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    Digital World Series event at The Studio

    Last month I attended the Digital World Series event, held as part of the Greater Birmingham Digital Academy series, in conjunction with Digital Birmingham (I know, how many times can I use ‘digital’ in one sentence).

    IMG_5856The event was loosely billed as a way for small/medium businesses to learn from leaders (and experts) to gain a greater understanding of digital technologies. The line up looked impressive, with speakers from internationally recognised digital leaders like Twitter, Facebook and Uber, as well as some local speakers like Simon Jenner, one of the founders of Urban Coffee Company and Justice Williams.  Having been involved in digital communications for a while now, it’s always interesting to hear how other organisations are making the best of the internet, and new emerging trends.

    The day kicked off with an introduction to the day from Raj Mack, head of Digital Birmingham, followed by Neil Morgan from Sage, the accountant software organisation.  He give a frank and interesting presentation about how through acquisition and general enthusiasm, the organisation had ended up with a fragmented approach to social media, and how they aligned the digital strategy to that of the business ones.  Neil spoke about the importance of getting buy-in from the CEO but also from staff to encourage them to share online, and also forming a community of people who follow and engage with your business.

    Next up was Fouzan Ali from Uber, who spoke about his journey on getting to work at Uber and how the organisation works between local teams with local decisions making and accountability, and centralised departments.

    IMG_5867 Video was something which became a bit of a theme, started by Sophie Rayers, director of marketing at Brightcove.  She spoke about the benefits of utilising video, how to make them more engaging, using user generated content and how businesses like clothing companies and financial services are using video differently.  Video was something Paul McCrudden from Twitter also spoke about, talking about the company’s live streaming Periscope app and how its authenticity means it doesn’t need to be glossy, keeping costs down, which is particularly useful for smaller businesses.  He also spoke about linking into social media influencers;

    “Most celebrities are household names; we are handheld names. People take their phones everywhere” – Simone Shepherd.

    One of my favourite talks was from Amy Hobson, partner at Social B.  Amy’s talk was realistic and practical and gave some really good insights for smaller organisations that might not be able to do it all.  She started off explaining how social media relates to and links back to traditional marketing, something which I think is often confusing for people not confident with digital communications.  Asking people what “success looks like for you” she was able to explain simple but effective ways to manage and collect useful information from social media interactions.

    IMG_5874 Simon Jenner, founder of Urban Coffee Company spoke about the evolution of coffee companies in Birmingham but how Urban had experimented with technology to drive forward their business.  He spoke about how they had been prepared to experiment with a number of ideas, some of which worked and some of which didn’t, but the importance of realising that some experiments might seem like a failure but that they might be a case of wrong timing.  He also spoke about how Urban would like to use data to help drive forward the business and whilst a number of the other organisation are large national or international businesses, it was good to hear how smaller businesses could utilise digital communication innovations.  Another local speaker, Justice Williams, also spoke about the importance of authenticity, looking at how a number of women are leveraging digital to create successful businesses that give them the freedom to work for themselves whilst utilising their content and retaining their authenticity.

    IMG_5878Big data is something that seems to be everywhere and another stand out talk of the day was from Ian West, VP Analytics & Information at Cognizant, an international consultancy.  He spoke about the vast amount of data being produced, and the importance of collecting the right sort of data and analysing it to improve the customer experience.  Ian’s talk was funny but informative and gave some important insights into people’s fears of data, but how lots of well known businesses are using it to their advantage.

    The final talk belonged to Greg Russell of Facebook, who nicely managed to knit together a lot of the threads from the other speakers, talking about the increase in photos and video being shared and how competitive everything is, so the importance of personal relevance – and having a mobile strategy.

    And with that the day was done.  There was time for networking afterwards, but my brain was full of the day’s insights and I wanted some time to digest them.  I’d come away fascinated by what some organisations were doing and how well the speakers had done at translating how that could be applicable to other organisations to positively increase their digital footprint.

    Interestingly it wasn’t always the big ‘star’ names that were the most inspiring; the more hands-on approaches from Amy at Social B, Simon at Urban Coffee Company and Ian at Cognizant provided practical applications which could easily be implemented, even in smaller teams.  That said, Greg from Facebook and Paul from Twitter presented a really positive outlook to the digital landscape and how businesses, both big and small, could utilise some of these exciting new developments.

    Themes which are mentioned a lot in digital communications…big data, the importance of authenticity and the increasing popularity of video were all touched on and explored.  With a good mix of big names with large internationally recognised brands and smaller more local organisations, on the whole the speakers did a good job of breaking down the big ideas and wins for their organisations into ways that might work, or inspire, some of the smaller businesses in the room to develop their approaches. I’d been a bit wary, given the price of the ticket, but felt that I’d gained some valuable insights into some really exciting businesses and some practical ideas on digital communications.

    The Digital World Series are organising a second event, being held in Birmingham on 27th October and tickets are available at their website;


    UrbanCoffeeCo book club: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

    The final book club book of the year was Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  Set in a world where love is considered a disease that the population can be cured of when they come of age, Lena is counting down the days to her operation.  But when Lena meets Alex things take a turn.

