A Fast and Flexible Approach to Developing Content

One of my clients has been experimenting with an innovative and efficient approach to content development and I want you to know about it.

The company is in a highly specialized and big-ticket b-to-b industry. Its executives are very busy and very well paid. The VP of marketing wanted to develop some thought leadership white papers, but the prospect of pinning down these executives for hours to develop the content wasn’t practical. Instead, the marketing departing is using podcasts to construct white papers from the ground up

Here’s how it works: We schedule a 30- to 45- minute phone call with these busy executives to capture background information and hot topics in their areas of expertise. I then create a list of questions that are intended to draw out the executives’ thinking (journalists are pretty good at this!).

We record an interview of approximately 30 minutes’ duration. An edited version is posted as a podcast on the company’s website, but the marketing group also has the full interview transcribed via a low-cost outside service. Marketing cleans up and reorganizes the transcript and posts the document as a position paper.

Over a series of interviews, an executive’s observations and experiences can be rolled up in interesting ways. Multiple interviews with one executive can yield an in-depth white paper. Or point interviews with several executives can be combined into a corporate backgrounder. Customers and prospects can also subscribe to the podcast series. For the small transcription fee (services can be had for as little as a dollar a minute) and some inexpensive editing, the VP has a series of byline articles from the most visible people in his company.

Rethinking Research
I’ve recommended this approach to more and more clients lately. New online tools enable us to rethink our approach to assembling complex documents. It used to be the process demanded hours or days of research. Now we can take notes in real-time and assemble them later.

Blogs are ideally structured as collections of thoughts, observations and insights expressed in short bursts. It’s fast and easy to capture these brainstorms online. Got an idea? Twitter it for prosperity. When you go back and look at information assembled in this way, you often see relationships that weren’t obvious at the time. Between search, tags and bookmarks, it’s possible to assemble these building blocks in different ways.

Some thought leaders take this to the limit. Marketing guru Seth Godin, for example, is known for writing entire books based on collections of interesting blog posts. The blog is his notepad for ideas that can be combined into coherent themes.

In some (though certainly not all) cases, this is a more efficient way to research a topic than spending hours mining the Web or library stacks. For my client, it’s also a way to repurpose content across multiple media. Maybe it will work for you. What do you think? Twitter me @paulgillin.

A Mobile Game-Changer

Apple unveiled the iPhone Application List last week and boasted that it sold one million of the new 3G (third generation) devices in the product’s first weekend on the market. More important than the sales figures is the coup that Apple has pulled off: The iPhone 3G looks to be the first mobile device to make the leap from telecommunications to data. That makes it the first mobile platform to merit serious attention from marketers.The iPhone inspires a passion among its users that few technology products have ever achieved. Ask an iPhone user to tell you what he or she likes and you’ll get a 20-minute sermon, complete with demos. What strikes me is that most people tell me they use the iPhone more for data than for telephony. This is where the product is a game-changer.
The mobile Internet has been an unholy mess for several years. Each handset maker, network operator and service provider uses a slightly different technology. This pointless incompatibility has frustrated application developers so much that many have decided simply to wait out the market until consensus is reached. About the only standard anyone has been able to agree upon is Mobile Web, a hobbled subset of the World Wide Web standards that doesn’t do anything particularly well.Apple is bidding to change all that. The two big innovations in the iPhone are a usable http Web browser and sufficient local memory and storage to run applications on the device. This second feature is critical. Few people will choose to interact with their iPhone primarily through the browser, although they will browse to retrieve information. The beauty of native applications is that they can take full advantage of the iPhone’s speed and interface. When combined with a robust Internet back end, some truly interesting uses will develop.

The New Client/Server

In industry lingo, this setup is called client/server. Millions of people already take advantage of a mobile client/server architecture every day when they use their BlackBerries from Research in Motion. The BlackBerry’s e-mail interface is second to none, but an equally important usability factor is the device’s rapid performance. That’s because the BlackBerry downloads messages continually and displays them locally for rapid access. If the Blackberry’s performance was as slow as a Web e-mail program like Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, I suspect few people would bother with it.

