Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Forgiving World of Social Media Lead Generation

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we have been working on a social media marketing campaign that has surpassed all client expectations when it comes to audience engagement.

Our editorial strategy proved to be spot on. Readership has grown month over month with a healthy mix of new and returning visitors.

You’d think we would be hitting high fives and chest bumps. There is a problem though. While important, awareness and positioning are not our benchmarks. It’s lead generation and in this area we have fallen painfully short.

It is certainly not for a lack of trying. We started with a free offer to motivate readers to identify and share information about their needs. No go. We then moved to a multi-tiered premium content strategy with required registration. Little response.

So now we have scheduled a Webinar exclusively for readers of our social media site. Our hopes are high…we’ll see.

I should be more frantic about our lack of prospect identification, right?

Make no mistake, I am concerned. Yet, I also recognize that with social media we can test multiple tactics within the timeline of a program’s duration and without dramatic impact on budget.

This is not the case with traditional advertising and direct marketing programs due to the steep budget requirements associated with media, production, printing, postage, etc. These tactics are unforgiving as a company is basically afforded one shot to get it right and produce a measurable impact.

A multi-million dollar ad campaign that is met with a lukewarm reception results in the advertiser searching for a new agency and, in some instances, a chief marketing officer out of a job.

Unlike many consultants who argue that social media is merely for community and conversation, I’m wedded to the belief that companies should demand an ROI aligned with lead generation, sales cycle support and search engine optimization.

Yes…it makes the design and execution of social media marketing campaigns more challenging. But, there is time to test approaches and the lower funding requirements produce a client that is more patient and understanding.

Now I just need this Webinar to work.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dear Prudence: Managing Social Media Engagement

After a sloppy and lackluster performance against a marginal competitor the Washington Redskins trudged off the field to a cascade of boos from disgruntled fans. I can only imagine what rookie defensive player Robert Henson thought of this serenade of disapproval.

Actually, I don’t need to speculate at all. Henson tweeted his views more than 50 times after the game to his 1,200 followers.

“All of you fake half hearted Skins fans can…I won’t go there,” he wrote. “But I dislike you very strongly, don’t come to Fed Ex (field) to boo dim wits.”

That gem was followed with this rant, “The question is who are you to say you know what’s best for the team and you work 9 to 5 at McDonalds.”

The next day the Redskins PR staff trotted a sheepish Henson out in front of the local media to apologize. The damage had been done though as the candor of Henson’s tweets made it quite clear where he stands on fan relations. (Photo: The Redskins' Robert Henson gets tied up by teammates, as well as by his own tweets.)

While this incident can be chalked up to the immaturity of a rookie athlete, it illustrates the challenge corporate communications executives face managing and tracking the flow of information by employees via social networks.

There is just so much on the line when it comes to inappropriate disclosure. Consider the public company that violates SEC rules through an inadvertent tweet about a major contract win. Or the private firm that undermines its relationship with a key partner because of a critical blog comment from a mid-level employee.

An adverse consequence of social media activity can also be more subtle. Recently, I identified a new business opportunity after noting a competitor had connected with the newly hired VP of Marketing of a local technology company on LinkedIn.

My alleged touch base call to the marketing lead was met with a “perfect timing…we have just started evaluating public relations firms” response.

In no way am I advocating that companies slam the lid on the social media activities of its employees. When executed in a well defined and measured approach, the measurable ROI of social media is too significant.

Yet, like most aspects of business in today’s ultra-competitive and litigious environment, prudence must be practiced. Here is the counsel we offer to clients:

1. Set a firm organization-wide policy for social media activity, including what can be shared via an employee’s personal interaction. Incorporate these expectations in all human resource materials and consistently remind staff of their responsibilities.

2. Monitor employee activity on a daily basis, along with references to the company. I realize this comes off as a tad big brother-ish, yet (again) the liability of inappropriate disclosure (even when accidental) can be crushing.

Ronald Reagan said it best when referring to Soviet relations in the 1980s, “Trust, but verify.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Jump from Online Connection to Meaningful Relationship

During one pre-teen summer my parents insisted I maintain a group of pen pals. While it was a good exercise to develop writing skills, my interest in these far-off connections fizzled quickly. There just wasn’t any personal bond.

Even when there is emotion involved, relationships defined by a geographic separation typically meet the same fate. Consider all of those long-distance romances that eventually run tepid.

