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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.

 

Be Inclusive Or Be Irrelevant

January 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsletter

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.

Businesses That Think Like Publishers

September 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

In my BtoB magazine column earlier this year, I suggested that office-supply giant Staples should take advantage of the collapse of the mainstream publishing industry to become a trusted media source for small business. Staples hasn’t yet taken the plunge, but a number of ot her brands have, and I think it’s worth looking at the trend.

Here’s the premise: Mainstream media is collapsing. This is creating what I call a “trust gap” in the market. Not only are the institutions themselves disappearing, but trust in mainstream media is at a 20-year low (see Pew Research chart at right). Social networks can fill some of the void, but not all of it. There is room in the market for new trusted sources to emerge, and there is no reason why businesses and institutions, using the tools of new media, can’t step in.

Early Adopters

Let’s look at a few examples of what big brands are doing in this area:

  • Bank of America is targeting small businesses with its Small Business Online Community. This operation is heavy on user-generated content, the idea being that small business owners are eager to help each other. Judging by the amount of activity, the site is doing pretty well. Most articles that are more than six months old have several thousand page views. Top contributors are rewarded with a points system that elevates their standing in the community. This is an effective incentive.
  • Not to be outdone, American Express is also going after small businesses with Open Forum. Amex is taking a different approach from Bank of America by relying more heavily on assigned articles from professional writers and business innovators and less on community contributions, although there is room for user-generated content. The editors have spotlighted a few frequent contributors and designated them as experts. There’s also a service that helps visitors find small businesses by specialty. That’s a nice incentive to get their target audience involved. Finally, there’s an impressive collection of videos of successful small-business owners who are, naturally, also Amex cardholders.
  • Office Depot covets small businesses, too (see a pattern here?). However, it’s taken an entirely different approach with a Survival of the Smartest, a website that features consumer promotions, contests and discounts. The initiative is an experimental alternative to the hundreds of millions of dollars the retailer spends on Sunday newspaper circulars, according to a recent article in MediaPost. Two video hosts provide an umbrella of entertainment while coupons and promotions help close the deal. There’s also a desktop widget that alerts visitors to new specials.
  • One intereBarnes & Noble Review logosting initiative that has flown under my radar for some time is Barnes & Noble Review. This elegant-looking site has published more than 1,200 book reviews over the last two years and also features columnists and author interviews. It’s a beautiful site, which I’m sure is no accident. Its design is reminiscent of the Sunday book review sections that have been hacked out of many daily newspapers over the last two years.
  • Perhaps the most direct attack on the traditional media space I’ve seen this year comes from PepsiCo, which hired a group of bloggers and video podcasters to report on the Internet Week conference last June. In a BrandWeek interview last spring, entitled “Pepsi Sees a Chance to Fill Newspapers’ Void,” Pepsi social media guru Bonin Bough said the soft drink maker saw opportunity in the demise of traditional media. Pepsi was openly advertising jobs for unemployed journalists and journalism students prior to Internet Week.

I think this is the tip of the iceberg. Once big brands get over their addiction to increasingly ineffective conventional marketing channels and take advantage of the chance to build new audiences, they will flock to these new opportunities. Advertising is one of the most expensive ways to create customer affinity. In contrast, trusted media brands enjoy customer loyalty that extends for decades. Why would you not want to get a piece of that?

Snippets

Are you a big believer in the wisdom of crowds? So am I, but not necessarily when it comes to creating high-quality content. In this recent article in BtoB magazine, I question whether the current rush to consumer-generated media is such a great alternative to using professionals and offer examples of the risks we take when outsourcing creativity to an unknown audience.


PRSA Professional Development logoNext week I’ll be delivering a presentation about 10 Secrets of Social Media Marketing on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America. If you missed the previous version of this one-hour webinar in May, please consider signing up. There is a charge, but PRSA fees are assessed on a site basis, so many people can listen to the same presentation at once.


