Skating to where the puck will be

It was great to see the comments from people in Ottawa, Toronto and Waterloo discussing the strength of, and differences between each community. It’s a testament to the connection between the Ontario’s tech centers. What’s missing – beside Montreal – is this same discussion on core problems that affect all Canadian tech companies – like funding (tax treatment and education I’d say) and discussion of intercity methods of sharing knowledge and supporting innovation (camps and communication infastructure).

What’s happening is that the world (I’ve heard similar things from the London, Leeds, and Manchester) is beginning to recognize that if we are ever going to upset the dominance of Silicon Valley – an area that treats the world is as its innovation hinterland – we have to build on the strength and diversity of our regional communities – rather than surrendering the best to American investors
 
What I mean by regional is a strategy based on communities co-operating and upper levels of governments enhancing that co-operation with connectivity and funding.  Why for instance should Entrepreneurship 101 not be broadcast throughout Ontario using funding to enable web casting and a local partner to provide local instructional support and facilitate inter and intra community interaction? This builds local and regional community, entrepreneur’s knowledge while at the same time building a network of organizational relationships at the regional level. The same thing could be done with OCRI and Communitech programs – as well as DemoCamps and other industry events. The alternative is to spend $500.M of public money duplicating MaRS in Ottawa – an idea that lies at the heart of Innovation HUB proposal

We need to develop a sense of extended community that allows people and businesses to identify partners and opportunities outside their geographic area. This is important because economic benefit occurs is where problem knowledge, technology application and business insight intersect. At one time it could have been argued that this was the domain of cities – because of the density of interactions – however the emergence of community around blogs/forums/video has shown that technology can serve as an intermediary for connection instead of geography. At the same time the scale of competition has increased dramatically. Countries like China and India have massive population advantages that statistically increase the probability that it will be them, not us, who discover and exploit new opportunities. A single city is no longer big enough to form a global competitive advantage.

As I see it we these trends will guide many new business models.

– cheap and rich communication
– the adoption of networked business models  (outsourcing being but one example)
– a decrease of vertically integrated companies
– more innovation occurring at the intersection of fields of knowledge
– globalization (competition for customers & innovation) reaching into smaller and smaller market niche
– rising energy and carbon offset fees increasing the costs for physical travel and shipping  

They also provide a framework for regional economic development that can rival the world’s mega cities in terms of the diversity and connection – while being economically efficient, providing program excellence and diversity, and serving every company type – even if the threshold in a local are doesn’t warrant local provision of that service.

Of course the devils’ in the details, but the place to start is to explore how pervasive broadcast of local events through the broader region builds community and connections that wouldn’t occur otherwise.

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Social Media Press-Releases – part 2

Earlier I’d written on the social media press release – essentially a site designed as a repository for sharable clips, images and story components that can be used by journalists and bloggers.

A few days ago Maggie Fox released her company’s version, providing details of the internal lay out and the elements that should be included. That engendered quite a bit of insightful discussion (here, and here).

As a template Digital Snippets hit all the right core content notes – it includes extensive RRS feeds for easy dissemination of updated information, and interestingly includes embeddable widgets for the true fans to add to their sites. Each page includes contact information to corporate communication people giving story writers the contacts if they want to expand a story through a specific line of questions.

All this is good – but at I can’t help thinking that while this makes corporate PR more effective – it still treats PR as a separate part of communication strategy – at the very time that consumers are integrating messages where ever they find them – sometimes across brands. Just look at what is happening with Unilever over its AXE and Dove brands. (here and here)

It also doesn’t appear to leverage the knowledge of social media firms to design creative that builds on their understanding of viral transmission and social sharing. While it’s fine to centralize creative developed elsewhere for social media use I believe that the true value will emerge when social media releases can create their own creative to both tell the story and encourage viral spread.

While not developed as PR its hard not to think that creative like the Travelers IQ Challenge developed by Ottawa’s TravelPod (and seen on hundreds of blogs, papers and social network sites) hasn’t been contributed to stories about the company (it has) or driven traffic to both their brands.

It also would be nice to see these sites more fully integrated into the sponsor’s web properties – rather than echoing them as they do now.  Social media sites should also being promoted with conventional promotion techniques.

Finally having real time components such as live conference or video calls included would add to the immediacy of a release and creating urgency around spreading the news.

All of this is to say that by dealing with media releases as system – which the social media release and Digital Snippets does is an important step. The real value though is going to come from building the specific skills of social media experts into corporate communications – and empowering them with the tools and creative to tell the story in new ways and across more platforms.

A Local Radio Conversation

Last week I was talking to the sales manager of an Ottawa radio station about developing an online ad strategy and improving their online experience for listeners. It was an interesting discussion with someone I learned was the devils advocate.

First – and lets be frank – the stations current web site is horrible. Something the station (or at least the manager) freely admits. It’s not even at the level of the atrocious bunch that Mel Taylor links to in his post on bad radio sites.

