Must-have WordPress plugins

Whilst WordPress gets a lot right out of the box, there’s always room for enhancement, customisation, and extension.

Whilst every site is unique and has different requirements, I frequently find myself turning to the same set of foundational plugins to help manage data structures, performance and administrative tasks.

Here are my must-haves (in no particular order), which help to take WordPress from a blogging platform to a fully-featured, enterprise-ready CMS.

Redirection or Yoast SEO Premium

Redirection (and the similar functionality in Yoast SEO Premium) is a phenomenally powerful tool for managing 301 (and other types of) redirects, for logging 404 errors, and for maintaining lists and sets of redirect rules.

I’ve written about the critical role it plays in managing how Google and other bots interact with your site – how they continually and indefinitely request old URLs, invalid URLs, and URLs you didn’t even know about, and how failing to manage this impacts your performance and user experience.

Advanced Custom Fields (Pro)

If I’m building or working on a site which has complex content structures (anything more nuanced than a block of body content), ACF is a powerful and flexible solution for defining content elements and their components, and managing that content easily.

Building content like recipescomplex lists and reviews often requires more structured content storage rules and admin workflows than a simple text editor can easily manage (without building lots of messy HTML directly into the content editor).

The ‘Pro’ version unlocks more advanced functionality around nested and repeating component fields, which is a must-have for building complex content workflows.


Whilst this ships with WordPress and does a great job of capturing spam comments, many people don’t realise that it also comes with an extensive API which can be used to spam-check any user-submitted content.

If you’re building custom forms, processes or interactions which take inputs, you can pipe user fields and metadata (including IP, HTTP header information and more) to an endpoint which will immediately classify the submission.

With a little extra work, you can also build administrative workflows to flag ham submissions (false positives) and train the system to do a better job of classifying your inputs.

Admin Menu Editor

Any site which is running more than a handful of plugins and custom functionality can soon become cumbersome to manage. In particular, WordPress’ native admin menus begin to sprawl and difficult to navigate – especially if you’re using plugins which add functionality to different sections and submenus.

Admin Menu Editor lets you take control, to hide or move links, and to create new groupings. You can also restrict visibility by role and other variables, making it a great way to keep things simple and streamlined.

One minor annoyance is that the plugin stores the entire refactored menu code as a single field in the wp_options table, which in some cases can lead to performance issues in the back end (on lower end hosting).

Query Monitor

When I’m building complex WordPress sites and projects which involve lots of custom functions, PHP and database interactions, Query Monitor is my tool of choice for diagnosing performance and issues.

It spots bottlenecks, slow or duplicated queries and PHP errors, as well as outlining how my pages are constructed and rendered.


WordPress’ default search sucks. It’s barely suitable for even the most basic blogs and websites, and lacks the customisation required to provide a good experience for most complex websites.

Relevanssi builds its own index, and enables heavy customisation of weighting, inclusion/exclusion, and fuzzy matching logic, and searching of custom fields. It’s particularly powerful for sites which don’t assume that recency should be the primary sorting option.

For particularly complex or bespoke requirements, developers can hook the WP_Query object into the relevanssi_do_query function to build completely bespoke search functionality on top of the powerful matching engine.

User Role Editor

Any site with more than one owner/editor should carefully consider its policies on access, publishing, deletion and administration. Whilst the WordPress default roles cover most of the basics, sometimes it’s helpful to have more fine-grained control over specific permissions.

User Role Editor allows you to create, modify or remove role types, as well as the ability to create/assign specific permissions to individual users and posts. It adds a huge amount of flexibility when it comes to managing your people, posts and permissions.

Transients Manager

For websites with complex or bespoke functionality and template logic, it’s often good practice to cache results of complex queries and slow processes. Typically, this uses the WordPress transients caching system, which caches and stores strings directly in the database (or externally, if you’ve configured external caching) for quick retrieval.

As anybody who’s worked with caching will know, it’s frustrating to test and debug systems, and you’ll frequently find yourself wanting to conditionally bypass or purge specific or global caching layers.

The Transients Manger plugin gives you all of this – you see the data types, expiry and details of all transients and interrogate/alter/delete individual rows. You can also temporarily suspend all transients as you work, to avoid tripping over your caching logic as you develop it.

WP Crontrol

If you’re scheduling events and processes, WP Crontrol is an excellent tool for gaining complete insight into everything in the cron queue, the functions each action hooks into, and the arguments passed.

It’s also a great tool for diagnosing performance challenges arising from plugins or processes backing up or multiplying out of control – something which happens frustratingly often with poorly build themes and plugins!

WP Less

Managing complex and interdependent stylesheets in WordPress can be a nightmare. WP Less adds LESS support right within the theme editor and filesystem – allowing you to write mixins, functions and variables within your CSS, as well as to manage dependencies and relationships.

You don’t need to do anything complex; just enqueue your LESS files in the same was as you’d enqueue normal CSS. The plugin processes the LESS files and creates (and then caches) optimised, minimised CSS files.

I should note that whilst LESS has fallen out of fashion in favour of SCSS, I’ve found the latter to be less well-supported – and it’s worth sacrificing some of the extra shiny features in favour of simplifying the workflow.

WP Rocket or W3 Total Cache

Both handle a ton of clever performance optimisation, static page caching, header management and a myriad of minor stuff which all combine to make a site run super-fast. Can’t live without them.

WP Rocket gives you a great boost out of the box, but lacks fine control over individual elements.

W3 Total Cache provides an incredible degree of fine-level control, but each site needs manually configuring and in-depth tinkering to get the best results.

They’re both great solutions, but neither’s perfect or always the best choice. Results may also vary in both cases, based on your site structure/setup and infrastructure.

Both plugins integrate also seamlessly with your CloudFlare account (as well as your Varnish setup).

Yoast SEO (WordPress SEO)

The famous ‘Yoast’ plugin handles most of the SEO basics out of the box. For an average site, this will provide support for most of the basics you’ll need; from structured data and meta tags, to XML sitemaps and indexation control.

