Standing Out and Keeping Attention in the Digital Age

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24hrs before Donald Trump – who communicates almost exclusively via Twitter and YouTube – became President Elect I was in conversation with Grant Leboff at the first Comms Hero event in Cardiff.

“He’ll win” said Grant. “He’s changed the narrative. He had the balls to take a position and make an emotional connection with people.”

I’m not sure if we are in a Post-Truth era, but we are certainly moving Post-Comms.

The idea of a communications team as keepers of organisational truth and protectors of brand seems very quaint these days.

The communication revolution is:

Everyone has a channel that they can exploit -and it’s coming down to who’s the best listener and who’s the best at keeping attention.

At Comms Hero I was lucky enough to speak alongside people like Grant, Helen Reynolds, Nick Atkin and Tim Scott – all of whom are great, but very different, communicators. The following is a mixture of my thoughts and their wisdom.

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Let’s be honest – how many of us would follow our own organisational media channels if we weren’t paid to do it?

In the social age it’s all about build audience/retain attention – and that’s increasingly difficult in a crowded social space.

In this perma-connected society where we ALL have attention deficit disorder how can organisations hope to stand out?

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Most comms fail as organisations don’t dare to fail. They don’t have the balls to take a position, and if you have no position you won’t keep attention.

As Grant said – the currency of media is storytelling. During the EU referendum we all said we wanted the facts, but we lied. Our behaviour shows  the narrative and story is more interesting to us.

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Nick Atkin is CEO of an organisation who have taken a position and told a story. Under his leadership Halton Housing has become one of the most recognisable brands in their sector – despite the fact they are relatively small. They’ve used digital media to leverage more attention than organisations with 20 times their resources.

There’s a similarity between Nick and Donald Trump in that both have refused to conform to pre-conceptions of how a CEO or President should communicate. The similarity ends there, but nonetheless they both offer compelling examples of what leadership in a digital age can look like.

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So given these opportunities to redefine comms – why are organisations failing to take advantage?

As  said – there is a lot of risk averse advice on social media being pushed out to HR people. No one wants to be the next test case. Tim advised that we can soon expect to see employers looking for social media skills in the same way they currently look for Microsoft Office skills. I agree – but we are currently a long way from this.

Arguably there has been too much resource and power invested in traditional communications teams and too little democratisation.

Digital comms within organisations is still largely seen as the preserve of the few. Indeed, prefixing everything we do with digital is no longer helpful. Almost every aspect of our lives has an online component, whether we like it or not.  Worklife and communication styles have yet to evolve to reflect this openess and transparency.

After this years round of Comms Hero events I came away cautiously positive that change is finally happening. With its superheroes, in your face marketing and hyper-enthusiasm Comms Hero as a brand excites many and leaves some stone cold. However the guys practice what they preach – they’ve dared to fail and taken a position against traditional comms.

My takeaway:

The only thing not expanding today is our time.  Every time we put something out we need to ask “what’s the story?”

And it better be a good one.

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Disclosure and Credits: I have no commercial relationship with Comms Hero. Asif has bought me a couple of drinks, a few free tickets and a couple of T-Shirts – that’s about it!

Thanks to the fantastic Fran O’Hara for the wonderful sketches

The deck of my final Comms Hero Slot is available here

Six Ways To Kill Email

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Every week more and more organisations are waking up to the tyranny of email, and the part it is playing in the impending death of the office. We spend hours each week , up to four years of our lives, shifting low value (or no value) information from one place in our organisation to another.

Despite this, email apologists will tell you it doesn’t really need to be tamed . There really isn’t a problem: email , for all its faults, is the best thing we have right now.

I don’t believe that for a second.

ATOS chief Thierry Breton , who has banned internal email, estimated that barely 10% of the 200 messages his employees received on an average day were useful. ATOS calculated that managers spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.

Nick Atkin of Halton Housing has announced that internal email will end from this February. He’s said it’s part of a fundamental rethink of how the organisation works, stating “We are taking back control from some of the systems and cultures we have all allowed to develop during the 20 years email has been part of our working lives.”

Email is undeniably wasteful but my problem with it runs deeper.

