Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cries of Collusion

There are certain words in business with negative connotations.

For instance, it's seldom a compliment when an executive is tagged as a micromanager.  Yet, in some environments an all consuming, hands on approach is an absolute must for success.   Consider the expectations of BP's leadership related to the clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Now let's consider collusion.  We know it's bad, right?  It limits competition and potentially creates an unfair advantage for certain parties. 

Recently, uber-blogger and soon-to-be AOL employee Michael Arrington busted in uninvited on a group of angel investors dining in Silicon Valley and accused them of conspiring to cheat entrepreneurs through unfair valuation and negotiation practices.  Other investors who were not in attendance at the dinner were quick to weigh in with their outrage.

While I recognize the illegality of collusion is certain situations, in this particular case I have no problem with investors coming together to share best practices, compare notes and set parameters.  Why?

For starters, there is a friendly coopetition that exists in the investor community.  Yes...they co-invest on deals and all maintain a shared interest in limiting valuations.  However, an investor is ultimately motivated by their own personal gain and will act accordingly.

Second, the angel community (as well as other sources of capital investment) is not geographically limited to the Valley.  While this dinner apparently included a set of the most profile angels in the region, it excluded well qualified investors in other technology hubs such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Austin and Washington, DC.

And finally, the decision to accept the terms of an investment ultimately resides with the entrepreneur.  They have choice with a myriad of funding options -- both private sector and government backed.

So, let's knock off the cries of collusion.  Investment terms and valuations are determined by the market, rather than a group of wealthy investors sharing a meal.

Friday, September 24, 2010

3 Ways to Benefit from Social Network Fragmentation

While Facebook continues to crow about its 500 million member social network, an interesting (and high impact) trend reshaping how we spend our time online has gone relatively overlooked.

That is until BusinessWeek's Douglas MacMillan weighed in with a must read article entitled "A Big Trend in Small Social Sites."

MacMillan profiles a number of niche, consumer-oriented social networks, including GoFISHn (for anglers), Dogster (for canine owners), Curse (for video gamers) and CafeMom ( guessed it, moms).  While their reach is relatively limited, these communities have generated interest among advertisers seeking to connect with their targeted and highly engaged participants.

A question MacMillan fails to address in his article is how this trend has influenced social media participation in a business-to-business environment.  Our experience at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) has been that the adoption of niche communities by business professionals has been equally pronounced. 

Take the government space as an example.  Yes...there are groups on LinkedIn and Facebook comprised of federal and state/local workers.  Yet, to truly appreciate the breadth and depth of social participation you'd have to spend time on Govloop, govWin, Disgover, Govtwit and the Federal Contractor Network.

The rise of vertical-oriented social communities creates a myriad of promotional, thought leadership and sales oriented opportunities for solutions providers and vendors that understand how to appropriately engage in  a social environment.

Here are three straight-forward ways to get started:

1.  Be there.  Sounds simple, right?  Yet, Woody Allen was spot on when he said 80 percent of success in life is showing up.  Set up a comprehensive profile that defines who you are, why you are participating in the community and what you hope to accomplish (i.e. make connections).

2.  Share, Comment and Give Before You Take.  It's critical to bring value to the community by reading and commenting on discussions, sharing industry articles and content that's of interest, and offering counsel and support to other members.  Invest in relationships and you'll validate your membership and participation.

3.  Prioritize Community Members of Interest.  Not everyone is equal in business and this carries through in social networking.  Executive level participants, content creators and power users (i.e. those with large followings) have more influence.  Manage your time by making it a priority to engage with these participants.   

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A CEO's Take on the Jobless Recovery

Companies across the business continuum are dependent upon the talent, skill, commitment and creativity of employees to achieve competitive advantage.  That's a long-held belief in the executive suite, right?

Take this glowing assessment from drug company Merck's corporate responsibility Web site:

"Merck's ability to deliver on our strategy is dependent upon our employees — they are our single greatest asset. They are responsible for discovering, developing and manufacturing the innovative medicines and vaccines that treat and prevent disease, and helping to deliver those medicines to the people around the world who need them.  For this reason, the Company strives to ensure that we attract and retain the best talent, support our employees, and help create an environment that will enable them to fulfill their potential."
So, why is Merck firing 15 percent of its work force which represents15,000 employees? 

