Markets are international conversations

This article was first published in the Lansons newsletter, focusing on an international theme.

I’ve often obsessed about the social connections between humans, as if somehow the act of touching one’s hand passes on a secret ingredient. In the first year of University I got to shake hands with Stephen Fry, if only that was required for passing a degree. Imagine all the people who he had met, who in turn had met others.

It was American playwright John Guare who first publicised through his play Six Degrees of Separation that the world may be smaller than we think. The theory is that between you and David Cameron (or your uncomfortable Tinder date) is five other points of contact. Just five people are between you and anybody else in the world. Microsoft provided some meat for this theory in 2008 by analysing 30 billion messages on Microsoft Messenger in 2006 that concluded a 6.6 degree of separation[i].

Now Facebook, arguably one of the most connected and actively used social networks in the world has revealed that we’re just 3.57 degrees away from each other (at least among the 1.59 billion people active on Facebook). Leaving our next question not to dwell on degrees of separation but to think, why did we feel the world is bigger than it is?

You can find out your average distance through your Facebook account here (mine is a lower than average 3.32). No matter where you were born, what your upbringing was like, or what you do for a living, the human race really is one big family; all 7 billion of us are connected with each other. It’s only been in the last 10 years that social media has allowed us to explore the depth of this truth for the first time. Not only as an impact on our social lives, but as a fundamental truth about the internet, it’s international.

It’s also never been more accessible. Across the European Union (EU) the average internet penetration rate stands at 79.3% – that’s 402,937,674 people with internet access. Of all 28 countries only 11 fall below the accumulative average; Romania the lowest at 56%. In a global study of 240 countries 3 billion people were found to use social media, with 2 billion social media accounts detected, 1.6 billion of these used frequently, considered active.

EU Internet penetration rate

Think of it this way, there are now more internet connected devices on the planet than humans. Not surprising considering the average British household owns over 7 internet-connected devices[ii]. An infrastructural challenge recognised in the late 1980s when IP address exhaustion was mentioned for the first time[iii].

Organisations need to adapt

Our ability to quickly access information and express ourselves online has fundamentally reshaped our public, private, and personal lives. The World Economic Forum’s report on Digital Media and Society focused specifically on this aspect of modern living, “Around the world, people now spend more time using laptop computers and smartphones than they do in other daily activities, and our ‘connected time’ is on the rise”[iv]. Increased usage has proliferated into an array of varying internet-connected devices such as laptop and desktop computers, tablets, smartphones, and wearable technology.

Such developments challenge traditional business models across a multitude of industries as peoples’ behaviours and expectations change in an internet-connected age.

In the UK electronic patient records challenge patients to be data literate with their health[v], in financial services banks across the EU will need to soon face the challenge of providing standardised API access[vi], and in media relations web 2.0[vii] has challenged traditional news structures. Only recently The Independent confirmed an end to its print edition, instead working towards a digital future[viii].These advances challenge organisations to make a cultural shift, maintaining an internal infrastructure that is able to join in with online conversations. This is because markets are conversations and consist of humans with interests, not demographic sectors[ix].

Social networks encourage connections, interactions, and relationships between people. They are more than cold channels to push marketing materials, they provide the infrastructural means for social connections to be made between people, regardless of geographical boundaries.

An active international social networking community exists for all organisations, as media relations becomes an optional part of public relations. For highly regulated industries, such as financial services and health, social media can be challenging to adopt and require investment. Regardless of whether this investment happens, online conversations continue globally.

The challenge today is to think beyond publications and digital communication ‘channels’. These are not mindless pipes to broadcast information, but international communities who gather around interests. Whether these are passions, questions to solve, industries – degrees of separation haven’t just shown the world is smaller, but highlights pockets of activity.


This can be visually seen when ‘memes’ are shared as shown in the tragic case of Twitter’s most influential moment last year with #RefugeesWelcome. It’s impossible to shift the image of the three year-old Alan Kurdi whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey.

