Monday, September 29, 2008

Strategic View of Social Media

Companies like Dell and Comcast have gotten plenty of applause for their use of social media to engage customers and more quickly respond to criticism posted in online forums.

For instance, earlier this month Dell scored a profile in Fortune that lauded their use of Web 2.0 technologies to help “turn the company” around. The article included a sidebar that overviewed the innovative use of social media by three other global companies – Ernst & Young, Best Buy and Intuit.

Beyond the coolness factor of social media, what strikes me as relevant about the programs cited by Fortune is that each company aligned its efforts with a well defined and measurable business goal.

In Dell’s case, their IdeaStorm site helps improve product development. Ernst & Young’s use of Facebook is all about employee recruitment. Best Buy’s BlueShirt Nation is internal communications. And Intuit’s TurboTax Live is a community customer support initiative.

I do buy into the value of social media as a branding and awareness vehicle, especially when it is aligned with a search engine optimization strategy. Yet, this channel of communications truly becomes “strategic” when positioning, messaging, tactics and benchmarks address a business goal.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Unbiased News in the Fine Print

A coping mechanism in this era of information overload is to wade through the scores of trade articles, op-eds, blog posts, thought leadership pieces, etc. by merely reading the headlines. In a brief moment you can get a sense of the direction of an article and recognize industry trends from common themes that emerge across a myriad of news sources.

However, due to editorial bias this Cliffs Notes approach to news consumption is wrought with risk. Consider this gloomy headline that arrived in my Email inbox compliments of BrandRepublic news:

“Ad Industry Leaders Predict Deep Recession”

The first paragraph of the article reports that the marketing communications industry is now facing a “deep and long” recession that will result in many agencies going out of business. The writer cites a number of global agency heads to validate this position.

"At first, I thought we were going through a normal cyclical downturn. Now I think the scenario is much less predictable, which reinforces the need for agencies to keep their balance sheets as strong as they can." Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence

"The smell of fear is incredible. “People are terrified." And he warned: "The next 15 months are not going to be easy." WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell
Yikes! Smell of fear…people terrified…it’s obvious that agency heads need to take drastic cost-cutting action immediately to ensure survival. Or should they?

Drill down a little deeper in the article and the story is quite different.

"We're seeing some signs of a slowdown in fourth-quarter spending, especially in the auto and financial sectors, but it's not heavy and nobody is panicking." Maurice Lévy, the Publicis Groupe

"I've been waiting for my numbers to drop off the cliff but they haven't. People are still shopping and repaying their mortgages." Lord Bell, Chime chairman

My takeaway here is to consume news and analysis as you would a legal agreement: read the fine print. Even the best intentioned journalists, pundits and bloggers have a natural bias in their thinking that shapes how they structure a story.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Financial Crisis and Dot Com Ghosts

Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) was flying high in 2000.

Sales had skyrocketed during the past 36 months, new business opportunities continued to flow and staff size had swelled from three to nearly 40. We made plans to expand our operations to emerging technology markets in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Raleigh. The old rules of business – focus on key markets, manage cautiously and grow profitably – no longer applied.

Then came the market correction. Over the course of the next two quarters Strategic had nearly a dozen clients run out of funding and shut down, leaving the agency with several hundred thousand dollars in fees we would never collect.

As a relatively young founder and CEO, I had only managed in an up-market. I hesitated…partly from shock, yet more from ego. There was simply no way something I had worked so hard to build could possibly fail.

It was a board member who corrected my thinking. We cut deep and quickly. Extensive staff layoffs. Elimination of non-core business lines in the area of creative advertising and media planning/buying. An across the board reduction in expenses.

We survived and set upon a path defined by measured (and profitable) growth, pristine financial and operation procedures, and an intense focus on a simple guiding principle – great work for great clients.

I thought of this near-death experience when reading the New York Times article on the fall of Lehman Brothers. It’s a fascinating look at the factors that influenced Lehman’s Richard Fuld Jr.’s decision-making, as compared to John Thain of Merrill Lynch.

