What If The Press Release Exists For A Reason?

The process of releasing your story to relevant audiences will always be a part of building positive understanding around what you’re doing. But, in this respect, the press release is a verb frozen in noun’s clothing. It has become a clumsy part of antique furniture in the life of a modern PR professional.

For this reason, I’ve been pretty hard on it recently. But today, it struck me that below the seemingly benign, stagnant surface of this old template, there lies a potentially more interesting conceit.

The press release format wraps a story in a natural game, designed to tempt a journalist to free it for their readers.

Thinking social

When trying to foster a community, it’s common to create social objects that get them involved. These can be all sorts of material from writing to pictures to posts to questions or competitions.

The best ones take advantage of something called the Zeigarnik Effect. This is the theory that “people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks” — and will experience a natural desire to ‘close the loop’.

In the case of social objects, this means a piece of material that leaves a clear and simple action unperformed will invite the passive observer to become an active participant.

The aspiration

For a while, I’ve advocated replacing the traditional press release with more specific and modern pieces of material: for (a slightly stuffy) example, an announcement bylined to your leadership and supporting key facts as bullet points.

But the issue here is, by creating a more efficient and immediately interesting way to read the story, you have added a full stop. And the better a job you do at making that an interesting read, the more potent the effect of closing the circle becomes.

On some deeper level, you have made the journalist gently redundant and passive, instead of potentially provoking them to add value and feel empowered.

My point here is not that PRs are some kind of Machiavellian masterminds, swirling potions of datelines and quotes about excited CEOs. It’s that perhaps a fit has organically emerged between the mindset and goals of professional media and this common format.

I discussed an early draft of this piece with Chris Lake, who spent many years on the other side of the fence at Econsultancy, and now runs Empirical Proof. From his perspective, some of the beauty of the game is in this familiarity:

“Digestibility is a big deal. Games that have difficult to comprehend instructions are often abandoned before they are played, no matter how good they may be.”

When you see a press release, you know what you’re getting and you know what game you’re playing.

This is one of the challenges with innovation in the PR business. If the output is too unfamiliar to other stakeholders, you may have shot yourself in the foot.

I’ll be honest, I still hate it.

You’ll notice that I’m not saying the press release is a desirable thing or the best way to share a story. I still don’t believe it is, especially for anything beyond building media relations. And, of course it still relies on a story worth saving under the surface.

But I’ll give you this: if there’s one thing the press release does well, it’s creating that feeling of “how on earth did they do such a bad job of telling the real story here?”

For me at least, I can make peace with the release in that sentence by worrying less about the how and more about the why.

I originally published this piece over at The Holmes Report.

Augur on Qz

We wrote a piece about technology and culture in Qz.com.

Future technologies must be designed to free us from our screen addiction

Looking back at technology over the years, it’s funny how quaint the older stuff seems: From simple telephones to basic games, innovation used to focus on functionality, task and purpose.

Since then, tech has gone from Space Invaders to literal space invaders, with software eating the world and devices crawling their way up from our pockets and onto our bodies. But the real change has come from how they now hook into our minds.

Every digital experience is self-aware, tweaking and customizing itself to be better, more enticing—to suck users further in and increase its all important “active users” metric. But that begs the question: in this time of ruthlessly efficient entertainment design systems, are we still having fun?

Read the full article here

5 workflows that make Augur run

We work with plenty of companies who find (or invent) ways to do things faster and better – therefore, it’s quite natural that we do the same. Augur is an engineering operation as much as anything, constantly looking for better ways to work.

That means we’re nearly email free via Asana + Slack, we hack together improved intel and deliver it to ourselves and clients, the acronyms that matter to us are OKRs and KPIs, not AVE.

We work differently.

Here are five small examples of how we do that – all easy to set up and try out today.

1. IFTTT + Slack: The ‘travel’ button

IFTTT Do

IFTTT has long held promise to streamline the way you work. Set up a simple formula of IF x THEN y. So, IF I tweet a link, THEN save it to an Evernote note. Or, IF it’s going to rain today, THEN email me at 9am.

The catch is, until now it has been pretty hard to find many ways for it to make your day to day better. Until they released an iOS app: “Do Note”.

Using Do, we’ve set up a trigger so you can press a button and it sends an automated message to your team Comms platform (in our case, Slack) with your current location, saying “Max is on the move.”

It’s the benefits of presence without the invasiveness. It’s 2x taps away on mobile. It’s communication distilled into a status update so people know who they can contact and when.

2. Followup.cc

Having tried Boomerang, Signals, Yesware, I love the features of being able to see when people open your emails, click links and remind you to follow up messages that go unanswered. However, I don’t love the fact it’s pretty invasive, unreliable, and may affect your deliverability.

Followup.cc lets you receive a reminder on any email simply by CC-ing the time period you want. So you can CC “3hours@followup.cc” or “nextweek@followup.cc”. Because of how it’s built, you can use it on any platform, in any browser and with intuitive flexibility.

Never let an email become a dead end again.

3. Asana eats email

Expect this one to be controversial. If any client or important contact emails us, it immediately creates a new task in our management platform Asana, and archives the original message. If email ends up often being an informal to do list, created by someone else, this makes that formal.

So if a client emails, we’ll reply in the comments thread on the Asana task. For internal conversation, we simply don’t use email – or might, to literally delegate a task into someone’s to do list.

