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Every year Mary Meeker from Kleiner Perkins shares her comprehensive report on internet trends. The report not only provides a great snapshot of technology trends and developments, but also a useful backdrop to compare how the communication profession is tracking on these changes. In this post I’ve selected a few highlights from the report that have particular (or potential) relevance to communicators, with a focus on internal communications. I’ve included questions (in italics) that should provide fodder for discussion among communication professionals.

  • The internet has become increasingly mobile. Devices have made access possible from anywhere anytime, and content has shifted from text to photos to video. Will PR and internal communications follow this trend of rapid evolution to multi-media mobile outreach? (Many companies are still trying to adopt responsive design.) Can “buy buttons” be replaced with other relevant alternatives?
  • Meeker presents a great example of innovative IC – an employee manual from Guidespark that is entirely digital and accessible via mobile. How many companies are still using paper-based files or outdated CMS programs?
  • Consumers can choose from a plethora of messaging apps to communicate with peers and companies; Meeker lists the top ten globally. What is the status, and future, of messaging apps in most corporations? Can employees get 24/7 mobile access to peers without a firewall.
  • Meeker uses one excellent slide depicting the wide-ranging benefits of mobile messaging (e.g. casual yet fast, real-time yet replayable, instant yet secure.) How many of these messaging benefits are available inside corporate firewalls?
  • There is strong evidence in the report that what workers (in this case millenials) want/expect from an employer goes well beyond pay and benefits. For example, millenials expect flexibility at work, as well as a tech-savvy environment that features social capabilities (ideally BYOD) they are used to. They also value training and development and flexible work more than other common workplace perks and benefits. How many companies are focusing their efforts on their training and development programs, flexible hours and other millennial priorities?
  • Consumer expectations for accessing information have changed dramatically in the digital age: consumers want to be able to get what they want when they want it. In other words, the consumer is in the driver seat. How many companies are actively trying to deliver on this mantra with their employees?
  • User-generated content is powerful and prominent in the digital age. As Meeker puts it, content is increasing user-generated, curated and surprising. Are companies encouraging and curating the content and stories generated by their employees? Are employers leveraging their employee stories through advocacy programs?
  • The modern workplace has evolved in several important ways: jobs have changed, technology has changed, worker expectations are shifting with each generation, and the business context has changed, among others. How many of these trends are really being considered and addressed by employers and communicators?
  • Consumers are using social platforms like Snapshat and Periscope to create and share video stories – many in real-time. Are employers providing the tools to allow employees to generate and curate similar video stories – both inside and outside the firewall?
  • The report features strong evidence employers are not in sync with the priorities of millennial workers. It’s about meaning and opportunity for younger employees, not money. How many companies are still basing their “employee value proposition” on outdated, incorrect assumptions?

How many of these trends are top of mind for you and your company?

Like many of my peers, I look forward to Mary Meeker’s annual report on internet and technology trends. Though I always tell clients they need to focus on their own situation and custom solutions, it’s also true that a PR program devoid of context and detached from prevailing technology trends is likely to fail. With that caveat, here’s my take on the highlights of Meeker’s report:

  • Internet becoming ubiquitous: Internet growth around the world continues, with 2.4 billion people now online, and there’s plenty of room for that to continue with huge untapped populations in developing countries. For example, internet reach is only at 42% in China and 45% in Brazil.
  • Digital content booming: The growth of digital information that is created and shared – including documents, pictures, video, music and tweets – has multiplied 9 times in the last five years. And this content is increasingly findable due to being tagged and searchable through numerous platforms. Incidentally, emerging platforms like Vine or Snap are two examples of new options for creating and sharing content.
  • Social Media popularity growing: The use of social media platforms continues to increase. Though Facebook still dominates the global scene, it saw a slight decrease in percentage of users. Newer platforms like Instagram and Tumblr experienced the biggest growth, while YouTube is now firmly established as the second most popular platform (by percentage.)
  • Mobility becoming more common: About 15% of internet traffic is now mobile (up from less than 1% in 2009), and growth of at least 1.5 X per year is likely to continue, if not accelerate.
  • Emergence of “alwaysonglobal citizens: The result of growing mobility options, digital content and transparency is giving rise to more people who are essentially always connected to the internet – no matter where they are or what they are doing.
  • New devices fueling boom: Though smartphones continue to grow in popularity, other devices like tablets (growing 3 times faster than phones) and so-called wearables (e.g. sensor-enabled Google glasses) and drivables (connected cars) are likely to turbo-charge the mobility trend, expand functionality and make everywhere computing the norm.

