Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bloggers in the Crosshairs

There are lots of things we can accept as not particularly good for your health. Smoking comes to mind. Loading up on salt in your diet isn’t so smart either. And for me, playing basketball against guys who are typically 10 years younger produces a healthy revenue stream for my orthopedist.

Blogging should not be an activity that falls into the high-risk category. Yet, for a number of profile, influential bloggers this appears to be the case.

Consider GigaOm’s Om Malik. He is a true innovator and helped craft a viable Web-based publishing model. Yet, at about this time last year he suffered a heart attack at a relatively young age.

Om is still banging away on the keyboard, but much of the content for the blog now comes from his cadre of supporting writers.

Even scarier is today’s announcement from TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington that he plans to “take some time off and get a better perspective on what I’m spending my life doing.”

The impetus for Arrington’s decision was a recent encounter with a scorned entrepreneur at the DLD Conference in Germany. This knucklehead crossed paths with Arrington in a crowd and spat in his face before slinking away.

Oh yeah…there was also the death threat Arrington and his family received last summer from a nut case with a felony record and a gun. Arrington was forced to hide out at his parents’ house because the police can only intervene once a person acts on the threat.

Erick Schonfeld wrote an excellent post about Data Privacy Day in which he pointed out:

“The more of our lives that we put online, the less privacy we have. It is as simple as that. And this is a problem that will just get worse over time. You cannot be fully engaged on social networks, blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, FriendFeed, and all the rest without opening yourself up to phishers, scammers, and identity thieves.”

Bloggers put a whole lot of themselves out there for public consumption and the risks that come with that are real. I know. I get lots of nefarious Email solicitations for investment scams and business opportunities.

Plus, I even warranted my own threat last year after writing a post on crisis communications. It was vague, so I gave it little attention. But, in light of Arrington’s dilemma a threat might register a bit more.

This is a real issue and something an executive should carefully consider prior to engaging in social media. My take is that the value delivered -- increased visibility, thought leadership, lead generation and search engine optimization – far outweighs the risk.

Hopefully, TechCrunch’s Arrington will reach the same conclusion. His contribution to the technology community is incredibly valuable.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Own the Point of Interview

Every step in the media relations process is critical to achieve the desired result – high impact editorial coverage that is accurate, timely and in-strategy.

There are no short cuts. You have to read the publication and its Web site, know the journalists and their coverage area, understand the market trends, and craft a compelling, timely pitch.

However, it’s at the point of interview that a media campaign either comes together, or falls flat. This is the time when the executive being interviewed must convince the journalist that their readers will find value in an article which follows a specific editorial path or includes a specific quote. Quality journalists need lots of convincing.

Developing power statements about a company and its products is a proven tactic to ensure time spent with a journalist leads to a measurable result. A few years back I met with a company that designs and manufactures state-of-the-art proprietary hardware solutions (DC to 40 GHz) to facilitate broadband RF signal management for complex cable networks.

What was their power statement? As it turns out, if you’re watching cable television in North America the signal is directed by this company’s product.

A second approach to own the point of interview is to deliver an assessment of a market situation in a creative and unexpected way.

Rick Wesson of computer security consulting shop Support Intelligence recently scored an interview with the New York Times about a new worm called Conficker. His characterization of the worm’s potential impact was masterful:

“If you’re looking for a digital Pearl Harbor, we now have the Japanese ships steaming toward us on the horizon.”

Garnering meaningful coverage from journalists, analysts, bloggers and other influencers comes down to how a company delivers at the point of interview.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hail, Hail the Product as Hero

Walk in any auto dealership in the US and the sales person has a single focus – get you to test drive the car. That’s because they know if an emotional connection is established there is a greater chance of making the sale. In the automotive industry, the product is the hero.

Before you chalk this up to merely being one of the stereotypical, low-brow tricks employed in car sales, consider other examples where the product as the hero approach rules the day. Take electronics and computer wiz Apple for starters. They clearly get the importance of physically putting the product in the hands of prospective customers.

I suspect this was the business case for the company’s retail initiative. Think about the layout and open feel of an Apple store. Everything is about the product with the goal of allowing its sleek design and gee-wiz functionality to close the deal.

A challenge many companies face is how to best put their products in the hands of time-stressed customers as a means of creating demand. In fact, we’re dealing with this very issue on behalf of video conferencing vendor TANDBERG, a company that invests millions each year on the design and functionality of its products.

GeoEye’s release of an image of Monday’s presidential inauguration shot from the company’s satellite orbiting more than 400 miles in space is pure brilliance. It demonstrates the high resolution capabilities of its satellite and, by leveraging the timeliness of the President Barack Obama’s swearing in, the company appeals to customers, prospects, partners, investors, journalists and a broader consumer audience.

