The principle of net-neutrality is that all traffic which moves across the internet is treated as equal by ISPs and is given the same bandwidth. Whether you’re playing an online game, streaming a movie, visiting a website or downloading an app, your ISP should treat all of those things the same way.

Some people want that to change, however. Large carriers and ISPs would like to be able to decide which traffic runs fast and which runs slow. This would allow them to charge streaming content providers like NetFlix and LoveFilm to ensure they are able to deliver their services smoothly to consumers. A legal decision in the US this week looks to have done just that, declaring that the idea of ‘net neutrality’ is actually illegal.

There is, of course, a huge conflict of interest here, quite often the people we buy our internet access from also sell us TV packages. In the UK, for example, Virgin, SKY and BT all sell internet/TV/phone bundles (in fact, I’ve recently learned that’s it’s quite difficult to only buy internet access from a provider) and that means they’re in direct competition with a lot of the services you might want to access online. Services they would be in a position to hobble if they were allowed to abandon the principles of net neutrality.

A lot of people think NetFlix and LoveFilm offer far better value than traditional cable/satellite TV providers, but if they had to start paying ISPs to guarantee a reasonable level of bandwidth for their traffic, prices will inevitably rise. The same thing could happen with services like Skype. Quite how a US ruling might impact the global internet remains to be seen, but it’s likely to have wider consequences.

Imagine if Asda owned the road network and could decide which traffic would be allowed to use the motorways – even to the point of stopping other supermarket’s delivery trucks from using the motorways, or charging customers more to travel on roads near their competitors’ stores. That’s what’s happening here, in the digital space.

Essentially, giving ISPs the right to choose which traffic gets the most bandwidth would significantly disrupt the way the internet currently works. Any exciting young company with a new online service could no longer take it for granted that consumers could use their service unhindered over a fast broadband connection. Your ISP could exercise far greater control over how you use the internet.

The net neutrality fight is far from over, but it’s worth paying attention to because what’s at stake here is the freedom to use the internet however you choose, not in whatever way your ISP deems most profitable.

learning to codeIn 2013 I turned 40, and as is traditional for a man of middling years, I embarked upon a path of self-examination and reflection which ultimately resulted in me buying a new motorbike. I also decided it was high time I learned to code.

I’ve been fascinated by computers since I was a kid, and was lucky enough to start a career writing for IT magazines while I was still a teenager but, despite having a fairly technical mindset, I never got around to learning to code. That all changed last summer when I finally decided to make time for it.

My first step, and one which I’d highly recommend to anybody who wants to learn how to create software of any kind, was to start working through the free online version of Harvard University’s CS50 introduction to computer science. It’s aimed at complete beginners and is quite easy to follow – it’s also available on iTunesU if you have an iPad.

I started by watching the recorded lectures on the train to work, and then working through the problems/exercises at home in the evening. It’s a great introduction to some of the key principles of coding, and very quickly I was able to write and compile programs in the C language, something which seemed intimidatingly difficult just a few weeks earlier. C is the Latin of programming languages – if you learn how C works, you’ll find it easier to learn any number of other languages.

To my shame, I started to lose interest in the course halfway through and bailed out. I felt like I’d got my head around the basics, and I was itching to learn something that would be more immediately useful to me. I had a vague idea that creating games would be fun, and JavaScript seemed like a good bet because you can use it for building browser based games, or for scripting a games engine like Unity.

Codecademy and JavaScript

For this, I turned to Codecademy, an interactive tutorial site which features courses on various languages, including simple things like HTML and CSS, so it’s a great place to learn about the basics of web development as well as more in-depth coding.

I found Codecademy to be only partially useful – it helped me get my head around JavaScript’s features and syntax, but even after working through all the lessons I still had no idea how to do any kind of input or output. I couldn’t display anything in the browser window, or let the user interact with a program, so while I felt like I‘d learned a lot about JavaScript, I was still missing some essential knowledge before I could do anything useful with it.

I started poking around JavaScript forums and Reddit’s ‘Learn JavaScript Properly’ community, which were all helpful, and got hold of a copy of JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, which seems to be the bible for this subject. This all helped me get a more practical grasp of JavaScript, but by this stage I’d come up with an idea for a web-app I wanted to build and reached the conclusion that I needed to learn PHP for this.

