Friday, July 31, 2009

Influence Shift Marches On

I suspect more than a handful of marketing and public relations professionals wistfully yearn for the days when market influencers fit neatly into well defined categories.

You had journalists, both business and trades. Then there were a select set of industry and financial analysts. Sprinkle in a few thought leaders from academia and not-for-profits and…poof…you had a target list for your next PR campaign.

This methodology of influencer identification with the goal of shaping market opinion sure got outdated…and fast. The reliance by customers on social networks and online communities has resulted in a dramatic shift in influence, tilting power from traditional sources such as the news media to emerging channels.

Today’s super charged influencer could very well be a blogger, Twitter junkie or Facebook fanatic. Just ask the folks at Za’s Brick Oven Pizza in Columbia, South Carolina. An unflattering tweet by a prominent college basketball coach with more than 1,500 followers sent the restaurant’s business into a tailspin.

Unlike some respected pundits, I certainly believe in the continued importance and impact of the media and analyst communities. Most adhere to a peer review process that produces a higher quality and more credible content.

It’s just time for all public relations practitioners and corporate marketers to shed antiquated notions about where to find centers of influence. Strike a balance in your next promotional campaign, based on who your key audiences rely on.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

3 Can't Miss Web 2.0 Tools

The excitement of technology is captured in the creativity and imagination of the entrepreneurs, engineers and investors who continually push innovation forward at an unrelenting pace.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this first hand. For instance, one of Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) initial client assignments was the representation of a reseller of satellite services. In the mid-1990s, an Inmarsat communications terminal was so large it had to be hoisted onto a ship with a crane.

Today, Inmarsat delivers a more powerful offering from a terminal the size and weight of a laptop computer. The company’s Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) services make good on the promise of mobile broadband availability in nearly every corner of the world.

The same goes for video conferencing. At the turn of this century, high quality meant users accepting a level of delay and jerkiness in the screen picture and voice quality. In less than a decade conferencing vendors like TANDBERG are in-market with three dimensional, interactive telepresence systems.

Those charged with the marketing and promotion of technology solutions sure feel the pressure of rapid evolution. We must tap into emerging social networks as a channel to reach key constituents, yet continue to develop messaging that is clear, concise and straightforward.

Every week or so I spend a few hours conducting a test run of a myriad of Web 2.0 offerings and tools that have sparked my fancy. Few may catch-on and develop a broad market following. However, my evaluation criteria are applicability to client programs, rather than popularity.

At Strategic, we are fortunate to work for a collection of innovators – such as Inmarsat and TANDBERG -- in cut-throat competitive markets. Rightfully, they expect us to stay in-step with what’s new and, more important, how these tools can enhance the success of their business.

Here are three Web 2.0 offerings I reviewed today worth consideration:

Lovely Charts: an easy-to-use, free online diagramming to create professional looking flow charts, site maps, organizations diagrams, etc.

ChatCatcher: scans microblogging platforms like Twitter and FriendFeed for references to a blog post. When someone links to a blog, their post will is published to the comments section.

Aardvark: It’s Web search gone social. This is a free service that lets a user ask questions that get routed to friends and friends of friends. The goal is to quickly deliver specific answers on everything from apartments to zoos.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Three Musts for Social Media Success

There is a comprehensive list of things that rarely influence the return on investment and ultimate success of a social media campaign. This list of irrelevance includes: Twitter, Reddit, Digg, Mixx, Flickr, Wordpress, Typepad, Blogger, Posterous, YouTube, LinkedIn, and…yes…even Facebook.

It’s not that these Web 2.0 offerings fail to deliver impact. In fact, they are critical when it comes to the execution of a digital program. However, they are merely tools which create a channel to connect with and engage key audiences. Success in social media is defined by strategy, believability and integration.

Let’s start with strategy. Like all other communications initiatives, corporate social media activities must begin with a discussion of and agreement on a set of measurable outcomes. These benchmarks should be aligned with the organization’s overall goals, especially when it comes to sales, profitability and valuation.

Makes sense, right? Social media is meaningful when you can point to how it drives the business forward in a measurable way.

Equally important is believability. A long-standing tenet of effective public relations is that perception is reality. However, image creation has to be based on the tangible beliefs and attributes of an organization and its employees.

Take Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) work for British Telecom (BT) and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. BT leverages its commitment to sustainable business practices to solidify relationships with key stakeholders.

Yes…this is part of their customer engagement efforts. However, the company’s passion for CSR is genuine, resulting in a social media-driven dialogue that truly connects with audiences.

And finally, there is the issue of integration. Ideally, a commitment to social networking and digital communications should take hold among multiple groups within an organization allowing for the seamless sharing of resources. This seldom happens though.

