When Bad News is Good

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
–Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Consider the case of Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author of the controversial new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethAslan was interviewed by Fox News’ Lauren Green last Friday, resulting nine of the most bizarre minutes in television journalism history. Green, who had clearly not even cracked the cover on Aslan’s book. repeatedly questioned the author’s credibility as a Christian religious scolar based solely on the fact that Aslan is Muslim. MediaMatters reports that her bias against Islam goes back many years.

As a rule, public relations professionals advise their clients against getting involved in a confrontational interview such as this, but in Aslan’s case it has worked out splendidly. As of this moment, his book is the top seller on Amazon. Twitter is recording about 10 tweets per minute mentioning the author’s name. The story on BuzzFeed (linked to above) is approaching 4 million views and nearly 6,000 comments have been posted to the coverage on Huffington Post. Scores of articles have appeared in mainstream media. YouTube views are over 1 million.

Reza Aslan is making out like a bandit. The Fox interview virtually guarantees his book will be a bestseller. Getting attacked by Lauren Green is the best thing that could have happened to him.

What’s the lesson here? In today’s hyper-caffeinated media market, you have to make a scene to get noticed. Aslan’s book was controversial before he went on Fox, but had this interview not occurred it probably would have received little mainstream notice. Pairing him with a questioner with a Christian fundamentalist agenda was a recipe for dynamite. The author was clearly prepared to be challenged. The fact that Green bungled the whole interview so completely was just his good luck.

The story is a microcosm of the new media industry. Outlets like Fox thrive by pushing an agenda. It doesn’t matter to them if their tactics occasionally look stupid. Their core audience will stick with them regardless. Watch Lauren Green’s popularity soar in the wake of this incident. Many of Fox’s ultra-conservative viewers will believe she was only saying what too many others are afraid to say. In the echo chamber of extreme media, it’s almost impossible to go too far. Far from being cowed by this incident, Fox will only be further emboldened, just as Rolling Stone has profited from anger over its recent controversial cover photo.

There’s also a lesson for professional communicators. If you want to get noticed, you have to be outrageous. This new fact of life frustrates many of us who believe our work to be thoughtful, serious and worthy of informed debate. Authors can hope for thoughtful reviews in the Wall Street Journal, but that isn’t going to sell 100,000 copies of their books. If the opportunity to  engage with immediate extremist media emerges, grab it. An attack may be the best publicity you can ask for.

 

 

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My New Book, ‘Attack of the Customers,’ is now available

Attack of the Customers front cover

Click on the book cover to order with a 30% discount. Use promo code 9AVB4H4K

An idea I’ve been kicking around for a couple of years became a formal book project in January. Eleven months later, Attack of the Customers is now available! I’d like to ask for your support by liking the book on the Amazon page and registering your like on the book’s Facebook page. And if you can go the extra mile and plunk down $13.50, I think you’ll find it a pretty interesting read (use discount code at right).

In some ways, this book is an update of my first book, The New Influencers, which was published more than five years ago. One of the things that has always captivated me about social media is the power it gives to individuals to greatly amplify their voice. Several of the case studies in New Influencers involved customer attacks in the days when blogs were about all people had to work with. Today, attacks take many different forms and involve many different tools, but the pattern is the same: People have learned that they can get better results from rallying friends and supporters to their cause than by going through established customer service or complaint channels.

Most customer attacks don’t go viral, but they can be effective even without big numbers. Just last week a woman who claimed she had been victimized in a contract dispute with a big Canadian retailer took her cause to YouTube and Facebook. With YouTube views averaging about 25,000 per day, her story caught the eye of mainstream media, which is usually the turning point at which things happen. One thing I discovered in writing the book is that mainstream media attention is essential to helping a cause go viral. Newspapers and magazines may be suffering financially right now, but they’re just as important as they always have been to validate and spread information.

Farming Out Customer Care

One reason customer attacks have become so numerous in recent years is because businesses and government agencies have historically had such miserable customer service. Support organizations were outsourced en masse in the 1990s, customer service agents were hidden beneath layers of confusing call routing menus and complaints routinely disappeared into black holes. Big organizations often didn’t respond to complaints because they didn’t have to. Customers had no easy way to share their frustrations, so there was little concern that a product or service deficiency would become a problem.

Goodbye to all that, and good riddance. Customers now complain so fluidly that the problem for many businesses is figuring out which gripes to take seriously. In the final chapter of Attack of the Customers, my co-author Greg Gianforte presents a formula he calls “Eight to Great.” It’s a list of eight steps companies can take to become customer-focused at the core, and it’s been applied by thousands of companies during Greg’s term as founder and CEO of RightNow Technologies.

His advice really comes down to the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. The trouble is that the payoff of good customer satisfaction is a lot harder to measure than the benefit of a dime saved in production. We make the case that companies have no choice but to invest in this area, though. In the age of the empowered customer, service is one of the few points of differentiation left.

