[Lee Hopkins.(file photo)]
When we wrote a chapter in Naked Conversations called Consultants Who Get It, we never mentioned Lee Hopkins. In fact, Lee was not yet a member of the social media community. He had pursued all sorts of careers including the Australian Air Force, a London singer-songwriter and a stint in San Francisco. He developed mostly in the London-based media industry until a family situation required him the return to Adelaide, Australia, where he had been raised. From a business perspective that placed him in one of the world's most isolated places in the Western World.
It was there, in Adelaide, where Lee became a business consultant to a portfolio of geographically distant clients that Lee rapidly emerged as one of Australia's leading social media evangelists in business. A prolific journalist and blogger, he is quoted all over the English-speaking world. He was my obvious choice to be the first Australian to interview for the SAP Global Survey and he has done a fine job of giving a sense of what is going on Down Under.
1. You come out of the editorial services field. How did you get immersed in social media?
I'd somehow heard about 'blogs' back in late 2004, but never really thought
anything further about them. In early 2005, I Googled 'business communication blog' and
came across Shel Holtz.
From him, I discovered his and Neville Hobson's podcast, For Immediate Release. I went on to become a regular contributor and their first foreign correspondent. On the strength of what I saw Shel and Neville doing, I further invested my time in blogging and found, to my delight, that I really enjoyed this 'Social Media' thing. The ability to write and have a willing audience, to be able to play with sound effects and inject my humor into my passion for business communication; these were the intrinsic rewards that I had been seeking for decades but until then had never found. Once I had been bitten by the bug, there was no stopping my wholesale descent into becoming a full-time social mediarist.
2. Can you tell me a bit about Australia and technology? How many people have computers at home and at work? What about Internet, broadband and wireless access. What are the current trends?
Australia has long been recognized as a country of 'early adopters' of new technology, whether that technology is home-grown or from overseas. Most families (except, perhaps, the long-term and multi-generational unemployed) have exposure to computers, either through the workplace for through their teenage children. Most Australian families are connected to the web and the vast majority of those connections are via broadband.
That said, one of the key areas of discussion in the recent Federal election was around Australia's lamentable broadband speeds when compared to other developed countries. For a considerable while, Telstra (the national carrier) was passing off ISDN as broadband as a way of meeting its agreed milestone for ensuring that 98% of the population had internet access. We're currently positioned in the mid 30s in terms of global broadband speed, but each month we slip further down the ladder.
While we are a nation of individual early adopters, at the business level we are very slow to update to new technologies. I could wax lyrical about the benefits of upgrading to Office 2007, for example, and how it is a vast leap in performance and productivity over previous Office upgrades -- but my cries would fall on deaf ears. Most Australian businesses are at least one and usually two generations behind in the technology race. It is only the micro-sized businesses, the tech-savvy or the very large corporations who would consider investing in upgrading to the latest technology. Most companies' IT departments are very risk-averse and so any initiatives to do with technology usually doesn't get past these influential gatekeepers.
Wireless access has been tried by a few companies in small pockets around the CBDs of most major cities, but it is yet to be comprehensively rolled out and supported. It is most often individual businesses, like an ISP, or a coffee shop that provides some sort of wireless access for its patrons. Internode is a wireless ISP that serves a large part of inner Adelaide, but the project never went further due to lack of funding at local council levels.
3. What social media tools do you use? Why do you use them? What is the result?
I predominantly blog, as I find that the easiest, most natural way of communicating. Yes, I also record the occasional podcast, and of course my weekly report for For Immediate Release, but podcasting takes up considerably more time to create a final product than blogging does.
I have also enjoyed playing with video, producing the occasional video blog, but like podcasting, the time involved to decide on content, record, post-produce and publish is significant. I find it works on this scale:
Writing a post - one hour;
creating a podcast - three hours;
creating a video blog - six hours.
Also, as a consultant, I dabble with most of the new whizz-bang tools that arrive every week-if mostly to decide whether they are worth my clients investing time in or not. So, of course I use Facebook, I Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce and YouTube. I would Seesmic but haven't been able to snag an invite yet... I belong to a number of social networks and I of course am active in Second Life, where I am conducting my doctoral research.
The result of all this has been astounding, at least to me. In the space of three years I have gone from being a 'nobody' in business communications to a world-recognized entity. I have been contacted by and consulted to companies that, before Social Media, would not even answer my cold calls. I have flatteringly been called a 'trend setter' and one of Australia's leading thinkers in online business communication. I regularly get invited to speak at conferences, most of which I decline due to not having enough hours in the day and enough dollars in the bank to fly out and attend for free (which conference organizers seemingly always want you to do, despite the fact that THEY are looking to create a profit by charging attendees a small fortune).