Our experience teaches that pockets of innovation rise up with defined champions eager to put social media to work to the benefit of their specific objectives. We cherish these champions, yet make it a point to work with them to build internal awareness and support prior to the launch of a campaign.

In particular, solidifying a connection with the sales team is essential as they provide an avenue to reach customers and prospects, as well as channeling back ongoing feedback on the relevance and impact of our efforts.

So, the next time a colleague (or your boss) asks about the company’s use of Twitter or your activities in the blogosphere, challenge them to think about social media from the perspective of the three musts – strategy, believability and integration.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Social Business Gem

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we are fortunate to work with a set of bright, savvy and experienced clients. For me, they serve as a wonderful resource and sounding board as we develop best practices and continually refine our methodology for the delivery of social media and digital communications services.

For instance, Keith Hodson at Microsoft helped me define each of the three phases of social media maturation based on our experience working together. BroadSoft’s marketing team of Leslie Ferry and Kristin Martell have played a lead role in the creation of BroadBand Ignite, an innovative application of social media designed to support corporate positioning and leadership.

Let’s add Monster’s Janet Swaysland and Erica Pierson to our fraternity of sharp clients.

During a phone call this past week to talk through a soon-to-launch campaign we got into a discussion about Strategic’s approach to social media with its emphasis on lead generation, enterprise sales support, deal capture and SEO. Swaysland offered up this gem:

“It’s not really social media. Your focus is on social business.”

Wow…that’s good. Although a bit conceptual, social business is spot on with our belief that commerce – as measured by sales, profitability and valuation – is the driver of business accomplishment. Any activity that fails to contribute to these benchmarks in a measurable way is a cost subject to streamlined, outsourced or cut.

I’ll gauge the reaction to social business in the coming weeks through conversations with clients and prospects. I will be sure to share their thoughts.

Here are links to a few of “best of” blog posts that overview applications of social business:

Will Premium Content Cross the Last Mile

Social Media and Enterprise Sales Acceleration

Competitive Intel and the Social Media Footprint

Hope and the PR Hop

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bitter Taste for Social Media Insourcing

The California Tortilla I love has left me with a bitter taste and a touch of indigestion. And it has nothing to do with the food. Or my views on their marketing.

In fact, the company’s online brand promotion program is exceptional. It’s quirky and homespun and, most important, consistent with the in-store dining experience.

What I find grating is marketing director Stacey Kane’s recent contention that it is a “big mistake” to engage an outside consultancy for social media services. Her argument is predicated on two beliefs: 1) an external resource lacks passion for the brand; and 2) outsourcing social media activities damages the authenticity of a company’s voice.

Both views are complete bunk. I’ve spent 20 years as a public relations gun for hire and a constant in two decades of work is a pure and unfiltered intensity for the clients I represent. At times, I have even struggled with too much of a rose colored view of a client’s solution and prospects for success.

Regarding authenticity, reality often precludes corporate executives from developing a content strategy, crafting every blog post or peppering their day with tweets. Some are poor writers. Others lack the necessary time.

My view is that as long as an executive is engaged in the social media process and the message reflects their views, authenticity is achievable.

Now, I am certainly not arguing that a company’s best interests are served through outsourcing social media expertise and execution. Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) has the good fortune of working with a set of clients who have developed a deep competency in social media and digital communications.

Professionals like Steve Lunceford at Deloitte, Kristin Bockius at Microsoft, Jennie Olson at GovDelivery, Kevin Moss at British Telecom (BT), among others. Each plays a star role driving the success of their corporate program.

Yet, there clearly is a critical place for an external consultancy in the corporate social media mix. I see the value delivered in three core areas:

1. Helping define a content strategy and creative approach that is in-step with a company’s business priorities in the areas of lead generation, sales, market positioning and valuation, and corporate culture.

2. Injecting best practices from participation in multiple social media campaigns for clients in different segments of the market.

3. Providing honest, candid and (when appropriate) critical counsel on the execution of the program, even when it is not what the client wants to hear.

There you go Stacey Kane of California Tortilla. I still love your food, but when it comes to your views on the importance of external social media consultants you miss the mark.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Are Hotties Destined to be High Performers?

From time-to-time I am asked what brought me to public relations as a profession.

It would be great if I could muster up a tale of interest in communications strategy, creative writing, critical thinking or even the dynamic of decision-making. Truth is, my career path began based on a simple focus: girls.

Let me explain. As an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland one of my priorities was to establish connections with my fellow undergraduates, preferably the female ones.

When it came time to select a major I dutifully researched the programs with the highest percentage of female enrollment. I wasn’t particularly fond of math which ruled out psychology. At the time, I did not care much for children so education was a no go. That left…you got it…journalism with a focus on PR.

