Rearing an Absolute Unit

Rearing an Absolute Unit

In the last year you may have come across this. The Absolute Unit from MERL or to give it its full name, the Museum of English Rural Life. What he represents has been a topic which I’ve returned to time again when talking social media strategy. It’s something which has genuinely fascinated me in trying to understand what happened to explain the MERL’s success and more importantly, why? Just how did a small Berkshire museum gain an international following?

After spending a year following the MERL’s efforts I feel as though I’ve been able to piece together some of the answers to explain their success. That time has also allowed me to say with complete and utter confidence that what the MERL has done is for me one of the most perfect examples I’ve seen of an organisation using social media correctly. (Plus after a full year of viral tweets sparked by the Absolute Unit there’s much that can be learnt about how the MERL has handled itself).

So, here’s 4,000 words on how sheep, farming and smocks took over social media.

It’s going to require some explaining.

To add some structure to what’s below I want to cover off:

  • What actually happened with the Absolute Unit - a timeline of one ram’s rise to stardom

  • Why the MERL created the perfect conditions for going viral - this was not a one trick sheep. I want to show how the MERL’s success happened through sound planning and analysis

  • How the MERL’s success is almost impossible to replicate - and why you really wouldn’t want to replicate their success anyway

  • What we can learn from the MERL for our own social media - so you have something to takeaway

Side note - the MERL is an unusually special place for me. During my time studying at the University of Reading the MERL was the HQ for the University’s Museums and Special Collections volunteer programme. Without them I wouldn’t have ever ended up working in a Herbarium (long story) which without this wouldn’t have meant I would be working in marketing. So while I try to be objective in what I write, what you find below is inherently pro-MERL and pro-museums in general.

the birth of an absolute unit

So, the 9th April 2018. @theMERL tweets the below picture of an Exmoor ram from 1962 and the accompanying caption. A star is born.

The Unit went viral in a true sense of the word picking up coverage internationally as the tweet gathered momentum. What is a very nice but not well known Berkshire museum dedicated to tractors, hay ricks and archived copies of the Farmer’s Weekly is thrust onto an international stage with coverage in the likes of the BBC, The Telegraph & Buzzfeed - plus countless others. By the year’s end it was on the New Statesman’s top meme’s of 2018.

Many people, myself included thought that the tweet was great but well, if I’m totally honest, thought the MERL got lucky. Right time, right place and all that.

Until the MERL did it again. And again and well, again.

The MERL successfully launched viral tweets (all with accompanying coverage) to bring us:

Every few weeks myself and 130k other followers from across the globe have become accustomed to seeing the standout account doing what it does best.

That is where I would have left things as if I’m honest I’ve been meaning to write this post since Christmas. But just as internet culture would have meant the Absolute Unit becoming a distant fluffy memory the story took another turn in recent weeks.

Almost a year to the day since the Absolute Unit first appeared, with no prompting from the museum itself, Elon Musk of all people swaps his profile picture out for the famous ram. The MERL responds in turn and once again the Museum is suddenly trying to persuade the 25th most powerful person in the world to visit the Berkshire County Show. Musk’s tweet gained 8.4k re-tweets and 75.4k likes - with plenty more off-shoot conversations besides. Once more headlines from around the world were made.

what about us?

The reason I love what the MERL has achieved is that it’s a perfect demonstration of how to do social media the right way. So many organisations look at the social profiles of multi-nationals, invariably those with big teams and even bigger budgets.

MERL did this with a budget which was zero. Nothing. Zilch. But damn, if a museum in Reading can achieve this, where on earth does that leave the rest of us?

The reason, in my view anyway, is that seeing something as successful as the Unit (and other animals) is the culmination, the end point if you want, of some core plans and principles which MERL has deliberately followed. It doesn’t explain it all but it does go a long way in helping to understand their success.

But the real reason why these factors rarely get mentioned is that in the world of marketing they’re quite frankly dull. Really dull.

Marketers like drones. They like going out to make videos and jumping on the latest trends. It’s cool and fun and very 2019. It’s classic shiny object syndrome. What in fact marketers are less fond of, but contributes to MERL’s success, are things like of sound planning, training and some solid spreadsheets of resources.

So, let’s take a deeper look into what things the MERL and museums at large have been up to lately to make this happen.

understanding the museum market

When the Absolute Unit first appeared I was intrigued. Was what had happened the work of a dedicated social team who had discovered the magic formula for success? Or was it a rogue employee hell bent on tearing up MERL’s otherwise conservative brand guidelines?

Either way it was an unusually bold move, one that truth be told seemed fairly at odds with everything that the MERL had published previously. It’s an industry I’d love to work in so over the last year have been keeping a keen eye on what’s been done and not done to explain all this to try and get my head around the who, where, what and why of the MERL’s social media strategy. Firstly, what’s going on in the industry at large?

museum marketing

Normally in business the concept of being ‘out there’ on social is one where senior management may allow the occasional use of emoji’s. Social media managers face a hard battle, often by a variety of challenges that constrain content, creativity while other non-essential meetings eat what remains of their time. Things are often even more compounded as they or their teams are often isolated in a corporate hierarchy, where you need permission from people who don’t get or don’t care about social media to actually get anything done.

Museums are not immune to this. In fact, the challenges museum marketing people have are often even harder when you add in limited budgets - with most replying on donations or grants to finance their existence and a passionate but part time armies of volunteers. Normally the kindest people who have the most incredible knowledge and passion but have a hard time of translating why their work matters to an indifferent world.

All in all, even some of the best museums in the UK produce content which is good, but bland. Not surprising really when you consider what they’re up against. Pictures of tea & cake, sunsets and the front entrance are often go-to staples of many an account. I love nearby Dunster Castle but this is a perfect example of what I mean.

