Mark Higginson

The web is a social artifact.

This short manifesto covers what I hold to be self-evident about modern marketing practices, particularly related to online activity.

This piece about how people's attention flows on the web highlights the fundamental misunderstanding that causes almost all online marketing to be ineffective.

The blog that follows consists of a series of short posts that support my arguments.


11 August 2015

Brands are increasingly developing content ‘micro-hubs’ housing aggregated content from their social channels.

Renting social is good, but owning is better

Here’s an example of how agencies still want their clients to believe notions that are completely and obviously at odds with reality.

The statement above is presented with no supporting evidence. ‘Micro-sites’ have been de rigeur for years now. It’s what agencies always do because of the associated planning, design, build and marketing fees. They also don’t work, appearing and disappearing as campaigns start and end, failing to sustain interest.

For more on this read my award-winning post about Coca-Cola’s attempt to build a ‘hub’, with supporting data, and in particular do refer to the comments.

These places are the antithesis of a hub. Consider the following:

“Snickers and Pepsi have both created successful content hubs, where their communities can go to add, discover, and share content.”

‘Success’ is undefined in this context. The only example linked to in the piece quoted above is the Snickers website. You should visit it, then ask yourself:

Why would I go back?
Would I share anything on this site with my friends?
Where on earth is the ‘community’?

We know the answer and we don’t have to guess. Using a service such as Ahrefs we can see what content on this domain is linked to or shared.

In the post the author suggests that due to social platforms forcing ‘brands’ to spend money to reach people then brands must ‘own’ their ‘content’ on their own ‘hub’. He then goes on to suggest the challenge is then getting people to visit these hubs… by using paid media such as that provided by Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the Snickers Twitter account. This is not a platform that restricts ‘organic reach’. 203,000 followers yet the favourites and retweets barely ever top double figures.

A couple of years back I took apart a previous presentation by We Are Social about work performed for Jaguar you can read here. They’d claimed that Jaguar was the third most engaged with UK brand on Facebook. I pointed out that most popular city for ‘fans’ of the Page was New Delhi and wondered how many cars Jaguar sold there annually.

Note that the author states “the days of vast organic reach on Facebook and other social channels are over”. This is pure revisionism. If you look at the Jaguar Page from back then around 3% of followers interacted in some way Facebook measured. This is really low. It’s even lower now, 0.6% at time of writing, but to claim ‘vast organic reach’ is yet another false narrative.

The author cites “creating genuine dialogue” as a goal but no evidence of this is presented because none exists. Furthermore I would challenge the statement “the aim of marketers still needs to be on facilitating conversations”. No client hires me to ‘facilitate conversations’. They hire me to increase sales. Lose sight of that and you’re lost in the fog of proxy measures of success.

Let me know what you think on Twitter


22 June 2015

Most of their customers preferred to add the salespeople on WeChat directly rather than follow the official store account.

Pictures of Chinese People Scanning QR Codes

I haven’t seen enough research to know if this is a cultural peculiarity. Certainly the approach of Western brands is wedded to a broadcast model, unless specifically dealing with customer service issues where an individual representing the business may identify themselves.

This model, of following ‘official’ profiles is the antithesis of social media. It gets little to no response yet is relentlessly pursued due to marketers’ obsession with control of messaging. Rather than seeing their role as one of enabling and supporting customer facing personnel, or even being customer facing themselves, marketers continue trying to fit new media into existing hierarchical structures.

The example given piqued my interest as I was interested in a particular forthcoming release coming in the Clark’s Trigenic range of footwear. This is not a brand I’d usually consider purchasing as their general design work is way behind the Trigenics. I happened to be in a store purchasing shoes for my infant son so asked about the range, release dates, etc. The sales assistant knew no more than I did. The limit of what they can offer is a ‘deliver to store’ option.

There was no facility for taking my details, letting me know availability, ensuring that as I’d bothered to enquire I’d be able to get the pair I wanted if numbers were limited, etc. It renders their website an entirely self-serve proposition and their in-store assistants as offering little more than stock control.

Let me know what you think on Twitter


21 June 2015

Your definitive guide to the biggest UK digital agencies

Top 100 Digital Agencies Report 2015

Marketing being marketing the brazen hubris of the industry comes as no surprise. This is exemplified by Econsultancy’s guide to the ‘top’ digital agencies. The rankings are arranged by the amount these agencies have managed to bill their clients. What this measures is what has worked for the agency, not their clients.

The commentary accompanying the report states:

“… the average fee income has increased by 25%”.

Presumably with a commensurately larger multiplier in the sales of the businesses for whom these agencies produced work?

Let me know what you think on Twitter


07 May 2015

Viewership dropped an average of 30 percent to 50 percent since then, according to two people who’ve seen the traffic data.

Drop in Discover Traffic Poses Questions for Snapchat

I said back in February:

“I don’t think Snapchat’s users will have any long-term interest in the new ‘Discover’ feature. It’s more brand marketing fantasyland stuff.”

Snapchat Discover

Compare this to the breathless reception from other quarters:

“Snapchat Discover is huge. I can tell you secondhand that the numbers, at least for the initial launch period, were enormous. We’re talking millions of views per day, per publisher.”

Snapchat Discover could be the biggest thing in news since Twitter

Less than three months later it seems ‘Discover’ is failing to perform:

“Snapchat’s curated selection of news stories called Discover is reportedly in trouble, with traffic dropping significantly since its debut back in January.”

