Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Building a community for your blog

Successful blogs are part of a community. They don't just repeat content from other websites but they are part of a collection of other sites that share interest in similar issues - although not necessarily similar views.

On a simple level, you can identify the community of a successful blog by looking at the sites that are listed in the blogroll - usually provided in the right hand panel of the homepage. However, the community is more than that - it's about an interaction in the content between different sites.

Take this example from Tory blogger Iain Dale. He has written about a story he discovered on Biased BBC. They may share a similar political belief (Tories traditionally dislike the Beeb) but they have a different focus in their writing.

Alternatively, Labour blogger Luke Akehurst republishes content from (unbiased) Guardian journalist Dave Hill but they share another similarity: they are both residents of Hackney.

It doesn't always work favourably though as I pointed out here, even a negative review can help your website's search engine profile!

So when you've setup your blog and you want to get readers, how do you start to build a community? Here are some starting points:
  • your content - find out which other sites report your content
  • your beliefs - which blogs share your beliefs or directly oppose them?
  • your interests - which blogs are in your local community, get on the same train as you, read the same local newspaper as you, both hate/love marmite?
  • degrees of separation - which other sites might interest your readers or who can you do a favour to by reviewing and linking to their site?
  • things you support - use social networking sites or Twitter to find out where you share an interest with people. Do you like a band that shares a bill with another band? Think laterally.
Let me know any other great tips and I'll review your site and give you some extra publicity!

What I'm reading today

There's only one article I'm reading today, and I'm doing so ad nauseum:

Dyson's - they're great when they break

I got a Dyson a couple of years ago. We needed a new vacuum cleaner, my wife was not thinking about the cost properly and I persuaded her to get a Dyson because they look cool and are as manly as you can hope for from a vacuum cleaner.

Recently, I wondered why we bothered. It stopped working after less than two years. That's when I realised how great Dyson's really are. Why? Because:

1. They come with a five year guarantee

2. The helpline is really well run, with long opening hours and staff who seem to know what they're talking about

3. The Dyson is so well designed with colour coordinated parts that you can take it apart yourself (with instruction from the aforementioned helpline) to find out what's wrong and fix it. It's so good that even the individual components have diagrams so you don't need to resort to an instruction manual.

Now I would always by a Dyson, not just because they're the Apples of their field but because they are so well built.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Protecting and promoting online reputations

Newscounter has just launched a Google group about to identify best practice and emerging themes for organisations and their staff charged with protecting and promoting online reputations.

Take a look and join in the debate.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Measuring Twitter impact

There's an interesting debate on measuring the impact of Twitter.

Our experience is that not many companies track their products on Twitter. There isn't currently the volume to justify it. However, there's a growing case for doing so because:
a) Twitter is an incredibly useful tool for SEO (see Newscounter's Twitter page.)
b) Opinion formers use Twitter
c) An increasing number of journalists use Twitter personally and for new content

See some of the discussion here.

Do you know anyone who uses Twitter to monitor their brand reputation?

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Newscounter website problems

I don't like to over exaggerate but we've had a nightmare over the last month with our new website. We wanted to update it to better-reflect our core business. Things are developing so quickly that, inevitably, by the time we had the new site up and running, it needs further revision.

But our biggest problem was with hosting. I won't bore you with the intricacies, but the end result is that is no longer in the Google top 10 for Newscounter. A good thing, therefore, that no one searches for Newscounter! Anyway, we're now running from which is a short term fix and - unfortunately - has far fewer links than so ranks lower in Google.

An important lesson for anyone developing a new website - get the hosting packages right before you change with the website content.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Citizen driven media complaints

A couple of months ago I was considering how you could open up the Press Complaints Commission. Two of the biggest problems with the PCC, as currently constructed are:
  1. that it will only accept complaints from a very small number of people. The majority of complaints are stopped at source.
  2. that mediated corrections (the majority solution) are rarely perceived to be commensurate with the original story
My solution was Digg meets Pledgebank meets the PCC. It goes as follows:

  1. You join the citizen media complaints commission. You pay, say, £5 a month to join
  2. Anyone can register a complaint with a piece of media coverage. The complainant makes their complaint and states how they want it to be addressed
  3. Members of the commission vote as to the most deserving complaint.
  4. The winning complaint gets all the money in the kitty to pay for publicity to rectify their complaint. This could be Google advertising, a billboard outside the newspapers, students paid to flyer journalists - whatever.
I've not been able to take this forward in 2008. So I'm asking for your help to finesse the idea, restructure it, mash it up - whatever. As long as you can commit some time to making something happen in this space in 2009.

5 Great blog titles

We recently looked at 5 reasons why blog titles are important. Next, it only seemed fair to give some examples:

1. Leaked: Labour's new Ad campaign
It starts with exclusivity / insider gossip. It says what it is on the tin. It is open enough to stimulate comments.

2. Yet more Tory economic stupidity
Provocative. Clear subject matter for the post. Doesn't give it all away though - you want to know what the stupidity is.

3. Sniffer dogs and breast cancer
Clear what it's about. Yet intriguing for the juxtaposition. Works supremely well on search engines.

4. Top-Sellers? Bah, Let's Look At The 10 Most "Engaging" Games
It's a list, it's provocative. You want to know what's near the top. See how it's doing on Digg.

5. Hallelujah: the perfect Christmas song
Everyone's talking about that song. Sometimes about whether it's appropriate for Christmas. So this headline says it all - and fits in with an existing debate.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

5 reasons why blog titles are important

A blog title is the most important part. Why?

1. Because you'll increase your audience from social networking sites
Go to Digg, Delicious or any of the other sites where people share content they like. See how many articles you read, how many you click on. Then reflect on how many you clicked on just because of the title. It's like going to a bookshop when you're not sure what to buy. Get the title right on your blog post and there's a greater chance that you'll get more clickthroughs from these sites.

2. Because mostly 80% of people will read your title, 20% will read the content
And if the title grabs, then those figures will alter.

3. Google measures how quickly people leave your site
A compelling title, and people will read your post. An interesting post, and people will click on your blog. And your blog will be more important to search engines like Google.

4. A blog title is the ultimate soundbite
If you can't say what you want to say in the title, maybe blogging isn't for you. Try writing a masters thesis instead.

5. The title is your sales pitch
With millions of blogs, thousands of news sites and hundreds of emails, why should someone read your blog? Your title is your sales pitch. And get them hooked, and you'll have people returning.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

5 things wrong with my blog

I know, I know. My blog should be an exemplar for all those people we're helping with their blogs. But we're so busy helping them, that we don't have time to help ourselves. So here, for the benefit of others, are five things wrong with my blog:

1. I don't post daily
It's so important to post every day. It tells search engines that it's worth coming back. I don't, so they don't.

2. I'm not part of a community
Having a dialogue with Martin Belam isn't enough. If this blog is to be successful, it needs to be part of a conversation with other blogs.

3. It is too unfocussed to be useful to audiences
I don't have regular features, content spread across several days, content which is relevant to the same person on consecutive days etc. etc. etc.

4. I don't link enough
If I don't link to other blogs, how can I expect anyone else to return the favour?

5. It looks rubbish
You can get away with lots of design sins in web 2.0. But not as many as these - at least, not until the content is a great deal stronger.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Which posts make a great blog?