Does this need for in-person interaction also apply to contacts established in social networks?

You betcha! In fact, it is an absolute must if your goal is to derive professional value from the relationships initiated in online communities. There is only so much trust and transparency that can be forged through tweets, Facebook updates or LinkedIn messages.

This past April I wrote a blog post entitled “Three Phases of Social Media Maturation” based on Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) experiences implementing social media marketing programs for clients like Microsoft, BearingPoint, Monster, British Telecom (BT), TANDBERG, GovDelivery, among others. It’s during phase three – what I referred to as “The Last Mile” – which more intimate interaction with social media needs to occur.

Here are a few tactics we are employing to make that happen:

1. Corporate sponsored meet-ups: they are an effective way to bring together a myriad of contacts who share similar professional backgrounds and experiences to talk business. We organize and host, thereby positioning Strategic’s client as the community bind.

Better yet, time a meet-up in conjunction with an industry conference or event.

2. Thought leadership Webinars or teleconferences: organized to discuss a particular topic and often featuring one or more speakers, this is an effective way to establish credentials while creating a more meaningful bond.

For instance, a recent Webinar produced by Strategic in partnership with the Software Information and Industry Association (SIIA) has led to a number of exciting business discussions.

3. Good, old-fashioned sales calls: that’s right…there is nothing more powerful than the human voice and its ability to convey meaning and insight. Pick up the phone and call those social network connections. The result will be an important step towards fostering an actual relationship.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jerks Abound at Facebook PR

What would you call someone who has a laugh after causing the embarrassment and humiliation of another?

An insensitive jerk? How about mean spirited snake? Or, you could just compare them to the public relations department at Facebook.

Let me explain. Apparently, the spinsters at America’s favorite social network got tired of TechCrunch taking shots at them, not to mention their failure to follow the accepted editorial best practices of peer review and fact checking.

To teach Michael Arrington and his band of blogging cronies a lesson, they duped them into writing a story about a new fictitious feature on the site that was blatantly ridiculous.

When TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid finally got in touch with someone from Facebook the PR representative “couldn’t stop laughing for five minutes.”

Oh wow…that’s real funny.

While Michael Arrington certainly doesn’t have the most pristine reputation, it’s not a productive use of time to make him look foolish.

Don’t the folks in Facebook’s PR department have other things to work on? How about helping the company get to profitability?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

3 Social Media Portals Revealed

In early May I introduced the business case for an organization to create a social media portal in a blog post I thought would generate a significant amount of interest. Readership was modest and there were a couple of retweets, yet the feedback I received was tepid at best.

Thankfully, we were a bit more persuasive with a set of Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) clients who recognized an opportunity to elevate the success of their digital programs through a portal approach.

Let’s take a moment to revisit the original post, entitled “The Goodness of Social Media Portals.” My premise is that organization-wide adoption of social media – although a positive development – creates a number of significant headaches for corporate communications and marketing professionals.

For starters, there is the issue of consistency in strategy and messaging. The potential for a cacophony of competing voices is one of the reasons why the Pentagon is considering a limit on the social media engagement of military personnel.

Then there is the requirement to monitor the distribution of information to the market to ensure financial, legal and other contractual agreements are adhered to. I realize there are some in social media circles who argue for a free flow of information across social networks.

However, these purists lose sight of the fact that the real world is comprised of lawyers, shareholders and governing bodies. The value of an open exchange with little in the way of guidelines does not outweigh the pain of an SEC investigation.

Fast forward several months and Strategic has three clients that have now gone live with a portal as a core component of their social media program.

British Telecom’s (BT) “Secure Thinking”

Microsoft’s “Bright Side of Government"

Monster Government Solutions’ “Unleash the Monster”

While it’s inappropriate for me to divulge the strategy or specific success criteria for these innovative social media programs, I can share a couple of important factors that shaped the thinking at BT, Microsoft and Monster.

1. Develop a strong, clear and consistent voice to the market, leveraging social networks to connect with and engage a myriad of key stakeholders.

2. Publish compelling thought leadership content from multiple sources within the organization, structured in a manner that easy to access and digest.

3. Share community across multiple social media platforms to extend reach and influence.

My colleague Chris Parente also has an interesting take on social media portals and how they help a company effectively organize and present its content.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Great Recession Marches On

After surviving the dot com meltdown eight years ago I felt confident heading into this recession that the lessons learned from the turn of the century would serve me well. My expectation was we’d feel some pain, yet Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) would emerge well positioned for growth.

