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.

Secrets of Blogger Relations

October 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Since embracing social media two years ago, Dell Computer has learned a few lessons. One of its key blogger relations people shared some secrets last week in a keynote interview at the New Communications Forum in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Richard Binhammer is charged with monitoring and engaging with the active ecosystem of people who blog about Dell. In a keynote interview with John Cass, Binhammer talked about negativity, a concern often voiced by PR people. Dell has had its share of blogger criticism, going back to the famous Dell Hell incident of three years ago. But by methodically reaching out to complainers, the company reduced negativity from nearly half of all online posts to about 20% in a little less than a year. The secret? “Just talk to people,” Binhammer said. Most of the time, all they want is to be heard. Demonstrate that you’re listening and you can resolve most complaints.

But here’s an interesting fact: After reducing that negativity factor to 20%, the Dell team has been unable to bring it consistently below that level. Binhammer, whose background is in politics, theorizes that 20% is a natural floor, in the same way that 20% of the population always votes for the same political party, regardless of who runs.

This is worth remembering. Even the best businesses have a few unhappy customers. Your mileage may vary, but you should never expect to achieve 100% satisfaction. It’s more likely that your blogger relations program will get you to a manageable yet stubborn base level. That’s your floor, and you probably can’t do much to break through it.

Finding Resources

Binhammer also shed some light on how Dell allocates its communications resources. With so many tech bloggers out there, you’d think the company would have a small army of communications folks monitoring and responding to conversations. In fact, it has just two people sharing the job. The reason? Dell is lining up the whole company behind the effort to get more engaged with customers. PR monitors the airwaves, but doesn’t try to resolve every issue. Most comments are forwarded to the appropriate group for response.

I wish more companies would do this. Bloggers tend to be well-informed and passionate, which means that their inquiries and comments demand knowledgeable responses. Companies that simply delegate the response to PR are failing to benefit from the really rich conversations they can have with their most informed customers. Everyone from sales to engineering should want to speak to customers whenever possible. Why let marketing have all the fun?

Not Optimizing For Search? Shame On You!

October 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

When I meet with corporate marketers and their agencies these days, I’m frequently surprised to learn how little they think about search engine optimization.This is despite the fact that Google alone processes an estimated 750 million queries daily, and that IT professionals are some of the most active and advanced users of search engines.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that marketers are trained to be good at “push” marketing. Their craft has traditionally involved intercepting customers with messages that grab their attention and inspire action. Customers, however, are becoming more resistant to these tactics. Increasingly, they engage with companies and products on their terms when they’re ready to make a buying decision. That’s a much better time to reach them. The trick is to show up on their radar when they’re in this “pull” mode.

Google is now the universal homepage. Look at your traffic logs and you’ll probably see that search engines vastly outperform any other referral source. Yet many marketers devote lots of time and money to creating beautiful homepage designs that are rich in animation and graphics. Not only are these pages rarely seen by today’s web site visitors, but images and Flash animations are almost useless at attracting search engine traffic.

Successful IT marketers are learning to reverse the push model. They know that buyers start the research process in a search query box and that the sites that make the first page of results get 10 times the click-throughs of anything else.

The Great Equalizer
You might think search engines favor the big brands, but that’s not the case. Try this: Type “router” into Google and look at the results. Note that only four of the top 25 results are vendor sites. Now type “PC.” Note that the only vendor in the top 10 results — Apple — doesn’t even market its products as PCs! In fact, neither of the top two PC makers in the US market even makes the top 100 results on Google.

Now look at what dominates search results for both terms: sites that provide definitions and helpful how-to advice. This should tell you something. Your search engine performance will be greatest when you deliver content that helps customers make good decisions through practical, impartial guidance from knowledgeable sources.

Search is the great equalizer. The leading engines’ proprietary algorithms are designed to screen out material that their developers consider uninteresting. Your challenge is to match your content to their preferences.

Start by choosing the search terms that really matter. Be specific. Get general agreement that these are the terms you want to dominate in search performance. Marshall all of your internal web site contributors to reinforce those terms every time they write.

Discard terms like “industry-leading” and “innovative.” No one searches for those words. Start a blog or discussion forum. Both are search engine magnets. Pick up a copy of Search Engine Marketing, Inc. by Mike Moran and Bill Hunt. It’ll tell you a lot of the ins and outs. Make SEO a basic consideration in every marketing campaign. Then let those buyers reel you in.

Don’t Let Tools Distract You

October 7, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

I was presenting a social media seminar to a public-relations agency recently when the talk turned to uses of blogs. The people in the room were excitedabout blogging’s potential and were eager to apply the technology to new tasks.

I cautioned them that they were asking the wrong question. The issue isn’t what tool to use, but what problem to solve. Tool selection is secondary.