Enter the 21st Century

At the same time the last decade has seen a fundamental shift in the way people engage with content. Visitors now have ‘experiences’ and all the other marketing fluff that describes how people who go anywhere listed on TripAdvisor behave. It’s why investment in tea-rooms and gift shops are so important for most historic places.

While museums are by their very nature slow moving, traditional and generally (but not always) behind the times, certain locations are moving from a collections 1st, experiences 2nd approach and flipping it.

Now the chance to grab perfect Instagram shot is more important than the history and heritage. After all footfall = funds. A couple of examples:

Meanwhile, in Reading, I may be wrong, but I’d guess the MERL doesn’t have the budgets to hire Beyoncé or the visuals of priceless world antiquities to help make it big on social. What it does have however is still hugely significant:

How the MERL wins Social

What follows doesn’t explain it all but I hope goes some way in helping to understand the MERL’s success.

passionate people

The man behind the curtain of the MERL’s social channels is a Mr. Adam Koszary, the Programme Manager/Digital Lead for both @TheMERL@readingmuseum. Adam has had 2 rare qualities which are rarely seen together in social media managers.

The 1st is his extraordinary wit and creativity at being able to tell the stories the MERL tell on Twitter. Making something which is traditionally dull into something that scores re-tweets from around the world.

The 2nd more overlooked trait is a determination to internally create change happen at the museum. That means getting buy-in from senior management. It means building connections from other staff through workshops and training. It’s a slow and I imagine pretty frustrating process explaining to people how making jokes about smocks and cow semen contribute to the museums strategic vision. But doing this means as a result that he can get hold of these stories in the first place. It’s about building trust.

It’s a very similar game plan as the Met Office’s approach to digital transformation via their academy.

Adam’s blog on the behind the scenes of social media life has been incredibly insightful with some of the most thorough well thought out policies of running social media in an organisation. You can bask in its glory here.

There’s also a stack of resources which he has openly shared which are some of the best I’ve seen.

A finger on the pulse of popular culture

The success in part the MERL has achieved over the last year has come from the ability to know what’s trending and react accordingly. It’s also meant understanding the nuances, language and meme’s that internet subculture throws up. More importantly it’s also about knowing what to respond to.

That isn’t to say that organisations should be jumping on every trending hashtag. But organisations could do so much more to work out their content calendars to align themselves to events, both planned and unplanned. that relate in some way to their identity.

Obvious ones include seasonal markers like Easter, which you can see the MERL put time and effort into. It wasn’t a knee jerk reaction. It was planned - something which many business this Easter miss as they tweet another blurry image of some disappointing chocolate eggs.

Other events though, those one’s that explode onto the scene, require having the right people (see above) who also have the time and energy and know-how to know of where to look and then translate what they’ve found into content.

The best sources for this are always going to be

Creating content at this speed though requires…


Freedom to try what’s new is pretty critical. You don’t need me to tell you how fast things change on social. But allowing people to take ownership is what’s needed in the first place.

Businesses tend to operate an all or nothing approach when it comes to who has permission. Either every message has to be signed off by senior management, suffocating any form of engagement with followers. Or the person in charge is let loose with no accountability for what they’re saying in your name.

Choosing how much autonomy you give your teams is no easy thing. With the MERL people like Adam have been working there for years, building trust and gaining an understanding of how far things can be pushed. But having that freedom is inherent to pushing away from the #mondaymotivation posts which proliferate Twitter.

And what if things do go wrong?

When the MERL have fallen short, most notably when they discovered the language like ‘thicc boi’ connected with the Absolute Unit has deeper roots that could have been offensive, they owned it, highlighted what they’d done and realised they needed to adjust things for the future. A finger on the pulse of popular culture is one thing but it still needs some fairly thorough investigation to ensure you’re not jumping on the wrong bandwagon.

A policy I try to encourage is that social teams should at least try something new and if it doesn’t go to plan work out what went wrong then adjust for the next time round.

A system

The knee-jerk way content for social is created is miserably prevalent across so many industries. With little to no planning most mediocre messages exist only because someone at some point decided that you need to be tweeting once a day, everyday. At 2pm.

The MERL though has demonstrated they have systems in place and that these systems work. Systems which I admit I’ve tried to encourage clients to implement but rarely do we get the full set. There are systems for:

  • Tone of Voice & Brand Guidelines

  • Audience Personas

  • Calendars for knowing what content to produce and when

  • Tools and training for scheduling content

  • Understanding on content can be re-worked to achieve different organisational objectives

  • How to measure the success of content - against pre-agreed KPI’s

  • Crisis management processes for what to do if things don’t work

Creating these takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort but having these in place means everyone knows the right and wrong ways the marketing in an organisation should function.


Perhaps most often overlooked in the grand scheme of things is that the MERL has some serious time to respond and engage with fans, especially on Twitter. This isn’t time which is normally covered by employee contracts but the hours spent replying to almost every mention going has helped to magnify the MERL’s already incredible efforts. Having time to respond to people means:

  • People get a personal 1 on 1 experience from what is a major account helping make fans into superfans, more ready and willing to share and engage than last time (and defend you if something bad ever happens)

  • It gives the MERL a band of people who almost automatically will tag and share farming related news making content sourcing all the easier. It’s the very definition of UGC

  • The sheer levels of engagement. with responses to the responses helps keep the algorithm gods happy, rewarding both them and me with ever greater levels of reach and engagement

but why would you want this?

Throughout all of these goings-on the big question I had was why? Why would you want this? It appeared on first impressions to be the classic ‘look at all the big numbers’. Management see the big numbers and want more big numbers. So kicks off a never ending race to find who can score the biggest number. Because everyone likes big numbers.

The importance with everything that happens on social is that it should always be tied back into your marketing objectives; which should always be tied to your business objectives. Let’s focus on the Unit once more:

  • Say the MERL’s ultimate goal was to make the internet a happier and funnier place. Job done.