We've been advising a few CEOs recently on their blogs. One of the key areas where our advice is important is helping with the way that content is written (not what is written).

We've developed our thoughts into this introductory presentation: Great blogging: which posts work?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The financial case for blogging

Yesterday we examined the business case for blogging. The other set of benefits of blogging are financial; not in the sense of earning money by blogging (although that is possible) but the benefits of blogging over other forms of communicating with the same stakeholders.

A decent blog should be getting an audience of at least 250 readers a day and often hit 500.

We've made a number of assumptions here (and this is largely meant to be thought provoking).
  • a blog takes an hour a day to write
  • this chief executive is paid £100,000 per annum
  • our consultancy fees are included
  • a redesign is necessary
  • the blog is hosted externally
Based on this, a blog costs a maximum of £2000 per month, or 27 pence per reader.

  • If you had a daily newspaper column in a high circulation national newspaper, you would have a larger audience at a cheaper price.
  • If you were on the Today programme each day, blogging wouldn't be worth it
  • If you addressed a conference of 500 people, blogging would be more cost effective
  • If you sent an email newsletter each day, blogging would reach more people
  • If you brought billboard advertising, radio advertising or a TV spot, blogging would still be cheaper
  • If you brought keyword advertising on search engines, blogging would still be cheaper
Some people have alternative access to a significant audience every day at a low price. If you don't, blog.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Social networking and brands

David Cushman has an interesting article here on the relationship between social networking sites and brands:


Business case for blogging

The CEO of a third sector organisation asked me last week how we could justify the time spent on his blog (about one hour a day).

So, in two parts, here is the business case for blogging for busy third sector CEOs. We start with the business benefits and tomorrow will look at the financial cost.

Get an audience for your latest activities
Few organisations have a page of press releases that a search engine visits each day. Therefore, it could be as much as a week before your latest report/research/campaign gets noticed online. An effective blog will be noticed daily, giving you an online platform for your latest activities to be noticed.

Change perceptions of your organisation/campaign/constituents
A blog can provide a means to change perceptions by engaging with your audience frequently and over a sustained period. It could be older people communicating young people that they have a valuable contribution to make (or vice versa). Or people with disabilities making their experiences more real. Or an international charity taking big stories and humanising them. The nature of the platform provides a unique opportunity to challenge perceptions and the means to measure your success.

Lobby for change
The art of good blogging is being part of a network of blogs. You can use your blog to lobby for change and create alliances of other bloggers who support the same issue. You can also target your campaigns at political bloggers with high influence.

Engage your key stakeholders
A blog can engage with your key stakeholders in a more meaningful and frequent way than any other form of communication. Whether explaining your activities to donors, raising awareness, campaigning for change, a blog gives you a platform to talk regularly with your more important stakeholders.

Demonstrate your expertise

If you want to establish yourself as a media commentator on a particular issue, a blog is a good place to start. You can rehearse your key arguments, establish your credibility and gain a profile for your views on a particular subject. And if your organisation has a back-catalogue of research its a good way of getting fresh attention for old work.

Engage with journalists and commentators
So many journalists and commentators blog that it's critically important that you do too. Your blog can provide them with new content but also just remind them of your organisation and what you are saying. Social networks are also a useful too for this.

Deliver excellent return on investment
We will look at the numbers tomorrow but blogs are the most cost effective, easiest way to communicate with a large audience frequently.

Survive and thrive in a recession

I recently attended the best networking event I've been to in two years. It cost me £40 but in return I got to eat lunch with a number of small business owners and talk honestly about how we were going to cope with the economic downturn.

The event was organised by Tom Ball and his team at Cognac, the company that created our marvellous Counterpoint presentation. Tom has subsequently written up the lessons learned from this event, and the others held in the series.

The book, “The Wisdom of Crowds”, states that a crowd is wise if: there is diversity of opinion, independence, decentralisation and some form of aggregation. Most articles about the recession take their data from experts – who can be expected to be a skewed data sample. We got the most diverse people we could think of and held a series of dinners over October and November to debate the recession - pulling together many wise minds from different industries. The diagnosis was mixed: It’s going to get very nasty – but that opportunities will abound for those nimble enough to reach them.

To state the obvious, the big challenge for businesses is cash – businesses are likely to be squeezed from all sides:

  • Sales volume down
  • Prices down in some areas
  • Increase in bad debts
  • Invoices paid later
  • Customers reduce stock

To quote Jon Moulton “Everything we do to prepare will make the recession worse – but to not react will kill our own businesses”

No-one knows the answer and this is by no means scientific – but from dozens of articles and hundreds of conversations, here are our crowd’s top tips to survive and prosper in a recession:

1. React to changing buying habits

The usual rules have changed. There appear to be many, often conflicting, changes happening across different industries. For example, people go out half as often but spend more on those nights - and have consequently higher expectations (If it’s your one night out this month, it had better be good!).

People are going out less but appear to be spending more time and money at home. Escapism, nostalgia and comfort food are up. Most people are cutting back – what becomes redefined as a “luxury” remains to be seen. More people are fixing things and making things – helping places like Halfords and craft shops. The “Buying cycles” are getting extended – people that replace their car every two years wait one more year. Some people choose to go to the dentist every nine months rather than every six. Tiny individual decisions – with a huge impact when the whole world acts as a herd.

In summary the world is changing – and figuring out or choosing your new role is not obvious.

2. Cheap is no longer a four letter word

Lots of cheaper alternatives are gaining. Lidl was up 40%. Cheaper supermarkets seem to be gaining at the expense of posher ones as the stigma of being seen in Aldi recedes. But it’s more complex than that. Waitrose is being hit as people move to cheaper alternatives – but gaining as people host ready-made dinner parties as cheaper alternatives to restaurants. Is cheap the new bling?

Of course, labelling cost cutting as “focusing on reducing our carbon footprint” – such as all but banning corporate travel - makes the change green and lean. There are many opportunities to cut costs in the name of the planet which would have been ignored in fatter days.

3. Meet higher expectations

Because spending money is now a rarer occurrence, we have higher expectations when we do spend money

4. Get back to basics

Most of the actions being proposed and planned are true of business itself. Like the best of us, companies get fat in boom periods – now is the time to focus. Focus on key clients. Focus on delivery. Focus on the core business.

5. Underlying trends will accelerate

There are seismic shifts that have been predicted for years. The death of television advertising. The rise of telecommuting and video conferencing. The changes in population as the baby boomers give way to the “millennials” or “digital natives” (People born after the World Wide Web – and therefore never seen life without it).

The inertia of success has allowed them to be largely ignored – but as everything is revisited, those seismic shifts will start to erupt. Upcoming generations may sit forlorn by the side of the career ladder – or they may start the next wave of new companies.

6. Focus on fast ROI

There is a polarisation happening in buying decisions: Ignoring the blanket “spending freezes” that are delaying everything there is an obvious focus on short term results. Anything with a clear ROI of less than six months is more likely to happen, albeit needing sign-off from the CEO down. Huge “change the planet” five year programmes, long ROI projects will happen only in far-sighted, cash-rich firms preparing for the future.

7. Work on cash from all three angles

To quote Lord Harris (CEO of CarpetRight – now 3% owned by Bill Gates!) “Look after your cash. I’ve never known anyone go bust with cash in the bank”.

