About Rob Blackie Digital Strategy

I help people put together strategic marketing and communications, particularly around digital and social. I currently spend most of my time focused on biotech.

Digital strategy – helping organisations model the value of digital and understand what they should (and shouldn’t) do.

Driving excellent delivery – restructuring processes and team, cutting costs and driving high performance.

Competitive messaging – combining lessons from branding and political techniques.

I have been published or quoted in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Management Today, Accountancy Age, Campaign, PR Week, The Guardian and The Independent. I am a regular columnist in The Drum, focusing on Social data.

Evan Davis, now presenting Radio 4’s PM programme, said of my early work on messaging:

“[He has] an ideology and an axe to grind. But the grinding is so gentle, it is easily disregarded and the underlying points adopted as one’s own.”

Scientists should use social media – says science

Scientists with more than 1,000 followers have more impact.

Scientists who care about their reputation should use social media. And if they care about their impact.

Darwin once said that “general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as the original work”. Today he would be on Twitter.

If you are active on social media, your work has a better chance of being cited. But it also helps you have an impact. Once you get active on social media, you are more likely to influence policy makers and the media too.

So what can scientists learn from the science of social media?

Twitter drives citations

A recent study shows that Twitter can drive citations. 112 scientific papers were randomly divided into two groups. Thoracic Surgery Social Media Network members tweeted one group. The other group was kept as a control. Tweeted articles got significantly more citations than those that weren’t. On average they got 3.1 more citations, compared to 0.7 for the control group.

These articles also had a higher Altmetric score. This is a measure of attention which includes social media and news mentions. Since these articles had been tweeted more as part of the experiment, this is less surprising. However it is likely that these articles also had more policy and media impact.

Open access articles got more citations. As did those tweeted by people with lots of followers. Again this is unsurprising. If people can’t read your article, they are unlikely to cite it. And the more people who see it, the more impact.

Scientists shouldn’t see this as a reason to just use Twitter. It’s also a reason to engage more broadly. If people read about your article in an email, on your website or LinkedIn, then it’s more likely it will get cited.

Social media influences media and policy makers

But social media doesn’t just influence other scientists. It also increases the chance of influencing everyone else. Groups as diverse as investors, politicians and journalists used Google search. It is the first tool they use to get up to speed on new topics. This sounds obvious. But it influences everything they learn.

These groups typically find media coverage, Wikipedia or expert websites.

Wikipedia usually ranks highly. And social media indirectly influences search rankings. It also directly influences people, of course.

Brunswick's 2020 Digital Investor Survey shows that Wikipedia is a major source of information for investors.
Source: Brunswick Digital Investor Survey 2020

Wikipedia influences scientific citations, a 2017 study shows. Experts wrote new Wikipedia articles, again in a randomized trial. Nobody had written about each subject previously. A new article was posted for half of the subjects, randomly chosen.

The results per impressive. Academic papers referenced in these articles had more citations two years later. This effect is so large that the paper estimated that Wikipedia influences 1/300 words in scientific papers.

People Google stuff. They find Wikipedia. And then they cite it in their own academic papers.

This study also found that Wikipedia helps spread research to the broader world. Policy makers and others aren’t, generally, reading academic papers. But they are researching things. And they often find Wikipedia.

Impact needs reach

Just putting things online isn’t all you need to do. It needs to get to the right people. And enough of them.

It’s common sense that you need to reach people to have an impact. It doesn’t have to be many though. Scientists should be aiming to reach thousands of people, not millions.

A good rule of thumb comes from a 2018 analysis of scientific Twitter account followers. This found that scientists who get more than 1,000 Twitter followers, appeal to a much more diverse audience.

As their audience expands so does their potential impact. They get to policy makers, media and doers like conservation bodies.

How to use social media

So what are the crucial things that scientists can do?