What does this all mean for the PR/communication industry? It suggests that companies that are already lagging in their understanding and adoption of new technology – whether via social media platforms, mobile delivery or multi-media content – will risk irrelevance and even obsolescence if they don’t adapt quickly. And those that are still using traditional models of marketing, customer service or news management are clearly swimming against the current. New technology has changed how people access information, create content, make decisions, purchase products and even communicate with their peers. There is no longer a safe harbor for companies who believe they are outside the reach of these trends, since their employees, and customers, are increasingly immersed in the always-on environment described by Meeker and others.  Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.

I’ve been in the communication business a long time; now well into my second decade. Though I’ve witnessed many changes as the profession has evolved – most of them positive – there are also several industry characteristics that seem to stubbornly resist progress, almost like anachronisms. These aren’t so positive. Granted, this is just an unscientific tally from my personal perspective, but here is a list of communication quirks, or habits, that I’m surprised to still be seeing in the workplace:

  1. I’m amazed at the prominence of much-maligned PowerPoint as a communication tool. Even harsh critics seem to use the tool – with minor variations and embellishments – even as they attack the platform. Despite the introduction of plenty of new technology and platforms over the years – including more dynamic PP tools like Prezi and new visual options – the tried-and-true model remains ubiquitous.
  2. Interactive, digital 3-D environments like Second Life have a very low profile, and usage, despite the early hype and promise.  A few cutting-edge firms use the platforms for a wide range of communication activities (including secure, enterprise versions for internal use) but many pros seem to have little awareness or interest in this technology.
  3. Corporate communications content is almost devoid of humor, which is so prominent in our digital lives and a key ingredient in the best marketing and entertainment campaigns. I understand some topics are serious, but the PR industry seems to have a deathly fear of humor that fuels work that is needlessly boring and forgettable.
  4. I still see much more “push” communication – or talking to/at our audiences – than “pull” activities, where users can access information they want, when and where they want to.  Genuine conversation – which can be fostered through a range of new social media tools – is even more rare.
  5. Many companies still have no social media strategy. And I’m not talking about a proactive, intervention plan. Many don’t even have a defensive, passive social media program – with a basic employee policy and/or rudimentary monitoring.
  6. While the internet is truly global – a virtual community where distance and borders are irrelevant – many companies are still surprisingly insular and lack basic knowledge of global communication trends and differences. (One example: no awareness or recognition of the dominance of languages other than English on the Internet.)
  7. With apologies to my friends in IT… most IT departments in organizations remain a reluctant partner and barrier to progress, rather than a technology leader or facilitator. Yes, they have to consider costs and risks. But IT’s lack of attention to new technology and thin excuses (we can’t support that third-party platform) has made the function less relevant in many organizations.
  8. Finally, perhaps the most surprising…too many professionals still lead with a tactic at the expense of strategy. It’s the old shoot, fire, aim adage…with a checklist mentality focused on deliverables and activity and not on driving impactful, relevant objectives.  The new version – “can you set us up with a Facebook page” – is simply an updated variation of pushing out the old employee newsletter (without clear purpose or metrics.)

Like in any industry, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. And our bosses or clients – senior executives – are often the ones pushing back on untested, new approaches. But if we hope to position ourselves as smart, agile consultants we can’t fall back on excuses and inertia.

Every year, I pay close attention to Mary Meeker’s annual presentation on internet trends. Meeker, one-time analyst at Morgan Stanley and now partner at Kleiner Perkins, has become famous (some would say infamous) for her internet analysis and market projections. Her presentation and commentary is always worthwhile for any PR professional – particularly given the critical and growing impact of the Web and technology on communications and advertising.