There’s nothing unusual about their attitude. People often start by choosing tools and work backwards to solve problems. Maybe management has just issued an order to start blogging, or the tool is seen as a tactic to improve search performance or it just seems like the thing to do.

But that’s like starting with a hammer and then figuring out what to build with it. If your objective is to make a house, then you’re off to a pretty good start. But if you want to craft a pearl necklace, you’ve got the wrong tool for the job.

I recently consulted with a client who wanted to build a social network for a defined customer group. It was an ambitious idea, but as we talked through it, we both realized that the process of getting it through internal and regulatory approvals could take a year or more. We finally settled on a more modest idea: Launch a relevant blog, try to build customer interest quickly and then take the results to management in hopes of getting fast-track approval for the social network.

Choose tools wisely
The building blocks of social media are simply tools and they’re not well-suited for every task. For example, if your objective is to alert visitors to a new category of products and provide detailed information on the specifics, a catalog page would be more effective than any interactive tool.

But it’s human nature for people to use the technologies they understand and figure out the application after the fact. Unfortunately, that can waste a lot of time and effort. E-mail is terrible for communicating between groups of more than about five recipients, yet people routinely organize massive projects with dozens of participants by e-mail. Even if the tool is poorly suited for the task, they reason, at least people know how to use it.

A better approach is to define business objectives and then search for tools that support them. For customer feedback, for example, blogs and social networks are a good choice. However, podcasts and video won’t do the trick. So if your objective is to improve customer relations, a podcast may not be a good place to start.

Technology vendors encourage the tool focus. Many of those firms are run by engineers who love to create cool new stuff. They’d much rather talk about features and functions than how to solve business problems. You need to block that tactic. Any vendor that won’t give you references to customers who are solving problems that are similar to yours is blowing smoke.

Social media tools are cool, but they’re always irrelevant if they don’t solve problems. Don’t let technology distract you.

Courting Online Influencers

October 7, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

In the previous articles in this series, we talked about how our hypothetical Quebec resort can find online influencers. We’ve seen that the process involves more than just a Google search. Now that you’ve identified people to engage with, you need to craft an approach and an incentive that’s right for them.

Influencers aren’t reporters. First, make an effort to understand the influencer. In a case of a blogger, scanning a few recent posts, reading a biography and noting the categories or tags that the person uses can give you a quick idea of what motivates him. For someone who contributes to a group blog or recommendation site such as TripAdvisor.com, consult her profile and list of recent posts to learn this information.

Make your initial contact meaningful and positive. If the e-mail address isn’t on the site, use Zoominfo.com, Spock.com or LinkedIn.com to find it. Even if you don’t like what the writer is saying, find something you do like and post a positive comment on her blog or Flickr portfolio. Bloggers love comments and links.

Offer something of value. This doesn’t have to be expensive; it can be a discount, free sample, trial offer or just a link from your web site.

Follow through. Drop a writer an e-mail or make a comment on his site every so often to show that you’re engaged.

Treat influencers the same way you would the media.Some companies worry that this is a slippery slope: if they legitimize bloggers by treating them like journalists then there is no going back.

You don’t have to treat all influencers the same. Decide what criteria a person needs to meet in order to merit special treatment and be prepared to explain those criteria to people who object.

Create an incentive. New influencers appreciate being taken seriously, so think of how you can get the people on your short list involved with your business. This doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be special. Here are some ideas:

Photo weekend. Your research has shown that photo and video enthusiasts are an important constituency, so consider hosting a weekend gathering of top photo bloggers. Invite 10 key people to bring their cameras for a weekend, with accommodations on the house. Don’t require them to publish their photos online, but ask them to tag any images they publish with your resort name and ask to feature the best work on your site.

Contest. Raise the stakes a little and sponsor a photo contest. Winners will have their work featured on your home page and win a weekend trip for two. Or offer to feature the winning photo on your brochure. You can even have the community vote on entries. The cost is negligible and the payoff in prestige is substantial.

License content. Sponsor a ski weekend and invite key ski bloggers and videographers to attend. Offer to incorporate their best work into your collateral for a small licensing fee. Offer to introduce them to some of your travel industry colleagues in the area, too.

Free trials. Contact a few influencers and offer them 50% off the price of a weekend stay. Make it clear that you chose them because you admire their work. Flatter them. It’ll get you everywhere.

Putting ‘Public’ Back in Public Relations

October 7, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

The following is an excerpt from The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media by Paul Gillin. The book is scheduled to be published in March, 2007. For more information, visit the book website.

The holidays are typically a slow time in the public relations business. But David Meerman Scott isn’t the type of guy to take it easy. Scott, a former bond trader and content marketing specialist who launched his own marketing consulting company in 2002, took advantage of the 2005-2006 holiday season to write down some ideas that he been kicking around in his head for some time.

What Scott did over the next three weeks would change his career and his life.

It would launch his business in a new direction and make him an internationally recognized authority on content marketing. And it started with a blog.