It sparked an international movement, tweets that had the potential to influence foreign policy. Data shows how the first tweet appeared of Alan Kurdi in Turkey, which in 12 hours reached 20 million people around the world[x]. Conversations shifted from ‘migrants’ to ‘refugees’ overnight. #RefugeesWelcome is a sensitive case that examples a significant ability of modern public relations; tracking message changes and influencer connections to the minute.


I’ve always obsessed about the social connections between people and organisations, and this has never been more important, especially as international social media usage increases. Social media sites are not cold marketing ‘channels’, they are communities who organisations need to engage with as peoples’ behaviours broaden from traditional media relations.


Where social media won in the election (#GE2015)

Nobody predicated the 2015 General Election would end with a Conservative majority. Frustrating, as that was going to be my optimistic bet Thursday morning. Even the exit polls Thursday evening showed mixed opinions (although the BBC’s was certainly in my favour). To quote the comedian Tim Vine “Exit polls are on the way out” and that’s exactly the public reaction today.

What isn’t on the way out is social media and its effectiveness. As far as I’m aware, the only serious study to understand if social media can predict election outcomes was conducted by the University of Warwick (their latest post here). Other studies were the product of social insight tools marketing their abilities. Although you don’t need to be a mathematician to know people do not always tell the truth in public, for pollsters or Twitter.

University of Warwick are using Twitter to predict the outcome of the UK General Glection
University of Warwick are using Twitter to predict the outcome of the UK General Election

Where did social media win in the General Election 2015?
If you want to run an effective political campaign then the blueprint has to be the Obama campaign in 2008. It changed the rules of election campaigning because, through its success, proved that social media could be used for real-world results. The secret ingredient was community. It’s the heartland of social media.

It’s the birthplace of the social web, 4Chan and IRC chatrooms, the forum systems that provoke debate. Community is how Wikipedia became a crowdsourced intellectual database that signalled the death of Microsoft’s Encarta.

Blue State Digital devised Obama’s 2008 and 2012 digital campaigns, which were powered by a social media community platform. A platform very similar (or the same – difficult to tell) to NationBuilder. This was the social platform chugging away in the background for political parties in the UK. Without wanting to sound like a sales pitch, it connects people who use social media to real-world campaigns, driving results. The way in which it connects offline and online community efforts is astonishing, and was part of the reason why the Obama campaign was so successful… twice.

Just look at the bottom of your emails from the Liberal Democrats: email “printed (hosted by) NationBuilder”. I guess they would use the tool, they did help develop it. Anyone can choose to purchase this tool today and it was part of the hidden armoury of political parties in the UK during this General Election. Although where campaigns got really exciting was in the marginal seats.


Highly targeted social media in political campaigns
Lynton Crosby: the man who really won the election for the Tories”, one of the most popular Guardian articles post-election, the subtext now part of his legacy. It explains how the Conservatives won through a highly targeted national campaign, focusing on voters in the marginal seats that mattered. Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to work on the initial stages of a Conservative candidate’s election campaign – getting into the detail of where gains could be made. I was undercover – sometimes candidates choose to hire professionals from London to inject new approaches into their leafy constituencies.

The trick with using social media isn’t to simply setup a Facebook Page or a Twitter profile, then mindlessly broadcast updates. To be honest, it’s not even that effective running these social media channels in an election campaign focusing on just building engagement (e.g. likes, retweets, favourites, comments, etc.). Use these metrics as guidance, but the ultimate aim is election outcome – a real-world impact on state of mind, therefore voting behaviour.

There were candidates during the election who were using ward data to understand constituency voting behaviour, then micro-targeting these voters via social media. We know that one of the ways in which the Conservatives helped reach this goal was through targeting marginal seats through Facebook advertising. I know that a couple of candidates used social media monitoring insight tools to GPS target Twitter users.