Apple’s applications initiative is meant to give developers the means to build client/server applications on the iPhone. This can give users a fast, pleasant experience that’s optimized for the platform. Mobile Web doesn’t come close.

With an impressive list of more than 500 out-of-the-box iPhone applications and the capacity for developers to create really functional client/server programs, the iPhone stands to be the first truly mobile data device.

No cell phone maker I’ve seen has yet produced a meaningful competitor. Their origins are in voice, and most still don’t get the data thing. Apple’s early lead with mobile applications makes it the front runner in his new field.

Why you should care

Here’s the opportunity for marketers. Facebook pioneered the idea of using applications as a means to sell products, but there are so many Facebook applications right now that it’s almost impossible to break through the noise. The iPhone is currently an open field, and since people spend a lot more time away from their computers than in front of them, there’s more potential for audience engagement. The audience may be smaller, but the prospect of getting them to actually use your service is greater.

The applications that succeed on a mobile device will undoubtedly be different than those that work on a social network. Location awareness will be critical. Think in terms of what people want to do and know when they’re standing on a street corner or waiting in an airport. Give them services that help pass the time or entertain them. Better move quickly, though. I suspect the iPhone Application List won’t be a short one for very much longer.

Envisioning the Future of Journalism

The rapid implosion of the newspaper industry (advertising sales by U.S. newspapers fell a record 14% in the first quarter) has created a storm of debate in the media industry about what journalism will look like when information is free and everyone is a publisher. Here’s my take on the future of journalism.

The current debate centers upon assumptions that are based in a time when information was scarce and publishing was expensive. Traditionalists see the role of the journalist changing and mourn the loss of the role of reporter as a scribe of history with pen in hand and a deadline to meet.

In order to envision the future, you have to discard assumptions. Many of the practices and conventions of journalism today were actually invented to cope with an age when timely information was difficult and expensive to gather and deliver. Basically, we do what we do in large part because we’ve historically had to deal with plates and presses and trucks and news stands, all of which added time and cost. We don’t have to worry about that stuff any more. This should cause us to completely rethink our approach to the craft.

Here are the new realities:

  • Today, everyone is potentially a journalist, even if only for a few minutes;
  • Technology has made it possible for news to be reported in near real-time. People will come to expect this;
  • The cost of reporting and publishing news is now effectively zero;
  • Publishing is now a beginning, not an end. Once a “story” goes online, an update and refinement begins that may last for years or decades;
  • Any person or institution with an interest in a story has the capacity to publish facts, commentary and updates without seeking anyone’s permission. Responsible journalists need to incorporate that information into their work as appropriate.

All of these realities revise rules that have existed for thousands of years. This is why we need to rethink everything. Nearly everything has changed. But some things haven’t. People still want trusted sources of information. They want clear distinctions between fact and conjecture. Institutions need to be monitored. We need to know whom to trust. These needs won’t change if newspapers go away, so someone will need to fill the void.

Traditional Reporting is Obsolete

How does journalism need to evolve? Let’s start with the role of the reporter, because that function is likely to change the most.

The traditional function of reporter no longer makes sense. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world put their faith in the hands of a small number of people to gather and deliver the news. For the most part, these people aren’t experts in their topics they cover. In fact, reporters get shifted to new beats all the time. Reporters are resourceful, however. Most of them are pretty good at learning on the fly, figuring out what’s important and presenting that information clearly and succinctly. These are important skills and they’ll be needed for a long time to come.

There’s an awful lot of waste in reporting, though. Most of what a reporter learns in the process of working a story is discarded. Even more waste occurs when a story is cut for space. In the end, a task that requires hours of information-gathering may be boiled down to a couple of hundred words on a page. This was necessary in a time- and space-limited world, but it isn’t necessary any more.