Self-Publishing Experiment

This is the first of my five books that I’ve self-published. We used Amazon CreateSpace and hired professional design and copy editing resources, but much of the work between the covers was done with Microsoft Word. I even created the index myself to see what the experience was like (although I don’t think I’ll try that again). Many authors are experimenting with self-publishing now because the commissions on commercially published works are so small that book-writing becomes a $10/hour proposition. Social networks are also sufficiently mature that good word-of-mouth can potentially replace traditional marketing.

Whether that’s true or not I expect to find out in the coming months. I certainly could use your help. Whether it’s a like, a review or a credit card, anything you can do to express your support is gratefully appreciated.

And if you’re a blogger or editor who would like a review copy, just leave a comment here or drop me a line and I’ll be pleased to send you one.

Attack of the Customers: The Pampers Dry Max Crisis

This an excerpt from the opening chapter of Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and What You Can Do About It by Paul Gillin and Greg Gianforte. Buy the book on Amazon.


In March, 2010, Procter & Gamble announced the most significant technical advance in disposable diapers in a quarter century. The new Dry Max line featured an absorbent gel that improved diaper efficiency while cutting materials and costs by 20%. The thinner diapers addressed the number one complaint of diaper customers, which was bulk, while also reducing cost and environmental impact. The innovation was so impressive that former president Bill Clinton praised the diaper for reducing landfill waste.

Pampers Dry Max packageHowever, Rosana Shah of Baton Rouge, LA was not impressed. Shah had noticed a change in the Pampers Cruisers she used to diaper her baby several months earlier. “The new design had less cotton pulp and was missing the dry weave liner,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “The back of the diaper was just thin, papery diaper cover, no absorption material whatsoever.” Worse was that the child had become afflicted with diaper rash. “Every time I tried to change her diaper she would cringe and cry,” Shah wrote. “All she could voice at the time was ‘it hurts.’”

Shah believed P&G had substituted a cheaper Cruisers for its existing product and not told anyone about it. “I called Pampers and complained and was told this was the first they were hearing of these issues,” she wrote. “When I asked if there was a change in design, they denied it at first.”

In fact, Shah’s suspicions were correct. P&G had actually begun shipping the new product in August, 2008, more than 18 months before it was announced. The practice is called slipstreaming, and it’s common in high-volume consumer packaged goods markets that manufacture products by the millions at facilities around the world.

“Figuratively, if you’ve got 500 diaper production lines, you convert the first line on day one and 500 days later you convert the 500th,” explained Paul Fox, P&G’s director of corporate communications. “During that time you’ve got a mix of the old and new product on the market.” New products typically aren’t announced until the distribution pipeline is full, but by that time millions of people may already be using the new product.

That was the case with Pampers Dry Max. By the time of the early 2010 rollout, more than 2 billion unbranded Dry Max diapers had already been sold “without issue,” Fox said. P&G had carefully monitored its customer support calls for evidence of customer dissatisfaction but had detected nothing out of the ordinary. The company typically logs two complaints for every one million diapers sold, and there was nothing to indicate that Dry Max had moved that needle.

Not that P&G expected big problems. The company was well aware that the entire Pampers franchise depended upon customer trust. “Not a grain of sand was left unturned” in Dry Max safety testing, Fox said. “A brand whose whole equity is based on babies’ welfare isn’t going to do anything that poses any form of risk to a baby.”

So staffers were understandably concerned when a Facebook group appeared in late 2009 entitled “Pampers bring back the OLD CRUISERS/SWADDLERS.” The group was launched by Shah after her visits to the Pampers Facebook page and Pampers website convinced her that “many parents were also experiencing confusion.” The group’s initial demands were simple: Members wanted P&G to bring back the old diapers. But as membership grew it became a lightning rod for an assortment of other complaints and accusations.

Building on early charges that P&G had failed to adequately disclose changes in the product, members began complaining of leakage and flimsy construction. By spring the discussion was centered on complaints that Dry Max diapers caused diaper rash.

Members reported that children were developing blisters within hours of being diapered with Dry Max. References to “burn marks” emerged, followed by reports of “chemical burns.” One mother of multiples reported that all four of her children were suffering severe diaper rash. The culprit was clear: Dry Max diapers were inflicting agonizing pain on babies.

No one was actually citing any scientific evidence to support the claims, and a few voices noted that gap. However, some doctors were telling parents that the diapers were a possible culprit and that was good enough to stoke the outrage.

In February, 2010, a visitor began a campaign called “Flood the CPSC!” encouraging others to take their complaints to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. In May, a group of parents filed a class action lawsuit.

At P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters staffers were alarmed and perplexed. Diaper rash is an unfortunately common occurrence that afflicts about one in four babies at any given time. The company dispensed advice to concerned parents about the topic through a variety of channels, pointing out that while a tight-fitting diaper may create the conditions for diaper rash, the problem was not caused by the diaper itself.

Staffers were convinced of Dry Max’s superiority. The product had been heralded as a breakthrough by Good Housekeeping magazine and had already received several awards. How could consumers not see its benefits?

Many of the 11,000 members of the Facebook group didn’t. They believed that the thinner diapers were simply a low-cost replacement for the product they had known and loved. They believed P&G was shoring up profits at the expense of their children’s health.

