Sunday
May142017

Branding and marketing through content

SEVERAL years ago when I was at an e-book conference in New York, I attended a talk given by an industry analyst who told a roomful of authors and publishers that in the near future: “Your competition is not going to be just each other but also consumer brands.”

She went on to explain that big corporations, especially those which provide goods or services to consumers, are starting to invest in content because that’s the new form of marketing that companies are embracing.

That was several years ago. Today, content marketing has taken the US by storm and almost every major consumer-centric corporation has some kind of content marketing initiative, be it a blog, online magazine, e-book series, podcast or a series of online videos.

Just as the analyst predicted, content has indeed become the hot new approach to marketing. And this is quite a radical change from the way marketing has been done for decades.

So, what is content marketing, exactly? In a nutshell, it is about the use of content for the purpose of marketing and branding. And it’s different from advertising or public relations in three profound ways.

Firstly, advertising or public relations campaigns have a start and end date for the campaign. With content marketing, it’s an ongoing thing, a continuing narrative.

Secondly, unlike advertising — considered a “push” approach in which information is presented to consumers in the hope of catching their attention — content marketing is consider a “pull” approach which rely on consumers seeking out the content. It’s a more immersive experience.

Thirdly, unlike advertising, which appears in media channels, content marketing materials appear on a company’s own channels, such as its website or social media pages.

It should be mentioned that content marketing is seen as an additional form of marketing and not as a replacement for traditional advertising. In other words, it’s something that companies are using to complement their advertising strategies.

THE APPROACH

While advertising’s approach is to capture attention, content marketing’s approach is to provide materials that educate, enlighten and entertain consumers. And the best types of content marketing materials are the ones that can go viral over social media.

An obvious question is what type of content should a company offer? A natural type of content would be information that can be derived from the company’s domain expertise. For example, a car company could produce videos on safe driving or car maintenance. A diaper company can produce articles about baby care. A sauce or ingredients company could produce an e-cookbook of recipes.

It’s important though that the content does not hard-sell the company’s products or services. In fact, it shouldn’t even be doing any soft-selling. Content marketing is about exposing consumers to a brand’s message through the use of genuinely appealing content.

A really good example of content marketing (or “branded content” as some might call it) is BMW’s series of short films titled The Hire released on the Internet in 2001 and 2002. Each of the eight films was about 10 minutes long and featured famous directors and actors. The films featured BMW cars but the story was not about the cars per se. They had interesting plots and consumers loved them. In a span of four years, the series garnered over 100 million views. It’s hard to imagine BMW getting anywhere close to that kind of viewership if the videos had been advertisements.

GENERATING CONTENT

The next question is how do companies generate such content? Advertising agencies are experts at producing advertisements but they are not publishers. They are used to producing short content designed to attract attention. They are not used to producing long-form narratives. So ad agencies are really not the best places to go for content marketing.

In the US, because content marketing is already established there are plenty of content marketing agencies whose expertise is precisely to produce content marketing materials. Usually they are staffed with writers and editors who do not come from the advertising industry but from journalism.

Some corporations engaged in content marketing have even started to hire former journalists. Journalists are ideal for producing content because that is what they are trained to do. They know how to gather information and craft an interesting and compelling narrative out of the material they gather in a way that will appeal to the general public.

Content marketing has taken root in the US and it’s no longer a hard-sell for companies to invest in innovative content for marketing and branding purposes. In Malaysia, it’s a different story. Few companies are engaged in this although there is some evidence that it’s starting to happen.

CATCHING ON

The other day, while I was browsing through my Facebook feed, I came across some sponsored content about Malaysian “super food”, courtesy of an insurance company. True to the content marketing ethos, the article was all about healthy food and there was no hard or soft-selling of any insurance products within the article.

I was intrigued enough by it to be “pulled” into the company’s website where I found related content, also about healthy eating. These were all real articles with useful information. Of course I was fully aware of the company’s brand though, since the article was housed on its own website. So, some local companies are beginning to get it. I do think it will take a while for content marketing to become a trend here. Local companies are used to the concept of advertising and public relations. They are not used to investing in content, which traditionally does not have a marketing function.