For more complex sites, there are hooks and filters for procedurally modifying titles, descriptions, canonical tags and similar. It’s relatively straightforward to refine, enhance or overwrite the inbuilt logic for individual pages, templates or scenarios.

Above The Fold Optimisation

This plugin is relatively new to my arsenal, but it packs a punch. This layers extra speed and performance optimisations on top of WP Rocket / W3 Total Cache to really dial things up.

Of particular note, it provides methods for automatically and asynchronously loading JavaScript and CSS, and for defining above the fold / critical path rendering.

Takes a little bit of effort to configure for each site (you’ll need to extract your critical path CSS), but well-worth the effort. It makes it pretty straightforward to achieve a 100/100 Google PageSpeed score, which is always a treat (even though the PageSpeed scoring is nonsense).

Plays surprisingly nicely with WP Less and enque’d resources.

Sucuri Security and/or iThemes Security Pro and/or WordFence

When it comes to hardening and securing your WordPress site, it’s best to over-protect than it is to risk leaving gaps.

Between these three plugins, you can cover everything from scheduled filesystem scans and backups, to access logging, IP blacklisting, to database obfuscation, and much more.

Don’t leave home without at least a couple of these in place, but make sure to tailor and configure to your environment and setup.

Also, use with care. It’s remarkably easy to lock yourself out of your system, block your IP address, or break (some complex or poorly built) plugins if you’re not careful. Backup, test settings, and work through step-by-step.

Worthy mentions

I’ve deliberately kept the focus on architectural/foundational plugins, which means that I’ve left out a bunch of other favourites which only apply in certain use-cases.

Some of these still bear mentioning, however, so here are a few extras which you should definitely consider, based on your needs:

  • Yet Another Related Posts Plugin, for managing ‘related posts’
  • AdRotate, which is an excellent ad management tool
  • wpDiscuz, which is an exceptionally good replacement for the default WordPress comments system.
  • wp-Typography, which does some cool stuff like adding CSS hooks to numbers and symbols, and preventing phrase orphaning.
  • WP-PageNavi, which replaces the clunky default WordPress ‘next/previous post’ pagination with something a bit more sensible.
  • Nelio Content, which is an excellent collaborative content & promotion workflow platform
  • DuracellTomi’s Google Tag Manager for WordPress, which handles GTM injection and creates a sophisticated datalayer object
  • Broken Link Checker, which is a handy (but sometimes performance-intensive) tool for spotting broken links in your content
  • WPML, which is the de-facto internationalisation plugin [may require a LOT of modification/extension based on your requirements but does a good job of handling much of the heavy lifting]
  • EWWW and are both good choices for automatic image compression and optimisation
  • Rewrite gives you an interface to test, manage, and to see all of your website’s URL logic in one place. Remove, alter, overwrite or add to WP’s default URL handling processes.
  • WP Offload S3 is useful if you’re hosting your images on S3 and want to sync/move your media and/or source references, etc, without breaking your media library [can have some hiccups when used in conjunction with WPML]
  • Gravity Forms is the de-facto form plugin, though there are some good simpler alternatives like WPForms if you need less firepower
  • WP-DraftsForFriends lets you generate shareable but private links to draft/unpublished posts, so that you can share or get feedback on content without having to publish and open it to the world.
  • Controversially, Jetpack. For a long time, this felt like little more than bloated widgetware. However, recent upgrades see it starting to take on the role of filling out a lot of useful core functionality.
  • Plugin Organiser is a useful tool for selectively managing scripts, styles and plugin loading on a per-page/template level. I’d always recommend doing this through functions and hooks, but sometimes that’s not possible or straightforward.
  • WP Pusher, which allows you to sync GitHub repos to themes and plugins – makes it easy to juggle multiple environments, and to avoid messing around with FTP’ing files between different versions of your site.

Anything missing?

Is there anything missing from my core set? Are there any worthy mentions which should make the list? Let me know!

My Favourite Books

I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy books. Exploring fictional universes – with different rules and realities – not only helps me to relax, but also helps me to think about how our world could be different.

Stretching my imagination in unexpected directions helps me when I’m developing ideas, content and strategies. It’s creativity fuel.

My favourite books are those which explore unique ideas or perspectives, and which changed my perspective or thinking as a result. Here are some of the highlights (in no particular order).

Children Of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Follows the evolution of a species of spider-like creatures to accelerated sentience, as a result of accidental interference from the botched terraforming attempt. Incredible and unique perspective over multiple generations as the species and individuals mature to dominate their planet and become a space-faring race.

The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series by Steven Erikson

An enormous fantasy epic, which brutally and unforgivingly omits any kind of exposition whatsoever – but in exchange provides some of the most in-depth high-fantasy I’ve ever read. Develops from small scale swords-and-sorcery into a race for ascension to godhood, and culminates in an interplanetary magical war between interdimensional beings.

The Ember War by Richard Fox

A sci-fi war to protect the last of humanity and an alliance of dwindling races from an overwhelming incursion into our galaxy from trillions of seemingly invulnerable alien drones. Balances hack-and-slash, hand-to-hand marine combat with darker undertones of what it means to be human, and how far we should compromise those values, as a species, in order to survive.

The Game Is Life series by Terry Schott

What if everything we experience is just part of a simulation? Starts off lightly, and gets very deep; with some of the most challenging ideas (and the biggest spoiler/surprise) I’ve ever read in fiction. Discovering universes-within-universes and exploring questions around multiple identities and the nature of ‘self’ is just the beginning.

The Shadows Of The Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A world populated by city-states where the inhabitants have skills, powers and capabilities modelled after insect species; as an unfolding industrial revolution challenges the decline of magic. A story woven throughout a global conflict as the imperialistic wasps and their subjugated allies march across the world, thwarted only by the industrious beetles and their fragmented resistance – all underpinned by a darker war between technology and magic.

The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

A fantasy epic with a unique magic system, where powers and abilities are granted based on the ingestion of different types of metals. Some excellent twists, and gets deeper and darker as side-stories and the subsequent trilogies explore more of the universe(s).