  • Say the MERL’s ultimate and single minded goal in this universe was to raise awareness of rare breed cattle. Not so much.

Thankfully, the MERL’s goal aren’t rooted in achieving either of them (although making the internet a happier and funnier place it’s definitely smashed). From where I sit it looks as though the museum’s ultimate goal is to raise awareness of the museum through promoting its collections online and increasing footfall.

And do the sheep, ducks and bats help achieve this? They sure do. In the last year they’re able to start tying these broad numbers into defined metrics to be able to say that their output, the time, energy and honestly cold, hard ROI is worth the investment into making the MERL a success.

So many other businesses though automatically look at this and ask how can we have our own Absolute Unit?

What success looks like to you varies from one business to the next, and depending on what you’re overall goal is going viral on Twitter, however fun that may be is pointless if it doesn’t tie back to why you exist in the first place.

Why you can’t have your own Absolute Unit

If you’re able to learn from the MERL then I think your social media will be all the better for it. But honestly, even if it tied to organisational objectives it’s going to be almost impossible to replicate the Absolute Unit phenomenon. Bosses point at sheep and demand their own fluffy unit viral moment. But honestly, you might get close but you can’t replicate what the MERL has.

Why? Adam Koszary.

I explained above that how successful social rests on passionate people but I think the one majorly overlooked element of how the MERL did what they did was unequivocally down to him. Regardless of the systems you have in place the MERL have on their hands someone who not only gets social media in a way most of us don’t, but clichéd as it sounds really does go above and beyond.

Reading his blog you can see this is someone where the job is not a 9-5.

Running an account like the MERL has come from an incredible number of hours of overtime which few employees would (or should) have to do. You can see from the responses on Twitter that out of hours work just doesn’t stop with hundreds of responses attached to each tweet. Most of which get the most fantastic responses from Adam. The Elon Musk affair landed on at 10pm on a day off and every viral sensation brings with it a flood of PR requests, DM’s and general comms which all need responding to.

Employees like this are incredibly hard to find and even harder to keep.

the hug of death

Most of my time in marketing is spent what can best be described as worrying. Commercially it’s known as forward planning. As much as we want to push forward with things, so much time is taken up with the if’s, but’s and maybe’s which could see what I’ve already worked on being annihilated by mistakes, algorithm changes and the like. For something like the MERL I imagine that there’s been some serious good which has come about from all this. However, the internet giving you a similar rewards could be a very much hug of death for most (thanks to Tim Ferris for that saying).

For me I would worry about the people and the systems and their basic capacity to cope with what’s about to be thrown at them if anything like this happened.

For marketing teams it means all hands are on deck to deal with DM’s and engagements, taking away from the other day to day necessities of marketing an organisation. Legitimate questions get hidden in a flood of everything else and you spend time working through the weird and wonderful. The people who actually pay your bills can be unfairly ignored. Adam mentioned in on experiences with Elon Musk how DM’s were pouring in from people thinking the MERL really was Mr. Musk asking for jobs, Tesla’s and money.

It also hits the wider business when the systems and processes just aren’t in place. Off the back of the Unit’s success a limited run of t-shirts were launched and knitted animals sold. Without an e-commerce platform to sell these though it was another rapid improvisation to actually allow people to give them money.

Finally there’s something of an Icarus complex; that is what you do is caught by the attention of the higher ups. Just because the internet loves you doesn’t mean senior management will. I’d imagine if you had a plan robust as the MERL’s to explain your thinking and your process you’d be ok. However, if their final judgement is that you need to stop, or significantly change your output then it can scupper plans.

If this all still aligns with your strategic goals and you have the resources to cope with viral demand then go-ahead but I’ve seen time and again that success can be subtle and small scale but still generate the results you’re after.

lessons learnt

So, with all that in mind what are the key takeaways from what MERL has accomplished? What could you use in your own organisation?

  1. Try as best as humanly possible to allow yourself to implement the things in How the MERL Wins at Social. Get yourself a system, ownership, time and some passionate people who have their finger on the pulse of popular culture.

  2. Try and make sure you have the systems in place across so that is something is successful the business doesn’t fall over as a result

  3. Realise that because someone said years ago that tweeting X number of times a week may not be the right approach. The MERL have regularly seen that one kick-ass campaign a month is far more effective. It should always be quality over quantity and trying to test and adapt your approach

  4. Don’t let what you’re doing on social overshadow your real purpose. Does what you’re planning help the cause? For the MERL their efforts certainly increase footfall and awareness but that’s because it’s tied back to a solid strategy of what they want to achieve

  5. Don’t neglect the day to day. From upcoming events to selling Mint Jelly in the shop, the MERL still has time and space to still win at social by applying the same principles to the less fun that that’ll keep your boss happy.

  6. Realise you’re not always going to be a success. What’s been written largely rests on the success of the MERL on Twitter. The quirks of the channel and the nature of the audience mean its ideal platform for the kind of stuff they do. But if you take a look at their Instagram, or their YouTube channel then the numbers are much more down to earth. And you know what? That’s OK. You’re not going to win at every channel so play to your strengths.

As a final thought Adam Koszary has the best quote I’ve seen in a long time on doing social:

“Don’t be crap. Do be good.”

And I’ll leave it there. Cheers for reading and if you’ve got comments, questions or a mutual appreciation for the MERL then tweet me or add a comment below.

All image credits go directly to the MERL

Shiny Object Syndrome

Shiny Object Syndrome

New Year in marketing means predictions - and lots of them. The top trends in social. What’s happening in the world of Email. The annual undertaking of marketers hawking their vision of what’s hot and what’s not in 2019 is well underway. The posts abound from ‘experts’ who can demystify those exciting buzzwords you may have heard of but are yet to grasp.