Post from "Pampers bring back the OLD CRUISERS/SWADDLERS" Facebook page

Standoff

As complaints piled up, a conspiracy mentality took hold. Visitors griped about everything from rude P&G customer service reps to price changes. A change in a store display at a local Walmart was evidence that P&G was undertaking a stealth recall. Journalists were requesting interviews and by late spring the story had begun showing up on local TV stations

By the time Paul Fox arrived on the scene, the Dry Max protest was beginning to spin out of control. Jodi Allen, P&G’s vice president of North America baby care, was taking a personal role in countering critics, posting comments on the Pampers website, recording web videos and participating in discussion groups. However, the volume of complaints was piling up too fast for the P&G staff to handle.

Allen was banned from the Facebook group, an action that Shah said was justified because P&G had not provided a place on the Pampers website or Facebook page to state its case. However, Allen’s membership in the group had been blocked because Shah said the executive had made no attempt to request membership. She also called Allen’s comments “scripted statements” that lacked sincerity.

Fox is a 30-year media relations veteran with more than a decade at P&G and experience with the customer skirmishes that are a constant fact of life at such companies. Fox first urged the team to investigate all possible causes for the complaints. Was it possible that the manufacturing line was compromised or that product had been tampered with in the field? Satisfied that the answer was no, he focused the strategy around a few core principles:

  • Get P&G off the defensive;
  • Dispel rumors that P&G would reintroduce the discontinued products;
  • Educate parents about diaper rash;
  • Refocus the discussion on the welfare of the children.

The final point was particularly smart. P&G was engaged in a vicious circle of accusation that had transcended diaper rash and become a proxy for helpless consumers versus heartless corporations. By concentrating on child safety, P&G effectively allied itself with its critics. Amid the charges and counter charges, no one had ever suggested that child safety was not the overriding concern of all parties. Accused and accuser were effectively now on the same side. That was an important step.

Pampers staffers also had to be encouraged to restrain themselves from countering point criticism, particularly that which was nothing more than opinion. “Responding to inflammatory stories that have little basis in fact is a distraction,” Fox said. “Engaging on that level can be the equivalent of throwing gasoline on the fire.” Basically, when critics become convinced you can’t do anything right, then you can’t.

Instead, P&G focused on educating dispassionate opinion leaders who appeared genuinely interested in hearing both sides of the story. It brought two groups of “mom bloggers” to Cincinnati to meet with executives and scientists and address their questions. It stepped up advertising about the benefits of Dry Max and posted videos by leading pediatricians about the causes and treatment of diaper rash. “If parents weren’t seeking medical attention or treating the diaper rash, that was a big concern,” Fox said. “Our focus was ‘We are both concerned about the pain of diaper rash. Let’s seek treatment.’”

The company began making a more focused effort to spend time explaining diaper rash to parents who called. It even sent representatives into the field to meet with particularly concerned parents. The company invited media to Baby Care Headquarters in Cincinnati to meet with developers and product managers. In contrast to the earlier defensiveness P&G had shown about the controversy, it was now displaying complete transparency.

Vindication and Lessons

The turning point came in early September when the CPSC, which had agreed to investigate the case after receiving hundreds of letters, absolved Dry Max of any responsibility for diaper rash. By fall the volume of complaints had slowed to a trickle and P&G was no longer discussing the incident. Shah’s group is still on Facebook, but new posts appear weekly instead of hundreds per day.

Even absolution from the government watchdog hasn’t convinced critics. Shah charges that P&G enjoys a cozy relationship with the CPSC that may have prompted the agency to downplay its findings. She also cited media reports that claimed portions of the agency’s report are missing. A spokesman for the CPSC said the agency works with hundreds of companies on various standards committees and the charges of collusion are baseless. “Just because we know people doesn’t indicate any impropriety,” he said.

Fox called the collusion allegation “an insult” and said the only information missing from the report is that which was mutually agreed to be proprietary, a statement the CPSC spokesman confirmed.

Could P&G have handled the Pampers Dry Max case better? Probably. By slipstreaming a product into the market that was noticeably different from the one it replaced, the company invited scrutiny. The fact that Dry Max looked on the surface to be a cheaper diaper didn’t help. However, the Pampers team was so convinced of the product’s superiority that they focused more on the positive splash it would make in the market than the possibility that some people might be alarmed by the visible changes.

P&G knows better than any company that people treat their personal care products like an old friend. Change can be unsettling, in the same way that an old friend showing up at a party with a nose job and a new wife might cause unease for everybody.

The incident was also a classic example of the suspicion with which many people regard large companies. As a member of P&G’s Digital Advisory Board, Paul has worked with brand managers in many of the company’s divisions and been impressed by their commitment to quality and customer satisfaction. However, few customers are fortunate enough to have that insight. Many people see a large corporation as a symbol of greed. An incident like this reinforces that perception.