This requires discipline to kill any emails you are subscribed to that don’t come with clear tasks (which may be better simply aimed into a shared Slack channel anyway). But in another way, it turns them into tasks, so reading a newsletter becomes something you decide to do and schedule – or delete.

Communicate via calendar (or Calendly)

When they arrive at the pearly gates and St.Peter asks them if they have any regrets, there isn’t a single person that is likely to say they wish they spent more time scheduling meetings.

Calendar invites are simply a form of email. If you’re arranging a meeting, recommend a couple of specific times and send a placeholder calendar invite, which can then be juggled around. 80%+ of the time, that appointment will fit and they other person can simply accept it.

The rest of the time, you can simply alter the invite based on feedback and get the job done. Half of you will be shocked at how obvious this is and are already doing it — for the other half, you’re about to make everyone you arrange a schedule with a lot lot happier.

Alternatively, if you don’t feel weird about referring people to a kind of robot assistant, tools like Calendly let you ID potential meeting times and share a link for people to book their own time with you. It will only show times you don’t have a clashing appointment and is great for things like coffees.

Alfred for launching

How do you find a document, contact details or launch an app? For me, the answer is the same simple keyboard shortcut: CMD+ spacebar.

This launches Alfred, an app like OS X’s default Spotlight but on steroids. The vanilla functionality helps you find anything on your mac and can quicklaunch URLs. But it’s the extensions that make it simple.

  • The Google Drive extensions turns it into a real time instant search of your files

Alfred screen 1

  • Timezone immediately displays clocks from around the world

Alfred shot 2

  • Spotifious lets you find or control Spotify

Alfred screen 3

There are many many more for everything from currency conversion to creating Asana tasks to Fantastical calendar entries to adding reminders to writing emails. The sky’s the limit.

What’s next?

Even since I started drafting this piece, the number of little tools and finds we have moved onto is expanding. And we’re always looking for new toys.

If you find any of these useful or have tips of your own, let us know…

Techstars Fintech Demo Day: Challenges of the startup story

Having spent time in the thriving, frothing, exhilarating, exhausting, terrifying, illuminating world of tech startups myself at Tradeshift, I think Augur is lucky to have insight and a perspective that many agencies don’t.

Because it’s a world full of people doing the next wave of interesting, important work, Augur proudly dedicates time to mentor programmes for both TechStars Barclays Accelerator and the Canary Wharf based Level 39. It sometimes feels about as close as you can get to being a VC without being a millionaire.

Today’s Techstars demo day demonstrated a complex side to this world that particularly leaps out at us: the difficulty of telling a distinct and compelling story.

Here’s what we noticed from the ten presentations.

1. Where’s the depth to your story?

My guilty habit is trying to find the thing a founder doesn’t want to tell you. In real life, it can make me seem like a cold bastard — but as a mentor, I think that’s one of the most valuable things we can provide.

In practice, what this also means is if you don’t tell me the very serious things, I’ll suspect there’s a reason you aren’t. God knows, your story and communications are going to be scrutinised from every angle at this stage of the company. We can help plug those holes (even if it’s possibly by bashing at chinks in the armour.)

This also extends to how you construct that story. It’s all too easy to fall into the generic — size of market, challenge being solved, team and experience. Sitting ten presentations back to back really reveals the underlying genre. Naturally, fitting a model helps and often works. But maybe there’s an opportunity to lay the icing on the cake and gain a memorable advantage. Don’t miss it.

2. Differentiator difficulty

Is it enough to be so close to existing, great companies but be on mobile or on the blockchain? In the latter case especially, there’s a weird chasm where what you’re describing can be so so simple (a marketplace for Bitcoin) that it seems both a bit meek — and curiously impossible. I.e. If such basic things haven’t been done yet, what’s the big looming challenge I don’t know about?

One of the most interesting companies that spoke today let its advantage via blockchain remain almost entirely implicit. This is because there was a match between the concept of the company and blockchain as the tool to solve it. That makes a big difference vs saying you’re simply building a tool/ service for that platform.

3. Is technology the solution?

When you have to set up a challenge and solution for slides, you can easily set up a straw man and knock it down. In the real world, resistance to technology is an everyday and sometimes near insurmountable nightmare.

There’s no doubt buyers are more advanced than they were in years gone by but this journey still feels work in progress. There’s also something intriguing in how technology can become a panacea for those with a mildly entrepreneurial mindset, sitting in their job and wondering “why is this harder to use than Facebook”?

Having just the right balance of understanding how technology businesses are different and also having spent years in a particular vertical where you see a specific and non-obvious problem is rare.

Both today and from speaking with her previously, Everledger co-founder Leanne Kemp was a remarkable demonstration of this. Market specific experience advantage in her background, already working to the bone to get the work done, already working with the right kind of people, history of previous companies. A definite one to watch.

In a world where you hear confident setup slides, market value etc you start to rely on these kinds of things as indicators of the real ones to watch.

The Game of B2B

Despite all these challenges,the companies really demonstrate why unsexy B2B tech, including fintech, retail tech and more, is thriving right now.

Even with the potentially weakest of these concepts, they are speaking an ultra clear language. It’s not about getting 100m consumers to download an app or buy a fizzy drink, it’s about targeting a clear and specific group of valuable companies and helping them make or save 100s of millions of dollars.

That’s a game of value we’re really delighted to see continue to thrive and play our own small part in.