Snap and its little ghost

Snapchat is going to change your life (whether you like it or not)

You can’t escape it: Snapchat is going to change your life. Here is how.

It was very early and very cold and I was staring blankly at a milk carton. Then, I saw it: a hashtag. A hashtag on a milk carton. You know something has become mainstream when it appears on something as far-removed from the web as milk.

This is legacy of Twitter, and more importantly, its users. Hashtags are now used across most social media sites, on billboards and other places. This is part of a wide pattern: social media sites explode into the mainstream and change how we behave.

Remember life before Facebook? Sure you do. But things were very different. Facebook changed how we stay in contact with people and how we share our lives.

Each of the mega social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and so on) have left their mark on our behaviour.

Now it is Snapchat’s turn. Snapchat is often mistakenly viewed as just a messaging app for young people. But, it will bring about the next big shift in the web.

This is how Snapchat is already changing our lives:

  • Photos and videos are becoming rawer, more realistic and less polished – the Instagram backlash has begun
  • You tend to pay more attention to things if you know they are going to disappear shortly – the Twitter backlash has begun
  • Snapchat wants to become the “first screen” in your life – the backlash against television continues

Return of raw

Instagram helped us change ordinary photos into beautiful photos by giving us easy-to-use filters. This gave birth to millions of highly stylised, polished photos of food, babies, yoga poses etc.

Snapchat has given us the opposite. The images shared on Snapchat are instant, unpolished, often graffitied with text, emojis and more. They’re going to disappear shortly, so people just create them and send them. This return to raw, realistic photos is already creating a little ripple of a backlash against what web expert Aleks Krotoski calls the “super me.” That is the artificial and amplified version of ourselves we project on social media.       

Blink and it is gone

Our online lives are permanent (most of the time). Years of posts and photos are available in a few clicks. Snapchat is the opposite of that. All the messages on it disappear quickly, never to be seen again. (Well, not really, but more about that in an upcoming blog post). This urgency grabs our attention. We want to consume the information wholly and fully before it is gone. Compare that deep engagement with the shallow flicking that our other timelines induce, such as Twitter.  

TV dies another death

Twitter has dominated the “second screen” market. So, if you are watching a programme on television, you might also be following the conversation about it on Twitter. Snapchat isn’t interested in being the second screen, it is aiming to be the first screen. For example, this year’s MTV Video Music Awards were watched by more people on Snapchat than on TV. How? Snapchat is positioning itself as a media empire. It has a feature called Live Story that covers events by combining users’ videos and images with exclusive access-all-areas footage from its reports at the events. Its Discover section includes 15 media partners (like Mashable and Mail Online) who produce exclusive content for Snapchat. And yes, that content disappears after 24 hours, so you better watch it quickly!

You mightn’t use Snapchat, but how it operates is already changing the web. When it changes the web, it changes how we behave. It won’t be long before Snapchat’s influence spills into the mainstream and onto a milk carton near you.

Whitney's big hair and social media success. Image courtesy of Huffington Post

Guaranteed success on social media

Did I just write guaranteed success on social media? Can I guarantee it? A little part of me was scared to write it, but yes, I can. You can too. It is simple and proven and you already do it in other parts of your life. Now, all you have to do is take those tricks and do them on social media.

Big hair

What do you remember about the 1980s? I remember, as a child, standing in our garden after being told we were emigrating to America. When I got there, I remember big houses, Whitney Houston’s big hair, big cars and an outdoor swimming pool at the end of our road.

I also remember the five-storey school I went to. I remember feeling like I had landed on a different planet. I remember not knowing how to do joined-up writing like the rest of the class. I remember the tension and bullying in the class when the teacher left for a few minutes.

Get involved

But, there was a valuable lesson learnt. Being shy, at first, I kept quiet and life was hard in school. Then, I started to open up, talked to a few people. They were interested in Ireland and we became friends. More friends emerged and the tension disappeared.

I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences of new places and a new crowd. The way we often handle that – talking to people and building relationships – is the same way we need to approach social media.

Immerse yourself

It seems simple, but many organisations ignore it: we must become a real member of that social community. This is how you do that.

Daily diet

Here at Concern Worldwide we’ve had some great success on social media. That is because we learnt that lesson: talk with people, not at them. Initially, we thought it only worked on Twitter. Then, we applied it to Facebook. Now, we’re applying it to Instagram, YouTube and beyond. The results are always the same: deep engagement and wide reach. It is not just us. Last night, I talked with Lawrence Ampofo, the founder of Digital Mindfulness, and they have started to use this technique too and have seen big improvements on Twitter and SoundCloud.

