On a journey to collaboration


The Midlands has always been inextricably linked to transport issues – good, bad and indifferent.

Inevitably, HS2 always gets a mention as do journey times and all the associated frustrations – the region being an area that people struggle to get through rather than a destination in itself, for example.

But what about strategy and investment when it comes to transport? One body that has been working hard in the background is Midlands Connect, a collaboration of LEPs in the region, associated agencies, councils and business.

Their aim is to “bring together a cross LEP partnership to develop the strongest possible case for strategic transport investment in the Midlands.” So that’s Midlands-wide, and that’s important.

All too often the West Midlands and East Midlands have fought their own battles – for obvious reasons, but often not for the ultimate benefit of the region as a whole. And when you look at it as a whole – its economic strengths, ambitions for growth, jobs already established and created, transport trends and so on, then the Midlands’ case is compelling.

More than ten million people live in the Midlands – and that figure will grow by 10% in the next 20 years. Birmingham and East Midlands airports will double their passenger numbers by 2040, New Street is the busiest station outside of London – the list goes on. All that needs some serious support from transport infrastructure – and serious funding too.

I’d like to think that Midlands Connect is setting a trend for a Midlands-wide approach; where appropriate, of course. Dialogue with government, partnership work, enhancing capacity and connectivity – all are best served by a compelling case that is the Midlands rather than just east or west, just a thought, but collaboration and shared ambition can make a lot more happen than people sitting in silos.

If you’re interested in Midlands Connect then you can find out more here

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The creator of the Crème Egg has a lesson for us all


I have no intention of becoming embroiled in the Cadburys Crème Egg-gate scandal – following a change in recipe for the chocolate outer.

What is clear, however, is that businesses that ‘play around’ with products loved by consumers do so at their peril. In changing the ingredients of the chocolate outer, Cadbury is playing around with people’s memories, childhoods – and indulgences.

In all the controversy – which has attracted reams of media publicity – one voice to my mind has stood out.

Enter Robin Whitefield – a name I didn’t know until this latest furore. Mr Whitefield, now 78 years of age, is credited with the technical feat of fusing two halves of oval shaped chocolate together without squashing the product. At the time, he was running his own chocolate company that was acquired by Bassett’s which was later acquired by Cadbury which is how Cadbury acquired the know-how.

Mr Whitefield’s verdict on the new Crème Egg, with its changed ingredient outer, is not too complementary. It is, he says, “overwhelmingly sweet” – but he has also come up with some sage advice that is applicable to all of us in business.

“I have always thought that if you are making something for the enjoyment of other people, you should make it so that you can’t make it any better. Well that was my philosophy.”

Mr Whitefield: You have just entered the world of business sages.
And that’s not just sweet talk.

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Who’s being sociable?


Unless you’ve been living inside Beagle 2, the Mars probe that vanished in 2003, you won’t fail to have noticed the full-scale adoption of social media for marketing. With more options to choose from than ever before a carefully planned strategy could be the vital key to social media success in 2015.

In 2014 alone; Instagram hit 300 million monthly users, LinkedIn reached over 200 countries and twitter recorded over 500 million tweets per day. As these figures are set to increase – to over 2.55bn social media networkers by 2015 – it could be time to revaluate which social media channels will be most effective in 2015.

As video content continues to be the dominant form of content Facebook has positioned itself well for 2015. Sadly for those YouTube lovers, Facebook recently passed YouTube as the most popular platform for viewing videos via desktop according to ComScore.

Facebook made it easy to post videos directly to your account making it simpler to share up-to-date video content with your followers – Facebook could therefore become the most popular platform for viewing videos.
Also continuing from 2014, the number of users and followers will continue to rise which means more content and more date to consume. In 2015 we’ll all face the challenge of how to attract followers without drowning them in flashy content.

While Facebook may become the number one video platform, Twitter, if it hasn’t already, could become the number one social network to publish your information snippets. Facebook facilitates content density whereas Twitter allows its users to digest real-time information, a huge advantage in a digital world where consumers want relevant up-to-date information.