The Conservatives used Facebook Advertising
The Conservatives used Facebook Advertising

Outside of these activities, certain MPs stand out as making the best use of social media. The new Conservative MP for my area, Paul Scully, was brave enough to try a growing social media app called CliqStart to rally real-world support. The previous Liberal Democrat MP for my area, Paul Burstow, frequently shared newsletters and was supported in his Councillor wife’s blog. Just across the constituency boundary, Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, held Facebook surgeries.

Paul Scully used CliqStart
Paul Scully used CliqStart

The truth is it’s the large-scale untargeted social media activity that gets noticed. Highly targeted social media tends to fly under the radar. Social media was used extensively throughout this election in my professional circles, but mostly under the radar.

Opportunities were missed
Opportunities were missed during the election:

  • Engaging youth and non-engaged voters: A report published at the end of last year by DEMOS called “Like, Share, Vote” explored how social media could be used to engage the disenfranchised youth and non-engaged voters. At the launch of the report talks explored social media gamification methods, using rich media to instil support, and integrating offline methods into the digital space. The truth is more work could have been done to engage young voters during this election but parties are not interested because most just don’t vote. This election we saw a 58% turnout of young voters. A small rise but not enough to warrant serious campaign investment.
  • Integrating digital into Government: At the start of this year the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy was published. It explored the ways in which digital could be used in elections, including electronic voting, updating laws so they understand digital and how to facilitate political discourse on social media. This all needs to happen over the next five years for a ‘thoroughbred’ social media election in 2020.
  • Integrating digital into local campaigns: Whilst there were examples of good practice during this election, more could have been done. Local newspapers still seemed to be the primary mouthpiece of propaganda! It’s old hat and online communities of volunteers could have been mobilised across the country. It’s a point I believe Stephen Waddington makes in his post “Social media didn’t win anything”. Although I must kindly disagree that this wasn’t a social media election – I’ve done too much public affairs based work to claim this.

Nobody predicted the outcome of this election and now the Conservatives have a job on their hands convincing the UK we are “all in this together” (an awful dictum by the way). Let’s see how political parties of all hues use social media during this parliament – hopefully there will be some innovation.


Could CliqStart re-engage voters with local politics?

Low voter turnout fuelled by a narrative of disillusionment against the ‘political class’ undermines the UK General Election 2015. There is no doubt that our low electoral turnout indicates a poor democratic health, which raises an important question. Could a digitally empowered civil society improve the health of democracy? With only 24 days to go until the election it’s interesting to see how political narratives are being communicated online. Especially to see if adopting digital technologies will allow politicians to connect with millennials.

It just so happens that my local parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party, Paul Scully, has started to ramp up his digital strategy as part of his local election campaign. A message posted on his Facebook page yesterday announced that he had created a new digital campaign team to “… help me convince those around you that it’s important to vote, and that voting Conservative here in Sutton & Cheam will ensure their vote counts”.

To join his digital campaign team he is using a tool called CliqStart, an app for iOS devices that allows people to join virtual campaign groups; from elections to humanitarian matters. It’s incredible easy to use: download it, find the group you would like to join and then you can choose to take actions as part of that community.

What’s really different about CliqStart is that the app is built on the (growing) realisation that a Facebook ‘like’ isn’t enough. If you want to make a change, then you need to make an action. This is more than just measuring hashtag mentions or message reach – it is about convincing a community of people to do something.

Paul Scully’s community gives you the options of canvassing for him, sharing his campaign messages online and pledging to vote for him. You also have the option to donate (of course) and chat with the community’s organiser. As you can see from the screenshots, it’s still early days for Paul’s community but it’s a smart idea because this is different. The app reminds me of the days when forum systems were popular online, before Facebook became mainstream and changed community management forever.

Of course, digital campaigning methods are nothing new to politics. Obama’s 2008 digital presidential campaign was a game changer, showing the voter engagement can be sourced on social media. The company behind this year’s UK General Election is NationBuilder, a community management tool that is specialised to drive grassroots action and is adopted by most mainstream political parties.