And when they do test the waters of content marketing, I’m pretty certain that more than a few will not be able to resist the temptation of incorporating some sales messages into the content they offer. That would be a mistake as it would turn off consumers who will see it as fake content.

Remember, content marketing is not about peddling products. It’s about generating useful, interesting and appealing content that consumers will enjoy. The fact that it’s sponsored (with the company’s branding on it) is fine. Just don’t try to disguise advertising as content.

Just as how other digital marketing trends eventually found their way to our shores, I’m certain that in due time content marketing will become all the rage here too.

One thing’s for sure, like blogs and social media, content marketing is not a fad. It’s a revolution in the way products and services are being marketed and local companies would do well to start taking notice of it.

Sunday
May072017

E-books: download or read online?

THE Internet has democratised media so that anyone can create their own content very easily.

Enterprising video enthusiasts can create their own YouTube channel and generate a huge following.

Those who prefer audio content can create podcasts. Those who wish to have a soapbox to expound on their views can create their own online news sites and blogs.

And so it is with books. There was a time when you had to secure a book publishing deal to get a book out. Now, you can very easily create your own e-book. The question is what format should you adopt?

In the past, I’ve written about how e-books are the last man standing when it comes to media content. Consumers love to watch movies and listen to music digitally. But many people still like to read books the old fashioned way — via print-based physical books.

I think it’s fair to say that e-books are still at a nascent stage in Malaysia, although it has taken off quite well abroad, where Kindle books (by Amazon.com) are very common. I still believe it’s just a matter of time before e-books become mainstream in Malaysia, although that might still be a few years away.

Still, if you are an aspiring author but don’t have the connections to get a book publishing deal - which is becoming harder and harder to secure these days — it’s worth looking into self-publishing via e-books. Companies that want to make full use of content marketing should also consider publishing e-books that help promote awareness of their brand.

In this article, I will try to give a broad overview of where the e-book industry stands right now and what all aspiring authors should consider before making a decision on format.

But first things first: What exactly is an e-book?

DEFINING THE E-BOOK

If you take the broadest definition, an e-book is simply a digital file that contains the content of a book. Under this very broad definition, you can present a story via Microsoft Word or PDF and technically, you have a book.

But in the publishing world, these two formats are not really considered e-books. For downloadable e-books, the industry standard is something called ePub2. It’s an open source format that’s HTML-based (the same kind of coding for websites) and allows for reflowable text.

That means text size can change depending on your preferences. It also means that the page can adjust to whatever screen size you are viewing the e-book on, whether it’s a device as small as a mobile phone, medium-sized like a tablet or large like a desktop computer.

Many e-book retailers have adopted the ePub2 format for the e-books they sell with one notable exception — Amazon.com, which uses its own proprietary format called Kindle (which is based on format called mobi). The characteristics of a Kindle book are very similar to an ePub2 book, with reflowable text as a key feature.

If you’re an independent publisher or an aspiring self-published author, you really have to consider making your e-books available on these two formats: ePub2 and Kindle.

With ePub2, you are able to make your book available on many e-book stores around the world, but most notably Kobo, which serves both the Malaysian and Singaporean markets. It’s important to have your book in Kindle to penetrate the US and European markets but do note that Kindle is not available to either the Malaysian or Singaporean markets. That’s why it’s important to have both.

Both ePub2 and Kindle are designed for text-based e-books and not graphics-heavy or multimedia e-books. For the latter, you will need to use the ePub3 and Kindle Format 8 (KF8) respectively.

The problem with ePub3 and KF8 is that unlike their text-based cousins (ePub2 and Kindle), which are easy to format, these two multimedia formats require quite complex coding. To date, there is no easy way to create ePub3 or KF8 multimedia e-books.

If you have an e-book you wish to make that really needs to have multimedia elements — such as photo gallery, audio clips, video clips etc — and don’t want to invest in hiring an expensive programmer to do the formatting for you, one solution is to use a web-based publishing service.

WEB-BASED PUBLISHING SERVICE

There are many such services around, designed specifically to be an idiot-proof way to create multimedia e-magazines and e-books. One service I’ve tried is called Joomag (www.joomag.com) and I’ve used it to make a pilot issue of a judo magazine in which I wanted to feature photo galleries and video clips.

