How chatting with your local park bench can reinvigorate the economy

This is the second in our series of four blogs on high street digital transformation and was originally published on Amplia Group’s GoBeyond Blog.


Photo Credit: Inspirations (@InspirationsDrk) | Twitter

By Kathy Kyle Bonomini, Co-Founder of Amplia Group

I love local – shopping, dining, experiencing local British high streets. There is something special about every one. Each town or city offers something that is unique: culture, history, green space, independent shops, markets, cycling routes, riverside walks, amazing shopping centres, hidden courtyards, iconic buildings and galleries. And its people. As high streets reopen, entire communities must feel safe and secure in their cities and towns in order for the visitor economy to thrive. 

But we can’t ignore what is happening to our high street. John Lewis has shut eight stores resulting in 1300 lost jobs – together with Boots, Ted Baker and M&S, the UK high street is struggling. It is estimated that 60-70 percent of citizens will turn to online shopping in the next year. 

We know that businesses of all shapes and sizes and their local councils are working hard to safely reopen the visitor economy, yet they are constrained by a lack of resources, budget and in some cases, and lack of public sentiment. This is not a new phenomenon; our high streets are consistently challenged to do more with less and our independent retailers and high street businesses are fighting harder to survive in a post-covid economy. Our towns and cities need all of the tools available to them to succeed. 

We have to reimagine our high street in a creative way with all of the digital tools we have in order to survive. 

Now more than ever, communications teams need all the tools available to them to empower residents, businesses, and partners with a sense of community, safety and confidence as they reopen, revisit and rediscover their local high streets, historical landmarks, and public spaces. They are working across all sectors to collaborate throughout each phase of reopening and recovery.

I’ve worked on an award-winning high street rejuvenation project for a Business Improvement District (BID) pre-Covid and in the best of times, the public sector is a segmented and highly fragmented market, much like many high streets across the country (and around the world). However our messages should be very clear: our high street shops, pubs, salons, landmarks and public spaces are safely reopening and by working together, we can enjoy them and also reinvigorate our public spaces. 

Consistent messages are important; so are our communications channels. But we need to do more than be great communicators. We need to empower our citizens. What do our communities really think and want? This is one of our toughest jobs as communicators: meaningful engagement with the public.

Digital Transformation is the answer

My colleague Dave Worsell, Founder of INEO Digital and former MD of Granicus UK has pointed out that as of May 2020, according to the Office of National Statistics, 32 percent of retail sales are being conducted online. (It is now estimated that this figure will be 60-70 percent in 2021.) He challenges us with the question: should the high street be saved or transformed with digital technology that encourages people to engage in a different way with their surroundings

I think he may be on to something. According to a ‘sentiment tracking poll’ commissioned by Visit Britain, due to Covid-19, a survey of 1500 Britons tells us that the public is generally interested in outdoor activities, local shopping, and to a lesser extent, eating at restaurants. This survey also tells us that shoppers and visitors want ease and the ability to engage with others. 

Visit Britain, Survey Monkey and Facebook polls only engage the people who are already engaged. 

Wouldn’t it great if we could just chat with people directly and ask them what they think, in a fun, friendly way?

There is a digital tool that is powered by AI technology that does just that, called Hello Lamp Post. It is a playful, fun text-based SMS, WhatsApp, and messenger platform that empowers people to connect, engage and shape their town or city by talking to street objects. Sounds a little – weird. I mean, there is a kid ‘talking’ to a giant fish in the picture below. But HLP has been implemented in over 20 global cities and according to The MJ, is helping local councils engage their communities on consultations by up to 40 percent and increase revenue.

Our communities must feel safe and empowered to open, operate, and visit our brilliant spaces across all sectors. This begins with building strong partnerships across all sectors of our visitor economy: businesses, tourism bodies, community partners, councillors and media; establishing a consistent, integrated brand platform; and creating brand ambassadors who will serve as brand champions. I speak from experience. 

When I worked on the BID high street rejuvenation project in Dorking, Surrey, we collaborated across all sectors to raise awareness of the tourism and shopping offering, increased footfall and event attendance, generated earned media, and gained buy-in and support from key business leaders and community partners. Our campaign to promote the high street was recognised by Campaign Live (shortlisted Best Marketing Film Campaign for Good) and by Comms2Point0 (won Best Work by an Agency). The town was also named one of the top ten (actually top five) high streets in the UK by the Telegraph. The Dorking BID was also shortlisted for an ACTM place management award for 2019. In 2018 they received a Great British High Street special mention.

When I learned of Hello Lamp Post this year, I wish we could have used the system for Dorking. Like many other charming quintessential British towns, it is full of historic and cultural landmarks, independent shops, and fantastic restaurants. It was a lot of work to engage those local residents and tourists.

Buildings, monuments, park benches, even the quirky guerilla knitter’s art installations could be paired with marketing collateral that explains how people can have a friendly AI-powered ‘chat’ with town infrastructure via people’s phones. Locals and visitors can converse and share stories, learn or provide feedback and be directed to independent shops, restaurants, artisan markets, galleries, myriad National Trust trails, walks, Box Hill, hotels, hostelries, historical points of interest and cultural significance, tie it to itineraries – the applications are endless. Or public consultations about local sustainability projects, planning applications or, in the case of a pandemic, a wellness campaign

There is a low barrier to entry (no app to download), so it’s easier to engage hard-to-reach populations (especially families, younger people, the elderly, and people who speak another language). You simply scan a QR code from an object and you can start chatting.

People can independently and virtually explore a place and visit the town, its shops, and its surrounding areas – and provide their own stories, feedback and input. These narratives are generated both by the town itself and by the people interacting with the platform. It is two-way automated storytelling that doesn’t currently exist.

Imagine residents and tourists providing their ideas in real-time, helping to not only drive our economy but also change the face of our communities through a simple chat on their phone. Instead of engaging with a flat tourism board that one *might* stumble upon, residents and visitors can engage with any piece of architecture in their path.

With smart digital technology, their path, and the city’s, is limitless. Now that is a campaign I would love to see a town or city shout about.


About Kathy 

Kathy Kyle Bonomini is the Co-Founder of Amplia Group. She is an award-winning branding, PR and marketing expert with over 20 years of international experience launching and leading transformational communications campaigns. Kathy has launched a US government agency, brands across multiple verticals, and startups in the US and the UK. Kathy is an advisor to Hello Lamp Post. She is an associate at Ineo Digital

Kathy has served as a communications director and press officer for a US government agency, a public affairs firm, and for Capgemini North America public sector. Kathy has led teams and programmes in industries that include: tech, health care, education, lifestyle, sustainability/EV, climate change, life sciences, transportation, fundraising, nonprofits, legal, the arts, and government.

Kathy provides pro bono advisory services to charities like UprisingUK, Dorking Minds and to businesses that include women-owned micro businesses and Hello Hub, a freelancer networking group.

About Amplia Group

Amplia Group is a global communications agency that aspires to GoBeyond and create a new experience for our clients. Derived from the Latin root amplius, meaning to go further, we aim to exceed our clients’ expectations.

Amplia Group’s work for the Dorking Town Partnership Business Improvement District was judged by a panel of 22 industry experts. They considered the work  “a truly integrated traditional and digital campaign which reflects today’s fragmented audience groups”.  There were 300 entrants across 19 categories, with 100 shortlisted in the Comms2Point0 awards.

Amplia Group was also shortlisted for the Campaign Live DCM Digital Award in September 2019 with their creative partners, Objekt Films, for the Best ‘marketing for good’ cinema campaign created for the Dorking BID.