The full answer would take a book. But here are six simple things you can start on today:

  1. Make sure your articles are on your website, explained in plain English.
  2. Use LinkedIn. Here’s a great recent example from Beth Thompson at the Wellcome Trust.
  3. Create an email list. Experts often subscribe to email newsletters.
  4. Use Twitter to engage fellow experts.
  5. Write on Wikipedia.
  6. Try and reach more people. Quality comes with (a bit more) quantity.

Thanks to Ben Groom for his comments on an earlier version of this post. They aren’t incorporated but they have made me think about a follow up post on how policy making actually happens. For a preview of that read Ben’s useful paper on how the UK government changed its policy on discounting the future.

Beat Covid with persuasion

Most of us aren’t scientists or doctors. But we are, potentially, spreading Coronavirus. So we all need to change our behaviour. Simple behaviours like washing your hands or social distancing.

The problem is that many of us haven’t changed our behaviours yet. And even if we have, we need to stick to those changes.

The problem: Slow behaviour change

One in ten people think there is no threat from Coronavirus, and almost 20% of us refuse to wash our hands more. Only 31% think that avoiding going out is a very effective way to stop Coronavirus. An international poll recently found that the UK was less worried about Coronavirus than any other country polled. While people are starting to change their behaviour, it’s far too slow.

We need people to change their behaviour. And it’s likely we are going to need this change for the rest of 2020.

So how do we do it?

The good news is that ideas spread like viruses.

And that gives us two areas to target. Both inoculating people against bad ideas, and making good ideas more infectious.

Inoculate with good ideas

First of all we need to inoculate people against bad ideas. Making bad ideas less infectious.

Fifty years of psychological research shows that it’s hard to change people’s minds.

So the best way to stop disinformation is to inoculate people with a good belief.

Don’t tell people what the myths are.

Instead give them something true, but wrapped in emotion.

Infection and mortality rates are the language of scientists and politicians. We need to speak the language of persuasion. That means showing the emotional risk to people who don’t feel personally threatened.

For instance ‘How would you feel if you accidentally infected your granny?’.

This risk is a serious concern among experts, and it’s implicit in government communications.

But when we bring the risk to the level of one person, it works better. That’s why charities put up posters with a single child in them, not the millions who need help.

Make change interesting

Secondly we need to make behaviour change interesting. More infectious.

It’s really easy to spend a lot on advertising that isn’t noticed.

On average British people saw the Get Ready for Brexit campaign 55 times. Yet 42% of people didn’t remember it. We can’t afford for 42% of people to not change their behaviour.

The government’s new ads are an improvement. But relying on a few overstretched civil servants and their ad agencies isn’t enough to reach the full range of British society.

Repeating the same messages for months on end will also be extremely boring. In fact you are probably bored of the handwashing message already – and it’s only been a few weeks.

Instead government should create a few simple briefs around the biggest problems, and crowdsource the answer. The Wash Hands Poster generator is a great example, but why isn’t government taking the best of these and amplifying them across channels?

The brilliant creativity of Britain’s young people on TikTok can entertain older people on Facebook.

Get the right messengers

Influencers aren’t just young people though. We sometimes forget that the messenger matters to older people too.

And the government aren’t always the right people.

In 1981 the government had to decide who to communicate vital information in the event of a nuclear attack. They chose Kevin Keegan and Ian Botham. A footballer and a cricketer.

Neither knew much about nuclear war.

Because we don’t always pay attention to experts, even if we know we should.

A particular priority has to be older people. While most now say they are willing to self-isolate, it will be hard to maintain this for long periods.

If you want older people to self isolate effectively then the Queen & David Attenborough are the perfect messengers.

They are known and loved by virtually the whole country. David Attenborough is liked by 86% of people – and is associated with popular science.

When Attenborough & Windsor self-isolate and start doing video calls, people will pay attention. When the Queen keeps away from other people, not just Prince Charles, it will send a powerful signal that Coronavirus is a danger to older people.

 And when David Attenborough washes his hands and tells other people to, it will reach people who don’t trust the government.

The government should start a programme specifically targeting celebrities. Every foolish statement from a pop star creates problems that need to be undone. And every government message they carry is free advertising.