Snapchat adds sharing tools to its news discovery portal

Let’s ask the users:

Let me know what you think on Twitter


19 March 2015

Last week I was at Youth Marketing Strategies 2015 and saw a presentation from a business called Social Chain, given by the 22 year old Steve Bartlett. I mention his age because this was repeatedly emphasised, given their promise of access to the elusive ‘youth market’ with a ‘reach’ of a claimed 128,302,222 followers. The reaction of many in the audience was positive, given the popularity of the narrative of the young entrepreneur. However, as experienced marketers when something looks too good to be true it behooves further investigation.

Social Chain claim to be ‘the UK’s largest influencer marketing agency’, offering pseudo-organic reach. Rather than paying Facebook, Twitter, et al. you pay Social Chain to broadcast to followers of a claimed 2,000 ‘communities and influential individuals’ so in theory they can offer some broad targeting by topic. This is a somewhat blunt instrument as without access to the data that allows for more precise targeting that only the platform itself allows all that is happening is a broadcast to followers of a particular account, only some of whom will see the message. A business model based on someone else’s platform and no proprietary technology is inherently flimsy as you possess no greater insight than anyone else.

While their main website mentions they manage Facebook Pages the reduction in organic reach means this platform is effectively closed to them, a point raised during Steve’s presentation. One of their founders mentions they created trends such as ‘Students Don’t Say’. A quick search for this term reveals a plethora of pages, the largest of which has around 60,000 followers. Of the multiplicity of theses Pages on this theme that may or may not belong to the Social Chain none have been updated for over a year. This abandonment is likely due to the fact that posts no longer reach enough followers without paying Facebook for the privilege, highlighting the weakness inherent in so-called ‘influencer marketing’.

This pattern of a large number of similar pages appearing around a theme has been duplicated on Twitter. Using Followerwonk it’s simple to track down a selection of accounts Social Chain operate, e.g. ‘Hogwart’s Logic’, ‘Student Problems’, etc. Some of these accounts have large follower counts. ‘Nickelodean Reaction’ has 77,490 followers but has only tweeted 16 times despite being 425 days old. Which is interesting. Does it seem likely that an account that has tweeted so few times would reasonably attract so many followers? Has it been repurposed from something else and old tweets removed? Either way, there are questions to be answered here.

The most popular account identified by Followerwonk is Common White Girl with over 700,000 followers, although this account no longer identifies as being part of Social Chain in its bio. Recently it’s been pushing a Snapchat-alike app called Fling.

This is produced by another young entrepreneur’s business that Steve Bartlett ‘advises’. This is the same business that tried to launch a Facebook-alike social network called ‘Unii’ some months ago and is listed as a Social Chain client. Given these are not identified as adverts I would expect these tweets are a breach of ASA guidelines. Again, this is something a questioner challenged Steve on during his presentation which he largely brushed off.

A review of the favourites of this account are mostly items Steve mentioned as things Social Chain promotes. Without labouring the point I’m fairly sure if we connected all of the various accounts Social Chain operate we’d find a similar pattern of behaviour, including these accounts retweeting one another.

Ultimately I don’t see the marketing value here. Even if you wanted your brand to be associated with one of these accounts, which in my opinion comes with a reputational risk, I’d want to know how many of these followers are shared by multiple Social Chain operated profiles. Looking across the accounts identified by Followerwonk the general level of sharing is quite low, which limits the performance of an advertising message that appears as a non-sequitur in these streams. Perhaps they do have over 2,000 accounts; given these will be publicly accessible the capable marketer shopuld be able to construct a list by following patterns of tweets and retweets from known nodes in their network. Given the fundamental rules of how complex networks operate any genuine super-spreaders should become apparent.

The marketing material I’ve been sent by Social Chain highlights how they create trending topics, ephemeral hashtags usually thrown up by user activity and identified by Twitter’s algorithms. During YMS they started a ‘trend’: #FictionalDeathsI’llNeverGetOver. They cite 15,832 users tweeting 16,010 times with 15,658 retweets. I interpret this as meaning that the original number of tweets with this hashtag was quite small and these were then simply retweeted. If this is the case then what’s interesting is how small a number of people it takes to achieve a trending topic in the UK. This isn’t marketing however, it’s simply gaming how Twitter identifies a trending topic. There is no guarantee as to how many followers of those retweeting this saw those tweets, nor an indication of secondary spreading where someone not already following one of these broadcasting accounts chooses to pass the message on.

A more interesting perspective would be if Social Chain linked to what must be the publicly accessible work they say they have carried out for bebo, The Economist, Haribo, Microsoft, etc. as this is far more indicative of the effect they can achieve.

Besides Facebook and Twitter it’s possible Instagram offers some opportunity. However, as the platform deliberately restricts linking from images the marketing potential is commensurately reduced, as is the value of any service offering to post for money. Given that the business model of each platform is the monetisation of largely proprietary data held about their users, Social Chain is in fact a competitor to the platform they rely upon, hence their business model is extremely vulnerable.

The final part of Steve’s presentation saw him mentioning how Social Chain were now managing vloggers and even the accounts of minor celebrities. Acting as agents for or as social media managers to individuals is different to what I’ve discussed so far, however the direct management of accounts is likewise likely to come under further scrutiny by the ASA, as is payment for a mention not identified as such. Regardless, follower counts and ‘views’ are not an accurate measure of marketing value.

Ultimately Social Chain isn’t marketing to young people. It’s marketing to marketers. In the words of Bob Hoffman:

“There’s no bigger sucker than a gullible marketer convinced they’re missing a trend.”

Update: I’ve reinstated this post as of March 2016. I took it down a few months ago after Steve Bartlett of the Social Chain got in touch with me on Twitter and claimed it contained inaccuracies. I asked him to send me corrections and offered him a right-of-reply and promptly forgot all about it. Seeing as he not only failed to get back in touch but then deleted those tweets I can only assume there is nothing in dispute.

Let me know what you think on Twitter