Joomag is a subscription-based service. Like many such online publishing services, there is a free option but with very limited functionality. The most affordable paid option costs US$9 (RM38), which is very reasonable.

The more expensive options give you more functionalities but I’ve found for my purposes, the US$9 version is good enough.

The good thing about online publishing is that you can very easily incorporate multimedia content into your e-book without having to do any coding at all. Not all the features are necessarily very intuitive but for those that are more complex, there are online tutorials and videos that you can watch to learn how to use them. If you find that you really cannot figure out how to do something through those tutorials, you can chat with their live operators who can guide you through the whole process.

In the absolute worst case scenario, where neither the tutorials or online chats do the job, the operators can demonstrate how a particular tool or functionality works by taking over your computer remotely and literally executing the process on your laptop as you observe (of course, you must give consent for your computer to be taken over by the operator). I’ve used this option once or twice for some very complex stuff that baffled me.

Joomag has billing systems in place so you can make your e-book available at a certain price (set by you).

However, instead of downloading your e-book, what your customer does is read your e-book online. That means they must have Internet access to read your book.

That might seem limiting or impractical as these days most people have mobile Internet access through their phones. Still, it is not clear whether consumers will embrace online reading as opposed to reading downloaded versions.

If you look at how other media is being consumed, it does seem like young people don’t particularly require their content to be downloaded. Many seem perfectly happy to watch a streamed movie or listen to music via streaming services. Will they also be just as open to reading a “streamed” book? I guess time will tell.

Sunday
Apr302017

Making your phone’s battery last 

Today’s smartphone is really quite a wonder. What used to be a device for making calls is now all-in-one communication tool that can also be used for accessing the Internet as well as recording and consuming content all forms of content. It is also now regularly used as a GPS device and a game console. There’s actually very little it can’t do.

The problem is all these things take up precious battery power leaving us with a phone that needs recharging several times a day. Until better battery technology emerges – and there’s no sign that’s going to happen anytime soon – we will either have to rely on power banks or we can find a way to reduce your phone’s power consumption. Here are some tips and tricks for you to consider.

Dim the screen
I personally like my screen to be well lit because I find it easier to read when the screen is bright. However, it’s definitely possible to properly view content on the phone without the screen being fully lit. Dimming the screen brightness is an effective way to reduce power consumption. As such, a good practice would be to set the brightness to the lowest level you can tolerate. You will be surprised how effective this is for improving battery life.

Shorten screen time-out
Screen time-out refers to the time it takes for your screen to go dark after it is left inactive. It’s a good practice to “lock” your phone after you are done using it. This will turn your screen dark immediately. But sometimes we forget to do this. Fortunately, the screen will go to sleep on its own after a set period of time. Obviously the shorter the screen time-out is set to, the more energy you save.

Turn off vibrations
Vibrations are useful when you have to set your phone to silent, during meetings or when you are in a cinema or a concert hall. But some people like to use this in place of a ringtone to notify them of incoming messages and calls. Maybe they find a vibration to be less disruptive than a ring but they probably don’t realize that vibrations use up more power than ringtones. That’s because a ringtone involves only sound but vibrations involve shaking your entire phone. Stick to ringtones when silence is not absolutely necessary.

Turn off Bluetooh & Wi-Fi when not in use
Bluetooth is useful for transferring data between your phone and your computer or connecting your phone to a speaker. Wi-Fi, meanwhile, helps you save on data when you are downloading big files or streaming content on your phone. Both of these wireless technologies are power-hungry features though, so use them when they are necessary but turn them off once you are done with them. If you leave them on by default, even when you are out of range of networks, your phone will continue to “sniff” for networks. This will drain your battery very quickly.

Close unused apps
The smartphone would not be a smartphone if not for apps. It’s apps that give your phone the functionality that it has. But turn them off when you are done with them. Leaving apps on in the background is a very bad practice because even when they are not being used, they continue to consume power.

Use location services only when necessary
All apps use up power but some guzzle up battery juice more than others. Location services that are necessary for GPS to work are the biggest culprits. This is not surprising since GPS requires the sending and receiving of signals from satellites. Turn on location services only when you absolutely need it as triangulation of your location is something that will quickly drain your battery.

