social networking

Smart meters. What will happen Vs. what could happen

Smart meters. What will happen Vs. what could happen

Smart meters are the Next Big Thing at the Energy companies.

Over the next 11 years every household in Britain will receive Smart Meters, one for gas and one for electricity. This project will be one of the largest infrastructure projects to have taken place since the Second World War.

So says NPower.

I’m going to get a Smart Meter? Whoppeeedo!

Whilst the idea is compelling to the companies themselves, I don’t see them answering the question “so what” in a particularly compelling way.  They try, talking about “providing you with much more information on your energy consumption allowing you to be more fuel efficient and save money”, but really. So what?

(This calls to mind a quote from Jurassic Park where the Jeff Goldblum character says “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”.)

Just because I can control my boiler from my iPhone when I am away from home…. well why should I? What is the point? What is the customer need that smart meters are fulfilling?

That is not to write off smart meters. But what else could they do? What new business models could they inspire?

How about introducing gamification to the way people monitor their energy consumption.  What if the customer could win recognition as being the most energy efficient in their street?  What if gamification could be used as a reward for more energy efficient behaviour?  What if it enabled people to trade their energy usage within their social network?

Lot’s of big ideas but I don’t hold my breath so see anything innovative coming to market anytime soon. Marketing departments may dream of such things but I don’t see them gaining traction when IT are tasked with rolling out functional requirements for mundane, pedestrian and unimaginative use cases.

Yet might there be a different way?

Dear Energy Provider. What if you carve out a niche within the larger smart meter project to build a test and learn capability? A capability that can rapidly develop ideas and take them to market as experiments, product betas. A place where technology is less of a concern than the idea. Many of the usual non-functional requirements can take a back seat as you take the concept to consumers. a place where the idea has to prove itself cheaply for real, or fail fast.

An interesting aside, the way that Mumsnet have developed a community site that attracts 25k per day:

Essentially, we started with a blank piece of paper, viewing ourselves as a platform provider, with the understanding the site had to be developed in collaboration with mumsnetters at every stage.

The most important factor has been letting the community direct progress and listening to what they want – almost all innovations, new site and product developments at Mumsnet are derived from members suggestions.

This happens on a day-to-day basis: we view the site as an ongoing beta or focus group. Most recently this has led to our ‘Off the Beaten Track’ section, covering sensitive issues which which users’ requested not to be indexed by Google. Their feedback and suggestions have also been instrumental to the design of our soon-to-launch mobile app.

What if, instead of rolling out Smart Meters to customers and extolling the virtues of how good the pedestrian things they do are, what if the energy providers derived new product innovations based on the smart meter technology through their customer suggestions.

And thinking more radically, what if they unlocked their data that the smart meters provide and let the community develop innovations (as with the UK government’s Open Data initiative).  There’s lots of new business models, new ways of working. But again, I don’t hold my breath for anything inspiring anytime soon.

Image credit: Todd Smith

Letting go is the hardest thing

Tim Brown from IDEO gave the audience at his TED Talk a simple exercise. He asked the audience to draw a picture of the person sat next to them. He gave them a minute to do so. He then asked them to show their pictures. “Sorry” was the stock reaction as the sketches were revealed. They had an inhibition on showing their work. When it comes to creativity, as we move beyond childhood we take on board inhibitions and feel more uncomfortable sharing our creative efforts unless we perceive them to be ready or any good. Getting a visual designer to share her work in progress is a challenge. We fear what others will think if our “deliverable” is not ready, is not finished or polished. We fear setting expectations, we fear disappointing, we kill our creativity with fear.

So we are uncomfortable at letting others into our personal creative process. Now take this to the organisation, to the enterprise and creative genocide is abound. Like the Head of Digital who had 130 different stakeholders to socialise the Organisation’s new website designs with. Enter the HiPPO. The Highest Paid Person’s Point Of view. And with a few of those on board you get design by committee and design mediocrity. Or the client who refuses to engage with customers or end users in the early stages of the design process in fear of what they might think. A fear of setting expectations, a fear that their competitors might see what they are up to. Killing their creativity with fear.

Letting go is the hardest thing. But it can also pay great rewards.

On 27th October people coming out of arrivals at Heathrow airport were greeted by singers and dancers and general merriment. As an ad campaign for T-Mobile by Saatchi & Saatchi it was inspired, creative but not without risk. All the members of the public filmed had to sign a release form, agreeing to their being used in the ad. What if they didn’t? But they did. Whilst meticulously planned, the success of the ad is in the general public. T-Mobile got over any fear they may have had of the unknown and let go of the product to let the crowd create. It’s an uplifting piece, and successful too; their youTube page has had over 5.5 million views. And to the bottom line? The ad saw a 12% rise in sales the week after airing.

