Albert knows best?

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This article first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

 

I have recently acquired a new car. I can’t really say I bought it as it still belongs to the leasing company. But it feels like mine. We have christened him Albert.

As with all new cars, Albert assumes I am stupid. He automatically controls the lights and the wipers; sorts out my speed, tells me if I am too close to the car in front and actually brakes for me if he feels I am not taking his warnings seriously enough. He decides on my route, and beeps, very annoyed, if I get too close to anything that might hurt me. When I am foolish enough to try to reverse Albert immediately produces a screen giving a clear camera view of what is behind, with red lines on the screen that I mustn’t cross. What he seems to prefer is that I press a series of buttons so he can park without my intervention. It is quite scary to let go of the wheel and hand over control, but to be fair he does a far better job than me.

In a way this sums up many people’s parenting style. Our job is to keep the kids away from harm, to make sure they don’t get too close to danger; to plan out their route; make sure they can see clearly; not let them do anything stupid or too risky; to protect them from the elements and themselves and do as much for them as we can. Because to be blunt, we are better at it, having had far more practice. We’ve got the experience and a techy car; but our kids have no experience and the equivalent of an 8 year old Cortina

And so we very easily become the automated drivers of their lives.

But of course as they get older things change. Our children are now far better at many things than we are. They want to make their own decisions; take their own risks; try new things out; choose their own routes; sort out their own speed; park for themselves. This is tricky stuff and of course they will get some things wrong, but just as we did at their age, they will become better people as they learn from their mistakes.

The clincher is that I am not sure Albert trusts me: there will always be a bit of competition and irritation as he thinks he knows best, whereas I want to practice and become a better driver.

Hmm. I think I’ll turn the auto park off for a bit.

What is customer engagement?

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Customer engagement is a common phrase these days.  Used by lots of people in many contexts, it is in danger of becoming one of those phrases that can mean just about anything!  Like strategy.  Or love!

So, here is my take on what it is, why it’s important and how you do it.

In short, if you know what your customers (users, funders, commissioners, stakeholders, etc.) think about you, your product or service and your future ideas, you will be more successful.  It really is as simple as that.  This is not reactive, it is not about abdicating responsibility for having ideas, but checking that you are trying to solve a problem that does actually exist, and in a way that the people who might use it think is sensible.

And engaging allows you to do this. 

Engaging is not telling, not broadcasting, and not advertising.  It is a conversation or discussion which aims at understanding the views of your audience.  Using open questions and easy access platforms, you can gain insight into people’s views about what you do.

So start by working out who the people are and how to get to them!  Easier said than done, but make sure that you are targeting the influencers as much as possible, the people whose views will have resonance with others.  And remember to communicate in a way they want to be communicated with, not in the way that you feel comfortable with.  Social media is vital, but only if your audience use it.  I was working with a client recently and talking about all the whizzy modern ways we could send out information to her staff.  Then she reminded me that her home helps did not have offices, computers or any real social media knowledge.  So in this case a newsletter sent out with the payslips was the best plan. 

Then give good content.  Talk about what you are doing, and be frank about what you do not know. Much as it pains me to say it, people can see through PR.  If you tell them your plans and ask for their help, most people are happy to give it.

Respecting individuals means incentivising.  Why should people give you their time and opinions?  One consultation I am involved in at present pays people a small amount in recognition of their efforts.  Sometimes a free offer, or sample might work.  At the very least, make sure they realise that you are grateful, and crucially that you WILL act on what they told you.  There is nothing worse than giving your opinion and having it ignored.

Questionnaires, one to one interviews, formal market research, focus groups, insight interviews, open forums online…there are many options.

The key thing is to do it.  Try, fail, learn and try again.  And getting expert help is crucial.

Engagement works, and the only real failure is not doing it at all.

 

Chocolate Productivity

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Note : This blog first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette

Do kids eat too many sweets?

I hear lots of people moaning about how parents just spoil their kids with chocolate, or treats.

It is certainly true that most children’s focus on sweets is fairly impressive.  “Hmm, how many mouthfuls of broccoli will I have to eat to persuade the old fella to let me have some pudding….maybe 3, perhaps 4 tops.” I have been tempted sometime to resort to chocolate covered broccoli.Continue reading

Voting

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Note : This blog first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette 

I was in the pub with my two children the other week and they started talking about Scotland. ( I should emphasise that we were having lunch after a good long walk.  Well a walk from the house to the pub anyway.)

This was not a “what do Scotsmen wear under their kilt” type of sniggering conversation, or even a “what is Hadrian’s wall anyway cos I need to know for school” discussion.  Instead, out of nowhere I was hit with the question “so if Scotland becomes independent, what will their flag look like?”Continue reading

Being 50

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Note : This blog first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette

I remember the exact moment it happened.  

I was wandering around the garden, aimlessly, when I saw a stick.   I should have thrown it for the cat to chase, or kicked it around like any normal person.  No, before I could stop I found myself thinking: “that’s useful, it’ll be handy for stirring paint”.Continue reading

Writing Press Releases (“quote…unquote”)

Now that we’ve covered introductions and the structure of a press release, breathing life into a story requires the human touch.

