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.

A New Online Community Just For Us

The Society for New Communications Research has been providing valuable perspective and advice on new media for over five years, but it has always done so from the precarious position of a nonprofit organization. So I was very excited to learn late last year that Redwood Collaborative, a b-to-b media company specializing in technology, has stepped in to fund some of SNCR’s programs and build on its ideas.

The first fruit of that investment is NewComm Collaborative, a knowledge-sharing community for professionals who are “passionate about learning how to harness the new communications technologies that are transforming media and business models.” The beta site just launched with hundreds of articles from contributors and the SNCR archives. I was pleased to be asked to guest-edit the category of New Media and Journalism for January. We’ve got material from Jeff Jarvis, Martin Langeveld, Mark Potts, Gina Chen and other smart journalists as well as a forum topic entitled “Is Media Devastation a Good Thing?” Click on over and sign up.

While you’re there, also sign up for the annual New Comm Forum, April 20-23 in San Mateo, CA. In my view, this is the best lineup of speakers the Forum has had in the four years I’ve been attending. I can’t wait to meet these people!

Tip of the Week: Xmarks

If you, like me, regularly use more than one computer to access the Web, you know how frustrating it can be that all browsers are local. You know the drill: You bookmark a website on your home computer and then can’t find the same site when you’re looking for it at work two days later. Or if you use the saved password function in the browser, you learn the hard way that passwords saved on one computer don’t show up on any others unless you copy them through a laborious backup and restore process.

Xmarks is for you. This simple but super-useful little plug-in for Firefox, Internet Explorer and Apple Safari synchronizes all your local bookmarks and passwords so the stuff you choose to remember on one computer will be available to you on all the others you use. In recent months, Xmarks has added other cool features like search-result commentary from its community users, but I find it enormously useful simply because the items I bookmark on the laptop in my bedroom at 7 a.m. are available in my office two hours later. Thank goodness for simple pleasures!

Are You Doing B-to-B Social Marketing? Contact Me

Eric Schwartzman and I are hard at work on the new book we’re co-authoring on the subject of business-to-business social media marketing. We’re looking for companies that are using the tools to reach business customers, channel partners and other non-consumer constituents. We want this book to be full of success stories and anecdotes, so if you have an interesting experience to share, please contact me. And don’t forget to visit the draft outline and give us your suggestions.

Just For Fun: Not Just Another State Of The Union

State of the Union addresses aren’t known for their excitement. Especially in an economy like this one. But we found a great idea to spice things up this year: a drinking game you can play as President Obama is talking tonight. Granted — it won’t get you as drunk as, say, a shot for every missed verb in a Palin speech, but even if you play by only one of the rules, you’ll still be happy enough at the end of the event tonight to say you paid attention to this historic SOTU. For extra credit, continue playing during the pundit commentary afterward.

Love Your Subscribers

Paul GillinFord Motor Company is widely considered to be an outstanding practitioner of social media marketing. Under the leadership of Scott Monty (more than 36,000 followers on Twitter), the company has created such innovations as the multimedia Ford Story website and the consumer-generated Fiesta Movement.

So I was a little surprised recently when Scott told me, “Most of the mainstream still relies on e-mail. Newsletters will be a big part of our strategy for 2010.”

Newsletters? E-mail? Isn’t that stuff so last millennium? In fact, e-mail continues to be the killer app of social media.

E-marketer reported last month that “e-mail was the top channel for distributing content to friends, with 46.4% of all shares. About one-third of shares went to Facebook and less than 6% were tweeted.” The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported last fall that more people use the Internet for e-mail than for any other activity, including search.

So allow me to sing the praises of e-mail as an engagement medium. Note I didn’t say “marketing medium.” Every marketer I’ve spoken to for the last two years has told me that e-mail blasts are delivering fewer and fewer quality results. E-mail newsletters, on the other hand, continue to be core to their strategies. Here’s why.

Social media provides a great opportunity to create awareness among groups of people you don’t know, but they pale next to e-mail’s capacity to sustain relationships. My newsletter consumes about four hours of my time each week, which is not a small investment. However, it’s an invaluable way to sustain important relationships and a pretty steady source of new business. About 30% of my subscribers open each issue and I invariably get at least four or five direct responses as well as several comments to my blog. The newsletter also generates at least a couple of new business leads every month.

Permission to Speak

E-mail has one critical advantage over all social media: It’s permission-based. By subscribing to my newsletter, you give me the okay to periodically intrude upon your inbox with a message that I hope is of interest to you. Your inbox is hallowed ground to me. While I don’t take unsubscribes personally, I do monitor them for evidence that my topics are going off-base. I respond to every reply I receive to a newsletter and I take those comments seriously. Anyone who takes the time to subscribe deserves my attention.