The traditional limitations of print and broadcast media have required reporters to constantly make value judgments about what readers may know. An hour-long interview may result in a single sentence of published information or a three-second sound bite. This decision is entirely in the hands of one person. Reporters do a pretty good job of upholding the trust that readers put in them, but the rules are all different now. No one should be denied access to information just because there isn’t enough space. Space is now infinite.

New Journalism is Transparent

Today, nearly every relevant fact about a story may be captured and shared with anyone who’s interested. This service may be provided by the reporter, participants, observers and commentators. This information doesn’t have to be part of the story that the reporter submits for publication, but it should be available to those who want to know.

The reporter’s role expands to include not only making judgments about what information to include but also about where to link for more information. The “story” becomes an entry point to an archive of relevant content that may be of interest to different people. The ability to make these associations becomes a core journalism skill. The choice of where to link and what background to provide becomes part of editorial voice.

This new reality should be liberating for readers and journalists alike. No longer do journalists have to make difficult choices about what readers may know. No longer do readers have to regard media institutions with suspicion. Everyone is free to contribute, correct and weigh in on the story. Whatever the media entity chooses not to cite in its published account can be discovered through search. Journalists will be more accountable and readers will be more confident that they can trust the information they receive.

A lot of media veterans are uncomfortable with this idea, though. Their profession has long been shrouded in mystery. Editors are accountable only to a small group of higher-ups who share the same priorities as they do. A self-policing strategy rarely works. Very few readers understand what goes on in a newsroom, and this makes them suspicious. One of the reasons so few people trust the media is that so few people understand how the media works.

Bonds of Trust

We’re going to start opening that up. When readers and viewers have access to the source material for a reporter’s story, they feel more confident that the account is accurate, even if they never consult that background. Ironically, I believe we will see less accuracy in reporting in the future, but that’s a topic for a future newsletter.

The basic point is that the reporters will increasingly become aggregators and topic stewards. They will be obliged to present a variety of inputs and opinions because those opinion-makers will publish whether the reporter wants them to or not. Reporters will also come to write not only the first draft of history, but subsequent drafts as well. A story will evolve the same way that an entry in Wikipedia begins as a one-sentence stub and evolves into a comprehensive account representing multiple sources and points of view. In a few cases, the public will participate in this process. Mostly, they will observe, but they will have confidence that the process by which the truth is reported is transparent and accessible if they so wish.

These trends will create a new, enlightened and very different form of journalism. In the future, journalists won’t screen information from view but organize it for convenient access. We will no longer be denied information because space wasn’t available. We’ll learn to search for it in different ways. Journalists will be very important to this process. They just won’t make nearly as many decisions about what we can and cannot know

Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Businessweek’s Catherine Holahan writes this week about the big lead Barack Obama has built against John McCain in online visibility. While I’m not going to declare a preference for either candidate, I do think it’s worth noting the lessons marketers can learn from the Obama campaign’s success.

Political campaigns have long been about the 30-second television spot. Candidates staked their reputations and their success on a series of carefully crafted (and very expensive) image ads that ran in key markets. The high cost of this approach forced campaigns to bet everything on strategic media buys.

The Obama campaign has challenged this conventional wisdom. While the 30-second spot still has its place, it isn’t with the emerging population of young voters. When young people do watch TV, it’s rarely in prime time and they are usually fast-forwarding through the commercials. Perhaps one reason this group has become so politically disenfranchised in recent elections is that no one is reaching them on their terms.

The Obama campaign, however, has figured it out. Its innovation has been in understanding that mainstream media is no longer the bottleneck of communication. When candidates — or marketers — use all the media channels available, they can create significant impact without relying on traditional media or advertising at all.

The numbers cited by BusinessWeek are impressive. The Obama campaign decided at the outset to leverage every possible channel to reach its audience and to take every possible opportunity to drive home its message. The candidate is essentially broadcasting every waking minute. When Obama gives a speech, a staffer videotapes it and uploads it to YouTube. When the candidate is in the car, aides are delivering messages on Twitter. Between campaign stops, the candidate conducts chats on MySpace or distributes position papers on his own social network.