The Painted Man series by Peter V. Brett

The only defence against the demons which rise from the earth each night to terrorise humanity are the magical wards which we inscribe and maintain around our towns and villages. One man’s discovery and newfound ability to fight back changes everything, leads to the gradual revelation of the inner workings of the demon society, and reveals a much deeper truth.

The Syncronicity War series by Dietmar Wehr

Humanity is losing an interstellar war, until we start receiving visions from the future, which shift the course of events in our favour. It becomes apparent that, at some point in the future, both sides in the war develop the ability to send messages back in time – requiring them to develop strategies to fight in both time and space, and across multiple realities.

The Nightside series by Simon R Green

A private eye operates out of the Nightside; an alternate reality London created by Lilith as an immutable space outside of the control and influence of heaven and hell. Often cheesy and gimmicky, but jam-packed with fascinating ideas, concepts, and plot twists.

The Godslayer series by James Clemens

Set in a world where 100 immortal gods carved out and rule territories in relative stability until one of them is killed, in a plot to disrupt the status quo. Magic and science are powered by the bodily fluids of gods; blood, sweat and tears (and beyond) are harvested, distilled, and used in everything from medicine to industry.

The Black Prism series by Brent Weeks

Set in a world where magic (and technology) is based on the ability of individuals to manipulate different colours (which have different properties), in the midst of an unfolding civil/religious war. Has some slow moments, but the scope is an enormous, and the twist in one of the later books completely resets your whole perspective and lends a dark lens to the whole series.

The Crystal Singer books by Anne McCAffrey

Crystal powers technology, communication, travel, and society. It’s mined, uniquely, by ‘crystal singers’ on the world of Ballybran. Crystal singing is dangerous, addictive, and erodes memory and personality. The heart-breaking trilogy follows the life and experience of Killashandra Ree as a crystal singer and addict.

The Farseer Trilogy (and following trilogies) by Robin Hobb

One of the richest, most immersive fantasy series I’ve ever read. Unashamed to admit that these books filled my heart with joy and moved me to tears more than once.

The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

An enormous fantasy epic set between warring nations, in a richly constructed world. Loads of depth to the magic system, religion, and societies. Some excellent writing, which hops between exploring the combat mechanics and strategies of a battle fought across the Shattered Plains – a vast expanse of plateaus and monster-filled chasms – and charting the subtle decay and downfall of the in the background.

Thanks to @Mr_TP for reminding me about this one!

Honourable mentions

  • The ‘Silo’ series, where a dystopian society subsists in an underground bunker, following an armageddon event.
  • The ‘Bobiverse’ series, where the simulated personality of a tech entrepreneur becomes an von Neumann probe.
  • The Moth Saga, where a world-stopped-spinning is split into a conflict between the peoples of night and day.

Have I missed anything? Let me know!

Why SEO agencies need to focus on expertise, not execution

I recently dipped my toe into a discussion on Twitter by @CodrutTurcanu around what brands should consider when outsourcing SEO to agencies, and what to avoid.

I wrote a quick response suggesting that brands should consider why they’re outsourcing, rather than what. When Codrut asked me to expand on this sentiment, it got me thinking and forced me to crystallise some growing concerns I’ve had about the SEO agency model for some time…

You see, I’m not sure what the role of the SEO agency is anymore – now, or in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-agency. As a model, it creates exactly the kinds of the skills, experience, and on-demand expertise which most organisations can’t (and, economically, probably shouldn’t) breed internally, and as such, provides a lot of value.

However as brands’ SEO needs change, I think that SEO agencies need to change too. I’m just not sure what they need to change into, yet.

Here’s my thinking…

The maturing SEO industry

There’s a long established assumption in the industry that in-house marketers should “outsource their SEO” to an agency, who’ll then execute on strategies and deploy tactics to deliver increased visibility, traffic, and value.

For the most part, this worked, because in-house teams tend to be short of executional resource, and the agency model is designed to support these teams in a way which has worked well, for a long time. Brands ‘buy’ SEO in the same way that they spend money on other advertising channels, with monthly meetings, budgets and targets.

However, things have changed, and I think that we need to reconsider how that relationship works.

Historically, outsourcing your SEO generally meant subscribing to commoditised link building services from your agency (with varying degrees of transparency, as well as technical and content support). For a long time, money spent correlated pretty strongly with success driven. However, as the effectiveness and viability of that kind of scaleable, tactical link building diminished, the model began to change from quantity to quality.

Clients became more educated and more discerning, about the kinds of links they wanted. Rather than raw volumes, KPIs and monthly reports started to feature metrics like Moz’s domain authority, or Majestic’s trustflow – but it was still a numbers game, and the focus was still on tactical initiatives.

More recently, the balance has shifted towards agencies producing campaigns and more PR-driven activities (the production of standalone content assets, designed to attract and earn links and social equity, is currently in vogue).

Microsites, interactive games, and parallax-scrolling factsheets fuel much of the performance of some of the world’s largest brands, by attracting ‘organic’ links and social equity which they might otherwise struggle to acquire on their own, based on their products or proposition. As it becomes harder to ‘get links’, agencies create or discover new, scaleable ways of driving results, and deploy these across their clients.

Now the market is saturated with infographics, interactive data visualisations, and branded games, and the ROI on these kinds of activities – unless you’re producing exceptional and uniquely valuable pieces – is starting to diminish.

There’s a risk that, in a world of tactical SEO, agencies can frequently get stuck in and perpetuate trends, where it’s a race to stay ahead of the value curve. This is an oversimplification, but it demonstrates a deeper trend.

The end of ‘tactical’ SEO?

There’s an indisputable and continual decline in the value of ‘tactical’ SEO initiatives and deliverables. What was once a game of scaled resource became a game of creative thinking, which became a game of branding, which is now becoming… Well, something more complicated. And whilst the agency-client relationship often relies heavily (as with other channels) on commitments to deliver units of value or effort on a monthly basis, winning in SEO simply isn’t that simple.

The increasing interconnectedness of SEO – into branding, proposition, price, reputation, location, etc – makes it impossible to ‘outsource’ in its entirety; and to carve it up into pieces and to hand out those responsibilities, is to radically diminish your chances of success.

