Tag Archives: technology

Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?

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Communication in the Information Age

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Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 heralded the start of mass communication – for the first time, text could be reproduced quickly and inexpensively for a large audience. Of course, very few people could read in those days and many authorities were against it, fearing the impact of mass uncontrolled communication on their rule, so it took a few hundred years for this to spread.

The introduction of broadcast radio from 1920 started to spread information even more quickly and widely, marking a significant jump in the speed of communication.

But it was the Information Age which has really accelerated global communication.  Widely accepted to have started in the 1970s with the advent of the microprocessor, it took the introduction of the Internet Browser in the early 1990s for the Information Age to really become as integral to life as it is today.

And yet, it seems, the Information Age is just a quicker way to spread the same sort of information as before. Certainly our main sources of news seemed to have missed the point – news bulletins rely on “sound bites” or their video equivalents to relay information with the result that this is often inaccurate or, at best, unbalanced. Newspapers, too, have not really worked out how to embrace the digital age fully – you either get print (almost as in 1440, albeit more quickly), or the same articles available online, missing the opportunity to have summaries of stories and the ability to drill down for more information.

This is the key – we’re bombarded with information from multiple channels but have not developed the tools to effectively sift it. Long messages are often ignored as we don’t have time for them, while short messages are frequently taken out of context missing the real point that was being made. What’s needed is the ability to capture the essence of a point in a short burst and then enable people to get more information as they require it – almost an inside-out onion, with successive layers giving more and more detail.

Twitter is a great example of the modern communication paradigm – 140 characters to get the basic message across, including a link to more detail, which you can access if you wish. That more detailed message, in turn, could have links to other sources for even more information, and so on…

Nowhere, perhaps, is this communication problem more evident than in politics. There’s no argument with the fact that the UK, like many other countries globally, has woefully overspent and has to completely revisit its bloated public sector spending (how can a majority of the workforce be civil servants – effectively paid for by the minority?).  And yet it, like so many others, is facing widespread revolt at the prospect – look at the pension reform issue, for example…

Why?

Primarily because the government is incapable of effective communication. White papers, government statements and debates are far too long and not suitable for the news media or the viewing/listening/reading public, so people simply don’t understand the issues. I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are decent, willing to work hard to get ahead and happy to help those less fortunate (but NOT those that are not prepared to help themselves).

But, for as long as governments cannot get the message out in a way that the media can carry without distortion and people can understand in just seconds, they will be unable to implement the changes that are needed, worsening the financial state of their countries, prolonging the agony and the economic downturn.

It’s time to turn traditional communication on its head and embrace “the 140 character world.”

Can Twitter Really Drive Investment Decisions?

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A group of hedge-fund managers are launching a multi-million dollar hedge fund next month, using Twitter as its market indicator to determine sentiment and to thereby make investment decisions.

This information came from a recent article on CNBC / Yahoo Finance which quoted Derwent Capital Markets – a London-based hedge fund – as saying it had successfully marketed the new venture, officially called the Derwent Absolute Return Fund, to high net-worth clients and had attracted over £25 million in investments.

The company is confident it can achieve returns of at least 15-20% per annum by analyzing information gathered from over 100 million tweets each day, which the firm brands as “The 4th Dimension.”

On the face of it, this may sound like a risky, or even crazy, venture – but is it?

Let’s face it, the concept of rational markets has been comprehensively debunked during the last few years of economic crisis, and the global growth in wealth came to a dramatic end largely through a change in general sentiment. We’ve also seen plenty of allegations – many apparently backed by evidence – of collusion between those in research and those in investment banking to pump stock prices of certain companies at various times. In fact, based on this and my own experience, it seems that relying on the “experts” to manage your investments is no greater guarantee of success than simply using a general market-tracking fund – and often provides worse returns.

Furthermore, most people agree that we won’t see real growth return this cycle until consumer confidence picks up. Isn’t that really just about general market sentiment?

So contrary to some of the views on this fund, I would argue that this is a smart bunch of people – what they’re doing is using current technology to gauge market sentiment and make investment decisions from there.  Instead of listening to a small group of people to try to understand what “the man in the street” is saying, they’re tapping into the collective feelings of millions.

I see this as the start of a whole new way of tapping into societal collective wisdom and sentiment. What do you think?

Who Controls Your Brand?

social media compain
Image by Laurel Papworth laurelpapworth.com and Gary Hayespersonalizemedia.com

The old order is being turned on its head; companies used to being in control of their customers and their brand are now finding customers are wresting control from them and that they need to adapt or face obscurity.