The cost of these activities is next to nothing and the young audience they reach has been almost completely ignored by other campaigns. Perhaps more importantly, the Obama strategy has centered on frequent repetition, which is a classic marketing best practice. Instead of waiting for the media gods to bestow attention upon the candidate, the candidate chooses to become the media.

What can marketers learn from this? For one thing, you are no longer a prisoner of the media. You can become the media. Secondly, if you choose a strategic combination of channels and then deliver messages consistently and frequently, you can get better results than by renting a half minute on TV once a week.

Finally, the Obama campaign has demonstrated the beauty of small markets. When you aggregate the candidate’s 43,000 Twitter followers, 60,000 YouTube subscribers, 1.1 million Facebook friends, 21,000 MySpace friends and 850,000 members of MyBarackObama.com, you’re quickly over 2 million followers, each of whom has volunteered for that status. If you can convince each one of those people to spread the word to three others, well, you do the math.

Four years ago, the Howard Dean campaign tried to leverage the Internet to run a grass-roots campaign and fell short. There were several reasons for that, but lack of tools was one of them. Today, the problem is how to choose from the bounty of tools that are available. The Obama campaign demonstrates that word-of-mouth campaigns can open a whole new world of possibilities.

Web 2.0 Goes Corporate

In my 25 years in the information technology field, I’ve learned how to spot trends that are about to go mainstream. One of my most reliable methods is to attend industry conferences dedicated to some new idea or technology and to look at the name badges of the attendees. Once corporate IT managers start showing up in force, you can be certain that the idea has staying power.

This happened in the late 1980s, when corporate IT attendance at the Comdex conference suddenly surged, presaging corporate adoption of desktop computing. The pattern repeated itself in the 90s with the networking-oriented Interop conference, followed by a series of Internet events late in the decade that drew large IT audiences. The trade shows themselves rarely last for more than a few years, but the ideas they introduced become part of the corporate landscape. I hadn’t seen the trend play out for some time. Until this week.

Despite coming off a two-week travel binge, I skipped out on a pile of unanswered e-mail this week to attend TechWeb’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. This event was dedicated to uses of social media technology behind the corporate firewall, and I was curious to see who would show up. I was impressed to see who did.

The more than 400 people who packed the keynote hall on Wednesday represented a blue-chip list of the largest U.S. corporations. There were banks, airlines, consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical companies. For more than two hours on Wednesday morning a full house listened intently as a series of speakers from Pfizer, Wachovia, Sony and the Central Intelligence Agency talked about what their organizations are doing with internal applications of social media.

Lots of Action

It turns out they’re doing plenty. Pete Fields, senior vice president of the e-commerce division at Wachovia, told how the financial firm is using an integrated social network to capture the knowledge of workers who will be retiring over the next few years. Simon Revell, manager of enterprise 2.0 technology development at Pfizer, showed off a promotion the pharmaceutical company is using to drive internal adoption of an enterprise wiki, podcasts, personal employee spaces and a social bookmarking service.

Ned Lerner, director of tools and technology at Sony Computer Entertainment, spoke of how wikis and open-source project management tools are replacing top-down hierarchy with team solidarity. All the speakers noted that Web 2.0 tools are a necessity to attract the young workers who will make up their future workforce.

The individual empowerment that social media technologies enable is even transforming corporate cultures. In one memorable exchange during a panel discussion, the CIA’s Sean Dennehy remarked that giving up control is the secret to empowering employees to do the right thing. “We need to fight against locked-down spaces,” he said. Moderator Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School couldn’t help noting the irony of that statement coming from a representative of the CIA. But in fact, that organization has been a pioneer in using bloggers to keep close to happenings in remote corners of the globe.

The morning concluded with a series of demonstrations from companies that are building corporate versions of popular social media tools. Among them are Veodia, Aegeon and GroupSwim. A year ago, these companies would have been showing off consumer services. Today, they’re demonstrating the same kind of cool technology you see on YouTube, but with enterprise scale and reliability. More coverage of the event is listed on the conference blog, which is accessible from the home page.