The truth, in my opinion, is that SEO is now an entirely strategic discipline. Whilst individual tactics can drive specific metrics, and contribute towards improved visibility and performance, only a broad, cohesive, and organisationally-connected SEO strategy can deliver significant, scalable growth and performance. When moving the needle relies on your SEO “making people like our brand more”, or “getting people talking about us”, you’re well beyond the remit of what blog posts, linkbait, microsites can, and ought, to be delivering.

So, as the landscape continues to shift and mature, I think it’s important that brands really consider what it is that they want from their agencies – otherwise brands will become increasingly disenfranchised as the money they’re paying fails to deliver the results they expect, and agencies will struggle to retain and grow clients. It’ll become a toxic relationship for both sides.

What’s more, the onus is on the agencies to make this change happen. They, in the large, own the expertise, the experience, the value. They’re the ones who can see how it should be done. They can define the terms of their relationships, and the boundaries of the deliverables and responsibilities, and deliver more impactful work as a result – if they’re willing to dig their heels in, and risk losing a few (bad?) clients and pitches in the process.

Synergy (and glass ceilings)

Some SEO agencies have already made this change. They’re working hand-in-hand with their clients, and that synergy is amplifying their outputs and performance. Their day jobs involve shepherding teams within organisations, educating people on processes, and steering decision-making. They’re not producing campaign microsites; they’re empowering their clients to be better businesses, and to win in the market.

But there’s a glass ceiling. If ‘winning’ SEO is increasingly about having the best brand, at the best time and place (literally, and metaphorically), for any given consumer — is that something that can be outsourced effectively, beyond providing education and support? Can an external team (even if working internally, within a client’s organisation, teams and offices) impact concepts like relevance and reputation in a meaningful, measurable way?

And, for example, if a brand struggles to gain visibility because their proposition is weaker than a competitor’s, is an agency the right tool for the job, when it’s hard enough to solve for that within a business – never mind as an external contractor?

A note on other channels and perspectives

I should take a moment to acknowledge that this isn’t a challenge unique to SEO. The age of the consumer, of disruptive business models, and of the decreasing effectiveness of interruption advertising (yay!) puts all channels to the test; the brand, its values and its value, and how those manifest to impact or constrain performance, affect the whole marketing spectrum.

Performance-based channels, however, such as paid search or affiliate marketing, can mitigate somewhat against these pressures by altering their tactics and commercial levers – if a brand has a weak association with a term which they wish to be discovered for and engaged with, these teams can increase the amount they’re willing to bid at a keyword or audience level.

They can frequently sidestep around these constraints to find new opportunities. They can solve (or at least diminish) these challenges directly, by spending more money. The SEO team are confronted head-on with a brick wall, where the only option is to overcome it is to “do more SEO”.

I should also point out that my thoughts and opinions on the topic are limited and likely biased by my perspective; one heavily influenced agency and consultative experience, but limited in-house exposure. Please call me out on any incorrect assumptions or omissions.

Do we need a shift in responsibilities?

One approach which might tackle some of these challenges is to consider a shift in where the resource sits. If the value of the agency model is to provide expertise, that needn’t automatically saddle them with the ‘doing’, too – especially not the busy-work or day-to-day activities.

Where there’s an increasing trend for brands to fire their agencies in build in-house teams, I wonder if they might be going too far, and solving the wrong problem; perhaps it’s their relationship (commercial, personal, professional) with their agencies and their expectations of them which results in bad blood and poor performance, rather than the agencies themselves?

By holding their agencies accountable to cyclical delivery patterns and tangible outputs, they’ve forced them to invest in the wrong resources and behaviours – account management and reporting over doing (there’s a separate but worthwhile discussion here, I suspect, exploring how agencies can break out of this trap) – and already poisoned the relationship. Reacting to that relationship failing by bringing your teams in-house avoids this problem by changing the resourcing and deliverables model, but at the cost of the loss of agency expertise.

So what’s the alternative? What if we pared back the agency responsibilities, to one of expertise, rather than execution?

Expertise or execution?

If brands invested more in building out their own teams for day-to-day tasks like content ideation and creation, promotion, reporting and analysis, then the role of the agency could change for the better, too. It could become more strongly geared towards defining and steering the strategy, identifying opportunities and understanding what ‘next’ and ‘best’ look like, educating and mitigating risk, and providing expert resource where needed.

Rather than being a sweatshop for tactical outreach and campaign creation, the agency could be a strategic partner, equally invested in the brand it services. This requires both sides to change only a little and to meet in the middle.

Commercially, this makes sense for both sides, too. Brands can begin to invest in their own success and capabilities, which will generate returns over the long-term. Agencies can re-tool and re-model – often with much more flexibility than brands – to service the needs of those brands, on-demand. Both parties are doing what they do best, and maximising their impact on the bottom line.

Furthermore, the agency can build (and bill against) a commercial and deliverable model which makes sense based on the resources and value it’s delivering; rather than being tied to a model which no longer makes sense as an operating and billing framework. A more collaborative approach, with tailored agreements and commercials, breaks us out of the ‘vendor-client’ trap.

I think that this is a viable approach in some of cases, although it’ll take some education and result in some transitional pain on both sides. The success of hybrid consultative-and-executional agencies like Jaywing are evidence that this model can work, but they’re one example of a rare organisation, and this is a new way of thinking.

Brands which still treat SEO as an advertising or marketing channel which they can ‘solve with money’ (which, I suspect, accounts for the vast majority of legacy organisations, who’re still struggling to think digitally), or agencies who are built on scaled commodity service models – will struggle to make this shift. The kind of brands who work with agencies often do so precisely because they struggle to solve these kinds of problems internally.


I suspect that there isn’t a single, simple answer; but that, most importantly, this is a discussion which brands and agencies need to be having togethernow.

The right fit will vary by organisation, by size, by maturity, by vertical, and by other factors. What’s certain is that getting caught in a trap of itemising monthly deliverables, reporting on links gained, and expecting to continue to generate value isn’t going to work for much longer – if it’s not already irreparably broken.