Good show, GeoEye. You’ve demonstrated the power of your product in a creative and meaningful way.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

No Viral Hope

This past Wednesday I made the bumper-to-bumper trek up I-270 during rush hour to The Johns Hopkins University’s Montgomery County campus in Gaithersburg, MD.

The traffic pain was well worthwhile because Network Solutions’ put on an informative event titled “If You Build It, Will They Come?”

This topic is right in step with Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) philosophy about social media. For instance, when describing our competencies I typically marry a discussion of executive blog development with the importance of promotion. That’s because I believe it is the responsibility of the blogger to proactively market their content and thought leadership with the goal of driving quality and quantity of readership. Don’t leave these things to viral hope or chance.

Speakers Frank Warren of Post Secret and Rohit Bhargava, author of the Influential Marketing Blog, shared a number of best practices that have helped each of them expand their readership and influence. Perhaps more impressive is that Frank and Rohit have both leveraged their blog to secure six-figure book deals.

Here are highlights from each of their presentations:

1. Frank Warren

-The driving force of his effort is the quality of the content, provided by the very community his blog serves. Frank receives more than 1,000 post cards a week with “secrets” that he then reviews and shares on the blog. He refers to his reader contributions as “positive emotional capital.”

-Frank takes a minimalist approach to the layout of the blog, by design. There are no ads either as he doesn’t want to distract from the quality of the content.

-Perhaps his most savvy business decision was to eliminate any archive of the secrets his publishes each Sunday. The approach keeps readers coming back to the blog and also provided him unique content he incorporates into his books.

-Traditional media coverage early in his project helped create more reader interest in the blog. This is a good example of the importance of promoting blog content in traditional PR channels.

2. Rohit Bhargava

-Quality of readership trumps quantity for Rohit. Like many consultants, Rohit’s blog serves as a validation of his market expertise. In fact, he has been known to proactively send a link to a particular post to a select set of clients and prospects who may be interested in that topic.

-Brand personality is also important. According to Rohit, people want to care about who they buy from, who they work for and who they invest in.

-Rohit’s claim to fame is that he coined the term “Social Media Optimization.” Yet, rather than riding the interest in this topic, he purposely broadened the editorial focus of his blog to appeal to the largest possible readership base.

-The largest referrers of traffic to his blog are Google Search, Twitter and StumbleUpon.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Score One for the Independents

Tech bellwether Intel just made a surprising move that validates the importance of independently owned public relations, advertising and marketing communications agencies.

For the past four years, the company’s multi-million dollar advertising account has been managed by McCann Erickson. They are one of the largest ad agencies in the world and are owned by Interpublic Group, a publicly traded, global consortium of communications firms. Through McCann and Interpublic, Intel had access to an extensive pool of resources with the ability to execute on every continent (except Antarctica, of course).

Yet, Intel just tapped San Francisco-based shop Venables Bell & Partners as its ad firm, citing the agency’s exceptional work and a desire to work with a group of agencies rather than a single network. The company even came up with a nifty name for its approach – “open-source” model of relationships.

There are those who argue that independent, lifestyle PR/communications firms will be unable to compete in the market. As the CEO of one I obviously have quite a different take.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we’ve made two principles the core of our business: 1) great work for great clients; and 2) a commitment to work/life balance for employees. We recognize that we will sacrifice growth opportunities and that Strategic may not be the best fit for every client. Yet, for the right company at the right time we will excel.

Kudos to Intel for recognizing and rewarding performance from one of its agencies, rather than merely sticking with the same old.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why "Sell" Isn't a Four Letter Word

Public relations professionals live in a professional box. Our work and contributions are certainly valuable as the awareness and third-party credibility we deliver creates an environment in which a company can more successfully execute its growth strategy. Yet, the return on investment of a PR spend is inherently difficult to measure.

This is why in difficult economic times there is an across the board cut in public relations budgets, as well as other hard-to-measure marketing tactics such as advertising and brand promotion.

A number of respected communications consultants have argued companies that invest in marketing promotion during a downturn will increase brand awareness at a lower cost, while typically realizing an uptick in sales when the market begins to grow. Yet, this contention falls flat because corporate leadership is evaluated on measurable benchmarks today (i.e. sales and profitability), not some fuzzy hope for the future.