David Meerman Scott had a beef with the PR business. He had long believed that the public relations profession was too focused on the media. His epiphany came in 1995, when Yahoo! made the decision to start including press releases along with mainstream media coverage on its financial news wires. When you searched on a company name, a press release was just as likely to appear in the search results as a Reuters story. Anyone could now read a press release. So why were PR agencies so focused on the media? And why did they call them “press” releases in the first place?

On December 20, 2005, Scott began to write down his thoughts. He came up with the idea for an electronic book called The New Rules of PR: How to create a press release strategy for reaching buyers directly. In it, he proposed to blow up the old rules of PR. Stop writing press releases only when news happened. Find reasons to send them all the time. Stop writing just for the media. Address the public directly. Make releases rich with searchable keywords and URLs that lead to landing pages on your website. Optimize them for searching and browsing.

It was very Web 2.0 and Scott’s timing was impeccable. He invested a couple of thousand dollars in professional design and, on January 16, 2006, posted the 21-page document on his Web site. Then he fired off e-mails to about 30 friends and waited to see what happened.

“I was hoping for a couple of thousand downloads and maybe three or four mentions from bloggers,” he says. He didn’t have to wait very long.

Viral traffic got news of the book out to a few bloggers, who posted links. Downloads jumped immediately to over 1,000 a day. Then marketing guru Seth Godin posted a link on his blog, praising Scott’s ideas. So did PR super-blogger Steve Rubel, only Rubel was critical of the proposal. It didn’t matter. Traffic skyrocketed.

Between January 19 and 22, more than 15,000 people downloaded the e-book. The blogosphere was swarming. Dozens of bloggers were now commenting on and linking to Scott’s book. The media picked up on the thread. The Toronto Globe and Mail called. Then the Associated Press and Reuters. The Marketing Profs website asked for a bylined article, then an online seminar. Speaking invitations started coming in.

Six months after publication of New Rules, the e-book had been downloaded more than 75,000 times. A Google search on “new rules of PR,” which had returned only one result in January, 2006, yielded 42,000 hits. Scott was under contract with Wiley to turn the e-book into a bound book. And his business was increasingly about advising clients on how to rethink their press releases.

Drinking the Kool-Aid
No profession stands to influence social media more than public relations. And while most corporate marketers remain leery of the new frontier, some PR people are diving in with bold viral marketing campaigns and using the tools of social media to advance their own businesses. David Meerman Scott’s success was almost accidental, though he worked the basics very well. But as marketers come to understand the fundamentals of social media marketing, they’re turning the new forum to their clients’ advantage and to their own.

PR people intuitively understand the value of relationship marketing, with social media simply being another way to build relationships. PR pros have flocked to social media because it plays so naturally to their strengths as relationship managers. PR has long been the neglected stepchild of corporate marketing departments hooked on lead generation and advertising metrics. Social media is its turn to shine.

“The irony of the New PR is that it’s not anything new, it’s just the industry adapting to new forms of communications – which is something that our industry has always been able to do,” wrote Jeremy Pepper, a prominent PR blogger, in a Global PR Blog Week article in late 2005. “PR firms out there do get it, there is an understanding of blogs, and an understanding that PR needs to be involved with blogs – whether tracking, pitching or blogging.”

There are hundreds of PR blogs and quite a few compelling podcasts. Blogger Constantin Basturea maintains a list of PR bloggers that numbered more than 500 by mid-2006. It includes writers from 29 countries and is growing by about 100 listings every six months.

In late 2004, Basturea started the New PR Wiki, an exhaustive resource of interviews, articles, blogs and discussions devoted to the evolution of public relations. It now has more than 60 contributors. There’s also a conference, Global PR Blog Week.

PR professionals see social media as both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is to raise the profession’s visibility at a time when market trends are clearly headed their way. The threat is that no one really knows how to deal with all these new influencers.

Consider how complex the public relations profession has become. In 1990, the number of media outlets that were important to any given business probably numbered in the double digits. If you got a hit in the Wall Street Journal, you could take the rest of the month off.

By the late nineties, the Internet had perhaps doubled the size of that list to include a number of special interest websites and a few new syndication services.

Social media has completely disrupted this model. With mainstream media losing readers, listeners and viewers, the growth areas have shifted to special-interest electronic media, including cable channels, satellite radio, and personal blogs. Some product categories, such as consumer electronics, support literally hundreds of bloggers.

Not only has the list of influencers grown, but the dynamics by which they are influenced has changed. In the old days, a company got media coverage by courting a reporter. Today, a news story in a major newspaper may begin as a blog discussion or a viral e-mail thread that takes on a life of its own.

Corporate and agency PR professionals are scrambling to get out in front of this trend and leaders in their field are trying to show the way. So far, it’s largely been a matter of the blind leading the blind. But patterns are emerging that are spawning new companies and taking existing firms in new directions.

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