There are three ways to have more cash in the bank: Sell more, Spend less and move payment dates to conserve your cash. This could be an article in itself

8. Be prepared for the waves that follow

We have not seen the worst of it yet. Hopefully the Government’s swift reaction will minimise the damage – but the dominoes continue to fall as firm’s are hit by the effects of each days bad news. The effects seem worst felt closer to Banks and international corporations – and least felt in rural areas such as Devon where it has yet to have real impact.

9. Stand out from the crowd

Now is the time to be exceptional. Buyers are more cost conscious than ever – but seem more risk averse. If you really need project X to succeed, can you risk hiring the B-team? What constitutes the best appears to be changing – the cult of “bigger is better” is fading – with companies hiring smaller, more focussed teams who are the best in their field. We are already seeing clearer priorities being set and pursued more rapidly. Decisions lower down may be mired in sign-off procedures but decisions coming from the board-room down are happening faster than ever.

10. Go against the herd

The wise herd will be busy being prudent, cutting back ... so if everyone is selling who is buying? It takes two opinions to make a market. Things only sell at the point a seller finds a buyer – if “everyone” is selling, there is logic in buying – but for most, the bottom is yet to come. ROB is at an all time high. But more about that in the article about Christmas!

11. No-one knows what will happen

Far from discovering a universal, secret truth about what where to put our money, we found as many opinions as people. People advocating hoarding cash – and people convinced cash will devalue and anywhere is better. People going east to China – and leaving

For our part, we believe the need for clarity, for sales, for change has never been greater. We hope to grow and prosper – and we hope you do too.

Please feel free to share this around – and please do let us know your tips - and where you agree or disagree with our crowd!

Monday, 8 December 2008

StreetWire is brilliant

Don't just take my word for it, check it out yourselves:

Ok, so it might work better if you live in N16 (as I do) than BS32 (where I was born) but - how brilliant.

I look forward to being hooked, Twitter-style

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

UK2 - thanks

I had a problem with UK2 recently. (The next paragraph is boring).

I registered a domain that I no longer needed. I received automated emails warning me of renewal which I ignored, because the card that I used to pay for the domain was no longer valid. I then received an email warning me that the payment would be processed anyway unless I cancelled the order. I replied to the email and received no response. I then got an email saying it had been renewed and I had to pay some sort of fine. They had no record of my email but waived the payment; a truly decent thing to do as I hadn't complied with their procedure.

UK2 thanks - and if you monitor your online reputation - I recommend you to anyone thinking of buying a domain name.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

This says it all

This post sums up how I'm feeling today.

SEO discovery

I've uploaded the introduction to Counterpoint to SlideShare. I want to know what value SlideShare can add to a search engine optimisation scheme so it's a bit of an experiment.

Does anyone else have any experience of using SlideShare to help SEO?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Top tip for blogging

Here's a top tip for blogging: lists. Five top this, ten best the other, 25 worst what's its.

The front page of the Timesonline site today shows why:

Alternative Doctor needs an alternative search engine approach

NHS Blog Doctor, one of my favourite blogs, has published an expose of the Alternative Doctor site. You can judge the legitimacy of the site and the complaint yourself. It's highlighted that the alternative doctor needs a new search engine strategy.

How influential is the Alternative Doctor site? Not very.

Yahoo reports just over 1,000 hyperlinks to the site, meaning that it has some influence - but only just. The NHS Blog Doctor has seven times as many, as you'd expect for a nationally significant blog.

Critically, the site doesn't rank particularly well on search engines. It comes number one for me on Google for a search of alternative doctor - that's good, bearing in mind the competition. However, it is not ranked prominently for any of its key terms: electronic voice phenomena, hypergravity vibration exercizer (where there isn't much competition) or cancer alternatives. In contrast, the NHS Blog Doctor post is now in the top 10 for hypergravity vibration exercizer.

The Alternative Doctor site demonstrates the importance of getting all the elements of an seo strategy in place. To be more successful it needs:
  • page titles which correspond with a keyword strategy
  • a higher keyword density
  • more links coming in to the key pages
Having a video on the homepage is good - I think. But spending almost 1/6th of it debating with yourself whether this is a website, a blog, or a bit of both is a waste of all our time!

And a note to NHS Blog Doctor - you've provided more links to the Alternative Doctor than you have to anyone on the other side of the debate. Given the high value of links from your site, won't this be inadvertently helpful to him?

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Indian attacks shouldn't be Google's number one

Martin Belam (who is infinitely brighter and better qualified than me) thinks that it is a failure of search engines that search results for Mumbai and India don't have stories about the terrorist attacks at the top. I don't agree.

The terrorist attacks may be the most significant thing about Mumbai or even India, today. But search results are about more than that, signified by Google's weighting to older content. The terrorist attacks will be dealt with and the city needs to recover. What it doesn't need is a prospective American tourist deciding not to visit in three months time (assuming it doesn't run contrary to state department advice) because of a legacy story on a search engine.

There are issues about news and search, demonstrated by the coverage around Bob Woolmer's death (as opposed to the reports of his murder). Google News is a step in the right direction although that's not without its problems. But if the main Google search results worked in the way Martin suggests, it could be more bad news for Mumbai.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Press Complaints Commission - a model of inaction

I want to bring attention to a very important article by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust about the Press Complaints Commission.

I can't find anything in it with which I disagree, so here are my modest suggestions for reform:
  • Bodies like the Media Standards Trust need to build a public coalition around a reform agenda
  • There must be a public trigger for the PCC where a number of complaints leads to an automatic investigation
  • The PCC must be able to act when a press article causes sufficient public concern that failure to act would bring the industry into disrepute
  • The PCC must remain politically independet but, perhaps, should report annually to parliament as other regulators do
Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Vandana Rawat website review

Vandana Rawat contacted me to ask me to review her websites, web security guide and Wendy genuine help. I've tried to identify some key lessons that should help other people thinking about blogging or running a website.

1. Well done for asking
Asking someone to review your site is a great way to get them to link to it, looking at it (and coming back to see what you do with it). Particularly good thing to do in the early days. It's something I should do more often.

2. Post frequently
I find blogging is a trade off between quality and quantity. You have to post every day, if only to encourage search engines to visit frequently and find your new content. It won't always be brilliant or insightful, but at least it keeps regular readers coming back rather than drifiting away. And you can always revise posts.

3. Position advertising well
Vandana has lots of advertising prominently displayed on the two sites. I find it off-putting. If advertising revenue is important, I'd recommend getting a regular visitor base first, and then introducing helpful and discreet advertising (which users are more likely to click on and earn you money for) than prominent, tangentially relevant advertising on these sites. Vandana - I would rather your profile was in the top right hand corner (rather than bottom right) instead of advertising.

4. Stick with it
If you are organising a great party, it takes time and dedication. You can't just decide to throw a party the night before. Blogging is the same. It takes time to find your voice, develop an audience and identify your niche.

5. Unique content
Vandana seems to have useful, unique content on both her sites. There needs to be a USP for everything you post.

6. Link, link, link
Not linking inside your posts is like taking receipt of a business card and not giving yours back. It's also a good way of bringing your site to the attention of others.