Once again, my reaction to Meeker’s analysis is focused not so much on her conclusions, which are cogent and important, but in the apparent gap between technology trends and the state of corporate communications. Allowing the caveat that my perspective is totally subjective and anecdotal (based on recent first-hand experience with perhaps twenty organizations largely based in North America) I see some notable gaps.

Let me start with a snapshot of relevant trends from Meeker’s presentation:

  • Globalization – More than 80% of users of the world’s top internet properties (including Facebook and Google) live outside the United States. In 3 years, China added more internet users than exist in the U.S.
  • The Web is social – Social networkers around the world now outnumber internet users.
  • Mobility – Mobile technology (led by 3G Smartphones and the unprecedented adoption of tablets) continues to grow at historic rates. Mobile search and access to social networks is growing rapidly. Mary suggests the mega-trend of the 21st   Century is the empowerment of people via mobile, connected devices.
  • Digital content – User interfaces and digital content is moving from text and icons to a new combination of sound/touch/video. Content is now accessed, moved and altered through a simple touch on the screen.
  • Content aggregation – Content is increasingly being packaged, and accessed, though sites that aggregate rather than create original content.

Now let’s compare each of these trends to what I typically see in my communication work:

  • Globalization – Most companies struggle with truly global communications, and rarely make a concerted effort to ensure their content is representative and relevant across their international locations. Call it the HQ syndrome. Many don’t bother to address the most obvious challenge of foreign language in their corporate outreach; English is the default language, even in organizations with a majority of staff outside North America.
  • The Web is social – Despite the tremendous growth and opportunity of social technology, many organizations still hesitate to introduce even the most basic social platforms (such as internal blogs) despite the fact most intranet platforms now come with built-in social capabilities. Even fewer encourage and train their staff to be online ambassadors or interact with customers. Some organizations have yet to introduce employee Web policies.
  • Mobility – Despite the proliferation of mobile devices, only a hand-full of companies I’ve worked for/with use company-supplied or personal devices for communication purposes, and that is often limited to text digests. Even organizations with many remote staff and/or manufacturing environments where workers don’t have access to computers, mobile outreach is limited. Many companies still ban use of iPhones or other Smartphones that aren’t officially supplied.
  • Digital content – Text pushed out via email is still king in corporate communications, with a surprising paucity of original video content, and even less packaged audio (though I’ve seen…or heard…some innovative programs that leverage podcasting and DVDs to train or inform staff.) The ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, which can now feature interesting visuals and compelling design, are often limited to busy, generic text. Photos are becoming more common, but there is rarely a proactive program designed to help create and share original photography. In terms of interfaces, I’ve yet to see an intranet (or many external websites) that’s anything close to the iconic, visualized interface used by many technology providers.
  • Content aggregation – Too many companies still believe in the build-it-and-they-will-come come mantra, limiting their online presence to official corporate sites with dubious prospects. (The obvious exception is companies that market and sell online.) Most content on corporate sites is usually produced by the organization, and often self-serving. On the internal side the same trend applies, but with even less access to external content or feeds. Usually, a fairly rigid hierarchy of approved authors prevents staff from being active content contributors.

Even allowing for aversion to risk and cultural differences across workplaces, I’m surprised our profession appears so out of step with emerging trends. From personal experience, I know it’s difficult to go against corporate inertia, but we risk losing our credibility and relevance if we don’t counsel our clients/leaders to consider these trends and look for opportunities to innovate and improve.

Universal McCann’s latest “Wave” global report – which they claim is the longest running and largest study dedicated to social media – provides an essential statistical benchmark on the evolution of social media. The key findings this year are no surprise: the survey of thousands of global internet users confirms that social media remains an explosive, dynamic phenomenon that is changing how we interact, think, feel and behave. This particular study focuses on how brands are engaging with consumers in social media.