Into this environment arrives social media as a channel to reach prospects, partners, investors, employees and market influencers in a more measurable, targeted fashion. The business case for a company to fund an investment in social media is clear and compelling:

-produces leads from prospects who have self-identified
-supports sales cycle and cross-sell activities
-enhances search engine optimization (SEO)
-increases the success of co-marketing and partner programs
-improves customer relationships
-delivers awareness and market positioning

Public relations execs are the most qualified to deliver on the promise of social media for an organization because we excel at developing content that engages, educates and entertains. You’d think PR folks would enthusiastically wave the social media flag pointing to its comprehensive and measurable ROI.

That’s not the case though. In fact, there are a number of social media consultants who fall back to a murky, difficult to measure value proposition. No…no…social media is not for sales activities, they argue. It’s strictly designed for community and conversation, and any company that employs social media for promotional purposes simply doesn’t get “it.”

Great, I’ll see you on the unemployment line. What I really want to know is when did “sell” become a four-letter word?

We view things differently at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic). We understand that commerce occurs when a person makes a buy decision. It’s a customer signing a contract. An investor acquiring stock. Or an employee agreeing to come aboard. And our role as PR/social media consultants is to help our clients move their business forward more quickly and in a measurable way.

So, the next time you plan a social media initiative don’t shy from tying the campaign to measurable lead generation and sales goals. You’ll get funding for your program and deliver an ROI that helps your company grow its business while enhancing your own value to the organization.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Too Many FUs

George Parker knows advertising. There’s no doubt about that. His column in the now defunct Marketing Computers magazine was a must read. Parker dissected campaigns from industry leading companies like HP, Dell and Intel, often pointing out the fallacy in their creative approach, business strategy or messaging.

It’s now obvious the kudos for the column belongs with the publication’s former editors, rather than the writer. That’s because Parker’s AdScam blog is a big time disappointment.

His astute assessment of the effectiveness of corporate and product advertising remains, as does his willingness to take on clients and agencies for missteps. However, a reader has to navigate a myriad of unnecessary curse words and vulgarity in an effort to find this valuable content.

It’s as if Parker has some unexplainable desire to transport his readers to the prison cell block, rather than providing a refreshingly candid and well written take on the state of advertising. (George Parker image, courtesy of AdScam)

I am certainly no prude when it comes to language. On the contrary, I’ve been known to drop an F-bomb on occasion in an internal meeting or client presentation. I use this type of language sparingly to emphasize a point or demonstrate passion about a particular topic.

There is a purpose though. All Parker accomplishes with his four-letter rants is to distract the reader and, in my case, to leave me wondering what the deal is with this guy.

I caught some flack last year from the t-shirt wearing Web 2.0 crowd for having the audacity to criticize a speaker for being inappropriately dressed at the Tower Club, a high end business venue in Tysons Corner.

I stand behind my position on that topic and it’s consistent with my assessment of the language in Parker’s blog. It is simply inappropriate in a professional environment.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Dealing with the Rumor Shrill

There is such a drumbeat of speculation about the health of Apple’s CEO you’d think someone will soon launch a “Sickly Steve Jobs” blog to organize the rumors in one place.

Let’s see…Steve recently had a heart attack or, according to reports this morning, it’s a hormone imbalance that has led to significant weight loss. Have no fear, blogger extraordinaire Robert Scoble got word from a reliable source that Jobs’ health is just fine.

This would be laughable if it weren’t for the hit Apple’s stock takes nearly every time a rumor about Jobs’ fragile well being spreads from blog to blog to the business press. I suspect there is little chuckling among the institutional and retail investors who see the value of their shares torpedoed by speculation and rumor mongering.

Apple’s failure to publicly address the health of its CEO has me thinking about the responsibility a company has to its shareholders to put an end to such speculation. Like most organizations, Apple’s policy is to simply decline to comment. Unfortunately, their silence creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by the shrill of rumors from the blogosphere.

Yes…Apple does need to more clearly address this situation as it’s damaging their business prospects and the valuation of the company. Here is my take on a possible course of action:

1. Develop a message platform that balances the interests of shareholders with Jobs’ desire for privacy. If he is sick, it should be acknowledged in greater detail than some vague reference to hormones being out of whack. Equally important, the company’s plan to maintain continuity of management regardless of Job’s current well being should be presented.

2. Create a micro-site for the distribution of information directly from Apple. Rather than “no comment,” refer journalists, bloggers, shareholders, etc. to this site for accurate information. Even better, incorporate comment functionality into the site so Apple representatives can address questions, when appropriate.

3. Select a handful of respected journalists and bloggers for a sit-down with Jobs and other members of the management team. Give them full access, yet set ground rules about topics and issues that Jobs will address.

4. Monitor the media and blogosphere for inaccuracies, and move rapidly to correct any misinformation.