The real value of LinkedIn

Microsoft has just made one of the boldest moves in its history by spending more than $26 billion on LinkedIn. The acquisition means Microsoft can embed LinkedIn with Skype, its email system and other Microsoft enterprise products so that, in the words of one Silicon Valley expert, it will be able “to recreate the connective tissue for enterprises”.

But I think Microsoft has bought something far more precious than what some commentators patronisingly call a social network for people looking for a job. LinkedIn is a content company. Microsoft has bought one of the world’s most influential, specialised, highly read, constantly updated digital media companies around. And, unlike some, I don’t think it has wasted its money.

I like it for the content. In one morning I read a fascinating statistical analysis by one of Britain’s top economists, Mark Gregory, of why the top tier of British soccer is destined for a prolonged period of upsets as the also-rans catch up on the powerful clique that used to win everything. I learned from one of the most senior executives at pharmaceutical giant GSK, Eric Dube, how corporate leaders can transform their skills between America, Japan and the UK. And I was sent a piece from Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider, about why the slump in wages means it’s time for a “better capitalism”.

Yes, I was also told that Lucinda has a new job, somebody I once met “likes” a goofy video and also that a mysterious, unnamed figure from the market research industry has been looking at my profile. But those bits are fluff. The real value of the site is two-fold.

First, as a publishing platform in which executives can expand their networks, their influence and their opportunities for a better-paid job by providing original content. And second, as a relationship management tool, the content of which Microsoft will be able to use for cross-marketing purposes.

Some don’t get it. A journalist on the Daily Telegraph opined that while LinkedIn is a “fact of life” it’s also the “dull cousin” of Facebook, “tolerated rather than loved and forgotten once we leave the office”. His assessment is woefully inaccurate. Like all the best digital media companies, LinkedIn has pivoted smartly to ensure that its original raison d’etre – a job-seeking social networking site – has morphed into something far more powerful.

After pornography, gambling and shopping, content is the most valuable service internet companies provide. What LinkedIn does is produce content that people actually want to read and, who knows, may actually want to pay for.

You can read a longer version of this post on Forbes’ blog.

This one weird trick will change how you write forever!

I apologise. I have oversold myself with that headline. But I bet you couldn’t wait to click and find out what the trick was.

Well, you’re not the only one. Sites like Upworthy have started to forego search engine optimisation in favour of writing headlines that people want to click on, known as “clickbait“. The advantage is that you don’t have to worry about your keywords and your headlines can be more whimsical: clickbait may even herald the return of the pun.

The downside is that clickbait usually promises more than it can deliver. The headlines are so over the top or even a bit deceptive that when the articles or videos don’t deliver, the reader is disappointed.

The writers don’t mind because they’ve already picked up the pageview to sell to advertisers and, beyond that, there are plenty of links to other cool-sounding things that will prick the reader’s curiosity.

Another problem is that clickbait makes headlines formulaic. You can see clickbait techniques used everywhere from Gizmodo (“Nine Facts that Sound Ridiculous but are Actually Completely True”) to the BBC (“Why was Dickens’ dying wish ignored?”).

All this is possible thanks to a change in the way people find new information online. When they’re looking for something specific, they’ll use a search engine, but when they’d like to be surprised with something new, many will turn to social networks. This kind of article (and I’m including Buzzfeed’s lists, Gawker’s style and other clickbait techniques) benefits from the way Facebook’s sharing algorithm prioritises what appears on your friends’ newsfeeds. That’s why there’s little point optimising this kind of viral social content for search engines.

Businesses have realised the power of sites like Upworthy and have started using clickbait articles to market films, products and even political parties. The line between something that is written about, and shared, because it is interesting and something that is written about because money has changed hands is blurring.

Lots of articles have already been written about the spread of clickbait but, in short, it’s used because it works. Until people stop clicking on or sharing these articles, they’re bound to keep appearing.

An advert that’s giving me a headache

When I saw a particular advert this morning, I was tempted for the first time in my adult life to vandalise a poster. If, like me, you’re a bored train commuter, perhaps you recognise the following:

“This is for those who take their own route. The ones whose spirits can’t be dampened, even by the rain. For the ones on a constant journey. For those who try, try again. This is for those who live by the saying ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’.”

Can you work out what this advert is selling? Possibly a backpacking holiday somewhere cool and exotic like Brazil or Thailand? Or maybe a shiny new 4×4, perfect for offroad trekking?

