The year ahead and accelerated change

January 2012

If there’s been an overriding theme to this blog in the last few years, it’s been around the need for businesses to keep up with the pace of change in all things digital marketing. And in this context I’m talking about things such as SEO, social search, mobile search, email and data collection as just basic fundamentals, and as a layer or two up a truly immense raft of other topics such as, and I’m simply picking one of countless here, the increasing trend of consumers to interact with multiple media at once – e.g. watching TV and searching and commenting on Facebook at the same time. What’s more, long gone are the days when ‘traditional’ media could be seen in isolation of digital. Indeed, just two weeks ago I suggested to a client that we might consider a QR code (‘quick response’ code which are the funny looking square things with lots of pixelated shapes you see on printed media these days) on our large printed graphics for a forthcoming trade show. And why might that be a good idea? Because, for one, visitors to the stand could simply scan the QR code on their smart phones and immediately have access to a host of detailed product information held on the client’s website.

At the start of each year in recent times, smarter minds than mine have predicted what’s in store for us in digital marketing, but even some of these people have often underestimated the pace of change. However, for this year the money seems to be very much on the growth of social search – so still searching on the web but with results more influenced by your social network (even if you’re not on Facebook – check out Google+ if you haven’t already and see how that will influence a standard Google search). Video, and specifically driven by the changes to YouTube, will also be a greater force as far as search is concerned.

But actually, it’s nearly every facet of marketing which is changing quickly to keep in-line with changes in consumer society – be it society being influenced by technology, or technology being influenced by society. And one such change in marketing is the very people the profession now attracts, and needs to attract, as the shift firmly goes towards those that combine both left of brain skills (creativity) and right brain (analytical), rather than just one or the other.

My focus right now is how I help clients, and in particular SMEs (large businesses are obviously more likely to be closer to knowing what to do), further adjust to this quickening in the pace of change and especially when the client doesn’t employ fulltime marketing people – which is mainly because they don’t need to (not enough for them to do) and / or can’t afford them. Typically, and logically, this advice is about engaging external support in areas such as SEO, social search, adwords, email, data collection, display advertising etc. In fact anything digital which is important in delivering a marketing strategy, but can’t, in the way perhaps placing something like a simple press ad can be, be handled by the internal management team.

And the message for those businesses, both B2C and B2B, who don’t have the internal resource and also still aren’t prepared to sub it out to external expertise, is a very simple one: your future is bleak.

The recent retail figures

If there’s one thing the UK media loves it’s retail figures: If the high street is booming then the BBC and others will give us footage of crazed shoppers bursting through congested doorways at 8.30am to be first in to get bargains, and if the figures are dire (as they have more recently), then images of boarded-up shop fronts and tumble-weed-style-litter is shown blowing down half-empty pedestrianized city centres.

Post-Christmas and as a succession of retailers released their trading figures for the all-important festive period, the media was able to add to the overriding sense of doom and gloom which has descended over our wider economy. However, it wasn’t of course all bad (which I often think actually disappoints some elements of the media…), with some retailers actually announcing relatively strong growth. The reasons for this growth were typically reported as something of a mystery, but even the non–retail analysts amongst us were surely able to identify the key to the pattern: relevancy.

But relevancy in what context you ask? I say “relevant to society and relevant right now”. So does that just mean ‘cheap’. No, definitely not and some of the more premium retailers which performed well prove this. What it means is that it’s relevant in a broad sense and including good value, the best ranging, great service and also a method of great service which is right for the time we live in.

Take John Lewis Partnership who had the best results of all at an impressive 6.2% up. This is a retailer who, though not especially cheap, offer an outstanding customer experience however you deal with them. This is blatantly obvious if you shop in their stores with motivated, caring and knowledgeable staff (take note of these attributes in relation to the ‘partnership’ element of the brand name). The stores are clean, well laid out, and with the best display and visual merchandising in the business. Their ranging is truly outstanding and, for example, if you want a left-handed sewing machine, well JLP will have at least a range of 10 and neatly laid out in order of price (haven’t researched that and there’s probably no such thing – just making a point), plus of course an expert on hand to give you the complete product low-down.

This is all ‘relevant’ to society and relevant right now, because consumer expectations have never been higher but, the problem is, very few retailers actually deliver to those expectations. To a lesser extent than JLP, M&S also deliver, and therefore no surprise that the retailer announced a marginal increase year-on-year. So good for them and worth noting that this success was largely down to their food offer – which definitely isn’t cheap.

