QR isn’t an end, it’s a means

QR seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own over the past few weeks. Not only have I seen far more of the codes in the wild, but there seems to be many more people writing about it, many more news articles – and also (which is nice) – lots of people emailing me to ask how they can “do QR”.

Google Trends graph for "QR"

QR is a great technology. Actually, no – it’s an ok-ish technology. The more important thing is that the awareness means gains in popularity, which in turn means more people will know what a QR code is, how to use it – and also make them aware of some of the foibles. As with anything, this isn’t about how awesome the technology is. Many, many geeky people will tell you QR is crap – which in some ways it is per se – but the important thing is market penetration, expectation, device support – and (most importantly), the content experiences which underly it.

Underlying the concept of QR though is something rather more important, which I think many people miss in their rush to play with the latest and greatest thing. The important thing is this: QR is a way of poking the digital world into the real world. In a way, QR is simply one technology in a line of technologies that does this. Remember the first time you saw a URL on a piece of print advertising? That was digital poking into real, albeit in a slightly crap way. Then bluetooth. Now QR.

Ultimately, the concept is the same in each of these cases: put a marker in the real world which allows your audiences to connect with content in the virtual world.

The technology with which you do this can be agnostic. This year it might be QR. Next it might be NFC or AR. The following – who knows, image recognition / hyper-accurate GPS / whatever. The facts remain the same:

First: People have to have a desire to engage with the marker in the first place. Why would you go to the effort of scanning a QR code with no knowledge of what that code might provide for you? Nina Simon just recently blogged about QR Codes and Visitor Motivation which asks this question. The cost curve – as always – has to balance: the value that your user gets out must be greater than the effort that they have to put in – and (almost more important), you have to make this value clear before they scan.

Second: A proportion of people will never take part / have the technology to take part. QR scanning (or – even more so – NFC or whatever the next big thing is) will be a niche activity for the foreseeable future. Bear in mind that not only does your user have to have a QR code reader installed, they also need the right kind of phone, an internet connection at the point of scan AND a contract with their provider that lets them use this connection. These things are becoming more real, but it is by no means a given yet.

Third – and possibly the most important – the content that you deliver should add something significant to their experience. This is tied to the first point. Here’s a banner I snapped when I was in London recently:

UCL zoology QR code

If you scan this you get a link to the UCL Zoology Museum (and ironically, out of shot to the left is the URL that the QR code sends you to..). From a user experience perspective, I bet you 50p I can get my smartphone out, type in the url and be looking at the relevant content quicker than you can boot up a QR app, scan and open.

In this instance, you do actually end up at a mobile-friendly site and some interesting links to QR technologies in use at UCL – which is fantastic. But the use case and motivation aren’t really articulated in the physical world.

Finally – you can easily put some measures in place to track usage, and use this to inform future activity. Here’s another example, this time from the British Library:

British Library QR

If you follow this link, you’ll find it goes to http://www.bl.uk/sciencefiction. The problem with this is that the URL is the same one as is being used on the poster, around the web and in all their other marketing. So when it comes to evaluating the use of QR – and whether it has been successful as a means to pull in new visitors – my suspicion is the BL won’t have any idea how to separate out these clicks from any of the others.

The simple solution to this is to use something like bit.ly and create a unique URL which is specifically for this QR code. More advanced techniques might include things like appending a string to the end of the URL (for example www.bl.uk/sciencefiction?source=qr) – or using Google Analytics “campaigns” to track these.

(Note that you could also get even more clever by having separate unique QR codes for separate advertising zones or even for separate posters – imagine the impact of being able to track which posters or areas have been most successful…now that’s cool use of a technology…)

Coming back to the beginning of this post – the overriding point here is that QR, and many other technologies similar to it, provide a very exciting way of bringing digital content into the real world. With some upfront thinking, genuinely interesting content can be delivered in this way and users can be made to engage. As ever, though, it isn’t about the technology but about the use, motiviation and content which lies behind the technology. These are the things that count.

It’s all about the communication

Here’s a story for you:

Once upon a time there was a man who bought some hosting. He bought it because he liked the flexibility, freedom and functionality that it offered. He bought it knowing that it was cheap, and that cheap sometimes means compromise: he did this because he isn’t terribly rich, and decided that the risk was acceptable.

The man was happy with his hosting until one day he happened to head over to one of his sites only to find it was down. He tried another of his sites, then another. Also down. He went online to the support site and tried to raise a ticket – nothing worked in the browsers he tried. He emailed Support. They got back and told him there were “some problems”.

