web analytics

Canadian public relations practitioner Dave Fleet says Twitter has moved through the Gartner Hype Cycle. It is now at the point where it could quickly become unfashionable. In his  Five Potential Effects Of Twitter’s Shift To The Trough Of Disillusionment.  Fleet charts the technology’s progress and predicts what will happen next.

At first sight, Fleet’s analysis seems to be on the money. But there’s something else going on with Twitter. After a period of stability, the service is changing. Earlier this week the company altered the way users propagate messages. This changes the process known as retweeting.

In other words, Twitter is still evolving. It will probably be a different beast by the time it resumes its progress through the later stages of the Gartner Hype Cycle. Or maybe something else will replace it.

When they want to create something that looks like a grass-roots campaign, but isn’t, big companies use astroturfing.

The Drop the Rate campaign that began yesterday with support from Consumer, Tuanz and 2degrees is a classic example.

At first sight it’s aims are laudable. Lord knows we pay way over the odds for mobile phone services. The campaign aims to put pressure on Vodafone and Telecom to cut the mobile termination rate or MTR. This is the amount one phone company has to pay another when customers call between networks.

Drop the rate mate campaign website

There’s no question New Zealand’s MTRs are high by international standards. That’s only part of the reason mobile phones are far more expensive to run here than in Australia – or just about anywhere else. It is also a major brake on the economy – calls that could be made, possibly should be made, are going unmade because of the high costs involved.

Yet despite it being worthy in principle, there’s something phony (or should that be phoney?) about the Drop the Rate campaign.

For a start, there’s an expensive PR company behind it.

Who is paying Matthew Hooton’s fee? Good on him for getting the job, but you can be sure Exceltium isn’t collecting money from cake stands and sausage sizzles for this work.

Second, 2degrees doesn’t want to talk about the MTRs it pays to Vodafone and Telecom and has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure grass roots, that’s real grass, not astroturf, New Zealanders don’t get to know the rate.

Of course no-one can blame 2degrees for taking part in this kind of stunt. Telecom and Vodafone play hardball. And both are less than snow-white in their marketing and political lobbying.

Campaign gets wide media coverage

Hooton certainly proved his PR skills. The Kiwi specialist press was full of the story. At The National Business Review Chris Keall expressed some weariness about the campaign in 2degrees again a little sneaky on MTRs at the National Business Review. The story got a good run in the New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post.

At Computerworld Rob O’Neill seems more willing to take the campaign at face value. His Drop the rate mate’ campaign targets MTRs offers no comment. Paul Clearwater at The Line reports that Vodafone disputes the information on the campaign’s web site in ‘Drop the rate mate’ campaign begins.

Update: Computerworld reports on Hooton’s attack on Telecom and Vodafone in Mobile termination row goes nuclear. The story finishes;

Hooton has words for Telecom, too, as the MTR debate goes white hot.
“Telecom now seems to be saying that it needs to rip off mobile consumers in order to fund more investment in the industry,” he said. “Good luck to Telecom arguing that a cosy duopoly leads to more investment in services and coverage than a more competitive environment.”

My opinion: Hooton proves he is a worthy campaigner against the arrogance of Telecom and Vodafone – clearly he was the right man for the campaign. Despite this, I’m still not comfortable with the astroturfing.

Australian tech journalist Renai LeMay says Twitter is journalism. (The original site is dead, so no link, sorry). He is right but only up to a point.

LeMay writes;

Journalists are not simply using Twitter to promote their own work and get news tips. This is nowhere near to being the whole truth. In fact, audiences are using Twitter as a powerful tool to engage with journalists directly and force a renewal of journalism and media along lines that audiences have long demanded.

Well, some are.

I follow about 25 Australian and New Zealand journalists on Twitter.  On top of that, I follow about the same number of public relations people and a handful of both from elsewhere in the world.

If you’re interested, there is a list of NZ media people on Twitter. As an unscientific rule of thumb, I’d say only 40 percent of journalists use the service in the way LeMay suggests.