The enabler behind this is, of course, social media. Customers are now able and willing to discuss their experiences with friends and followers around the world, and companies ignore them at their peril. And yet, it seems to be more common for companies to ignore what is being said on Twitter, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on YouTube, and on all the other social platforms around the world.

Even though some two thirds of Fortune 500 companies have a Twitter account, and more than half have Facebook and YouTube accounts, they’re just not listening – reports indicate that 43% of all companies have never responded to a single Tweet, while only a quarter of companies respond to a comment posted on their Facebook page.

All this does is reinforce the view that companies are not interested in their customers. Better to have no presence at all than a presence where you don’t respond (the same goes for “customer-service” telephone lines and email addresses!).

However, the fact of the matter is that nowadays you HAVE to listen to what your customers are saying and you MUST respond. That’s the best way to turn customers into brand advocates – and isn’t that what every business wants? What’s more, it’s worth remembering that your products and services are only as good as your customers think they are and that they’re prepared to pay for; it’s much better to know they’re unhappy sooner than later, so you can fix the problem.

Word of mouth has always been the strongest way for businesses to grow – or shrink – and all that social media is doing is enabling this process to operate more quickly, and a lot more widely.

Companies that have embraced this – think Zappos and Starbucks (or Threadless, the T-shirt company that went from startup in 2000 to $30M in revenue last year) – are rewriting the rules for customer service, marketing and the way they’re perceived. Ask Comcast, who went from ignoring social media to an advocate and transformed the company’s image.

While the positive impact is clear and quick to see, the negative impact on companies that do it wrong will take longer to be really apparent – they suffer a slow, steady decline in brand image with all that follows from this – so the good news is there’s still time to adapt, but they shouldn’t wait too much longer.

As Jeff Bezos said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” If you’re not in the social media room, you’ll never know – and what you don’t know, you can’t fix.

By embracing social media, having conversations with your customers and other stakeholders, you will greatly strengthen your brand and your company.

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The End of Cash?

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It’s interesting to see the number of recently introduced products coming to market which are designed to, in effect, remove the need for cash.

One that has garnered particular attention recently is, of course, Square. This comprises a small application that resides on your iPhone (or iPad, iPod Touch) or Android phone, together with a little reader that plugs straight into the audio input jack of the phone and turns it into a personal credit card payment machine that will allow the user to accept credit card payments from anyone for a small fee (typically 2.75% + 15c). With no costs for set-up, application or card reader this is sure to change the game for those tens of millions of small businesses, traders and professionals that have, until now, fallen outside the electronic payment net because they are too small for the card companies to serve cost-effectively.

But Square is not alone – Obopay allows anyone with a  mobile phone to set up an Obopay account and, for just 25-50c (plus 1.5% if you’re using a credit card to fund your account) send money – in other words, make a payment – to anyone else with a mobile phone, whether or not that person already has an Obopay account. Again, there are no setup costs.

And then there’s Intuit with its GoPayment service that also enables credit card payments from a mobile phone – this time with a Bluetooth reader – at a cost of 1.7% + 30c per transaction, although this service does have a monthly service cost of $12.95 attached to it (I wonder for how long, though, given the competition above).

Doubtless there are many others, too, either in stealth mode at present or on the drawing board.

What’s more, these systems allow you to build purchase histories by customers, offer loyalty programs and great levels of service more simply than the straightforward cash systems did – so even the smallest businesses can step up their marketing at little or no cost.

At present, all these products only work for you if you’re a US-resident/business, but it’s only a (hopefully short) matter of time before they go global and the way of transferring value changes forever from cash to electrons. No more looking for change, worrying about how the currency in a new country you’re visiting works, being concerned whether anybody’s watching as you withdraw a large amount of cash from an auto-teller…. And, of course, if you’re a small business, no more concerns about having the right change for those large notes that auto-tellers like to give, about the value sitting in your till, or being worried when taking your cash to deposit it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how society changes over the next generation as we move from cash altogether. Will the nationalistic bonds to a currency (and the resulting issues of payments from/to different countries and with travel) be removed, and could we find a common global currency?

And, of course, we’re seeing the continued drive for the mobile phone to be less a telephone and more a personal digital assistant in every way – clock, alarm, calendar, address book, diary, music player, radio, newspaper, camera, voice recorder and now, wallet. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how many of the Generation Ys don’t wear watches – their phones tell them the time. Has the watch industry got an answer to this, its potentially biggest threat?

We’re at a very interesting point in the 5000 year evolution of money as we know it. Will it disappear completely as a physical object in the next 20 years?

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Living Your Brand – do companies really care about their Brand?

