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Alan Charlesworth: my background in all things digital
... some more stuff

I have been described as both an expert and guru in Digital Marketing. However, that would be the opinion of others, not mine. Because I learn new things about it every day, I consider myself more of a scholar of the subject than a master.

So why am I sometimes considered an expert in Digital Marketing? an image of alan charlesworth Well, I've been involved in Internet-related marketing in practical, training, consultancy, advisory, research and academic roles since 1996. And I have written ten books on the subject ... and as we all know, if it's in a book, it must be true :-). So ... expert, or just more experienced than most? A one-eyed man in a land of the blind perhaps?

But let's back track just a bit. If - and it is a big if - I am any kind of expert in Digital Marketing it is because I am a qualified, experienced marketer first ... and digital marketer second. Indeed, I was a qualified, experienced marketer before the Internet came along. If you take anything from this page, take this paragraph. I think the issue is that important.

Indeed, it is this marketing experience that is behind my actually questioning the value of some aspects of digital marketing for some organizations. Actually, I'll go further: for some organizations 'digital' offers little or nothing ... as a result I am something of an anti-digital-marketing digital marketer.

Since 2003 I have worked full-time in higher education, but I'm a teacher rather than an academic. I do not, for example, have a string of academic papers to my name [OK, there is one on domain names, but it was in a now-defunct journal], nor do I attend academic conferences or present papers at them [OK, there were a couple in Athens - one questioning the ROI of marketing on social media, and one about not being able to give away free publicity ... but then, I like Athens :-)]. Furthermore, my books are practical in nature. You'll find very [very] few citations to academic articles in any of them - but plenty of references to practitioners' work. Naturally, this means my 'research' takes place in organizations - normally at the sharp end of things - and reading such publications as Econsultancy and Marketing Week, not in academic journals - though I do like Harvard Business Review as it's 'academic' articles tend to be applied, rather than pure, theory.

I also have a collection of books in the subject area that would be the envy of most university libraries. Some of those books are current, some date back to the 1990s. All are written by practitioners, not academics. The best are featured in my list of digital marketing books that are worth a look. So extensive is my 'library' that it is not unknown for PhD students to travel significant distances to get access to them [and yes, I get the irony of PhD students wanting to read the wisdom of mere practitioners]. It is notable that for many of these authors their books became a springboard to professional success in their subject area. Perhaps like me, they discovered that if you have published books people deem useful, then those people contact you for advice. And over the years those same people rise up their own professional ladders - but, on occasion, still seek advice ... it would appear that some folk value my opinion [note: at this level, advice generally morphs into consultancy].

It was in the period '96 to '99 that I got involved with this whole Internet/online/digital malarkey, working with [strictly speaking, I was a self-employed consultant] what was then a very small company - but one that grew to be much bigger. This was practical e-commerce at the sharp end, learning - and making things up - about the new communications medium and its impact on business and society as we went along. For example, I know a lot about domain names simply because I advised [and still do] so many organizations on what name to register and I know the basics of search engine optimization because I spent hours trying to get a domain name registration website to the top of the likes of Hotbot, Excite, Alta Vista, WebCrawler, Lycos, Infoseek, MetaCrawler and Yahoo! before the mighty Google came along.

Also during that period I spent a lot of time [oh yes, a lot of time] in front of Business Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, industry bodies, management forums, in-house company seminars and the like 'preaching' about Internet technology and how organizations must be ready for its coming - and then later, how to best match the potential of that technology with the needs of the organization and its customers. To put this into perspective for younger readers - I was telling businesses they should start to use email for communications.

Indeed, at that time - although I was being paid for practicing marketing on the Internet - a picture of alan charlesworth I spent more time passing on my learning about the impact of the Internet on business in general. This background resulted in me seeing in the new century as part of a university research unit - the Centre for Electronic Commerce [subsequently renamed as CIT] - in the main, providing the 'commercial' input to a number of innovative computer science projects, many of which seemed to me to be more akin to James Bond and/or Mission Impossible than the world of business and marketing.