7. Identify your community
Blogging is about being part of a conversation - not always speaking at a group of people. Therefore , your blog needs to fit into - but be a distinctive voice - within a series of other like-minded or at least similar-subject matter blogs; something I'm not yet good at.

8. Encourage comments
A blog looks better (but isn't always) if it has comments. Therefore, when you write, encourage people to comment by posting provocative, thoughtful posts but also ones with genuine question marks - not just the sort you expect to see in a government 'consultation' document.

I hope that's useful. Please chip in with your own advice and correct me if I've got anything wrong; I'm sure I've missed plenty of other things which I will return to in later posts.

Monday, 24 November 2008


I'm working with a couple of friends to highlight which are and which are not passing on the 2.5% cut in VAT announced today.

It's very early days - take a look at our cut VAT campaign site here.

Train station announcements: could they be worse?

Could Train station announcements be any worse? I know they're famous for being too muffled but it's the order of the sentence that gets me.

I was in Liverpool Lime Street recently thinking about the amount of effort companies go to when communicating with customers. Whether it was the detailed info about the coffee beans, the messages about M&S bags or the constant information screens on cashpoints, companies try very hard when they talk to customers. So do the train operating companies. You can not travel on a train without knowing who runs the service.

Yet station announcements are unintelligible because no one seems to have considered how they come across to the listener. Consider this typical announcement:

  1. The next train
  2. leaving from platform one
  3. is the 09.24 service
  4. from Liverpool Lime Street
  5. to Manchester Piccadilly
  6. calling at . . .
  1. I know it's a train
  2. I want to know where it's leaving from, but not just yet because I don't know whether it's my train
  3. Again, not so helpful
  4. Yes, I know where I am
  5. Ok, that's largely helpful
  6. And this is the information I want. But by now I can't remember where I have to go in order to catch it
It's not a big thing. Unless you arrive at the station with little time and want to board your train.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Don't optimise your site for search engines and this is what happens

I blogged recently about Barack Obama's transition website, pointing out that it was badly optimised for search engines.

This is the consequence: a Google search for Obama transition finds it languishing in 10th place, behind nine news stories. There's no guarantee that these are positive, focussing on the issues that Obama wants or communicating accurate information.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Blog recommendation

Check out Matthew Taylor's blog. Well worth a look. He covers neuroscience and its impact on public policy, the state of society (social pessimism in particular) and gives a bit of political commentary

Monday, 17 November 2008

Google Translator - is it useful?

Google has announced a new translation tool as part of its feed reader.

The team here says that it's another step towards a truly international internet (echoing Google's remarks). Interestingly, below the post are a list of blogs that are talking about the story. Even excluding spam, I think it's significant just how few of those are in other languages.

Is translation into English necessary on the web any more?

Friday, 14 November 2008

LSO St Lukes: brilliant

LSO St Lukes is a brilliant venue with first class music making which works hard to build participation in class music. I just wanted to record my thoughts to improve their online reputation!

I first heard of LSO St Lukes when I worked for UBS, promoting its sponsorship of the orchestra.

Now I take my baby daughter most Fridays to attend the (usually free) lunchtime concerts. The event is MC'd by a local composer who gives a good, brief overview of the works and the performance is usually led by LSO players. There is almost always a local primary school class in attendance and a Q&A session in the middle allows for a bit of audience participation. The event is sufficiently relaxed that you don't feel intimidate when a baby makes a noise.

Last week I heard a double bass recital from the leader of the bass section of the orchestra. It was the best I've ever heard the instrument (even if the player had previously been a cellist - suggesting that 'he grown up' to play the bass).

I went today to their special concert for under fives. Unfortunately it was sold out (£1 tickets) but part of me was delighted that the event attracted such an audience.

If you can get there, do, because it's a great way to listen to classical music at a low cost and in a very accessible way.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Football League - could do better

The Football League could do better on their website. I really don't want to talk about the Liverpool game last night. But this aspect of Carling Cup is worth talking about: the Football League's website.

Last night the official Liverpool FC website published the team sheet 45 minutes before kick-off, as usual. However, the first draft saw Benayoun starting and on the subs bench. The next had six subs. This sparked a debate on the best Liverpool fans' site, Red and White Kop: how many substitutes are you allowed in the Carling Cup?

The conspiracy theorists argued that maybe a player had refused to play, so disappointed was he to not be in the starting XI. I tried to find out the rules. I went to Google and entered Carling Cup rules the 2007/08 version. The first result was this badly formatted page giving access to the rules as a pdf (a pet hate).

Rule 9.1 states that the team is allowed five substitutes of which no more than three can take part. And yet both teams named seven substitutes.

It could be that both teams broke the rules - or it could be that the Football League hasn't updated their website. Either way, having out of date material on the site, ranked number one on Google isn't much use to anyone.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Progressive London - web asessment

Ken Livingtone has launched Progressive London - a new coalition of interests to oppose Boris Johnson and build political support for Ken's agenda. Dave Hill has the full story.

As is fashionable these days, it's backed by a bespoke website. So what could they do differently to boost the credibility and influence of the site?

1. Have a clear understanding of your keywords
The homepage has a meta description with some (pointless) keyword tags. However, these relate only to the content that they have, rather than the issues they want to be known for. There's no Boris Johnson for a start.

2. Fix the URLs
The URLs are random strings of numbers rather than a description of the page content - bad for search engines.

3. Build the content
There should be a page for each policy that the group oppose which it should aim to be in the top 5 of Google.

4. Build the links
There are too few links to other websites and too little mutual back-scratching. Where's the link to Ken's article in The Guardian, or the links back to the websites of members of the coalition. If you're going to have a links page, at least make sure they're reciprocated.

6. Improve the user experience
This will come but it isn't great at the moment. Nowhere to interact, only a box which asks you to sign-up without any declaration of what you are signing up to, data protection pledge etc.

Any other thoughts / ideas?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Anfi Emerald fails to act

My previous post about Anfi Emerald has been met by silence. I'm a bit surprised because I asked for them to contact me on the feedback form, as well as pointing the company to my blog.

I notice that my post has now risen to 11th on a Google search for Anfi Emerald and the TripAdvisor listing (complete with my comment) appears in the all-important top 10.

I wonder if the company just doesn't monitor its online reputation or hopes that the good outweighs the bad. One thing that the company has done well is to use an online distribution company for its press releases. Whilst this makes little impact on press coverage, it often helps SEO.

Equalities and Human Rights Commission: invaluable lesson on search

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has had an invaluable lesson on the importance of search.

It used to be easy for public relations consultants: get to know a few journalists (drink with them if necessary) write a good press release and give them a call. Job done.

Now there are far more things to consider, including what impact a news story will have on an organisation's internet reputation.

EHRC boss Trevor Phillips gave a wide-ranging interview at the weekend during which he said that Barack Obama could not have emerged in Britain's party political system because of "institutional racism" within the Labour party. He accussed (former?) comrades of willing the ends but not the means.

The remarks have provoked a strong reaction - most of which the EHRC may see as beneficial. However, does it want this to be the only issue associated with its chair?

Type "Trevor Phillips" into Google. These are the results. If you search "equality human rights commission" it may not be top 10 (yet) but with the Google News clipping and the Times article 16th it will still make an impact.