So far…so good. We have made difficult decisions related to staffing and areas of spend, however the company has maintained its stability and focus with a clearly defined plan moving forward. Plus, I have managed through new experiences, such as a client bankruptcy.

I can now unequivocally proclaim that I am so ready for market conditions to improve. The Great Recession stinks. It’s simply not as much fun to steer a company in a down economic environment.

With this in mind I arrived at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Virginia seeking insight from Dr. Malcolm Knight, Vice Chair of Deutsche Bank. Dr. Knight holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has worked in a myriad of European markets helping shape economic policy.

Here are a few highlights from Dr. Knight’s address to a group of regional business executives: (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

--The economy is fundamentally unpredictable.
--For the first time in nearly four decades, the global GDP will decline.
--Improved corporate earnings are the result of extensive cost cutting. While this is good for efficiency, it is not sustainable in the long-term.
--Stress tests on financial institutions have increased transparency about their health, resulting in more confidence and appetite for risk.
--Signs to watch to determine what will happen next:

1. Consumer spending and household savings
2. Changes in the volume of world trade
3. Output and export growth in China, India and Brazil
4. The US commercial real estate market

--What needs to happen to ensure we make our way out of this recession:

1. Maintain open markets (fight the call for protectionism)
2. Continue the government stimulus until there are signs of durable growth
3. Articulate a clear exit strategy from the rising level of government debt
4. Redesign the global regulatory system so it is consistent across all markets

While informative, this wasn’t the message I had hoped to hear from Dr. Knight. My take away: things have stabilized, yet in no way should we anticipate a period of robust growth.

Like all economists, Dr. Knight is an observer who then applies knowledge, theory and history to evaluate and (to the best of his ability) anticipate. There are no guarantees. And, for this entrepreneur, there is the realization that there remains a lot of recession managing to do.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Unmovable Line in Brand Promotion

I have two wonderfully spirited sons who laugh, smile, play hard and always (and I mean always) test to see where the boundaries lie. My wife and I quickly learned that good parenting is all about consistency in rules and reaction.

Does the same apply to brand management?

I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since Advertising Age writer Rita Chang phoned me to discuss Verizon Wireless’ sponsorship of a “Friends of America” rally in West Virginia. It appears Verizon unintentionally tossed its much respected corporate brand into the debate around the powder keg issues of employment and the environment.

Ouch…for a taste of the divergent emotions swirling around Verizon on what the company thought was its harmless participation in a local event check out the comments to Chang’s article.

Ironically, in my subsequent readings these past few days I have stumbled across several egregious examples of inept brand management. Let’s start with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that gave the thumbs up to a print advertisement which compared the wrath of nature to the death and destruction of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The market reaction was swift and all condemning, resulting in a hasty apology from the WWF and its advertising agency acknowledging the ad “never should have been created, approved or run.”

Then there is the little tidbit about the dictator and mass murderer Adolf Hitler who has now become the corporate and product spokesperson of choice for a number of internationally-based companies.

That’s right…he is back…the Nazi fuhrer -- whose resume includes architect of World War II and perpetrator of genocide -- is hawking products as diverse as computer thumb drives, condoms, coffee and chopsticks.

So…yes…companies are clearly testing the boundaries when it comes to brand promotion in an attempt of find the appropriate balance between Jerry Springer shocking and downright offensive. It’s all in an attempt to cut through what continues to be a noisy, message cluttered market.

My advice when it comes to brand management is right in step with what I tell my children: never stray from what is morally acceptable and don’t do anything stupid.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Timely News Reporting Alive and Well

There are certain journalists you just seem to connect with. You like their interview and writing style. Their beat is interesting. And they get their stories right.

For me, Rita Chang, the digital media and telecom reporter at trade publication Advertising Age, has long been a must read. So, I have made it a priority to build good rapport with her by being responsive and helpful when she is researching an article.

It has been a mutually beneficial relationship. For instance, she contacted me this afternoon at 2 PM regarding a breaking story about a well known and respected global company that is sponsoring a controversial event.

Two brief phone interviews…a few Email exchanges…and four hours later the article is published with my comments included.

Verizon Catches Flak for Backing Rally Put on by Coal Producer

In today’s social media charged environment, there are a myriad of sources of influence. Yet, journalists continue to rate high and there are often situations where you can quickly realize the benefit of a well cultivated relationship.