Critics accused P&G of opacity in its initial response to customer concerns. There were valid reasons why the company didn’t tell critics that the diaper’s design had been changed before the official announcement. There was no way to fill the supply channel with the new product without slipstreaming, and P&G wanted to wait until Dry Max was available everywhere to turn on the marketing spigot. Dribbling out details months before the formal launch would have undermined the formal rollout and created confusion that the company was not prepared to handle. Nevertheless, plausible explanation would have been better than denial. Once the conversation shifted from accusations to education, the tone changed dramatically. Pampers sales quickly recovered after a brief decline and complaints fell back into normal range.

The Dry Max crisis came at a time when P&G was engineering a companywide shift toward customer engagement through social media. Fox says the experience was a critical teaching point. “You can’t join a community at a time of crisis. You have to already be invested,” he said. “Becoming a trusted voice requires an investment of time, people and money.”

The experience was a lesson for Rosana Shah as well. “We found parents and caregivers from as far away as South Africa, Australia, England, France and Germany. Everyone was scratching their heads wondering if it was just them,” she wrote. “We turned out to be 11,000 members who made the media, government bodies and P&G finally take notice.”

Although some people might have called it a lynch mob.

Measuring the Immeasurable

My post last week about the shortcomings of Klout got several thousand views and generated quite a bit of discussion. it also got me several e-mails from companies that claim to have built a better mousetrap than Klout. I haven’t reviewed these tools in detail just yet, but it appears that influence is a red-hot topic in PR and marketing circles right now.

Influence measurement is a natural evolution of conversation monitoring, a discipline that’s personified by Salesforce.com’s Radian6 tool and dozens of competitors. Monitoring is a solid practice that can keep you in touch with the topics and brands people are discussing online. Most tools now also provide some degree of sentiment analysis, which attempts to derive attitudes from comments. Sentiment analysis is devilishly difficult to get right, however. If a teenager calls something “sick,” it’s a compliment. Coming from a 50-year-old, it’s an insult. Most experts I’ve spoken to on this topic say that sentiment analysis tools are at best 70% accurate.

Circle of Influence

Topaz Partners has developed the "Circle of Influence" to depict the different factors that go into decision-making (Click to enlarge). TopazPartners.com

This isn’t stopping vendors from tackling the even more complex issue of Influence analysis. This goes beyond sentiment analysis to attempt to determine a person’s ability to drive action. The problem is that there are lots of variables and intangibles to influence that resist being boiled down to a single number. For example:

  • What is action? A “like” or retweet is a form of action, but not necessarily one that leads to a decision.
  • Online actions have different gravity depending upon the stakes and the effort involved. Writing a comment takes more effort than clicking a “like” button. Posting a blog entry referencing someone else’s words is more involved than writing a comment.
  • Which actions really matter? I have yet to see a tool that can correlate influence with purchases or donations with any degree of certainty. We assume that conversation about a topic influences decisions, but are they the decisions we want? A lot of people have been talking about Hewlett-Packard lately, but I doubt it’s driving profitable sales of HP products.
  • Influence is contextual. If I’m considering buying a Yamaha stereo and find a blog entry from someone who exhibits deep knowledge of the model I’m considering, that person may have a disproportionate influence on my decision, regardless of the number of followers or subscribers he has. The weakness of most influence analysis tools is that they abstract broadly, looking at things like reach and amplification. However, decisions are more likely to be influenced at a micro, rather than a macro level.

One of the most illuminating books I’ve read on this topic is Influencer Marketing by Duncan Brown and Nick Hayes. The authors argue that the influence of media in general, and social media in particular, is greatly overrated. They count no less than 50 kinds of influencers, ranging from resellers to academicians to government officials. Most of them have little or no online visibility, but their knowledge, leverage and/or connections make them enormously influential. What’s more, the larger the purchase, the greater their influence tends to be.

I don’t agree with everything Brown and Hayes say, but I commend them for resisting the urge to oversimplify. Their basic message is that influence and audience are two different things. Celebrities can have huge audiences but little power to affect decisions. Conversely, people with very deep knowledge can have small audiences and great influence. Seth Godin said it well: Small Is the New Big.

In the mainstream media world, audience was associated with influence because we had few tools to understand the true dynamics of decision-making. Our natural tendency is to apply this same metric to online conversations. The danger of this approach is that social media is more about quality than quantity. In the same way that early automobiles had steering mechanisms that mimicked reins, we are applying old assumptions to a new medium. I’m not saying that influence measurement tools are inherently unreliable, but they are attempting to measure what may be immeasurable. Just be skeptical.

Recent Writings: Negativity, Social Gaffes and Farewell to Case Studies

I haven’t had a chance to blog here lately because most of my writing is been on assignment for other publishers. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been talking about.

Love Your Critics

Angry ManThe CMO Site likes to stir things up, so my posts there tend to be on the controversial side. In Why Brands Should Love Public Complaints, I make the case that your critics can be your strongest allies. Why? Because a little negativity reinforces the validity of the positive comments you publish.

The whole concept of enabling negativity to appear on your own website rubs a lot of marketers the wrong way, but I’d argue that it’s great for building integrity. The article notes that Epson reported that revenue per visitor nearly doubled after it started including customer reviews on its site. The fact that one out of 10 customers may displeased with product can be looked at another way: 90% are happy.