Or maybe glorified ibuprofen. That’s right, this is the latest advert for the irritatingly-spelled Nurofen. So what’s my problem with it? Mostly I think they’re kind-of overreaching a bit. Their tagline for the campaign is “for lives bigger than pain”, but what they really mean is “for headaches”.

Nurofen’s Facebook page is filled with stories of people bravely taking their own decisions, living life to the full etc. I guess when you’re competing with every generic manufacturer out there, you’re forced to try to differentiate yourself somehow. That said, I can’t help but feel that the “normal” approach to selling drugs – sciencey words and images or maybe before-and-afters – is more effective than desperately wishy-washy life-affirming claptrap.

In fact, maybe there’s room in the market for a new drug that takes the Ronseal approach – “Headache pills. For when you have headaches. Take two with water and your headache will stop.” At least that advert wouldn’t give me a headache!

Abbreviations can make things longer

Everything Everywhere is the name for the joint venture between Orange and T-Mobile, but that’s about to change. It’s going to become EE, following other companies in ditching words in favour of letters. PricewaterhouseCoopers would rather you thought of it as PwC and Marks & Spencer is slowly moving to become M&S. Even BT hasn’t been British Telecom for more than 20 years, but I’m sure some people still think of it as that.

Unlike EE, the abbreviations for those other companies were all being used by their customers and the media before they were adopted. Everything Everywhere is so new that barely anyone knows what it is and it’ll be gone before they can learn. So EE (can you say it?) will be a terrible abbreviation for what many people have criticised as a terrible name, hence the rebranding.

At Clarity we often see writing in which abbreviations are used thoughtlessly. Unless you’re certain your audience will know what you mean, you should always give the full name when you first mention it and put the abbreviation in brackets afterwards, for example “The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy was written by …”

Like Aviva (formerly Norwich Union) before it, EE can expect to be followed by its former name in explanatory brackets for a while at least. Or maybe the even more awkward construction: “EE (formerly Everything Everywhere, the company formed by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile)”. Awkward and annoying. No wonder Prince went back to his old name.

PIIGS might not fly, but BRICs can

If you’ve been anywhere near a paper or television at any time in the last eight or nine months, you will have heard something about problems in the Eurozone.

While the last major financial crisis left us with a lot of complicated jargon to digest (can anyone remember the difference between a CDS and a CDO and why it matters?), the Eurozone crisis has its own special vocabulary.

One that we’ve seen a lot of recently is ‘Grexit’ (Greek exit) as a shorthand for Greece leaving the Eurozone. It’s short, and presumably originated with financial services types needing a quick way to discuss what is either a certainty or an impossibility, depending on who you listen to. It’s fast to say and has that ‘x’ in the middle which grabs the reader’s eye. It will either be forgotten if Greece stays in the Euro or it might become the way their exit is remembered.

An even newer one is ‘Spailout’ (Spanish bailout) for the €100bn recently given to Spanish banks. It is a word that has existed for less than a fortnight, but has been used in headlines across the world. It’s unimaginable that a word could get such traction so quickly in any age before the internet, which has allowed more neologisms than ever before. It is, admittedly, probably not going to stay for too much longer and will probably be forgotten as soon as the next big crisis strikes Europe.

The final term I’d like to look at is ‘PIIGS’, sometimes seen as ‘PIIGS countries’ – an acronym for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. As you might expect for an acronym obliquely referring to swine, it’s not usually complimentary. You can compare it to the ‘BRIC’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which are all developing and building rapidly – which is sort of brick-related, I suppose.

Some organisations use acronyms which spell existing words (for example the fictional SPECTRE from James Bond) because it does make a difference to how you perceive a thing. Would you rather buy a COOL computer (Computer Offering Outstanding Luxury) or a CRAP computer (Computer Resisting All Problems)? It doesn’t matter what the acronym stands for as much as it matters what it spells.

Accuracy matters

I came across this page: http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm the other day. It’s a long list of instances where mistakes caused by single keystrokes in spreadsheets have caused losses of millions of pounds or, in the case of the 2012 Olympics, the selling of 10,000 non-existent tickets.

For anyone who wasn’t already convinced, this shows it’s worth having someone check your figures. But is the same true of words?