Make no mistake, for a small business owner the current financial crisis is incredibly scary. We are making a more concerted effort to talk to our commercial banking partner on an ongoing basis to apprise them of our continued success. And we always keep in mind that the guiding principles of running a sound business remain constant.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sales and Social Media

I had five minutes of podium time to deliver my key messages to the 100 or so attendees at the Tech Council of Maryland’s executive event titled “Growing Your Business through Social Media.”

A number of speakers earlier in the session had basically glossed over the exciting applications of social media as a marketing and sales function. Rather, they chose to emphasize the threats lurking in the blogosphere and in communities like Facebook and MySpace. Every company must track the discussion and respond accordingly, they asserted.

While I agree that monitoring is a critical component of any corporate social media program, it’s merely the baseline. I said so emphatically and stressed three points that I believe make the business case to fund a social media initiative more compelling:

-Use lead generation, as well as the acceleration of awareness, executive visibility and thought leadership as benchmarks for success.

-It’s OK to sell in social networks, yet do so appropriately.

-Repurpose the marketing content most likely collecting dust on your shelves for social media programs like executive blogging and new media utilization.

The reaction from the audience was relatively muted. I chalk this up to the fact that most of the attendees are groping through social media and evaluating what is appropriate for their organization. I also wasn’t allocated the time to provide real world examples of how companies are leveraging social media to accelerate their business success.

Consider Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) social media program for security software firm Epok. We are positioning their application in Microsoft’s Sharepoint community through a mix of tactics including executive blogging, blogger relations and social network engagement.

Here’s the download on the campaign to date:

We launched an executive blog about six weeks ago and have had nearly a dozen posts. Our team has increased readership for each blog post using social bookmark sites, such as Reddit, Mixx and Digg. We’re also sharing content with Sharepoint groups in LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as leveraging Epok CTO’s Twitter and FriendFeed streams.

The results?

-We’ve secured an editorial piece for SharePoint Magazine through a LinkedIn connection.

-We’ve initiated a dialogue through Facebook with a blogger, who has since commented extensively on of our CTO’s post.

-An interview request came in through the comments feature on the blog from the editor of PBP IT newsletters.

-Most important, after posting a piece on improving battlefield communication, Epok was contacted by a government agency and it has turned into a sales lead.

I have a philosophical difference with the social media consultants who counsel their clients on the need to merely engage in conversations to build community. Yes on both accounts as there is value in connections.

Yet, never shy away from lead generation and sales as a goal of your social media campaign. This is what Strategic focuses on for its clients.

Friday, September 19, 2008

When Worlds Collide

I am concerned that I have become George Costanza.

It is not so much my appearance, although my receding hairline and thinning chrome sure is disconcerting. (Hey Propecia, thanks for nothing!) Rather, it’s my network of Facebook friends that has my worlds colliding.

Let’s start from the beginning. I joined Facebook about a year ago when Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) created a fan page for staffers and alumni of the agency. It’s been a productive way to maintain a connection with former employees and to demonstrate to potential hires the importance we place on social media.

Facebook for me was a business application, comparable to my participation on LinkedIn, Gooruze, Sphinn, The Customer Collective and Brandweek’s At the Roundtable.

Then, a couple of high school buddies I have remained close with friended me which brought my profile to the attention of their contacts. Next up were requests from high school classmates I haven’t seen in years, including two former girlfriends. How could I say “no” to being their Facebook friend?

My current network of Facebook friends also includes fraternity brothers, family members, neighbors, business contacts, employees and even my wife.

This is all well and good right up to the point that I have now have to carefully monitor the comments friends post on my wall. Do I really want my employees to know my fraternity pledge nickname? Or how about revelations from a spring break trip to Cancun many years ago?

I’ve read much about recent college graduates who dampen their job prospects due to inappropriate material on their Facebook profile. Chalk that up to inexperience. Yet, I’m nearly 40. I should have known this could have happened when I let my worlds collide online.

The real question is what can I do now? Should I de-friend certain inappropriate contacts? Create separate profiles?

I’m stressing…quick…where is my Propecia?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

WSJ's Exclusive Club

At a networking event last week I reconnected with a marketing consultant I have known for years. Our conversation turned to an upcoming executive breakfast sponsored by the National Capital Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG).