Make use of “Airplane” mode
Your phone is constantly trying to connect to a cellular network. When you are in a place where network coverage is sparse, your phone will continually try to sniff out a network. This eats up battery power in a big way. If know that the place you’re at has no coverage, you might as well turn on “Airplane” mode that will stop your phone’s attempt to connect to a non-existent network. Of course in this mode, it’s impossible to receive calls or messages but if there’s no network coverage, you can’t receive these anyway. Additionally, if you are using your phone for non-communication purposes like listening to music while jogging or watching a video while doing some stationary cycling, you might as well turn on “Airplane” mode. You don’t want to be disturbed by phone calls and messages while you’re exercising anyway.

Minimize notifications
Having constant Internet access means we can be alerted the moment a new e-mail comes in or when someone interacts with our social media postings. Some people love this and want to be immediately notified of any updates. These notifications can be in the form of a lit icon, a sound or a vibration. All consume additional power. While missed calls and messages are important, other notifications – such as for e-mail and social media interactions – are arguably less so. So, instead of having e-mail and social media apps auto-sync, set them to manual syncing and check them only when you have the time to deal with them.

Upgrade your apps
Although downloading upgrades to your various apps takes up power, it’s worth doing so as these upgrades contribute to power optimization on your phone. App makers regularly provide updates, not just to add new features but to optimize their app’s performance, including their power utilization. In general, updating your apps will lead to longer battery life.

Keep your phone cool
Most people are not aware of this but when your phone is hot or warm, its battery life tends to be shorter. This is because the phone’s battery tends to discharge faster when it’s hot. Constant exposure to direct sunlight will also degrade the battery’s overall lifespan. So, avoid putting your phone in places where the sunlight shines directly on it.

All these tips above are practical, common-sense ways to optimize your battery life in between charges. If you find that these steps still do not provide you with enough battery power for your daily usage, the best recommendation would be to buy a power bank or two in order to enjoy your smartphone experience without any battery troubles.

Sunday
Apr232017

Have gadget will travel

AS a freelancer, I need to be able to work on the go. It’s easy being a “road warrior” when I just move about in the city. All I need to bring is my laptop, which I carry in my backpack.

But when I have to travel abroad by air, it’s a different kettle of fish. For this, I require some special gadgets to ensure that I can stay productive during my travels.

Over the years, I’ve refined my “packing list” to include all the key items that will allow me to do work effectively no matter where I am. I trust that these items will also make a difference the next time you travel for work.

MOBILE PHONE POWER BANK

Today’s smartphones really eat up power. If you use the phone for anything other than just phone calls and text messaging, you’ll find that it’s hard to go through the day without the battery running out. Typically, my phone power runs out within half a day because I use it for a lot of things such as email, browsing, social media posting, shooting photos and videos, and more.

I even use it as a mobile hotspot when I need to use the Internet on my laptop. As such, a power bank is a necessity.

Like most people, you would probably already own a power bank of some kind but when you travel, you will want to have one that’s heavy duty because being out and about in a different city or country, you never know when you’ll be able to charge your phone to a power socket.

And the last thing you’d want is for your phone to run out of juice while abroad for business. There are many brands of power banks out there. Ideally, get one with 10,000mAH and two USB sockets (so you can charge other devices as well such as MP3 player, camera, audio recorder, etc.).

BLUETOOTH KEYBOARD

When abroad for business, you’ll probably do more text messaging than usual as it is cheaper to text message than make phone calls. Yes, it’s possible to make phone calls through Whatsapp and other chat platforms but the audio quality is sometimes not clear. So text messaging becomes all the more important when travelling abroad.

You may even need to compose something on your phone because you may not have your laptop with you at all times. Having a Bluetooth keyboard will make typing a lot easier than tapping away on a touchscreen. Even on a big phone it’s hard to type more than a few simple messages. For anything complex or long, a keyboard is ideal. These come in various sizes, from really small to full-sized. Get one that you feel comfortable with typing on.

Note that although Bluetooth is supposed to work universally with any smartphone, in practice this is not always the case. Pairing a keyboard with a phone can prove problematic at times. To ensure connectivity, it’s best to buy a Bluetooth keyboard from an established brand rather than a cheap, unknown brand.

