that it delivers its intended objective – wherever the audience finds it.

The homepage isn’t dead. It’s multiplied exponentially, and so too has the challenge for those managing digital content to ensure every interaction is as good and well-thought-through as the homepage of old.

#hashtagfail: What to do when a social campaign goes bad

Inviting audiences to share their content or comments via a hashtag campaign has long been a social media staple. But that comes with considerable risk that the campaign could go sour – at best failing to inspire engagement, at worst inviting outright ridicule.

The latest brand to invite Tweeters’ fury was IBM, who this week launched a well-meaning but nonetheless ill-considered campaign inviting women to consider careers in STEM by hacking a hairdryer.

The response from women on Twitter was a storm of rage and ridicule:

 

 

While IBM have provided a textbook example of User Generated Fury, there’s a lot others can learn from their response. First, they apologised – quickly and unreservedly, acknowledging why people felt the campaign was offensive.

 

They also deleted the offending tweet. While this opens up brands to accusations of trying to rewrite history, or pretending the incident didn’t happen, it also limits the damage. A ‘offending’ tweet can continue to be in circulation – and generating ire – long after the apology is issued. This was a tough call to make, but in my view the right one.

Many commentators are surprised that IBM, longtime champions of diversity in tech, made such an elementary error at all. Where I think they fell down is in failing to anticipate the response. They could and should have foreseen that a tactic that perpetuates gender stereotypes might go down badly in a campaign about combatting those stereotypes.

If you’re planning on any hashtag campaign, invest some time in planning. Before launch ask your entire team to think of all the ways in which it could go wrong.

Conducting a campaign pre-mortem like this helps you to identify and mitigate the risk things will go wrong – and help you plan what to do if your hashtag becomes a bashtag.

Hashtags are still one of the most effective ways to build engagement and participation with a campaign. While #HackAHairdryer highlights the risks in running social campaigns, it also shows that a swift apology can limit the reputational damage. Spend some time planning to avoid and manage disaster and proceed with caution.

Have you had a social campaign go south? What lessons did you learn? Let me know in the comments below.

Social media lessons from Ed Balls

Today marks four years since Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls accidentally tweeted his own name, and inadvertently became an internet phenomenon.

It was back in 2011 when Balls was shopping for the ingredients for a 14-hour pulled pork recipe in Asda that an aide suggested he search for an article on Twitter which mentioned him. Balls began typing in his name, but a phone call distracted him and he accidentally hit ‘send’, to the delight of the Twittersphere.

Balls didn’t delete the tweet afterwards, apparently because he didn’t know he could. It has since been shared over 37,000 46,000 times. Tweeting Ed Balls became an internet meme – spawning photoshopped pictures, celebrity endorsements, media coverage and even fame on London’s tube network.

In 2013 internet users began marking the anniversary of the tweet’s now-legendary publication, tweeting Ed Balls at 4.20pm GMT. 28th April is now known as Ed Balls Day.

What can we learn from this?

  • Memes and social media backlashes can come from anywhere. While Balls is in the public eye, even private individuals can find a single tweet can make them a target for mockery or even hate. Balls was lucky; most people just found it funny. However, social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media. This story about comms professional Justine Sacco’s very ill-judged tweet is a salutatory lesson.
  • Tweet in haste, repent at leisure. Ed Balls’ attempts at multi-tasking made him the butt of many jokes. Take a moment to proof your social media posts, particularly if it’s anything important or serious. (That includes checking the links. I once tweeted a link to some underwear I was buying online when I meant to share a news story. #awkward.)
  • The internet never forgets. Balls’ eight-character mishap happened four years ago, but it’s still very visible. Be mindful of your digital footprint. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be found, mocked, distorted or misinterpreted – even years later.
  • Acknowledging mistakes can earn you (some) respect. Four years on, the offending tweet is still up. And that Balls has accepted and even joined in the (largely good-natured) ribbing has earned him a little respect (alongside the inevitable laughter at Twitter incompetence).

UPDATE, 4.20 GMT: Ed Balls responds from the campaign trail:

300 Seconds in London and Manchester

It’s hard to believe we came up with the idea of 300 Seconds just a few months ago, as a way of helping women in digital to gain confidence and experience in speaking in public. We hoped that by giving speakers the opportunity to gain experience and develop their skills, we could help to tackle the lack of diversity at tech events. 

Our first two events were amazing, packed with great new speakers confidently and articulately sharing their stories and experiences on a wide range of subjects – proving that there’s a vast well of talent out there for conference organisers to tap into. We’re blown away, too, by the individual success stories we hear from our participants – of gaining confidence, of going on to present to big crowds, of new jobs gained.

So we’re absolutely stoked to be hosting not one but two 300 Seconds events this week. This week is Internet Week Europe, a week-long celebration of Europe’s thriving digital industry, and what better way to celebrate than to share stories and successes in our trademark quick-fire format?

Shoreditch

Just a fortnight ago I met up with Rosa Birch, one of the women behind Ada’s List, a new online community for women in tech, and together we hatched a plan to bring 300 Seconds to the first ever Ada’s List meetup. So we set ourselves the challenge of organising our biggest event yet in under two weeks.

The Ada’s List and 300 Seconds teams have been working hard to bring together a line-up of speakers that meet our mission: giving women in tech a platform to showcase their skills and a space to share stories, advice, tips and knowledge. We’re also really lucky to have Internet Week’s Festival Director Caroline Waxler, who will be over from New York, open the event for us.

Tickets are free and I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have signed up. Men are most welcome too. If you’d like to join us, there’s still time to RSVP via Eventbrite.

Our speakers have been confirmed and are:

We’ve managed to get some great sponsors too, so huge thanks to them: AccentureDXWMade by ManySleepio, and Swiftkey.

Other details are:

When: 12th November, Tuesday, from 6.30pm to 10pm
Where: The Village Hall, Shoreditch Works, 33 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN

Read more about the Women in Tech meetup

Manchester

At the same time, Ann and I have been busy since the summer planning our first 300 Seconds outside London. BBC R&D’s Ian Forrester had been looking for ways to improve diversity at tech events for some time, and invited us to bring 300 Seconds to Media City in Salford.

They said: “Working with BBC North, BBC R&D are proud to be part of an initiative that aims to give support and a voice to those who find it a challenge to make themselves heard, and to promote the role of women in the digital community.  We know that the north-west is home to some fantastic talent, and we’re excited to welcome them to MediaCity to share their ideas and insight with us.”

Read more on the BBC R&D blog.

Our speakers are:

Details:

When: 14 November, from 6pm
Where: MediaCityUK, Salford

A handful of tickets are still available.

Read more about the Manchester event.