The big takeaway from this study is that data suggests there is huge demand for a more social, interactive relationship with brands online. Almost half of active internet users – who collectively visit social networks 1.5 billion times every day – are joining brand communities. This is occurring despite a steady decline of users visiting “official” company websites and the prominence of peer-to-peer brand recommendations. In short, consumers increasingly want to engage with brands in social media, but on the right terms. The key, according to the report authors, is to identify the kind of relationship users want with brands, and to create corresponding social media programs. Put another way, companies must understand the needs and motivations of consumers as a critical first step in their social media planning. The catch is that these needs differ widely by country, topic (or category) and audience – so brands should seek granular information on their target consumers to detail their habits and preferences. This approach means selecting the platform or network comes last, not first. And that doesn’t mean returning to the hard sell, which still remains anathema to many internet consumers.

Here are other highlights of the survey:

  • Social networks have become more embedded in our everyday lives as the range of online activities and frequency of usage continues to increase;
  • Social media use varies widely depending on geography and user demographics;
  • Users have a wide range of motives for accessing web platforms, and select different platforms for different purposes. (Again these motives vary widely by geography.)
  • Though penetration among 16-24 year olds remains highest, the 25-34 age bracket has seen the biggest jump in usage (from 52% to 70% in 3 years);
  • Social networks have become the main forum for social interaction, even bypassing face-to-face contact;
  • Content sharing continues to be popular, though it’s now occurring on a wider range of platforms;
  • Personal blogs and forums are losing some traction, but are also becoming more specialized and targeted. Micro-blogging, on the other hand, has quickly grown into a mass market activity;
  • There’s been a significant shift to accessing social media through mobile devices and applications;
  • On the brand front, primary reasons for joining brand communities (usually on social networks) include learning about the brand/product, getting advance news on products, and gaining access to free content.
The data in this study provides helpful context, and suggests there is great opportunity for brands to engage with consumers online. But the study also confirms the importance of doing your homework to understand the needs and habits of your target consumer, or audience. That’s not necessarily a new approach, but it appears to be more relevant than ever in the changing web environment.

The recent riots in the UK sparked a great deal of soul-searching – including about the use of social media. Many reports noted, with some alarm, that the rioters were using social networks and smart phones (notably RIM’s Messenger service) to plan and execute their dirty deeds. As a result, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering, among a range of remedial steps, to censor or block future communication on these same networks.

This reaction, though understandable, is rash and misguided. For one thing, it fails to consider that social media was also used by citizens to organize clean-up efforts and counter-demonstrations in support of order and civility. Video reports gathered by police and observers also greatly facilitated the identification of the rioters and spurred thousands of arrests. But most importantly, this focus on technology is a losing game, since those with initiative and evil intent (rioters, hackers and the like) will quickly find another channel or tool to plan their activities.

This scenario of social media as both spark and balm during civil unrest is being repeated on a regular basis. A few months ago the city of Vancouver was shocked and disgusted by urban violence and looting during the Stanley Cup finals – some of which was coordinated and fueled by social media. But again citizens of Vancouver used the same technology to plan a massive clean-up effort and to open a widespread public dialogue on the identity and values of the community. In a different context, we’ve seen how social media helped those involved in the so-called Spring Uprising in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. More recently, transit officials in San Francisco arbitrarily cut-off underground cellphone service for several hours to – in their words – prevent a disruptive protest by citizens upset by a recent shooting.

It’s clear that social media technology provides unprecedented benefits – allowing for instant, fluid communication with global reach. And it’s equally clear that this same technology can be used for evil purposes – whether it be pedophiles trolling on Facebook or anarchists using networking platforms to engage and direct supporters. The way to address these abuses is not to ban or censor the channels, but to develop relevant rules of engagement – and laws – that are designed specifically to prevent such abuses. If an individual breaks the rules or uses the networks for criminal activities, then he/she should be punished and/or banned. The response should be targeted and specific, and based on activity rather than speculation. The alternative is blunt, arbitrary shutdowns that punish many for the abuses of the few. As suggested by Jeff Jarvis in this commentary, any social media ban – even if targeted against convicted rioters – sets a dangerous precedent and raises questions about who decides what to censor. This is a valid and important debate, but it requires a balanced, measured approach that acknowledges the positive impact of social media – even in the worst situations of rioting or war.