But what looms on the horizon in 2019? Will this be the year of VR? Will Voice disrupt your industry? Or should you persuade your director that Tik Tok is where your marketing dollars should be headed?

Sticking your head above the parapet to look at the year ahead is no bad thing. Far from it. But here’s where I think the line should be drawn.

Just because these new, exciting tools, technologies are tactics may be just around the corner doesn’t mean you should be automatically buy into these shiny objects simply because they’re new. Don’t fall in with the crowd and come down with a bad case of shiny object syndrome.

Shiny Object Syndrome

I don’t need to emphasise how much has changed with digital marketing in the last decade. Each year we as marketers become infatuated with new technologies that will somehow transform our businesses. Think about the hype of Ibeacons. Or Ello. Or 3D Printing

Directors, business owners, and CEO’s furiously make notes while sat in seminars and webinars, scanning listicles and reading self inflated LinkedIn updates what the oracles say on what’s new. The result is that emails are fired off to their marketing teams. Buy this. Why aren’t we doing this? I think we should be doing that.

These are shiny objects. And shiny objects have major problems for your business and your staff. Here’s why.


When it comes to a digital marketer’s toolkit the last 10 years have been plentiful. After the game-changing years of 2006-09 the digital marketing landscape has settled down to offer a plethora of channels and tactics that almost all businesses up and down the land are at least aware of.

Channels and tactics that you should most definitely be exploring before embarking on anything new.

Multiple marketing ideas have been exploited by other businesses across the globe, with demonstrable proof of their success. Look at the rise of paid social for example. Each area has generated it’s own ecosystem of forums, websites and videos each with their own insights, support and case studies showing what’s worked and what hasn’t. There’s heaps of tried and tested concepts which are ripe for exploitation. So why just because they weren’t launched this year do they somehow deserve less attention?

A lot of the business I talk with are have only in the last year or so started using items such as remarketing, email automation or dedicated link building to build business. So why choose the unknown over the known? 2019 predictions shows should be about investing in doing more of what we know works, not gambling on the unknown.


If your a business who like most, have a small marketing team and an even smaller marketing budget then anything you test or put time and money towards takes away from what you’re already doing.

Shiny objects don’t just affect the business. They affect the people. Marketing teams are run ragged with the ever growing list of things they have to do, could do and want to do. I’ve yet to ever meet a bored marketer. They’re a stressed bunch who deep down want to do a genuinely good job but rarely have the capacity to research and execute another damn thing.

This time of year sees a peak of work - Christmas recovery combined with 2019 plans means January is a peak month for marketers. And honestly? Asking your team to explore something new is adding another straw that could finally break the camel’s back. The start of the year is job swapping season. It sounds exaggerated I know but that new trend you innocently ask a marketing team to test at this time of year could mean a major HR headache when a resignation lands. One thing too many tips a person to looking elsewhere.

If you’re going to integrate new marketing ideas into your business do it in a planned way, in a few months time - not a rushed email demanding to know why marketing aren’t already doing something.


I saw a great tweet recently which read ‘Ready for digital marketing in 2019? You’re not even ready for digital marketing in 2014”

The fundamental flaw with businesses big and small is that they can’t even sort out the basic fundamentals of digital marketing. I know this because so much of my work involves bringing digital marketing up to standard. This includes items such as explaining that you can’t just sell on social media. Explaining why uploading a 20mb image to your home page is a bad thing. Or why moving domain names without redirecting everything is a catastrophic idea.

If you want your digital marketing to succeed you don’t need to be eagerly buying into the latest ‘new and emerging technology’. You also don’t need to restructure your teams; or rebrand. Often these seem more like kneejerk reactions for when you don’t know what else to do.

If you want your business to succeed online in 2019 just do the fundamentals and do them really well. What’s really well you ask?

The best summary I’ve seen in my career has been from Smart Insights. Which stage does your business fall into?


So, when it comes to shiny objects don’t be a magpie.

Study, approach and evaluate any new trend or technology in a careful and considered way by all means, but get your digital marketing basics correct before embarking on anything more ambitious.

Everyone is not an audience

Everyone is not an audience

Some clients want to be the best fitness professionals in their industry. Others want to dominate the UK cushion market. Others have a life long desire to tell people about pensions. We’re all beautifully random.

Different industries. Different possibilities and most importantly - different audiences.

When it comes to working with clients I make a point of spending the time working out with clients as to who their audiences are. It forms a cornerstone of everything else we do. But if I ask you who your audience is the answer is not “Everyone.” It really isn’t.

Who is Everyone?

Everyone is the sum total of the human population. 7.7 billion people. And I can assure you that no product or no service that is ever made is going to have such universal appeal.

Granted people don’t often think of ‘everyone’ like that. But even if you zoom down onto the more macro levels of language groups or nations you still can’t find an everyone. Even if you look at the numbers of avid fans from the likes of Apple, of Microsoft, Coke or Nike.

Zoom in a little further on the UK. How many brands, people, products or things have a national awareness that reaches all 65 million of us? The only things I could come up with were the tea, or Brexit.

Your ‘everyone’ is not everyone.  

Finding Your Someone in the Everyone 

It’s likely that your organisation falls at this point into 1 of 2 options:

Option 1: You lucky people have a large organisation which genuinely has a broad audience, crossing generational and geographic divides like it’s nobody’s business. Think the NHS, train operators or Bake Off

Option 2: You have a small defined audience. It’s just that you just might not see it as such

So you have multiple audiences?

Option 1’s are faced with the challenge of appealing to ‘everyone’ which can all too often lead to appealing to no one.

It’s a hard balance but often you see is marketing which means whatever your website, your social media or your emails actually say, it’s a bland consensus driven average. Marketing’s answer to beige.

Making marketing for the masses means investing huge budgets, time and resource into something. Yet, it’s the same mass marketing which can be far more expensive and far less effective than if you isolated your marketing to the people that matter.