Now, 48 hours later, despite repeated emails to Support the only additional information he got was a link to a page showing a [very slow] “bare metal” install (whatever that is) of the offending server.  His sites remain broken. Man becomes increasingly pissed off.

You’ll obviously recognise that the man in question is me. The host in question is http://www.wpwebhost.com/. You’d probably guess that I’m pissed off because my sites are all down.

As it happens, you’re totally wrong about that – I understand that bad shit happens to servers, and I understand that I get a good service from these guys, most of the time.

The thing that has really pissed me off is this: the abysmal communication I’ve had from them about the issue:

  • I had to find out about this on my own. I haven’t had a single communication from WPWebHost letting me know that my hosting is borked. Presumably this means that they have a number of clients who are still – 2 days later – unaware that their sites are down
  • When I did email Support, I also raised the issue that you can’t use the website support portal to raise a ticket – and even sent them a screengrab explaining the problem. Nothing back, just a stock “sorry for the inconvenience, please see this status link” email
  • I’ve repeatedly emailed asking them for ANY kind of ETA – in this instance I have a site with some time-critical stuff on it and making the “bugger, let’s switch DNS and hosting” decision could have been made had I known that 48 hours later things would still be broken.
  • As of time of writing, the @wpwebhost Twitter account also hasn’t been updated since 12th January – not a peep about the current issue

Actually, for the most part this isn’t abysmal communication – it’s NO communication.

So now I’m thinking – righto, I hate everything about switching hosts, but I’m really going to have to think quite hard about doing it.

The huge irony is this – if I’d had ONE proactive email from WPWebHost along these lines:

Hey, we’re really sorry but we’ve had a big fuckup on one of our machines. Your sites are affected. As of time of writing we estimate it’ll take 60 hours to get them back up and running. If you need help switching DNS during this time, please contact us and we’ll be pleased to help. Once again, accept our apologies.

…then I’d probably be much happier about sticking with them into the future.

This isn’t about the hosting. The hardcore geeks among you are already lining up to tell me how many backups, failovers and dynamic DNS switching tools I should have had at my disposal. I know all that, I took the risk. The point isn’t about the technology, it’s about the relationship they have with their customers.

This is 2011. In this world, the people who get this right are the ones who are honest with their customers, not those who try to ostrich problems. If WPWebHost turn around to me and say – “You know what, everything you had hosted with us here is lost” (here’s hoping not, but they’ve already failed with one install, and I’m a realistic kind of person..) – then I’d be in a much, much better mood to accept this if they’d been proactive in communicating the problems they’re having.

Get with the shit, guys.

Strategic digital marketing: don’t be dis(integrated)

I was asked to speak at At-Bristol recently at a gathering of marketing people from the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres.

The topic of choice was strategic marketing. Now, as I made it clear on the day, I’m not – officially, at least – a “marketing person”. Nonetheless, I’ve spent more than a decade working with content-rich organisations on the web, and a core part of my role has been about getting people to stuff. And if that isn’t – at some level at least – about “marketing”, then I don’t know what is.

Rather than doing anything too fluffy and high-level, I thought I’d focus on ten practical activities which ultimately help pull together strategic ways of thinking about digital marketing. The list certainly isn’t definitive, by the way, but it should help…

#1: Develop a Shared Vision

This sounds obvious, but it is actually one of the hardest things to do. When you’re working with cross-departmental teams such as IT, web, marketing, a clearly defined strategy is a difficult thing to agree on. One of the best tricks I’ve found for doing this is to map (visually, if you can!) your high-level organisational strategy to your web and marketing strategies and look for common ground. It helps keep you and your team heading in the same direction, but is also useful for “justifying” digital activity.

#2: Decide What “Success” Is

Too often, organisations have badly-thought-out notions of “success”. Measuring success is easy in a profit-making organisation: leads, conversions, sales – etc. For everyone else, it’s often much harder. Strangely, our organisations often then fall back on “virtual visits” as the metric of choice, ignoring things which can be better indicators of engagement and success.

#3: Use Google Analytics

There’s italics on “use” on this one for a reason. L0ts of organisations have installed GA and use it a bit – but few actually use it properly to try to understand how users are engaging with their content. This is hardly surprising given the huge and sometimes baffling amount of information the system offers you, but nonetheless something to focus on.