Email represents anti-social business. It locks down knowledge in silos. It reinforces hierarchy and disconnected thinking. It promotes an insidious system of cc’ing and , even worse , bcc’ing as a way of denying accountability. 

Despite that I do use email – it still has uses, but needs replacing as the default way we choose to do work.

Is it possible to seriously tame email without turning it off completely?

Yes. I’ve managed to reduce the time I spend on email by about 75% by adopting six rules.

The results speak for themselves – when I took nearly 3 weeks off work last September I returned to only 20 emails.

So , in the spirit of open knowledge sharing, here’s my six tips for a saner inbox:

1: Don’t send any 

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself – which is a pretty stupid thing to do. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. There are loads of better tools for keeping people informed of what you’re working on (Note: they probably aren’t interested anyway.)

2: Use WhatsApp for chats

Since the formation of Bromford Lab , we’ve turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It eliminates team spam about cakes and whose birthday it is. And it’s loads more fun too.

3: Create a “Yesterbox”

I’m shamelessly stole this tip from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

The idea: Only deal with yesterday’s emails today. 

The rule: If it can wait 48 hours without causing harm, then you are not allowed to respond to any emails that come in today, even if it’s a simple one-word reply. You need to psychologically train yourself to not worry about emails that are coming in….

You can read an outline of the concept at Yesterbox.com

It’s worked well for me as you have a much better sense of which to prioritise – as well as ruthlessly deleting any that aren’t worthy of attention. Which leads us to…

4: Delete any that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Restrict mail to just four sentences.

If you do get an email from me you’ll see this:

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By cutting down the waffle and getting to the point you save time for yourself and the recipient. The link takes you to this site which explains why verbose mails are toxic. If you want to be more radical you can take it down to three lines, or if you’re really hardcore, two.

6: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions.  Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

I’ve seen radically different results from using these six tips, I hope you found them useful.

Please share any of yours in the comments section – if we get enough I’ll turn it into a slide deck.

Throwback: Our Social Journey (So Far….)

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Your life story is being told by the digital content you produce 

One of the downsides of our digital lifestyle is that we simply can’t retain the information that passes through it.

I couldn’t tell you what I tweeted last week, much less a year ago.

Digital storage is changing our memories. We don’t need to remember specifics anymore – we know they are in the cloud somewhere. Searchable if we want retrieval.

This has risks, as we forget the experiences and learning that shaped where we are today.

Last week I was reminded by Timehop that I’d missed the 3rd anniversary of Bromford on Twitter.

Timehop – in case you don’t know –  is an app that sends users a daily reminder of moments from their social media past. A digital flashback.

It isn’t a new app but popularity has been boosted by trends like  Throwback Thursday (or #TBT) in which people share memories from across the social web.

It’s quite a novelty for people like me. I get reminders of photos I don’t remember taking, never mind posting.

But 3 years of Bromford as a social business? Is that all? It feels like a lifetime..

I’ve met more new and fascinating people in the past three years that I did in the previous 10 – and that’s purely down to professional (and unprofessional) use of social networking.

We should never forget our journey and the people who helped us on our way.

So this post is my personal digital throwback. A timehop through the past three years that brings together some  significant posts and slide decks.

Christmas 2011 – Our first baby steps

This post in which I picked my Bromford highlights of the year sees the emergence of key themes I still bang on about today. Losing the fear factor. Digital leadership. CEO visibility. I’d say transformation is nigh on impossible without those three things.

Spring 2012 – A Social Future

This was a key date – for me personally and for UK Housing. The Northern Housing Consortium hosted what would be a pivotal Social Media conference. It was chaired by Nick Atkin – who I didn’t really know at that point. It’s very easy to criticise digital evangelists like Nick and others but I think people should remember what the sector was like before.
Siloed. Lethargic. Bureaucratic.
The sector really only cared about the big associations – some of whom are now almost invisible in the post-digital world. Nick and the guys at Halton Housing have been genuine disruptors in that sense.
 The conference was also the first to open its doors to (shock, horror) non-housing people like Helen Reynolds.

Summer 2012 – Our first social media birthday

“12 months ago – nobody had access to social media at Bromford. Today everybody does. Unrestricted.