For those who remember the Internet conferences of the late 90s, this is nothing like that. Those early events were about putting up company websites and conducting commerce online. This new breed of conference is about of empowering individuals and decentralizing business decisions. It’s a much more exciting concept, because it transforms the relationship between people and institutions. It’s pretty exciting to hear conservative institutions like Wachovia speak of enabling direct discussions between employees and senior management. A few years ago, that idea was almost unthinkable. Hanging around Enterprise 2.0, I got the sense that it will soon be the way we all do business.

Social Media Tools Don’t Matter

Here’s a question I hear from marketers all the time: “We want to launch a corporate blog, but we don’t know how to go about it. Where should we start?”

My answer is that you should start a couple of steps back from where you are. Social media tools – whether they’re blogs, online communities, instructional videos or something else – don’t solve anything unless they address a specific business need. Don’t use social media for its own sake. Use it to accomplish an objective.

Unfortunately, the temptation is difficult to resist. Lots of businesses are experimenting with social media tools these days. It’s natural to think that they know something the rest of us don’t, but the reality is that most people are still kicking tires right now. There are some very successful companies like Apple Computer that are doing nothing with social media because they don’t have to. If the tools aren’t right for your culture or your business, don’t use them.

Whatever you do, don’t start the decision process with technology. The choice of a social media tool is no more relevant to the success of a campaign than is the choice of paint to the structural integrity of a house. Many tools are flexible enough to be used for multiple purposes and some strategic goals require you to leverage many tools in concert.

Stop and consider the problem or opportunity you’re trying to address. Here are a few possible business objectives, with the best tool options listed in parentheses.

  • Build customer community (blog, video, social network, private community, virtual world)
  • Counter negative publicity (blog, podcast, video, customer reviews)
  • Crisis management (blog, video, social network, virtual world)
  • Customer conversation (blog, social network, private community, virtual world)
  • Generate website traffic (blog, video, customer reviews)

Many more examples will be explored in my forthcoming book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing. It will be available this fall and you can pre-order it on Amazon right now. I also recommend reading Groundswell, the new book by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. It has some excellent advice on how to take a disciplined approach to social media selection.

Note that blogs appear next to every bullet point listed above. That doesn’t mean blogs are a panacea. They are the easiest form of social media to implement, but far greater leverage may derive from more complex tools like customer communities. You should choose media based upon your budget, staff resources and commitment. It’s often best to start small and grow your social media footprint as you become more fluent with the tools. Blogs are a good starting point, but you may need stronger medicine after a while.

Keep in mind the importance of balancing between ease of use, simplicity of deployment and functionality. Many social media tools can be used for multiple purposes. You may be better off starting with a tool that you understand well rather than deploying a somewhat richer solution that carries a steep learning curve.

If you keep the tools secondary and work outward from the business goal, you’re far more likely to reap the rewards of your efforts.

An Online Video Strategy That Hits The Mark

I just returned from my second trip to Toronto in the last two months and was again impressed with the Web-savviness of the Canadian audience. Did you know, for example, that Canadians are the world’s most active users of Facebook? Or that Canadians spend, on average, two more hours per week viewing online video than their counterparts south of the border?

And don’t give me that “Of course! It’s cold up there!” cliché. Canadian homes are wired and its businesses are doing some very innovative things to reach those web-savvy customers.

Take Future Shop. Canada’s largest consumer electronics retailer is using online community not only to learn more about its customers, but to help sell products and support customers. It has built an online advisory and customer support service that is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

“Ask an Expert” is formulated on a high-touch model in which sales associates are taught to be valued customer advisers. The company has come up with a strategy to duplicate that real-world experience online. The screen shot shows “Aaron,” one of the video avatars who guides customers.

“We’re trying to blur the lines between the offline and online experience,” says Robert Pearson, Future Shop’s director of e-commerce. “Our goal is to become the largest technology community in Canada.”

