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.

Nothing ivy-covered about these students

This morning, I had the chance to speak to a group of students in Susan Dobscha’s class at Bentley College. All I can say is: marketers, you’d better get ready for some big changes.

These students don’t have to be taught concepts like conversation marketing, customer engagement and the value of social media. They live it every day. They throw around words like “transparency” as easily as their predecessors used “CPM.” They understand intuitively that marketing is about relationships and what they termed “deep branding.” That means embedding a brand on a customer’s mind through a long-term series of interactions that stress value for both parties.

The topic turned to Facebook for a while, and it’s clear that the students regard it as a tool to facilitate relationships. They maintain very large networks of casual acquaintances — one student described them as the people you say “hi” to in the hallway but don’t stop to talk to — and social networks are a means to accomplish this. I asked a class of about 25 students if any of them had formed meaningful relationships online and only one hand went up. Despite what the older generation may think, these kids value personal relationships as much as anybody else, it’s just that they expect to maintain friends networks that are five or six times as large as those of their parents. Imagine how business will be done differently when millions of these people hit the workforce.

One innovative project that this class is pursuing is maintaining a blog. Each student is required to follow a single blogger and to comment upon his or her writings during the course of the semester. These real-time observations are incorporated into the curriculum, making the classroom conversation about as current as any I have ever seen. The instructor told me that this is Bentley’s first social media marketing course and that enrollment filled up in 20 minutes. You can see why: these kids understand where the future lies and they’re not weighted down by assumptions about how marketing should be done. Beginning next year, some of them will be working for you. I would advise you to listen carefully to what they have to say. And Bentley should take those enrollment numbers as a message.

I had lunch with a small group of Bentley marketing faculty, several of whom specialize in marketing analytics. One professor asked me, somewhat ruefully, if marketers have wasted the last 20 years perfecting their analytical skills. I’m afraid I only gave half an answer. I said that the focus on analytics was a function of the limitations of media at the time. In other words, it was impossible to have meaningful conversations with customers until a few years ago, so marketers focused on measuring the limited contact they had.

What I should have said was that analytics will be even more important in the coming era. The Internet is the most measurable medium ever invented, and the challenge for marketers will be to develop useful metrics from a vast menu of options. The marketing analytics discipline should only grow in importance as people sort through all the choices. While it’s true that relationship marketing demands different skills that analytical marketing, that doesn’t make analytical skills any less important. Quite the contrary.

A manifesto for the new PR

The Arthur W. Page Society has just released a manifesto for the new world of corporate communications, and I’d recommend that anyone who works in PR or marketing download it. The Society is an exclusive group of senior execs from big companies, so their opinions carry some weight. While the report is short on quantitative research (though there is a survey of 31 CEOs discussed at the end), it’s hard to argue with its overarching conclusions: businesses no longer control their messages; constituencies are expanding and diversifying; and corporations must be more transparent and open about nearly everything they do.

“The 64-page report is called The Authentic Enterprise: Relationships, Values and The Evolution of Corporate Communications. Below are some excerpts that I snipped from the PDF. They’ll give you a flavor of the recommendations, but it’s worthwhile to read the whole document.

Thanks to George Faulkner at IBM for tipping me off to this new research.


“For those corporations that remain public and that aspire to build trusted brands, sustainable marketplace success and community reputation, the imperative of authenticity will inevitably grow in importance.

“We are no longer in control of our traditional spheres of professional activity. Indeed, all business functions are at the dawn of an era of radical de-professionalization.

“…New priorities and skills for which the Chief Communications Officer must now assume a leadership role: 1. Leadership in defining and instilling company values; 2. Leadership in building and managing multistakeholder relationships; 3. Leadership in enabling the enterprise with “new media” skills and tools…

“For business, globalization has long been transforming markets for capital and labor. Now it is reshaping the footprint – and even the idea – of the corporation. This institution is shifting from a hierarchical, monolithic, multinational model to one that is horizontal, networked and globally integrated.

“The chief communications executive and the communications function of a 21st century corporation will increasingly be responsible not only for the reputation of their single company, but also for understanding, communicating and even helping to shape the reputations of its ecosystem partners – such as clients, partners, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and other influencers.