I also have a view that JLP has prospered because in an age when so much of the customer service we receive is remote (i.e. online or on the other end of a phone), or, when it is face-to-face it’s often poor or lacks sincerity, JLP’s truly genuine and consistent style of service is now almost unique. In fact for younger people who’ve only known a digital age, it must almost seem novel. In any event, what it unquestionably has to be is relevant and relevant right now.

Now compare John Lewis Partnership to two of the worst performing retailers: HMV and Argos. We all know why HMV’s core offer is no longer relevant – most people download music and don’t buy it on CD anymore. As for Argos, whose sales were a shocking 8.8% down, it isn’t that its offer is no longer relevant; it’s just not as relevant as it used to be. This isn’t just because of the obvious ease of convenience of shopping online with its competitors (think pre-internet – Argos ruled the convenience shopping space), but that Argos’ in-store experience now seems clumsy and old fashioned. What I expect to see when I walk into an Argos is a slick technology-driven system which whisks me seamlessly through a process with a minimum of fuss and visual distractions, and this as a reward for thumbing through my catalogue at home (and the printed catalogue IS still relevant) or making my selection online (but preferring to pick up the goods in store). What I actually get though is a confusing, cluttered and eclectic mix of fixtures, technology, half-hearted display and a jumble of promotional messages, which all adds-up to a retail experience which has little relevance to the society we now live in.

So for me the answer the media missed in its recent reporting around the fortunes of our retailers really is quite simple: John Lewis Partnership is an example of a retailer which is relevant and despite not being especially cheap, whereas Argos is an example of retailer which is now less relevant and despite being cheap.

But how does that explain the disappointing figures from Tesco? Surely Tesco is still relevant? Too right it is, but you still need great vision and leadership to make things work, and I somewhat doubt the new CEO is a patch on his predecessor, Sir Terry Leahy – certainly not as far as peak trading sales strategy is concerned anyway.

A con all consultants and suppliers to the public sector need to know about

I wouldn’t normally write about this sort of thing, and I’ll say now that if you never have supplied the public sector and have no intention of doing so, then no need to read further. If you do supply the public sector though or if there’s a sniff of a chance you just might consider doing so in the future, then I strongly suggest you read on.

About two weeks ago I got a phone call from a very polite and articulate lady representing a company called . I often get calls from people trying to sell me something – which is absolutely fine and I of course accept that’s the way of the word – and always make it my business to be polite and listen to what they have to say. In this case though, it seemed clear that the lady wasn’t calling to sell me anything, but more, possibly, be able to introduce me to some public sector work. And this impression very much driven by the direction she took the conversation, which, at times, almost took on the form of an interview. In fact more than 30 minutes into the conversation I even joked with her that when she first called I thought she might be trying to sell me something. To which she laughed and shared my amusement, indeed brushing aside the very concept, which only reinforced my initial view. How wrong I was – I was being conned.

About 50 minutes into the conversation I started to smell a rat, when, pointing out that I was now under some time pressure and could only give her another 10 minutes, she started to change her tune somewhat. “So you ARE trying to sell me something” I said. “Well yes, I’m coming to that” was pretty much the response and she continued to rabbit on about opportunities for me (and me especially – apparently I’d been ‘selected’ by them) in the public sector for lucrative contracts.

Things finally turned a bit sour when I pressed her to email me details of exactly what it was she was trying to sell me, to which she replied “I won’t have time to do that and need a decision right now”. And a decision on what? £6000 for the privilege of me writing a piece for their magazine which would then be distributed to the public sector. I finally had to put down the phone because she simply refused to bring the conversation to an end.

I actually came off the phone more puzzled than feeling I’d been conned, and wondered if I would get a follow-up email and it was all legitimate (not that I was going to part with £6k, or even £10 for that matter). I didn’t get an email – let alone one with a rate card attached. I even contemplated contacting the MD of the company to point out that not only had one of their staff wasted nearly an hour of my time, but an hour of their time also.

But then I Googled and then complaints – suddenly it all become entirely clear and there had indeed been an attempt to con me, as apparently there had been many others in the recent past. Bottom line is that use a range of closely related sales techniques but all with the same aim. I won’t say it’s a scam in the way others have on the web, as I’m not sure it technically is. However, it is unquestionably a con, so be on your guard.

I won’t bore you with my account any longer, but if you want to understand the full picture and how the con pans out in more detail, then take a look here

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