It's corporate statement explains the decision in the opaque language of corporate attorneys and spin-meisters.
“The goal of the restructuring is to create a flexible R.&D organization that cultivates scientific innovation, facilitates external collaboration and drives pipeline progress and a reliable, more fully utilized and cost-efficient worldwide manufacturing supply chain to support Merck’s broader product portfolio."
One could even view Merck as a microcosm of the job-less economic recovery that has the Washington, DC political institution on edge.  Corporate sales have recovered and coffers are flushed with cash.  So, why no jobs?

Here is one possibility:  there is limited job creation because top executives know most workers are average performers who provide more grief, aggravation and legal liability than they do value.

Employees are, in fact, not an organization's greatest asset.  The best performers are the asset and they comprise a small fraction of the total worker base.

The challenge top executives face is culling the landscape to identify the high potentials.  That takes time and there's currently no pressing business case to rush the process.  The result is lots of interviewing and evaluation, yet little in the way of hiring.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Creative Crowdsourcing with Crowdspring

The dynamic and near real-time requirements of today's socially-engaged world has shortened the shelf-life of the corporate Web site.

This presents quite a challenge for small businesses that are constrained by the reality of limited resources.  It's simply not economically feasible to retain a creative and graphics team on-site or on-call to ensure the corporate Web site remains fresh and relevant in its presentation.

Plus, its inappropriate for a Web 2.0/social media site -- such as an executive blog, Facebook fan page or LinkedIn profile -- to pull double duty as a company's online presentation. 

That's due to audience expectations.  For instance, when a visitor arrives at this blog or connects with me on Twitter there is an understanding that its content will have a thought leadership orientation -- best practices, lessons learned, trend evaluation, etc.

In comparison, visitors to Strategic Communications Group's (Strategic) corporate site recognize that its dedicated to our competencies, track record and executive staff.  The site's mission is to support the sales cycle by validating our credentials and leadership.

This past week I stepped into the world of crowdsourcing.  After evaluating a couple of options, I selected Crowdspring out of Chicago as the creative community to tackle a redesign of Strategic's corporate site.

Crowdspring offers an easy-to-follow process to engage its stable of freelance creative designers, as well as a guarantee of quality in the final delivered product.  In fact, I've already received notice from nearly two dozen designers who are taking on the assignment.

Yes...the price for creative design and layout is dramatically less than what a traditional design shop charges.  However, equally intriguing is the possibilities that come with tapping a collection of qualified and experienced minds for counsel and ideas.

You can view the public portion of our Crowdspring creative brief here.  I'll keep you posted on how this project comes together. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Clients and Culture

There is a marketing agency principal I know who brags to prospects that he missed the birth of his second child to handle a client requirement.  He uses that anecdote to illustrate the commitment of his firm.

Over the years, I've been asked in three competitive review situations whether I mirror that level of client intensity.   To this I always agree that my competitor is committed...or, in my opinion, should be.

In our new business presentations, one of the initial topics we address are the principles that guide client representation and business decision-making at Strategic Communications Group (Strategic):

1.  Great work for great clients.

2.  An unwavering belief in work/life balance for our professional staff.

These principles are obviously related, and the second is reflected in our ultra-flexible work environment and management of team resources based on a 40 hour work week.

While I do translate for a prospect why these business principles produce a better outcome and ROI for their social media marketing campaigns, it is an unconventional approach to invest time in the sales process talking about us.  So, why do it?

Every (and I mean every) client/agency relationship has its share of stresses.  PR consultancies, ad shops, marketing providers or other professional services firms that state its clients are always a true pleasure to work for are either delusional, full of s**t or both.

There are going to be disagreements in strategy and execution, breakdowns in communication that impact the work product and misaligned expectations.  In many ways an effective professional relationship is comparable to a successful marriage.  It takes compromise, mutual understanding and (in some instances) forgiveness.