Originally published for Linkdex on 25th July, 2017

What the Walking Dead taught me about the future of consumer loyalty

The digital revolution has eroded my attention span. It’s made me impatient. It’s saturated my waking hours with distractions, media, advertising, and content. I live in a constant barrage of stuff, vying for my attention around the clock.

But I’m starting to fight back. I don’t want to just react to what’s pushed at me. So I’m reclaiming my focus and my choice.

I’m becoming more discriminating in where I choose to spend my time and attention. Frequently, that means choosing not to engage, to view, to consume.

And I’m coming to realise that I have the same control when it comes to brands, too. I’m in control. I have more choice than ever over where I spend my time and money.

And I think, maybe, this is the beginning of a revolution. Let’s explore.

There’s more stuff than ever

We live in an age when there are more films, television series and books being produced than ever before – and the rise of new platforms and mediums has made the cost and effort to create, distribute and monetize content lower than it’s ever been.

IMDB, films per year, via

The old guard – the tv networks, theatres and the Hollywood production line – still wield incredible budgets and influence (and are, arguably, still the de-facto hubs for mainstream media). However, we’re increasingly seeing that the creation, consumption and success of content is becoming more democratised and widely distributed.

Specifically, platforms like Amazon’s e-book ecosystem, YouTube, Spotify, Patreon and Kickstarter enable individuals and independents to create and take their ideas directly to market. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (to name just a few) can connect that content directly to audiences, whilst also acting as a natural quality filter to surface the best material.

Conventional ‘production line’ content models, eg., relying on studios and publishers, are being disrupted by independents taking advantages of new routes to market.

At the other end of the scale, the big digital content platforms – like Netflix and Amazon Video – are increasingly using their budgets and intelligence to produce designed-for-purpose media. Engineered, data-driven and guaranteed-to-perform content is being produced at a higher volume than ever before. They’re getting smarter, and more consumer-centric.

So there’s not only more content, but in theory it’s getting better – review ecosystems, social propagation and peer review mechanics, and the intelligent use of big data and machine learning processes are breeding competition and quality.

We’re saturated with stories.

The importance of differentiation

Yet, the theory goes that there are only seven (or maybe nine) types of story, and that most films (and games) follow an almost identical structure. It suggests that all storytelling is derived from a handful of basic tropes, which are sliced, diced and recycled.

That means that, even with a prolific amount of new content being created, regardless of quality and targeting, it’s all largely… samey.

One of the nine basic story types, from

It means that Romeo & Juliet, Dune, House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Star Wars are all shadows of the same kind of “boy meets girl” story framework, and only really separated in the details.

Even beyond the obvious examples (like how closely Avatar resembles Pocahontas), a brief exploration of the TV Tropes website, for example, quickly reveals just how repetitive and indistinct our media often is.

Much of the meat of our content, whether it’s a film, a book or some other format, is just… filler.

That means that, frequently, most of our content experience is largely undifferentiated. The story itself is just a necessary vehicle to deliver a payoff.

In fact, it’s only the use of, for example, different perspectives, an unexpected twist, or a combination of production techniques which separates Star Trek from Star Wars. These stories are often, at a macro level at least, very similar. They’re constructed from the same kinds of building blocks, then given different treatment.

What makes us interested, divides us, compels us to discuss, and turns us into content evangelists are the elements which are different in the content which we enjoy.

Our excited conversations about Star Wars and Star Trek rarely focus on how they both feature planets, or that they’re set in space – rather, we pick out and champion the elements which surprised, shocked, amused, or otherwise resonated with us, which made the content stand out from the crowd. 

And whilst context often plays a role in these preferences – where a film, a book, a work of art or a piece of music might gain disproportionate cut-through because of factors like time, place, or culture – these scenarios are hard to deliberately engineer, and are often only apparent as the catalyst for success in hindsight.

The thing which matters – which increases the chance of content being broadly consumed, shared, distributed and commercially successful – is differentiation.

Finite attention, and infinite choice

Increasingly, in a world saturated with media, I find myself craving differentiation. I’m bored of samey content.

I imagine that in a time with less media, I might have been less picky. I might have happily sat through a long film for a comparably average payoff.

But now, with all of these options, I’m discovering that my time has a price.

In fact, there are films produced as recently as in the 90’s (say, The Sixth Sense, with its famous twist) which I don’t think I’d bother watching if they were produced now. I wonder if the value exchange of my time and attention for the limited payoff – when there’s other media available, and I have more choice – would feel like it was worth it.

For the same reason, I’m a few seasons behind on The Walking Dead, and I gave up on Stranger Things after only a few episodes. In both cases, in my opinion, at least, it’s because too much of the story feels like filler. There’s a lot of repetition of old tropes and time spent investing in a slow build towards something – for a theoretical payoff – which may never come, or might not be worth it when it arrives.

I’m bored of waiting for a twist, a clever idea, or a unique plot device which I might have been able to have got elsewhere, more easily. In fact, I’ve come to consciously resent the time I’ve put in so far, for what I’ve got out. And so I’ll watch, read, or consume something else, in the hopes of a better effort to reward ratio. There’s plenty out there.

I also concede that my behaviour may be, in part or whole, the result of an eroding attention span – that the barrage of YouTube videos, clickbait articles and cat memes has made me less patient, and has conditioned me to expect an immediate (but shallow, and precisely engineered) payoff – but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t change the outcome. The principles are the same. If I don’t feel like I’m getting value (or if the promise of the value exchange feels imbalanced), then I’ll look elsewhere.

And whilst I’m not enjoying, bought into or committed to my current experience, I’m more receptive to other ideas. I’m more inclined to actively explore, research and consider other options. I’m more likely to seek peer review and recommendations or to respond to advertising and direct marketing. I’ll seek out new options which promise surprise, delight, and differentiation.

That’s the salient point – I have choice. If the value exchange isn’t right, I’ll choose to go elsewhere. In the world of content and media, for the organisations and individuals who produce it, my loyalty (i.e, my sustained preference) is the battleground.