However, as we all know, Twitter has recently been through one of the largest IPO in 2013. While there are many obvious advantages, Twitter could also be in danger of its own success.

Twitter’s simplicity has always been key but if it tries to monetise itself too quickly its users could soon be put off by the pushy paid advertising. If Twitter can please the investors without upsetting the users it could be one of the more successful networks of 2015 – we might even see more Tweet To Pay developments.

The advantages of social media have now extended far beyond the Business-to-Consumer applications. It is now considered a valuable tool in Business-to-Business networking and none more so than LinkedIn.

LinkedIn should be seen as more than the other social media network in 2015. Instead, it should be viewed as the networking channel for Business. In 2014 LinkedIn reported over 300 million users in its official report and with some clever developments is set to continue its success in 2015. All users can now publish posts but they can also now publish SlideShare presentations.

SlideShare, a platform for privately or publicly sharing your presentations, is a fantastic tool for B2B marketers. The ability to now showcase them on your profile has strengthened LinkedIn’s position as the number one B2B social media platform.

However not all the social media channels will be as successful in 2015. The reason why the big three – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – are likely to remain the most popular is because they’re reacting to the needs of their users, something the final three networks are failing to grasp.
For instance, YouTube is still a dominant platform for sharing videos. Its ability to create and follow channels, embed videos to your website and share them with other social media platform are helpful tools but hardly innovations likely to attract new users. If it is to remain a top contender as the number one platform for viewing videos it will have to find a way of re-engaging with its users.

Pinterest too is another social media network that could have a lot of work to do in 2015. Pinterest is the fourth biggest social media network with over 250,000,000 and great for visual content marketing. However its competitor, Instagram, has recently been acquired by Facebook – the social media king. Having just introduced Promoted Pins, Pinterest has taken the first move of 2015 to attract businesses but it will have to do more to compete with the rising star that is Instagram.

Google+, despite turning three years old last year, has never fully taken off. Whilst popular with a few fans it is unlikely to succeed in 2015.Hangouts have now become a separate app, Gmail is no longer automatically linked and the future of Google+ is not looking too bright, especially when considering one in three of its own employees don’t use it.

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Our predictions for 2015


David Clarke – get personal in 2015 – that’s my recommendation for the year ahead

As businesses compete on a more level playing field – with small companies using much the same communications channels as their larger competitors – the challenge will be to treat everyone as individuals and not as some generic anonymous mass.

A study late last year showed that more than 80 per cent of marketers report that ‘personalisation’ impacts positively on customer retention and loyalty – which is why nearly 60 per cent of businesses surveyed are increasing their spend on site optimisation tools.

Of course, if you run a local shop, this won’t be news at all. Greeting Mrs Smith by name when she enters your store will be second nature to you.

The trick is to do it across the board. We are after all, individuals – and appreciate being acknowledged as such.


Mark Whitehouse – timing of PR will be crucial in 2015

I think 2015 will be a year when PR professionals and therefore our clients will need to focus as much on when they reach their audience as what they’re reaching them with.

Think about our TV viewing habits. A few short years ago we’d watch when the schedule dictated; now, it’s the other way around. Through innovations like catch-up TV we fit the schedules around our busy lives.

Through the many ways we now communicate with our audience, the targets have become more fragmented but the numbers have increased. Twitter doesn’t sleep, and because of the technology at our disposal the lines between when we’re officially “at work” and not are ever more blurred. Timing, as well as message, will be king.


Mark Binnersley – social media – be original and genuine in 2015

2015 will be the year that social media marketing starts to become much more challenging. Whilst harnessing popular hashtags or social media crazes, like #selfie and the Ice Bucket Challenge, was a great way to get noticed in 2014, audiences will expect much more this year.

Therefore those who want to get talked about the most will need to focus on generating original and innovative ideas, whether that be a hashtag or a video, that have the potential to go viral.

Of course, if you lack the capacity to do this, then concentrate efforts instead on having meaningful, non-sales-oriented conversations with your followers, in order to increase impact.


Penny Thorp – digital marketing – what’s important is what’s next

There is only one constant in digital marketing – and that’s change.