Segmenting your everyone

Finding the people that matter is often a technical data driven exercise to segment your audiences; breaking out your ‘everyone’ into its constituent parts. Instead of mass marketing in a single campaign you can invest your efforts identifying among your everyone people who are:

  • Non-customers – those who aren’t buying or engaging with you as much as others

  • Customers - Working at getting those already into you to be a little more into you to build closer relationships to turn them into better customers, or alternatively…

  • Advocates – working with groups and other collectives to help spread the word about what you do a little further

 TV advertising provides some ripe examples of big organisations zeroing onto different parts of their audience.

  1. Nike doing an incredible job at speaking to city folk

  2. Weetabix reworking their products and marketing angle trying to reach young professionals

  3. Halifax playing on 1980’s nostalgia to promote contactless cards

Everyone is Expensive

Achieving the above is downright hard. Running slick campaigns simultaneously to different audiences with relevant, finger on the pulse content which screams ‘We get YOU’ styled creative requires big budgets and a multi-talented skillset which many marketing departments just don’t have. But everyone still shouldn’t equal average.

Being bold without budget

Being faced with this particular challenge doesn’t mean producing marketing which is so bland and innocuous it becomes the digital marketing equivalent of Coldplay.  

There’s still no doubt going to be occasions where you really need to run a campaign which targets everyone. I think that the solution is to pick a personality – any personality and run with it. Easier said than done granted. Personality is partly borne from defined business visions and a permissive company culture which allows marketers to stray into the realms of creativity.

Marketers seem spooked at the prospect of mass marketing, so for what I can only think is a fear of failure. I find this often means the majority of marketing which is produced is so bland. Emojis are out. Full punctuation is in. Caution prevails.

But for whatever business – big or small, there is going to be a universal element which defines what you do and resonates with your everyone. This in itself is a topic far larger than I can cover but if you’re going to read anything more after this then make it The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems by Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen.

Some awesome huge audience campaigns which needed to appeal to everyone but till packed in the personality include:

So, you have just 1 audience?

Even option 2’s, often the small business think they appeal to everyone up and down the land, but dig a little deeper and actually their understanding of everyone is a micro, super specific audience. It’s just that the people you’re speaking to are so involved the wood and the trees merge into one. Their everyone is only in their reality, everyone.

If you’re a business owner then it’s likely you have this your DNA. Often SME’s are born from a person’s passion and so they speak the language of their audience. They can tell you about the latest industry updates and talk at effortless length about the intricacies of what they do, but what if your marketing something which you haven’t been around something since birth?

The marketers problem of getting to understand this everyone

As marketers we have the conundrum of joining businesses with no knowledge (or potentially passion) for the thing we’re there to market. Or if you work for an agency you have this challenge time and again every time a new client is allocated to you).

As a digital marketing consultant in the last year I’ve needed to get my head around services and products as varied as marketing postgraduate degree programmes in China, appealing to Occupational Therapists in the UK and newly engaged couples looking for luxury weddings in Scotland. Do I know anything about any of them? No. Am I passionate about them? Not naturally; but I try to be.

The trouble is breaking down the barriers and trying to quickly understand what everyone else in the business knows – all except you. All with the intention of being able to create marketing which speaks to your audience.

Identifying your everyone

Thankfully smaller defined organisations have the advantage that they don’t have to ruthlessly segment their audiences into dozens of defined groups. Often there’s 1 core group of customers and maybe a few more around the periphery.

Understanding this can be for your own benefit, or it can be for the purposes of the creation of audience personas. Either way there’s two caverns of information which you can mine for details.

Data – Everything from Google Analytics to sales records will show you the basic facts. Who is buying, where they’re from. How much. When. But it won’t show you why they buy from you or use your services.

People – Speaking to the business owner, the customer services team, new customers, old customers, customers who leave and customers who stay. Having meaningful conversations with all these people can help you to understand who this everyone is so you can understand.

The result? Personality which works.

There’s dozens of small scale organisations with limited budgets that have seriously good marketing because it resonates – because what they marketing they produce, and the context within which they do resonates. Examples include:

The Museum of English Rural Life on Twitter – Making the topic of agricultural history fun with hitting upon the idea of their Absolute Unit and realising sarcasm and discussions of relevant events can broadcast their message far more effectively on Twitter.

River Pools  – Take swimming pools. The perfect example of a content marketing campaign from Marcus Sheridan which truly understands the needs, frustrations and questions of people looking to buy a pool.

Bott Smartvan– putting their technical know how into digital, the Cornwall based company, Bott,  have created a full tool for people to fully customise the insides of their vans – whatever their trade.

All of those examples have only come from a thorough understanding of the audience.

Sometimes this level of understanding can take months, if not years, but understanding your everyone doesn’t just come from diffusion, slowly being exposed to your customers and through a mixture of trial and error you begin to align your efforts to creating something which works.

Understanding what resonates and what doesn’t is a skill which can be learnt and applied to accelerate that understanding – so that whether you have to produce something which appears to everyone in country, or a micro-niche of a handful of individuals you can produce something which works.



Facebook & Digital Marketing in 2018

Facebook & Digital Marketing in 2018

As a digital marketing consultant it's my job to recommend to clients what channels they should be investing their time and money online to generate returns. Over time, some digital channels rise, some fall, some adapt and some die. Clients and budgets react accordingly. It’s the natural life cycle of the web.

When it comes to Facebook though there's a pause.

Here you'll find why after a lot of thinking, anecdotal evidence, official announcements and real world results with clients I'd say this to anyone who asks about if they should use Facebook for marketing...