PHP is a bottomless can of worms

I worked through the Codecademy PHP track to get up to speed with the basics of the language, and got hold of a copy of Programming PHP, which is a useful reference and tutorial. Since I already had a clear idea of what I wanted to build, I decided to get stuck in and start creating the app that I had in mind, learning as I went along.

Learning PHP is something of a trial. The language itself was fairly easy to pick up, but I’ve found that every time I ask for help online (usually on Reddit’s PHP community, or the coding Q&A site StackOverflow) I seem to open a can of worms. There are a number of issues with PHP that learners should be aware of; mostly the problem seems to be that the language has evolved quite dramatically in recent years, so a lot of the online tutorials you will encounter are out of date and will teach you bad things.

Usually when I ask a question about PHP to fix a small problem, there are a lot of helpful people who will explain at length why everything I think I know is wrong, out of date, insecure and likely to cause the internet to explode. To make things worse, the people who reply to your questions online will not only explain why you’re wrong, they’ll also put a lot of effort into disagreeing with each other about the best way to do things.

It’s a painful process, but it has forced me to learn a lot more about best practices, instead of simply hacking together a solution that ‘just works’.

The app I’ve been working on is almost finished, and every single piece of code has been rewritten several times, even when it worked fine to begin with, just to make the code cleaner, more optimised and secure as my understanding has evolved. Although I’m sure that in the eyes of a veteran developer my spaghetti code still looks appalling – but it works, it’s stable and secure, so that’s a start.

Next steps

During the learning process I’ve been compiling a list of ‘known unknowns’ – stuff that I need to learn to grow as a coder, but that has had to remain on hold until I’ve built a working version of the app that I can share with the outside world.

Frameworks – a framework (like Cake PHP or Laravel) is a library of code that takes care of common tasks so that you can focus on building your app instead of reinventing the wheel all the time. Apparently all professional developers use frameworks, so I think I need to learn how to use one, and Laravel seems to be the way to go.

More professional tools – I’ve been doing all my coding with Notepad++ so far, but I want to learn how to use a more heavyweight IDE and things like Git for better version control (I’ve accidentally overwritten new code with old a couple of times, which is enough to convince me of the value of this).

Object Oriented Programming – my first experience of programming was with BASIC as a child, so the procedural model of coding makes sense to me (do this, then do that, but only if X is true), OOP is an entirely different way of thinking about code and it’s a bit of a tricky concept to grasp. I’ve started to get my head around it while I’ve been building my app, but there’s a way to go yet. Still, it seems to be something that all ‘real’ coders use, so I think it’s an essential next step.

It’s taken me about six months to get to my current level of being able to build a functioning app with fairly clean code (albeit old-school procedural style code), and my next exercise is to overhaul and rebuild the app using the tools I’ve just outlined. Once I’ve done that I think I’ll be able to reasonably call myself a professional level coder.

seo spam blog

This is not what a professionally managed corporate blog should look like.

You might have noticed that a lot of corporate blogs are terrible. Frequently they’re full of bland articles that don’t say anything meaningful and, even if they’re grammatically correct, they’re written in a very clumsy, unreadable style.

How can this happen? Why do some quite impressive businesses allow such utter garbage to be published on their blogs? Whenever you see a blog like this on a corporate website, it’s a pretty safe bet that an SEO person is behind it. I’ve spoken to a few companies recently where they know their blog content is awful, but they put up with it because their SEO consultant has told them that this is what Google likes.

Plenty of SEO people are great at what they do and I don’t want to tar the entire discipline with the same brush. But there are some SEO ‘experts’ who think that the best way to get your website ranked highly in Google is to stuff the blog full of spammy copy that’s been heavily keyword optimised, with absolutely no regard for how it might appear to a human reader.

There are at least two simple reasons why this approach is not just wrong, but highly damaging to the brand:

1)      Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this approach does have some merit and brings potential customers to your corporate blog. Instead of finding something useful or interesting (which, let’s not forget, is what they were actually searching for) they’re confronted with a wall of badly written SEO copy. How do you think that affects their opinion of your organisation?