And one final challenge for the government’s campaign.

Don’t forget NHS staff

You can’t tell who has been infected with a bad ideas

We also have to be careful assuming that everyday experts like doctors are always well informed.

I did research on flu vaccine 10 years ago. NHS staff didn’t understand the benefits.

I was astounded to find that they often believed vaccine myths. Unsurprisingly only 35% got vaccinated.

The good news is that over the last ten years the NHS has doubled it. Today over 70% get the flu jab.

How did they do this? Through a highly effective NHS communications campaign.

The lesson for Coronavirus?

Inoculate with good messages. And just because it’s important, don’t think that people will listen to you.

This article originally appeared in Campaign.

Donald Trump’s comms

The text of my speech to the Business Insider Inside Trends conference in Warsaw can be found here:
https://twitter.com/robblackie_oo/status/1179378135365750789

“Fascinating thread on the President’s personal marketing strategy”
Zach Purser-Brown, Washington Post

“Fascinating thread on political communication by that rarest thing, someone who knows what he’s talking about”
Rowland Manthorpe, Sky News

“Great thread on Trump’s communications advantage, from someone who knows a helluva lot about this stuff”
John Burns-Murdoch, The Financial Times

Media coverage mid-late 2019

You can find my recent media coverage here:

Recent articles

I regularly write on digital strategy. Here are my latest articles:

  1. Facebook needs a white hat Cambridge Analytica – in Techcrunch
  2. Smart speakers are over-hyped – in The Drum
  3. 2018’s best US political ads
  4. Facebook’s next scandal – underaged kids on social networks
  5. Seven rules for Remainers if they want to win a People’s Vote – in The New Statesman
  6. Single issue campaigning and the Polarisation problem – in Quillette
  7. How many people see your data in each channel? In The Drum

How to fight fake news – first thoughts

Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post

I am working on three projects fighting fake news. Here are some common challenges that we face. And some initial thoughts on solutions.

The fake news challenge: Brain hacking

Creating and spreading fake news has become easier in recent years. Virality is a good metaphor for how ideas spread, real or fake.

For fake news to spread it must:

  1. Spread easily.
  2. Spread quickly.
  3. Reach a lot of people. In practice this is either being seeded to a lot of people, spread by media organisations or with paid advertising.

This post focuses on the first point – how to create (or disrupt) effective ideas. The second and third points can largely be achieved by regulation and self-regulation of media and social networks.

Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post
Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post

Why does fake news work?

Fake news works because most of the time the human brain’s emotional side makes decisions unconsciously. The conscious, rational, side simply post-rationalises these decisions.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor is that the conscious brain thinks it’s the Oval office, when in fact it’s the press office.

The brain’s vulnerabilities create many opportunities for fake news. Seven problems that we have seen frequently are listed below, along with possible solutions.

 

Seven fake news problems and solutions

  1. Speed

First impressions matter. Even people who find out that a fake story isn’t true will often remember the fake story. And it’s really easy to make up stories if you are unethical, compared to reporting the truth. It’s simply faster.

Solutions

Consider creating a team to spot, evaluate, and react to appropriate stories. This team can try and kill fake news early on. Ideally this is linked to traditional media to reduce amplification of fake news.

Tools such as Zignal may allow early identification of relevant issues so they can be countered early.

Often it’s impossible to be fast enough though. Then inoculation is needed. This means that if people see a fake story, they are less likely to believe it. For instance Barack Obama in 2008 innoculated against accusations of being a Muslim by stressing his Christianity, rather than debunking claims that he was Muslim.

 

2. Repetition

Familiarity with a message makes it more memorable. This is especially true of people who aren’t expert. Which is most of us, most of the time. So a message that gets repeated becomes familiar, and remembered.

Solutions

Focus on reducing the reach of fake news, to minimise the number of people who see a message. That means, often, ignoring a potential fight. Something that can be hard on social media.

Avoid repeating our opponent’s messages.

 

3. Ease

The easier people find it to watch or read a message, the more credible it is. That’s because our brains confuse the two things.

Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and memes all increase ease. As do clear fonts, design and rhymes.

Solutions

Try to create content in the simplest language possible. For instance, I’ve rewritten this blogpost several times to make it more readable. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than it was when I first wrote it.

Also consider partners like Buzzfeed, who are good at simple explanations of complex issues.

 

4. Multi-channel

People who see a message in several places, perceive it as more credible. Partly this is because there are more opportunities for you to trust the source.

Solutions

Monitor across a range of online and offline channels. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will usually be the key social media channels. But less mainstream sites such as discussion forums, Tumblr and email lists can also be important.

 

5. Authority cues

If a message looks like it comes from a credible source (e.g. a news channel) then it is perceived as more credible. Unfortunately it’s now easy to photoshop authority.

Solutions

Ensure content includes authority cues, such as your spokespeople appearing on TV.

Also help the public to spot fake authority cues. Unfortunately it’s easy for fake news promoters like RT to pretend to be real news organisations. But they look like them, with TV studios and other serious news cues.

6. Social proof

If a friend shares a Facebook post you are dramatically more likely to remember the content.

Solutions

Use social media sharing as a metric to prioritise which fake news to address. And consider who is sharing your content. Is it just your hardcore fans, or are you reaching beyond them?

 

7. Messenger effects

We are more likely to notice messages from people we know and trust. These might be traditional celebrities or people who have become popular online. Of course this gives power to people who may not be experts.

Endorsements can be faked too, as Martin Lewis has found out recently.

Solutions

Innoculate celebrities through a programme focused at them. Contact celebrities to discourage them repeat spreading misinformation.

 

Credit: There’s a lot of good academic research on fake news at the moment. I particularly recommend RAND’s recent report.

Fight fake news in Russia

How do you fight fake news? There are lots of options. But taking real news into Russia is rarely mentioned.

I’ve put here an updated blogpost that I originally wrote back in March 2014. It gives some simple ideas about how to use Facebook advertising against Putin.

The problem: Russia is full of fake news

It’s well known that the Russian government maintains political support by suppressing the independent media, and deliberately making political discussion online difficult. Russia is likely among the top countries in the world for people believing fake news.

So I wondered if there was a way to counter this, right in Putin’s backyard.

Using Facebook ads to fight Putin

In early March 2014 I started a small personal campaign to bring unbiased news to Russian speaking residents of Sevastopol, , the capital city of Crimea.

Finding unbiased news was simple. I found the Russian language pages of the BBC website and then set up Facebook advertising targeted at people who lived in Sevastopol.

Facebook advertising is quick to set up and reasonably cheap. Best of all it’s good at targeting people in specific locations.

Back then I thought it was a good time to extend this to Moscow (where Russian public opinion is split on the war) and to eastern Ukraine.

Results

My ads reached 5,992 people in Sevastopol, resulting in 171 people clicking through to the BBC website – a fairly typical rate. In other words a reasonable number of Ukrainian or Russian residents. I paid an average of just under 10p per click – not unreasonable.

I hope that the impact might be magnified if people in Crimea then get into the habit of using unbiased news websites.

How to do this

Setting up Facebook advertising is easy – just follow this guide. Even if you’ve never done it before you’ll be able to set it up in 15 minutes .

If you want to get more ambitious there are alternatives for geo-targeted ads. Facebook is good because of its reach and ease to set up. YouTube also works well.

This gives you an idea of the sort of picture you should see:

Facebook ads to fight fake news in Crimea
Facebook ads to fight fake news in Crimea

Why isn’t Apple Pay taking off?

Google, Apple, Facebook (GAF)* are all trying to crack mobile selling.

Yet none of them have. And the signs are that they won’t crack it in Britain soon.

Why is this?

Well it’s not an impossible nut to crack.

China has done it. Recently there have been reports of cash disappearing in Chinese cities as people use their phones to pay for everything. Restaurants, taxis, coffee shops and even buskers take mobile money.

And Kenya’s been developing mobile money for years, well ahead of European markets.