LAPTOP POWER BANK

If you have a need to use your laptop on-the-go a lot — not just in planes but in cafes and other places where you may not have access to an electrical socket — you should consider getting a laptop power bank. These may not be available in local retail shops so you’d have to order these online.

I’ve bought some of these so-called “laptop power banks” that are supposed to be so powerful that they can jumpstart a car. But the problem is that unlike mobile phones which have standard Lightning or Micro-USB connectors, different laptops come with different connectors. Laptop power banks will come with an array of connectors which will cover the majority of laptops out there but you may have a particular model or brand of laptop that is not covered. So do your research online to ensure that your laptop is compatible with the power bank you’re buying.

If you want a really heavy duty laptop charger that is guaranteed to work with your laptop (whatever brand it is), consider getting the RavPower AC Power Bank which, as its name implies, has an AC output that can deliver a 100W of power. Note that this device is aimed at the US market and its AC socket is designed for two-prong plugs, so you’ll need to get a travel adaptor for this.

It’s available at Amazon.com at US$169.99 (RM753) but unfortunately, this item does not ship to Malaysia. If you don’t have a friend in the US who can order this and send it here, you could consider ordering it from 11Street (www.11street.my) but the price is rather steep at RM1,248.80.

POWER EXTENSION

CORD/USB HUB

A hotel room is the best place to recharge your myriad of electrical devices, including your power bank. The problem is, hotel rooms are not known for providing a lot of convenient electrical sockets. Sometimes I’ve even had to unplug a lamp in order to use its socket for charging stuff.

It makes a lot of sense to bring along a power extension cord, especially if you’re the kind who likes to work on your laptop in bed (your laptop’s power cord is usually not that long and might not reach the power socket in your room).

At the same time, as you’re charging your laptop, you may want to charge your phone and other devices that are chargeable via USB such as power bank, tablet, camera, digital audio recorder, MP3 player and so on. A USB hub would be suitable for charging multiple devices.

A handy device that serves both as power extension cord and a USB Hub is the Pineng PN-333 extension socket with 4 USB hubs. It’s an all-in-one device and priced very affordably at around RM40, from various vendors through Lazada (www.lazada.com.my).

SCOTT E-VEST

This is a very cool apparel company that makes clothing with multiple secret pockets for carrying gadgets and devices. One item I’ve bought is a jacket that is suitable to wear for business meetings. It features 23 pockets, so it’s possible to carry an array of items like tablet, phone, camera, earphones, sunglasses, power bank, business plans, wallet, passport, etc. — all in one jacket!

The company also sells convertible travel pants that come with 10 pockets and compartments. It’s super practical in that it converts to shorts through the use of hidden leg zippers. The nylon fabric is lightweight, quick-drying and Teflon treated for water and stain resistance. The company ships internationally but unfortunately, our country is not on its list of countries it delivers to.

So if you want to get this, you’ll need to get a friend in the US or any of the other countries it delivers to order it for you. You can find the details at its website (www.scottevest.com).

FRANKLIN GLOBAL TRANSLATOR

This phrase translator has everything you’d need to communicate in a foreign land. For each language, it has in its memory over 800 phrases for areas such as accommodations, emergencies, food and directions.

A total of 16 languages are covered, namely Arabic, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai and Vietnamese. There’s a feature that allows you to save and recall 60 most commonly used sentences. And it comes with a world clock and alarm.

The battery is rechargeable and it has multi-plug adapters. This item is available from Amazon (www.amazon.com) and yes, it ships to our country.

Sunday
Apr162017

Intrapreneurship retains talent

TWO of the biggest challenges companies face in these turbulent and competitive economic times are staying innovative and retaining top talent. Rapid advances in technology allow start-ups to regularly disrupt existing business models and the lure of entrepreneurship leads to an exodus of dynamic employees who want to carve out a business of their own.

Both these issues can be tackled effectively with intrapreneurship.

Coined in 1978 by businessman and inventor Gifford Pinchot III, the term gained widespread exposure in 1985 when Pinchot published his book, Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have To Leave The Corporation To Become An Entrepreneur.

Intrapreneurship can mean two things. One refers to the concept of encouraging employees to start up new companies under the umbrella of the parent company. Another refers to giving employees the autonomy to tackle problems in their own way.

Let’s look at the first interpretation which is about fostering entrepreneurship within a company. The term “intra” means starting up a new venture within an existing company.