2)      It probably doesn’t even work very well as an SEO tactic. The more recent updates to Google’s algorithms (i.e. the software that decides which pages are listed at the top of the search results) have been heavily focused on promoting good quality content and downgrading poor quality content that’s been designed specifically for SEO purposes.

Most serious SEO professionals these days agree that consistently posting great content that your audience will find interesting enough to share with others is the best way to improve your site’s performance in search engines. So what’s good for SEO is also what’s good for the brand.

Your blog should be a place for helpful articles, thought leadership, interesting infographics, engaging video and anything which lets your customers know that you understand their needs. If your SEO guy still thinks presenting your site’s visitors with spammy, meaningless garbage is a good idea, maybe it’s time to fire him.

Yesterday Facebook announced some changes to the way newsfeeds work, which will be implemented over the next week or so. These changes will impact the user experience and brand pages on Facebook.

Obviously the best way to understand the changes will be to play around with the new system, but in the meantime here are the two main points about the changes:

1)      Photos will be bigger. For most Facebook users sharing photos is their main activity on the site, so the new timeline will make it easier to view them

2)      Users can now narrow their newsfeeds down to focus on specific content. For example, you could ask your timeline to only show you updates from close friends, or from Pages you’ve liked, or just photos, or just music (e.g. Spotify) updates, and so on

What does this mean if you run a brand page? This is purely speculation, but I think it means you’re going to have to work harder at offering great, attention grabbing content because it’s going easier for users to ignore your page even if they’ve liked it. If users have the choice to only see updates from their friends, which is kind of why most people use Facebook in the first place, they’re going to need a really compelling reason to click on that tab which tells Facebook to show them updates from fan-pages.

If you were cynical, you could come to the conclusion that this will encourage brands to pay for more adverts on Facebook. It’s easier for people to ignore fan page status updates but paid-updates will continue to appear throughout the user’s newsfeeds, so that’s going to be a guaranteed way of reaching your audience.

It’s also worth noting that the new larger photo formatting will also apply to fan page updates and adverts, so you should consider these changes when you’re adding images to your content. You can see what the new timeline will look like and add yourself to the waiting list here.

If you’re on Twitter, there’s a good chance you use the TweetDeck app, either on your desktop or mobile device. The bad news is that Twitter has decided to discontinue the desktop and mobile versions of the TweetDeck app, and you’ll probably find that these will stop working properly over the next couple of months – the official announcement about this is on Twitter’s blog here.

The good news is that TweetDeck will continue to exist as a browser based app at: https://web.tweetdeck.com/ and this works in exactly the same way as the desktop app. Alternatively, if you use the Chrome browser, you can get a plugin that will provide the same functionality.

In theory, you could use the web version of TweetDeck through your mobile device’s browser, but that’s not going to be a happy experience for you. There are a number of alternative third party Twitter apps for all mobile platforms, but Twitter’s mobile web interface (http://mobile.twitter.com) is pretty solid so I’d recommend that.

CaptureLet’s not beat about the bush. B2B brands are boring, consumers aren’t interested in engaging with them and there’s absolutely no reason for them to have Facebook fan pages, right? Wrong – in this post I’m going to show you how some B2B companies are using Facebook in surprising ways.

Before I dive into some examples, I want to share a thought that Joe Hanley, IBM’s external comms director for EMEA, imparted to me when we were chatting about the challenges of doing PR for B2B brands. All brands, somewhere along the chain, are consumer brands.

For example, you might think you’re a B2B tech company, but if all the ATMs in a city go offline overnight because of a bug in your software and nobody can get any cash, all of a sudden you’re a consumer facing brand whether you like it or not.*

The moral of this story is that even if your day to day business does not involve dealing directly with consumers, it can pay to put the leg-work into building a channel where you can establish a degree of brand awareness and trust with a consumer audience.

Here are a few examples of B2B brands with successful Facebook pages:

GE

https://www.facebook.com/GE

GE operates in industries such as energy, aviation, healthcare, rail and financial services. Apart from the occasional light-bulb it’s highly unlikely that most consumers will ever directly buy a product from GE, but the company nevertheless has a highly engaging Facebook page with over 900,000 fans.