I’d like to think I have matured some in the two decades plus since my collegiate days. Fifteen years as an entrepreneur…two kids…a mortgage…and a romantic interest now in only one girl, my wife.

Yet, I have been thinking a bit about my inauspicious professional beginnings after reading Claire Cain Miller’s accounting in the New York Times of the changing nature of PR representation of emerging growth technology companies.

I will leave the debate of the appropriate role of public relations professionals to other bloggers and pundits. My preference is to focus on a subtle undertone in the article: are people more successful in the field of public relations because of their physical appearance?

Gotta say “yes” on this one because of the basic human nature to gravitate towards and more openly engage with people we find attractive. This begins at an early age as the more beautiful children are granted a higher level of attention by their parents, teachers and peers.

This adoration manifests itself throughout life, ultimately producing a professional who is confident in their presence, capabilities and intellect. Consider Brooke Hammerling of Brew PR and the star of Miller’s New York Times article. She certainly strikes me as someone who hasn’t had to deal with too many rejections in life.

Now, I do recognize I am making a broad generalization. There are attractive people in public relations who fail to rise above mediocrity. And, of course, there are those who are more modest in appearances who achieve tremendous success.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), I am fortunate to work with a highly skilled, talented, creative and confident senior team. They also happen to be quite an attractive lot. I wonder if that’s merely a coincidence.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Washington Post's Failings and Flailings

There is a whole lot of apologizing going on at the Washington Post these days.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth pleaded to readers for forgiveness in a letter in the paper’s Sunday edition. Executive editor Marcus Brauchli has also been chock full of sorrys to every journalist who will give him a listen, including the writers in his own newsroom.

What’s their crime? A poorly crafted plan to host a series of dinners at Weymouth’s home for Washington power brokers, politicians, Post editors and reporters, and a corporate sponsor or two. The price of entry for the underwriters: $25,000 a pop.

The reaction from competitive publications like Politico and not-for-profit think thanks was swift and unrelenting.

“Newspapers owe their first allegiance to the public,” explained Tom Rosensteil of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in an article in the Washington Post. “Their first obligation is to make information public and to inspire public debate and discussion…In this case, the Washington Post would be arranging events that only insiders have access to and profiting from those events. It’s fundamentally antithetical to what news organizations do.”

Ah, spoken like someone who has little concern for profit/loss, making payroll or appeasing shareholders. Truth is, the only person Weymouth and Brauchli should apologize to is the Charles Pelton, the hapless marketing executive who concepted these dinners.

Like nearly every news and publishing operation in the country, the Washington Post is overcome by red ink. Its business model is no longer viable and unless the company can identify new sources of revenue the layoffs and editorial cutbacks will march on.

I applaud Pelton for his creativity. If his now-squashed efforts had helped the Post retain talent and content, I would have been better off as a reader.

I also have no problem whatsoever with the perceived conflicts created by providing well heeled and funded corporations with exclusive access to editors and writers.

That’s because I have confidence in the quality, professionalism and ethics of the journalists hired by the Post. They are quite capable of sorting through a myriad of facts, sources and commentary when crafting a story.

Let’s not for a moment pretend that all is well in the newsroom. Yes, as Rosensteil contends publishers, editors and writers make a promise to their readers and society. My take is that they can certainly deliver on the promise regardless of where and with whom they dine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Creativity, Control and the Land of Discontent

I totally dig the world of consumer advertising and the creativity of hot shops like Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Wieden + Kennedy, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, and Mother.

Their work focuses on the idea and how it is best expressed through visual media. When successful, an ad agency’s impact is measured by the campaign’s influence on brand reputation and positioning, as well as sales and revenue generation.

Much of advertising is about creativity for cut through in a crowded and noisy environment. I get that.

What I don’t quite understand is the approach Crispin Porter & Bogusky has taken with this possible new version of its corporate Web site. It is still in beta so I suspect the agency plans to evaluate feedback before going all in.

Crispin has mimicked the approach employed last year by Skittles in which content from a number of social networks -- such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube -- are aggregated on the Web site.

It is certainly dynamic and demonstrates relevance (or buzz) in the market. However, the site owner forfeits control of content and related messaging and, as a result, assumes a high level of risk. A site designed as a promotional vehicle could quickly digress into a channel for customer discontent.

Now there is a valid argument that the loss of message control serves as the very foundation of credibility in a social media environment. It’s an honest and transparent dialogue which will most likely resonate with key stakeholders.

I do buy into that and believe that for a product like Skittles this creative expression via social media works.

However, in a corporate environment the risk is simply too great. Could unjust negative comments impact client retention or new business? You bet. How about unflattering remarks from a former employee fired for cause? Could that hamper recruitment and retention efforts? It sure could.

There are a myriad of ways Crispin can portray its creativity and hip-ness while mitigating risk. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.