Whilst Adelaide itself is a 'backwater' when it comes to online business communication, I have been graced with clients in other cities who see the value of my services and who pay accordingly. If I could only ply my trade within Adelaide I would starve to death.
4. Tell me about social media and Australian business. How many and what sort of companies are using social media tools? What tools are the most popular? Is there much growth?
'Business Australia' is at an interesting phase: my colleagues and I have spent the last two years waxing lyrical to whoever would listen about the power and influence that social media can wield. Of late, people seem to be listening.
There is really only one private company, Telstra the national telco, who has launched itself into the social media space. The other major player is the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), the state-owned national broadcaster who immersed itself in social media years ago. But there is a feeling among us evangelists that something is stirring and will spill out in early 2008.
We know that AMP and Westpac (large investment and banking companies) are experimenting behind closed doors. No doubt there are other major corporations conducting similar experiments, hidden from our watchful gaze.
Because of the success that the ABC has garnered with its social media initiatives (blogs, podcasts, Second Life, downloadable TV shows inter alia), many commercial broadcasters have 'jumped on the bandwagon' and now release edited highlights of their most popular shows as 'podcasts.' The purists among us cringe at the use of the term when the files are really only downloadable audio, however it is at least a start. But apart from Telstra, the ABC and a handful of radio stations, the takeup of social media by 'Business Australia' has been lamentably non-existent. We are ever hopeful.
5. Tell me about your clients. To what sort of companies do you consult? What are the barriers you face? Give me a great success story.
My clients range from charities (a church, the RSPCA) to PR companies to banks and a pharmaceutical company. They are increasingly interested in finding out more about social media and, in the case of the PR company, their clients are increasingly interested too.
The major barrier I face is in helping clients understand that social media is not a 'fad', nor is it something only of interest to pimply teenage boys lurking in their mum's basement and chatting to others whilst clothed only in grotty, stained underwear.
The greatest joy I personally receive is when a client, or a client's client, suddenly gets 'that look' on their face and the penny drops, the lightbulb goes on and they suddenly realize that this social media thing is 'do-able' and doesn't need to break the budget.
The second greatest joy is watching their faces when they come across Twitter or Second Life for the first time; it's akin to watching a time traveller from the 19th century be introduced to a mobile phone. The look of incredulity, coupled with the mouthed but unsaid question, "why would anyone DO this?" is so delightful and amusing as to be almost sinful.
This was certainly the case with one of my clients, the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in South Australia. They had been taking a 'beating' from the local media for years and had resigned themselves to always being the 'skapegoat' of others interests and failings. Introduced by another client of mine who was on their management board, I met with the CEO who was exceptionally skeptical of blogging as a way of turning the tables around.
I set up a blog, installed a blogging editor on his and his newly-hired PR manager's computers, then hand-held him as he made his first tentative posts. Within a fortnight he was blogging arduously on his own steam, and daily would call me to tell me how 'this' post had been picked up by the BBC in Poland, resulting in a phone interview, or 'that' post had been picked up by the local media and printed almost verbatim.
Within six weeks the tables were, indeed, turned; the media now went to the blog first to get the RSPCA's story before they went and interviewed the RSPCA-bashers, often resulting in stories that had both 'balance' and, miraculously, positive reviews of the RSPCA.
For the RSPCA in South Australia, blogging has been a transformational tool in how the media and the general public view and interact with them.
6. What about young Australians? What social media tools do they use?
Who do they talk to?
Young Australians have experimented with Facebook but many of them are staying with MySpace, which is by far the most popular tool for them. Facebook seems to have garnered an older, more educated audience, whereas MySpace was the 'only game in town' for teens when it first arrived. Indeed, it was so popular that MySpace Australia was set up, rather than (as usually happens with social networks) Australians become just another number in a database. The loyalty this act by Murdoch engendered is a lesson seemingly not noticed by other social networks.
Different global regions have their 'tools of choice'; I understand that AOL is the preferred IM client in the US, Friendster the preferred social network in Asia... in teen Australia it is MySpace for the network and MSNChat for IM. Nothing else gets a look in.