“I’ve tried to join ACG in the past, yet the group has denied me membership,” the consultant explained.

ACG is predominantly comprised of corporate dealmakers, and private equity and investment banking community that supports merger/acquisition deal flow in the Washington, DC region. It is difficult for vendors to join and when a slot does open up, a consultant must also secure at least three new corporate members.

That’s how Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) became a member more than five years ago. In fact, to the best of my knowledge we are the only public relations agency member of ACG National Capital.

And you know what…I like it that way. It makes for better networking at ACG events and our participation in the group is validation of our expertise in financial communications.

The Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) decision to limit participation to only subscribers in its soon-to-be launched online community is a savvy move. I also like their requirement of full identification disclosure, thereby reducing the personal attacks that occur when people hide behind a pseudonym.

Will this limit the number of participants in WSJ’s social network? Absolutely! Yet, like my view on Strategic’s involvement in ACG National Capital, that is a good thing.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Inspired Customers Fail to Fuel Growth

Jeremy Epstein is high energy. I like that in a speaker.

He was the headliner this past Wednesday at the Tech Council of Maryland’s sold out seminar titled “Growing Your Business Through Social Media." I settled in to my chair as Jeremy grabbed the microphone and -- despite a plea from the event organizer for presenters to remain at the podium -- proceeded to pace the front of the room. He led the 100 or so attendees through a 45 minute presentation loaded with animated gestures and witty remarks.

Here are his eight tips for success in marketing and social media:

1. Be remarkable for differentiation. Jeremy cited Rock Creek Restaurant and their “mindful dining” philosophy as an example.

2. Listen as a fundamental marketing practice. Dell’s Idea Storm initiative rates high with Jeremy.

3. Advocate as a practice. Comcast takes lots of knocks, yet it is making a concerted effort to advocate for customer service via its “Comcast Cares” program.

4. Find your raving fans. Even if their representation of your corporate brand isn’t perfect, empowering these passionate supporters will create a viral buzz for the business.

5. Be the connector of social networks.

6. Don’t abuse permission. Jeremy shared an anecdote of a short-time Facebook friend who used the network as a platform for spam.

7. Be open…don’t hide. Jeremy and I both subscribe to the view that is completely unacceptable to make anonymous comments on the Internet.

8. Participate…don’t control. Another great example from Jeremy – Tiger Woods “Walking on Water” video on YouTube.

The premise behind Jeremy’s comments is his view that we live in an “attention economy.” Marketers are taught to shout at their key audiences with the hope of grabbing a slice of mind share. Jeremy argues that companies should instead focus on their existing customers with the goal of inspiring them to spread the word.

This is where things break down for me. I’m all for loyal and passionate customers talking up a company. Yet, like-minded individuals tend to participate in the same communities (online and offline). Eventually, the referral model fails to drive growth. It happens every time.

This is why it’s critical for organizations to reach outside their defined sphere of influence. Help the sales team generate leads…support the acquisition of new customers…and then inspire their passion. That’s the job of marketing, social media and PR.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tech Groups Make Perplexing Move

I am perplexed by the announcement from the AeA (formerly American Electronics Association) and Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) that they are in discussions to merge their organizations.

The business case to combine is apparent and was well articulated in by Computerworld writer Patrick Thibodeau. A larger technology trade group will have more sway in political circles and their technology members will benefit financially by reducing their annual membership costs.

Yet, the mere disclosure of merger discussions creates tremendous pressure to now get a deal done -- even if the terms of a transaction benefit one group more than the other. And what happens if the combination doesn’t come together? Each trade group will have only further weakened its lobbying position, while creating apprehension among its members and employees.

Was this proactive promotion of a possible merger a test to determine market reaction? If so, couldn’t that have been accomplished in a more discrete manner? This is a real surprising (and knucklehead) move by two well respected, influential groups.

Full disclosure: Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) had been a long-standing member of the AeA and I was very active as a member of the executive committee of the group’s Potomac Council. Our involvement concluded a few years back.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

CMOs Bang the Social Media Drum

In no way was I an early adopter of social media.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we introduced content about executive blogging on our Web site a few years back, yet there was limited client interest. And even more limited budgets allocated to fund social media-related programs.