I’ll give you an example of how it works. Every day on Twitter, the web team in Concern has a list of tasks that we have to do. We call it our daily diet:

  • We reply to at least five tweets
    • (This can be hard at first, read this to find out how best to approach it)
  • We re-tweet at least five tweets
  • We try to keep the number of times we tweet low – maybe three a day

Listen first

The reason this works is because it slowly builds relationships with people. You listen and talk with them and they respond. Then, their followers will notice and get involved. It seems simple, but lots of organisations think social media is there to push their views on people. But, most people prefer you to talk with them rather than at them.   

This focus on listening first, talking second, has guaranteed us success on social media.

Now it’s your turn

Pick your most important social media site. Resist the temptation to talk first. Instead, listen and enjoy your daily diet. Success guaranteed.

Shifu Yan Lei kicking - image courtesy of

Kicks, clicks and digital distraction

Deep in the shrouded mountains of Henan province, China, the monks of the Shaolin Temple have perfected their martial arts over centuries. Little did they know that they would be helping me deal with the constant distraction of the modern digital age. Until now.

“Kick, kick, kick” – the fearsome man was screaming at us. We were already exhausted after an hour of hard training and now we were kicking heavy bags. It was a dark, freezing night; but, there he was in a t-shirt, shorts and no socks – impervious to the cold. I would like to introduce you to Shifu Yan Lei of the Shaolin Temple. He taught me to fight and to pay attention to every kick.

“Don’t think about anything else – focus on every kick.”

As I sit here, years later, I can’t help but think that type of mindfulness is needed as much in front of a screen as in a fight.

Click, click, click

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve struggled with this. When in front of a screen I’ve found myself being distracted easily. One task is forgotten as another catches my attention. The web offers so much distraction, it is hard to stayed focused. Especially when you’re tired.

But the words of Shifu Yan Lei have been echoing in my mind: try to focus on every click / kick.

Here is what I’ve learnt:

Then, a thought would come into my head about something and immediately I’d look it up online. That was fine. But, that immediate gratification led to a habit that went unnoticed for a while. Then that habit started to dominate my attention, fragmenting it. After a while my head started to hurt.


Now, when a similar thought about clicking on something comes into my mind I pause. That split second gives me a choice. To click or not. At that point, I make a choice: how best should I spend my time and attention?

I write down the thought. After a while, I have a little list of things I want to click. 


Then, when I want to, I look up all those interesting things. I look forward to it. I get more enjoyment from this mindful clicking than I did from the habitual distraction. I found this simple approach has taken a lot of strain off my mind. I find I am more content and able to concentrate for long periods of time. Even when I’m tired.

Digital mindfulness

It is hard, but pausing before clicking gives you a choice. It gives you a chance to decide how to spend your time and attention.

And it is much less exhausting than kicking heavy bags under the watchful eye of Shifu Yan Lei.

David versus Goliath: lessons in digital strategy. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

David teaches Goliath a lesson in digital strategy

Once upon a time, David (the small one) had a fight with Goliath (the big one). It ended badly for Goliath and so began the story of the underdog winning against all odds. I saw a similar scenario recently and it got me thinking: what lessons in digital strategy can small organisations teach big ones?

The journey begins

They leave their cigarettes at the gate and walk up the lane to the New Hope residential care centre. Those first few steps are a commitment to leave their addictions behind them. The new arrivals are entering a drug treatment programme that is built on abstinence. They face a difficult journey.

New Hope is a small organisation run on a tiny budget and a team of committed volunteers. I had the honour of advising them on strategy recently as part of a great event called CharityHack.

As another charity, Concern Worldwide is at the opposite end of the scale to New Hope. We work in many of the world’s poorest countries with thousands of staff, helping millions of people. But, even for Concern, it’s a struggle to get people’s attention online and a further struggle to turn that attention into action.

Concern isn’t the biggest charity around (think World Vision, Oxfam and more) and it’s dwarfed in size by lots of massive companies in other sectors. There’s always a bigger fish in the pond. But, whatever the company, the one thing all organisations have in common is that they’re built on values. Or, they should be. And their behaviour, branding and strategy should fall out of these values. It’s these values that everyone is trying to turn into something that will grab our attention online.