Assuming that a body responsible for seven equalities strands doesn't want to be known for this alone, how could this have been avoided? I won't give you all the tips of the trade but try putting "Tesco" into Google. Notice how the first newspaper site is ranked 17th. I know that Tesco are bigger and have been around longer. But Google - and its users - don't account for that and their perception of the organisation changes accordingly.

The standard reached by Tesco must be aspired to by any organisation seeking to influence public life.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Iain Dale's impact on Sally Morgan

Iain Dale, one of Britain's most high profile and effective blogger, has written about attending an evening with Sally Morgan.

It will be interesting to see what impact his blog has on her online reputation. If his account is a fair representation (and I have no reason to think otherwise), I hope it has a considerable impact.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

SEO for

The brilliant Martin Belam has written about the search engine optimisation of He takes a slightly different look to my post about links in the transition website. It's worth a look.

My view is that for all it's important for us mere mortals to understand how to promote our content on Google, the President-elect has better things to do. Various publications suggest that Google puts greater emphasis on official sites (.edu .gov etc).

Is Google really so big that the President-elect should be trying harder to optimise his site for Google rather than vice versa?

Saturday, 8 November 2008

When is Yahoo better than Google?

Here's a tip for communications professionals.

Most people in the UK use Google. However, it isn't always better.

For example, try to judge the authority of President-elect Obama's transition website, Put into Google and you get 0 results. Put it into Yahoo and you get 1453 results.

The more comprehensive Yahoo database is more useful for PR, marketing and comms people. Perhaps another good reason for the halt called to negotiations between the two search engines?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Protecting your online reputation

Wannabe journalists are encouraged to blog to get a job in the profession. And graduate students are always warned to think twice about what their Facebook page says about them. Unfortunately these two stories didn't register for Birmingham Mail (former) journalist Adam Smith. This video shows why.

The story is in its full gory detail here. In essence, the journalist was filmed, drunk, saying that he cut and pastes stories from the BBC News website rather than filing original copy for the readers of the Birmingham Mail.

I'm sure this is a horrible time for Adam Smith. And unless he takes corrective action, the story will remain on Google for his prospective employers.

But will it do him harm or will his actions earn him the notoriety of a Piers Morgan type?

Web visits strategy

An article on search engine watch has reminded me of the importance of planning before building an excellent website.

In the old days, a company would have commissioned, written, posed for the photograph and printed a corporate brochure, without thinking about who might read it and how they might receive it? I hope not - although I did work for an organisation who did just that. A customer complaint might have started with a petition outside the store or a letter to the CEO.

But many people do exactly that when building a website. They say 'we need a website' and act accordingly. Instead, why don't you try a variation of the following:
  • We need to talk to our customers in a cheaper way. How could the internet help? or
  • We want to be known for our CSR programme. How can we promote it online?
The answer will probably include a website but that will only be the start, not the end of the job. It should also include:
  • a list of websites, forums and networks that are interested in the subject
  • a laser-focus on the relevant search terms
  • a demographic of people on social networking sites
  • multi media delivery to engage audiences with different demands
And it might include a website - or you might save yourself a few grand by thinking first, then acting.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

EDF Energy customer service

There was a power cut on our side of the street yesterday evening at about 5.30pm. In the old days we would have just gone out for dinner but with a baby we had a mad dash for food supplies and sterilising tablets. I've written before about how EDF provide a decent service, but the customer care could be better. This time, EDF dealt with it ok, but a bit of customer service would have been nice.

When the power went off, I stepped outside to find out the extent of the problem. I was reassured to see an EDF Energy van parked on our street - although on reflection, it was surprising that it was already there. Unfortunately, there was no telephone number on the van as far as I could see.

Eventually we got through to customer services on the phone who said that it was being treated as an emergency and should be fixed by 9.30pm. I was delighted when the power came back on shortly after 7pm.

What would have been even better is if EDF Energy had called us to explain what was happening. Instead, angry residents gathered around the van hoping to get some news and becoming more agitated the less visible the engineers were.

Had the engineers had knocked on every door (or every other and asked us to tell a neighbour) we would have been able to plan accordingly - and known who to thank when the problem was sorted.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Congratulations, Juande Ramos

I've just come across the website of Juande Ramos, recently deposed Spurs manager (head coach, or whatever title comes with a sporting director above you).

It's a site available in Spanish and English and he's used it to communicate his side of the story after his dismissal from Spurs.

I'd never before come across a football manager with a dedicated website.

My favourite section is this, where he enables fans to post their stories of meeting Mr Ramos.

Even if the site is indexed at 3 and 4 on Google for a search of 'Juande Ramos', unfortunately other results suggest he 'cuts a pathetic figure' or that he 'needs the sack'.

Mr Ramos should be applauded for entering the digital age. By having a website, he's giving himself a platform to communicate with key stakeholders. However, it also goes to show the importance of search engines, social networks and other websites in shaping a brand - and how important they are whether you are Tesco, Juande Ramos or just Matthew Cain!

Tricky coverage for BA?

I've blogged recently about how companies which make an emotional appeal to customers may be more at risk from criticism online than those who have a more transactional relationship.

This article in the Independent about British Airways seems to highlight my point.

However, the impact of the article on BA's online reputation will be limited. Why?
  • the article is not listed in the top 30 of Google for British Airways
  • the BA website has an authority of 3,360 (high) compared with the Independent's 8490 (critical)
We'll monitor blogs for the next day or so (particularly in Wales and Scotland) but I don't think this story has legs.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Customer complaints making you emotional?

I read Robert Cialdini's book on influence recently.

He recounts a piece of research where volunteers were asked to drag a circle into a square on a computer. They were asked to do as many as they could within five minutes. One group was paid a small amount ($5, say) the other a large amount ($50, say) and the third group was asked to do it as a favour to the research organisers.

Which group do you think performed the task most effectively? It was group three. Cialdini suggests that companies appeal to staff on an emotional level because it increases productivity.

How does it work with advertising and customers? Think of a few well-known slogans:
  • There must be another way
  • The world's favourite airline
  • Every little helps
Clearly all successful companies who have built brand loyalty. When the company makes an emotional plea the benefits are obvious.

But companies make mistakes, and sometimes customers feel let down. Do customers of these 'emotional companies' feel more let down than those companies that offer a more transactional relationship?

Sunday, 19 October 2008

20 Anfi Emerald problems

I've just spent two weeks staying at a timeshare in Gran Canaria. We stayed at Anfi del Mar in January which was very impressive. However, this time it was fully booked and we were placed in Anfi Emerald. It was no comparison.

It's not that any single incident spoilt the holiday. Simply that combined, dealing with the staff was an irritant and combined, they suggested this place is poorly managed with little care or respect to guests and principally a means to sell timeshares. Apparently the apartment costs £1500 a week so you'd expect 5* service.

However, there is only one restaurant one site and a small shop. The complex feels just too small to promote a professional service.

Here, in tedious detail, are all the problems we had:

Front of house
1. We arrived at 22.30 and were told that we couldn't take food from the restaurant to our room so had to keep our 6 month old awake longer whilst we ate in the restaurant. For the rest of the holiday, we watched people taking pizzas and take-away food from the restaurant.

2. The parking that we were told beforehand was free, wasn't.

3. When we arrived in our room the travel cot and high chair that we had ordered weren't there.

4. When my wife called reception to ask for the travel cot, she was asked if it could wait til the morning!

5. When my inlaws came to visit, they were told our room number without any checks. Fine for us, not so much if you're a VIP.

