digital reputation

Advertising is not Marketing.

So stop shouting and start a conversation.

I don't think many people in the big tech corporations understand that Advertising is not Marketing.

Advertising is only a small part of the brand-building and sales process for most companies, so when networks like Facebook spend all their time trying to find new ways to deliver ads — at the expense of facilitating real conversations — it winds me up a treat.

Last week I had a brief Twitter conversation with the respected tech journalist Ian Betteridge, who had written a piece for PC Pro, “Facebook wants to redefine the future of business communications.” I felt that it was a bit too gushing, and as is often the case with the technology world, focussed on tools that might suit a handful of global mega-brands, but that will be out of reach for of 90% of normal companies.

Ian pointed me to an excellent article by Paul Adams (former Global Head of Brand Design at Facebook) that rationalised Facebook’s new tools and approach very eloquently. The tile is a perfect synopsis:

“The future of advertising: Many, lightweight interactions over time”.

He’s absolutely right, and he makes lots of great points, but I would playfully suggest that he’s several years behind. That’s been good social media practice since the last decade, and it’s been a golden rule of PR for several decades. He’s refining the point, of course, and adding some very interesting tech-powered angles for Facebook and advertising generally, but the philosophy is far from new. I think that advertising might just finally be catching up.

I've quoted him before, but former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, was right on the money when he said (in the 90's) that:

“A brand is a living entity — and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.

For me, advertising has always been the big, brash, loud and shouty part of marketing, soaking up the lion’s share of budgets, attention and kudos for success — but it’s always been entirely one way. Advertising has nearly always been a powerful transmitter, set to broadcast far and wide, but with little or no capacity to receive and vitally, to listen.

And most people don't like to be shouted at. They want to be listened to and to have a conversation.

A Sales Director I used to work with neatly described advertising as ‘air cover’ for his sales team troops. You will struggle to win a big war without the shock and awe of mighty airpower, but the battles are always really won, man to man in short sharp exchanges. Hundreds of lightweight interactions indeed, but they sure as hell weren't advertising exchanges.

His sales team also knew that you’d never get a sale with your first ‘touch’. It’s one of those truisms that regularly get posted around LinkedIn, that it can take up to eight touches to get a sale. The customer sees an ad, reads an article online, reads a review, watches a YouTube video, connects with an account manager on LinkedIn, sees an ad on the tube, reads another article, hears a mention on the radio, visits your stand at a show, Googles all your competitors’ websites…. before giving you a call to discuss a purchase. Advertising plays its part, it may even start the process, but it’s only one small cog in the machine.

I've written before about my experience of the role of digital tools in the B2B sales process, and I think that this, from a couple of years ago, when I was at tech company Novatech, is still very relevant:

“ My company is a business IT supplier with a powerful e-commerce website that turns over tens of millions, but last year we grew over 70% in the direct sales part of the business. That’s the bit where ambitious sales humans call put-upon IT managing humans and together they banter and haggle and bitch and moan and share stories of goals, stroppy wives, fast cars, missing shipments, excellent service and deals are done. The sales team use digital tools like email, IM, social media and website monitoring to oil the wheels of commerce and to fan the flames, but the real deals are cut between people. Mano y mano.”

And this is why I no longer think that Facebook is a worthwhile place for small and medium sized companies (anyone who isn't an FMCG/Tech multinational) to spend their time and effort. They don’t really understand the difference between broadcast ads and intimate conversations.

It used to be a great place to listen to your customers; to get to know them; to share lolz and to have relaxed and helpful conversations. For a while it looked like a great place to have hundreds of valuable ‘lightweight interactions’ that would be a dynamic part of the brand-building process. But not anymore.

Facebook is deconstructing itself as a social media network and unbundling its services. Its purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp are part of this strategy to own all the essential tools for every exchange we make, so the separation of Messenger was always going to be a prime target for ads sooner rather than later.