There aren’t many marketing books I would recommend for summer reading, but Bob Garfield’s “The Chaos Scenario” is an exception. Not only is it a wickedly insightful analysis of changes in the media industry, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to read. Here’s my review.

Tip of the Week: Taming Firefox

I love Mozilla’s Firefox, but as it has grown in popularity and the number of third-party add-ons has mushroomed, the browser has become a bit of a memory hog. Did I say “a bit”? I meant “half of the memory on my computer.” While searching for ways to reduce Firefox’s girth and improve its performance, I hit upon this list of tips that worked remarkably well. Within 10 minutes, I had reduced Firefox’s memory footprint to a third of what it had been previously and my computer was running noticeably faster. This advice is a little geeky, but the instructions are step-by-step.

Just for Fun: There, I Fixed It

If you’ve ever pacified someone by kludging together a fix for a problem, technically fixing said problem, but knowing that’s not exactly what the person had in mind when they gave you the assignment, then you’ll appreciate There, I Fixed It (whose name implies, but doesn’t state, “So Shut Up!”). Not that any readers of this newsletter need to be reminded, but we are NOT recommending any of these jury-rigged solutions. We just think they’re really very funny.

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.

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.

Influencer Marketing: Not Your Typical PR

April 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

In my last issue, I made a case for extending PR strategies to encompass influencer marketing.  With mainstream media rapidly declining in scope, influence is increasingly being exerted from below by individuals using the power of self-publishing to reach out to their peers.

In recent influencer engagements, we’ve learned a few things about how to work with these new media. An important point to remember is that they do not behave like reporters. Journalists are skilled in the “game” that goes on with public relations professionals. You know, it’s the one in which PR is paid to keep pushing and the journalist is paid to be skeptical. The two parties engage in this back-and-forth with a wink and a nod, knowing that each has a job to do.

Influencers often don’t work this way. To them, their online outpost is a display of their passion for the topic that they cover. They care deeply about the subject matter and they usually know at least as much as the PR person who contacts them. Often they know quite a bit more. In some ways, engaging with influencers is like pitching to product reviewers.

Know Your Stuff

You’d better come prepared to this engagement, because some influencers will take lack of knowledge on your part as an insult. This can capsize junior agency people who aren’t prepared for the depth of questions they will get or the scorn they may endure if they can’t answer. Again, journalists know how the game is played, but influencers are more likely to expect the person on the phone to share their enthusiasm. I recommend you put experienced people on this job.

Influencers are also likely to have an opinion. While journalists are expected not to share any biases, bloggers often do what they do precisely because they have opinions to share. Fortunately, a little advance reading can often clue you in to someone’s agenda and even help you decide if they’re worth contacting all. You don’t want to come in with a strong Windows pitch, for example, to a blogger who’s passionate about the Mac. You also don’t want to be blindsided by someone who has made his or her opinions clear and who is offended by the fact that you don’t know them. Again, 15 to 20 minutes of reading can save you a lot of aggravation.

Finally, influencers are more likely to want to get their hands on the product or to talk in depth with the people who develop it. Unlike journalists, they’re probably not interested in analyst quotes or customer case studies. It’s more likely they’ll want to talk to the VP of engineering or the CEO than to the head of marketing. Before you start an influencers program, be sure that you have these people on board.

Their time will be well spent. The right influencers have as much credibility in their community as product reviewers or analysts. They usually have extensive networks of online and real-world contacts and they’re likely to have experience with not only your products but those of your competitors. Engage in a conversation. You might learn something from them.


Our Podcasts are Now Slidecasts

For the past three years, podcasts have been one of our most popular businesses, with nearly 300 programs produced for our clients as well as our own MediaBlather series. Now we’re pleased to take the service to the next level with the addition of slidecasts. A slidecast is an audio podcast with slides built in. It’s a great way to add a visual element to your audio program. Slidecasts are encoded as movie files for viewing on a desktop computer or iPod. Since about 80% of all podcasts are listed to on a PC, they help keep your audience engaged in the content while they listen. Here’s a sample we just produced for our client, Awareness.