#4: Have a Social Media Strategy, Not Just A Presence

In the particular context of this conference, almost all of the organisations represented had a fairly strong presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and so on. But few of them (and this is very common) had a sense of why. Social Media needs thinking about strategically in order for it to succeed in the longer term – and it needs to fit with your strategy and purpose. Sometimes this means not doing it!

#5: Be Aware Of How Your Organisation Fits

This one covers a whole range of stuff, from user testing to things like keyword monitoring and feed-reading. You can’t hope to market your content if you don’t understand the trends, people and technologies of your environment.

#6: Use A Dashboard

This one is for all the “I’m too busy to do all this stuff” people out there. Using a dashboard (for me, it’s a combination of Netvibes and Google Reader) saves a huge amount of time when it comes to monitoring all this activity. The Google Analytics dashboard is the same – use these tools to radically reduce the noise and replace it with signal.

#7: Build Internal Knowledge

Building knowledge within your organisation is often forgotten. Let people know what you’re doing – whether you’re talking about marketing activities, ways of measuring success or wider strategic goals. Send a monthly “KPI” emailing, have a “lunch and learn” session – do whatever it takes to keep people in the loop and break down those organisational silos. If you do this regularly you’ll start to understand what the barriers are and how to remove them – and you’ll probably get some interesting ideas from others about how to improve what you do as well.

#8: Fail Quickly: Be Iterative

It’s as true in marketing as in anything else: try stuff, see what works – build on what does work, kill off what doesn’t. Use things like multivariate testing to rapidly tweak on the fly and then use this knowledge the next time you launch a campaign, send a mail shot or whatever.

#9: Understand Search

Search is a powerful web traffic driver, but it needs to be understood in the context of SEO, “Search Intention” and other factors. Do what you can to get up to speed with how content and links can improve your search engine rankings, and what this means to your traffic and auciences.

#10: Share!

Talk to people at other similar organisations and ask them what they’re doing. Find out what works, what doesn’t, and why. Set up a monthly meeting to discuss your web stats and campaigns, or put together a discussion mailing list. Your peers are probably going to be the single best source of information – use them!

That’s it.

What do you think? How do you join up your digital activity in strategic ways in your organisations?

[slideshare id=6090989&doc=developingyourdigitalstrategyppteduformatting-101209093311-phpapp02]

The diminishing returns of size

I gave a workshop last week to a bunch of museums in the North East entitled “Bootstrapping the Web”. Well, actually, it started off as that but following a questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn, the focus changed a bit to “How to do social media well”. I’m hoping the attendees learnt something – I certainly did, which is always great when you’re delivering stuff like this.

One of the things that is readily apparent, both from this workshop and from many of the conversations I have and see, is that many institutions – museums, galleries, businesses – have climbed over the first hurdle when it comes to social media. Many of them – more than you would expect – now have a social media presence. Usually this is a Facebook page or a Twitter account, sometimes it is a collection of Flickr pictures, sometimes a blog.

On first glance, these networks are of value because of their enormous size. Facebook currently claims 500 million active users (that’s, what, about a 14th of the world’s population). Twitter has 200 million or so (or is it a mere 15 million? who knows).

At that kind of scale, though, these networks are just sub-silos of the web. Just “having a presence” on Facebook or Twitter means as little as “having a web page”. We all learnt a long time ago that creating a web page was merely the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg and that all the hard work comes after that: maintaining, driving traffic, linking, content, content, content. These networks differ because of the ease with which they allow network effects to bloom, and they have power when there is a personal nature to the interaction. The size itself isn’t by any means a guarantee of success, and nor is the hype.

This is a big lesson that many institutions – and people, for that matter – are only just  beginning to learn. Social media and social networks aren’t a golden bullet. The ease with which you can set up a presence belies the hard and clever work that is required to maintain this presence.

The thing we talked about a lot in the workshop last week was about how you put social media into a strategic framework: one which asks “should I be doing this at all?” as regularly as asking “how should I be doing this?”. I’ve always argued that we needed a JFDI beginning in order to kick start a more strategic conversation, but the reason for doing it should be made very clear right at the beginning. I (shameless plug) talk a lot about this in my book.

Gartner casts a light on what is likely to happen in the near future: many institutions will fall down the trough of disillusionment as they realise that social media isn’t the save-all that they thought it might have been, and we’ll see interest wane as Facebook pages remain unfriended, Flickr pictures aren’t looked at, and blog posts aren’t visited. The people who have thought about things a bit harder and a bit more strategically – those who are in it for the long game – will weather this storm and realise that the ROI on social media comes later on, and only with more strategic thinking.