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More Tips for Unblocking the Idea Jam

November 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

<a href=This is the second installment in a multi-part series on how to write killer content for your blog. It continues the thread I began last week on how to come up with ideas for topics.

Defy conventional wisdom. This is an old newspaper columnist trick, but it works well. Think of a topic that most people agree upon and argue the exact opposite point of view. For example, try to build a case for why social networks are a passing fad or the New York Jets are the team to beat in the NFL this year (okay, that last one’s a stretch). You have to think creatively to argue your point, and the result may be more satire than opinion, but just let the idea take you where it wants to go. Going against conventional wisdom is one of the best ways to fuel creativity.

Get Angry. The best writing is driven by emotion. Think about something you’ve heard or seen recently that really made you mad. Are there lessons you can share? Or can you abstract the issue into a more general commentary ? Maybe you got cut off by a driver talking on a cell phone. That could lead to a bigger essay on distraction. Let your passion guide you, but be careful not to push the “publish” button till you’ve calmed down.

Aggregate other opinions. Go to a news/blog aggregation site like Alltop.com and browse a category that interests you. Find a topic that several people are commenting upon, summarize their comments and add your own. For an extra twist, try the tactic mentioned in the first item above and arguing the opposite case.

Tell a story. It’s the most powerful form of human communication. Reach back to an experience that was meaningful to you and start writing it down. What did you learn from that experience? How can those lessons help others?

Revisit. The simple act of scrolling through your past blog entries can yield ideas about new topics or new angles on old topics. If your predictions were wrong, tell why. If they were right, build on them.

Conduct a small research project. Two of my most well-received blog entries of the last year were quick experiments, each of which took less than an hour to conduct:

  • Last year, I visited 15 corporate blogs shortly after the financial meltdown and looked at what they were saying about the economy. The lack of attention to this hugely important story was stunning. It made me angry, and that’s a good formula for writing.
  • Last month I picked a stream of 100 tweets at random and analyzed them for content and value. The results surprised me and my essay generated quite a few tweets from others.

Make a list. This is the most popular organizational tools in the blogosphere. Pick a topic about which you have some expertise and offer quick hits of advice. For example: “10 Ways to Research a Company on the Web,” or “Seven software utilities I couldn’t live without.” Or you can skip the numbers and just organize your thoughts in modules, like I’m doing here. I get tired of all the numbered lists after a while, but I have to admit, readers love ’em.

Predict. Predictions are hugely popular at the end of the year, but you can make them any time. To add variety, limit your time frame or endpoint. Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz did this effectively with the 500th edition of their “For Immediate Release” podcast by asking their listeners to predict what topics the two will be discussing during their next 500 shows. Pick a topic, make a prediction and argue your case. Then revisit later and write about how you did.

Recommend. Are there blogs, discussion forums, podcasts or how-to websites that you love? Write them down, tell what you like about each and share them with your readers.

Explore everyday things. This is an offbeat approach, but it’s a great way to satisfy your curiosity while delving into little-known corners of the Web. Pick a topic about which you know very little and research it. For example, learn why golf balls have dimples or find the origin of the phrase “the whole 9 yards.” This work may have limited relevance to your business, but it’ll probably yield a fascinating tidbit of information and help you learn new ways to find things online.

Serialize. Take any of the ideas above and publish it as short thematic entries. Few people read long articles anymore, anyway, so break out those ideas and sprinkle them around. Just be sure to tag and categorize them appropriately so you can reassemble later.

I could go on. There are dozens of other ways to generate ideas. But let’s hear from you. Comment below on some tactics that you use to unblock those creative juices.

All About Social Media ROI

Social Media ROI title screenI’ve devoted quite a bit of time recently to researching the topic of social media ROI, which is probably one of the hottest issues in marketing today. I developed a new 90-minute slide presentation on this subject, which can be expanded to a half-day workshop if you’re interested. Bottom-line: not only can you measure ROI, but you can unearth some fantastic insights about your prospects and customers in the process. View and download my slide presentation here. I also borrowed liberally from two other experts on the topic: Katie Paine and Olivier Blanchard. I recommend following them both.

Tip of the Week: Google’s Similar Pages

Here’s a Google treasure that will save you loads of time, particularly when researching products. One little noticed feature of Google search results is the “Similar” link that appears at the end of the result summary. Click on this link and you kick off a rather sophisticated Google search that looks for pages that have the same characteristics as the search result you chose.

Radian_similarHere’s an example. Suppose you’re interested in conversation monitoring tools. Within the top 10 results you’ll find Radian6, a popular (and very good) product in that category. Click on the “similar” link and you get search results that list dozens of other conversation monitoring tools. The results are more focused than those you would get from a standard search query because Google can infer from the document that you’re probably looking for a technology vendor. Try this next time you’re researching options in a market.

Just For Fun: Old Computer Ads

Penril early computer adIf you think the idea of using sex to sell technology originated with GoDaddy.com, then you should check out this collection of old computer ads assembled by CIO magazine. The journal, which is put out by venerable publisher International Data Group, dug back into the archives of sister publications like Computerworld and InfoWorld to find some of the funniest ads from the early days of the industry. In addition to the classic bits-and-babes promotion like the one shown at right, they include standouts like Bill Gates’ endorsement of RadioShack computers. I’m old enough to remember when some of these promotions originally ran, and can attest to the fact that these are not exceptions to the rule. Just think of how far we’ve come. Or have we?

Blogging Blunders, Part 3

September 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Final segment in a series on common business blogging mistakes.

In Blogging Blunders Part 1 and Blogging Blunders Part 2, we looked at problems like failure to interact or to publish distinctive content. Let’s wrap up with the most frequent and frustrating blogging problem that I encounter: Failure to persist.

Perhaps I’m unusual, but the first thing I look for when visiting a blog is the date of the most recent entry. This tells me a lot. Knowing whether the essay I’m about to read is one week or three years old can make a huge difference in its relevance to me. But it also tells me a lot about whether the author is committed to the blog.

Too many business blogs suffer from lack of attention. The same pattern appears again and again: There’s a burst of early activity followed by a gradual decline in the frequency of updates and eventual abandonment. But nothing ever dies on the Internet, so these blogs drift along like ghost ships. They’re monuments to good intentions gone awry.

I don’t think many people start blogging with the intention of failing at it. Most are tripped up by one of four scenarios. See if you can avoid them.

Nothing More to Say – This happens when the blogger chooses a topic that lacks staying power. The subject is hot for a while, but then public interest wanes or the news value recedes. Any blog about a newsy or trendy issue is at risk of this fate. To avoid it, choose big issues that have staying power. For example, instead of writing about Blu-ray, write about the bigger issue of next-generation video formats.

Too Busy – So are we all, so think about that going in. It takes about an hour a week to contribute two brief new insights to a blog. You need to put some thought into developing and supporting a theme for a few hundreds words. If you don’t think you have that kind of time, don’t start. Twitter is an ideal alternative for people who are too busy to blog. The 140-character limit is actually a welcome restriction that forces them to keep their comments brief.

Nobody Came – This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. New bloggers put all kinds of effort into their work for six months and find that traffic still numbers in the few dozens per day. There are several reasons for this. One is that the topic they choose is highly competitive and their approach undifferentiated. If that happens to you, then look at ways to approach your topic from a distinctive angle or with a unique voice. Another common problem is that bloggers fail to promote themselves. This can be addressed via some basic outbound e-mail and sharing tactics (contact me if you want ideas). A third is that they simply don’t give the project enough time. It’s rare for a blog to catch fire during its first six to nine months. You need to build visibility with people who have traffic to send your way. If you’re persistent, then you should see rewards by your first anniversary date. But don’t be disappointed if it takes that long. Word of mouth isn’t always fast.

Turnover – This is a huge issue with business blogs. The internal sponsor leaves the company or gets reassigned and there’s no succession plan in place. This is why I encourage clients to view blogs as a business-wide initiative. Support has to come from the top and a backup plan must be in place to continue the conversation if the product champion leaves. A branded business blog is no place for cowboys. You need a team commitment to sustain the momentum.

Those are my candidates for the most common factors that derail business blogs. What are yours? Post your comments here and let’s discuss.

Social Media Bookshelf

My friend and fellow communications pro Chuck Hester of iContact (which delivers this newsletter) has teamed up with social media coach Janet Fouts to launch Social Media Bookshelf, a site dedicated to spotlighting the best books on the topic. While still in its early stages, the bookshelf will be a good place to keep pace with the latest work from the thought leaders in this area. You can also read about what they’re working on in the guest blogging section. I contributed a kickoff entry on the relevance of long-form books in our continually distracted, short-form world.

On the Air

I was recently part of two audio interviews about the rising importance of social networks in small and mid-sized business marketing plans. Mike Schultz at Rain Today asked some great questions about why businesses should even bother with social media. I was also on Mark Amtower’s D.C.-based Federal News Radio show, where we discussed how to map a social media strategy and choose from the overwhelming assortment of available tools.

Tip of the Week: Moyea Video Converter

I usually spotlight free tools in this section, but I’ll make an exception for Moyea FLV to Video Converter Pro 2. At $30, this little beauty is a bargain, and I use it all the time.

If you ever want to include videos in your presentations (and who doesn’t these days?), then you know what a hassle it can be to download video in the Web-standard Flash format and convert it into something PowerPoint can recognize. Since Microsoft doesn’t appear to be interested in resolving this dilemma, the easiest technique is to convert the FLV video into Microsoft’s WMV format. There are lots of tools that do this, but I’ve found that Moyea delivers consistent results at a reasonable price. The company also throws in a pretty nice Flash video downloader at no extra charge.

Just for Fun: Trivia Motherlode

Did you know:

  • On average, an iceberg weighs 20 million tons?
  • The “Over the Rainbow” scene from The Wizard of Oz was originally cut from the film because it was “slow?”
  • A mole can dig over 250 feet of tunnel in a single night?
  • Most people have lost half their taste buds by the time they reach age 60?
  • The magic word “Abracadabra” was originally intended for the purpose of curing hay fever?

These and many more trivia items are listed at Bitworks.co.nz, a site that, despite its unpretentious design, is home to an impressive collection of useless and semi-useful facts. Unlike most trivia sites, the authors appear to make a reasonable effort to verify claims and correct mistakes. Share it with the trivia buff in your life.

Blogging Blunders, Part 2

September 4, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Part 2 of a series on common business blogging mistakes. Part 1 is here.

Blogs are a new form of communications medium but many marketers are still stuck in the old one-way mode. To really appreciate the value of blogging, you have to approach it as a conversation. That means listening as well as talking. Here are some common mistakes:

Failure to link – Links are online currency. Not only do they enable more efficient communication than that available with the printed word (see my earlier post” “What You Probably Don’t Know About Links”), but they’re an acknowledgment that someone else has published something of value. Bloggers covet links. Links improve their search performance and drive traffic that leads to business opportunities. Mentioning someone else’s work without linking to it is considered rude.

Too often, novice bloggers fail to observe this simple protocol. They cite but don’t link. It takes only a few seconds to add a link to your copy and it has all kinds of benefits. Linking engenders goodwill with the source of the information. That may lead to a reciprocal link, which improves your own traffic. It can also start a dialog with a person whose work you respect. You don’t have to agree with people to link to them, but you should always acknowledge that their work has had value to you.

Here’s another reason to sweat this detail: failure to link can actually make you enemies. Thanks to Google Alerts, people now know instantly when their name pops up online. If that mention doesn’t include a link, they’re going to be annoyed. So linking isn’t an option; it’s a necessity to maintaining good relations with people you respect.

Treating the blog as a wire service – Don’t use your blog to distribute press releases. That’s missing the point of this two-way medium. Blogs are a way for people to connect with each other. They’re a conversation, not a channel. If you treat your blog as another way to deliver a templated mass mail, then readers will abandon you faster than they’d flee a flaming building.
There’s nothing wrong with posting the occasional news release on your blog, but always add a personal message to frame its importance. Even better: link to the release and comment about why it’s significant. Humanize the interaction.

Being irrelevant – Shortly after the stock market crashed last fall, I visited 15 prominent corporate blogs. To my astonishment, only one even mentioned the most perilous financial crisis in two generations. Most were filled with marketing happy talk. These bloggers failed to address a critical customer need for information. Worse, they looked clueless. Imagine if Wells Fargo had used the opportunity to educate its customers about why the markets were in turmoil. Instead, it posted a travel video. What a missed opportunity.

One of the great advantages of blogs is that they’re fast and easy to update. Use them to comment on current events that affect your customers. You don’t have to run afoul of regulatory guidelines to explain something. Educate and inform. Become a trusted source.

Turning off comments – According to some estimates, about 20% of business blogs don’t accept comments. These companies are missing the point. A blog is a basis of discussion, not a TV program. Turning off comments is the same as saying you’re not interested in what your constituents think. What an insult.
The reason people most often cite for banishing comments is that they fear negativity. These companies shouldn’t be blogging in the first place. Occasional negativity is part of the fabric of good discussion and it should be embraced as part of the feedback process. If you’re worried about inappropriateness, then enable comment moderation and filter responses. However, you should never delete a comment simply because it’s negative. The writer will simply take his gripe somewhere else.

Photo credit: Fail Blog

New Slide Decks Free for the Taking

I’ve been substantially revamping my slide presentations over the last couple of months as audiences have demanded more in-depth information about social media. Below are two new presentations that I just posted on SlideShare. Feel free to view and download them for your own use. I’d appreciate attribution if you use them.

Bottoms-Up Marketing
The media world has been turned upside down. Small is now big. Less marketing is now more marketing. You gain control by giving it up. Believe it or not, there are actually some rules in this crazy environment. They start with acknowledging that influence is undergoing an inversion. Important information increasingly starts at the street level and spreads upward. A new breed of tech-savvy consumers and business professionals is accelerating this trend. Learn some skills to cope. Note: This presentation was prepared for a healthcare client, hence the references to medical professionals.

Consumer-Generated Advertising

“Crowdsourcing” is an appealing new option to marketers who want to spread their advertising messages through low-cost peer-to-peer channels. Enthusiasts can be recruited to become brand advocates for products that they love, spreading the word through their social networks, Facebook friendships and Twitter streams. Contests are an increasingly popular means of leveraging customer creativity to build grassroots campaigns. This presentation from a PRSA webinar features examples of successful customer-generated advertising promotions in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business contexts. Attendees learned:

  • Appropriate scenarios for applying crowdsourced promotion
  • How to generate ideas that spur customer creativity
  • Low-cost incentives to build participation
  • Basics of measuring results

Tip of the Week: LogMeIn

There I was, 1,000 miles from home and needing a file that I had left on my file server. Fortunately, I had LogMeIn. This cool little communications utility enables you to connect to a PC over the Internet and to control it as if you were sitting at the keyboard. The idea isn’t new, but LogMeIn’s implementation is easy to use and its performance is outstanding. Within two minutes, I had connected to my desktop, found the necessary file and e-mailed it to myself. There’s no charge for a single client. The Pro version gets you features like remote printing, file downloads and screen sharing.

Just for Fun: Bizarre Patents

What do the horse diaper, kissing shield and a portable nuclear shelter (below) all have in common? They’re all inventions that have received US patents. You can find these and a couple of hundred other bizarre inventions that, according to the website Totally Absurd Inventions, really are in the files of the US Patent and Trademark Office. This site will cause you to marvel at the limits of human innovation while also forcing you to question the wisdom of our government officials.

Why Online Matters More Than Print

February 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

A blog I write about the ongoing transformation of the newspaper industry has begun to acquire a following, and in the process it’s demonstrated to me why online press mentions are now more powerful than those in print. That’s right: you get more bang for the buck from a prominent blogger today than you do from an article in the New York Times, and I’ll show you why.

My blog is called Newspaper Death Watch. While the title betrays a certain pessimism, it’s actually a chronicle of change and rebirth. As concern over the perilous state of the newspaper industry has spread, Newspaper Death Watch has begun to attract some media attention. In January, I was fortunate to be mentioned in three prominent media outlets: Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog, the lead paragraph of a major feature in The New Yorker and a short opinion piece in the Economist.

What was interesting was the impact these references had on the blog’s visibility. Prior to the reference in BuzzMachine, the site was getting about 500 unique visitors per day. After Jeff Jarvis linked to one of my year-end roundup articles, that average jumped by about 200 visitors a day. It jumped again after the mention in the Economist, eventually settling at about 1,000 average daily visitors, or nearly double its traffic at the beginning of the month. However, a prominent reference in the New Yorker, which is one of the most venerable English-language magazines, had no discernible impact.

Why? Because The New Yorker reference was the only one that didn’t include a hyperlink. That meant that anyone who was curious to find out about this offbeat blog would have to make a note to visit Google later and run a search. Who’s got time for that? Even if some people did go to the trouble, there was no way for me to know.

Link Love

In contrast, The two online references had immediate impact. For one thing, I was aware of both within hours and was able to promote them to my readers and Twitter followers. For another, links beget links. In both the BuzzMachine and Economist cases, a surge of inbound links from other bloggers followed the mentions on their websites. This improved my Google search performance and Technorati authority rankings. Subscriptions to my RSS feed shot up by about 5% in each of the days following the links’ appearance.

Perhaps most importantly, one of them led to a call from a leading journalism foundation, which hired me to conduct a series of seminars for newspaper editors beginning next month.

In contrast, the print reference in The New Yorker generated a couple of nice notes from colleagues but little else that I could measure. Don’t get me wrong; I was grateful for the attention. But it was difficult to assign any clear benefit to the print reference.

Tables Have Turned

Not long ago, online publishers were frequently called upon to defend the value of a mention on their properties. Public relations professionals told me that Web coverage was nice, but their clients really valued a mention in a prominent print publication. I would submit that this scenario has now been reversed. With companies increasingly using the Web for promotion, lead generation, sales and customer support, a link from a prominent website is of far greater value than a print article in a prominent print or broadcast outlet. And as a younger generation of business and consumer readers gathers more of its information online, that value will only accelerate.

That print article may look nice on your wall, but if you’re looking for coverage that generates business results, the Web is where you want to be.

B-to-B Social Media in Action

February 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

From my weekly newsletter. To subscribe, just fill out the short form to the right.

Let’s look at three examples of companies that are using social media for business-to-business(b-to-b) applications. All us different tools and all are effective in different ways.

Wikibon

Wikibon.org is the kind of Web 2.0 project that could disrupt a big industry. It was started two years ago by David Vellante, a veteran IT analyst who used to run the largest division of International Data Corp. Wikibon challenges an IT research model that has traditionally had customers paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for access to elite analysts. Traditional IT research is top-down. Wikibon is bottoms-up.

Think of it as open source advice. The more than 3,000 people who have joined Wikibon’s enterprise storage community share their expertise with each other and learn from a core group of about 40 independent consultants and experts who use the wiki to showcase their services. It’s a classic Web 2.0 give-to-get formula. The experts share their knowledge in hopes of getting business from the corporate IT specialists who visit the site. Before Wikibon, these experts had severely limited promotional channels. With Wikibon, they have an established community of prequalified business prospects.

Members have contributed 20,000 articles and edits to the archive, Vellante told me. What’s more, the time people spend browsing this rich information resource is “Facebook-like. We’re getting 20 to 30 page views per visitor.” Wikibon may not put Gartner out of business, but it is a challenging the assumption that good information has to be expensive and it’s giving some small b-to-b firms a way to reach an ideal prospect base.

GoGreenSolar

If you’ve ever done business on eBay, you know that its peer rating system is one of its great innovations. RatePoint is one of an emerging class of companies that is bringing this concept to the open Web, and GoGreenSolar is using customer reviews to its advantage.

GoGreenSolar is a small Los Angeles-based firm that sells green energy products. About 60% of its business is b-to-b. A few months ago, the company contracted with RatePoint to install a customer ratings page on its website at a cost of $18/month. RatePoint acts as a kind of validation service, verifying that customer reviews haven’t been tampered with and providing a means to arbitrate disputes. GoGreenSolar has about 20 reviews on this site, all but one of them five stars. The ratings pages quickly became one of the site’s most popular features, says founder Deep Patel. In an increasingly competitive industry where customer service is a differentiator, the ratings are helping GoGreenSolar stand out.

Patel says one of the hidden values of the ratings program is the opportunity for follow-up engagement with customers. By encouraging buyers to post their comments, “We have an opportunity to have a dialog after the transaction. That’s a sales opportunity,” he says. “People who leave reviews often come back and buy more.”

Though GoGreenSolar hasn’t had many negative reviews to worry about, Patel even sees opportunity in the occasional dissatisfied customer. The rating system is an opportunity to fix the problem and turn the customer into a source of repeat business, he said.

Emerson Process Management

You probably aren’t going to stop by the Emerson Process Experts blog for a casual read. Here’s a clip from a recent entry: “The valve supplier typically supplies the safety valve torque requirements and required leakage rates. The actuator supplier provides the torque-to-supply pressure tables. The good news for those of us a little rusty in our advanced math skills is that the equations are algebraic and the simplifying assumptions err to the side of conservative volume sizing..”

Did your eyes glaze over? This tech talks would baffle the typical visitor, but it’s music to the ears of the plant engineers and process control experts who regularly visit the blog started three years ago by Jim Cahill (left), marketing communications manager for Emerson’s Process Systems and Solutions business. It’s one of my favorite examples of good b-to-b blogging.

Emerson Process Experts is superbly focused; it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a technical resource to a small but very important audience. Cahill is fluent in the language of the industry, but he’s also a good writer who organizes and expresses his thoughts clearly.

What’s the benefit to Emerson? The company has become a trusted source of advice to customers and prospects. Its plentiful links to other sources of information ingratiates the company with publishers. And 190 inbound links haven’t hurt its search performance: Emerson is the number one commercial link on Google for the terms “process management” and “process control.”


New Conversation Monitoring Service is Free During Test Phase

If you’ve been itching to try out one of those conversation monitoring services – the ones that tap into millions of blogs and discussion groups and pick out mentions of your company – you now have a chance to try one for free. BuzzGain is an online service for identifying chatter on blogs, photo-sharing services, video services, Twitter and traditional media. It’s co-founded by Brian Solis, a PR guy who’s very savvy about new media. According to the pitch I received, this test isn’t open to the general public: “They’re launching BuzzGain in the true spirit of public beta…They want to listen to and learn…While it’s in Beta, it will be free for everyone.”

What J&J Could Have Done

November 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

It wasn’t exactly a repeat of the 1982 poisoned Tylenol disaster, but Johnson & Johnson was struggling with a minor crisis this week after some vocal critics derided an edgy ad that implied that new moms could suffer back pain from carrying their infants. What can we learn from this episode and was J&J’s rapid apology really the best response?

The video had actually been online for more than six weeks before a few vocal moms on Twitter began trashing it this past weekend. The ad suggests, with tongue in cheek, that new moms who bond with their babies by carrying them in slings and chest packs may be inadvertently giving themselves back pain. The message wasn’t that moms shouldn’t bond with their children but that they should be ready for the consequences.

Seems innocuous enough, but a few vocal mommy bloggers didn’t see it that way. They thought the ad was insulting to mothers and they Twittered their criticism, calling for a boycott of Motrin. Bloggers picked up on the controversy and posted more than 100 opinions about the ad, J&J’s reaction and the media frenzy that surrounded it. There were even parody ads making fun of the whole affair. Forrester’s Josh Bernoff has a good account of the controversy with links to background material.

A chastened J&J pulled the ad off its website and issued an apology on its corporate blog. The promotion “was meant to engender sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their kids, but did so through an attempt at humor that missed the mark and many moms found offensive,” wrote Kathy Widmer, Vice President of Marketing at McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

J&J probably had no choice but to withdraw the ad, since the criticism was threatening to swamp any benefit the company had hoped to receive. But you also have to wonder if the company hurt itself by buckling to political correctness due to pressure from a minority of critics. After all, the ad hadn’t seemed to offend anyone in particular during the first six weeks it was posted. It was only after a few outraged mommy bloggers began drawing attention to it that the criticism spiraled out of control. At that point, it was too late for J&J to explain its motives. Its critics had taken control of the conversation and anything the company did would look defensive and stubborn.

The incident quickly created a lot of soul-searching on both sides. A backlash against #motrinmoms developed, with some people criticizing the critics for practicing mob rule. Even one of the most vocal motrinmoms, Jessica Gottlieb, suggested that J&J overreacted in pulling down the ad. In fact most of the recent blogger activity has focused more on untangling what happened than debating whether J&J was right or wrong.

Here’s my take. J&J’s choice of language in the ad was arrogant and dismissive. The ad talked down to mothers and was begging for a backlash. However, that wasn’t necessarily a reason not to run it. J&J could have mitigated the criticism, or even turned it to its advantage, by using social media channels more effectively:

  • The company could have invited a select group of mommy bloggers to preview the campaign privately and offer feedback. Even if the company had elected to go ahead without making changes, it would have been able to argue that it had sought guidance from its target group. And if the moms had blessed the video, it would have been the ultimate defense for J&J.
  • The ad could have been presented in a humorous context on the Motrin site. A message like, “We know your babies aren’t a fashion accessory, but since this is International Baby-Wearing Week, we thought you’d appreciate this good-natured parody,” would have gone a long way toward heading off criticism.
  • J&J could have listened. When a blogger tracked down the head of corporate communications for J&J’s ad agency for a comment on the firestorm on Sunday afternoon, the woman professed to know nothing about the controversy. This is despite the fact that more than 2,000 Twitter messages had already been posted. Take note: the blogosphere doesn’t take weekends off.
  • The company could have jumped into the Twitterstream and engaged. It didn’t, preferring to post a rather brief statement on the blog and issue a press release. Kathy Widmer should have responded on the critics’ own turf. Her message was constructive, but a little too disconnected.
  • J&J could have been more profuse in its apologies. A big donation to Babywearing International would have been a start. Or it could have taken Jessica Gottlieb’s advice and distributed baby slings in maternity awards around the country. I’m not sure I agree that branding them with the Motrin logo would have been such a good idea.

In today’s networked world, there is no excuse for a corporation to be surprised by negative response to a controversial message. Social networks and the blogosphere offer a cheap and speedy way to anticipate criticism. Ironically, J&J is one of only two pharmaceutical companies to host a corporate blog (Glaxo’s alliConnect is the only other one I’m familiar with). This company gets new media more than most of its peers, which makes this online ambush particularly ironic.

How To Win in the Search-Driven Media World

November 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Last week, I suggested that people’s information consumption habits have changed permanently as a result of tools like Google Alerts and RSS feeds. These technologies make it possible for people to subscribe to keywords rather than publications. While media brands will always matter, their importance will decline as people become more accustomed to selecting information by topic and new trusted brands emerge from the world of social media.

So what does this all mean to marketers? A lot. No longer is success a matter of placing messages in a few mass media outlets and hoping for the best. Marketers will need to segment their audiences and their media selections much more carefully in the future. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they also have the means to influence media more directly and even to become the media, if they so choose.

Segments

Let’s look at segmentation first. It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is in a terrible state. Circulation is declining between 6% and 10% annually and their audience is aging. A 2005 Carnegie Corp. survey estimated that the average age of a regular newspaper reader is now 55 and climbing. That figure is 61 for regular viewers of the TV evening news.

The trend is quite different in other media, however. Some print magazines are actually growing circulation. Runners World, for example, has added 200,000 subscribers in the last three years. In some emerging overseas markets, even newspapers are quite healthy. Also, while network television viewership is declining, some cable outlets are growing nicely.

This means you need to consider the audience you’re trying to reach and match it to the media you choose. Older customers can still be served effectively through mainstream media, while the under-30 age group requires a very different approach.

Segmentation also applies to interests. Technology enthusiasts have moved swiftly to the Web, a trend that has been dramatized by the collapse of many consumer electronics and corporate IT publications. However, traditional lifestyle media such as cooking, travel and fashion are holding up quite well. A big reason is that people interact differently with these products. Topics that are news- or transaction-driven migrate more quickly online than those that emphasize aesthetic appeal. The last time I checked, Brides magazine was still thick with ads.

You Are the Media

The more intriguing opportunity for marketers is to become the media. As I noted last week, search engines don’t have brand loyalty. The rise of super-bloggers like Michael Arrington and Robert Scoble demonstrate that trusted brands can grow quickly online. Regular readers may be tired of hearing me say this, but if you aren’t optimizing all of your business communications for search, you aren’t doing your job.

Google is now people’s first stop for information and insight on nearly every imaginable product. You can gain an unnatural advantage over even very large media brands by understanding which keywords bring people to your site and then optimizing around those terms. This is what I mean by “you are the media.”

But it isn’t just you. Other trusted brands are emerging online and those people can also be influenced to drive home your message. Using the right keywords in your communications to these new influencers can help drive your brand’s awareness through search. Sometimes you want to drive traffic to your own website, but at other times you may prefer the endorsement of a trusted third party. Again, the key factor is search optimization. Online media rely far more heavily on search visibility and external links than circulation lists. Use the same tools they use and you can piggyback on their success with astonishing speed.

How NOT to Cope With Bloggers

October 9, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

My passion for journalism keeps me in close touch with the newspaper industry, a business whose perilous decline I’ve documented through my Newspaper Death Watch blog. A trend has been playing out there recently that is relevant to anyone who is trying to cope with the new influence of citizen publishers on their market.

Nearly every major newspaper company has recently seen blogs spring up that speak to their problems and future. Among them are TellZell (Tribune Co.), McClatchy Watch (The McClatchy Co.) and The Gannett Blog (Gannett Co., Inc.) It’s the Gannett example that intrigues me most.

The independent Gannett Blog is written by Jim Hopkins, a former Gannett editor and reporter. It covers all kinds of topics related to Gannett’s business and its future. These days, that content includes a lot of speculation about layoffs and cutbacks at a company that recently announced it will cut 1,000 jobs, or about 3% of its workforce.

The Gannett Blog has gone viral in its quest to become a sounding board and information source for employees. Jim Hopkins recently revealed some traffic statistics: 91,000 visits and 189,000 page views in the last 30 days. That’s serious blog traffic, and much of it comes from Gannett employees who feel they can’t get a straight story from their employer. Gannett Blog has become the virtual watercooler for a company of 46,000 people.

The conundrum for Gannett is what to do about Hopkins. So far, it’s chosen a strategy of benign neglect. Tara Connell, Gannett’s chief spokesman (and interestingly, a former managing editor at USA Today) has gone almost silent recently as rumors have swirled about layoffs and cutbacks, Hopkins says. Meanwhile, traffic has grown. This post from two days ago has drawn more than 160 comments, many of them from people who identify themselves as Gannett employees. People are now actively trading rumors about layoffs at their individual newspapers, with Gannett blog functioning as the gathering point.

Gannett’s strategy is worse than “No comment.” Not only has the company not contributed its perspective to the flood of comments, it now barely even responds to Hopkins’ requests for information, he says. As the chorus of pleas for guidance from the company grows in volume, Gannett becomes more closed and insular. Gannett didn’t respond to my own requests for comment.

Gannett is approaching this problem in the worst way possible. Regardless of its opinion of bloggers and citizen journalists, the fact is that The Gannett Blog is drawing huge attention among the company’s own employees, who are the most valuable spokespeople it has. Gannett’s failure to respond to the speculation and allegations of this critical constituency has become almost as big a story as the company’s business problems.

In the new world of citizen-powered publishing, institutions have fewer places to hide than ever. Silence is an invitation to speculation, and individuals now have the means to state their opinions in a very public way. A better course of action for Gannett would be to respond to the comments posted by Jim Hopkins and his readers. Even if that response is a “no comment,” it’s at least an acknowledgement that their concerns are being noted.

You might argue that an engagement strategy is risky for a publicly traded company. That’s just wrong. Public companies live under all kinds of regulations, but there is nothing to prevent them from acknowledging that they care about and listen to the concerns of their stakeholders. Any comment is better than silence.

One of the great ironies of watching the newspaper industry collapse has been to see the same media icons that have long scolded institutions for their insularity become reclusive and inwardly focused when the spotlight is turned on them. Gannett Blog is exhibit A in how not to handle new influencers.

How Good is Your Blog? Take This Test

October 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Are you getting the most bang for your blog? Successful blogging is all about generating awareness, repeat visitors, search engine visibility and lots of inbound links. Take the following test to see how well your blog shapes up. Give yourself one point for each “yes” answer and 0 points for each “no.” Check your score at the end.

  1. Do you use a domain name that matches the search terms that are most important to you (for example, “photoprofessional.com”)? Alternatively, does your blog live within your business domain (such as “photofinishing.com/blog”)?
  2. Does your blog title include a description of what the blog is about?
  3. Do you post new entries three or more times per week?
  4. Do you vary the length of entries, with some short and some long?
  5. Do you tag your entries?
  6. Do you list your tags alphabetically or in a tag cloud?
  7. Are your headlines simple, descriptive and declarative?
  8. Do you make it easy for visitors to subscribe to your RSS feed?
  9. Do you regularly include photos?
  10. Do you regularly include streaming audio or video?
  11. Do you write mostly in first person?
  12. Do you always attribute and link to source material?
  13. Do you have a blogroll?
  14. Do you include a link to your company website or your other personal websites?
  15. Do you write about a variety of topics, some professional and some personal?
  16. Do you frequently file reports from conferences or events you attend?
  17. Do you invite comments from visitors?
  18. Do you respond to comments from visitors?
  19. Does the number of comments you receive exceed the number of entries you post?
  20. Do you have an “About” page with descriptive information about yourself?
  21. Do you have a photo of yourself somewhere on the blog?
  22. Do you provide a way for readers to contact you?
  23. Do you provide a search option?
  24. Do you make it easy for people to bookmark your entries to digg.com, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon and/or other social bookmarking sites?
  25. Do you have a copyright or Creative Commons statement?

Scoring
20 – 25 Jedi master
15 – 19 Accomplished blogger
10 – 14 You can purchase The New Influencers here
5 – 9 I’m kind of surprised you’re still doing this
1 – 4 You are a spam bot

When to Let Employees Do the Talking

October 7, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Two organizations that have a — shall we say — problematic public image have recently launched blogs using a tactic that I think more marketers should consider:They’re letting their employees do the talking for them.

The Transportation Security Administration launched Evolution of Security in January. Its purpose is to explain, in a calm and rational tone, the reasons why the TSA does what it does.The bloggers have methodically taken on the most common complaints about TSA practices and tried to make sense of them for a skeptical traveling public. In addition to explaining their tactics, they’ve highlighted incidents of bizarre passenger behavior that give a sense of how unpredictable their jobs can be.

The branding is subtle: the TSA logo appears only at the bottom of the page. The slogan — “Terrorists Evolve. Threats Evolve. Security Must Stay Ahead. You Play a Part” — is meant to invite the public into a discussion about security. Initial reaction has been mixed. There were more than 700 comments on the welcome post, according to the blog. Only about half of them were published because of obscenities and other inappropriate comments.

Comments continue to trend toward the negative, so much so that the TSA has playfully posted a “Delete-O-Meter” to count the number of contributions that were filtered out. I don’t think any of this sentiment surprised TSA officials. Their early statements indicated that they expected a lot of hostility and their bloggers are remaining relentlessly cheerful in the face of it. I think they deserve a lot of credit for that.

I only recently became aware of Check Out, a Wal-Mart blog about gadgets. It was launched last August but has been seeing a lot more activity in the last couple of months. Wal-Mart, of course, has been a controversial player in the blogosphere.It famously sponsored a 2006 blog about cross-country travel that BusinessWeek outed as being written by paid freelancers. It has also funded an organization called Working Families for Wal-Mart that has been ridiculed for being a PR stunt to counter Wal-Mart’s controversial labor practices. (Note: In an ironic twist, that organization’s web site has been replaced by a placeholder page referencing Wal-MartFacts.com. It turns out that Wal-Mart never registered the domain workingfamiliesforwalmart.com, and it has been co-opted by a foe).

What interests me is that both the TSA and Wal-Mart have elected to use ordinary employees to tell their stories. The TSA blog is written by five people: four mid-level employees and a PR person. Given the volume of comments, I assume that these people were offered ample relief from the demands of their day jobs, but it’s still important that they represent the front-line TSA forces and not the executives in Washington.

Wal-Mart took the same approach, selecting nine people just like you and me to speak for the company about their passion for consumer electronics.No one is likely to get very worked up about this topic in the first place, so Check Out is a safe move by Wal-Mart. But I’m sure that the decision to let employees speak for the organization wasn’t an easy one.

None of this activity is meant to replace the communications that still emanate from these organizations. It’s important that companies and government agencies have the means to issue statements on behalf of the entire entity. But when it comes to personalizing the interaction –- as blogs do — the decision to use ordinary people is a smart one. Social media is personal, and corporate executives aren’t always able or willing to communicate in that fashion.

The use of individual employee voices is also a subtle reminder that institutions are made up of people and that those people have personalities and interests and motivations that deserve attention.There is no better way to humanize a faceless entity than to expose the people within it. That’s a difficult concept for many marketers to swallow, since marketing communications has historically been built around executive communications.But when you look at examples like these, as well as other successful corporate blogs like those from Southwest Airlines, Kodak and Google, you can see why this trend is gaining momentum.Trust your employees to do the right thing, give them some clear parameters and they will astonish you.

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