The Apprentice

OK, so it’s a guilty secret, I watch the Apprentice.

Once upon a time a TV programme would have been broadcast, it would last the hour and then be over. Newspaper comment and water-cooler discussions would follow the next day. Today the show is bigger than just the broadcast hour; it has a digital life that goes beyond the TV medium. It’s more than just a website that is hosted by the BBC. Viewers participate in the the ‘back channel’ so as you are watching the show you are not alone in your emotions. Following the Twitter hash tag provides a running commentary of how the audience is reacting. Some shows extend their reach with the fictional characters themselves engaging in the dialogue. What Twitter starts with its immediacy, Facebook continues with the audience setting up groups. And so we have Stuart Baggs on the Apprentice, a clone of David Brent, treading on twitter and now spawning dozens of Facebook groups and pages (as I write 3228 people like “Stuart Baggs from The Apprentice is a **** not a Brand”). And let’s not forget the forums and blogs where comment and discussion on the programme thrives.

The apprentice experience is more than just the it’s packaging and content. What about your product?

Anyway. So last night the final five in the Apprentice were interviewed, with Viglen’s CEO Bordan Tkachuk being one of the interviewers. He cornered Stuart Baggs about claims he runs a telco. “Stuart you’re blagging to me. I know what an ISP is. It’s an Internet Service Protocol.” An Internet what? The CEO of a company that “has developed a peerless reputation for excellence in IT innovation, delivery and service” doesn’t know what ISP stands for?!

It got worse. Later in the boardroom Sugar was grilling him about Stuart’s credentials. Smugly Tkachuk declared that Baggs “says he has a telecoms licence on the Isle of Man… What he had was just a very simple broadcom licence.”  A what? Broadcom Licence?  WTF is that?

So here we have the CEO of an IT company who doesn’t speak the most basic IT language with any fluency. My takeaway from this is, no matter who they are in an organisation, never assume that the client you are working with knows everything.  And never assume that they know what you are talking about either. Make sure you speak a common language by asking for clarity and explanation; there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  Alternatively, “Tkachuk.  You’re fired!”

How to promote yourself

A while ago Alec Brownstein was looking for a job in the advertising industry. He bought a bunch of adwords to appear next to the names of executives in companies he wanted to work for, and waited for them to google their names. Cool thinking that got him a job.

something similar happened with ThoughtWorks this week. On the ThoughtWorks facebook page a little ad appeared, “Dear ThoughtWorks, My name is Scott and I want to work with you”.

Dear ThoughtWorks, my name is scott and I want to work with you

Clicking on the link opened a microsite dedicated to why ThoughtWorks should employ Scott Robinson.  ThoughtWorkers soon picked up on this and twitter came alive with #dearscott and then this and this.  He’ll still go through the intense recruitment process, but another great example for using Social Media to promote yourself and get a job.

Personal branding is more than stoking your ego

It is easy to knock social media and building a prescence and profile on the web as little more than stoking the ego.  “I’ve got more Twitter followers than you”, “I’ve got more facebook friends, more subscribers to my blog, more linkedin contacts…”  But there is more to it than that.  The way you use social media should be about building you as a brand.

Take a look at David Armano’s excellent presentation on Brand U.0.  Celebrities have brand, and with that comes influence.  Similalry people like you or me who develop their brand start to have influence.  And that influence gets you places.  At ThoughtWorks we are recruiting for a new Information Architect role.  Rather than describing the role in terms of skills and competencies, the starting point has been ‘we need a person “like that”‘, pointing to to both particular people within ThoughtWorks, and also on the broader web, looking at LinkedIn profiles, blogs etc.  If you have a brand you have already made yourself stand out.  In these challenging times your profile is not about your ego, it is about your future.

The application is irrelvent

We get confused when building applications; the technology should be incidental to delivering the experience, it should be the means rather than the end. Sadly both IT and marketeers usually don’t see it this way.

I was recently working with a telco who were running a campaign for a single application that sits on a Symbian phone and gives the user access to all their mobile services (rather than having to access them individually via the mobile web). This is not unusual, organisations marketing the technology rather than the benefit or the experience. The technology should be incidental to what you are selling.