It’s the same with products and services

The thing is, I suspect that this behaviour isn’t radically different to how I interact with many brands and organisations. I’m impatient. I’m looking for value. I’m seeking differentiation.

This is crucial in an age where the cost and threshold of entry to market is ever decreasing (with lowering costs of storage and transport, the commodification of data processing, new platforms and mechanisms for engaging with consumers, etc). As a result a proliferation of new and small businesses has created more choice for the consumer than ever before.

New companies registered in the UK (representitive of broader, global patterns) from 2004 to 2014,

So, in the same way that there are only a finite number of types of story, I posit that there  may only be a limited number of types of business.

This has significant implications on how we should design, create and manage brands, and how we as consumers interact with them in our lives.

Most businesses are functionally the same

Regardless of what differentiates a company behind the scenes (e.g., the organisational structure, operational processes, and traditional USPs, etc), as a consumer I only engage with the tip of the iceberg; the moments of truth where I research, consider, and purchase (or convert).

So for the most part, consumer experiences are comparable and largely undistinguished beyond the type of business and platform (e.g. all fashion ecommerce websites are generally comparable, but are distinctly different to the experience of visiting an electronics retail store – which in turn are largely comparable).

Category pages for ‘jeans’ from three major high street fashion ecommerce retailers.

Because, within any given sector, the product and proposition of each company is generally constructed from the same basic building blocks (e.g., price, market, product type, colour, size, etc), and the only real difference is – again – the treatment and presentation. These organisations and their propositions are largely undifferentiated.

And, because of this – as with my choice in which media and content I consume – I’m getting picky about which brands I invest my time (and money) with. 

In the same way that watching yet another cheesy vampire film makes me crave a new or exciting plot device, evaluating the product and proposition of yet another identical insurance company makes me crave differentiation in what I buy and the services I use.

Consumer loyalty is key

In a saturated market, consumer choice determines who wins and who loses. Brands need to attract new prospects, and to retain existing customers if they wish to maintain and to grow market share.

But as with our media and content choices, it’s differentiation which determines the brands we choose, or the brands we continue to shop with.

Whilst hard limitations like price, availability, and proximity still frequently play a role in our research and decision-making processes, the digital revolution erodes these traditional USPs – these are yesterday’s differentiators, and their time is limited.

Because, increasingly, everything’s available everywhere: all the time, on demand, at a comparable price. When all else is equal, the brand I choose to engage with will be the one which surprises, delights, compels, or resonates with me.

A vision of a world saturated with augmented reality layers and advertising, where everything is available, everywhere, all the time. From

Brands which are undifferentiated – or who are trading on legacy USPs – risk competing only on price, or slipping into being little more than a listing on a comparison website.

I should point out that, for some brands, that’s okay – brands which are designed to compete on price in commodified marketplaces and comparison sites can still do well, fighting to grab consumers attention and cash, but not necessarily their loyalty. Often, they rely on capitalising on scenarios where brands have failed to gain consumer loyalty, or operate in verticals where differentiation is sometimes less important than cost.

However, many brands – particularly those who seek and value longevity and sustainable growth – are realising that they need to invest in the loyalty of their existing and potential new consumers.

Because low levels of loyalty make audiences more susceptible to competitive advances from other providers, or – as with our media choices – increases the likelihood that they will actively seek alternatives.

High levels of loyalty, however, can raise the threshold at which I might otherwise become susceptible to competitive messaging, and might also mitigate against past or future undifferentiated experiences. High loyalty will forgive friction, or disappointment, and stops me switching when I’m price-sensitive.

In the same way that I might forgive a beloved author if I’m disappointed with a book in a particular series, I’m more likely to forgive a brand for a poor product or experience when I’ve built up trust and loyalty over time.

Businesses need to tell a story beyond just reflecting their ability to fulfill demand for a reasonable price with reasonable convenience – loyalty born from convenience or commodity only lasts until another brand is more convenient.

As products and services become increasingly commodified, and as markets get busier and noisier, differentiation is one of the only scalable, lasting tools which businesses can use to attract new customers and to grow loyalty. Differentiation is, by definition, how you stand out.

Standing out

To fail to stand out is to be overlooked by consumers as they research and choose the brands they’ll build relationships with.

Of course, whilst it’s easy to state that businesses need to be unique, interesting and differentiated, the reality is that creating and maintaining that distinction is challenging. Traditional companies in particular – those built on the back of traditional USPs – may struggle to identify or create distinguishing factors which set them aside from their competitors.

Surprisingly, though, many longstanding organisations who appear undistinguished on the surface, hide surprising stories and values which they simply fail to bring to the market.

Some years ago, I consulted for a seemingly generic insurance company. It turned out that, as a minor feature, they automatically increased the value of goods they covered in your home during the festive period, to account for you storing friends and relatives gifts. But this was only mentioned in the small-print to existing customers. That’s differentiated, but lost in the noise.

Similarly, a home improvement company who marketed entirely on price made the same misstep. They produced a product of such a high quality that the industry ratings system had to be frequently revised to reflect their value; this information barely featured as a footnote, too late in the conversion funnel to win the hearts and minds of high-funnel researchers.

My point is that, maybe, differentiation isn’t necessarily that rare. Maybe it just needs extracting and putting into the spotlight. Businesses need to look inwards and discover the ideologies, features and principles which can make them stand out.

Because, in a crowded market of largely similar businesses, you only need to be better than your competitors. That might be as simple as having less friction than other options, having better customer service, or more streamlined processes than others.

That level of differentiation is almost always achievable, even if what you sell or do isn’t unique.

“How to come up with a value proposition when what you sell isn’t unique”, from

But there’s a risk to differentiating. By highlighting and positioning yourself as something different, you risk alienating some of your potential audience.

Everything to everyone = Nothing to anyone

In the same way that I have preferences and biases towards the kind of films, music and books I enjoy, the same applies to the brands in my life.