“More than 300 million camera phones were shipped in 2005. They are now the most widespread image-capture devices in the world. At current growth rates, there could be one billion camera phones in use worldwide by 2008. That means nearly one person in six is a potential photojournalist – or, with the spread of video capabilities, documentary filmmaker.

“Teens in the U.S. – the consumers of today and the employees, shareholders, voters and leaders of tomorrow – spend 60 percent less time watching TV than their parents, and 600 percent more time online, interacting with, influencing and being influenced not by institutions, marketers or professional communicators, but by their peers.

“Procter & Gamble…“imports” 50 percent of its new ideas from outsiders. And Eli Lilly has created an open R&D marketplace called Innocentive to match problems needing solutions with independent researchers who can solve them.

“All of this makes the 21st century enterprise vulnerable at a wholly new level to unexpected developments that can damage the brand, negatively affect employee commitment, undercut outside relationships and destabilize management, including the CEO and other corporate officers and Board members. This, in turn, means that the stakes are much higher for what corporate communicators do.

“We used to segment communications carefully to targeted audiences. In an open information commons, everyone can see (and, increasingly, modify) any public communication, no matter to whom it is targeted.

“Message ‘segmentation’ is no longer practical or desirable. Despite the proliferation of diverse stakeholders, all are now on a level playing field.

“Values are the fundamental basis for enterprise communications. “To be an effective communications function in the authentic enterprise:

  • “We must not only position our companies, but also help define them. While expertise and authenticity are essential, communicators’ counsel to the corporation must now encompass its fundamental business model, brand, culture, policies and, most importantly, values.
  • We must not only develop channels for messaging but also networks of relationships. In a business ecosystem of proliferating constituencies, communicators must lead the development of social networks and the tools and skills of relationship building and collaborative influence – both to seize new opportunities and to respond to new threats.
  • We must shift from changing perceptions to changing realities. In a world of radical transparency, 21st century communications functions must lead in shaping behavior – inside and out – to make the company’s values a reality.

“Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. Corporate relations is a management function. No corporate strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on the public. The public relations professional is a policymaker capable of handling a wide range of corporate communications activities.

“Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people. The strongest opinions – good or bad – about a company are shaped by the words and deeds of its employees. As a result, every employee – active or retired – is involved with public relations. It is the responsibility of corporate communications to support each employee’s capability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador to customers, friends, shareowners and public officials.

“[CEOs] say that the emphasis of communications work must shift significantly toward internal communications, as they seek to transform their organizations’ culture and workforce skills – not just to make them more efficient and productive, but to embed the kind of pervasive transparency, personal responsibility and values-based decision making that enterprise-scale authenticity requires.

“The greatest danger corporate communications faces, ironically, may lie in our very success over the past two decades, if that success blinds us to the new demands that lie ahead.”

Blog swarm engulfing AT&T; how will it respond?

A blog swarm is developing at this very moment over AT&T’s boneheaded decision to charge a California couple for a satellite dish they failed to remove from their home as they were fleeing the wildfires in California. Consumerist picked up the story, and it’s been viewed more than 11,000 times at this writing. There are already over 600 diggs, just within the first couple of hours. You can see the video from a local news station here.

Consumerist visitors are already using the incident to tee off on the much-hated cable companies. But that’s old news. What will be interesting is to watch AT&T’s reaction as this hits the national media. If it’s smart, AT&T will fall on its sword, apologize profusely and not only forgive the debt but set the couple up with a new satellite dish and maybe a couple years’ worth of service to boot. There’s no doubt people in AT&T PR are already aware of this story. Are they scrambling to respond or are they frozen by approvals and indecision? Keep an eye on Consumerist to see how this plays out.

Thanks to Dianna Huff for the tip.

Update 10/27/07: ZDNet blogger Russell Shaw posts a comment from a Dish Network spokeswoman saying the whole thing is a mistake and the California couple won’t be charged for the dish. AT&T also responded to Consumerist. It’ll be interesting to see if this story just goes away now. It’s up to over 1,900 diggs.

Dell attack-dog tactics backfire in the blogosphere

A story has been playing out at Dell Computer this week that illustrates vividly the clash of cultures that must be going on in many companies over blogging.