That's why I talk about what is important to us in a client engagement at the initial meeting.  Yes...we're passionate about the clients we represent and appreciative of the opportunities they afford us to deliver great work.

Yet, we never shirk from standing true to our core beliefs.  And we recognize that we're not an appropriate fit for every client.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Overwhelmed by Mis-Information

A few years back I was invited by the University of Maryland to attend a discussion about the future of sports journalism.  The panel was comprised of a collection of well respected media personalities, broadcasters and reporters, including ESPN's Scott Van Pelt -- a fellow Terrapin graduate.

It came time for Q&A and I asked Van Pelt if the pressure of producing and publishing content in Internet time had led to a decline in the accuracy of news reporting.  Specifically, I referenced ESPN's faulty report on football star Terrell Owens' attempted suicide

Understandably, Van Pelt defended his employer citing a police report as the source material for ESPN's reporting of this breaking news.

It wasn't the time or place to dive deeper into this issue, yet I would have made the point that perhaps someone from ESPN should have contacted Owens or the Dallas Cowboys (the team he played for at the time) for confirmation.  That's reporting, right?

A couple of recent developments brought this interaction with Van Pelt to mind:

1.  Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise's month long suspension for knowingly sharing misinformation via Twitter to prove how inaccurate news spreads like a plague on the Internet.

2.  A good friend and former client self-publishing on Pitch Engine to combat a damaging profile in the Washington Business Journal.

3.  My colleague and partner Chris Parente tackling a client-related public relations issue created by near negligent reporting by the USA Today.

I am an ardent believer that there has been a shift in influence from traditional sources of information and credibility (i.e. news media, industry analyst firms and conferences) to the content and discussions in social networks and online communities. 

It's why Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) has reinvented its business during the past three years, transitioning from a public relations consultancy to a provider of social media marketing services.

Yet, I recognize the importance the business, sports, news and trade press have in shaping discussion and debate.  Personally, I'd be lost without the insight and analysis from BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Computerworld, Informationweek and the Washington Post.

This is why the precipitous decline in the quality and accuracy of news reporting is so disconcerting.  It will accelerate the importance of social networks which is beneficial for Strategic. 

However, I worry that the lack of credible, editor-reviewed content will leave us all overwhelmed by misinformation.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Clear ROI from theTravel Channel's "T House"

I am often asked by prospective clients about the best practices related to the adoption of social media.

How do we effectively use Twitter? What should we doing on Facebook? Should our CEO blog?

My response is typically the same: step one is to define a set of goals and success benchmarks that align with the organization's priorities.

I realize this counsel is rather "Marketing 101." Yet, the early adopter stage of social media has led many organizations to employ a bag of tactics approach as a means of testing social's effectiveness.

Ironically, this strictly tactical implementation methodology tends to stunt its effectiveness and ROI.

This isn't the case over at the Travel Channel. This week, Patrick Lafferty -- the media company's one-time Chief Marketing Officer -- visited Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) as part of our professional development series.

While Lafferty shared examples of how the Travel Channel has tapped social networks for buzz, to promote its brand and cultivate relationships with viewers, I was awestruck by a more pedestrian (yet high value) application of social media.

As you might suspect, entertainment houses and broadcasters like the Travel Channel invest considerable time and budget in the development and production of content. It's the foundation of their advertising-driven economic model.

A resource consuming step in the content development process is the testing and evaluation of programming prior to broadcast. For this reason, the Travel Channel has been historically select in when and how it recruited focus groups to test content.

Could social media be employed to extend the impact and influence of content testing, while reducing overall costs?

You betcha.

Lafferty outlined an innovative social program called "The T House" in which the Travel Channel recruited 400 passionate viewers to join an exclusive online community.

With the prestige of participation as their only compensation, these viewers provide ongoing feedback, advice and suggestions that help shape the development of new programming at the Travel Channel.

The T House hasn't completely replaced traditional focus groups and other testing programs. However, it has allowed the Travel Channel to improve programming through viewer feedback at more points in the development process, while slicing costs.

Now that's social media with a mission and ROI!