It is hard to put it better than what Duncan Cragg writes

“What most people want on their mobiles is not the applications, but the stuff they animate.

People only accept the concept of applications (whether a native app or a Web app) because that’s all they’ve been offered, and it’s largely good enough. But no-one actually wants to download and launch and register and log in to a local find-your-friends application – they just want to find their friends in the area – now! And they shouldn’t then have to flip between the find-your-friends map owned by that application and the restaurant review map owned by another.

They don’t want Facebook videos and YouTube videos and phone videos. They just want to share videos. They shouldn’t have to think about whether to send a picture by MMS or to use an upload app, after remembering the login. They don’t want multiple ways of sending messages: IM, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, etc. They shouldn’t have to think about how to tell their friends about some news item – whether to post a TinyURL link on Twitter or copy the text manually into Facebook.

They only want one shared calendar, not the phone calendar and a Google calendar and events on, that need two more logins. They shouldn’t have to think about how to synchronise music or contacts lists on the phone, the iPod, the PC, some memory card and online. “

He goes on to introduce the ‘U-Web’ Mobile 2.0 platform. This is exciting stuff and well worth a read. The challenge is not just about the IT industry getting excited about U-Web, the drive needs to also come from marketeers focussing upon “what” experience they want the customer to enjoy rather than “how” it will be delivered. They shouldn’t be distracted by the application that the experience will be delivered through, they should focus on delighting the customer and driving value to the organisation.

Web 2.0 is far from dead

Web 2.0 is anything but dead. The term is no longer necessary as its concepts become ubiquitous.

So Web 2.0 is in terminal decline according to this TechCrunch article. The basis of this statement is anecdotal and from Google Trends which show a declining use of the term ‘Web 2.0’ in google searches. This tells us nothing, indeed I’d almost suggest that it is an indication of the health of Web 2.0. As it becomes ubiquitous people no-longer need to use the term. Do a similar trend search for ‘eCommerce’ and you will see a similar decline in that term and no-one is suggesting that business on the internet is in decline.

Web 2.0 was always a catch-all term for a number of concepts. If you look at ‘social media‘ in Google Insights you will see that term on an upward trajectory (interestingly the area that is driving the greatest worldwide search traffic for that term is Singapore – anything to do with the Power of Influence?) Web2.0 as a term may be in decline, but everything it stands for – community, rich interactivity, new business models – I don’t see these things dying.

Are you listening to your customers?

Dear CxO,

Looking for free market research and customer intelligence? Look no further than Twitter.

You may not care about social networking, you may think that Web 2.0 is not relevant to your business. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care what your customers are saying. You may choose to ignore it, but people are out there talking about you; praising you, foul-mouthing you. Go to Twitter Search, type in your company name and see what your customers really think of you.

Twitter will be bigger than porn

I started using the internet in 1991, I returned home from my first term at university buzzing about this thing that allowed me to talk to people the other side of the world in open conversations and to send ‘electronic’ mail to folk who were also connected. And it was all free. My friends back home weren’t convinced or impressed, “Yeah but someone’s got to pay for it… I don’t see the point of it… whatever”. So I buzzed on Usenet news and ELM and Gopher in my university bubble and the nascent growth of the internet largely passed these guys by. Until 1998 when I returned home from Ghana and a particular friend had got a computer, and the internet, and he was hooked. The internet had finally reached him. And for him the internet was porn.

If the internet was briefly kidnapped by ‘eCommerce’, it is finally reclaiming it’s roots as tool for connecting people. This is the social age and this is where I return to the above mentioned friend. Email and mySpace and Facebook have largely passed him by. He recently connected with me, but not by any of the more established social networking tools, but by Twitter. And I think that is significant. People who have “not seen the point” will start to get it, the traditional media right now is full of Twitter. Facebook have realised this and have opened up their status as a challenge. Maybe not bigger than porn, but this year will certainly be the year of Twitter.

What’s your social strategy?

Last year Twitter grew by an incredible 752%. That is something too large to ignore. It’s not just individuals who are twittering, corporates are getting in on the act. But do they think before taking the plunge?

The tools for getting a social presence on the web are easy. Twitter is free, there’s little effort to setting up a blog, it is simple to plug in reviews and ratings with BazaarVoice. But with the tools comes commitment; you need to start listening and have a strategy for responding.


You can start listening by setting up Google News Alerts. You will be alerted whenever someone is talking about you (or your competitors, or anyone or anything you like). It can deliver alerts as a digest or as they happen. This gives you a fundamental tool to find out who is talking about you and where they are doing it.