Our slidecasts can support transitions, builds and even video clips. We’re offering them as a modest upgrade to our basic podcasts. We work with you to determine where you want slides to appear in the program and then we deliver both an audio MP3 and a video file in the format you choose. We can even add this capability to podcasts you’ve already posted. So if you want to try the next generation of Internet audio programming, drop us a line and let us create your first slidecast!


Subscribers Get Half Off at Inbound Marketing Summit

The Inbound Marketing Summit in San Francisco is less than four weeks away, and I have a small supply of 50% discount codes for subscribers to my newsletter. The Summit is for marketers who are convinced that the world is changing forever and who want to drive a new form of high-quality engagement that turbo-charges their careers. We’ll have Web 2.0 visionaries like Tim O’ReillyChris BroganDavid Meerman ScottJason Falls and Brian Solis on the program. More importantly, we’ll have practitioners from companies like Cirque du Soleil, Harley Davidson, French Maid TV and Microsoft talking about how they’re putting new media to work right now, achieving results and measuring those results. E-mail me to get this special discount!


Tip of the Week: Hosting for SEO

Are you still hosting your blog on Blogspot.com, WordPress.com or one of the other hosted services? You’re paying the price in search engine performance. I recently learned this the hard way when someone convinced me to consolidate my various blogs under a single domain. Search engine performance plummeted. In one case, Google wasn’t seeing my site at all. Once I moved it out of the subdomain and onto its own hosting account, visibility improved dramatically. Hubspot has an article on why this is the case. Hosting on your own domain isn’t difficult, and we can even show you how.


Deriving Value from Social Media and User-Generated Content

Social networks are beginning to yield some interesting payoffs in applications ranging from customer support to product evangelism. This afternoon, I’ll present a one-hour webcast describing the different ways in which businesses can derive value from these networks. The webcast is sponsored by Keibi Technologies, Inc. and you can register here. Best of all, it’s free.


Just for Fun

I came across a wonderful collection of pictures online that gave me more than one smile. I wanted to share it with you somehow, then realized I have the perfect opportunity in my Just For Fun. So enjoy Marco Folio’s collection of hilarious, odd, and adorable pictures! They’re organized by month of posting, so click through to any gallery for about two minutes of delight.

FAQ on Social Media – Part 3

January 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Continuing my series of responses to questions I didn’t have time to answer in recent webcasts, this segment covers international markets, ROI, how to deal with negative feedback and applications to small business.

Q: How do you reach international audiences? Are the tools you showed just for US consumers?

A: The Internet doesn’t know geographic boundaries, so with few exceptions your message can reach across the globe.The one area that is geographically sensitive is social networks, which seem to gain more active followings in some countries than in others. Google’s Orkut, for example, has been a nonstarter in the U.S. but has a huge following in Brazil. Cyworld is popular in Korea, while Hi5 has a big Latin American membership. In Japan, Mixi is the largest social network. The Swedes love Lunarstorm, and the Poles take to Grono. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but if you’re trying to reach people on social networks, you need to go where they’re already congregating.

Q: Can you give some examples of return on investment?

A: That depends on how you define “return.” Often, businesses look at return in terms of visits to a designated landing page, such as a download or order form. In that case, look at referring URLs. You can also track actual orders back to the URLs or e-mail links that referred people to that page.That’s a relatively easy way to translate links into sales. Use unique URLs and/or tracking codes to document where your customers are coming from. This podcast interview with Avinash Kaushik on Paul Dunay’s Buzz Marketing for Technology podcast series has some sound advice.

In other cases, however, companies may look for an increase in favorable press coverage or blogger comments as an indicator of ROI. In that case, tracking an increase in press or blog citations compared to a base point can yield a pretty good idea of the effectiveness of a campaign. Note that these are not web analytics and that the dollar value of these results can be difficult to quantify.