We at Clarity naturally think it is. And there’s plenty of evidence that spelling mistakes can cost money. Online selling relies on the written word. Misspellings reduce users’ trust in a website and put customers off. One online retailer doubled its sales after identifying and correcting a spelling mistake.

For marketing via email, correct spelling matters too. With so many phishing emails out there, you have to convince consumers that your communication is genuine before they decide whether it’s something they’re interested in. If your marketing email raises too many red flags, your customer will never even see it because it will go straight to the ‘Junk’ folder.

For more guidance on how to write good marketing emails, check out about.com’s list of tips, tricks and secrets.

A beginner’s guide to search engine optimization

The world of the internet is ruled by search engines. Your writing might be lovely, but it’s a shame if nobody reads it. How do you ensure that you appear high up in the search engines’ results list?

Well, to put it simply, you can’t. The big search companies, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing, offer advertisements that make your site appear on the results page, but savvy searchers have grown wise to this and tend to ignore it, or else they’re using ad-blocking browser plugins. The big three have grown wise to SEO tactics from the 90s – some of the more fun ones being huge lists of words in a font the same colour as the background and link exchange programs – remember those?

Nowadays, it’s generally agreed amongst SEO types that you need to do a few key things:

1. Make sure each page on your site has a title and meta description and that they are accurate. Meta keywords are useful too, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re ignored.

2. Have an XML sitemap that tells search engines how your site works. How? Sort one out for free at www.xml-sitemaps.com/

3. Use simple URLs, so if your page is all about cats, try to use a URL like: yoursite.com/cats

4. Offer something unique and useful. The higher the quality of your content, the more likely people are to return to your site and tell their friends about it. The more visits you get, the better you’ll do in search engine rankings.

5. Include words and phrases people commonly search for. If you sell toys for cats, assume people will search using simple terms, such as ‘cat toys’.

This really is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find a more extensive introduction at Google’s Webmaster Central blog in their SEO starter guide.

Delivery mania

What is it with delivery? Why do people think this word solves everything?

A few years ago the word was solution – a word that might more reasonably be thought to solve things. Now everything has to be delivered – even things that can’t be.

You can deliver a report, by all means, but how can you deliver goals, visions and the like? Can an organisation deliver, for instance, sustainable communities? Where do you deliver them, and what happens to them in the course of delivery?

Elsewhere I find people “well placed to deliver against our strategic plan” or “deliver on” some ambition or other. Does this mean to achieve or fulfil the plan, or merely to make progress towards it? It is all so infuriatingly imprecise.

Possibly the most fatuous usage I have come across recently was an executive thanking his staff “for delivering so far this year”. He didn’t say what they were delivering or whether they were doing it on time, but the “so far” suggested he was afraid they might stop.

I would like to stop people “delivering cost savings” when they could simply cut costs. If I could achieve this, would I be delivering a word saving?

Lucy Kellaway and the Customer Journey Re-engineering Manager

Forgive the Harry Potter-inspired title, but perennial Clarity heroine Lucy Kellaway is on the BBC’s website today, suggesting that one of the reasons Apple has been more successful than Microsoft recently is they use language better. You can read the full article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11811150

I have to agree with Kellaway. Reading through Microsoft’s IE9 Product Guide this morning, I was struck by how repetitive and unimaginative it was – definitely negative qualities for a product supposed to provide a brand new way to browse. I even found myself questioning the syntactic sense of some of their claims, such as:

“Internet Explorer 9 is site-centric and meets users where they are today.”

They use “site-centric” as the opposite of “browser-centric”, but I fail to see how a browser can be anything other than “browser-centric”. I think they’re trying to convey the idea that they display the site as the author intended, not as the browser parses the code actually written (which browsers have been doing for years), but the way they’ve phrased this is simply terrible.

I also quite like the idea of the browser somehow meeting you somewhere you aren’t today. I imagine the browser showing up late and out of breath and apologising for waiting around where you were yesterday. It’s a faintly ridiculous image.

The section of Apple’s website devoted to Safari is, in stark contrast, simpler and friendlier (although they lose points for using ‘leverage’ as a verb on this page). Let us hope that, for the reader’s sake, they continue their seemingly unstoppable march across the world of consumer technology.

All that remains is to criticise Kellaway for suggesting in her final paragraph that “words are finished”. They’ve been going strong for about 5000 years and I don’t think that portable video on the iPad is going to kill them off.