What GE understands well is that the science and engineering work it does is genuinely interesting to a lot of people, and the Facebook page gives ordinary consumers an inside view of that work in an engaging way. The page features quizzes, photos, graphics, facts and stats, all presented to the audience in a fun format. It works wonderfully, everything posted on the GE page gets a high level of interaction from the audience.

Maersk Line

https://www.facebook.com/MaerskLine

What could a freight shipping company have to say on Facebook? Quite a lot as it happens. The Maersk fan page provides a ton of interesting content including photography, interesting views of life at sea, infographics about global freight, and plenty more. The formula clearly works, as Maersk has attracted over 700,000 fans to its page.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what drove the company to build a Facebook presence in the first place, there’s  a great article about it here.

IBM Watson

https://www.facebook.com/ibmwatson

Since IBM sold its desktop computer business to Lenovo, there’s practically no opportunity for consumers to come into contact with the brand in their day to day lives, which means the man in the street is likely to have very little awareness of what the company does these days.

Following the success of IBM’s Watson supercomputer on the US gameshow, Jeopardy, the public was suddenly intrigued by what IBM was doing and a Facebook page provided the ideal channel to let people find out more. The page provides information about Watson, but also serves as a platform for IBM to talk more widely about the technologies it brings to bear on social issues such as healthcare and making cities more liveable.

 

*I should clarify, this never happened (to the best of my knowledge), but it’s a good hypothetical illustration of how B2B can very quickly become consumer.

Kindle_PaperwhiteI’ve been working in the tech industry for a long time. I started writing about this stuff in the early nineties, before the web, before mobile phones, before it was normal for people to have PCs at home.

So I’ve seen a lot of ideas come and go, but I still get impressed when things work better than I expected. My wife bought me a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday in November – I’ve resisted ereaders so far because I just like the feel of paper books, but I admitted defeat and started using the Kindle, which I really like for a number of reasons:

  • The backlight means I can read in bed without having a light on
  • It’s easier to read with one hand on the train while I’m holding onto a handrail
  • I can share an Amazon account with my wife so we can read each other’s books on separate Kindles
  • It’s simple to get hold of new books instantly
  • There’s a huge library of free classics to download
  • It’s got a built in experimental browser which works with Twitter

So, fine, I was wrong, the Kindle is great. But that’s not what really impressed me. At Christmas I was given an iPad Mini – again, I’ve resisted getting a tablet because I reasoned that between my smartphone and my laptop PC I had enough devices to cover most situations. We have a Samsung Galaxy Tab which my wife uses around the house, and for letting the kids watch films or play games on long car journeys, but I didn’t really need a separate tablet for my exclusive use.

But I did find myself using the iPad more than I expected, and while I was poking around the app-store I discovered I could install a Kindle app on it which would synch with the same account I use on the Kindle device itself. It would even automatically open to the same page I was on when I last used my Kindle. Then I discovered the same app is available for my Android phone.

So now, wherever I am, I can pick up my smartphone, Kindle or iPad and continue reading my current book right from the last page I looked at. It’s a small thing, and I appreciate I’m probably a bit late to the party with this, but it’s already making an improvement to my reading habits.

These little progressions in technology almost seem to sneak by as time passes, and occasionally I’m struck by just how far things have moved on since I started writing about it all.

I’ve known about Google’s Custom Search Engine builder for a while now – it’s a handy little tool which allows you to create a mini version of Google that limits its search to a list of sites that you’ve specified. It never occurred to me that it would be useful for any kind of PR application until recently, when I needed to search for mentions of a client in UK newspapers.

The problem with doing this in a Google UK News search is that the results are noisy, because there are a lot of non-newspaper sites included in the results. Also, Google News focuses on current news, and I needed to search for mentions in older stories.

So I spent a bit of time putting together a custom search engine that includes 100+ national and local newspapers in the UK. Its main failing is that it doesn’t show the most recent news, but if you need to quickly search through archived stories, it might be useful.

shitty infographicsEver since somebody first noticed that infographics tend to get a lot of interest from digital and print media alike, PR agencies have been enthusiastically churning them out at every opportunity. Consequently the internet is awash with really, really terrible infographics that nobody wants.