Personally, for example, I’ll naturally gravitate towards brands which utilise clever technology, or those which have synergies with other brands or products which I have relationships with. Conversely, I’ll avoid many lifestyle, fitness and ‘sporty’ brands because their messaging or storytelling often fails to resonate with me.

Differentiation, by its very nature, attracts or repel consumers with different preferences. and will do so with varying degrees of impact. 

The challenge is that, in our paradigm, the ‘mega-brand’ is king. The aspiration and ‘end game’ for most large brands is to utterly consume their market – to grow, and grow, until they have an incontestable lead and market share. The dream of success is, frequently, a single logo on a myriad of market-winning products which meet the need of every customer in their sector.

The fear of negative perception from some potential consumers, then, is one of the things which most frequently prohibits differentiation. Brands don’t differentiate because moving away from an inoffensive middle ground could polarise their audience. Alienating part of an indifferent target market appears risky and often overshadows the potential of more engaged and loyal customers.

And differentiation can create friction for consumers, too. There’s a real risk that the different, or the new, is often less comfortable or easy to consume than the norm. For most brands, though, the benefits of cut-through will outweigh the costs of that friction.

I should point out that some brands will struggle to move away from this middle ground because of the sectors they work in, and the restrictions that places on them (e.g., the strict content policies on medical or finance websites). In cases like this, they’ll often attempt to achieve competitive separation by creating sibling and child brands. This allows them to create an alternate treatment and presentation layer for their services and target a slightly different demographic with each. Whilst this can go some way to out-differentiating competitors in a largely static market, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem; they’re all doing it, and it’s all samey.

There are big wins, then, to be had by the brands willing to be more ambitious and aggressive in their differentiation. Standing for something, and standing out, builds more loyalty and sways consumer decisions more than minor distinctions in messaging or functionality. To target and engage a smaller fraction of the potential consumer base, but with a relationship orders-of-magnitude more sticky and loyal, will become increasingly important in our new, digital, consumer-first world.

Technology is widening the gap

None of this is new thinking. Brands have always fought to separate themselves and to stand out, whilst minimising the risk of alienation. But the cost for failure has never been so high as it is today – the pace of change in consumer behaviour, technology and marketplaces is accelerating and we’re about to hit a critical point.

New interfaces like voice search, interactions with chatbots, and intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) – which are set to become the norm for how we interact with technology – are changing the way in which we select products, services and brands.

If I need a new washing machine, if my insurance policy is due for renewal, or if I want to order a pizza – if these devices have enough information to be able to make a reasonable choice (the intersect of price, proximity, availability, etc) – then, increasingly, they’ll just choose for me. Increasingly, there’ll be scenarios where devices like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home will make consumers less involved in their own purchase decisions.

And if you’re one of the brands who wasn’t chosen, you’ve lost that consumer. They won’t see your advertising, because they never entered the marketplace or spent time researching their options. They’ll never visit your website, or be swayed by your special offers. In these cases, the consumer never enters your funnel at all.

In a market where most brands are undifferentiated, and applications find the ‘best’ solutions for us automatically, the role of storytelling, of loyalty, and differentiation takes on new importance. We’re moving from a world where you need to influence consumer preference and decision, to one where you need to influence machine choice.

When they’re ready to buy, you’re already too late

At the point of consumer need, these devices and systems will look for clues and signals which will help them make the best brand, service and product decisions.

They’ll examine past behaviour. They’ll consider peer behaviour and influence. They’ll look for evidence of preference towards certain brands over others. They’ll consider where you are, what they know about you, and use all of that context to make a decision on your behalf.

As consumers, every piece of content we consume (or don’t), the actions we take, and the signals we leave are tracked and monitored. All of this information is being recorded. Your reactions, responses and interactions – and those of and between your peers – is building a profile of your preference and loyalty, which will be used by IPAs and other systems to act on your behalf.

Specifically, IPAs will use engagement and alignment signals as a proxy for preference.

If a user has already interacted with your brand, your app or your content (and if your brand is in the right place, at the right time), then you’re more likely to be the chosen solution.

That means marketing to and building relationships with consumers before they enter the funnel.

It means that our conversion-centric focus needs to change radically – to consider that, if we don’t capture consumer interest and generate evidence of loyalty and engagement before the point of need, those potential customers will never see our brand.

It means that channels which can reach consumers early in their lifecycles – like organic search, or social media – need to shift their focus towards creating evidence of preference. Because trying to capture consumer demand when it manifests only works if there’s a route to engage with that consumer. And that will no longer be the case.

In this world, first-mover advantage is critical.

Amazon Dash is already creating engagement signals for commodity purchases, which will drive future automated purchase decisions.

Once a consumer already has a preferred provider for a certain solution (consciously or otherwise), it’s hard for other brands to dislodge that preference. Unless the customer has a bad enough experience to proactively send them to researching their options, they’re unlikely to enter other purchase funnels, see competitor advertising, or make their own purchase decisions.

The key, then, is to identify ways to create and grow brand currency within your marketplace; to identify potential customers long before they enter a need state, and to create usage and preference signals which can be cashed in later (either directly, or by inference) for preference at the point of need and transaction.

It’s also worth considering that many companies do a poor job of maintaining great relationships with consumers. Budgets and preferential marketing tactics often focus on acquisition, at the expense of retention and delighting existing customers. In a marketplace where competitors are attempting to earn brand currency, a consistently average or inattentive relationship might make me receptive to competitor propositions.

It’s not enough to differentiate and tell a story to win a consumer – you have to follow-through, and maintain that dialogue. Brand currency decays with time, and with poor experiences.

If engagement is a proxy for preference, brands should fear boredom.

You need to start now.

Emerging technologies, personal assistants, and the increasing commodification of goods and services has already made inroads into the traditional marketing model.

You can no longer rely on advertising and marketing to the masses, in the hopes of building a funnel from awareness through to conversion.

Now, you need to identify (or create) differentiating features, and pivot your focus to using those features to build relationship signals. You must create content and undertake activity which earns evidence of brand currency/loyalty/awareness, and positions you as a solution before consumers enter need states – otherwise you won’t be in the consideration set when they’re ready to purchase.