The right approach is not to deny that you have unhappy customers; everyone’s got a few. They’re going to vent their frustrations anyway, so encourage them to do it in a place where you can respond and juxtapose their opinions with the vast majority who are satisfied.

Read more and comment on The CMO Site.

Good Riddance to the Corporate Case Study

In this post I rant just a bit about corporate case studies, those pervasive and largely useless vessels of happy talk that no one really believes. Corporate case studies used to have a purpose in the days when customers couldn’t find each other, but today all it takes is a few searches or LinkedIn queries to identify experienced buyers.

It’s not the concept of the case study I don’t like; it’s the format. Once the legal department gets involved in approvals, most meaningful content gets sucked out of the article. Case studies also don’t answer the questions prospective buyers really have. That’s why prospects have always viewed case studies with suspicion. Today, they mainly ignore them.

So rather than investing time and dollars in paying writers for stories that no one believes, why not focus on greasing the skids between your happy customers and your prospects? Make it easy for the two parties to connect and then get out of the way.

Read more and comment on The CMO Site.

The Futility Of Whisper Campaigns

PR practitioners who undertake influencer relations programs often discover an odd disconnect between them and traditional media relations: Bloggers don’t operate by the same rules as reporters.

Whisper of the Muse (1865)The recent example of this disparity ended up embarrassing a prominent PR firm, and I analyzed the story in BtoB magazine.

In case you missed it, early last month a pair of new employees at Burson Marsteller, both of them veteran journalists, contacted a security blogger and offered to help him write and place an op-ed piece that exposed “sweeping violations of user privacy” by Google.

It turns out the blogger was more interested in the motivations of the PR firm than in Google’s allegedly intrusive behavior. After he posted the e-mail exchange online, some USA Today reporters dug up the fact that Facebook was behind the whisper campaign.

Burson, which claims to be social media-savvy, did exactly the opposite of what it would counsel its crisis communications clients to do: It clammed up. The incident was a huge black eye for the agency and a lesson in how not to pitch a blogger.

Read more and comment on BtoBOnline.

Do You Need A Social Media Specialist? Yup.

My latest column in B2B was actually sparked by a conversation I overheard on a plane. A guy in the seat behind me was railing to his companion about the idiocy of hiring social media specialists. In his opinion, everyone in a company should learn to use the tools. Expertise shouldn’t be concentrated in one person or department.

I agree with his second point but I couldn’t endorse his overall premise. Nearly every company I’ve encountered that is succeeding in social media has a center of excellence. They are delegating social interactions to one person, but they’re shortcutting the learning process by hiring people who can train others. In this column, I explain why a social media expert can save you time, money and embarrassment (see Burson above).

What’s your approach? Read more and comment on BtoBOnline.

How Much Should You Pay For Content?

Underwood keyboardMarketers often ask how they can train engineers and technical people to blog, podcast and otherwise engage in deep online conversations with customers. My advice: don’t bother. You’re better off investing in professional communicators and teaching them what they need to know about your business.

The ability to communicate well in any media demands a certain amount of innate ability and it’s a difficult skill to teach. The technology trade media learned this long ago, and that’s why they have hired professional journalists to fill their pages for the past 75 years. It’s a lot harder and costlier to train  technology experts to write than it is to teach writers what they need to know to about technology.

So if you’re going to create your own blogs, white papers, e-books and such, you should probably use professional communicators to help you do it. What’s that going to cost you? Like most things in life, it depends.

Media Dividend

The rapid decline of mainstream media (more than 45,000 journalists have been laid off in the last five years in the US) has put a lot of good communicators out of work, and many can be had today for pennies on the dollar compared to what they made a few years ago. I recently noticed a bylined article by a veteran Wall Street Journal reporter on a Cisco promotional website. And I’ll bet he was happy to have the work.

The cost variable is the level of technical skill you need. If you’re in a consumer industry where the necessary level of technical knowledge is quite low, decent freelancers can be hired for as little as 25 cents/word, although the norm is between 50 and 80 cents. Demand Media, whose formulaic, keyword-driven approach to topic selection enrages many journalists, is rumored to pay as little as $.10 per word.


A word on words: Freelancers are usually paid by the published word. It seems an odd metric, but it’s the one that’s been used for decades and will probably persist until somebody comes along with a better one. Payment is based upon the published word, not the number of words the writer submits. You should always specify an upper limit.


Many journalists who were making $60,000 to $80,000 salaries working for newspapers a few years ago are happy to work for $35,000-$40,000 today. Any journalism pro should be able to produce 2,500 words/week for you. Do the math to figure out if it makes more sense to hire or freelance, remembering that a full-time employee carries less administrative overhead – but more overhead cost – than a loose staff of contractors. If you’re negotiating for basic, off-the-shelf freelance help, start with a 30 cents/word offer and work from there.

The higher the level of technical expertise you need, the more it’s going to cost you. In the computer industry, which is what I know best, $1 to $1.50 is the going per-word rate for marketing-commissioned pieces these days. I imagine that in a highly technical field, like bio-engineering, the rate is even higher. The fewer options you have, the more you’re going to pay.