  • Facebook is still an effective marketing channel – for now

  • It’s not nearly as effective as it once was

  • I’d be seriously looking elsewhere for alternative channels

The latest news surrounding Facebook deals with such macro issues. Mind numbing numbers that impact over 1 billion people worldwide. Using it as a barometer for where to place your marketing well, isn’t that useful. So, what's my current thinking about Facebook when you look at it from the ‘micro’ level of UK business marketing?

We’ll split this into 2 – a review of the different elements which affect the ability to reach people organically using Facebook and the ability to target with Ads.

Organic Performance on Facebook

Building & Growing a Facebook Audience –

The screws on the Edgerank algorithm only seem to be becoming tighter and the ability to reach new people and turn them into fans is harder than it ever was. Hubspot have provided a pretty comprehensive history of the Edgerank's impact here. Among clients we've seen a significant decline in overall reach, particularly on competitions after the early 2018 engagement bait update.

It's meant the ability to grow your numbers and subsequently any organic reach, traffic or engagement is going to be made all the harder.

The alternatives? More investment - think video, chatbots and advertising – all effective but all more expensive. 

User Decline –

Short and sweet. People are using Facebook less, and fewer people are on Facebook. The latest headline - a further 3 million people across the EU have abandoned the channel after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The lower the users, the fewer the interactions, which leaves fewer people to share your posts with -  but your content production costs stay the same. Not critical in the short term but gut feel is that these numbers, in the UK at least aren't going to be recovering.

The question you have to ask yourself if you could be putting that effort and creativity into something which delivers long term results, say via YouTube, SEO and Content Marketing?

Facebook Lifecycles –

I wrote, back in 2013 about the lifecycles of Facebook users, and we’re starting to see those generational differences come into play. Those on the right side of 20 never used Facebook and apparently never will. Meanwhile teens are leaving in their droves. While anecdotally baby boomers and older are becoming firmly established. That’s not good or bad, but what is done is blur the lines for marketers and for clients. Instead of saying – Snapchat = Millenials, who is Facebook really for?

You can find out at the click of a button with audience insights but the mishmash of different ages all using the site for different reasons leaves a business scratching it’s head over how to reach their intended audience, without attracting those it doesn’t want to reach. 

Video –

with its ambitions to become the next YouTube, almost every video we’ve published has had a greater reach and levels of engagement than our image based posts. Good on the one hand. However, businesses are reluctant to invest even if the results are there. Why?

  • Investment in the kit and technology to film content is perceived to be difficult and expensive

  • The time and resource required to plan, film, edit and upload a video is much greater than 'traditional' posts

  • Locating the right staff to feature in the films is seen as an one demand too many on team members already long job descriptions.

It's also because the expectation was originally that back when Facebook was easy you could just whack up a stock photo and get the same results. Yet the shift for marketing departments and social media staff to also become mobile production units is one thing to many.

Video is being increasingly adopted for sure, but as a result through general lack of enthusiasm and effort we’re going to see a glut of mediocre video content in the year ahead. It’s another new frontier which is already being consumed by the very average.

Organic Performance on Facebook - In Summary

It's hard. It's only going to get harder. You need to be incorporating other Facebook features to generate returns. You need to be experimenting with other channels elsewhere. 

Advertising Performance on Facebook

Targeting Options –

The brilliant selection of targeting options are slowly becoming more narrowed. The changes in regulations meaning once well-used options are funnelling advertisers onto fewer options who subsequently start bidding on the same audiences. All this does it elevate the Cost Per Click. This may be changing with the latest announcement of the return of much loved targeting options such 'Field of Study' and 'Job Title' back into the mix - we'll have to wait and see.

Facebook Users –

With fewer people on Facebook - combined with a drop in Facebook ad interaction means its getting harder to reach not just the right people but seemingly anyone on the channel. Our saved audiences have all dropped by a few thousand in the last month - a a small percentage but enough to mean that the laws of supply and demand mean it’s going to be more expensive to get in front of fewer people. 

Cost per clicks (CPC's)

While not outrageous CPC's are increasingly becoming higher as a result of increased advertisers, fewer targeting options and fewer people to advertise to. The workaround has to consistently test and iterate new versions of ads running over months at a time to refine messages and creative to deliver returns for a lower price. Facebook’s dynamic creative option does a great job at this but it means more up front investment from a business to provide the same level of returns it previously experienced. 

Creatives –

Ad creative is becoming harder to create. The rules regulating what constitutes a good or bad ad are increasingly complex. Image text limits were one thing, but with the rise of video, those sweet edits now need to be 15 seconds or fewer, which makes the creativity needed to even run an ad so much greater than it once was. While not the deciding factor it all makes the digital marketers job that much harder in trying to keep both the user, the client and Facebook all happy.


Last but not least GDPR compliance in the EU has meant the loss of most remarketing email lists which were once a mainstay of Facebook advertising. The reasoning of the laws makes complete sense but most businesses have been bewildered by if they can event use their email data on Facebook and through a combination of fear and GDPR fatigue. Many have simply taken a different road instead of starting a fresh opt in email lists for future remarketing.

Advertising Performance on Facebook - In Summary

All said this isn’t to say Facebook should be abandoned. Your paid social strategy re-written. But it is harder to market to people on the channel – and much harder than it was a few years ago for a business to accomplish anything on there.

Creativity needs to be more creative, your ad targeting more sophisticated and your ad testing more intense. You should always be experimenting with small scale campaigns to understand the CPC, quality and quantity of traffic from other channels and seeing what these can do to drive your business. 

The Trouble With Rented Land -

All credit to Simon Swan on this one. Him and I have discussed at length the concept of rented land. In that long term, it's far better to grow and own your own digital assets (i.e your own website) rather than being at the mercy of another channel like Facebook.

Even without the changes of late, Facebook has also remained an incredibly volatile channel. The spirit of moving fast and breaking things still seems to hold true. What Facebook demands from a page or Ad account can change overnight leaving some winners but often even more losers. 

