Where do we start with online communications?

The sadly deceased comedian Dave Allen had a great story about how he got lost driving around rural Ireland and after driving in circles he finally spotted an elderly farmer working at the side of an otherwise deserted road.  He pulled up beside him and asked for directions.  The farmer looked slowly up and down the road, then back into Allen’s eyes and said “well I wouldn’t start from here”.

This came to mind earlier in the week when I was giving a talk and was asked: “Is there any reliable way of knowing what online tools, channels or networks are here for the long term?”

My answer: No not really.

In fact, if I knew the answer I’d probably be at home counting my cash rather than writing this post.

The reality is that we don’t really know. We know what’s “hot” today, we might know what people are using, but is there a guarantee that Facebook will forever more be the pre-eminent social network? Nope.

Did you think we needed a new search engine when we had Yahoo! and Alta Vista? Don’t be silly.

I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Charles H. Duell, a representative from the patent office in 1899:


Everything that can be invented has been invented.


The reality is we can make some educated guesses on how people are and will communicate in the future but we can’t be certain.  Whereas rapid innovation for the newspaper business over hundreds of years was the introduction of the tabloid format and colour printing, the online world is in constant flux by comparison – albeit much of the ‘new new thing’ is transitory.

What we do know from a PR perspective is that significant audiences are finding information online. Similarly people are connecting and communicating online.

Know the audience

The key thing here is your audience. 

Know your audience and develop your programmes to reach them where they are and how they want it.

Because changes to the media were slow and gradual in the past we had the luxury of time.  Now things move a little more quickly – by the way I haven’t changed by stance on the continuing importance of traditional media, that’s a given in this conversation.

For example: If you know your target audience is using Bebo, MySpace or Facebook then you can engage with them (carefully and respectfully) successfully now.  It doesn’t matter if these sites will disappear or morph into something else, strike while the iron is hot. Unlike traditional media we don’t have the luxury of just waiting to see what emerges at the end, we might be waiting for years, but if we know our audience we can start to engage today.

Of course the key word here is ‘if’. I do not advocate rushing into wasting money and resources on a hunch.  You need to be pragmatic. But if you have invested in understanding your audience then you might be in a position to execute a very successful campaign online. If you don’t have that knowledge leave the money in the bank until you do. 

Content is king

Maybe we also need to move away from thinking about channels and tools for a little while and look at how we communicate.

Obviously everyone is aware of the YouTube phenomenon. Indeed many PR campaigns now have a (ahem) “viral” element. But we’re only scratching the surface. Maybe we should be thinking more about (how about this for a early 1990’s phrase) multimedia.

Providing customers with compelling video, podcasts and text.

A hat tip to the folks how have been championing the social media release for years. 

I still believe the humble press release has a useful life mind you, but in the art of storytelling we have a lot of work to do.

We’re on a journey, we might be lost, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to stop off once in a while and get things done. We just need to think about it, prepare properly and measure it – unfortunately we have to start from here. 🙂

PS: The McMcClenahan-Bruer blog has a nice example of how well thought out traditional marketing is every bit as effective.  It’s about understanding your audience and making the right investments online and offline.