This isn’t just PRs fault. If you’re a blogger who publishes any crappy infographic that lands in your inbox just because it’s free content, you’re part of the problem. If PRs know they can score easy coverage with piss poor infographics, they’ll keep making them.

Here are five common mistakes PR people make when they’re creating infographics:

1) Forgetting about the “info” part
An infographic without any actual information is just a nice picture (and quite often it’s not even that). You wouldn’t create any other kind of colatoral without having a good story to base it on, so what makes you think an infographic is any different? If the conversation starts with “We should do an infographic about something…” instead of “Do you think this story might work as an infographic…” you’re wasting everybody’s time.

2) Forgetting about the “graphic” part
A few Excel pie charts saved in an image file is not an infographic. If you’ve got a good story that you think will work as an infographic, keep the text to a minimum and hire a proper graphic designer to make it look good and find an imaginative way to visualise the data.

3) Too much god damned text
A ton of illegibly small text saved in an image file is not an infographic. The point of an infographic is to get your message across visually, and if you’re relying on a lot of copy to tell the story then you’ve pretty much failed right from the start. Why not just stay in your comfort zone and write a nice press release instead?

4) Huge image sizes
I don’t want to have to scroll horizontally and vertically around just to see all of the infographic. Skyscraper format works well because people are in the habit of scrolling down to read web content. Equally, landscape format can work if the whole image fits within standard sized computer screens. But if you’re going to make me work hard to view your infographic, it better be utterly amazing or I’m not going to invest the effort – and let’s be honest, it probably isn’t.

5) Confusing ‘content’ with ‘advertising’
You’ve got an strong story, the designer has created some great imagery, it all hangs together nicely, everything’s looking good. And then you send it off to the client for approval. It needs to include our key messages. The logo should be bigger. We want a stronger call to action. The product has to be mentioned more often. So you give them what they want. And then you’re left desperately begging everybody in your agency to retweet the client’s ‘infographic’ just to get the numbers up because, big surprise, nobody else on the internet is interested in publishing a free advert for you.

Bonus tip: if you’re going to distribute your infographic as a PDF document, you may as well go the whole hog and send it out on 5.25inch floppy disks, delivered by carrier pigeons.

business leaders ignoring social channels

Tweet? No thanks, I’d rather blow my brains out.

I’ve recently finished working on a small research project looking at how UK business leaders use social media on a personal level. My thinking behind the idea was that loads of people have published research into how brands are using social media, and that’s starting to get a bit boring, but nobody’s really looked at the people who lead those brands.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what we hoped to prove. Quite often with these little thought leadership projects I start with an idea that sounds like it might be intriguing and just hope that the research throws up some interest findings that we can base the report on.

So we pulled together a sample of 300 board level execs from across the FTSE 100 and looked closely at what kind of profile they had in digital media. Unfortunately the results weren’t particularly exciting:

  • Less than a third of execs have a LinkedIn profile
  • Just 3 percent have a Twitter profile
  • Only two of the executives are bloggers
  • That’s it – out of 300 execs there was no other social media activity

None of this should have been a surprise to me, but it does present a bit of a problem when you’ve committed to writing a white paper off the back of this research. The data was so sparse that it couldn’t even be used as the basis for an infographic as we’d hoped.

So what to do? We could have taken the obvious angle, shrilling that UK Executives Need to Engage With Social Media, but I wouldn’t have felt entirely comfortable with that. There are plenty of executives that have no need or desire to use social media channels – why on earth should we expect the 57 year old financial director of a mining conglomerate to be on Twitter?

The report was never meant to be about insisting, against reason, that more business people need to be using social channels. It’s not for everybody. But I think the research we carried out does serve as a kind of barometer for how many digital natives have found their way into senior positions in the FTSE. (Answer: not many.)

So, the research and white paper didn’t turn out to be the earth-shattering piece of thought leadership I was hoping for, but if you ask a lot of questions you have to expect the occasional boring answer.