    Overall most of the group seemed to enjoy the novel, pronouncing it interesting but at times a little superficial.  Certain aspects of the books didn’t seem to quite add up, particularly the timeline with Lena’s mother and the concept of passion amongst the regulators finding pleasure in their job.  But with reminders of 1984 and cold war communism this book seemed to tread the balance of science-fiction dystopia and a love story well.  The group really liked the way a teenage relationship was depicted from Lena acting silly and irrational, but being self-aware enough to know this.  In fact the group felt the whole depiction of being a teenager, even trapped in a dystopia, was accurate and the theme of growing up was well played.  Certain questions like why the regime exists and how big the compound they all live in were left unanswered, but being the first in a series of books it was thought they might be answered in later novels.  Overall an absorbing read.

    Questions/aspects we discussed:

    • How well did you find the portrayal of a love-cure?
    • Did the book do a good job of explaining first love and did it feel relevant to modern day as well as the novel’s setting?
    • Did the book explain how people could feel pleasure in their job like the regulators?
    • What about the idea of unnaturalism, the idea that homosexuality can be cured in this regime – how did that make you feel, did you notice it (p.47/8 in our copies)?
    • What about why the family unit still existed – do you think this was realistic in the world the book was set?
    • Did it remind you of any other books/regimes?
    • And the usual: did you like it, would you recommend it and if so to who?
    I read Delirium earlier in the year – here’s my review of it.

    Making paper garlands for Christmas

    The German Market is back in Birmingham and the John Lewis advert nearly had me in tears, so it has got to be time to prepare for Christmas.  And what better way than with some crafting!

    Cut outs ready to new sewn (by machine)

    Cut outs ready to be (machine) sewn

    Last weekend I wandered down the first of a series of workshops being held by Oh Buttons at the Jewellery Quarter branch of Urban Coffee Company.  The first session was the simple yet hugely delightful paper garlands workshop.

    Being a bit of an emo-kid I decided on doing a garland of stars.  Hannah from Oh Buttons had brought along a bunch of Christmassy papers and pieces of inspiration.  So once we had our idea and sketched it out, we had to cut out 24 pieces 8-10cm in length.  I’m pretty sure you could do smaller or larger pieces if that’s the affect you were going for, and I’ve seen versions with much more intricate paperwork than I’ll ever be able to manage.

    Anyway, once the cutting was done it was onto the sewing.  Sewing machines always make me a little nervous, even my own, but feeding through the bits of paper to make the garland was pretty therapeutic.  And the good thing was that a little gap sort of needed to be left in them so they’d have some movement…so there really was nothing to worry about!

    And behold the finished product!

    Star paper garlands

    The finished product - paper garlands sewn and displayed!

    I’m pretty pleased with mine and I’ve already hung it up in the house (as you can see).  I’ve got some butterfly templates which I picked up from a papercraft shop years ago and once I can find some suitable paper I’m going to try again and make some for my bedroom.  But first I think we need more to add to the Christmas decorations in the house!

    Hannah is running another three sessions on Sundays in the run up to Christmas.  The one this Sunday (20th Nov) is on felt Christmas tree decorations, then after that its things which can be made as gifts – embroidered brooches on the 4th Dec and Phone/MP3player cosies on the 11th December.  Sessions are two hours long, only cost £10 (more than reasonable in my opinion) and they’re good fun and easy to remember so if you want to make them again you can.

    Now, to try and convince my housemate to let me put up more decorations…

    Birmingham, Books

    Asked to write my first ever guest blogpost!

    I completely forgot to mention it here, but I’ve written a guest blogpost over at Urban Coffee Company‘s website on how to survive a book club.  Its about what to look out for if you’re new, have been going to book clubs for a while or are running one yourself – as well as trying to dispel the idea that book clubs are just retired old ladies discussing stuffy historical romances.  Kind of apt timing really, given my previous post here was about attending another book club.

    It has been up since last Wednesday, but check it out here and let me know what you think.


    UrbanCoffeeCo bookclub: The Bell by Iris Murdoch (review and bookclub questions)

    So, the book club choice for March (The Bell) has been decided for ages, as we agreed to be the guinea pigs for my friend Liz’s research piece into how book clubs respond to Iris Murdoch.  I have to admit I was a little concerned by this, as I thought it was going to be a bit of a tough read.  Turns out I was really wrong.  The book is very readable, or as I exclaimed to Liz early in the month “I’ve started it and I don’t hate it”.  And as a bonus for me, this counts towards the British Book Challenge!

    The Bell is one of those books where not a lot happens until the end and then there’s a little bit of a plot, but is more about the characters than a traditional beginning-middle-end resolution novel.  If I tried to explain what happens in the book, I would do it no favours and wouldn’t really do justice to it.  But the characters, from Dora, flighty girl trapped in a marriage with a controlling older man to Michael, leader of the community who is struggling with his sexuality, are complex and interesting.  And the themes; repression, goodness and attitudes to faith, are all really really interesting and make for a fantastic book club discussion.