Where Writers Hang Out

“I once commissioned a story from a freelancer who had an impressive portfolio of published work, but who apparently had also worked with some outstanding editors. The piece she turned in was such a disaster that I almost cried.”If you’re looking to hire professional journalists, sites like JournalismJobs, WritersWrite and MediaBistro are good places where writers hang out and look for assignments. There are several large groups of freelancers on LinkedIn, including The Freelance Writers Connection with 5,600 members. Search for others.

If you’re more of a risk taker, sites like e-lance, Guru.com, Freelancer.com and iFreelance are places to fish for talent. Try posting your needs and what you’ll pay and see who responds. Be sure to ask any prospective writer for samples of his or her work in your field of expertise. You do not want to pay a freelancer to learn your business on the job.

Hiring freelance help blind is a risky affair. Published samples won’t do you any good. I once commissioned a story from a freelancer who had an impressive portfolio of published work, but who apparently had also worked with some outstanding editors. The piece she turned in was such a disaster that I almost cried. I spent more than four hours trying to turn it into something that was at least publishable, hoping that nobody would actually read it. Moral of the story: ask for raw copy, not clips.

Going the Full-Time Route

Ginny Skalski

Cree Lighting blogger and former newspaper reporter Ginny Skalski

If you can afford to hire a full-timer, I highly recommend it. Journalists are quick learners by nature and their time to productivity is short. Staffers turn out more content per dollar than contractors, and you don’t have the overhead of legal documents, busted deadlines and flaky freelancers who simply disappear in the middle of the night

If you choose to hire a journalist as a corporate blogger, you’re in good company. Among the brands I know that do so are IBM, HubSpot, Eloqua, JetBlue, Cree Lighting and Sybase. I’m sure there are many more. Every single journalist-turned-corporate blogger I have met is happy to be out of the burning building that is mainstream media and into something with a manageable lifestyle and a boss who isn’t a screaming maniac.

If you prefer to go the freelance route, stick with a small group of reliable freelancers rather than playing the field. They’ll learn your business and require less hand-holding the longer you use them. They’ll also go the extra mile for you when you need them. Freelancers treasure steady work more than high pay. Most would rather work for a handful of reliable clients then constantly bid for the highest dollar. Paying within two weeks, rather than the corporate-mandated 60 days, will make you their best friend.

Final Note: Be Reasonable

I’ve been writing for BtoB magazine for nearly six years, some of it paid and some not. Like many media organizations, they pay less than any of my commercial clients, but I always put BtoB at the front of my priority list. Why? They’re just such damned reasonable people to work with.

Freelancers know that $2/word is no bargain if they need to produce 8,000 words and four rewrites over three months in order to get approved and paid. BtoB and I work so well together at this point that there is very little waste in our interaction. I actually make more money per hour working with them than I do with some corporate clients who pay considerably more.

The moral: The easier you are to deal with as a client, the better deals and favors freelancers will cut with you. This doesn’t mean dropping your standards, but the next time you’re ready to ship a draft back to the writer for a fourth revision in order to move two paragraphs around, you might consider just making the change yourself.

 

The End of ‘Social Media’

Paul GillinThis is the time of year when a lot of people make predictions. I’ll resist that urge, though, and instead present a plea: Let’s make 2011 the year we stop talking about “social media.”

It’s not that social media is no longer important. On the contrary, there’s almost no media today that isn’t social. The problem with much of the discussion is that it’s been focused on tools, and tools are far less interesting than what people do with them. Now that everyone knows the basics of Facebook and Twitter, things start to get interesting.

January 1 marks the beginning of a new decade, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of how much changed in the decade just completed. Ten years ago, almost no one had heard of Google, there was no online video and consumer ratings were unknown. We used cell phones primarily for voice calls and content management systems less functional than WordPress cost a half million dollars.

In early 2004 Technorati counted about a million blogs on the Internet and Facebook was just getting off the ground. Seven years, 200 million blogs, nearly 600 million Facebook members and a few billion YouTube videos later the information landscape has been completely transformed. Stunning.

We have achieved a goal Bill Gates coined 20 years ago called “information at your fingertips.” Want to know who said “There’s a sucker born every minute?” Tap, tap, click and you’re there (it wasn’t P.T. Barnum, BTW). Interested in the film history of the movie star you’re watching? IMDB has an app for that.

This new reality of instant information access will transform our economy and our culture fundamentally*. It’s already beginning. A friend who runs an auto dealership tells me that customers today typically know more about the cars they want to buy than his own salespeople do. Some now come into the showroom knowing precisely what other people have paid for cars at his dealership within the last couple of months. Think of how that changes his business. And what’s happening in auto sales will happen in every single industry.

Over the next few years we will learn to take for granted that advice from people just like us is available whenever we need it, and the tools to deliver this information will get much better. This will change the way we make decisions, and that will change nearly everything else. Companies that don’t provide significant value will struggle to survive. Weak products will disappear quickly from the market and advertising won’t be able to save them. Our range of options for buying and selling products and services will expand by orders of magnitude thanks to global connectivity.

