Whenever you cover an event – particularly one that goes on for a while – you always ask yourself the question ‘How much is too much?’.
I’ve been asking myself this in relation to our election coverage. We’ve got blogs, news stories, a poll, a list of election things we like and we’ll be doing 24-hour coverage of the election as it happens.
At the outset we intended to do a just a little on the election. But when I look at the list of what we’ve done, I see the little has become quite a lot. But how much is too much?
Personally, I don’t think we have done too much – though I’m sure we’ll be very ready to call a halt next Friday. The reality is that this is one of the most important elections of modern times and its ramifications will be felt for years, especially by small businesses. After all the fuss of The Budget, there’s been remarkably little spoken about small firms by the parties during this campaign.
Across the Donut websites, we’ve been trying to provide a bit of a corrective to this. Over on the Start Up Donut blog, in particular, we’ve got Donut MD Rory MccGwire’s thoughtful analyses of key election issues for small firms. Actually, these are some of the best things I’ve read on why small firms matter to the UK and what we should be doing to help them (and I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss).
Anyway, that’s enough about the election; let’s talk about branding and exhibitions. I’ve been working this week on the next issue of MyDonut, our monthly e-newsletter. The next one is due out on 13 May, so sign up if you want to receive it. This issue I can promise a fantastic article on small businesses and branding by our very own Rachel and a very inspiring profile of Sadie Hopkins of the York Coffee Emporium written by Start Up Donut editor Mark Williams.
We’ve also been thinking about exhibitions. That’s because it’s the Business Startup 2010 exhibition at the Excel Centre in London in a few weeks and we’ll be there as exhibitors (do come and say hello). To mark its impending arrival, next Tuesday we’ll be posting some excellent material on what you can get out of attending or exhibiting at trade fairs.
Sticking with exhibitions, I managed to slip away from the office on Thursday to get to the Internet World exhibition at Earl’s Court, where I’d arranged to meet Chris Barling, CEO of Donut sponsor and e-commerce software firm SellerDeck. We had a good chat about the future of the Internet, which I’m sure will emerge in the form of content at some point.
Anyway, it turns out Chris was one of the e-commerce pioneers, having started SellerDeck in 1996. Like me, he feels the Internet is revolutionising the way we think about the world - not just the way we shop or search for information. In particular, we talked about the cultural shift that’s taking place before our eyes during this election campaign.
Ok, I know I said “That’s enough about the election” but it’s looming behind everything and I just can’t escape it. Remember the days when a certain notorious red top could brag “It was the Sun wot won it”? Could that happen now? No. And the main reason is that the influence and reach of traditional print media is being undermined by the Internet at a rate I just hadn’t appreciated until the last few weeks.
With a very few exceptions they just don’t seem to get it. For example, a couple of days after the first leadership debate, the right-wing press mounted a vicious attack on Nick Clegg, who had unexpectedly emerged as a threat to their man’s majority.
Not long ago this might have destroyed him. But now it has inspired an explosion of satire online. The ironic hashtag #IBlameItOnNick became a trending topic on Twitter; outraged blogs were written and shared by the hundred; the comment boxes on the websites of the newspapers in question were flooded with protest and mockery - to such a degree that comments were shut down in some cases.
The print media have been made to look like dinosaurs by this activity. They just aren’t used to people answering back. Sure, they have influenced this campaign, but they look increasingly out of step with the modern world. New media is beginning to demonstrate the power to bring about social change and the old media isn’t entirely sure what to do.
What has this to do with businesses? Well, it shows how quickly technological developments can change culture and make something that seemed so central to our lives suddenly seem quite redundant. In the mid-1990s, Chris Barling licked his finger and felt which way the wind was blowing. He made a good call, and what he began as an innovative company is now an everyday part of the modern business landscape.
If businesses as large as News Corporation and Associated Newspapers can be made to look out of date, how safe do you feel?
I was never really interested in politics at school. My younger brother studied it at A-level, but I couldn’t think of anything more boring. I watch the news every night but, as I approach my 30th birthday, I have not yet voted. Of course, I feel bad that women died in order to get me a vote. But, at the same time, I just get so bogged down and overwhelmed by what appears to be three grown men bickering like schoolboys.
So what do I think that these three men vying for my votes should do? Tweet, Facebook, blog - that’s what I want to see! If they want to be talking to the youth of today, they need to be interacting via social networking.