Future Shop is well on its way to that objective. In less than a year, the site has signed up 50,000 members, which would be equivalent to about 450,000 members in the much larger U.S. market. But the community isn’t just a discussion forum. Future Shop co-developed a ranking system with Lithium that lets customers provide feedback on each other and on the quality of information offered up by sales associates. Customer contributors can earn discounts and status in the community. The most helpful sales associates can earn cash.

Next up: Facebook-like functionality that gives contributors their own personal spaces and ties sales associate profiles to store locations. Success is measured by a survey of customer affinity with the brand. It’s still too early to draw measurable conclusions, but all the trends are pointing in the right direction. “We’re getting about 250,000 visitors a day out of a population of 33 million,” Pearson says. “That’s many more than come into a store. We actually see people walking in with printouts and asking for specific experts they’ve met online.”

Future Shop isn’t using video to be cool. It’s using video to reinforce an in-store experience that is essential to its business strategy. It has also bound its customers to the company in a way that is rewarding for both parties. The company is now owned by Best Buy, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar capability showing up on a retail website near you.

IDG’s Chairman Sees Brighter Future Online

When I read the story in the New York Times last week about International Data Group’s (IDG) successful transition from a print to an online model, I immediately fired off a congratulatory note to Pat McGovern, IDG’s chairman. I worked for IDG for 15 years and was privileged to get to know him a little during that time, so I took the liberty of inviting him to appear on the weekly MediaBlather podcast (formerly Tech PR War Stories) that I co-host with David Strom.

It didn’t surprise me at all when the chairman of a $3 billion global company immediately agreed. That’s the kind of person McGovern is. With all of the weighty issues that he must deal with every day, he is never too busy to chat with a colleague, whether current or past. In fact, McGovern still visits every IDG operation in the U.S. each December to distribute bonuses individually to every employee.

Our interview was about bigger business issues, notably IDG’s transition from a print powerhouse to an online specialty publisher. I think you’ll find McGovern’s perspective to be inspiring. While the print industry collectively moans about the pain of transitioning from print to online, IDG has quietly gone ahead and done it. Today, the company derives less than half its revenue from print titles, and McGovern expects online business to make up 70% of sales by 2012.

At InfoWorld, which was spotlighted in the Times article, the closure of the print edition and shift to a wholly online model actually increased margins from a small net loss to a 37% net profit. “Not only is there survival after going online, but it’s a much better environment,” McGovern told us.

IDG’s strategy is now to launch all new titles online first, build an audience and then take the business to print if the market demands it. “That way, we already have the audience and we can show the advertisers who’s asking for [the print title] and who’s going to read it,” McGovern said. “It takes away the risk.”

What works in the U.S. doesn’t work the same way globally, of course. Scandinavia and Korea are among the regions of the world that are innovating most successfully in online publishing, McGovern told us. In contrast, India is still a healthy print market but with a budding cell phone culture that may make it the first major economy to jump from paper to mobile devices without an intermediate PC stage.

There are some other gems in this interview. One is about IDG’s flirtation with a public offering through its books division a decade ago. McGovern, who has always taken a dim view of the public markets, relates how the experience distracted the group from its traditional market into ancillary businesses where it had no expertise. “If they had stayed private, I think they’d be a larger and more successful company today,” he commented.

We also talked about IDG’s phenomenal success in China, where it publishes a host of consumer titles in addition to its big technology brands. IDG’s venture capital arm now makes more money for the company from investing in Chinese businesses than the rest of the company does from publishing.

If you want to hear an optimistic perspective on the future of media from someone who is leading the charge, listen to this podcast. I think you’ll find it to be 25 minutes well spent.

Publishing is Now a Beginning, Not an End

The shift from print to online media requires us to change a lot of our assumptions about marketing and publishing, but perhaps no transformation is more powerful than this: In the online world, publishing information is merely a starting point, not an endpoint. If you grew up with mainstream media, this is a difficult concept to internalize. In the print world, publishers carefully assemble and verify information, submit it to a rigorous editing process and then commit it to posterity on paper. Once it’s published, it’s permanent. The opportunities to redistribute and evolve the information are severely limited.