Businesses will need to empower all their employees with much more information and education because customer will no longer tolerate “I’ll have to speak to my supervisor.” Organizations will flatten and fragment because vertical hierarchies move too slowly. Corporations will divest non-strategic businesses because slimmer profit margins won’t support them.

In short, we’re all going to become a lot more efficient at doing what we do. This will cause a lot of pain in the short term; one of the reasons we’re in a “jobless recovery” right now is that businesses are learning to do more with less. In the end, these changes will be no less dramatic than those brought about by the Industrial Revolution; only this revolution will take a couple of decades instead of a couple of centuries to complete.

Much of this change will be brought about by a few elegantly simple tools: Ethernet, the Internet Protocol, hypertext, RSS, HTML and a handful of others. See what happens when people apply innovation to the tools they use?


*Books I read this year that do an exceptional job of sketching out the post-social media world include The Hyper-Social Organization by Francois Gossieaux and Ed Moran, Open Leadership by Charlene Li and Do It Wrong Quickly by Mike Moran. The best book I’ve ever read on media transformation is The Chaos Scenario by Bob Garfield. It’s also funny as hell.

The Changing Rules of B2B Marketing

Here is a draft of the first chapter of Social Marketing to the Business Customer by Paul Gillin and Eric Schwartzman. This chapter focuses on drawing the major distinctions between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) markets and where social marketing has particular value to B2B companies. Your feedback is welcome. Please ignore the typos and grammar flaws that inevitably appear at this stage.

Friends know Scott Hanson as an affable native Texan with a penchant for computers, cars and poker. But to thousands of technology professionals around the world, Hanson is a celebrity. By day, he and three other technologists at Dell Computer manage the Dell TechCenter, an online community that helps enterprise IT professionals unravel the thorniest problems that occur when trying to integrate technology from multiple vendors.

Dell conceived of the community in 2007 as a way to enhance loyalty among its largest customers. Members share advice and ask questions of Hanson and the other engineers, who dispense it for free. The community is open and fully searchable, although only registered members can submit articles and comments. In 2008, about 100 people visited the site every day. By early 2010, that number was over 5,000.

Hansen and colleagues Jeff Sullivan, Kong Yang and Dennis Smith are celebrities of sorts in the community of enterprise customers, who frequently seek them out for meetings at trade shows and during visits to the company’s executive briefing center. Their celebrity is paid off handsomely for Dell: Hanson won’t provide specifics, but Dell has estimated that the Tech Center is indirectly responsible for many millions of dollars in sales each year.

That’s despite the fact that Dell Tech Center isn’t charged with selling anything. The site is free of advertising and the member list may never be used for promotions. “The last thing IT people want when they come to a technical resource is an ad asking them to buy a laptop,” Hanson says.

Those sales are generated by the affinity that the staff has developed with these key corporate customers. It’s a camaraderie that is nurtured by personal contact. In the early days of Twitter, the Dell TechCenter staff had set up a common Twitter account as a secondary channel of communication. But it turned out that customers wanted to speak to people, not brands. The Twitter initiative really gained traction when Hanson became @DellServerGeek and Sullivan became @SANPenguin. Suddenly the discussion became more personal and the people behind Dell TechCenter more real to their constituents.

Welcome to the new world of B2B communications. Dell TechCenter and other initiatives like it are microcosms of the changes that are sweeping across corporate America as a consequence of the rapid growth of social media tools like blogs, communities and user-generated multimedia.

Companies like Dell, which does 80% of its sales volume with corporate customers, are ideally positioned to take advantage of these new channels. In fact, B2B companies were among the earliest adopters of social media. Technology leaders like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco had hundreds or thousands of employees blogging as early as 2005 and those same companies are now expanding their footprint into social networks like Facebook, YouTube and, overwhelmingly, Twitter.

Microsoft used a video program called Channel 9 to show its human side to a market that saw it as a closed and secretive company. B2B technology companies have also been among the most creative users of social channels to reach the highly skilled people they need to hire in competitive labor markets. Recruiters have found that social channels are far more effective in identifying prospective employees than recruitment advertising sources and that prospects came into the hiring cycle with a better understanding and more enthusiasm about the company they were hoping to work for.

Yet B2B applications of social media get remarkably little attention. Perhaps that’s because their focused communities of buyers pale in size to the millions who flock to Facebook Official Pages for Coca-Cola and Nike is. Perhaps it’s because glitzy video contests and games don’t resonate with the time-challenged professional audience. It doesn’t really matter. Few B2B companies seek the consumer spotlight and their audiences, which may spend millions of dollars with them, are more interested in substance than in style. Fortunately, B2B social media is all about substance. Continue reading

Be Inclusive Or Be Irrelevant

In my column in BtoB magazine this month I discuss the contrasting media relations styles of two giants of the Internet age: Google and Apple. The column focused specifically on their communications styles, but I believe the business tactics of these two starkly different but successful companies have bigger significance.