When it comes to that, a small organisation like New Hope can teach us all a few lessons:

No substitute for passion

At CharityHack, Aine (from New Hope) stood up in a room of people she didn’t know and told us a story. We were riveted. She told us about a person who’d beaten his addiction, gotten an education, graduated out of New Hope and was about to get married. There was no denying Aine’s genuine passion and it was contagious. I think many people there were hoping they’d get a chance to work with her that day. Real passion makes people sit up and take notice. When an organisation communicates with passion we pay attention. This honest and passionate communication should be central to any digital communication strategy.

In their words

We pay attention to people we trust. We also listen when we feel a real connection with someone. That’s why companies are bending over backwards to find credible brand ambassadors. New Hope runs an addiction treatment programme. The volunteers who run it have been through the programme. They are living proof of its value.

Do you tell the story of your service (or product) through the words of the people who use it?

Here in Concern we try to do that, in a way. We try to give the people we with work with a voice – a chance to tell their story. This should be central to a social media strategy. Here’s a good example of that.

Opening up

Sometimes the biggest organisations dominate their competitors. Big doesn’t always mean best and a dominant position can lead to complacency. Operating on a tiny budget with no paid members of staff isn’t an ideal situation either. But, the need to survive can produce an openness to change.

New Hope came to the CharityHack with a willingness to listen to constructive criticism, to be open to change and to try something it hadn’t done before. This flexibility is something a lot of organisations lose as they expand. In this constantly moving digital world, retaining a culture of experimentation, at least in some teams, is essential if organisations are going to survive.

As the CharityHack finished and people prepared to leave, Aine said that the day had given her a new slogan: “turn no hope into New Hope.” I wish New Hope well and look forward to seeing David teach Goliath a few more lessons.

A sunset courtesy of Wiki Commons

The Digital Mindfulness Manifesto

Since the turn of the millennium, I have spent most of my working days staring at the web through a screen. That is not unusual. You too probably spend a lot of time staring at screens. In order to survive and thrive in this culture of constant distraction, we must rebel against digital devices. We must turn off. This is the Anti-digital Manifesto – a guide to being successful, happy and healthy in the digital age.

In the past week, it has happened twice. During my conversations with colleagues here in Concern Worldwide I was called the anti-Head of Digital by two people. What the hell does that mean? It means people are surprised when they discover that I don’t have a personal Facebook page. They’re a little shocked that I try to avoid the web on days off. That I don’t check all social media sites constantly – only one account a day. Today is my day for LinkedIn. And so on. Until I explain the method to my madness.

In his renowned book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr described how:

By moving from the depths of thought to the shallows of distraction, the web, it seems, is actually fostering ignorance.

Have you noticed how the web has changed your behaviour? Concentration for long periods becomes harder. Flick, flick, flick. Flashing, beeping, vibrating devices dominate our attention. Tap, tap, tap. Instinctively we reach for our phone during quiet moments. Click, click, click.

Let’s be clear, the web is a wonderful tool. It is how we choose to use it that is damaging us.

So, if you are like me, working with the web all the time, here are some ways to help you work more creatively, strategically and contently:

Fresh air

The smokers used to make me jealous. They looked serene as they puffed their cigarettes outside. Then I realised, it wasn’t the cigarettes I wanted, it was the chance to stand outside in the fresh air. So, here in Concern, our digital team tries to step away from their screens regularly during the day. A few minutes outside in the fresh air clears the mind, refreshes our senses and makes us better when we return to our screens. We also try to have as many meetings as we can outside on benches in the car park.


Who would have thought that after millions of years of evolution, we would end up sitting down for most of the day? Sitting down is killing us. So, stand up and walk around as much as you can during the day. People have different ways of doing this in Concern. Some take calls as they walk, people have stand-up desks, while others have stand-up meetings. Get up and move around in whatever ways suits you. Remember: “walking is man’s best medicine,” according to Hippocrates.

Single tasking

What is the most important thing you should be working on at the moment? Do it and nothing else. Turn off your social media and email notifications. If you’re feeling particularly inspired, turn off your emails altogether and focus on getting the most important stuff done. Now, everyone’s circumstances are different, so you might not be able to ignore everyone all day. But, work with your team, set expectations of when you will be available and give yourself the luxury of doing a single task for a while.


Our nervous system, brain activity and much more are linked to our breathing. If you’re breathing quickly and shallowly, you’re going to feel nervous and stressed. On the other hand, if your breathing is smooth, deep and slow, then you will feel calm and focused. Watch how you breathe as you work today. Take a few moments to breathe deeply. Do this throughout the day.

