Three non-obvious predictions for 2014

December saw a flurry of 2014 technology forecasts. I predict the same thing will happen next year.

The forecasts fall into two categories. First there are those along the lines of ‘cloud computing company predicts 2014 will be the year of cloud computing’. In other words: advertising. Some are clever, some are ridiculously unsubtle.

A second group of forecasts are what Basil Fawlty would describe as “the bleeding obvious”.

In contrast here are three things I think will happen in 2014 that you couldn’t figure out simply by drawing a straight line graph though recent data:

The smartwatch is dead

Last week I had coffee with Fred Russo who runs Samsung’s PR here in New Zealand. While we were talking Fred took an incoming call on his Galaxy Gear watch hooked up to a smartphone.

On one level it was impressive in a vaguely science fictiony way. We’re talking nerd nirvana.

And yet that’s all it is. Smartwatches are ugly, clumsy devices that add very little, other than cost, the smartphone experience.

Sure, they’re likely to be a hit with the male geek crowd. And yes, I’m convinced Samsung, Sony, Pebble and others will inflict a million or so smartwatches on early adopters over the next 12 months or so.

A million devices is not a hit product. Smartwatches will not become mass market products like smartphones. The only Apple does something shocking and different with the format.

Chromebook or something like it will thrive

Apple and Microsoft have left a yawning gap in the market for a low-cost, simple to use laptop. MacBooks are nice, but expensive. Too expensive for many users. Meanwhile, rightly or wrongly the jarring Windows 8 user interface scares off potential Microsoft customers. And Windows laptops can be too complex for people who prefer simplicity.

Google’s Chromebook can be dirt cheap and is all the computer many users need. The category is new, yet companies like Acer have already squeezed prices below NZ$400. There’s potential to pack more value into Chromebooks in 2014. The devices could take off.

It’s just as possible tablets could fill the low-end, simple computing void and Chromebooks will never command a large market share, yet I can see Chromebook thrive.

Desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones matter

Computer makers, particularly the second tier Asian brands spent much of 2012 and 2013 playing with alternative computer formats. For example transformer-like devices that turn a smartphone into a desktop PC or something that is both a tablet and a laptop. We saw a few wackier items too.

This was a healthy exploration of the alternative formats and something of a creative flowering. It was also a dead-end. We now know the only formats that really matter are desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Yes there is blurring between these categories, but for now the key, practical device formats are locked in place.

Formats will change when computers get better at understanding human speech. You can see a hint of how this will work with Google Glass, but that device isn’t ready for mainstream acceptance.

Google’s NZ digital expert plan, not what it seems

Google NZ scored favourable publicity for its 'training plan' but it isn't philanthropy

Google NZ scored favourable publicity for its ‘training plan’ but it isn’t philanthropy

Hats off to Tony Keusgen and Google New Zealand for training recent graduates in the art of helping companies with online strategies. It may help ease smaller businesses into the online world ahead of the UltraFast Broadband roll-out.

Keusgen announced the plan to train 100 people at the recent Telecommunication Carriers Forum Mind Storm conference in Auckland.

He told delegates at the event the UFB network on its own will not get local companies moving online – partly because there aren’t enough people with the right skills serving smaller companies. He has a point.

The plan isn’t what it seems to be.

Google’s two-day training course will give people Google+ certification. The course details show it is about selling the company’s AdWords product.

In other words, it is not general training in online strategies, but training in using Google products and services to offer those online strategies. In other words it will bind 100 young people into Google’s world and by extension will make it easier for Google to sell to the thousands of companies they will consult to.

There’s nothing wrong in this. Nothing at all. Technology companies provide training to help customers and others buy things from them all the time. The products and services are complex. Sales people can’t whizz through these things in five minutes.

While there’s nothing wrong with it, it is not philanthropy. It is business development.

Yet that’s not how Google sold itsmessage to the Mind Storm audience and it is not how the media reported it. See The New Zealand Herald and at Radio New Zealand.

Reputation management, online advertising: not a good mix

Tweets began appearing within minutes of yesterday’s yarn about the launch of a New Zealand book on managing reputation risks. At the bottom of the page was an advertisement for Nickelback’s Auckland gigs. For those who don’t know, Nickelback is a Canadian faux rock band that most rock fans regard as, well, let’s just say ‘dubious’ .

The advertisement damaged my reputation as a cool dude around town. There’s a lesson in that.

I’ve experimented with WordPress’ WordAds programme. WordAds is like Google Ads, serving up advertisements to readers based on words found in the posts.