7. As young people enter the marketplace, how will social media impact business in Australia?
This is a warning bell that my colleagues and I have been ringing but few in 'Business Australia' seem to have heard. We all know that these tools are in use now (heavily), but 'Business Australia' prefers to put its collective head in the sand and pretend that these tools don't exist.
Many of the arguments revolve around the 'time wasting' aspect, and whenever I hear that old chestnut trotted out I roll my eyes up and sigh. I calmly yet passionately explain to the managers and their organizations that these tools are 'oxygen' for today's young graduates when they need to solve problems. They have been taught all through their school years to collaborate; suddenly they arrive in the workplace and the very tools that allow them to share ideas and collaborate are denied them. What sense is there in that? They are expected to innovate, to solve problems in creative ways, but they are denied access to the very paint and brushes that would allow them to create their problem-solving masterpieces.
The skills shortage in Australia is masked very cleverly by 'Business Australia'; if the young graduates knew how valuable their decision-making, problem-solving and research skills actually are they would only work for companies that give them the tools to do the job. But they are not valued, not told they are valued, and so, desperate for a job, settle for whatever they can get and get frustrated about working in an 'antiquated, production line' culture.
I strongly believe that employers who deny their workers the tools with which they are most comfortable are opening themselves up to charges of willful negligence, harming both the employee AND shareholder value.
8. Is social media helping Australia get closer with other places? Which ones? Is it business or socially related?
It is only socially that Australia is becoming more global and personable through social media. For example, I now have contacts, acquaintances and friends all around the globe and it is only social media that has allowed me the freedom to create these relationships.
I know that, within academia, social media has allowed many partnerships to form that add value to all partners and their research projects. This sort of global cross-pollination has, of course, been a strong part of academia for centuries -- social media is the latest transport mechanism and one that allows for exceptionally speedy cross-pollination, but social media is not the novel unifying force within academia that it is outside of the lush gardens.
But for 'Business Australia' it is still yet to be a force. Or even a tremor. Or even a whisper in the dark.
9. You live in Adelaide, one of the world's most isolated cities. How has social media changed life for you there? How do you think it will change you moving forward?
Social media has allowed me to develop important business and personal relationships around the world, which I certainly could not do before it came along.
As a solo, SOHO, online business communication professional working in a city not known for its business innovativeness and willingness to try something new, making a living was like squeezing blood from rocks. I scraped together a survival income through building websites and writing newsletters, but because Adelaide is so dollar-sensitive I was very often outbid for work by students who were desperate to generate a dollar. I invested considerable time and effort pursuing the traditional marketing avenues: speaking to Rotary groups, writing articles for business magazines, and so on, but little came of it.
Suddenly social media arrived (for me, anyway) and I was rapidly able to reposition myself at the forefront of what I saw was a revolution in how communication could take place between and amongst businesses, their suppliers and their marketplace. Suddenly 'The Cluetrain Manifesto' could be talked about without being laughed at, at least by my peers.
Now, even though I am still living in and operating out of a price-sensitive city, I generate enough money from my consulting work with interstate clients that I can afford to charge 'top dollar' here. There are very few companies based in Adelaide that are large enough to afford me (if they can afford to hire expertise from the large consulting firms, they can afford me; if not, they cannot), so I do little business here.
Because of the 'flattener' that the Internet has become, in Friedman's terms, I can conduct business from anywhere, including the gorgeous Adelaide Hills where I reside. Because of social media I have been able to show thought leadership in my industry, connect with other like minds around the globe, be contacted by clients and potential clients from around the world, and network with some of the greatest thinkers of today. THAT is an incredible privilege!
As for the future, well... I am researching Second Life for my doctorate as I strongly believe that collaborative 3D virtual environments will become a major factor in how we communicate online and I am positioning myself at the forefront from a business communication perspective. The last three years have been a rollercoaster; goodness knows what the next three will bring!
10. "The incumbent Australia Labor Party has just imposed censorship on the Australian Internet. What do most Australian's think about this? How do you think this will impact both personal and business use of the Web?
Most people are experiencing emotions ranging from bemusement to outright despair at the stupidity of politicians. The Australian blogosphere is again laughing at another example inept political bumbling (and this is not the first time the ‘censorship’ card has been played) but also angry that the lessons it felt were adequately explained to the previous government by various interested parties have been forgotten in lieu of ‘being seen to be doing something’.
Like most political pronouncements, what is said and what is delivered are likely to be two very different things, and this is an issue that will probably find itself pushed under a carpet in a month or two as something far more pressing captures the government’s attention.