What they are aiming for now is to make Messenger a very direct way to communicate with customers — for example with delivery information and simple follow-up purchases — to replace email or texts. Which sounds great and answers my main point. But it’s well worth reading Ian’s article, because it he does report several rather key caveats that all centre on the Big Blue’s intentions to target you with more and better ads in every way they can think of.

When Messenger was part of the main Facebook page/app, it felt like a very personal communications channel and people I talk to still see it as far more intimate than even texting. I suspect that most would have been horrified to be contacted by ParcelForce via Messenger. I know I would.

Facebook’s real modus operandi is to sell advertising, not to provide a free brand-building tool, so this should be no surprise, but that’s why I caution against seeing Messenger as a killer tool for business. Theoretically it checks the lightweight interaction/conversation box (if your customers choose to hear from you), but Facebook still just want to use it to serve you ads really.

Most SME companies don’t have big enough ad budgets to make any of this really work for them, and the brands I have personally engaged with most hardly use advertising at all. But they do all do lightweight interactions very well.

For them and for me, advertising is just one part of a complex and delicate marketing process and for many people it’s often the part that feels the most bullying and most obtrusive.

Ultimately I haven’t seen anything from Facebook yet that says that they will help your company with anything other than the ‘air cover’. My advice to any brand is to look carefully at the tools you use and to make sure that you're not just shouting with air power. Better to send in the infantry for a chat.

The product of a thousand small gestures.

Your brand is a promise, and great brands are promises well kept.

For a business to flourish and to grow, people need to trust you. Your customers and just as importantly, your staff, need to trust that you know what you are doing; that you are committed to doing it with unmatched excellence and expertise, and that you’ll do everything in your power to look after them.

Trust means knowing that you’ll share successes and work together to improve everything you do. Trust means knowing that you’ll fix problems quickly and without fuss, and that you’ll do your best to understand them as individuals (not just as data points or drones).

Trust is about keeping your promises. That’s what your brand is. It’s not your logo or your typeface; they’re just visual signposts like quality kite marks.

Everyone in your organisation from the MD up to the cleaner needs to understand the promises that you are making and how you keep them. The whole team has to buy into it 100%. The very best brands are ones that come from within — they’re rarely hatched in agency brainstorms.

Far sharper minds than mine have defined brands and they’re all right to some degree. I don’t know who originally said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”, but it’s a good line. Here are some of my other favourites:

“A brand is a living entity — and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.” [Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner]

What some companies fail to see is that that from their customers’ viewpoint, their products, services and brands are viewed as one entity”[Richard Branson]

“Your brand is created out of customer contact and the experience your customers have of you”. [Stelios Haji-Ioannou, Founder of EasyJet]

The original Mad Man David Ogilvy said, “Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”

There’s no doubt that creating a great brand takes a long time and a lot of work, but that doesn't mean starting from scratch. If you have had any kind of success in the past it was because somebody liked what you did, so chances are that you've already got a great brand (what do your customers say about you when you’re not in the room?), you just need to remind yourself what it is.

It might be wise to ask your customers, and most definitely your staff, what they think you promise because they’ll probably know in a flash. Promises are usually simple and easy to remember.

The beautiful thing is that a great brand is very simple too. When anyone asks me to define a brand I say that a brand is a promise and great brands are promises well kept.

Die stockshots. Die.

“Who is the girl who answers your phones?”

I don’t like stockshots. Stockshots lie. They are a big fat corporate fib that no one really believes. They’re not real and they are not telling the truth about your organisation and I refuse to use them. Does that girl really answer your phones for a living or does she sashay down catwalks for Models 1?

Of course that’s a deliberately provocative paragraph and there are lots of ‘yes buts’. If your brand relies on aspiration like fashion or phones, it’s probably wise to make sure that the person wearing/holding your stuff is easy on the eye. That’s partly because usual or ordinary looking people actually stand out and distract from the product, and partly because we've been brainwashed by over a hundred years of advertising, that we want to wear and use what the beautiful people use and wear.