The folks at AdAge posted an article recently on what they (and others) have described as the biggest social media campaign of the year: Coca-Cola’s global Expedition 206 project, where three “happiness ambassadors” travelled the world to document people’s search for happiness. Based on many measures, this campaign was a huge success, with over 650 million media impressions and huge global audiences across the campaign platforms – notably in relatively immature Coke markets like China. (It likely didn’t hurt that Coke’s social media properties are already among the most popular in the world.)

It’s interesting to note that some observers – including a few commenting on this article – aren’t sold on the success of the campaign. A few critics questioned whether the program had actually translated into a spike in sales, arguing increased awareness or positive buzz was a soft, meaningless measure of ROI. Others claimed they had never heard of the campaign, suggesting the ratings might be hype.

But beyond the debate about evaluating success – which is a big enough topic for another post altogether – I see a few important lessons for all communication/marketing professionals in this campaign:

  • Social media is about people and local markets – The Coke folks developed the campaign blueprint at HQ and leveraged a core team to coordinate the massive undertaking, but used a decentralized approach where local teams (and the personable ambassadors) had flexibility to implement and customize the outreach. It’s also worth noting the prevalence of informal video in this program – a popular and compelling format that is too often ignored in many corporate programs;
  • Be open to learning and adapting along the way – The Coke team freely admits they were flying blind on many aspects of this program, and leveraged the insights and feedback along the way to adjust the plan;
  • Dont’ wait for things to be perfect – It might surprise some that even a social media leader like Coke launched this campaign knowing their teams would have to stretch to implement the campaign (for example, requiring a higher level of coordination across marcom groups and forcing many local teams to become more familiar with social media). Sometimes a campaign is the impetus for organizations to raise their game and overhaul technology and/or process…and that’s not a bad thing;
  • Face-to-face still matters – Coke used a wide range of virtual activities in this campaign, but complemented the robust online tactics with critical local meetings and testimony by the ambassadors, which in turn generated much of the digital content. The heart of this campaign – as it were – was the personal friendships and outreach of the 3 ambassadors on the ground;
  • Engage partners in relevant communities – The ambassadors reached out to local bloggers, fans and reporters to support their local outreach and extend local word-of-mouth;
  • Be creative – This campaign went well beyond the typical, relatively safe Facebook and Twitter outposts favored by more timid organizations. The result was a campaign that was bold in scope and also much more interesting and lasting in terms of content and coverage.

These lessons were similar to what I experienced at Dell as part of the core team that developed and launched the social media programs several years ago. There were many things we didn’t know when we started, but we never would have learned – or made any progress – if we had waited for the perfect situation. Our focus was on getting the basics right – our strategy, objectives and key principles – but positioned our efforts as a constant beta test…constantly assessing, innovating and improving. Like with Coke, our efforts forced the issue on many fronts (for example the introduction of new technology and upgrades in infrastructure.)

The frenetic, unpredictable pace of evolution in social media doesn’t allow for ponderous, diffident planning more common even a few years ago. Yes, planning and strategic rigor still matter, but they shouldn’t get in the way of great ideas.

One of the challenges of communication planning is coming up with relevant, realistic strategies to communicate with/to a specific audience. Whether the strategic purpose is marketing, reputation management or employment branding, the discussion inevitably reaches the question of delivery and media channels. (One example that comes up frequently in my work is if/how blue-collar employees access the internet from their homes or phones.) Often, in the absence of usage audits or anecdotal evidence, we make assumptions about internet access, hardware and popularity of specific media platforms. A new report on global media trends by AdAge provides some useful context for this discussion.

There are several interesting findings in the study:

  • Facebook (with a user base of 517 million) dominates all other platforms in terms of time spent on site;
  • Media habits in the United States (e.g. the decline popularity of newspapers) are different from other global regions;
  • Television has tremendous reach and popularity in many areas of the world – including many poor markets;
  • Internet access continues to expand, fueled in emerging markets by cheap cyber cafes;
  • Video use is booming in developing markets (like the BRIC countries);
  • Mobile phone growth and penetration is driving most internet usage (due to lower cost compared to desktop or laptop access); and,
  • Digital data content continues to explode – with the latest boost powered by video and movies.

