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Friday, 24 September 2010

Reputations, web shadows and superheroes at Digital Surrey

I must admit my eyes glaze over when I hear someone is going to talk about generic aspects of the interactive web. I must have seen/heard/read a hundred similar-sounding talks and, being online since before the www, I'm burdened with a relatively unhealthy degree of scepticism.
But I wouldn't miss a Digital Surrey talk if I could avoid it - not through blind loyalty, being there at the start and all, but because I trust Abigail Harrison and the team at The Blue Door to come up with an interesting and entertaining speaker.

Enter Antony Mayfield, author of Me and my Web Shadow.  Antony is one of those speakers I instantly like from the first sentence.  Witty, entertaining and interesting he steered my sometimes cynical mind to re-evaluate what I thought I already understood and introduced quite a few new concepts and some fascinating facts.

Antony's delivery walked a fine line between not sounding like a social media guru without resorting to an over-cynical or mocking tone, managing to make light of the buzzwords and bullshit that comes with the social media scene whilst acknowledging he was part of the same scene.

The centrepiece of his talk last night is his "9 rules" for managing your web shadow. I won't regurgitate his talk, which should be available for free on Slide Share any time soon now, or even summarise his 9 rules, available as a free chapter from his book.

What follows is not a report on Antony's talk but a mix of his topics and ideas and my own follow-up thoughts.  I've quoted and credited wherever I've used direct snippets from the talk.

The employer/employee relationship has changed - and not simply because employers have the tools to research potential recruits, but also employees can do their own research and find out what it's like to work at a company before applying.

Furthermore corporate ethics come under the spotlight not solely to impress customers and clients but also to encourage talented employees to join the team.  Would I want to work for a company with a poor environmental record or a history of writing insecure software that gathered and leaked personal data?

Burning bridges can affect the employer more than the employee.  Sure the individual may be short of work in future, but an employer who burns bridges not only cuts themselves off from the potential benefits of that ex-employers social network, but also risks a negative impact on their reputation from disgruntled employees empowered by their personal network - networks usually consisting of a fair proportion of people in the same industry.

The PR department has changed.  Acknowledge that no-one can "control" information once more than a handful of people have access.  PR is now the responsibility of every employee, and whilst this probably won't mark the end of the PR department, companies need to face this reality in order to harness the power of their employee network and gain access to their employees' networks.

"Social networks are human spaces and you need to be human to live in them" (Mayfield).  There's a limit to what a handful of PR professionals can achieve online, why muzzle your ready-made network of employees when you can let them loose? (Firth).  I'm going to explore this topic in a later blog post.

"Get a thicker skin" (Mayfield) - people are going to say bad things about you.  Even your close circle of contacts, your employees or employer.  Don't waste your time and energy fighting the bad, do something else positive and make sure more people know about the good stuff.  This I think is particularly applicable if you're an employer considering encouraging all your staff to talk openly online about their jobs.

On the same subject, the somewhat dangerous precedent being set by a group of hotels considering legal action against Trip Adviser over negative reviews.  Apart from the civil liberty implications to free speech, the legal move itself could be a PR disaster.  Anyone considering such an action risks having disputed negative statements dragged-up and tested in court.  What if the court finds in favour of said negative comments?

Not only that, but even if action is successful in muzzling one review site, the internet has proved quite capable at routing around censorship.  Other sites will be established in oversees territories outside the jurisdiction of UK courts.  Such action is in my mind futile.

"Let's not kid ourselves about the value of our own intellectual property" (Mayfield).  The human species has a history of survival through sharing.  We help the young, the weak and the elderly and are stronger as a species for this.

When translated into the digital sphere Antony said advocacy of concepts such as Creative Commons often lead to accusations of being a digital hippy.  "Well, I do live in Brighton," exclaimed Mayfield!

But there's a hard-nosed business case for sharing in that, given the right conditions, something we set free for sharing can repay many times over in terms of increased reputation.

The Best Training Course in the Whole World

Example - I have a fantastic training course and associated notes.  I can choose to keep the notes, the cornerstone of my unique and valuable offering protected - or give the whole course, including notes, away to anyone who finds them online.

Instinctively in business many opt for protectionism - to keep what we think are our valuable assets secure.

I opt to protect my intellectual property but business is slow. I'm not getting many bookings for The Best Training Course in the Whole World.  So I take out a series of adverts and find I'm re-investing 33% of my fees in advertising just to fill my diary and make a living.

Q. Who's heard of The Best Training Course in the Whole World?
A. Everyone who's ever been on the course, plus the people who hired you to give the course.

One day I decide to give the course notes and materials away for free.  Another company hears from an attendee on an earlier course, downloads my notes, gives me a call but can't afford my fee.  So they launch their own version, in-house, but using my notes.  It's a blow but it's not lost revenue for me - they can't afford my fees!

But what if said company starts to sell my training course cheaper than me?  And they do!

I now have a rival! My unique niche offering is out there.  How very dare they, they're now making money from my intellectual property! (Note - they did bring something to the party, they're making a business work around my training course, a business I was struggling myself to grow).

But strangely enough the phone is ringing and I'm getting many more bookings.  There are now four companies out there selling my invention - but my phone is now always ringing!  True I had to drop my prices 20% but I've completely stopped advertising, giving me a net gain.

Okay, this is a parable.  It's just one view, but I firmly believe you can and will benefit from the buzz around your product even though others are able to capitalise off your idea.  Your rivals are also your allies, helping find new markets and improving your product and reputation.

Your increased profit comes because of increased reputation through sharing, not despite sharing.


P.S. And other than the title, I didn't mention superheroes once... Whoops!


  1. Hi there James

    Many thanks for coming last night, your support for #digitalsurrey and this excellent blog.

    I hugely enjoyed Antony's talk and would recommend his book as a very good read.

    A couple of things he said really rang true with me, including "Companies are not owners of people but platforms for their success". Similar thinking is expanded on in Don Tapscott's book 'Grown up digital' - where Tapscott talks about the need for employers to re-evaluate how they employ / approach / respect / learn from the net-generation of 20-something talent.

    Antony also talked about Tim O'Reilly - http://oreilly.com/about/ - and his observations that a company's intranet is full of explicit knowledge and tumbleweed. This is an excellent analysis (if headline grabbing) but I'm determined to learn more.

    And the other concept that rang true for me, was the issue around the 'Literacy of attention' - knowing how to choose in the sweet shop of knowledge, whilst getting on with the day job. It is vital for me / thebluedoor to stay on top of the ever changing / evolving digital world - this is a massive challenge, as digital is always on. So where does the never-ending to-do list fit in?!

    We're looking forward to the next event - 21st October in Guildford with Scott Seaborn, talking all things mobile. See you there!



  2. Great post James, and some nice reflections. One of the newcomers to Digital Surrey last night asked me afterwards, what I'd learned... and given the grin on my face and the amount of nodding and laughing I did during Anthony's talk, on reflection, I may not have done - but there were so many takeaways, so many anecdotes and points well made, and such a great narrative, it was a brilliant talk that I enjoyed thoroughly.

    Like you, I picked up on the discussion about the employer/employee relationship - what a great (and optimistic, inspiring) analysis

    I really like your storyline about the Best Training Course as well - great example. Share by default, be private where necessary.

    Really just too many things to pick up on. Another brilliant Digital Surrey, and as the group and audience expands, our opportunities to connect, learn and grow do that same. "I'm Lovin' It!" :-)


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