Q: What (if any) silver bullet can you use, to encourage your client to create a blog for their company, when they are deathly afraid of negative feedback?

A: A substantial body of evidence is emerging to support the effectiveness of social media marketing. For example, here’s a list of links to archives of successful social media campaigns. A study of the Inc. 500 by the University of Massachusetts found that three quarters of the respondents now consider social media to be essential to their marketing efforts. Sites like eMarketer and Marketing Sherpa also have extensive case history and statistical evidence about the value of blogs and other tools. Recent McKinsey research reveals that companies that have bought into Web 2.0 marketing are planning to expand their commitment this year.

In my view, negative feedback is an overrated problem. Every company has some unhappy customers, and most people understand that that’s part of the landscape. In most cases, critics can be converted to satisfied customers or even fans with a little hand-holding and special attention. There is overwhelming evidence that simply responding to disgruntled customers with a message that shows you’re listening can put to bed the vast majority of complaints. If a company does have a customer satisfaction problem, however, it is wise to step lightly into new media. Be prepared for negativity and be ready to respond to each and every comment. You’ll quickly find that criticism will diminish as you demonstrate responsiveness.

Q: Does social media marketing apply more to medium and larger businesses than to small businesses?

A: In my experience, small businesses are more active, creative and effective at leveraging social media marketing than big companies. There are many reasons for this, including the compelling cost advantages, the speed and responsiveness of small organizations, their willingness to engage directly with individual customers and the accessibility of senior managers. The University of Massachusetts research I mentioned above found that small businesses are adopting these tools much faster than large ones. In my own presentations and seminars, I consistently find that small companies are more enthusiastic and responsive to the potential of social media than the big guys. In fact, large companies tend to excel at finding reasons to AVOID talking to their customers!

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.

A Top Blogger Speaks

October 25, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

John Frost owns and edits blogs on the Internet. While he’s an unabashed Disney enthusiast, his blog is a straight account of both the good and bad news related to the company he covers. The Disney Blog attracts about 100,000 monthly visitors, but it is not formally recognized as a media outlet by The Walt Disney Co.

I asked him a few questions about his blog and he generously provided these detailed answers.

Q: What value do you provide that mainstream media doesn’t?

Frost: I’m a subject matter expert, the voice of a peer, a shepherd to the community and, to some degree, an advocate.

Q: How is your content shaped by contributions from your readership?

F: Mainly through comments and emails. I get leads from readers and they let me know when I’ve stepped over the line.

Q: How do you believe interactions between customers and businesses are changing as a result of Web 2.0?

F: It flips the funnel. It changes the art of marketing to the art of listening and contributing. For Disney, however, they’re still just getting used to providing better tools for guests to make decisions.

Q: How do you avoid inaccuracies and provide balance in your coverage? What are your practices for correcting mistakes?

F: Use reliable sources, always attribute, provide links to background as needed. Minor mistakes might just disappear; factual mistakes, when caught by readers, are acknowledged with an update to the post and quick notice that a change was made. Major mea culpas usually involve a new post that links to the old.

Q: What could the companies you cover do to make better use of customer feedback?

F: First, show us they’re listening. Have an online community manager and/or liaison who reaches out before feedback is even needed. Then, when feedback is received, you have the trust of the community to respond honestly, even if it’s only “I can’t answer right now, but we will find the answer and get back to you.” Then follow up.

I’m particularly impressed with companies that go out and search for feedback loops and attempt to deal with problems even before the consumer knows there is a problem. RSS feeds on various engines are a great help with this. If someone posts a complaint about all the weekday fireworks shows being canceled, be ready with an answer of alternate experiences for that evening.

Q: What frustrates you most about dealing with these corporations?

F: Faceless voicemail loops, help centers located overseas staffed with people who have no expert knowledge of the subject matter — the usual stuff.