6. The information book in the room said that there was free internet access and we just had to get a cable from reception. When I went to reception, they said it required a €10 deposit, despite having our credit card details and despite us having over €200 already on our room bill.

7. The first day I waited 15 minutes to order a coffee. It came after a further 30 minutes, cold and only half a cup.

8. The second day we waited 45 minutes for a pizza and club sandwich at lunchtime. They both arrived cold and - suspiciously - seconds after we complained to staff

9. On the third day, we asked for condiments. The waiter then went and served a rep for the holiday company and never brought the condiments. There were only three tables in use; not unduly busy.

10. On subsequent days we waited unduly to place an order and receive it. When we complained to the waiter he told us that he was doing his best.

11. We frequently had to wait until reps had been served (they spent most of the day in the restaurant) until our order would be taken

12. On one day, with only two tables in the restaurant, I got up to leave and was asked by one of the two waiters to prove that I had paid. The waiter asking was the one who had taken payment from us. When he couldn't find proof of payment on his PDA I was told to wait until he went into his office before leaving the restaurant.

13. Everything sharpened up one day. From the look of the flipcharts on the rep's restaurant table, management had been visiting. The waiters even wore bowties. Unfortunately, that meant that I had to wait half way through the barman assembling my order whilst he worked out how to put on his tie.

14. I don't mind hearing from the waiters what they earn and what their mortgage costs. But I know plenty of people who would.

The reps
15. A rep called our apartment on our arrival and said that if we had any problems we should contact him. He didn't leave any method to contact him.

16. Constantly sat at the restaurant all day smoking and on more than one occasion received waiter service before guests.

17. We heard a (more senior?) rep tell a junior rep that when showing people around the venue they should walk infront of the guests and "lead them like dogs".

The apartment
18. Looks great. Cleaning always a great job. Except the towels and bedding wasn't changed when promised but a day later.

19. UK TV channels didn't work including BBC1 and 2, Sky Sports 1 and ITV.

20. Hit and miss. Sometimes we were allowed in straight away, sometimes we had to provide our room number through the intercom and sometimes our room number and registration number. Sometimes the intercom was answered with efficiency, sometimes not.

. . . And of course they provide a survey form, accompanied by sweets but no pen!

So if you're planning to stay at Anfi Emerald - do; but don't expect anything but surly disinterested service and an amateur 'in it for the sales' ethos. But if you can get in Anfi del Mar instead, grab it with both hands.

Friday, 3 October 2008

How to win online - free

The Media Standards Trust have announced that their journalisted website has received over 100,000 unique visitors in September, eight months after launch. That's more visitors that Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale or the Press Gazette.

It's a fantastic achievement, particularly given their total promotion budget of £150. So how did they do it?

The 'build it and they will come' strategy is used too often by organisations with websites. Too little thought is given to reaching out to new users.

Why did it work for Journalisted?:
  1. volume of content - the site has over 1,000,000 pages and;
  2. a long tail - each page doesn't have a lot of readers but cumulatively it works
  3. unique content - they are providing info on journalists where little else works
  4. combined, this means good search engine optimisation with most of their pages 1 or 2 on Google
  5. their A-Z index also helps search engines explore the site
  6. no 'empty pubs' - no page is dependent on a volume of readers
  7. regular updates delivering repeat business - evidenced by 70% of readers 'favouriting' the site

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Excellent campaign website

The Campaign to End Child Poverty has published a report today which maps child poverty by parliamentary constituency. There's a great map on the BBC website, which must have been lots of effort from their press team.

We've done a quick audit of the website to identify its success:
  • has a 138 incoming links, meaning that it only has low authority
  • however, on average they are 457 times more authoritative than the ECP site, increasing its authority to medium
  • they are well indexed on Google - ranked number 1 and 2 under 'Campaign to End Child Poverty' and 2nd under 'child poverty' - a very valuable search term.
  • there are over 2000 members of its Facebook group (also prominent on Google) many of whom have over 100 friends.
The site is aided by its campaign banners, frequent press releases and celebrity endorsements.

There are other things they could do to improve their reputation further (which will remain confidential between Newscounter and the campaign - should they wish to ask) but it's a very good example of a well executed campaign site.

Where will it end?

Matthew Taylor's blog on the economy is worth reading. He's wise, clever and imaginative (as demonstrated by becoming a board member of Newscounter!)

He says things will never be the same again. But we don't yet know how profoundly because this crisis is not over. It probably won't stop with banks. But by what criteria should governments intervene? If the market for internet advertising collapses, should a government support Google? It is far more inter-connected, with a bigger customer base and more dependants than any AIG or HBOS.

Is Cameron slipping?

David Cameron's poll lead may be slipping.

There's an interesting parallel here with Obama. I was in the US just after his trip to Germany and a considerable poll lead. Then it started to slip. Analysts were convinced that he had failed to 'seal the deal' with the electorate who were intrigued by him, liked him but weren't convinced. Attack ads from McCain started to have an impact.

Is it the same for David Cameron?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Good practice in Liverpool

You may not have heard of LFC TV. It's the reason I subscribe to Setanta and it gives me live coverage of the reserve team games, clips of former games and extensive highlights packages.

The channel is a year old and can sometimes appear amateurish. I set Sky+ to record the highlights of our game against Crewe (we won 2-1 in case you missed it) but it didn't record because the EPG was inaccurate.

One of the channel's editors has gone onto a Liverpool FC fans' site to explain why this happened - and why the coverage sometimes slips up. It's a brave thing to do: corporations often struggle to engage successfully in fora for customers because they lack credibility. Why has this worked?

I'm interested in your views but would suggest it includes:
* transparency of their motives,
* no anonymity
* consistency of engaging in the same way
* plain English,
* no obfuscation

any other thoughts?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Problems with Virgin Trains

One of the members of the Newscounter board has written about a bad day in a more amusing way than I ever could:

Will Virgin Trains pay attention?

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Perceptions of Cow and Gate

After my (slightly petty) complaint about Cow and Gate, I set up a basic monitoring alert for "Cow and Gate" and discovered that a recent TV commercial has attracted criticism in the UK and ROI.

Half Pint Pixie complained to the Food Safety Authority (Ireland) about this ad which, according to the blog, confuses follow on milk and infant formula and idealises formula milk over breast milk and Boycott Nestle also flashed up, with concerns over product contamination.

So what impact have these websites had on Cow and Gate's reputation? I think it's significant.

Both websites have a greater authority than measured by how many sites are linking to them and how authoritative those sites are, on average.
  • Half Pint Pixie has 233 sites linking to it which are (on average) 240 times more authoritative than that site
  • Boycott Nestle has 167 / 114
  • Cow and Gate has just 71 / 60
Search engines
Both sites are ranked in the top 20 (13th and 14th) results in Google for a search of 'Cow and Gate Ad' whilst five other sites about Cow and Gate's advertising appear in the first two pages. A search for 'Cow and Gate advertising standards' is even worse for the company. Negative reports are 3rd 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th 9th and 10th.

Even a search for Cow and Gate (which over 18,000 people do each month according to Google) shows that the company is vulnerable to negative articles being displayed prominently.