About the same number simply use it as a way of promoting their online stories.

In other words, they aren’t joining the conversation. Instead, they simply using Twitter as a broadcast medium. I suspect, but can not prove, this usually is because of dumb managerial restrictions on their use of the technology.

A small percentage of journalists dabble in engagement, going on and offline depending on their workload. I understand. I’m sometimes guilty of switching off Twitter when there is a looming deadline and a huge number of words to write.

The remainder is still in the dull “morning tweeps” and “I had muesli for breakfast” or the more disturbing narcissistic school of Twittering.

Technology companies talk up their products and technologies. Let’s not mince words: they are hype merchants.

They hire professional public relations consultants and advertising agencies to whip up excitement on their behalf.

Sometimes they convince people in the media to follow suit and enthuse about their new gizmos or ideas.

Occasionally the media’s constant search for hot news and interesting headlines leads to overenthusiastic praise or a journalist swallowing a trumped-up storyline.

Hype cycle

None of this will be news to anyone working in the business. What you may not know is that the IT industry’s shameless self-promotion has now been recognised and enshrined in Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Gartner Hype Cycle

 

Gartner analysts noticed a pattern in the way the world (and the media) viewed new technologies. This is a huge initial burst of excitement rapidly followed by a sigh of disillusion and, eventually, a more balanced approach.

This observation evolved into the Hype Cycle represented graphically in the diagram. The horizontal axis shows time, while the vertical axis represents visibility.

Five phases:

In the first phase, Garter calls it the “technology trigger”, a product launch, engineering breakthrough or some other event generates enormous publicity.

At first only a narrow audience is in on the news. They may hear about it through the specialist press and  start thinking about its possibilities.

Things snowball. Before long the idea reaches a wider audience and the mainstream media pays attention.

This interest gets out of control until things reach the second phase, which Gartner calls “the peak of inflated expectations”. At this point the mainstream media becomes obsessed – you can expect to see muddle-headed but enthusiastic TV segments about the technology.

You know things have peaked for sure when current affairs TV shows and radio presenters pay attention.

At this point people typically start to have unrealistic expectations. While there may be successful applications of the technology, there are often many more failures behind the scenes.

Trough of disillusionment

Once these disappointments become public, the Hype Cycle shifts into what Gartner poetically calls the “trough of disillusionment”. The mainstream press will turn its back on the story, others will be critical. Sales may drop. The idea quickly falls out of favour and seems unfashionable.

Occasionally ideas and technologies sink beneath the waves at this point, but more often they re-emerge in the “slope of enlightenment”. This is where companies and users who persisted through the bad times come to a better understanding of the benefits on offer. As a rule of thumb, most of the media has lost interest and may even ignore things, the good stuff just happens quietly in the background.

Finally, the cycle reaches the “plateau of productivity”. This occurs when the benefits of the idea or technology are now widely understood and accepted.

Any fool can write a good press release that hits its target audience and creates an impact.

Writing one that fails means work. There are people who have mastered the art.

As an editor I’ve seen some great efforts over the years. I’d like to share them with you.

Here are my top ten tips for making sure press releases get minimum attention:

1. Cripple its chances of reaching editors and journalists

Everyone can read plain text messages in the body of an email. The message will almost certainly get through to any kind of desktop email clients, all flavours of web mail, as well as Blackberries, iPhones and Palm Pilots.

To reach less than 100 percent of your potential audience, try putting some of these clever barriers in the way.

Attachments are an effective way of cutting down the reach of your press release. People reading email on mobile devices have trouble reading them. Spam filters treat them with suspicion and if you’re lucky the recipient may use Lotus Notes as a client and have difficulty decoding the attachment.

Another advantage of attachments is that you can trim your audience further by using difficult-to-open file formats: such as the new .docx file format used by Word 2007 – many journalists will struggle to read them.