2015 will see changing business models alongside evolving consumer behaviour – there’s a lot to consider, in order to really have a handle on both what’s important this year and what’s around the corner.

Newsletters will be bigger than ever in 2015. We’ve seen a rise in email marketing – particularly with SMEs, and many companies will look to exploit their databases in 2015 – and to grow them. I think we will see some creative strategies to encourage e-marketing opt-ins and don’t forget to keep it personal – there are lots of data capture tools available and it is important to use these in order to make our emails stand out and retain the attention of our audience.

One thing’s for sure – mobile will continue to have a big influence this year; mobile readiness and responsive designs are a must.


Ian Cooper – design – the world of web in 2015

The number of people using mobile devices to access the web is increasing every day, and mobile websites are fast becoming more important than desktop versions, especially in the business to consumer market.

Having a website that can be easily viewed on a phone or a tablet, alongside desktops, is a must, with reports saying that 90 per cent of people move between devices, or “multi-screening”, to accomplish a task. Consumers want products or services to be accessible at all times of the day and on the go.

Responsive designs will continue to evolve and adapt as new technology is released over the next year.


Ralph Green – content generation – get more personal in 2015

In 2014 over 48 hours of YouTube videos, 347 WordPress blogs, 3,600 Instagram photos, 100,000 Tweets and 684,478 Facebook shares were posted every minute. Now more than ever we will have to generate relevant content that appeals to our followers on a personal level.

Only 43 per cent of business to consumer companies are successfully tracking their content marketing strategy. Content is being produced with little relevance to its target audience and failing to build deeper relationships with consumers.

Use 2015 to track the likes, dislikes and engagement of your consumers to produce more targeted, relevant content for your followers. Followers engage well with visual content such as pictures and videos so use the dominance of visual content to help personalise your content. You can also use user-submitted content to drive engagement and encourage other followers to participate.

Finally, don’t forget to keep an eye on which content engages your consumers. Facebook analytics, Twitter analytics, TweetReach are all free analytical tools which can help monitor how well you’re communicating with your followers.

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Is your brand digital ready?


With around 2.5 billion internet users today – roughly 35 per cent of the world’s population – and around 1.9 billion active social media users, there’s a huge opportunity for brands to connect with target audiences.

But actually, with so many businesses now using the technology this phenomenon represents both an opportunity and a challenge: how do you make your brand stand out digitally?

To answer that question we need to look at the various platforms people are using. Let’s start with websites, and how they’re being viewed.

This bit is crucial, as the number of people using mobile devices to access the web is increasing daily, and mobile websites are fast becoming more important than desktop versions, especially in the business to consumer market.

Having a website that can be easily viewed on a mobile or a tablet, alongside a desktop, can really help your brand to stand out digitally. Research shows that people who access a website via a smartphone are more likely to take some sort of action in relation to that website.

It’s also important to distinguish between a website that can be viewed on a smartphone and one that is smartphone ready.

Most websites will show up on a smartphone, but unless they have been designed with mobile in mind they won’t provide a great user experience. A truly mobile website is tailored to the needs of mobile users and the capabilities of smart phone devices, as users have different objectives than desktop users and this usually means they want information in quick, easily digestible bites.

In order for your website to work on a smartphone, it’s worth ensuring the following:

• Content should be easy to read

• The site should be easy to navigate

• It should be easy to recognise and the call to action to be easily activated

• And overall it should provide a good user experience

And having a smartphone friendly website doesn’t mean you need two websites.

Once the desktop version of the website is built, it’s just a case of reordering the content, so it is easier to read and navigate on mobile. We offer this to all our clients, to ensure they are digital ready.

You’ve sorted your website out, but what about your social media channels?

With around 284 million monthly users, Twitter – used effectively – is a great digital tool to make your brand stand out. The latest profile layout is similar to Facebook’s profile page layout, giving you more space in which to embed your brand’s imagery, making a great logo and brand architecture ever more important.

Then there’s LinkedIn. Company pages have huge potential, and are evolving with additions such as the blog and follower features, allowing your page followers to be able to keep track of your company news and updates. You can also add videos to each of your product or service listings.