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2010 certainly seems to be going down as the year when the proverbial corporate skeletons are coming out of the cupboard:

  • Toyota – which had built its brand on reliable, safe vehicles – recalls many millions of cars all around the world in an apparently ongoing saga, with new recalls being announced almost monthly;
  • Goldman Sachs – viewed by many as the pre-eminent merchant bank – being sued for fraud by the SEC and now under investigation by the UK regulators, too;
  • Many airlines – especially those using words like “Favourite” and “5 Star” in their advertising – simply refusing to abide by their legal obligations, in terms of Regulation 261/2004, to provide accommodation and refreshments for their stranded passengers during the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

And this is just a sample of the more recent headline-grabbing issues.

Are they really “Too big to fail” – or just too big to care?

I suspect they believe the latter, not recognising the truth in the old adage that “Pride comes before a fall.” Remember, almost none of the largest and then most successful companies in, say, 1900, are still in any position of strength today – in fact most have disappeared altogether.

These corporates need to get back to basics, to remember that it is their customers that pay their salaries and to start treating their customers as the company’s most precious resource, rather than as a necessary irritant. Simply repeating a marketing mantra branding themselves as the pre-eminent company in their field doesn’t make it true…

The fact is that branding is a lot more than just a logo with a catchy by-line – a company’s brand is everything to do with that company, and the logo is just something to recognise it by as we’re visual creatures. Branding is about customer service, branding is about the way customers interact with the company in all ways, branding’s about staff training, branding includes corporate governance and social responsibility, branding is about all the materials that company produces – from marketing through packaging to the products themselves – in fact, branding is about everything to do with a company.

And this is where so many companies are falling down: they’ve lost sight of everything but the short-term pursuit of the bottom line. And I use “short-term” advisedly – as without attention to all aspects of their corporate brand, those companies will lose customers and start to fail.

Just look at the consumer backlash against many banks that they perceive to have been complicit in the economic downturn. Imagine how consumers who have been poorly treated will feel about giving more of their hard-earned money to those airlines that left them high and dry. Will former Toyota buyers be as happy to buy another Toyota?

Companies need to start refocusing on their entire brand, they need to recognise the power of instant communication for their customers and embrace it to make a positive difference, and they need to once again really put their customers first instead of just saying they do.

What do you think – do companies no longer care about their brand in pursuit of profits? Have you joined the growing ranks of disgruntled consumers and, if so, which are the brands you love to hate?

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Twitter – The “Next Big Thing” for Business

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With Twitter set to pass the magic 100 Million user mark later this month, or early May, and the company having been valued at around a Billion Dollars last year, it’s moved from the realms of novelty. So, should business sit up and take note; is it the “Next Big Thing” as a business tool?

Speaking with business leaders and marketers, one gets mixed responses – the enthusiastic advocates on the one hand, and those that hope it will fade away as it can potentially damage their company, they believe, on the other.

There’s no question that any public forum can be used by people to disparage, or worse, a company, but is that a reason to abstain from that forum, or should one take the opportunity to embrace it and counter any adverse remarks? After all, unhappy customers that are turned around tend to become the most loyal advocates…

Others look at Twitter and ask whether 140 characters is really enough for any sort of meaningful dialogue with customers and dismiss it on this basis. But in our information-overloaded world, is brevity not a blessing?

Properly used, there is no question in my mind that Twitter really can become a significant business tool:

  • Customer service – probably the first Twitter application area to be embraced, companies like Southwest Airlines, Staples and Zappos have found it invaluable to track unhappy customers, respond quickly and show a great service ethos.
  • Sales leads – of course, great customer service leads to sales, but many more companies, like Dell, Sony and Starbucks are using Twitter to promote products; in fact an article last month reported Sony measuring over £1 Million in sales directly attributable to its Vaio Twitter account.
  • Promotions – an extension of the sales leads application is using Twitter for promoting special offers to followers. As the integration of GPS technology with phones increases, these could even be location and time specific, making them highly targeted.
  • Product feedback – companies are often accused of making products that customers don’t need, or of not including “obvious” features. Twitter can give a window for listening to the needs and views of a very wide customer base.
  • Order tracking – an area I’ve yet to see, but one I think is an obvious one: imagine being able to Direct Tweet to a courier company and get an automated response as to where your special delivery is in the system…

In fact, the possibilities are endless – limited only by imagination. With Twitter, companies have access to an incredible mass direct marketing tool without the dangers of being considered spammers – people would simply unfollow those they consider annoying – and one which can provide real-time, real-person feedback on an incredibly wide range of issues.

Twitter, I firmly believe, is poised to be the “Next Big Thing” for business, and companies that ignore it do so at their peril.

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