To discover if a digitally empowered civil society could improve democratic health in the UK we should look at politicians such as Paul Scully, because effective social media campaigns are always more than a Facebook ‘like’.

You’ll need to think like a start-up in 2015

I’m calling it: 2015 will be the year that communications agencies will need to think like a start-up.

This was reinforced earlier this month with the release of new data from accountants Kingston Smith revealing “Profit margins at the top 40 UK PR agencies declined last year to the lowest level for a decade…” There are a number of reasons for this, and Stephen Waddington provides an excellent overview.

What do I mean by think like a start-up though?

One of the reasons behind struggling profit margins is the challenge of modernisation; meaning everything now involves the big digital question. How is this campaign going to work online?

For the last two years my role at Keene Communications has centred on this question. I was brought in to provide the agency with digital capabilities, drive client results through social media, and beat competition through digital developments.

Even though the agency has a 25-year history, implementing digital approaches has meant thinking like a start-up, even if I didn’t realise it at first.

Quite often the competition reveals itself to be agencies boasting large, often international employee counts. In the spirit of a start-up though, this doesn’t matter. We strive to be at the forefront through developing creative digital ideas that deliver practical results.

And wow, we have developed some fun digital tools as a result. Our cloud server is full of technological toys; many of these experimental tools have already been used to deliver client work.

However, all of these developments over the last two years remain hidden from view. So a new saying has emerged in the office “We’re the best kept secret on Whitehall”; it’s not good. Especially for creativity. The real digital experts lurk in the countless Open Source communities online. For us, for Keene, to properly think like a start-up, we need to be working with our digital partners.

So today we’ve launched Keene Labs, our response to thinking like a start-up in 2015. A project area on our company Wiki where we work with Open Source communities to evaluate and develop promising new technologies that can be applied to our own work.

Keene Labs logo

Because it’s a Wiki, the whole Keene Labs project area is in a constant state of ‘work in progress’! It probably offers a deeper level of intellectual property transparency than most agencies would be comfortable to give away. All the contents covers digital and social media tools we are developing right now. It’s hot stuff.

Do have a look, and if you’re interested in helping develop any of these ideas with us or would like any information, just comment below.

Social Media changes everything about Public Affairs

When Keene Communications secured a slot as an independent event at Social Media Week London, I knew that our talks and debate had to be different. Too much of the social media space is filled with repeated discussions, clichés and a lack of technical understanding. The vast amount of social media events are aimed at the consumer, this is not our focus at Keene on the public affairs side.

Since the beginning of last year my role at Keene has been to drive digital across our strategies, methodologies and tactics. Our clients need to achieve serious objectives, social media needs to feed into this.

Our Social Media Week event featured four established speakers, boasting plenty of experience in the social media and traditional media space. You can read a general overview of the event through our Storify. MD of Keene, Jake Rigg, will be publishing an in-depth post based on his speech on the Keene blog soon.

Boni, Jake and Tim

ANYWAY! This is beginning to sound like an advert…

It was a social media filled night with plenty of wine and healthy debate. The one key observation I made during the proceedings was the focus on network theory and tracking behaviours online. One attendee even mentioned to me,

“We work across a lot of consumer campaigns, I’ve attended lots of social media events, but yours has shown me a different angle. It’s more than social media metrics… It’s smarter.”

I knew exactly what he meant because it’s what attracted me to developing a social public affairs methodology for Keene. You have to know what data you can capture, how this can be translated across different software and how this can be used to inform an appropriate social media approach. Therefore we have to dig deeper than social media analytics and look at other aspects of online, such as network theory.

It was entirely appropriate to let the audience into the world of Keene, but at the same time it is a hard sell. Our approaches are different and not fully understood in the industry. One part of me begs to shout to the world about the projects we are working on, but at the same time it is business intelligence – it separates us from competitors.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing more about social public affairs and (online) public relations. Keep reading the blog to follow my thoughts; it’s a niche visitorship…