Social networks
The videos have been well received on YouTube with over 30,000 views and largely favourable comments. However, they are not substantive and largely refer to the 'cute babies' rather than the ethics of the ad.

So in conclusion, Cow and Gate's website carries little authority. This means that the company's defence of the advert is hard to find and that anyone concerned about the company's advertising practices is only likely to find further criticisms rather than arguments in defence. Although the videos are widely viewed and favourably received, this is probably in insufficient numbers to outweigh the negative impact of the controversy.

If Cow and Gate were to engage in the debate, they could improve the authority of their website and enable customers who are interested in hearing a balanced debate, the information to make an informed decision.

I think the information is probably there, on their own site. And the social networking element of is innovative for a large company. But - as so often - the information isn't packaged well for web 2.0.

Fair play, Dolphin

Dolphin Bathrooms called to apologise for standing us up. They said that they'd had problems with their designers and liked to check on the quality.

I appreciate them calling to apologise and not simply using it as an opportunity to try and force another salesman onto us.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Fair play, ITV

I wrote to ITV the other night after the episode in which "Mel Morton" and her PC friend were attacked in Manchester. The closing credits declared the attackers to be 'Chavs' (number 1 to 4 I think). It caught my eye because I don't like the word, its frequent use and the underlying criticism of working class culture.

Corrie is better than most TV shows at giving a fair depiction of working class characters. But the associations between chav and violence are weak. The wikipedia entry specifically states "youth and aggression are not the defining attributes of a 'chav". These were just criminals (none had any other role in the show) and should have been described as such.

This response from ITV may miss the point slightly, but that they've responded in a timely fashion and in a sensible manner makes me feel much better about the show and shows that they take such things seriously.

Cow and Gate making it more difficult?

The manufacturers of baby milk tend to get a tough time. See, for example. George Monbiot or anything by the pressure group Baby Milk Action.

The criticisms may or may not be fair. However, if the average UK consumer is like me, you know that baby milk is not as good as breast milk but also that there is no alternative and you want it to be as good as possible. Therefore, you want to know that the company is acting as responsibly as possible.

I was surprised, therefore, when I purchased my second carton of Cow and Gate 1 for my baby. The instructions explained that each packet needs to be started from scratch - that you can't take powder from a previous packet and mix it with powder from a new packet. Apparently, they innovate so often that the powders may be different.

I'm delighted that Cow and Gate decides to innovate. And surprised that when a new innovation is introduced, it isn't advertised on the packet. I'm even more surprised that the balance of chemicals contained in the powder is so vulnerable that mixing two different versions may be unhealthy. (I'm discounting the possibility that a five month old baby who has only previously drunk milk has a highly developed palate.

The cynic in me would suggest an alternative hypothesis: that:
a) Cow and Gate know that the average packet contains a volume of powder that ensures that the average customer will always be left with two or more scoops (I had four) at the end of a packet.
b) Consumers intuitively mix and match with old and new packets (as you would with, say, chopped tomatos)
c) consumers would rather protect their baby's health than lose a few pence
d) by urging us not to mix powders 'because of the innovation' they can make 20-30p extra per packet

Because if I'm wrong - and it is because the mixture of ingredients is so volatile that it shouldn't be mixed - the FSA should investigate immediately.

Claiming my blog on Technorati

Technorati Profile

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Nat West - could do better

Problems with Nat West. I've been banking with them for at least ten years. However, I ordered a debit card on 12 July because my old one had broken. The telephone call centre sounded pleased that a new one would arrive within 10 days. That sounded a lot to me, but I wasn't in a position to question.

The new card arrived with my name spelt wrongly - Cane instead of Cain - a strange mistake. I'm not too fussy, but it served as a poor form of identity so I cancelled it and ordered another.

The card arrived 13 days later with instructions to activate it by post or online. I followed the instructions online, just before the football on Saturday afternoon. I then went into central London to work. At about 8.30pm I needed a pie and a pint so went to the cashpoint. Unfortunately, my card did not accept the PIN.

When I called Nat West, the woman that I spoke to was really helpful. She explained that the PIN didn't work because a new one had been generated and she had no way of overriding the system. I was surprised because on all previous occassions I've been able to use my existing PIN.

I went on to explain my plight and she suggested cancelling the card which would enable me to type a special code into the ATM to release emergency funds. I was grateful for the effort she went to but ultimately preferred to go hungry than wait another two weeks for a new card.

When I arrived home, I double checked the paperwork. As you can see, it clearly states that "If this card replaces your previous card for any reasons . . . Any existing PIN number should continue to be used."

I can't be alone in experiencing this. If the system is automated, why doesn't it work consistently?

Why go to Dolphin Bathrooms?

I've been trying to convince my wife to invest in improving our bathroom. After the problems we had with our kitchen, it's a hard sell. However, I've made progress of late after suggesting that people thought twice about visiting us because of its poor condition.

My wife, ever contentious, looked up three possible providers. Dolphin Bathrooms was the most attractive because it came with a recommendation from family, they have a 50% sale and they looked mid-range in terms of cost and quality.

After making an enquiry online, she had a phone call back on the same day to arrange an appointment. However, they called back the same day to rearrange the date, putting the visit back six days. Two days letter, we received a brochure in the post with a confirmation letter (albeit for the previous meeting date). So far, we were impressed.

However, 20 minutes before the visit, my wife had a call to say that the member of staff was off sick and asking to re-arrange. We did so, reluctantly.

This morning, one hour before the appointment, they called again, ostensibly to find out about parking. You can park opposite our house and pay at a meter (it's about £1 for an hour). At the end of the conversation, the Dolphin rep mentioned that the person coming to see us was "running a little late". When pressed as to how late, the rep said that they would be with us "around 1pm" - two hours late.

When my wife said that this was not acceptable, the person apologised, but did not offer any alternative. We cancelled the appointment.

As it currently stands, we won't be buying a bathroom from Dolphin. Not so much, why buy a bathroom from Dolphin as 'can anyone buy a bathroom from Dolphin'?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Excess energy not required

It's great when a big company does a simple thing well.

I had another red letter from EDF Energy today. I always pay my bill late. However, this was more serios: it promised a scheduled disconnection for tomorrow. The letter wasn't sent first class. It was dated the 14 August.

I had actually paid the bill on 30 June. However, I had done so online and paid it into the gas account rather than the electricity account - entirely my fault.

I called the call centre to sort out the problem. I was waiting for less than five minutes before speaking to an operator. It took the operator less than two minutes to spot the problem and after three minutes on hold, they had transfered the money to the correct account and I was promised that the matter was resolved.

EDF resolved the matter so quickly that I was really pleased not to have to get cross or become assertive with the call centre operator.

However, with a bit of extra thought, the company could be even better. The billing system could do with a reassessment.

In the old days it was fair enough that the warning letter said that you need take no action if the bill had been paid in the "last few days". However, now APACS have ensured that all inter bank transfers are immediate - and with the automated creation of non payment letters - it should no longer be necessary.

Instead, if letters were only generated when payment had not been received (and were sent first class or by email where possible) the energy suppliers would ensure that fewer unnecessary letters were sent and that where there were errors (as in my case) the customer didn't just ignore the letter thinking that the matter had been dealt with.