Now, this isn't as problematic if Facebook is just one part of your multi-channel marketing flywheel. The other areas can pick up the slack or replace it altogether. But I've seen an increasing number of businesses put so much effort (by effort I mean research, training, strategy and content creation) into Facebook that if their page goes down it would seriously affect them. 

Facebook is never going to go the way of Vine - seemingly switched off overnight. But if you can see that things aren't going well on a channel as important, or significant as Facebook and your results are declining even with more invested effort then you better make damn sure you've got somewhere else to turn to digitally to ensure your business can continue. 

Introducing The Way With Words

Introducing The Way With Words

Since I started freelancing last year I've had the goal of setting up multiple side projects - each one in a different industry - but somehow related to digital marketing. Today marks the launch of the first of them - The Way With Words. 

The Way With What? 

The Way With Words is a business dedicated to all things Verbal Identity. We'll be nailing down the verbal identity and verbal branding for some leading organisations who want a better tone of voice.

Verbal Identity? 

A collective agreement of how a business should write and brand their business to resonate with their intended audience. It's what makes brands serious, stylish, fun or frank - and everything in-between. It gives personality, consistency and the right voice for your business. 


Organisations spend inordinate sums on their websites, their creative and their strategy - but when it comes to copy? It's delegated to whoever has a free pair of hands. Just because you can type doesn't mean you can write - and let's face it poor copy undermines your entire offering. 

A kick-ass verbal identity - 

  • Gives a way to communicate to your audience in a way which they'll understand 
  • Gives your customer facing teams consistency across the way they communicate

Whose Involved? 

The Way With Words is a joint venture between myself and long term partner in crime, Jamie Harper. Jamie will be using his serious copywriting skills  with defining a organisations verbal identity while I'll be heading up the marketing and sales of the business.


Want to know more about what we're about? Then check out The Way With Words website to see what we can do. 

What 1 Year of Freelancing Has Taught Me...

What 1 Year of Freelancing Has Taught Me...

Hello you wonderful people. Last week marked a full 365 days since walking out of the office door and into full time self-employment. I've been covering off each month in my digital marketing vlog but this is to take some time out and look at the whole experience get down some sort of cohesive narrative of what the last year has been like - good, bad and otherwise....

TLDR = Has freelancing been a step in the right direction? Hell yes - but I haven't reached the final destination.

Digital Marketing Freelance Has Been...

Well, different. I'm aware of how non-committal that sound but what I expected and what the reality was for freelancing was just that - different. The things I thought would be most fun to work on, turned out to be the least. The clients I thought I'd have to fight tooth and nail for to win came easily, while winning smaller projects took serious effort. Projects I thought would be most interesting really weren't. You get the picture - different. So, to cover off the key areas...

The Reason I Went Freelance...

Was due to 4 key reasons:

  • The flexibility freelancing offered
  • The potential increased income
  • The potential to generate a passive income
  • Opportunities to do new things, meet new people and learn more.

So, did I achieve those things. First up...

Increased Flexibility? 

Sort of. I'm still very much in a pattern of working 8.30 - 6, Monday-Friday. It's when clients are most  active so that's when the calls, emails and work happens. However, and the big one here is the small pockets of flexibility you gain. I can have now have my haircut at a not so ungodly hour during the week. I can hit the gym for an extra 30 mins if a workout is flying. I can have an afternoon nap. All things which make the rhythm of the day and pace of life all the more satisfying,

Increased Income? 

I've made around 25% more than I was bringing in before. That's also considering the number of paid hours I've done have been fewer. I've been investing time each month into other projects and training that will help me charge more and create some services which will pay off in the long run. So it's a win on this front. 

Passive Income? 

Not quite. There's a few side projects I wanted to launch that have taken far longer in reality to bring together. This has been hampered by striking the very difficult balance of taking the next job which comes along - and blocking off that time, unpaid, to work on something bigger.

Greater Opportunities...

This has been the best bit. In the last year all of my highlights have come from new experiences. Things like running a photo shoot, flying to the states for a job, working with the National Trust, giving a talk at the Met Office and starting a new verbal identity business - The Way With Words. None of them would have come about without freelancing, meeting new people who in turn open you up to new opportunities, relationships and possibilities.


And from that I'm happier. The quality of my life is better.

There's drawbacks, right? 

This isn't the point where I sign off and jump in the pool from my remote working location. This year has been hard - not atrociously difficult but a word of warning - self employment is not all rosy. Here's why...

Long Hours

I've put more hours this year into my work than any other period in my working life. All for the greater good, but working long, unsocialable hours are part and parcel of what comes with flexible working. The work still has to be done. 


Others seem to find this harder, but going days at times without a meaningful conversation is lonely. Thankfully, I've got a cracking bunch of friends and clients who I see often enough for this to be only a rare issue. 

Cabin fever

Working from the same desk day after day is just like being in an office but without the commute. I've learnt I need to change the setting. 


One minute you don't have enough work. The next you're swamped. Trying to build plans to accommodate either end of the business spectrum has been a challenge.

Jack Of All Trades

The realisation that you need to do everything is a big learning curve. Managing accounts, converting sales, working with suppliers. They're skills I'm honing but they take twice as long up front when you have to learn how to do them.


With few other people around you, I find myself frequently second guessing myself, playing ideas over and over, unsure of whether I should do this or that, one thing or the other. Nagging self doubt that you're going to do the wrong thing is annoyingly persistent, but something that's gradually fading as I've realise I've been able to do this for as long as I have done already. 

Freelance Life Lessons

If the vlog comments are anything to go by there's good number of you thinking of handing in their notice to go self employed. So, to remind myself and for your info too here's 12 freelance life lessons for the last 12 months.