But that’s arse really. ‘People buy from people’ is a cliche because it’s absolutely true. When you’re selling a human product like a service, or you are claiming any kind of authenticity about your work, then yes it damn well does matter if your pictures fib. Doubly so if you’re a B2B company, selling to other businesses. Why? Because it’s all about trust dummy.

My word is my bond, but my brochure is all piffle and piss.


Who the hell are these people and what on God’s good earth are they doing?

They’re sure as hell not having a meeting like any I’ve endured. Why is he presenting so close behind their backs? Wouldn’t it be much more comfortable if he was in front of them? And what’s that graph all about? Or is it art? Is he explaining the nuance of an abstract expressionist painting? “It’s a bit Miro. Quite Mondrian. Ultimately it’s derivative and ….”

It’s tosh and no one relates to it, no one believes it and it doesn't help in anyway to sell your stuff. You’re deceiving people rather than winning their trust.


This one was thrillingly titled “business successful meeting office colleagues have”. It sounds like it was translated into Japanese and then back again by a Google Translator algorithm. And that’s what it looks like too. It’s mangled and doesn't really make sense. I could probably work out what you're trying to imply about your successful team, but it’s visual gibberish.

No one but American senators wear ties like that now do they?

They are real people, yes, but they don’t work at your office and they are not having a business successful meeting for your company. So what are they doing gurning away on your website? What are they doing for your brand?

Stockshots are expensive too and if you use more than a handful they’re far more expensive than a half decent photographer. With a photographer you get two very important things: 1. To keep and own all the shots and 2. Truth.

The very best decision I made at my former company, Novatech, was to hireJoe our in-house photographer. We’d used the talented Paul Hames, who proved that amazing imagery was possible despite our utilitarian premises, but when we needed to expand our creative team we went looking for a graphic designer.

It was another Paul, our head designer, who actually chose Joe and it was down to his photographic portfolio rather than his InDesign skills. Joe was NME’s live photographer of the year and his collection of snarling punks and sweaty stage divers was undoubtedly brilliant, but there weren’t many people building computers.

What Paul rightly spotted was that Joe could give us our own visual identity that would be far more effective than logos, and that it would be compellingly real. We sold computers, but mainly to businesses and schools. For our customers the relationship with their account manager and the knowledge that the hardware was assembled and supported in Hampshire was the key selling point.

The guts of our PCs were the same as everyone else’s but our people were ours and they were why our customers bought from us.

So Joe showed that.

Sure, you shouldn’t put the teenage apprentice with chronic acne front and centre, but I do want my technology assembled by someone who look likes they know what they’re doing, and they don’t often look like Naomi Campbell. No one does.

Of course it’s not necessary to hire an in-house photographer. There are so many talented professionals out there who not only make stockshots totally unnecessary, but also a waste of money. You might think that your offices and your staff aren't attractive enough, but as my photographer friend Paul Hames pithily explained. “You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter”.

It’s very simple really. Sure you should have a shave and comb your hair, but be yourself. Let people see behind the scenes. Let them see how you tick.

Be real. People like it much better that way.


A rich digital tapestry really matters.

Put your eggs in every basket you can.

Every January, for the last few years, the lovely people a Valuable Contenthave been kind enough to ask me for my predictions for the important marketing trends in the coming year. I enjoy this kind of crystal ball gazing, mainly because it reminds me what I myself need to concentrate on, but also because it gives me the chance to highlight some great things that the people I admire are doing.

This year I wrote: “In 2015 having a great digital reputation is going to become even more important. Having a rich tapestry of films, conversations and articles across numerous platforms and publications will be essential to building a strong brand and for sales.

The key trick, however, will be sharing useful information and great entertainment that is not your own. Marketing teams have to become curators of interesting and intelligent content, so understanding your customers’ tastes will be vital. Harnessing the dark-sharing style of “saw this and thought you’d enjoy it” will be a killer skillVery few will do it well, but those that do will be the year’s winners.”