I speak from experience. As I write, I’m trying to drum up voting support for the title of Dorset Business Mum of the Year 2010. I’ve been shortlisted along with nine others and I’m now depending on votes to get into the top three.
What was my game plan? Social networking; tweet and retweet as much as possible. On the first day of voting I secured a thumbs-up, vote and retweet from Claire Young, a finalist in The Apprentice 2008. “Supporting enterprise in the UK is something important to me and my work, so its great to see a young mum such as Joanne strive forward and inspire others,” said Claire, very kindly.
On Saturday night I was very excited to see a tweet stating “Joanne Dewbury calling for votes for top Dorset businesswoman” from none other than Sarah Brown herself. I feel honoured, as I know that Mrs Brown is an advocate for women, especially mums, with campaigns such as Million Mums. This could be a crude tactic from Mrs. Brown to get me to vote her husband, but let me revel in my glory!
I’ve also been getting votes via my Facebook fanpage. The lesson? Mr Brown, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg - if you want my vote, tweet me!
To heighten an experience you can create expectations and/or you can condition the experience.
It adds to the “sizzle and the steak”.
The low-down on the blogs, tweets, books, podcasts, videos, websites and events that are keeping us inspired, entertained and informed during the election.
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The front pages, the billboards, the TV debates… as the election race heats up, it’s become almost impossible to avoid thinking about where your vote might go on 6 May. As in all the best marketing campaigns, each political party is employing different tactics over a broad range of media to get their message to the electorate. Can we learn anything from the way the politicians and the party marketing machines are doing things?
The major voter engagement tactic being used by one of the parties in my area is direct mail. Unfortunately for them, it's not really engaging this voter. Every evening I come home and sort through the post piled up on the table in the entrance hall. Every evening I feel a glimmer of excitement at discovering several envelopes addressed to me.
With the post under one arm and fumbling with my keys, I manage to get the door of the flat unlocked, race into the kitchen, tear open the envelopes, and… it’s yet another letter from this particular candidate. And it's probably about potholes or ‘unacceptable’ engineering work on the Northern Line. Some evenings I'm even lucky enough to have a ‘personal’ letter from the head of the party. What’s personal about a mass mailing that happens to bear my name?
The mysterious thing is that none of the other parties locally appear to be using direct mail – or if they have, their leaflets and letters have been swallowed by the vast amount sent by their opponent. One of the parties has encouraged local businesses to put up posters, while the other main party is barely to be seen. Apparently the seat is a critical one, which could explain the sheer quantity of letters I've received, but it would be interesting to see all three major parties using a wider range of methods to get voters' attention.
Why? Because the direct mail campaign just isn’t working. There’s too much of it, for a start, so any pertinent message is crowded out by so many other ‘important’ things I need to know. And it’s badly designed, badly written and just…annoying. The sheer volume of wasted paper also makes me wonder whether this party has any kind of environmental policy – something that could, actually, influence my vote.
The biggest shame, though, is that when used effectively, direct mail is a powerful marketing tool. I was recently handed an excellent flyer for a new café that has opened nearby. It was eye-catching, well designed and briefly identified what it offers that none of the other local cafes do, such as a quiz night and acoustic music at the weekends. The people handing out the flyers were friendly and were only planning to be campaigning like this for two days – they were there simply to raise awareness about the recently-opened café, not to remind passers-by about it every day for the next six weeks. Compared to the political leaflets, which are repetitive, lengthy and visually unappealing, the café flyer wins hands-down.
When I get home this evening, no doubt one of the first things I'll do is put some more of the leaflets in the recycling. Once a week would have been interesting and informative. Letters once, or even twice, a day is getting tiresome.
My view of the UK democratic process has changed almost overnight. Having sat through the excruciating second and third readings of the Digital Economy Bill, along with half of the Internet, it would seem my faith has been rocked.
I must admit this is the first time I had ever paid this level of attention to the passing of a law, and while the process is highly confusing, it was the ineptitude of those taking part that was so flabbergasting. While the Digital Economy Bill was highly contentious, it’s the manner it was passed that’s brought me to a startling conclusion: Westminster is full of people debating things they don’t understand. The truth of the matter is this, if we ran our businesses this way we wouldn’t last very long.
While many of the ideas appearing in party manifestos are admirable and most have merit, it all pales into complete insignificance against Parliamentary reform, the single biggest issue facing the UK democracy today. My vote has swung, both professionally and personally; I won’t tell you which way though - you’ll have to follow me on Twitter for that.
Ben Dyer is CEO for SellerDeck