That changed in the spring of 2007…big time! Social media is by far the fastest growing segment of our business. We are fortunate to be working with a set of innovative companies – such as British Telecom (BT), GovDelivery, Epok, TARP and Voxant -- to execute campaigns that include a social media component.

We believe social media work will represent 70 percent of our business this time next year. However, according to the findings of the recent Epsilon CMO survey we may need to be even more bullish in our projections.

Based on interviews with 175 senior marketing leaders in the US, the survey organizers reported that nearly two-thirds said their interactive/digital marketing budgets have increased in the past year. The more popular interactive and digital channels that marketers said they are keen to start experimenting with are:

-social computing (42%), which includes word-of-mouth, social-networking sites and viral advertising
-blogs (35%)
-podcasting (31%)
-mobile devices (29%), which include phones and PDAs

The take-away for public relations professionals is clear: by continuing to enhance our expertise in social media we can provide a greater return on a PR investment, as well as foster a deeper connection with the marketing organization.

CMOs Up Digital, Cut Traditional

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gearing Up for Social Media Panel

I’ll be speaking next Wednesday, September 10th at Tech Council of Maryland’s half-day event on social media. The event is titled Growing Your Business Through Social Media and will be held at Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery County Campus in Rockville from 8:00 am until 12:00 noon.

My panel deals with how to integrate social media tactics into a public relations program. My comments will focus on the best practices Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) has picked up through its work for clients like British Telecom, Epok and GovDelivery.

The list of speakers and panelists is impressive and I heard from the Council this morning that they only have about 20 attendee spots left. If you’re interested, check out the Council’s Web site for more information.

And drop me a note if you plan to attend. Perhaps we can hook up for a few minutes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Empathy Balance

As Hurricane Gustav churned in the Gulf of Mexico, public relations professionals across the country bantered about angles to pitch the press to generate high-value editorial coverage for their respective companies or clients.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we moved quickly on behalf of GovDelivery, a provider of Email and digital subscription management services to government agencies. Our client had a clear tie-in to Gustav because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relies on GovDelivery to send Email of emergency plans to Gulf Coast residents.

Strategic’s efforts produced the desired result as respected trade journal Government Computer News published an article that discussed how FEMA was using cutting-edge technology to inform the public.

A natural disaster can sure gin up public relations opportunities. The timeliness of the event enhances the news value of a product or service that can help address the crisis. This window closes quickly, so it is prudent for a company to evaluate how it can appropriately promote its interests when it is most opportune.

Consider the lightning sparked wild fires that plagued California this past summer. Providers of rugged tactical radios and related computer products showcased how their solutions helped first responders tackle the flames. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a catalyst for a number of stories about the reliability of satellite communications. Even a really big storm can’t knock a satellite out of the sky, or so our specific pitch to the media went.

Admittedly, there is a balance that must be struck by any company seeking to leverage the timeliness created by a natural (or man-made) disaster to promote its offerings. Step across this delicate boundary and the promoter can be perceived as too opportunistic or even cold-hearted.

Here are a couple of best practices that can be employed to ensure promotion during a time of crisis is handled professionally:

Make sure the tie to your product or service is credible. In the case of Hurricane Gustav and GovDelivery, FEMA implemented the technology to serve the public good. This was a point we stressed in our media outreach and the resulting story appropriately positioned all parties involved as being responsive to the information needs of Gulf Coast residents.

Start with the trade media. In many instances, they are open to angles that will give them an opportunity to report about a big story in a way that is consistent with the editorial mission of their publication. For instance, after the September 11th terrorist attacks a number of technology journals wrote about how video conferencing allowed companies to continue to conduct global business.

Monitor media coverage to understand a publication’s approach. A PR practitioner’s failure to read the publication is perhaps the most often cited criticism by journalists. This is especially important during a time of crisis when an off-target pitch comes off as callous, in addition to unprofessional.

Be sensitive. If a particular pitch or angle feels too opportunistic, than go with your gut and hold off. Yes…your job is to promote a product or service, yet it’s also to demonstrate compassion and caring.