In my case, each division has its own rules and contacts for material that my audience is interested in. Some still won’t deal with blogs, some are beginning to reach out. But our primary audiences are — and I use this term endearingly — the super geeks. They have different needs than the average consumer. PR may only release one photo and no concept art, no details on the background story or interviews with the creator. Mass media gets all that at the press junkets, but I’m not invited, nor can I afford to attend events like that. Why would I want to repost the press release that they can get anywhere?

Q: What could these companies do to put you out of business?

F: Hire me. They can’t put the fans out of business. There will always be a niche market for fan groups online and off. What they can do is feed our need to be brand defenders, not just brand critics.

Q: Blogging is a hard way to make a living. What motivates you to keep going?

F: I wish I was making a living at this. It pays the bills and helps with the costs involved in being a Disney fan. What keeps me going is the same thing that got me started: my passion for the subject matter.

What You Probably Don’t Know About Links

October 9, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

I got a press release today from a PR pro whose client has an interesting story to tell. The company makes a security product that combines cellular and global positioning technologies to alert people when valuable items have moved beyond a specified location. This particular pitch told about a customer who had recovered an expensive motorcycle just 20 minutes after it was stolen, thanks to the clever technology.

I have several blogs, including one that deals with location-awareness, and I thought this would be a nice item to mention. I searched for the headline on Google, but came up empty. So I contacted the PR person directly. He responded that the press release actually wasn’t posted online anywhere. “It’s a media alert that I distribute to generate press,” he said. “I was definitely not trying to get blog coverage.”

There are a few questionable assumptions in that statement, including the fact that 95 of the top 100 newspapers in America now have blogs. For the purposes of this newsletter, though, I want to address the importance of having a Web copy of anything you send out for media consumption.

The reason I searched for an online version of the press release was because Web publishing differs from print publishing in some fundamental ways. Look at prolific bloggers and you’ll see that their entries are full of hyperlinks. This practice may look strange to someone who doesn’t write principally for online consumption. Is the blogger being lazy by linking to source material instead of summarizing it?

Actually, quite the opposite is true. The comment-and-link approach leverages the strength of online media to minimize wasted time for the reader while making the blogger more productive.

To understand this phenomenon, look at the way we used to publish. In the print world, journalists typically have to excerpt or summarize any material they reference because they have no choice. The only way to convey information is to include it in the story. This makes articles longer and creates more work for the reporter, who has to guess what source information is relevant. It also means that good information is more likely to be left on the cutting room floor.

Online, the dynamic is very different. By linking to source material, the writer minimizes the amount of background information that has to be summarized. If the reader wants that information, he or she can click through to the source document. There’s less time spent creating extraneous content and less time spent reading it.

This tactic is a core reason why some bloggers appear to be so prolific. Instead of wasting time reinventing the wheel, they can focus on the most relevant information. You need to understand this practice if you want to play fully in the online publishing world.

I maintain four personal blogs — paulgillin.com, geocachesecrets.com, mediablather.com and newspaperdeathwatch.com — and manage to post to all of them frequently. I use comment-and-link combined with some clever online tools to keep the content up-to-date. For example, if I see something interesting online, I can easily bookmark it, type a brief summary or comment and save everything online. My bookmark service knows to gather up these entries every day and post them to my blog automatically (here’s an example of the result). My time expenditure is minimal and I focus only on the material that I think is most important. For audio or video content, there’s practically no other way to do this.

Marketers who want to incorporate online journalists into their communication plans need to understand this tactic and build it into their strategy. Link-and-comment isn’t a copout or a shortcut. It’s a tactic for minimizing waste. By posting every press release online, you not only make it easier for bloggers to reference the information, but you also make sure it’s you who tells the story and not some third party. Why would you have it any other way?

As for the press release I received earlier today, that company is out of luck. Had the press release been available online, I would have linked to it and recommended it to my readers. But reprint the whole thing? That’s just too much trouble.

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