  1. Tell people you're self employed. It keeps you accountable. Plus, so many people have been genuinely interested in what I do and often end up turning into clients. 
  2. Set clear guidelines for yourself. What time you'll start work. When you'll finish. Structures and processes make things less daunting
  3. Learn From Others. Have mentors and people you can turn to when you need to learn. Other people have been there, done that and chances are - they're a damn site better doing it than you are. 
  4. Be Honest With How It's Going. Tell people if you're having a shitty month. I'm trying to embrace the high points and learn from the low.
  5. Work On Bigger Projects. Set some time aside to work on projects which are long-burners. It gives you something to strive towards and in time will avoid hand to mouth living. 
  6. Say Yes to projects which you might not have complete experience in doing. Collaborating with other experts helps you to learn new skills at the same time and helps you get a feel for what it's like in other areas of your business you might not have covered before. 
  7. Be Daring. I never would have got the gig with the National Trust had I not plucked up the courage to email them. The worst that can happen most times is that people say no. 
  8. Be Strict With Your Time - I spent too much of last year attending meetings, coffee catch ups and the like which lead nowhere. Time is the most precious finite thing for a business so qualify why someone wants to meet you and if neccessary politely decline. It works out better in the long run. 
  9. Keep On Top Of Accounts - Tax Returns are never easy
  10. Stay in Touch - Some of the easiest work I've picked up is from friends or clients I haven't worked with in years. You might end up being the right person at the right time if you stay in contact. 
  11. Don't Feel Guilty For Taking Time Off. People are allowed a break but learning that your business isn't going to explode a few hours away from the laptop is a practice I need to learn to be better at. 
  12. Breathe. Meditation has been one of the best things I've learnt to do in the last couple of years. It keeps you grounded and those moments where you feel entirely overwhelmed or are lacking confidence are suddenly not so scary. I use Headspace

I hope that helps. Shout if you have any questions. Here's to Year 2. 


Finding a Mentor

Finding a Mentor


Being a Mentor

Over the last couple of months I've taken on the challenge for being a mentor with my old uni the University of Reading.

It's very really useful for both me and my mentee as we talk about how they want to develop their career in marketing - both the technical nitty gritty like what you need to work on a PPC account but also the softer skills like what makes a good CV or creating a cracking covering letter; all those things which you might not get taught at university but are fundamental to your career. 

It's also shown me how far I've come since I graduated almost a decade ago - both in those technical areas like SEO and also those softer skills like talking to other people. When I first graduated I'll be completely honest it was difficult just to have a business conversation on the phone. 

Although it's been great to offer some insight in the digital marketing world I'm strongly aware of how much more I should and could learn.

Being the Mentee

The big question for me though is do I need a mentor myself? As in a paid up member of the business community who could offer me guidance. When it comes purely to the world of business I feel like I need to up my game. Things like sales, business development and the softer skills like building rapport with people - I still find like they should come more naturally, but they're all fundamental things which will help to develop my business. At this exact point in time I don't think that I quite need to hire someone as I realised I already have an amazing team of people to call on such as:

  • Friends and colleagues in the digital marketing world I can ask highly technical questions
  • Other people in the freelance industry I can ask business related questions to
  • Social networks - Twitter is amazing for getting answers to your questions
  • Creative wizards in their industries - the likes of:
    • Tim Ferris - for his podcast, website and incredible advice on lifestyle advice
    • Peter Mckinnon - for his awesome how-to vlog videos, plus some pretty incredible b-roll
    • Casey Neistat - for his joy for life and overall boundless creativity

Plus there's some incredible books out there. One particular area I've been exploring in the last 12 months has been all about Stoicism. Reading extracts from the likes of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius has been an incredibly grounding and humbling experience in that that the vast majority of anxieties that we think are unique to the 21st Century were very much alive and well millennia ago.

Some other sources which are well worth a read are:

All of these had the most incredible positive impact on my life. But is this enough? Can a real life person push your boundaries and take you to where you want to go? 

So, I wanted to open up the question to you - do you have mentors? If so, who are they? Do you find them useful? What do you use them for to learn and develop? If you have any thoughts, opinions on the matter then comment, email, tweet - communicate with me in one electronic form or another and it would be seriously good to hear your thoughts.

Speaking at The Met Office Digital Academy

Speaking at The Met Office Digital Academy

A few weeks back I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the Met Office Digital Academy. My specialist subject? A 50min talk on the How to Create Audience Personas. Aside from getting another opportunity to put my public speaking skills into practice, the gig gave me a fantastic insight into what a digital academy is and how it's helped the Met Office achieve such an effective digital transformation. 

Digital Academies - beautifully simple + beautifully effective

The Met Office Digital Academy is spearheaded by an incredible chap by the name of Simon Swan. Over the last few years Simon's been instrumental at managing the digital transformation of the Met Office. 

One element of the much larger digital transformation project is the Digital Academy, a fortnightly lunchtime session which brings in outside experts covering a wide range of digital topics which all align to the Met Offices's purpose. Every session is open to the entire Met Office. Yes, that means it's open to everyone, mixing scientists with SEO's to create something extraordinary.

That benefits of a digital academy like this are..

  • Both non-marketers and marketers alike get a chance to learn something new - applying their learning to their own roles or riffing on the ideas to create something entirely unexpected.  
  • People meet from other departments - breaking down the bureaucratic silos which emerge in large organisations, helping people to meet, chat and collaborate.
  • You can demonstrate the value of marketing - far from being 'the bods in marketing' it gives a name and face to the marketing team. This helps marketers build connections with the wider organisation - always useful when you need to call in a favour.
  • The positive feedback from the academy helps to explain and justify marketing to senior management. 

The concept of setting a digital academy is a beautifully simple one, and one which I'm keen to introduce to a number of my other clients who have similar challenges. If you're keen to know more on how to get an organisation to take marketing more seriously then I highly recommend having a read of Simon Swan's work on digital transformation. There's a great slideshare here to start you off.