But western markets, especially Britain, are going in a different direction.

Relatively few people use GAF to pay for anything except the odd app on Android Play or the Apple Appstore.

It’s not like GAF aren’t trying. Every few months there’s a new attempt to get us to save our card payment details on our phones. Then we could easily pay by waving our phone.

For instance Apple have recently added made payment via Watch easier. Apple Pay integrations reportedly increase checkout conversion rates by 200%. And this sort of dramatic increase in conversions from Apple Pay has been reported in many comparable situations where people save their card details.

But there’s been plenty of evidence in recent months that most people aren’t converting to Apple Pay and its competitors.

Ofcom 2017 Communications Market Report shows that only 5% of people have tried mobile payment, up 1% on the year.

I was intrigued by this. So I asked Transport for London (TfL) – who deal with millions of transactions annually covering £1.7bn. You’d expect that London as the leading city in the UK, itself one of the leading ecommerce markets globally, would be a major user of Apple Pay.

London Transport shows Apple Pay’s problem

TfL’s figures show something different.  

TfL statistics on Apple Pay vs. Contactless
TfL statistics on Apple Pay vs. Contactless.

They show that only 1.5% of payments on the London underground system are by Apple & Android Pay. That compares to 17.7% by contactless cards. That’s 12 times more payments through cards than contactless. The balance in case you are wondering is people using London’s Oyster payment card – of whom 80% are topping up by bank card.

In other words people have the choice to use Android and Apple Pay, but they just don’t use it.

Figures from UK Finance, a trade body, show contactless payment using cards rocketing. 34% of card payments are now contactless, and use is increasing fast, up 130% in the last year.  Britons turn out to find contactless payment even better than mobile payments.

Why isn’t Apple Pay taking off?

It seems to be the value of being first mover for contactless cards.

As Scott Thompson, Insights Director at Publicis Media says, “If you use a card (Oyster or credit/debit) and it doesn’t work, it looks like there is a problem with the card or the reader. Everyone has experienced it, so you get some degree of sympathy. But if you use a phone (or worse, a watch) and it doesn’t work, you just look like an idiot playing with technology that doesn’t work and getting in everyone’s way.”

I’m also told by industry experts that the RFID technology in contactless cards tends to work slightly faster and more reliably than the type of NFC used in phones.

So the key thing is practical. Contactless payment comes automatically with 111m cards being used in Britain. And there are 506,000 terminals that take payment. That means almost everyone can take one out of their wallet and pay.

A contactless vending machine in London
A contactless vending machine in London

 

You’ll virtually never wave your card at the bar of a pub for them to look at you confused. While if you wave your phone or your watch, they might look confused.

So while the barriers to people using Apple & Android Pay aren’t high, they are just high enough to slow their adoption. Probably not forever. But a good reminder that just because you might think that a technology should take off, it’s not the same as it going mainstream.

*Amazon is missing from this list because they do have large numbers of logged in users for their app. And, currently, they aren’t trying to be a facilitator of buying anything on any device. You still need to go through their website or app for everything.

Digital strategy resources

I’m often asked what I read to keep up to date. So here’s a list of resources I regularly use and people I follow on Twitter. It goes alongside the best email lists that I subscribe to.

Ofcom Communication Market Reports

Ofcom’s Communication Market Reports, out annually, are a treasure trove of useful and credible data on UK consumers.  They also do a lot of other good research, particularly on  telco and media.

Use of major Google services from Ofcom 2017.
Use of major Google services from Ofcom 2017.

We Are Social trends

We Are Social’s trends and statistics decks are a  fast way to grab international comparisons. Look here for things like the number of people using Facebook in India versus Indonesia. As ever check you are comfortable with the sources before using.

The Made to Stick Blog

Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick is a highly readable book about making memorable ideas. They explain their SUCCESs model for stickiness here.

Think with Google resources

Google Think is vastly ahead of their competitors in producing useful research. Unsurprisingly it’s largely based on substantive original data, often from the backend of Google products. Their Tools section is particularly useful with resources on data sources, emerging technologies and consumer insights.