I’m going to write more about the importance of being a curator another time, (The masters are Hiut Denim) but the secret of a rich tapestry is in the variety of platforms you use to tell your stories. It’s no longer enough to just have a great website or a great blog. Anyone can be great on their own turf and on their own subject (and that’s of course essential too), you’ve got to be seen and heard in lots of unexpected places.

At my former company, Novatech, we used most of the usual platforms, but we also went wider and started using things like Spotify.

Initially the idea was to help with a graduate recruitment drive, but our regular playlists — crowd sourced each week on a different theme from the Novatech team — became really popular with our newsletter subscribers and customers. It was of course intentional (?!), but it allowed friends and fans to see behind the scenes and into our culture, and showed that we weren’t just tech-head geeks. Our Spotify channel added another dimension to the way people perceived Novatech and our brand. [NB: I recommend theSuperhero playlist and the far gentler Sweet and lowdown]

Like most companies we also experimented with TumblrInstagram,LinkedIn and other networks, but valuable as those all were, they were our property. It’s the foundation of all PR that you need to be seen and quoted in other people’s publications and that’s doubly true online.

We encouraged the sales teams to get involved in discussions in forums and on social media where their prospects spent their time. As a B2B PC manufacturer Novatech always had good coverage in the tech media, but it was branching out into management, accountancy, legal, design, architecture and engineering titles that really helped our sales teams.

These are old networking skills and it’s not a new idea to spread yourself wide, but too many organisations still misguidedly believe that simply posting regularly on Facebook and Twitter is a strong social media policy. If the analogy that social media is like a pub is true, then it follows that limiting yourself to one popular network is like standing in the corner of a very busy Wetherspoons on a Friday night yelling about your services. No one will hear you, and if they do you’ll sound a bit sad and you’ll probably just annoy them. Unlike.

I also added a footnote to my Valuable Content predictions, because there’s another important reason why focussing too much on one social channel isn’t a good idea.

“PS: Unless you’re a megabrand your Facebook page will become a ghost town. Facebook’s management have admitted that less than 10% of your followers will see your posts, so you might as well concentrate on generating and curating great content elsewhere. If your customers share your content on their Facebook timelines, it will still have huge amplification, but don’t look to your own page for traffic and conversations. The Facebook behemoth is only interested in your advertising spend now.”

At Novatech we noticed some time back that our Facebook posts weren’t having the impact that they once had, but if you sprinkled in a few ad dollars they magically spiked — and then some. Stop the ad spend and they dropped off again. That’s not surprising. Possibly advertising works, but actually in revenue terms that just wasn’t true. The ad-driven traffic was pretty superficial (and often strangely foreign considering we didn’t ship to SE Asia). Unsurprisingly, organically generated engagement was far, far more effective, but it was dropping off badly without ad support.

We guesstimated from the analytics that less that 5% of our followers were seeing our posts. Stretching the analogy a bit, it’s like we were in that crowded pub. It’s chock full of our kind of people, but most of our friends had no idea that we were hidden away in the corner amiably sipping a pint and Wetherspoons weren’t about to tell them. Why would they when the big alcohol companies were paying them to shout about their presence?

Here’s the rub. Facebook is too big for most organisations to be effectively heard above the din. Remember Bebo? MySpace? Napster? These were huge communities for a while, but for various reasons they aren’t anymore. Facebook was once a great to hang out if you were a smart organisation — but they’ve grown and evolved and they’re not really interested in your organisation now.

So whilst you should maintain your Facebook page (you never know if you’ll meet someone good in a corner, even of a Wetherspoons), but head out to some smaller bars, cafes and restaurants. Go to the working men’s clubs, the cricket club, the gym and of course hang out on the beach. That’s where you’ll find the best people.

As a footnote, I should clarify that Facebook is still a very powerful amplifier for any company or organisation, but nearly always that will come from someone else posting your stuff, or writing about you. So, as usual, create great stuff — everywhere you can — and let your friends and fans do the rest.

Besides, as a wise wag once said “social media is where people go to waste time. Brands need to be respectful of that”.

The original Valuable Content article with much more sage advice, from wiser heads, is here: