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Negativity, Social Gaffes and Farewell to Case Studies

July 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsletter

I haven’t had a chance to send a newsletter for a few weeks because I’ve been so busy with other assignments. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been writing about.

Love Your Critics

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

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

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

Read more and comment on The CMO Site

Good Riddance to the Corporate Case Study

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

It’s not the concept of the case study I don’t like; it’s the format. Once the legal department gets involved in approvals, most meaningful content gets sucked out of the article. Prospective buyers have always viewed case studies with suspicion and I think  today they mainly ignore them.

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

Read more and comment on The CMO Site

The Futility of Whisper Campaigns

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

The recent example of this disparity ended up embarrassing a prominent PR firm, and I analyzed what went wrong in BtoB magazine.

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

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

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

Read more and comment on BtoBOnline.

Do You Need A Social Media Specialist? Yup.

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

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

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

Just for Fun: Weekly World News

Weekly World NewsIn case you missed the news this week, Britain’s largest Sunday newspaper, News of the World, was shut down abruptly over a scandal involving hired private investigators who hacked into voicemail accounts of celebrities and ordinary citizens. News of the World was known for its outrageous headlines and salacious gossip, and certainly it will be missed by its 2.5 million subscribers. Fortunately, a publication with a very similar name, Weekly World News, continues to thrive, at least on the Web.

WWN was launched in 1979 with the discarded black-and-white presses formerly used by the National Enquirer. It ceased print publication in 2007, but its legacy of informing its readers of the dangers of space aliens, the promise of roadkill diets and the never-ending exploits of the “Bat Boy” continues.

With the tagline of “The World’s Only Reliable News,” Weekly World News has recently reported on alien spaceship attacks coming in November, Southern California’s plans to secede from the union and sightings of mermaids in Israel. One thing is certain: You can’t believe a word of it.

 

In Praise of Failure

July 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter, video

I was chatting recently with Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, about his company’s somewhat counterintuitive business. Its customers use Bazaarvoice to enable their customers to post product reviews and ratings right on their own websites.

I asked why would a company invite visitors to publicly criticize its products this way. He told the story of one importer who sells a large and eclectic collection of overseas goods. Customer ratings revealed that about one third of its inventory of more than 600 products would never sell well because of aesthetics, utility or other reasons. The company used this feedback to quickly overhaul its inventory. Had it waited for customer objections to show up in sales figures, the process would have taken months longer.

Fear Factor

If you have ever worked for a large company, you know that failure isn’t considered a good thing. Losing products or business initiatives are usually killed off only after long and expensive efforts to save them. Powerful people stick with pet projects even in the face of overwhelming customer indifference. People who fail are reprimanded. People who fail repeatedly get fired.

Social media offers unprecedented ways to avert this syndrome, or at least to cut it short. By listening to customers, we can identify and fix shortcomings much earlier in the product lifecycle. By engaging in continuous dialogue, we are more likely to hit the market head on with new products. If we don’t let failure become some kind of referendum on our self-worth, then we are much freer to experiment.

I look at Google as being the most visible practitioner of the philosophy. Spend a little time with the company’s line of applications and you’ll soon discover its amusing portfolio of error messages. “Whoa! Google Chrome just crashed!” says one. Another moans, “We know this is lame, but consider that Gmail didn’t even have folders in its first version.” Google is a company that doesn’t mind admitting its shortcomings because it knows customers would rather see that it is working to get things right than pretending that everything’s okay when it clearly isn’t.

Google_Lively

Google also isn’t afraid to cut its losses. The company has shut down more than a half-dozen products and services in the last year, including the virtual world called Google Lively, and closed a couple of high-profile business ventures. Google makes no attempt to hide these business decisions, but rather explains its reasoning on employee blogs. That’s because Google sees itself as an innovator, and innovative companies don’t mind getting things wrong now and then. In fact, a company that doesn’t make mistakes isn’t trying hard enough.

Shoot the Losers

Unfortunately, few corporate cultures are confident enough to work this way. One of the most common questions I am still asked by audiences is how to avoid negativity in social media. My honest answer is why would you want to avoid it? The faster you correct problems, the less damage is done. It might have been possible to ignore mistakes a few years ago, but that’s no longer an option. We can talk with our customers about our shortcomings or they will simply talk amongst themselves. Which would you rather do?

It’s often been said that the reason Silicon Valley became such a foundry of technology innovation is that the culture accepts and even celebrates failure as a consequence of risk-taking. In today’s media landscape, failure is no longer a private matter. Social media tools enable us to minimize the risks and consequences of our mistakes if we simply own up to them. It turns out that’s not nearly as difficult as we used to think it was.


Over There is Fascinated With What’s Up Here

My writings on the perilous state of the mainstream media have been capturing attention overseas recently. A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the English-language version of Al Jazeera television for an extended interview about the prospects for the newspaper industry. Then earlier this month, a crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. stopped by while filming a report for their markets (right). You can see both videos here. Our overseas friends seem mystified by the sudden implosion of media institutions in this country. I’d suggest it’s not surprising at all to regular readers of this newsletter!


Tip of the Week: New Life in Old PCs

Still spending money on new desktop computers? I’m not sure why, since most of us don’t even use a fraction of the processing capacity of the machines of four years ago. By upgrading memory, disk storage and graphics, most of us can wring additional years of life out of our old investments. I’m not sure there’s any life left in the old IBM 5150 from 1981 (left), but this Computerworld article tells how to pump up an old desktop PC with about $365 worth of components and make it fly like one you just took out of the box.


Just for Fun: The Age Project

How old do you think this lovely young lady is? If you guessed 23, you’re among good company. Visitors to The Age Project site can spend (read: waste) a good many minutes guessing the ages of people from all over the world who have submitted their pictures for the guessing game. When you guess a person’s age, the site then pops you to a page that displays the average guess of site visitors, your guess and the person’s real age. (The girl here is 17 years old, by the way.) The results page also tells you something this person has learned in his or her years on the planet — but not the person’s name or location. This young woman has learned “mankind is the only animal species that trip[s] twice with the same rock.” If you sign into the site, you, too, can send in your picture to be included in the random rotation, along with that one tidbit you’d like to share with the world.

Tips for Dealing with Online Negativity

October 9, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

I’ve recently counseled some clients who have been struggling with blogger negativity. Their experiences offer lessons in how to deal with this common problem.

Anyone who embarks upon a social media campaign risks opening him- or herself to attack. Even the most noble causes can run afoul of extremists. In the vast majority of cases, these problems can be contained with sufficient planning. The trick is not to get caught flat-footed by criticism you didn’t expect. In fact, when managed professionally, negativity can actually enhance your image by demonstrating that you’ve thought through the issues in detail.

Negativity can usually be anticipated and blunted if you deploy a few basic tactics:

Anticipate. Before launching a blog or public forum, know what you’re getting into. If you have critics, they will use the opportunity to air their gripes. Even if you don’t think you have critics, you should be prepared for them to emerge from unexpected places.

One client chose to blog about his adventures exploring new geographies. He was proud of his efforts and so was completely blindsided when environmentalists began attacking him. Had he thought through his topic more thoroughly, he might have anticipated such criticism.

Most businesses are poorly prepared to anticipate criticism because they only see the good in what they do. Here’s where an outside perspective may help. Come up with all reasonable arguments against your story and prepare a defense for each. It may be worth hiring a domain expert or journalist to help poke holes in your case.

Keep calm. If you really want to confound a critic, look up his phone number online (this usually isn’t difficult). Even if you end up leaving a voicemail, the mere act of personalizing an anonymous interaction often heads off a confrontation.

Don’t censor. A little criticism actually isn’t a bad thing. It makes you look more credible. Respond to adversaries using the tactics outlined above, but don’t use your power to silence them. It will backfire on you.

Address issues, not people. You also don’t have to speak directly to your critics. If people are harping on one issue, post information that addresses several critics. DuPont did this a few years ago when rumors popped up that Teflon caused cancer. DuPont didn’t address its critics directly but instead set up a website to tell the truth about Teflon. By refuting the rumors with scientific evidence, the company quickly put the issue to bed. Bloggers helped out by linking to DuPont’s informational website. The company never got down in the muck with its detractors, but effectively dispatched the rumors with facts.

If you employ these four tactics, you’ll be able to cope with nearly every challenge to your credibility, even the unanticipated ones.