    That said, whilst I’m glad I read it and for the most part enjoyed it, I read it in three sections, as it wasn’t one of those books that made me go back to it, but once I was reading it I sped through quite quickly.  And at times there was a little too much description for me.

    As this was part of a research piece, we already had a few questions I was asked to put to the group, but there were a few of my own and ones that cropped up:

    • What did you think of the book?
    • What did you feel was the book’s message – did it have a point?
    • What did you think were the main themes?
    • What did you think of Dora’s character? And Toby‘s?
    • Did you see a parallel between any of the characters relationships?
    • Did you have any expectations before reading the book?
    • Had you read any Iris Murdoch before?
    • Would you read any more now?
    • Would you recommend this to a friend and/or another book club?

    Next month we’ll be reading Solar by Ian McEwan – another book that will count to the book challenge!


    UrbanCoffeeCo bookclub: Never the Bride by Paul Magrs (review and bookclub questions)

    I know it’s midway through March, but the book club choice for February (Never the Bride by Paul Magrs) counts towards the British Book Challenge I’ve signed myself up to. Plus, I wanted to write a bit more than the general review I do for the coffee shop it’s hosted at.

    Although some people in the book club really hated the book, I found it quite a pleasant book to read. It’s very easy to read, which meant that I managed to finish it without really feeling like it was a lot of effort. It read to me very much like a Sunday afternoon show on the BBC. It’s quaint, fun, a little dark, but in a wholesome kind of way. To the point where I was a bit shocked when one of the characters swore – it’s very middle England by the seaside, with a bit of a Doctor Who spookiness going on.

    The chapters weren’t really chapters, and more a way of splitting up episodes of short stories. This works and doesn’t, as the short story nature of the book meant not everything was resolved. Being a fan of the monster-of-the-week type shows, I know they usually show the monster rising from the dead or something, but this didn’t feel wrapped up enough.

    Not really sure who the book is aimed at either. But would say if you want a nice, light-hearted book to read and enjoy a bit of supernatural mystery, then this is probably for you. Suspect it would make a good holiday read.

    • Questions for a book club/group on Never the Bride by Paul Magrs:
    • What did you think of the book, would you recommend it?
    • Did you finish it?
    • Who did you think it was aimed at? There have been some suggestions it’s teenage fiction, does this fit with the characters and could you see teenagers reading it?
    • What did you think of the Christmas Hotel and its owner?
    • What did you feel about the chapters, did they feel like episodes?
    • The book is the first in a series, would you read the others?
    • Did you like the pop-culture like Manifest Yourself (we thought it was like Most Haunted) ?
    • … and the literary references and Whitby & Bram Stoker and Frankenstein?

    The book for the end of this month is The Bell by Iris Murdoch. My friend Liz is doing a piece of research into how book clubs respond to Murdoch and we’re her guinea pigs. She’s got some other groups signed up to read it too – if you’re interested, check out her blogpost on it.


    UrbanCoffeeCo bookclub: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft (review and book club questions)

    Call it pathetic fallacy, but sat enjoying a warm coffee on a cold, dark night was the perfect setting to discuss this month’s book club choice; H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories.

    Even though most people struggled to read more than a few of the short stories, the discussion was lively and everyone had plenty to say.  It seemed a mix of reasons why people hadn’t finished the book – some don’t like short stories, others aren’t fans of horror, some didn’t like the writing style and others just ran out of time.  But everyone recognized the importance of Lovecraft to the horror genre today – the documentary style reminded me of the X-Files, the lack of women brought us on to talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I’m sure at one point someone mentioned Start Trek.

    I’m genuinely glad I attempted to read some of Lovecraft’s work.  I’ve been meaning to for years, and whilst I didn’t really get into it in time for the book club, I suspect it’s the kind of thing I might try and dip into every so often.  Sure the language wasn’t what I’m used to and some of the stories felt a little like the interesting stuff had happened off page, but they were worth a read – and definitely a notable classic, I’m sure.

    The usual questions asked at most of our book club

    • Did you enjoy the book?
    • Would you recommend it to others?
    • Did you finish it?

    More specific questions for The Call of Cthuhlu and Other Weird Tales:

    • How did you feel about reading short stories?
    • How did you feel about reading horror?
    • The writing style – did it feel older than the 1920s?
    • Could you see how Lovecraft influenced the horror genre today?
    • Did the device of the documentary style put you off or did you like it?  Do you think it made it feel more real – would audiences at the time feel the same?
    • Did anyone notice the lack of women and how foreigners were treated in the stories?

    Next month the book club is reading Never the Bride by Paul Magrs.  It’s not chicklit, despite what the title suggests (my friend Liz described it as ‘mad old lady lit’).  And double-points, because it’ll count towards the British Book Challenge!

    *This was originally posted on my old blog Sisyphean Solutions*