Twitter have also recently released a useful set of resources for agencies.

Mary Meeker’s internet trends

Mary Meeker’s internet trends deck is read by most of the digital industry. It’s not quite as useful as it once was, but it is still unmissable. It is horribly ugly, and absurdly long, but always full of surprising insights and data.

Ogilvy Trends

My former colleagues Marshall Manson and James Whatley have been doing an annual trends deck for a few years now. It’s focused on a few big trends each year. Last year they focused on chatbots, ethics, video , Twitter’s troubles and Facebook’s metrics problem. And they now mark their own homework from previous years, which is fun to watch.

People I read almost everything by*

Alex Steer

The Chief Strategy Officer of Maxus has the best thought out views on measurement in the marketing industry.

Ian Leslie

Ian Leslie is a former advertising planner. Now working as a journalist doing for in-depth industry analysis that’s rarely found elsewhere.

War On The Rocks

Consistently War on the Rocks has great blogposts like this one on ‘thinking outside the box’. They come from a US military and national security perspective but with relevance to all sorts of challenges. The associated excellent Bombshell podcast by by Radha Iyengar, Loren D Schulman and Erin Simpson is one of my favourite podcasts.

Anjali Ramachandran

As well as being a top media strategist, Anjali founded Ada’s List – which works to get more women in tech. And she provides me with lots of South Asian knowledge that I’d miss out on otherwise.

Mark Ritson

Professor Ritson continues to entertain us with his smart analysis of bullshit in marketing. And admirably he regularly admits to being wrong.

Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway’s L2 consultancy has done a very successful job of producing league tables and case studies for everything from luxury handbags to soap powder. But he also does great analysis of how Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are changing our world. He sometimes overstates certainty of his conclusions, but it’s hard to argue with most of his big picture.

Byron Sharp

Byron Sharp is infuriating and slightly trollish. But his work critiquing badly thought out marketing strategies is crucial, and anyone working in the industry needs to understand it – even if you don’t buy into all of his conclusions.

Rory Sutherland

Rory is not just one of the most entertaining people in the marketing world. He’s also a fount of smart ideas and challenges to the usual way of doing things.

Behaviour change on the South Bank
Behaviour change on the South Bank. Not quite enough provocation to be Rory Sutherland’s work but close.

Theo Bertram

Theo Bertram used to advise Blair and Brown. Now he does brilliant anecdotes about his time with them. Not just entertaining but also excellent instructions on the mechanics of messaging.

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Karin Robinson

Karin has been my deputy twice now. More importantly she is great on social data – for instance uncovering big holes in Twitter’s gender data. She has also been a leading light in Democrat’s Abroad for over 10 years so is excellent on political messaging, US politics generally and grassroots campaigning.

Richard Shotton

Richard tweets on behaviour change and marketing. His simple twist on most Twitter is to screengrab books he’s read. A small thing but it provides a bit more depth than a typical Twitter feed. His guest editing of the APG blog is a superb reading list on behaviour change.

Venkatash Rao

Venkatash Rao consistently raises difficult questions about technology with thoughtful answers and links to further reading.

Ali Goldsworthy

Ali is on the Board of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and knows a lot about smart philanthropy and targeted political spending. We sometimes write articles about how to win political campaigns.

Dennis Yu

Dennis is one of the most expert people in the world on how to target Facebook advertising. I work with him occasionally.

The Influence at Work team

Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin provide practical inspiration on how to use behaviour change science for good. Steve’s also been an occasional collaborator of mine and client. If you’ve not read their books, you should.

And lots of other resources

This list of other useful free resources from the Nextweb is worth a look.

Digiday constantly provides a good stream of interesting and useful news.

 —-

*This excludes most of my political reading which is not really relevant to most readers of this blog. On politics I highly recommend market researchers like James Morris, Marcus Roberts, Ian Warren. And John Oliver and Trevor Noah do superb work making complex policy simple.