Is your brand digital ready?

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Why we need to restore confidence in business

Business is good for us: as individuals, as a nation and more often than not, for the community. Business provides us with an occupation that fills our day; a way to earn an honest living and a means to pay our taxes – and, in consequence, keep the country running too. Hopefully, it also provides us with stability and that all-important routine.

I have always believed this – and I always will. I find it hard to believe that there could be a life without business – and no, I am not sad. I am one of those lucky ones that enjoys what I do, day in, day out. And I have benefited from it too: it has enabled me to raise a family, earn some money (although running my own business, not always), learned a lot – and built a good many lasting friendships too – colleagues, clients and business contacts alike.

And then I read a few months ago, the YouGov/CBI Confidence in Business Survey that revealed that only around 50% of people in the UK believe business makes a positive contribution to society.

Now how depressing is that?

But my heart was lifted – ever so slightly – when I learned that confidence in business is affected by geography. According to a further YouGov/CBI Confidence in Business Survey, a far larger proportion of us trust local businesses in our own area. The results vary from one region to another but on average, across the UK, 81% trust their local businesses. When the same question was asked in relation to whether we trust businesses nationally, the figure fell to a depressing 57% – just above half.

Some however, remain in the ‘don’t trust’ camp: across the UK, 11% don’t trust local businesses in our area – increasing to 33% across the country.

Now what that says to me is that we tend to trust who we know and because we know local businesses, we trust them.

In short, familiarity does not breed contempt – it breeds trust.

Now this is a really important point because I, the CBI, and many others, believe that generating trust in business is important. This is not just a question of altruism it’s actually good for business if our customers and suppliers trust us. It’s good for the standing of business, the standing of our staff – and it plays a big role in business fundamentals such as recruiting staff.  Who, I ask, would want to work for a company they didn’t trust?

A few years ago, I was privileged to chair a panel of judges for the Midlands Business Awards. As you might expect, we took our role seriously. This was not decision making in a smoke filled room but a thorough analysis of how a business conduced itself particularly in terms of its corporate social responsibility.

The winner that particular year was a company in Wolverhampton that manufactured high-end precision aerospace components. They had a tremendous record of working with the community, supporting local initiatives, with their staff helping local people and getting thoroughly involved. I remember the managing director telling me that they didn’t do it for sales reasons (“We don’t sell too many aircraft components to the locals in Wolverhampton,” he said drily, “but it’s great for the staff to get involved, to get together and it’s great for the community too,”).

Now there was a business, I have no doubt, where the staff really did trust it – and the community trusted it as well.

So where does this lead us?

We need to capitalise on the ray of sunshine presented by this latest poll:  that we trust local businesses that we deal with day in day out. We must then ensure that we get across that many national businesses are local too. OK, there will always be one or two rogues in business and businesses are, after all, only human so they will make mistakes – but in our efforts to restore public faith in business I would strongly suggest that we start local, act local and build on the support that we have.

The CBI and YouGov have done us all a favour in producing statistics that measure our confidence in business. We should keep on measuring it – and above all, working to increase our local confidence in business so it spreads elsewhere.

After all, business is good – for everyone.

This article also appears on the CBI’s Great Business Debate http://www.greatbusinessdebate.co.uk/opinion/can-acting-local-rebuild-confidence-in-business/

Image: www.flazingo.com

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Clarke Associates’ top ten tips for organising corporate events

Planning an event is exciting and rewarding, but it can be difficult to know where to start and ensure that every aspect goes as smoothly as possible.

We’ve come up with ten top tips on how to make your event both successful and unforgettable:

1: Discipline is key
Reputation hangs on well-run events – and the key to success is to run a tight ship. Don’t be afraid to enlist help from colleagues – as there’ll be plenty of tasks for all the team. You will also need help for the event itself – so it is good to colleagues updated about planning.

2: Talking of which… It’s never too early to start planning
The success of any event lies in the detail and preparation.
It’s a good idea to create a comprehensive operational plan for your event, listing every single task that needs doing with a deadline and the person responsible.