Quotes bring people into a story and, by definition, give it personality.

Adding at least two quotes – ideally from two different people – about a third of the way into the text and again, towards the end, allows you to introduce different perspectives on the idea at the heart of your story.Continue reading

Writing Press Releases (order, order!)

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With introductions out of the way, (see below) we can move on to the second part of our look at what makes good press releases.

Like news stories, good press releases tend to adopt a standard journalistic structure, widely known as the ‘inverted pyramid’.

Essentially, this means thinking of what you’re writing as fitting into a triangle where the bigger, wider part is at the top and the point is at the bottom.Continue reading

Writing Press Releases (part one!)

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Most of the news we read, see or hear in the media every day, starts life as, or includes content from press releases in some shape or form.

Whether they inspire the story, provide a different perspective on it, give the right of reply, or add a position statement, they remain at the heart of the public relations toolbox.

Over the next three blog posts, I’ll cover some basic tips and advice on writing press releases, starting (appropriately enough) with introductions.

Every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The trick is getting all of them – or at least a flavour of all three – into one sentence.

Traditionally, the beginning of a news story (and that’s essentially what a press release is) has to cover the five W’s:

  • Who the story is about
  • What is happening (or has happened)
  • When , Where and Why

So, that single sentence of 20-30 words (ideally) has a lot of heavy lifting to do, in covering the essential facts, as well as being engaging and lively copy.

This also illustrates why a press release has to have an angle – a single idea that provides a hook and gives the narrative shape.

Imagine trying to sum up the entire plot of a complicated movie like one of my favourites, The Third Man, with all its twists, turns, character points and themes in just one line (try this synopsis for starters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Third_Man#Plot).

But key events from the plot or elements of it can be encapsulated in a sentence covering all five W’s. For example:

Writer Holly Martins began a personal investigation into the mysterious death of his childhood friend, Harry Lime, in Vienna, today.

Not exactly Graham Greene but you get the idea: 20 words long and, at 132 characters, just the right size for a Tweet, too.

Keep an eye out for part 2.

Three Little Words

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The rule of three is a powerful one.

Whether it’s in speech, in print, or online, the fact is that emphasising three points in a sentence works.

Deploying the technique carefully can make you seem clear, knowledgeable and authoritative, which is why a lot of politicians pepper their speeches with moments like that.

But there are other ways in which you can make three words work for you.

At the centre of great brands and great marketing are great ideas. Many of the most memorable company slogans are key messages condensed into three words, for example:

Just do it

Every little helps

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Beanz meanz Heinz

In any business, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of branding. Everyday concerns like managing people, dealing with customers and balancing the books leave very little time to focus on the heart of what makes you stand out from the crowd.

And if you don’t have a strong grip on your brand, you’re probably just treading water.

Or you could be sinking.

Branding is about more than successful PR, marketing, websites, events, graphic design etc… Underpinning all that ‘fun stuff’ is a lot of hard work on making sure that every aspect of an organisation relates to a powerful central idea.

To see how three little words can start to make a big difference, try this exercise:

  • Get a large, blank piece of paper and a pen
  • Think about your business and write down all the words you can think of to describe it, until you have at least 30 words on the page
  • Spend a few moments looking at the words again
  • Circle the words you think are most inspiring ways of describing what you do
  • Pick your three favourite words and write them down on a separate, smaller sheet of paper (a Post-it note is ideal)
  • Keep that note close at hand and look at those three words at least once every working day.

If you’d like to put more energy into getting to the heart of your brand and making it work harder for you, drop me a line: [email protected]

Elementary

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All successful brands have a set of guidelines that underpin every aspect of the way they communicate – from marketing and advertising, through to key messages and PR.

I thought it might be helpful to summarise the main elements:

Name

What’s in a name? Pretty much everything. The word, or words in themselves can’t convey too much in the way of ideas but whether a name is descriptive (Mark Wall Communications), associative (Vodafone), or abstract (Orange), its job is to become loaded with meaning… and it helps if it doesn’t mean something rude in another language.

Logos

Sometimes a picture speaks a thousand words and having a recognisable symbol, badge or insignia attached to your brand opens up a whole world of visuals, including…

Typography

From the style of your logo (whether it includes, or sits alongside your business’s name) to the choice of font your emails are composed in, using a distinctive form of typography (definitely not ‘Comic Sans’) creates and reinforces brand recognition.

Colours

Another key part of your logo and your overall style is consistency in the way you use colour. Think of Barclays, for example and it’s hard not to recall the particular shade of blue that’s used in everything from their signage to the edges of their credit cards. Or take the main supermarket chains: green (Asda), orange (Sainsbury’s), blue (Tesco) and yellow (Morrison’s). Colour is all about creating a sense impression and brands increasingly think about things like sound, texture and taste in the same way.

Tone of voice

What you say is important but not so much as how you say it and making sure that both things are consistent. Do you want your brand to sound calm and authoritative, or maybe your style is cheeky and anarchic? Getting your tone of voice right is vital – and it has to match your visuals.

For help with branding and making sure your business gets the recognition it deserves, drop me a line: [email protected]