Things people in PR & Campaigns need to know: No1: Be ‘Machine Readable’

Do you have a scanner in your office? If you do, and you look at the disks that came with it, you’ll probably find that it has an OCR function that you can use.

Napster: It dragged music into the machine.

OCR – Optical Character Recognition – can take old-media (in this case, print) and turn it into digital media. I can scan that pamphlet that I wrote in the mid-1990s and start cutting-and-pasting bits onto various sites I manage, or emailing bits to people who should have read it at the time, dammit!

We’re gradually making print ‘machine readable’ in this way, like Project Guttenberg or Google Books has done. And before the music-on-demand service Spotify came along, Napster galvanised legions of music-pirates to get music digitised and available – by encouraging users to rip their CD collection and share it.

Call Shazam from your phone and it will match music you’re listening to with it’s digitised database. It will text you the song title. Nearly ten years on, this is still the most startlingly cool thing I’ve seen digital media do.

I work with a range of organisations that use social media to build relationships with the various circles they (want to) move in.

Social Media training - about more than mechanics. Thanks to @adrianshort for this one - click pic for credit

It’s easy to fall into the mechanics of it all – a briefing on how to perform the various chores that social media’s more adept users perform or a bit of analysis showing what makes for good viral content.

It’s also tempting to wheel out a few of the mind-blowing statistics that occasionally scare even the evangelists. Both of these activities have their place.

But I’ve found that it’s often better to ask people why all of this is happening. OK, there are technological reasons: Computing power is getting cheaper.

Networked devices have gone through design and usability revolutions that mean that they integrate with our life more seamlessly. For a long time now, our access to the network isn’t just based on the desktop PC. There are 31 Billion devices and 4 billion people forecast to be connect to the internet by 2020.

At this point, to help move things on a bit, I like to retreat to a little bit of simplification.

Let’s think of the Internet as a big conspiracy. It wants us do do everything online so that all of the data can be processed. The more it knows about what we do, and when we do it, the more efficient it can become at meeting our needs.

It wants to know when we wonder about anything (Google), buy anything (Amazon), go anywhere (Foursquare), associate with anyone (Facebook), phone anyone (Skype), or make ourselves a cup of tea (Twitter). Where older functions are broken (e.g. spam/e-mail), new modes step in to provide a fix. Twitter, Blogger and a range of other tools co-opt us into indexing the Internet for Google (at no charge).

We’re heading towards a point where those 31 million devices provide the network with a pretty detailed portrayal of what we do all day long. Colbert said that…

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”

Social media is about getting us to breach our own privacy without much hissing.

You can see this as a sinister capitalist, consumerist or big-government plot. Or it could be a liberating phenomenon that personalises, streamlines, and liberates us from chores and choices.

Whatever. Either way, it’s winning. Annoyingly for people who don’t like it, boycotting it is about as effective a form of resistance as pacifism was in 1939.

So, if you want to work with it, you have to become machine readable. You have to be easy to contact. You have to compete for the attention of millions of people who no longer focus on a handful of channels. That means getting into their peripheral vision wherever possible.

This could mean doing clever things with open data – something that I reckon every communicator needs to be thinking about.

But let’s start from the beginning: Whenever we use social media tools, we join ‘the firehose’ output. People can analyse it to find out what we know, what we think or who we’re influencing.

The machine is reading us. We have to understand that – when we use social media – we are preparing ourselves to be machine-read. It means that – if we put content out there – we have to understand how others will read it. What they’ll read it on, how it’ll look to the search-engine link that leads us to it.

We can control all of that. Look at the Google results that lead visitors to your page to see how well you’re doing that. Simply taking two examples at random:

1. My local bike shop, Shorter Rochford Cycles (as Google sees it):

 2. The big-brand cycle retailer, Halfords (as Google sees it):


See the difference? Halfords have used their bigger budget to hire a site-designer who has made the site more machine readable.

The code tells Google what the site’s structure is so visitors can jump directly into the page they want to, and there’s just the right description under the link.

Whenever we use social media, we’re competing with people who are also playing this game. By understanding the different ways that machines read what we do, we play it better.

Does this all sound complicated? Remember, social media is part of this great conspiracy to get us all to be machine readable. Using social media tools properly can usually enable most of us to do this really well – without ever reading a book about Search Engine Optimisation.

That’s why it’s worth thinking a little bit about how you use simple things like Twitter and Facebook.

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