Attachments are great for bulking up the size of your release so it won’t squeeze through email gateways. If you’re clever, use high-resolution logos in, say, your Word attachments. These add  nothing to the press release but can swiftly push the file size over the email gateway threshold.

A further reason for sending a press release as an attachment is its invisibility to email search. So, when a journalist decides to look for your press release among the hundreds and thousands in their email in-box, it will be difficult to find.

2. Minimise relevance

One of the best ways to make sure your press release fails is to make sure it has no relevance to any sane audience. For example, if you are a technology company and you buy a new fleet of cars you can squander your PR budget and make sure any future release goes directly to an editor’s recycle bin by sending the story to the technology press.

3. Send it out whenever

Timeliness is everything. So send releases out when you feel like it to boost your chances of failure. Better still, for print publications try waiting until five minutes after the final deadline. For online publications wait until the story has already broken elsewhere. Editors love that.

4. Organise schedules so contacts are unavailable for interview

Good journalists are annoying creatures. Rather than printing your press release verbatim and passing the contact details over to their advertising departments, they may want to speak to the people mentioned in your releases.

A tried and tested technique for avoiding these complications is to send the people overseas shortly after dispatching the release. International communications are good these days, so just packing them off to a partner conference in Atlanta isn’t good enough, you need to make sure they are on an 18 hour trans-pacific flight or, better still, holidaying on a remote island.

5. Use poor writing skills

Obvious when you think about it. If your writing is poor and confused so that editors and journalists can’t understand your message you kill two birds with one stone.

First, you’ll make sure the first message gets spiked in the too hard basket.

Second, as a bonus, you can establish your reputation as an illiterate idiot that isn’t worth bothering with under any circumstances. That way, your future releases will go straight to the junk pile without even being read.

6. Try bullying

Sadly this powerful technique is underused. By threatening to talk to a journalist’s editor, or an editor’s boss about their poor response to your press release you can permanently undermine your relationship with scores of people (remember journalists talk to each other so this is an efficient way of burning lots of bridges).

Another approach is to tell the journalist the company in question is advertising thus triggering their professional editorial independence.

7. Don’t bother with photographs

Journalists and editors like photographs. They love good photographs. By making sure they are no photographs of any description you’ll increase the chances that your press release is regarded as useless.

If you think that’s taking things too far, try sending out crappy, unusable photos. Photos with dozens of un-named people work well in this respect. Getting people to hold champagne glasses, stand in front of company logos, gather around an unreadable normal-size bank cheque or impersonate public enemy number one mug shots are all effective techniques for creating instantly ignorable press release photographs.

8. Send it to everyone regardless

This is a great way to upset journalists and degrade both your personal and company reputation. At the same time if you work for a PR agency you can bill the client heaps for having a, er, comprehensive, mailing list and then bill them for time as you and your staff spend all day on the phone dealing with angry editors.

9. Keep things as dull as possible

Journalists prefer interesting stories. Public relations professionals recognise this and use clever tricks like passive sentences, boring ideas, irrelevant background facts, tired clichéd adjectives and implausible anodyne quotes to turn them off and help speed their press releases on their way to the great recycle bin in the sky.

In-house and government public relations people are usually better at delivering boring releases than agency staff – if you’re worried your writing sparkles too much, they have much to teach you.

10. Make sure the subject line obscures the message

Even experienced public relations operatives can slip up by giving an email release an interesting subject line. The danger is that after putting in all the hard work required to guarantee nobody takes the slightest notice of their press release they use active language to put a relevant, timely subject line message that tempts editors and journalists to open the document and read more.

The good news is there are fail-safe subject lines that are certain to turn off editors and journalists so they can just skip past your release. A classic subject line like press release will probably work, if that’s too simple try important press release or important press release from Company Name.

A neat by-product of badly written subject lines is they can fool spam detection engines into rejecting a message altogether; phrases like important announcement from Company Name or message for Clark Kent can come in handy here.