My hybrid work/personal twitter account @paulbromford was created exactly 1 year ago. Our Facebook pages opened 1 year ago. Our 1st blog appeared 1 year ago.

We still have no policy as such. There is no big list of rules. It’s a system run on trust and common sense rather than rules and procedure”

Think that says it all. But you can find more in this post capturing the six lessons we learnt in our first 12 months.

Christmas 2012 –  Myths from the year Housing went social

This attempted to sum up learning – and bust some myths. Here’s my favourite:

“Myth: Our Customers Are Not Online

I knew this to be false when a Customer Board Member emailed me to say they didn’t have internet access. People are online,  but they often choose not to tell their landlord. And sometimes they don’t even realise they are online. A customer recently told me they didn’t need broadband as they only ever used Facebook. Although I don’t deny that exclusion exists – the emerging issue is digital literacy and confidence rather than lack of access.”

Spring 2013 – 20 Things They Never Told Us About Going Social

Originally presented at Housing Goes Digital – this slide deck represents my greatest learning: Keep it simple. Keep it short. Make it fun.

With nearly 90,000 views it’s also my most successful post about social media – by far.

Summer 2013 – Five Unexpected Benefits Of Being A Social Organisation

This post , for Comms2Point0 , gives an overview of the cultural change that has happened at Bromford.

Here’s a quote:

“You Start Talking Like Normal People

Social transforms the organisation’s tone of voice.

Our workplace language has been developed through years of formality – the daily grind of reports and emails. And without us knowing it we passed our jargon on to our customers.

But if you start talking like that in the social space – you look a bit odd. Real people don’t talk about Stakeholders and Efficiencies.

So you start talking you do in real life. Because social is real life. And your customers will love you for it.”

Winter 2013 – How social helps us cross organisational borders

This post – on the rise of super-connectors – points to a future of new possibilities. A time where we have moved beyond talking about social media and concentrate more on social business. This is what I find most exciting about the new world – where our organisations are a lot less important than the networks they inhabit.

Summer 2014 – How to be a social media superhero

This brings us up to date with lessons from #powerplayers14 and a fun analysis of social media behaviours.

That’s my personal Timehop.

Here’s to the next three years!

The Great Divide?

Residents of social housing are , pretty much , excluded from access to the internet. If you believe everything you read.

Grant Shapps MP once said Social Housing tenants live in a “digital apartheid”

Martha Lane Fox has said that “Almost half” of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing.

This week Jake Berry MP  went even further-saying the ‘vast majority’ of people living in social housing have no access.

So what are we to make of this?

Of the last 300 working age customers to join Bromford , 99% said they DO have access.

My conclusion? None of us have any idea what we are talking about. Me included.

Talking about this on Twitter yesterday made me even more certain that these statistics could be leading us up the wrong path:

Boris Worrall shared some of the work Orbit are doing – which indicates that far from being a “vast majority” – about a third of residents remain offline.

This comment from Nick Atkin pretty much goes to the heart of the matter. We are still obsessed on counting fixed access in the home in a world that’s gone mobile.

Kingsley Iball made the great point that there are huge knowledge gaps in some users of smartphones about their capabilities.

Broadband. Mobile. Wifi. 3G. 4G. The problem for UK Housing is many of our customers don’t understand this. People simply aren’t sure whether they have access or not.

And the drive to get everyone online can disguise the real challenge. Digital literacy.

“If you want to work on the core problem, it’s early school literacy.” 

 – James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

Both my Mom and Dad have “access”. In the home. Decent broadband. Good kit. But they are a world away from being the 21st Century “Digital Citizen”. Dad can check the Wolves scores and Mom can find Waterloo Road on iPlayer. That is pretty much it.

We need a different dialogue with social housing customers.

It’s why every new Bromford Customer now gets a Skills Assessment – including online capability.  It’s a plan that we will start rolling out to existing customers. And we will use the people best placed to do it – members of the community that have seen the benefits of life online.

There are real barriers against access to the internet , most notably in rural communities and amongst the elderly.

But let us get our facts right and make sure we solve the right problem.

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