I saw evidence of many of these trends during a visit to Tanzania – where locals could visit internet cafes and guides on Kilimanjaro used phones (all the way up to the summit) to communicate with each other.

These global trends, of course, lack the detail and depth required to adequately plan and execute communications aimed at specific audiences – or communities. Communication and marketing professionals still need to do their homework to confirm the best media recipe to reach a particular group – whether internal or external. The ultimate lesson might be to avoid making too many assumptions; media habits and technology are both evolving at a rapid pace and stereotypes are often based on dubious or outdated data.

One of the most exciting benefits of the Web – and the dominant mantras of innovation and information-sharing – is discovering new sites or tools that reinvent and improve prevailing models. Take TED as an example. I first came upon this cutting-edge conference of global experts – sort of a more laid-back, eclectic version of the Davos Economic Forum – through persistent recommendations via Facebook and Twitter. Then this month I read this article in Fast Company – which argues TED may be a new model for higher-learning. And most of the online chatter I’ve seen on TED has been positive – such as this conference update and this post.

So what’s the big deal? TED is a non-profit group that puts on two annual conferences focusing on a wide range of topics ranging across technology, environment and design (hence the acronym) and posts all the content for anybody to review, download, comment and share at their leisure. No risk of long-winded puffery here – presentations are limited to 18 minutes. And the topics are esoteric and provocative enough to have something to interest most interested observers. The quality and originality of the presentations is consistently good.

Of course, there’s nothing new about sharing speeches or cool presentations online – something sites like Slideshare and even the ultra-serious folks at Davos have done for a while. But TED pushed the transparency and inclusiveness to another level, and some of their videos have racked millions of views. As per their tag line: riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world. And what makes TED special goes beyond their transparency:

  • TED makes a huge effort to be truly global and translate all presentations – often relying on thousands of volunteers to transcribe the text into other languages
  • TED celebrates curiosity and learning – and diversity of opinion – without getting dragged into tiresome polemics or academic debates
  • The 700+ video posts on TED are totally in sync with the growing focus on video content as entertainment and information (or both at once)
  • Observers are encouraged to sustain conversation and even collaborate on issues raised by the TED presentations – think of it as networking turning into action
  • TED is allowing local fans and speakers to license the TED brand to organize their own conferences – though there are checks to ensure the quality remains high

Through this process, the TED folks have shown that giving away the store does not preclude having a sustainable business model.  There are some who question how organizers can retain their unique brand equity – and cool factor – while being open and decentralized (witness the recent snafu about Sarah Silverman’s risqué and not-so-funny presentation) but whatever happens TED is another example of the intellectual vitality and economic potential of online networks.

The past few weeks have provided a fascinating example of how integrated social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become in our communication habits. They also seem to be providing a strong boost to the profile and shelf-life of big cultural events like the Grammy Awards, Olympic Games and Super Bowl. As suggested in this article, social media tools seem to have become a magnifying complement – rather than a detriment – to major TV and film events.

This certainly rings true judging only by my own experience the past month, with many posts on my Twitter and Facebook networks providing a valuable real-time overlay of news updates, commentary and discussion on topics ranging from Avatar to the Canada-U.S. Olympic hockey game. And the Super Bowl commercials fueled content for days, ranging from clips to rankings and even mash-up spoofs. The source events provide the trigger, but the social networks provide the virtual water cooler – with the community being as large, diverse and global as your personal network allows.

There are several lessons one can pull from this development. One is that announcing the demise of network TV – or even movie theaters – was likely premature, if not totally erroneous. Another is that predicting the impact of technology remains a highly imperfect science fraught with missed calls (did video ever kill radio?) But perhaps the most important for PR professionals is how social media platforms are integrated – if not essential – in the communication habits of millions of people. Whether it be about award programs, sporting events or more serious topics like natural disasters and scandals, social media platforms have become a critical forum for information-sharing  and conversation. Is there any possible excuse left for organizations not to participate?