Knowing people are talking about you is one thing, knowing what to do about it is another. Making a decision to start engaging in social media is the right thing to do, but with that decision comes responsibilities. This is where having a clearly thought-out strategy is essential.

The strategy starts with a role, someone responsible for the conversation. Jeremiah Owyang lists a number of oganisations who have a dedicated role for social computing and community management – Dell has a VP Communities & Conversations. This is not a PR role, it is not something that will have messages crafted by committee with formal sign-off before speaking. It is about having an authentic voice, speaking with honesty and personality. Using Twitter to broadcast your traditional press releases is more likely to alienate than win you friends and lovers (you want people to love your brand right?).

Your customers want to help

“But why?” is a question I’ve often heard asked when talking about social media. “Why would anyone want to comment, or write advice, or be bothered to ‘get social’ with us?” Good experiences and (especially) bad experiences bring out the passion in people. And then there are the people who just like to have their voice heard. There’s an often used ratio, 1:9:90 – for every one regular contributer there are 9 occasional contributers (commenter’s) and 90 ‘lurkers’ – see Jakob Neilsen’s post on this.

Even if they don’t engage in the conversation themselves, most people listen to the contributer – it is (usually) an authentic voice, and that authenticity is priceless. Word of mouth is more valuable than any advertising, it is by far the most trusted source for purchase ideas and information (funny how so many organisations when they ask that question, “how did you hear about us, they list their channels- TV, Radio, Press, but often leave out recommendation from a friend, or heard about you from an acquaintances, or even “I just know you”). The challenge is to harness the conversation that others are having and where appropriate engage in it in a natural and honest way.

Rather than questioning why someone wants to talk about your brand, or offer support to the community on your products for free, build a relationship with that person. They will feel all the better for being listened to. Invite them to customer panels, tell them about your ideas, and let them generate buzz about your product.

Some listening anecdotes

Here are three brief anecdotes of organisations who have started by listening and then engaged in conversation. To be contrasted with doing it the other way round.

A client we’ve been working with had been ignoring the conversation in technical forums. There was a wealth of discussion about issues with their hardware, fixes and work-arounds. Much of the comment, whilst positive about the brand overall, was negative about certain aspects of the product and customer service. They took the plunge and engaged in the conversation. A regular poster who was being particularly vocal (and getting a lot of response) was directly connected. His issue was simply addressed. He then posted to the forum how he had been listened to, and the negative experience was transformed into a positive experience. Inviting him to customer panels makes him feel even more valued.

A while back I posted about a negative experience with Norwich Union. I blogged about the experience – a few days later I had a comment from their Head of Customer Experience. I was listened to. NU had a face, we spoke and I will now sing the praises of Norwich Union (I’m still a customer). I’ve forgotten what the problem I has was all about.

Another blog was about a poor experience with the Fedex website. Their Application Development Team left a comment thanking me for the feedback, again I was listened to. This has erased the memory of the bad experience I had.

Speaking, not listening

I don’t know anything about internal operations, but my experience suggests the following. Someone suggested they get a Twitter account and they started tweeting. Only their tweets were for PR messages. They were not ready for inbound Tweets from customers about them.

I heard about from a friend as a good site to get a home insurance quote from. I tried it and had a far from satisfactory experience. I persevered (because of the personal recommendations) but after a bunch of techinical problems with the site I gave up.

I then actively sought out on Twitter, my thinking if they have an account I can give them my feedback direct (I am one of the 1 of the 1:9:90 who so many business people don’t understand. I also have almost 17 years of usability experience behind me which I would be happy to share with them – as a customer, not professionally). So I did a search for on Twitter and found them. I was pleased to see they had an account and wrote a tweet to @confused_com. But it seems twitter was just a mouth piece for their PR and all I was greeted with was silence. I heard nothing back.

I returned back to their website a few days later and tried again to get a quote, this time I had an even worse experience, the site failed to return any results to me. Again, I Twittered about it. I was creating some negative feedback, and feeling doubly annoyed. Not only was I having a crappy experience but they weren’t listening to me on a channel I expect to be heard. Now I am a small fish in the big ocean and easily ignored, but look at Motrin and you can see the consequences of not engaging in the Twitter conversation.

To their credit, have recently sent me a private message on Twitter informing me they are going to start “more interactive twittering soon”. I look forward to that. If there is a lesson in this it is when getting onto Twitter you have to be ready to engage in the conversation that is likely to ensue.  Have a strategy before playing with the tools.

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