Despite me having been around this 'e' stuff for four years, even some of the more mundane projects such as B2B electronic procurement and supply chain management using Radio-frequency identification [RFID] tags on shipments were eye-opening for me in the sense of how digital technology was going to change business. And that's without the projects that involved Virtual Reality [remotely teaching people in the middle of Africa to weld via headsets and the Internet - at a time when WiFi didn't exist], Artificial Intelligence [in project management] and - though the term hadn't yet been coined - the Internet of Things [having a car email its owner when it required a service ... my 'commercial' input was to have the contact details of the nearest dealer included in the email]. Needless to say that at that time, for most of the world - me included - these things belonged in science fiction, not everyday business.

I also worked on the development and delivery of a very successful educational project for SME owners [the e-Business Success Programme ] which had its own 'Virtual learning Space' - this prior to the concept being commonly referred to as a Virtual Learning Environment [VLE] and before BlackBoard was commercially available or Moodle had been invented. This led to me being invited to 'advise' on a number of VLE innitiatives. Oh, and I put the lecture slides and seminar exercises for my marketing modules on a [personal] website from 1997 ... there can't have been many folk doing that back then?

Staying with the teaching side of things: in 2000, the Computing School of the university at which I worked launched - what I think was - one of the UK's first Post Graduate Degrees in 'e-commerce'. Naturally, this was a computer science programme - but the research unit in which I worked was attached to that School ... and so I was invited to develop and deliver what I'm pretty sure was one of the UK's first business modules that addressed the various elements of e-commerce/e-business. The module - Leading Edge Applications in e-Commerce - went on to be an option on 'Business' PG programmes [again, pretty much a first in the UK] as well as being delivered as a distance learning module - via the Internet, naturally ... another first?

Back in the day I was frequently asked to write 'e-business' stories and articles, sometimes for the popular press, but usually in 'business' magazines and the like. I did amass a pretty impressive collection of articles in the Centre for e-Commerce's 'press cuttings' PR file. Sadly, when I moved on I forgot the file ... and by the time I remembered it had gone AWOL in an office move. However, you can get a taste of the type of stuff I was producing at that time in this article on m-Commerce from 2001 - six years before the introduction of the iPhone and touch-screen operating.

The end of the last century also saw a boom in customer relationship management [CRM] software. Companies such as Siebel, Gartner, IBM and SAP developed systems - predominantly IT-led - that gathered vast mountains of data simply because they could ... which saw me [and folk like me] getting involved with organizations to point out that this data was useless if there was no way to [a] turn the data into information, [b] interpret that information, and [c] use it in any kind of tactical or strategic planning. I have always had a 'thing' against CRM. As I have said many times in many places: managing relationships with customers is a better description of the objectives behind the concept. This rewording shifts the emphasis to customers - as it should be - and away from the impression that customers are a burden to the organization that needs managing ... in the same way that waste disposal need managing.

The turn of the new century saw me - and, I assume, others - being contacted by a new company that was setting up a kind of portal-come-b2b marketplace-come-ecommerce website in China. This site was also to offer budding online entrepreneurs advice in all things 'e' - and they wanted experts [yes, that is the term that was used on their website] to write this advice and advise users on their specific problems. I did this for a year and was mightily impressed by the organization - and its ambition. Perhaps I should have stuck with the up-and-coming Alibaba ... I still think it will - eventually - dominate the online world.

As a result of all this I was well placed to write a book on the Key Concepts in e-Commerce Alan Charlesworth.jpg [in 2007 we used the term e-commerce in the same way that we use digital now] - only around half of which addressed marketing issues. In turn, this publication meant that I was in the position to write a book on the Digital Revolution - that is; the impact of digital technology on organizations and how they might take advantage of the so-called digital revolution. As the the Digital Revolution evolved/morphed into the Digital Transformation around 2012 it was a natural progression for me become involved in telling business folk about the looming implications of the likes of the Internet of Things [IoT], Artificial Intelligence [AI], Virtual Reality [VR] and Augmented Reality [AR].

