NEEDLES & DIGITAL HAYSTACKS

She introduced herself as a ‘content curator’ with a PR consultancy, a role that didn’t exist when I last worked in consultancy. I hadn’t met one in real life before. So, intrigued, I asked what her job entails. It turns out she maintains and manages a database of facts, figures, stories and press cuttings that the agency’s account teams can refer to when creating new content for their clients.  In a previous life she’d been a librarian.

“There’s just so much information out there today, with more created every day. It’s difficult for the account teams to keep on top of it all, so I try to help them,” she said.

“Fair point”, I thought afterwards, but then began to wonder who’s doing this ‘curating’ for the ‘public’ that the public relations industry is paid to influence?  How does the public find the information it needs? How does it determine what’s important among the tsunami of tweets, blog posts (yes, I know!), Facebook updates, Instagram pictures or Pinterest pins, email and newspaper articles they’re bombarded with every day? Increasingly, it feels like the comms department’s job today is to create more and more content needles for placement in an ever-expanding field of digital haystacks.

How social media channels must sometimes look like to consumers

How social media channels must sometimes look like to consumers

The more information that’s produced, the more difficult it is for its intended audience to find it, engage with it and act upon it. Furthermore, there’s evidence that the average attention span has dwindled from 12 minutes to five minutes in the last 10 years. It’s a classic case of more equals less.  If anything, it looks like the noise is likely to get louder as companies hire more and more former-journalists and digital communications specialists in an attempt to create more opportunities to get heard over the din. Shouting louder and more frequently, it appears, is the answer.

It’s easy to blame technology but that would be to miss the point. We live in the era of what some call ‘content marketing’, an attempt to bypass traditional (and declining media) and target consumers directly. Former FT journalist-turned Silicon Valley watcher Tom Foremski identified the cause when he pointed out that every company is a media company now.  Are all these media businesses causing information overload?

Clay Shirky, the American academic, writer and new media commentator, famously said that there is no such thing as information overload, just filter failure.  Shirky believes that when the economics of traditional publishing meant publishers carried the heavy upfront costs of producing books, newspaper and magazines, they invested in ‘quality filters’. Those filters, otherwise known as editors, were tasked with separating the quality content from the drivel.  But then, the Internet arrived and it turned the economics of publishing on its head. As a result, publishers no longer need to worry about the cost of producing content. The role of quality filter from the past has been passed to the consumer. Consumers typically don’t have the access to professional curators.  The digital world has tried to help with the use of hastags, RSS feeds and the like.

With volumes and media growing every day, the only filter that will work in the long run is the same that traditional publishers employed: quality. Most comms departments might serve their employers better if they spent less time on creating content by volume and more producing fewer, high quality content that creates real value – better stories, better creativity, better humour and stronger, more compelling messages.

If quality content can’t be produced today, maybe silence will be an overwhelmingly better message?  It will be more easily found and maybe better appreciated by the people it’s directed at. It’s also something that the brewing company, Guinness, understood as recently as the mid 1970s.

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THE TELEGRAM. R.I.P.

She spotted me walking towards the cottage door. A look of terror came to her face.  As a telegram delivery boy, I’d seen that look many times before – people seldom sent frivolous telegrams.  The door, the kind commonly found in Irish cottages at the time, had the top open to let the air in and the bottom closed to keep the egg supply outside. She looked like she was trying to rush towards me, yet the fear made her hold herself back. Finally she reached the door and, after wiping her wet hands on a tea towel, she took the envelope from me.  She fumbled with it for a bit. The panic had travelled from her face to her hands.

As she fumbled, she looked to me for a clue whether it was good or bad news but I couldn’t help. Finally, she managed to get the telegram out and she read it several times, breathing heavily and mumbling to herself. After a few moments, tears began to roll down her cheeks and she fell hard to her knees. I was a bit worried about her knees; she was a large lady. After what seemed like an age, she looked skywards and clasped her hands in prayer and a semi-smile broke out on her face. By then, I’d guessed the news wasn’t as bad as she’d feared. Message delivered, I turned to walk back down the path.

The Telegram. Truly key messages.

The Telegram. Truly key messages.

The world’s last telegram has just been sent in India, a 19th century technology rendered redundant in the digital age. As a teenager, I had delivered telegrams in semi-rural Ireland. A key perk of the role was a bicycle as a company vehicle. A career delivering key messages, initially as a journalist and then in communications, became inevitable after that.