Last Thursday, posted a list of tips submitted by a former Dell sales manager that told, among other things, how to get the best deals and even get a free laptop replacement at the end of a warranty cycle. This kind of stuff is Consumerist’s bread and butter – and Dell one of its favorite targets – so the site gleefully ran the secrets, along with commentary from a current Dell rep.

Dell must have been ripped, but it then threw gasoline on the fire. On Friday, Dell sent a corporate lawyer after Consumerist with a cease-and-desist notice. What a boneheaded maneuver that was. Naturally, Consumerist posted the lawyer’s threat along with a response. The exchange made the Dell lawyer looked clueless, particularly since she never disputed the accuracy of the Consumerist information.

Meanwhile, readers were having a field day. Along with more than 300,000 page views, the Consumerist story on was dugg more than 3,600 times, making it one of the most popular technology news items of the last week. In trying to bury the offending item, Dell actually created a magnet of publicity

On Saturday, Dell’s Lionel Menchaca posted a thoughtful and somewhat extraordinary account of the whole incident on the Direct2Dell blog. He admitted that Dell had dropped the ball and should never have asked for the information on Consumerist to be taken down in the first place. He also addressed many of the flaws in Dell’s pricing, promotion and support system highlighted by the original post. What was extraordinary was the links to photos on Engadget of unannounced Dell products. People used to get fired for leaking news like that. Now they link to it on the company blog!

Needless to say, commenters have been all over this story. Consumerist comes out smelling like a rose, and it should because it published accurate, useful stuff. You have to wonder what kind of troglodyte at Dell thought it was a good idea to sic the corporate lawyer on Consumerist. In the professional media world, these kinds of disputes take place in the background and outside of the view of the reader. There is no such discretion in the blogosphere; in fact, many bloggers actually rejoice in tweaking the noses of those whom they offend.

The contrast between the corporate lawyer’s truculence and the corporate blogger’s openness are really a microcosm of what many organizations must be dealing with right now. There’s a command-and-control side of Dell’s business that attempted to apply decade-old containment strategies to a medium that simply laughed in its face. At the same time, you can see in the Direct2Dell experiment that a culture is emerging at the company that values a new form of interaction. You just wonder why the lawyer never asked the blogger for advice before going on the offensive.

Why most tech conferences suck

For a glimpse at what’s wrong with most technology conferences – and why IT managers don’t attend them – you have only to listen to this podcast of a session called The Future of Search from the Supernova 2006 conference.

I don’t mean to pick on this session or this event. I have great respect for Chris Shipley and several of the panelists. It just happens to be one good example of a sin I’ve seen committed repeatedly at scores of conferences over the years.

Here you’ve got a great topic and people who are well-qualified to discuss it. But they ruin the opportunity BECAUSE THEY CAN’T STOP SELLING. In one five-minute segment I chose at random, I counted 26 references to “we,” “our,” the product name or an insult aimed at a competitor. In fact, Technorati’s David Sifry was the only panelist who talked about the future of search outside of the context of his or her product.

It’s ridiculous. Presented with the opportunity to discuss a weighty, important issue and to look smart, informed and visionary in front of an influential group, the panelists do little more that deliver advertisements. They look foolish.

Perhaps this plays well to the audience of investors and journalists who hang out at this type of event, but it’s an example of the reason you never see CIOs in the audience. They know that a panel stocked with vendors is going to be one long sales pitch, and they have entirely too much of that in their lives already.

Marketers, please don’t do this. Don’t force your executives to be “on message” all the time. Give them a chance to show what they know and to enlighten their audience. Let them admit that their competitors have good ideas and build on those ideas. Let the audience trust them. There’s nothing that undermines a speaker’s credibility faster than engaging in the kind of embarrassing behavior that you see in this all-too-typical session.

A YouTube Kodak Moment

A viral video has made its way out of Kodak and become one of the hottest clips on the Web. In it, a dignified, white-haired speaker starts by extolling Kodak’s contributions to photography and our culture but then morphs into a ranting maniac, raving about the great work the company is doing in digital photography.

It’s funny, but also remarkable for its self-deprecating humor. The clip includes several references to Kodak’s early failures to get into digital photography and the opportunities it squandered. Its honesty reflects favorably on the company. Kodak says the video was prepared for internal use and was never meant to be seen by the public. The company has gotten an inadvertent image boost, though, by admitting to its past mistakes and making fun of itself. Good show.