At this point, it is worth mentioning - no, emphasizing - that I am not a computer scientist. I am actually bordering on being computer illiterate. Back in the day I used to deliver a talk called 'is that the on switch?' to stress that although I was introduced on to the stage as 'an Internet expert', I knew nothing about how computers work. Since 1996 to whenever my last class/presentation/talk was, I have made the point that I know how to use the Internet/digital technology for business and marketing purposes - not how write the coding to make the software work. a picture of alan charlesworth
My analogy has always been that logistics managers do not need to know the internal workings of a diesel engine, they need to know how that engine's performance impacts the movement of goods from one place to another.

For more on my issues with computer scientists [I use the term techies], take a glance at my musing what is it with me and IT? and another issue closely related to it ... that we have a problem with non-marketers in digital marketing.

I have done more 'consultancy' than I care to recall. This has been mainly as a consultant [i.e. my own business], but also some of the work with the Centre for Electronic Commerce was advising businesses - but in the capacity of an employee of the university. Recently, in answer to a question raised by an event organizer for some publicity material, I did calculate [guess :-) ] that the number of consultancies I had performed was more than 5,000 but less than 10,000. These could be anything from an informal chat offering advice to a one-person start-up, through website usability testing [a kind of online mystery shopper] to creative negativity [their term, not mine] analysis for global brands and corporations. Indeed, I now seem to spend more time telling folk what not to do rather than what to do or how to do it. I even sometimes act as a consultant to brand-name consultancies. I am now in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose what I do ... so the numbers have dipped in recent years from daily to weekly involvement - though my association with a number of online retailers sometimes requires more frequent action.

Similarly, I seem to have done more in-house training [the current term de jour is work-based learning - WBL] with organizations than you could shake the proverbial stick at - some of it with SMEs, and some with managers and employees of brands recognised around the world.

Another thing I did a lot of in the past, but has tailed off more recently, is to act as a 'mentor' to new business start-ups - usually via a number of local incubator schemes. These were predominantly technology students [or ex-students] who had invented/developed some kind of programme/software/game/app and they wanted to set up a business to sell it. My advice was mainly marketing rather than digital marketing ... you know, that subject/discipline every non-marketer says is easy. Well guess what? These very clever folk - many with computer science PhDs - did not have a marketing clue. I did all of this mentoring on a voluntary basis ... though I did always say to my mentorees 'if you eventually sell this product or business to someone like Microsoft, Google or Nintendo I want 5%.' I'm still working full time ... so I guess you could say that strategy didn't pay dues.

As you would expect with the nature of the advice, education and training I have developed and delivered, none is industry-specific so my experience spreads across industries from farming to activities of extraterritorial organisations and bodies via manufacturing, transport and health services in both public and private sectors. If you know your SIC Codes ... that's 01 to 99 via 25, 50 and 86.

I am one of only a very few people to have published more than one book in this field of study - and the only one to have written those books as sole author. Perhaps that makes me an expert? Some people seem to think so, including Aaron Goldman, author of the best-selling Everything I Know about Marketing I Learned From Google - I was one of the 'experts' he reached out to when writing the book. He went so far as to refer to me as a 'guru'. I think he is over-stating things somewhat ... indeed, many of my students have gone on to be far more expert than me in their particular fields of digital marketing.

On the subject of publishing: in my time I have published [that is; written] around a thousand pages on my own domain names ... and as many again for the websites of other organizations. However, I consider writing content and/or copy for any web presence to be a specialised job - and even with my experience, I would never profess to being good enough to be a professional in that line of work. signature - Alan Charlesworth

This page was first published in October 2017 ... but it may have been updated or amended since then.
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