Google and Apple are diametrically opposed in many respects. Apple creates delightful experiences. Its products are proprietary, closed and self-contained, but people love using them because they not only work but seem to function the way humans expect. Apple is a technology company whose vision is rooted in human-friendly design.

Google’s vision is rooted in the potential of technology. The company produces an amazing array of products, ranging from mapping software to CAD design to medical records organizers. Google shares its ideas quite openly in public “labs” and is also prone to ending public experiments with little notice or explanation. Even its self-deprecating error messages are emblematic of the corporate culture, as if to say “So it didn’t work; we’ll make it better.”

The public-facing strategies these companies employ also couldn’t be more different. Apple holds its new product plans close to the vest and reveals them with fanfare at elaborate press conferences that generate months of media speculation. The company may only hold a couple of press conferences a year, but you can be sure they’re memorable.

Apple not only doesn’t use social media, it has actively litigated against bloggers who have revealed sensitive information. The strategy works well for Apple because its rabid base of fans is more than happy to indulge in speculative frenzy and drive awareness that no amount of advertising could buy.

In contrast, Google rarely holds press conferences. Most of its products are announced in a low-key style via blogs. Its developers and product managers work the long tail through one-on-one interviews and frequent speaking engagements. The company uses every social media outlet it can but shuns the media spotlight.

So Which Are You?

Is your company Apple or Google? Most businesses model their public personae on the Apple example. Their plans are shrouded in secrecy, access to executives is granted only to the top media and leaks are dealt with harshly out of fear that they could compromise the goal of being first to market. The theory is that the market is hungry for information, so it’s best to withhold news until it can have the greatest impact.

That strategy works for Apple but not for most businesses. Today, customers are swimming in information and if they don’t get insight about where you’re going, they simply move to someone else. Companies that build products behind closed doors risk becoming irrelevant because no one talks about them. What’s more, they lose the advantage of involving customers in a process that can not only make their products better but form the basis for a word-of-mouth marketing force.

How about being first to market? That benefit is vastly overrated. History has demonstrated that the only advantage of being an early mover is that it gives you the opportunity to make mistakes that others learn from. Apple’s sole first-to-market experience – the Newton – was also its most notable failure. The history of technology markets in particular is littered with businesses that created innovations that others later made successful.

In a world of plentiful information, the winners are those that do the best job of talking about their innovations before they reach the market. Prospective customers want to be involved in the process, and they punish those businesses that don’t indulge them. Look at the companies that are making headlines today and you’ll find nearly all of them have adopted an open and inclusive path to the market.

The Apples of the world are few and far between. Nearly everyone would like to be an Apple, but few will ever get the chance.

The Decade That Transformed Media

As we head into the second decade of the new millennium (okay, it technically doesn’t begin for another year, but stick with me), it’s worth remembering where media stood just 10 years ago.

In December, 1999, few people had heard of Google. Online advertising was banners and e-mails. Big media brands dominated the Web.  US newspaper ad revenue would hit record levels in 2000. Newsroom employment would peak in 2001 as newsstand sales of the top 100 magazines approached 30 million. No one had heard of blogs. People used mobile phones to talk.

Fast forward to 2009. This year, people spent six billion minutes on Facebook, downloaded one billion YouTube videos and logged over 1.4 million blog entries every day. The iPhone became the first mobile phone to be used more for data than for voice. The Internet became the second most popular news medium behind television. Wikipedia posted its three millionth article.

Meanwhile, US newsroom employment fell to a 25-year low and magazine newsstand sales dropped to 63% of their 2001 peaks. Reader’s Digest declared bankruptcy. Comcast said it would buy NBC.

The statistics go on and on. In just 10 years, our century-old mass-market media model has given way to a new structure dominated by the economics of one. Customers now take their opinions directly to the market.  Woe to organizations that don’t listen.

The contraction of mass-market media has brought plenty of pain. Tens of thousands of media professionals have lost their jobs in the past two years, crowdsourcing has sent some professional fees into a tailspin and veteran marketers are under threat if they don’t “get” social media. But this pain is necessary, even beneficial in the long run.

New Efficiency

That’s because media has historically been one of the least efficient disciplines on the planet. It’s a profession that declares success if only 97% of its audience ignores an ad or tosses the mailer into the trash. It gains one customer at the expense of annoying 50 bystanders. When department store magnate John Wanamaker said half his ad dollars were wasted, but “I don’t know which half,” he was being generous.

The new Internet has flipped the economics. As media control has passed from institutions to individuals, waste has begun to be worked out of the system. The cost of reaching a targeted customer will only decline in the years to come. Sadly, efficiency will also devastate those industries and professions that thrived on media’s historical inefficiency.

While mourning the loss of comfort and security that old media once provided, we shouldn’t get caught up looking backward. More competitive markets will bring new options for reaching customers. The marketers who survive will be those who put the past behind and move quickly to take advantage of these new efficiencies.

Let’s start the year not by mourning the losses of the last decade but by learning the skills we’ll need to survive the next.

What changes will we be looking back upon a decade from now? Post your predictions as comments.