I agree the stations demographic, 45+ isn’t the easiest target for web strategy, and Ottawa is a pretty conservative town. Still there are solutions that don’t cost a lot and can increase the stations connection with both advertisers and listeners.

First though you’ve got to have some targets for your stations web site – otherwise why even pay the hosting fee. Then you’re got to develop plans to reach those goals and choose metrics that reflect progress and monitor them – regularly.

For this station I suggested choosing one of the following for the ad side:

 increased revenue/client
 increased wins in competitive bids
 more requests for information from new advertisers

On the listener side you’ve got to build page views before you can hope for any dialogue or user generated content. Given the demographic of the audience and Ottawa as a tourist destination I’d focus on episodic events and festivals around which to build web presence and connection.

The advantage is that from a development perspective an episodic approach is easier to manage initially than the continuous release methodology used by seasoned web properties. The other reason is episodic events tie nicely to the site goals. They are major advertising events for merchants so the station benefits from this increased spending with a new property targeted to the event. On the listener side they tend to be time of high socialization providing numerous opportunities for information transfer, contest tie-ins and user comment. The key is to ensure that this web material becomes part of the on-air dialogue both to promote the site and to transfer the personal link between announcer and audience to the web.

The final advantage of this approach is that it builds evergreen material that can be used year after year – freeing the development team to concentrate on the inter-episodic period the following year – as the web property moves to a continues release model.

Of course the devils in the details. And to understand that stations need to become familiar with the trends and approaches that all media are using to integrate the web into their core property and the issues associated with them  – and that will be the subject of a upcoming posts.

Innovative Business Cultures

Bob Lefsetz points to a great quote from Universal Music CEO Doug Morris on why the music industry couldn’t develop a new business model as technology started to shift to digital delivery:

There’s no one in the record industry that’s a technologist,” Morris explains. “[It’s] a misconception … that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do. …

… “We didn’t know who to hire,” … anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

Sure it’s easy to say that we’d do better but the sad truth is that lots of companies and industries struggle when presented with business models or technologies they don’t understand.

The problem you need a frame of reference to evaluate options and many companies don’t have a broad enough one because they haven’t built the connections outside their immediate company and industry as a hedge to track and understand real or potential scenarios. That’s compounded by the fact that most companies have cultures that arbores failure so if problems emerge it’s more sensible (on an individual level) to do nothing than to do something wrong. 

The antidote as John Hegal argues is institutional innovation which produces long term value because it aligns with global and macro trends and encompasses process and product innovation.  Institutional innovation is at its core a cultural process built on diverse trust relationship within and outside the company and organizational structures with enough modularity to allow process experimentation but enough cohesion to facilitate decision making.

It’s also a process that builds on the extended networks that emerge with a region and between companies, their suppliers and customers. It’s developing these into trusted relationships that allow the flow of information that lets industries identify the expertise needed to develop strategic approaches to changes in their marketplace.

One of the reasons I’m interested regional economic development is that I believe that Institutional Innovation can be encouraged and could become a competitive advantage for the regions that adopt it.

That’s also the reason I’m interested in connecting BarCamps as we did with Leads. There already is a common cultural framework, and an easy means of identifying influencers in each region. And for many of the small companies extending their network reach both conceptually (which is why they participate) and geographically would be a competitive advantage.

These are going to be exciting times – from restructuring in the media/social media and open source, to globalization new models and opportunities are emerging for companies and regions that structure themselves to take advantage of them.

Social Media as the new marketing and advertising

On Monday I attended Joseph Thornley’s Ottawa Third Tuesday Social Media Meet-up. As usual it did not disappoint.

Richard Binhammer, Dell’s Senior Manager of Public Affairs took us through the process that took Dell from ‘Dell Hell’ to ’Dell Swell’ and everything in between.. Along the way he provided remarkable insight into the way that social media could change corporate America.

First the background way back in July of 2005 Jeff Jarvis took Dell to task for its customer service – and most importantly not paying attention to what their customers were saying (on blogs)  about their products. 

Now as I’ve commented elsewhere Jeff’s comment was a perfect storm for Dell. An influential and highly media savvy blogger takes the company to task, taps into an underlying sentiment that is accentuated by Google’s page rank algorithm at the time (which favoured blogs) and press coverage of the emerging blog medium which connected with the broader public.  It was impossible to miss – and damaging to Dell.

Fast forward to Mr. Binhammer’s presentation and you’d be forgiven for thinking the pendulum had swung the other way.

Dell now scans blogs for any mention of Dell and swoops in with support if the customer is dissatisfied. It’s got a team of top tier customer support and technical specialists to deal with nothing but blogger complaints. In a sense it’s a re-architected customer support strategy that recognizes the importance of influence on the buying habits of others.