Telegrams, arguably the first form of data communications, were charged for by the word, causing users to perfect short messages long before Twitter re-trained us to be brief.  The majority carried news of illness and death, or births and money transfers. Telegrams carried weight. The attack on Pearl Harbour was announced by telegram, as was Mark Twain’s suggestion that reports of his death were exaggerated. News of the Wright Brother’s first successful flight in North Carolina was also conveyed by telegram.

With instantaneous communicators in almost every pocket, the business of the telegram, first based on Morse code and more recently using electronic devices, had grown unsustainable, another victim of the digital revolution like the typewriter, the hand written holiday postcard and the bank book.

For all the benefits, the social progress and the economic wellbeing that digital technology has brought us, I can’t help feeling that we’re losing something along the way.  Important messages have lost much of their importance, lost in a blizzard of email, social media postings and digital missives, modern day needles in the giant haystack that is the digital economy. We have become a little de-sensitized, numb to the noise as we’re carried along on the digital waves.

The important seems less important, somehow, and more difficult to find. The important, both good and bad, has been replaced with a race to do more, say more and view more. It typically adds up to less.

Maybe we need to find ways to reclaim the personal news that’s truly important. The telegram (1844 – 2013).  Rest in Peace.

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INNOVATION FOUND, ALIVE AND WELL

Businesses typically require confidence to make long-term investments. It’s tempting when the global economy turns cold for finance-types to batten down the hatches and wait for the economic storms to pass. Many companies around the world have done this over the last six years, shedding jobs, cutting costs and deferring discretionary programmes to shore up profits and preserve cash. But, like a furnace that’s allowed to cool down, hunkering down risks delay before production can be ramped up again.

Innovation is one of those areas of investment that businesses could consider discretionary in difficult times. The difficulty with cutting back R&D investment when the storms are howling only becomes fully apparent when the economy is ready for recovery but the business has little to fan the furnace. But there is encouraging news. Despite the world’s persistent economic woes, investment in innovation has been found, alive and well, and quietly enjoying growth.GII top 10 rankings 2013

Today sees the publication of the Global Innovation Index (GII) for 2013, an annual assessment of the relative innovation capability of 142 countries representing 94.9% of the world’s population and 98.7% of global GDP. The main finding of the report is that investment in innovation has continued to thrive and grow amid the doom and gloom. Total research and development spending worldwide grew over the last 12 months, the third year of successive growth after a slight reversal in 2009.

Some countries, including India, Malaysia and China, contributed double digit growth to R&D investment in the last 12 months. As a result, R&D investment worldwide in 2013 exceeded pre-crisis levels. Innovation in R&D today is at an all time high.

Now in its sixth year, the Global Innovation Index, co-published by INSEAD, Cornell University and the World Intellectual Property Organisation, assesses national innovation capability using 84 different criteria, including the impact of institutions like government and the media, education, infrastructure and the level of market and business sophistication. As a relative worldwide index, smaller countries with limited resources like Denmark and (ahem) Ireland can outperform larger countries like the USA, France and Germany in the GII rankings.

The Index also categorises countries by income – high, middle and low. While there has been movement within the top 25 countries this year (with the UK and the US rising and Singapore and Finland falling), no new countries have broken into the top 25: all of the top 25 positions remain in the grip of high income nations.

But this lack of change among the top 25 countries belies the evidence that innovation, traditionally concentrated in developed markets, is spreading wider and more evenly across the world. Amongst the highest risers on the Index this year are Costa Rica, Argentina, Uganda and Mali. Given the power of innovation to create knowledge economies, new skills and to improve living standards for the people that need it most, this broadening of innovation capability globally is a welcome development.

Beyond matters of national competitiveness, today’s global economy means innovation from anywhere can drive change and create new opportunities everywhere. The value of innovation is to transform industries, businesses and people’s lives, not just locally but across the world.

While the GII 2013 report tells us little about the prospects for the global economy, it should provide crumbs of consolation that the innovation furnace has been kept stoked, ready to provide impetus and optimism for renewed global economic growth when the outlook for the world’s economy comes back out of hiding.

For a full copy of the report, see: http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/content.aspx?page=GII-Home

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