I first came across this concept many years ago when I met up with an old schoolmate who had successfully climbed up the corporate ladder. He was a senior manager at a big company in Singapore. When I met him, he’d just started working on a new venture which was fully funded by his employer.

The company had given him an offer he couldn’t refuse. If the new start-up was successful, he would get a small stake in the business. And if it failed, he could go back to his old job in the parent company.

“I get to try to build something new and potentially reap the rewards of that but without having to take a big risk,” he said.

By offering top employees the opportunity to build new subsidiaries, companies which practise intrapreneurship can stem the outflow of talented workers who might otherwise pursue entrepreneurship.

While it’s true that workers who take up intrapreneurship opportunities still remain employees of the company, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they’re given autonomy in how they run their start-ups. And it comes with the benefit of adequate funding, a regular salary and — crucially — a potential stake in the business. If you consider the high failure rate of start-ups, this option doesn’t sound too bad.

Intrapreneurship doesn’t have to be just about starting new businesses for the parent company. It can also be about sparking innovation and creatively resolving problems that impede productivity.

FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT

Big corporations tend to be lumbering giants. Usually the bigger the company, the less nimble and agile it is. This is a problem if disruptive forces are creating havoc with the existing business model.

Such companies need a unit or units to come up with bold, creative and unconventional solutions. It must identify the most entrepreneurially-minded employees and give them the freedom to do this for the company. These employees must be allowed to experiment — to grow and to fail like entrepreneurs — with minimal intervention from the parent company. Unless these intrapreneurs are given sufficient autonomy and independence to try new things that the parent company would never do, the endeavour will fail.

Intrapreneurs in this context are similar to entrepreneurs except that instead of being given the opportunity to build new businesses or subsidiaries, they’re expected to find new ways of doing things so that the company can be more innovative, productive and efficient. They are problem solvers who have to come up with solutions for market-driven challenges.

While a start-up-oriented intrapreneur is expected to oversee the creation of a completely new business, as entrepreneurs are expected to do, the problem-solving intrapreneur focuses on improving and enhancing existing processes within the company. The former creates new products and services the company can sell while the latter increases the productivity and capacity of the company’s existing business.

This doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. A company can have both types of intrapreneurship. Employees who yearn to build something new can be given start-up intrapreneurship opportunities while those who like to think out of the box and try new ways of doing things can be given problem-solving intrapreneurship duties.

WIN-WIN FOR ALL

The benefit for companies is obvious — they can remain innovative and retain talented staff. But an intrapreneurship programme also benefits employees.

Even the most entrepreneurially-minded individual must be aware of the risks of leaving a job with a steady income. As for employees who like to think out of the box, being given a chance to experiment with existing work processes will prevent them from getting bored. More fulfilment and satisfaction means a higher retention rate of quality employees.

The big question for companies is how to foster a culture of intrapreneurship among employees. If the company is teeming with employees who can’t wait to try new things, getting intrapreneurship going is not a problem. But we all know of companies where the employees are content with a 9-to-5 routine and don’t necessarily want to do something new. They’re happy to stay within their comfort zone.

Fostering an entrepreneurial culture has to start from the top. A company where the top management has a reputation for being progressive and open-minded will attract employees who are similarly inclined. And they in turn, will recommend the company to friends who’ll appreciate working in such an environment.

It also helps if the company has training programmes for employees to upgrade their skill sets to prepare them for intrapreneurship opportunities. It sends a strong signal that this is a company you can grow with. There should also be a formal process for employees to apply for intrapreneurship opportunities — whether it’s for starting something new or tackling an existing problem. They need to know there’s a mechanism where their ideas can be seriously considered by their bosses.

Lastly, there must be a proper reward system in place. Intrapreneurs who successfully build new subsidiaries must be given stock options or a revenue-share deal. As for those who help solve problems and improve productivity, there must be a bonus and/or promotion programme in place.

Intrapreneurship isn’t a common practice in Malaysia but local business owners should seriously consider it. We all know of good people who’ve left their companies because they wanted to start something new or because they were frustrated with the old ways of doing things. Such proactive, dynamic and talented individuals might have stayed on if an intrapreneurship programme had been put in place.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media.