What was most interesting to me is where Dell is taking this. Mr. Binhammer outlined an experimental concierge program to take customer service to a whole new level (for some customers) helping them expand their use of the product and answering all manner of questions related to use (how to up load pictures, choosing photo manipulation software etc). He also talked about Idea Storm – Dells Digg like service to uncover product desires and rank and validate them. He also hinted at custom applications they are developing to better understand how these direct media influence each other and overall buying patterns.

In the end one couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that while Dell misses the importance of social media initially they are at their heart innovators and that these initial forays are part of a larger process that will see a re-alignment of advertising, customer support and market research budgets – with a large proportion shifted to social media interaction and relationship building with thought leaders in targeted segments. 

Possibly this was Jeff’s intention all along – because if anyone was going to lead corporate America into social media it would be Dell.

It would be ok to leave the story there – but it would be wrong because you’re all thinking – well Dell can do it but my company never could because we don’t have those resources’.  Look no further than Alec Saunders excellent post on how he, and his small company, track and influence the issues in their world.

 It’s an inspiration – and an argument to look at how you allocate those budgets.

The Social Base of Competition

We are at a tipping point – technology has enabled us to shift our focus to organizational processes as the source of improvements for our corporate, regional and national competitive goals.

What’s happening is that online tools from social networks, to blogs, wikis and presence tools like Skype and IM are erasing geographic and temporal boundaries. At the same time these tools are enabling physical events like BarCamp to be easily and cheaply organized, making it possible for people to meet and discover shared interests and opportunities.

Inevitably what happens is new visions of what is possible takes hold. Look no further than the Leeds UK tech sector that is being redefined from the ground up. Here’s what Imran Ali had to say after their latest camp:

We had people from as far as Dundee and Brighton, but the greatest concentration came from Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and the North East; right along the M62 corridor, home to 15m Brits, a quarter of our country. Could we make this Supercity the next Highway 101…the Pennine Parallel? … We think we can …

That’s a pretty bold claim – except that it’s entirely possible – because vision, connection, and self-interest all combine to provide a powerful incentive and platform that encourages experimentation and growth.

Here in Canada we could use these tools as a basis for international competition, because our geography won’t allow tight physical connection that Leeds can, with 15M people within 2 hour of each other. The inklings of that are already with us as Alec Saunders points out when he contrasts US and Canadian adoption of FaceBook.

As individuals we are quick to jump on these tools and as Alec’s post shows that adoption is leading to organizational adoption in places like CATA. We need accelerate this – because these tools will alter the way organizations are structured and how information flows within and between them.

Our opportunity is to discover the organizational processes that let people develop a sense of group identity at distance and make them part of our legal and cultural framework. Initially this enables our companies and innovators to find, and work, with the local people, partners and technologies to create competitive technologies. Over time it enables more of our companies to do this throughout the world. A powerful strategic tool for a multi-cultural country as technology is making the world very flat.

In the mean time the opportunity is for BarCamp’s to connect and create opportunities that give participating companies a competitive advantage – because they already understand the social base of competition.

International DemoCamp & the value of virtual connections

One of the tenents of social media is that it fills an unmet need – the desire of people to connect in communities and explore common interests.

It’s no surprise then that the BarCamp community – an international movement of tech enthusiasts who connect locally discuss to technology and trends – would want to use collaborative platforms to connect multiple BarCamps together into one big event.

That’s what’s happening this weekend Ottawa and Leeds UK BarCamps are going to connect for a couple of hours of demo and discussion.

It was great fun working with Jim Courtney of Skype Journal and Dominic Hodgson of Leeds UK putting this together. Jim was instrumental in introducing us to Convenos a conferencing platform that lets us share desktops and applications.  Jim also connected us with HighSpeed Conferencing, a professional conference service that supports Skype calls – meaning even if the demos require a lot of processor cycles the audio quality will still be great. Thanks Jim!

It will be exciting to see  this in practice – and to see how people connect during and after the event.

If it’s successful I hope that we see more of it locally – given the strong Camp communities in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and the huge advantages of connecting these communities into a single entity – from a talent, funding and company partnership perspective.

In fact Mars seems to have this idea already, web broadcasting their multi-month entrepreneurship program Entrepreneurship 101 throughout the province (has anyone from Ottawa signed up?) and linking it to a FaceBook page for connecting far flung students. 

We could take this further though. Toronto is on their sixteenth DemoCamp, Montreal on their fifth. These are great events because they make it easy to identify companies doing interesting things – that may augment your own work.

Extend this through Canada’s central corridor, and link more events, and gradually we’ll develop into a single tech community of international scale.

Update: Things didn’t work as planned, but that hasn’t detered us. We learned wired connections help, we really liked the Leeds audio and the HighSpeed conferencing – which made both the speaker and audience clear.  After some testing locally and in Leeds, where we hope to try it again.