Practically, this means working out how you turn your differentiating factors into opportunities to engage, converse and build relationships with consumers which positively impact their experiences. Depending on your sector, that might mean supportive content and resources, or it might mean practical applications and in-person support for tangentially related topics and services. You’ll need to find and/or engineer your thing, and to start converting capability into upstream loyalty.

The measurement, attribution and business processes required to enable this kind of behaviour are challenging, to say the least. Marketing teams will need to be judged on concepts like brand affinity, rather than conversions, as lack-click and even multi-touch attribution won’t come nearly close to understanding how, when are where brand influence occurs, or lead (directly or otherwise) to a sale. These metrics, aren’t impossible to track (e.g., models like net promoter score measurement can be adapted to understand affinity, etc), but they’re a fundamentally different way of thinking about acquisition and retention.

The old model of “spend money on marketing, get and attribute sales” doesn’t work in an age when there’s no single attributable trigger for a conversion, and where the consumer isn’t the decision-maker.

Teams and businesses will need to focus on the ownership of consumers and their preference, within a sector; it simply won’t be feasible to optimise towards or measure the individual sales and conversions which occur as a result of (frequently machine-inferred) brand preference. All activity will need to drive towards growing awareness and affinity, and retaining existing consumer preference – otherwise competitors will win consumers before they even enter the market, and all you’ll see is diminishing market share.

Seize the opportunity.

Consider, as a consumer, which brands you have relationships with, which span beyond just the transactional.

Which companies produce interesting, compelling content? Which engage with you outside of your predictable purchase patterns, to offer something more than special offers and discounts? Which stand out from the crowd, because they’re different and they resonate with your preferences and ideologies?

I’d be surprised if you can identify more than a handful, and shocked if you can name one in each vertical which you transact in as a consumer.

But these are the brands which will continue to stand out, to earn brand currency, and to be chosen (by individuals and IPAs).

That means there’s a gap, and an opportunity. Mostly, because this is a hard shift to make. New businesses and disruptive startups often lack the brand currency to quickly and effectively establish relationships these kinds of relationships (and monetize them in a viable timeframe), and most established, larger organisations lack the flexibility to change their operating structures and processes to think and behave this way.

In the short-term, that means that there’s money left on the table, for those who are willing to stretch themselves and become more consumer-centric. Simple differentiation and a focus on building loyalty and brand currency can make the difference between being just-another-brand, and leading in a sector.

In the mid to long-term, things get more complex. You need to consider that, if a machine had to pick your service over another, for a consumer, what signals would it evaluate, and what decision would it make?

And if you can’t answer that question today, then you’re already losing market share to brands who’re built on differentiated problem-solving, and you’ve got some catching up to do.

Because, in 2016, I already have an application which automatically manages my mortgage for me, based on preference signals, as well as one which automatically evaluates the gas & electricity market for me and automatically changes my account – based partially on price, but also on stated and inferred preference.

These systems exist today, and they’re already removing consumers from the marketplace. If you wait until they reach your sector, somebody else will already be entrenched and own your consumers.

How will you differentiate, earn and maintain loyalty, and create preference?

Originally published on on 11/11/2016

The Analytics Challenges of Tomorrow…

First published on Inked on 13th September, 2016

Have vendors and platforms made us lazy? The status quo for most of the industry is tools designed to sell to us on how, through simply installing their solutions, we’ll discover insight in our data which will make our businesses more successful.

However, we all know that it’s not that simple. There are large gaps between the processes of collecting data, applying business context, discovering insight, and producing impactful recommendations; and it’s our responsibility as analysts to bridge those gaps.

Frequently then, our job is to build, explore, pivot, contextualise, and to discover valuable insight for our businesses. So we spend our time hunting for trends, reacting to changing data points, and finding nuggets of value in pivot tables and segments. We discover nuance and intelligence, which we marry with our understanding of the organisations we work in, interpret, translate, and share in the form of insight and action.

We’re daring explorers and adventurers, in the height of the digital renaissance.

Tomorrow, everything changes

The threshold of cost, effort, and complexity to tag, collect, store, process and integrate will continue to reduce, and businesses will increasingly connect their systems into data warehouses. The level of complexity and scope of ‘big data’ that this will create in even small organisations will be incomprehensibly challenging to analyse.

And so, we’re about to hit a tipping point. It’ll become, comparatively, woefully inefficient for a human analyst to explore data in the way we currently do. The idea of opening up your analytics package and going hunting for insight will seem laughably naive, in retrospect, when you consider the capabilities of machine learning processes which will analyse our entire data sets to discover trends we’d never see, and make recommendations we’d never consider.

We’re not quite there yet, though

Today, systems like Google Analytics’ Intelligent Alerts are still generally limited to alerting you on statistically significant outliers; things like “Your pageviews-per-session for visitors from Italy on mobile devices was up 500% on Tuesday!”. If I don’t market in Italy, or if pageviews aren’t an impactful metric for my business, this might not be insight, and arguably, even useful information. The system lacks the business context it needs in order to make useful recommendations.

The next generation of tracking solutions, then, will begin to enable us to define business scenarios or criteria and our preferred actions. We’ll build rules like “if it’s raining whilst the consumer is browsing our holiday website, we should increase the propensity to show them summer holiday offers“, or “if sales volumes are decreasing, prioritise the volume of sales over direct revenue”. The systems will have access to the relevant data and will identify opportunities based on our criteria, as well as triggering direct action in connected systems. They’ll also learn from these scenarios and become increasingly self-managing when it comes to identifying desirable outcomes and presenting relevant insight and opportunities.

We’ll become teachers, tutors, and mentors, managing and understanding the data sets and inputs, and letting the machines do the heavy lifting. As this revolution unfolds, we’ll find ourselves becoming curators of systems and data sets, and the amount of time we spend doing actual analysis will reduce.

And so, the analysts of tomorrow will spend today thinking about how they define success scenarios and criteria. They’ll be considering how they codify business objectives and commercial context into rules, and planning out how they manage, get access to and connect the data sets they’ll need.