3: The venue should reflect the event
What does the venue say about your event? If it is a first impression – make it a good one. There is mush to consider when selecting the location: capacity, parking, acoustics, catering, branding, cost, security etc. – all of this will impact on the decision.
Make sure that you have covered every detail before you book.

4: Make it a sell out!
The events market is increasingly competitive, so if you are selling tickets to your event you have to offer something unique and different. Think about your audience – work backwards – who do you want there – how might you appeal to them.

5: It’s a date
Before you start to market your event, make sure that it doesn’t clash with other big local events, school holidays or major public holidays.

6: Money doesn’t grow on trees
Make sure that you fully understand all the costs involved in your event – venue, catering, invitations, marketing etc. Build in an extra contingency for any unexpected costs, and keep a very close eye on your budget on the run up to your event.

7: Marketing
You can organise the best event in the world but if you don’t market it effectively, no one will come…
Devise a marketing plan based on your target audience – get those colleagues, the venue and the potential audience to help spread the word – don’t be shy. You can use their handles on Twitter and Facebook to get them to engage – and if they retweet, you’ve created a social media ripple. Don’t forget to find out how people heard about the event to help shape future marketing plans.

8: Final touches
This is the fun part – the final touches – what does the event say about you? Do people know who arranged the event? How will guests be welcomed? Walk yourself through the event as a potential guest. What could you improve on?

9: Let me take a selfie
It’s essential to have a good quality photographer present at your event, both for guests to enjoy and also for future event marketing. Your local press may well be interested in covering your event, too – you never know. Is it the kind of event that people will want to take a selfie at? If not – why not try to make it so? Their endorsement will be the strongest recommendation for future events.

10: Enjoy yourself!
As long as you have a good risk assessment and contingencies in place, you will be able to deal with the unexpected. Organising a successful event is a lengthy process, so once the big day has finally arrived try to relax and enjoy yourself!

To take the stress out of planning your event – contact Penny penny-t@clarke-associates.co.uk at Clarke Associates for more information on how we could help.

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Music to our ears

Warwick Music Group (WMG) is a excellent example of an entrepreneurial business where we have achieved fantastic results – significantly increasing awareness and understanding of its products and boosting sales (it’s also a good example of how businesses can be used to generate PR for the place in which they are located – in this case Coventry). Over the past few months, you may well have seen or heard their latest product in the regional and national press as well as national radio and even national TV as part of a new product unveiling.

WMG started life in 1994 as just a single publishing business – but in 2010 the company took on a new challenge with the development of pBone – the world’s first plastic trombone. We came on board in 2012 and can take some credit for its sales to date of 125,000 – making it the best-selling trombone – ever. In 2013 they launched the pBone mini and most recently – in September this year, launched the world’s first all-plastic trumpet; pTrumpet.

Launching the product to the UK market, we have achieved quality national coverage in The Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio 4, Classic FM and CBBC Newsround to name a few. We have had strong regional coverage on BBC Midlands Today, BBC WM, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, a number of regional titles (because of a media tour we are undertaking which has visited Tipton and generated exposure in the Express & Star) and trade/music press – which has all been fantastic exposure for our client. Alongside this, we undertook a social media campaign which has resulted in a 16% increase in Twitter followers within two weeks.

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China print

Stay positive – how to get media coverage in China

It’s no secret that our region – the West Midlands – takes the lion’s share when it comes to UK trade with China. But what if you’re a local business yet to enter China’s many untapped markets? And how do you go about starting conversations with potential Chinese clients?

As with all communications programmes, it’s essential that you understand the media landscape – and in mainland China there’s one significant practical challenge to overcome. One way or another you’ll need to deliver press releases written in simplified Chinese characters. There’s little point appearing in English language Chinese publications that are targeted at Western expats if you want to reach a native Mandarin-speaking audience.

But with the right knowledge and language skills, media coverage opportunities in China are huge. To set the scene, the country boasts the world’s biggest print media market, with more than 9,000 magazine titles and 2,000 newspapers – you’d actually think there’d be more for a population of close to 1.4bn. There are also close to 400 TV channels.

There are also strong parallels with Western media and approaches to public relations.