Three Crowns but no wise men

Our family went for lunch at the Three Crowns in Stoke Newington on Sunday. I don't recommend it.

The pub is quite new and has taken over from bars and restaurants that have been unattractive. The Three Crowns, however, is a real improvement.

We've had lots of good dinners there before, and once before on a Sunday lunch. On that occasion we went in on spec and were told we could only have one hour before a reservation. We asked for desert (with 15 minutes remaining) but were refused because they could not get it to us before the reservation.

This time we booked in advance and had a reservation for five at 2.30pm. We were seated at 2.55pm at a table in the corner. The arrangement of the tables had changed since we were last in. I was sat on the end of the table. Unfortunately, the seating positions were such that I had to get up and leave my seat for the family behind to be able to leave their table. Worse still, I had to leave my seat in order for the restaurant staff to serve the table of two by the window.

The food was fine. The 12.5% obligatory service charge (automatically added) was not. We won't go there again when it's budy. We didn't pre-book to wait an additional 25 minutes for a table which was that poorly positioned.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Michael Johnson becomes a legend

Running 200 metres in 19.32 was insufficient. However, on BBC's Olympics coverage Michael Johnson was talking about Martyn Rooney, 400 metre runner.

He then mis-spoke calling him Wayne Rooney. An American, in Beijing, knowing something about football? Our recent sporting success must have made us more influential!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Losing their way?

I used Twitter for the first time last night. For the uninitiated, it's a way to follow short SMS style updates from friends (or you can subscribe to keywords to track what random people are talking about). There have been some wonderful uses of Twitter, which has done some great things.

I used it to update four Liverpool fans on last night's game, free of charge, who couldn't watch it live.

I won't be using Twitter again. I received an email this morning saying that they could no longer afford to pay to deliver texts to people. I could still use it to send texts to twitter, but they won't get distributed.

Twitter blames this on mobile phone operators, whom they hoped to persuade to not charge, but failed to convince. They seem more surprised than I was.

So what's the point of Twitter now? Are they just another fleeting dot com without a business plan or have they opened up enough relationships that people will adapt to find new ways to use the service

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

What do Brown and Obama have in common?

Neither have an emotional bond with their electorate. Brown did have, with most of the Labour party following his 2005 conference speech. That's possibly one reason holding some back from getting rid. But he certainly doesn't have an emotional bond with the country - one consequence of the botched election.

Despite his better public image, Obama doesn't either. It's what the pollsters meant in the US after the Germany trip when they said that 'he hasn't sealed the deal'. I'm not sure he has an emotional bond with African Americans - see the criticisms of Jesse Jackson. He certainly doesn't have a bond with all Clinton supporters. And doesn't seem to have an emotional bond with white working class Americans.

Certainly neither's fortunes will improve without connecting emotionally with their key audiences.

Mixed service from Homebase

Last year there was a sunny Friday evening. I set-up our new barbeque, a wedding present, and went to Homebase to buy the gas. On getting home I realised that the gas didn't fit the regulator clip. Then it started raining. We cooked under the grill.

I found the receipt for the unused gas. I paid £45 for a full container of gas and to rent the bottle. I expected to get only a 50 per cent refund on the gas but a full refund for the bottle. I only got £9.96 - 50% of the price of the gas and nothing for the bottle.

What was good was that Andrew, the person who served me, was really keen to help. He checked the terms and conditions and spoke to three different colleagues (including his manager) to make sure he was treating me properly. I was really pleased about that.

However, not only were Homebase unclear when they sold the original bottle, but their deal was a lot worse than my local BP garade where I bought the right bas bottle. Not only was it much cheaper, but they will return the deposit for the bottle.

If anyone from Homebase reads this then I'd be grateful to understand whether this is in line with the terms and conditions but - the wider point - whether it's fair that they get back a £35 bottle full with gas without returning the price for the bottle.

Trimming customers or margins?

I got my hair cut yesterday at Toni and Guy. I haven't been there since April but returned after they sent me a questionnaire accompanied with a £10 voucher.

It was quite a good customer questionnaire, with just five questions and clear multiple choice answers. It got me thinking about my experiences of the company over the seven years I've been going to the salons, having read The Ultimate Question last week. To save you the half day that it took to read the book, it asserts that companies which focus on their net promoter index (the number of advocates minus the number of detractors) will outperform their sector.

I'm not an advocate of Toni and Guy. They do appear interested in their customers. Not only did I receive the questionnaire but in the salon, there's now a 'black book' for customers to give their personal details in exchange for exclusive offers. I've not experienced that since my first visit in 2001.

Yet my problems with the company persist. When I first attended, I thought Toni and Guy to be the best of the high street salons. Now I only consider them dependable - you know they're not going to rely on an electric razor and you'll get a tapered finish on the neckline. However, I can't remember the last time someone made an effort when massaging the peppermint conditioner, when I was given water in a glass rather than a white plastic cup or when I was given advice about the cut or appropriate products.

To cap it off, I got questioned when I handed over the voucher and told that in future, I should only attempt to redeem it from Monday to Wednesday and if I notified them when booking. No such restrictions were offered on the voucher itself.

It appears to be another company that has expanded its salons at the expense of quality, where getting good staff is secondary to filling salon capacity and where fully satisfied customers are an after-thought.

I hope I'm wrong and that they or you will correct me if my experiences are unusual.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Something new I've learnt

The Betfair Blimp has got its name from aeronautics, not clever marketing alliteration.

Aircraft were given two categories A - for rigid aircraft (including Airships which hold people - think Max Zorin in A View to A Kill) and B for limp aircraft - or blimp.

There you go!

Sunday, 10 August 2008

TfL - must do better

No, there hasn't been a storm on Kingsland Road. Nor is this evidence of wanton destruction of the environment by 'hoodies'. This is the destruction wrought by a tow truck courtesy of Transport for London.

Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased they came to enforce the red route. I have counted as many as seven illegally parked cars at the top of our road alone. Red route enforcement is rare round here.

However, it is a shame that the height of the crane lifting the car meant that it also removed these branches from a tree. And it's also a shame that the tree wasn't pruned more strategically.

Worse still, the whole operation took 40 minutes, meaning that if TfL did take action on our little side street, it would take more than half a day to remove all the cars.

I wonder if TfL will take responsibility for this, or even report it so that it can be cleared?

Monday, 4 August 2008

Pedant's corner

I don't like to be too rigid about the use of certain words, despite having the distinction between smell and stink (you smell, I stink) drilled into me from an early age.

However, I was taken by this particular tautology. Unfortunately, it comes from the chief executive of the UK communications regulator, Ofcom.

Ed Richards says he wants to "initiate a concerted dialogue" (my italics).

Advertising America

Advertising in America is different from the UK. On the street there are far more (larger and taller, brighter) signs for shops and restaurants.

On the TV there are far more adverts, from more varied customers. A playing of The Titanic lasted an hour longer than the film for the constant interruption.

I expect the cost of advertising in much lower. Some local TV networks carry ads from estate agents where they talk (badly) as the picture shows still shots of a house for sale. Dire viewing. One network taking CNN has a section of the Sunday morning show sponsored by a company called Waste Management (amusing to fans of The Soprano).

There was one TV show almost completely uninterrupted. The first of the second season of Mad Men. Who said the Americans don't do irony?
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