This is about working better with the web, using it to help you and your organisation. The options are clear:

  • We continue to slip into the shallows of distraction
  • Or, we practise some digital mindfulness

I know what I am choosing.

The Sea Troll by Theodor Kittelsen via Wiki Commons.

Let’s go hunting internet trolls!

People shout abuse at Concern Worldwide’s web team. Well, let me re-phrase that, they tweet abuse at us – often in capital letters. It happens regularly. But, we decided to turn these internet trolls to our advantage. Join us as we go troll hunting!

Twitter can be invaluable. You can use it for lots of great things. It has changed how we consume information. But, lurking in this galaxy of information are many trolls.

According to Wikipedia, a troll is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people.”

Here is an example of what they say:

What about looking after poor and hungry children in Ireland first! Don’t see any African nation ever helping us!

 That’s mild. The tweets we receive are often racist, targeting the people we help in the world’s poorest countries.

Years ago, we weren’t sure how to handle stuff like that. But, then we realised that each comment presented us with an opportunity. We set ourselves an objective: to engage with trolls and try to convert them into people who supported our work.

This is how we did that:

Pick your battle

Our policy is to engage with (almost) all trolls. But, if it is clear from their profile that they are incapable of a conversation, then we don’t engage. That’s a rarity though.

Be prepared

You know what issues people might have with your organisation. So, think about them beforehand and prepare your side of the argument. Given the brevity of Twitter (140 characters) you might want to create some content on your site that will support what you’re trying to say. Then, you can link back to it. Here is a page we often link to these days.

Questions please

Make sure you answer the question you’re being asked. Often with trolls though, there is no question, just a statement. So, use this as an opportunity to ask the troll a question. Engage them in a conversation. Send them a link to one of your videos and ask them what they think. The first step in converting a troll is starting a conversation with them. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

People are watching

People are curious to see how you will react to trolls. Keep this in mind when you’re replying: there are other people watching. So, use it as an opportunity to highlight your content – link back to your site or other social media. Use something like to track the number of people who click on your link. You’ll be surprised how many people are watching the conversation.

Detractor to supporter

Turn your trolls into an opportunity to talk with more people in a more meaningful way. View these exchanges as a positive way to tell your side of the story. Happy hunting!

This blog post was originally published on Just Giving Blog


John Sweeney of Suspended Coffee - a social media genius

What I learnt from a social media master

A lot of people talk drivel about social media. But, every now and then, you come across a person who has a pure instinct for it; someone who naturally understands people and naturally understand social media. Yesterday, I talked to a master of social media. This is what I learnt.

First, the numbers

In less than three years, Suspended Coffees has gained more than 288,000 likes on its Facebook page. Its engagement with its followers is both deep and wide. All of this was done organically with no ads or promoted content. Most companies would kill for a committed and rapidly-growing community like that.

Master at work

The master behind its growth is a former plumber, “with no social media training” as he said himself. That man is John Sweeney. A few years ago he had a revelation: that kindness matters. By being kind to each other, we can create a more balanced, a more humane and a more understanding society. So, he started Suspended Coffees and it has become a world-wide movement.

We talked yesterday about his work and our work here at Concern Worldwide. This is what I learnt:


We must follow our instinct. Often that means taking a risk, doing something without all the information we’d like. But, to grow we have to try new things. So, take your idea for a new Facebook post and give it a go. Review the results and then try to improve it.


This may seem obvious, but lots of organisations fail on it: people react to personalities. People do not react as positively to bland, mundane branding and messages. What is the personality of your Facebook page? Find one quickly, if you want to be successful.

Universal cause

Suspended Coffees focuses on kindness. We can all understand that. It is a universal human behaviour. Think about your audience on Facebook. Think about the people you are trying to reach. Then think about your organisation. Think about what you’re trying to do. What common value do you and your audience share? Find that and start to talk about it.


People can sense a fraud. So, be honest. Does the image you are trying to portray, match your behaviour? It should. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to either change branding or behaviour. You decide.

Real social skills

If you understand how to listen and talk with people in real life, you’re at an advantage on social media. Long before John Sweeney heard of Facebook, he was good with people. Facebook has just given him the chance to reach more of them.

Time well spent

I learnt a lot from John in our brief conversation. You’ll see some of these ideas shortly on Concern’s Facebook page. Could John help your organisation? Everyone can learn from a master.

This blog post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.