Online media flips this equation. Today, published information is infinitely changeable. A story or message may morph and expand as times change and readers contribute their own perspectives. Look at Wikipedia as a shining example of this. A story on Wikipedia begins as a “stub.” Over time, additions, enhancements and corrections may develop that story into a work of vast scope and depth. All of this is performed in full public view. People with differing perspectives debate the facts and arbiters harmonize conflicting views. The true story may not be known for months or even years. That’s okay, though. As details emerge, the living document is revised to reflect the latest information. The original publication is just the first stage of a process.

Online publishing also transforms our assumptions about distribution. In the print world, publishers and marketers are limited to disseminating information through the media they have at their disposal. Circulation and mailing lists guarantee a certain readership, but there’s little upside beyond that. Aside from the occasional reprint, the potential reach of information is limited.

The online process is very different. Information is published first and then disseminated through a network of partners, third-party commentators and search engines. Content never dies online. A document may find new relevance for a buyer who discovers it on Google a year later.

So how does this relate to marketing? For one thing, messages aren’t one-way anymore. Your audience expects to contribute actively to the development of whatever content you produce. You’re no longer under the gun to be the definitive source of information. You can reach out to your readers for help in enhancing and commenting upon whatever you publish. Your customers appreciate that. Involving them in a conversation is the best way to build a lasting bond.

You should also look at your customers, business partners and the community of bloggers and online publishers as potential distributors. By making your content available through RSS feeds, you open up new channels that may enable you to reach an audience that’s orders of magnitude beyond what you originally intended. Why not contact some influencers in your market and ask them to publish your RSS feed? Many of them are hungry for information to stoke the daily demands of their blogs or websites.

The idea that information may not be fully baked when it reaches the public is difficult for many people to accept. But attitudes are changing. Today, the public beta test is an accepted model. The same principle applies to publishing. Speed and discussion can be just as important as fit and polish. Use this to your advantage by engaging in conversations that make your marketing messages a collaborative effort.

Secrets of Blogger Relations

Since embracing social media two years ago, Dell Computer has learned a few lessons. One of its key blogger relations people shared some secrets last week in a keynote interview at the New Communications Forum in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Richard Binhammer is charged with monitoring and engaging with the active ecosystem of people who blog about Dell. In a keynote interview with John Cass, Binhammer talked about negativity, a concern often voiced by PR people. Dell has had its share of blogger criticism, going back to the famous Dell Hell incident of three years ago. But by methodically reaching out to complainers, the company reduced negativity from nearly half of all online posts to about 20% in a little less than a year. The secret? “Just talk to people,” Binhammer said. Most of the time, all they want is to be heard. Demonstrate that you’re listening and you can resolve most complaints.

But here’s an interesting fact: After reducing that negativity factor to 20%, the Dell team has been unable to bring it consistently below that level. Binhammer, whose background is in politics, theorizes that 20% is a natural floor, in the same way that 20% of the population always votes for the same political party, regardless of who runs.

This is worth remembering. Even the best businesses have a few unhappy customers. Your mileage may vary, but you should never expect to achieve 100% satisfaction. It’s more likely that your blogger relations program will get you to a manageable yet stubborn base level. That’s your floor, and you probably can’t do much to break through it.

Finding Resources

Binhammer also shed some light on how Dell allocates its communications resources. With so many tech bloggers out there, you’d think the company would have a small army of communications folks monitoring and responding to conversations. In fact, it has just two people sharing the job. The reason? Dell is lining up the whole company behind the effort to get more engaged with customers. PR monitors the airwaves, but doesn’t try to resolve every issue. Most comments are forwarded to the appropriate group for response.

I wish more companies would do this. Bloggers tend to be well-informed and passionate, which means that their inquiries and comments demand knowledgeable responses. Companies that simply delegate the response to PR are failing to benefit from the really rich conversations they can have with their most informed customers. Everyone from sales to engineering should want to speak to customers whenever possible. Why let marketing have all the fun?