So let’s abstract this back to a business newsletter. I believe every company should have one. The subscription form on your site creates the opportunity to convert casual visits into conversations. It’s a chance to enhance visitors’ understanding of what you do, update them on new initiatives and demonstrate your value. A static website should catch attention; a newsletter should create a dialogue.

Think Different (As Apple Would Say)

Newsletters are different from other forms of communication. For one thing, you should make the message more personal. Your newsletter subscribers have a deeper interest in what you do than casual Web visitors. Give them your best stuff.

Subscribers should get value from a newsletter that they don’t get from a website or e-mail blast. That may be insight, an offer, an advance peek at something new or an invitation. If subscribers don’t get something special, why should they bother subscribing?

Newsletters are an excellent place to pull together your recent activities and show how your business is moving forward. Speak personally; this is a conversation, not an advertisement. Ask someone in your company to share a bit of expertise. Preview some new research before sharing it with the world. Give subscribers an exclusive discount. Share a behind-the-scenes look at a product or service that the rest of the world doesn’t get to see.

Always invite response. The “Reply” button is the fastest way to establish a dialogue. You might also give people the option to post their comments publicly on your blog or via a Twitter hash tag.

When people respond, return the favor. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your newsletter is a way to convert an impression into a relationship. Why would you fumble away an opportunity for interaction? A response doesn’t mean an insulting boilerplate message. It means a message from a human. Better not to reply at all than to leave the task to a robot.

I subscribe to a lot of newsletters just to keep an eye on what others are doing. I’m often amazed at how little attention businesses pay to optimizing the potential of their newsletters. Airlines, for example, fill my inbox with discounts and package deals. I can’t remember the last time one of them invited my feedback or tried to help me be a better traveler. Perhaps that’s why I don’t subscribe to many airline newsletters anymore.

What ideas have worked for your newsletters? Let’s keep the dialogue going by sharing some successes on the blogged version of this article. Or use the Twitter hash tag #PGCNL.

Social Media: Small Business’ Unfair Advantage

You’re competing against a billion-dollar company. It’s armed with a $10 million advertising budget and a battalion of marketing professionals. All you’ve got is your little blog.

What an unfair advantage for you.

Social media is the best thing ever to happen to small business. In my recent guest entry on the ShopTab blog, I present five reasons why that’s true.

Free Webcast for My Subscribers

Traditional marketing was all about delivering a message from the top and spreading it through as many channels as possible. That worked well in an age when mass media dominated the communications landscape, but the world has changed. Today, messages begin at the bottom and percolate up.

At 1 p.m. EST this afternoon, I’ll present a webinar entitled The New World of Bottom-Up Marketing presented by the Best Practice Institute. The event is available only to paid members of Institute, but subscribers to my newsletter can participate for *free* by registering with the code PAULBPI. Stop by and let me know what you think!

New Seminar: Twitter Demystified

A lot of people are asking about Twitter these days, so I’ve come up with a new seminar that helps explain it all. This course takes about two to three hours, depending on the detail desired, and can be delivered live or via the Web. Contact me if you’re interested. Here’s a description:

Twitter Demystified

Why do some Twitter users have 10,000 followers after one year and others only 500? It isn’t just the volume of tweets that make someone a Twitter superstar; it’s also content, focus and constructive participation in this vast and growing community.

Three years after it was introduced, Twitter still remains a mystery to many people. To newcomers it appears to be a cacophony of disjointed information, yet many businesses are finding that it is the single most valuable tool they can use to magnify a message. What’s their secret?

Twitter’s endless stream of commentary actually sits atop a sophisticated structure of technology and cultural protocols that dictate how a message can be communicated and amplified. Once you understand how the system works, the service is amazingly powerful. Success on Twitter is a matter of delivering value, interacting constructively with a community and supporting other members. It’s also a matter of knowing what behaviors are appropriate in a community that makes up its own rules.

This seminar teaches participants how Twitter works, how to become quickly productive and how to grow influence and derive value from the community. Participants will learn the following:

• The basic constructs of the Twitter service
• Important terms and concepts
• Dos and don’ts for community engagement
• How to enlist other members to amplify a message
• How to work with a follower base
• How to measure results and adjust strategies
• How to make Twitter a part of your daily routine
• Useful third-party services that complement the Twitter experience

Tip of the Week: Office 2010 for Free

The Microsoft Office 2007 suite costs a minimum of $150 for the student edition at Best Buy, but you can download the full version of the next generation of Office for free. Microsoft is making Office 2010 available at no charge through its beta program with a license that runs at least through October. The company doesn’t say if the product will stop working on Halloween, but I hope it doesn’t because I’m enjoying this new version a lot. I particularly like the OneNote organizer. Plan on going to lunch after you start the download because it takes a while. Get it here.