For example, it’s vital that your communications adopt a positive tone. Corporate clients in the UK understandably require a positive message about their business as they seek to portray a favourable image of themselves, but it’s the media outlet in China that requires a positive angle, in order to avoid falling foul of Government censors.

To reinforce this point, the hugely respected China Media Project, based in Hong Kong, only this week published a blog under the heading China’s “positive” prescription for dissent. President Xi Jinping is leading a drive to tackle negativity in the media and online at home and abroad. It seems moaning is not an exclusively British trait. The point is, avoid the tactic of using a controversial or negative topic to leverage coverage.

The other parallel with the West is changing media consumption habits. As in the UK, Chinese youngsters are seeking out news and views via a wide range of platforms including, unsurprisingly, smartphones.

Older generations might still turn to China Central Television’s daily 7pm news show, but the new generation of consumers is keeping up-to-date with happenings on websites like SINA, SOHU, NetEase and Tencent.  However, be aware that these websites only publish news produced by the likes of Xinhua, the state-controlled news agency.

In China you’ll also need to envisage a world without Google, as difficult as that might seem. Homegrown search engine Baidu rules the roost with around 80 per cent share of searches. This is another blog post entirely but it’s worth swatting up on the differences in SEO methodology between Google and Baidu.

These are just a few of the considerations to bear in mind if you’re planning to embark on a Chinese media journey – and we haven’t even mentioned social media. Getting a foothold in this country, from a brand awareness perspective, needn’t be that different to building profile in the UK. But it will be a huge help if you are able to call on the knowledge of someone who understands the Chinese market.

At Clarke Associates we’re developing a China service – combining my experience of living and working in the Middle Kingdom and our expertise, built over decades, in corporate communications. If you’re thinking of taking to the new Silk Road, we’d love to hear from you.

Image courtesy of ZeroSubConsciousness

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Best practice – selling the story:

As a PR professional – not only do you want to get your clients news in the media – but you want to get the right message covered.

One way the publicity goal is accomplished is by sending press releases to newspaper, magazine and Web journalists – but it isn’t as black and white as that.

A press release contains information needed by a journalist to write a positive story about the PR professional’s client.

The public relations professional crafts a compelling news story designed to gain a reporter’s attention. The goal of a press release is to fulfil a journalist’s need for news while enhancing the client’s public image.

Mark Binnersly, our account manager, has recently highlighted the benefit of forward thinking and how developing a relationship with journalists can really pay dividends for your client. We have asked Mark some questions regarding his strategy with this particular sell in:

Q – Mark, what is the story behind this press release:

A – Bob Young, partner with our Begbies Traynor, was appointed administrator over the Wedgwood Collection in 2009. Over the past five years, Bob’s worked tirelessly to prevent the collection being sold at auction, negotiating with national arts groups and relevant government ministers. As a result he has been able to secure the sale of the Wedgwood Collection to national art charity the Art Fund which, in early September, launched an appeal to raise the necessary funds.

Q – How did you determine how the journalists like to receive story pitches/ how did you present the information to the Journalist?:

A – Having agreed with the Art Fund not to run a press release when it issued its appeal launch release, we ensured our client was quoted in the document. We also briefed journalists at the same time, providing quotes from Begbies Traynor that were not contradictory to the Art Fund’s messaging. This way, we managed to not get in the way of the appeal, whilst at the same time ensuring our client was deservedly mentioned in coverage. As an approach it worked, securing coverage nationally and regionally when the appeal launched.

Q – How did you control the message in order to achieve the coverage for your client?

A – The trick was to continually brief journalists and keep a very close eye on the fundraising appeal, which went from 0 to its target of £2.74m in one month. Additionally, and this was crucial in securing coverage when the appeal closed, we prepared and signed off a release weeks in advance in order to distribute quickly in the event of an announcement. This was vital in that it ensured we were able to take advantage of the opportunity and secured coverage across the Midlands media and national art sector media. It is possible to be proactive in a reactive situation!

The story has had coverage in The Birmingham Post, Staffordshire Newsletter and The Business Desk as a result of Mark’s best practice.

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