Google Ads gives users a little control over the ads it displays, WordAds gives you no control at all.  Given the choice I’d prefer not to promote Nickelback on my site, after all I’ve a reputation to protect.

I fail to see how the WordAds algorithms made a link between reputation management and Nickelback. Ah, hang on, no perhaps it isn’t.

Either way, the important point is advertising is yet another avenue of reputation risk for online publishers to worry about. It was easy in the old days when publishers sold their advertising directly, but there’s less scope to reduce risk when using an automated service like WordAds.

Jokes about Nickelback aside, WordAds hasn’t shown anything really flaky so far. I’ve used Google Ads on other sites and some advertisements have been extremely embarrassing. So, if you’re really worried about your online reputation, you may need to accept you can’t afford to display advertising.

Publicity for beginners

A basic guide for business owners and others who think they may want publicity. This is an updated version of a story originally posted in 2008. 

If you have a product or service to sell, you want the greatest number of potential customers to hear about it.

While word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping off point when you’re starting, eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience. This means working with blogs, web sites, newspapers, magazines or broadcast media.

There are two ways to get attention; advertising and publicity. Newcomers often confuse the two. That’s a mistake, they are radically different and work in parallel universes.

Advertising and publicity are different

Advertising is always strictly commercial. You buy a fixed amount of space in a printed publication or air time from a radio or TV broadcaster. Online advertising generally comes down to display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. Both can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an application like Gmail.

When you buy advertising you provide the advertising content, or what people in the business call copy, at your cost.

Use advertising professionals

If you’ve enough budget you can hire a creative team to prepare the copy. This costs money, sometimes a lot of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: clued-up advertising professionals know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy will run. You have complete control over the message and its delivery. Well up to a point; some publishers will refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.

Cost per reader, viewer, listener

Advertising prices depend on the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think in terms of CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.

Publicity isn’t for control freaks

In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions – they won’t consult with you. They may choose to listen to you or read your material, they may not.

In principle it all depends on your message’s newsworthiness. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll take notice.

Journalist ethics

Surprising though it may seem, journalists have an ethical code. They are not for sale. Their job is to keep readers informed regardless of commercial considerations.

This is why you should avoid applying commercial pressure when seeking publicity. Don’t imply you will place advertising in return for favourable treatment.

At best you will insult journalists or offend their professional pride. At worst you will create a situation where ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story. They may even choose to take a hostile approach just to emphasise their independence.

Professional journalists don’t regard aiding your sales as any part of their job. Nor should they.

Media is a business

This may seem confusing, after all media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a longer term view makes good business sense. A media property with a strong ethical code will be held in high regard by its readers, listeners or viewers.

This not only means that more people get to see editorial; it also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, i.e. more involved or wealthier, kind of customer.

At the same time, research shows advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Who controls the message?

Even when a journalist does respond to your publicity in a largely favourable way, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs.

They choose the angle. They also get to decide how many words to devote to your message and they can choose whether your rivals get to comment or not. An editor might choose to use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

You wouldn’t normally expect to pay money to a publisher when they use your publicity. However, there are some media properties that will ask for a payment in return for running it.

We call it advertorial

Alternatively some properties might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. In fact there’s a whole spectrum of arrangements from total separation of editorial and advertising all the way to properties that are, in effect, nothing but paid advertising.

At the extreme end of the scale you are dealing with vanity publishers – people who will take your money and make you look good. Your mother may like the result, but you won’t sell much this way.

As a rule of thumb, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your prospective customers. Experienced publicity people discount the value of these publications.

Apart from anything else, readers tend to know when they are looking at paid-for editorial and learn to trust it less than truly independent content. In particular, younger, media literate, people are especially cynical about this kind of material.

One commonly used measure is that four of their readers would be worth one reader of a more prestigious, editorially independent title. That also applies to advertising in these publications – you can expect to pay less for space in a publication that isn’t fully independent.

Publicity specialists

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists to do it. The most common arrangement involves hiring a public relations or PR consultant. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company can save you time and trouble. They’ll help you prepare your message and train you in the art of handling the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.

Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. Other operators keep all this information in their heads, Palm Pilots, even on paper. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.

No guarantees

Be warned that public relations companies rarely guarantee results. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid any PR operator who makes that kind of promise.

One misconception is that publicity is all about issuing press releases or holding press conferences. Both can have a role to play, but most important PR takes place out of sight.