Just For Fun: 10 Places You’re Probably Not Cool Enough To Get Into

Although I realize that subscribers to this newsletter are among the most keyed-in people on the planet, I doubt more than a handful of you have been to any of the places on this list of restricted-access facilities, both government- and non-government-related. Virtually visit the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan, rebuilt every 20 years and accessible only by the Japanese imperial family and its high priests and priestesses. Or come imagine what is stored inside the Vatican’s Secret Archives (maybe Dan Brown was right!). Or sit down with a world-class wine list at Club 33 in Disneyland. If you’re one of the lucky few who can get into any of these spots, send me a couple of all-access passes, will you?

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 January, 2000, few people had heard of Google. Online advertising was banners and e-mails. Big media brands dominated the Web. U.S. newspaper ad revenue would hit record high 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. Last 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, U.S. 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 the individual. 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

Media has historically been one of the least efficient industries on the planet. It’s a business that declares success if only 97% of its audience ignores an ad or tosses a 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 he didn’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 work out of the system. The cost of reaching a targeted customer will only decline in the years to come. Sadly, these changes 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 them and move quickly to take advantage of these new efficiencies.

Let’s start the year not by regretting 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 comments on the blogged version of this article.

My Next Book Will Be For B2B Marketers

More than 50 books about social media were published in 2009, but not a single one targeted business-to-business marketers. It’s hard to believe, but Amazon doesn’t lie.

Eric Schwartzman and I intend to fill that gap. We’ve teamed up to write a new book under the working title of Social Media Marketing to the Business Customer for publication late this year or early next.The book will focus on issues that are unique to the B2B: disclosure, regulation, internal resistance, policies, legal issues and more.

Eric (pictured here) is the innovator behind the iPressroom service that many large companies use for their online media destinations. He’s also host of the On the Record…Online podcast series. Over nearly six years, he’s recorded audio interviews with almost 200 marketers and journalists about how the Internet has affected their work. It’s an amazing archive.
Eric and I will spend the next six months researching this book, and we welcome your guidance and expertise. The draft outline has been posted online and we invite you to share your thoughts. We’ll also be looking for good case studies of B2B marketers who have implemented successful social media programs. And if you’re willing to bare your soul and tell us about a campaign that DIDN’T go well, we’re particularly interested in talking to you. We’ll be gentle, I promise. 🙂

Just reply to this e-mail if you want to reach me. I will be posting updates on the research on my blog as we move forward. Forwards and retweets are more than welcome as we steam toward the June 30 manuscript deadline.

One More Plea to Take My Survey

Just before the holidays, I wrote you about a research report I’m preparing on multi-platform social media strategies. Marketers are beginning to expand beyond using point tools such as blogs and Facebook fan pages in favor of multi-platform programs that incorporate elements like video, podcasts, social networks, Twitter and branded customer communities all working together. I’m finding that combining several tools can greatly enhance the reach and impact of a program.

I’ve posted a survey to try to identify the most valuable scenarios and tools for multi-platform campaigns. If you can spare 10 minutes, please fill it out. I’m also lining up one-on-one interviews with marketers at mid-sized and large companies who can speak on the record about their experiences using multiple platforms. Please contact me if you’re willing to speak.

Tip of the Week: HandBrake Video Transcoder

I don’t know who first said, “The great thing about standards is that there are so many of them,” but he or she must have been talking about online video. If you’re trying to convert a video taken with a digital camera and post it on a couple of different websites, you may need to reformat — it’s called “transcoding” — two or three times in the process. And, of course, Apple doesn’t read Microsoft and vice versa.

Until recently, the only way to do this was with software that was either expensive, limited in functionality or insanely difficult to use. So I was grateful recently to find HandBrake, an open-source software program that accepts just about any video format you throw at it and spits out a file in almost any other format. HandBrake is fast and the default settings are easy to use. If you want to geek out, there are about a thousand dials and knobs you can play with. And since it’s open source, HandBrake will improve over time. Try it!

Just For Fun: Tweeting Greyhounds

Those of you who follow my Twitter stream may know that my wife, Dana, and I recently adopted a greyhound named Jacoby (right). It was Jacoby’s second day home when Dana thought of creating a Twitter account for our new dog. He now has 64 followers and is listed on 8 Twitter lists. There are several dozen dogs on Twitter, who share the daily adventures of their lives, and Jacoby is no exception. If you think this is silly, check out some of the other lists that people have made on Listorious. And go follow Jacoby.