Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Down Side of Reader Engagement

My post last Friday entitled "Grace Under Fire" has generated quite a response, representing both the good and the potential negative of social participation.

First the good.  I've seen a near 20 percent jump in daily readership of the blog during the past three days, as well as an increase in a number of subscribers.  Plus, I am scoring a healthy 2.7 page views per visitor which indicates many of these new readers are trolling around a bit reading previous posts.

A positive in terms of overall awareness and thought leadership.

Moreover, I've had a couple of long-standing relationships and prospects message me directly with words of encouragement.  Here are a few examples:

--Grace under fire is a brilliant post. Well done you!!!!

--You did the right thing. Well done. When one client leaves, a better one will walk in the door especially for a fantastic team like yours.

Another check in the plus column for relationship building.

So...what's the negative? 

In speaking with a prospect today about the possibility of funding for a social media marketing pilot program, he asked to revisit the issue of budget and compensation for our firm.  Here is a rough paraphrase of the conversation: 

He says:  I'm thinking you might want to cut your rates by 20 percent to make sure you get this assignment.  From what I understand, you are hungry for business at the moment.

I reply:  Where did you hear that?

His response:  I read your blog.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grace Under Fire

After a bit of affectionate chit-chat at the start of lunch the conversation veered for the worse.

"This is a difficult thing for me to do," their corporate communications lead explained.  "We've made the decision to consolidate our business and, unfortunately, there won't be a place for you moving forward."

And just like that after a wonderfully fulfilling four year relationship one of our largest clients fired us.

It's a bitter reality of professional services.  Regardless of how well you perform, the results you deliver and the ROI produced, you get whacked for things often outside of your control. 

In this case, a relatively new CEO concluded that consolidation of their representation will produce a better outcome.  It's understandable and may indeed be successful.

Yet, the sting is there and, admittedly, there is a temptation to confront the client's decision head on.

That's never a wise play as an emotional reaction to being let go is unproductive.  I've done that twice in my 16 years running Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) and the outcome was the same -- it effectively severed the relationship.

We subscribe to the "grace under fire" methodology which includes:

1.  Be thankful for the opportunity to have been part of the team.

2.  Be supportive of the transition to ensure the client continues to be positioned for success.

3.  Be sure to stay connected with the executives you've worked with and identify ways to bring value to the relationship.

4.  Be thoughtful in your analysis of the client engagement to identify lessons learned.

Getting fired hurts because we invest so much in the success of our client engagements.  However, as my mom always told me growing up, "Always leave people smiling."

Friday, March 18, 2011

NY Times Takes a Bold Step Towards Paid Digital Content

Two years ago I argued that it was imperative for Web 2.0 and content companies to create multiple channels of revenue to build and maintain a sustainable, growth-oriented business.

My perspective was directed at fast-growth players like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that have relied primarily on advertising revenue to fuel the top-line.  However, it is the New York Times -- a company with a 150 year history -- that has moved aggressively to carve out a myriad of revenue sources in the digital age.

Here is a copy of the letter I received today from their publisher:

An important announcement from
the publisher of The New York Times

Fine Print
Dear New York Times Reader,

Today marks a significant transition for The New York Times as we introduce digital subscriptions. It’s an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform. The change will primarily affect those who are heavy consumers of the content on our Web site and on mobile applications.

This change comes in two stages. Today, we are rolling out digital subscriptions to our readers in Canada, which will enable us to fine-tune the customer experience before our global launch. On March 28, we will begin offering digital subscriptions in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

If you are a home delivery subscriber of The New York Times, you will continue to have full and free access to our news, information, opinion and the rest of our rich offerings on your computer, smartphone and tablet. International Herald Tribune subscribers will also receive free access to NYTimes.com.

If you are not a home delivery subscriber, you will have free access up to a defined reading limit. If you exceed that limit, you will be asked to become a digital subscriber.

This is how it will work, and what it means for you:
  • On NYTimes.com, you can view 20 articles each month at no charge (including slide shows, videos and other features). After 20 articles, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber, with full access to our site.
  • On our smartphone and tablet apps, the Top News section will remain free of charge. For access to all other sections within the apps, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber.
  • The Times is offering three digital subscription packages that allow you to choose from a variety of devices (computer, smartphone, tablet). More information about these plans is available at nytimes.com/access.
  • Again, all New York Times home delivery subscribers will receive free access to NYTimes.com and to all content on our apps. If you are a home delivery subscriber, go to homedelivery.nytimes.com to sign up for free access.
  • Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.
  • The home page at NYTimes.com and all section fronts will remain free to browse for all users at all times.
For more information, go to nytimes.com/digitalfaq.

Thank you for reading The New York Times, in all its forms.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Publisher, The New York Times
Chairman, The New York Times Company

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Long Live the Trade Show: Scenes from Satellite 2011

While it is true social media has emerged as a high value and measurable channel to connect with key audiences, its use should be viewed as complement (rather than replacement) to traditional marketing tactics.

I was reminded of this fact when walking the exhibit hall at the Satellite 2011 conference this week.  Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) does a fair amount of work in the satellite technology market, so this was my 12th year at the event.  You run into a lot of familiar faces on the show floor.

I'm always interested in the social participation of top-line executives and so make it a point to ask long-standing relationships where they are engaged online.  My anecdotal findings:  a few are active and participate in multiple communities, most are somewhere and a small group have yet to subscribe to social media of any type.

That's why participation at industry conferences continues to be a must.  It allows you to cover a broader set of the market, and directly connect with prospects, customers and partners.

Intelsat's booth reinforces its market positioning through bold creative, while filling a functional role with an area set aside for sales and partner meetings.

MTN Government Services leverages its relationship with not-for-profits to demonstrate commitment to a cause that's important to its customers.

This exhibitor makes its product the hero.  A wise move for a manufacturer of satellite dishes.

Guys in ties!  Couldn't resist slipping this photo into the post.  My most important audience - my two sons.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do social media power users carry influence like journalists?

It's a question I address in my column in the Washington Business Journal.

How should public relations and marketing professionals view a person with thousands of Twitter followers?  An extensive network of LinkedIn connections?  Or a well read blog?

Check out my suggested approach and please share if I missed anything.

Why Web 2.0 Influencers Matter

Monday, March 7, 2011

Where Jargon Rules

A chemical engineer in Washington, DC by the name of Marc Silverman acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal that he has no idea what an advertisement plastered to the back of a city bus means.

To him, the acronym "UAV" prominently displayed in the ad is more likely a new treatment for AIDS, rather than a sophisticated weapons system marketed to Department of Defense policy makers and buyers.

UAV, a weapon system.  Photo credit: HowStuffWorks.com
Even long-standing government workers are often perplexed by the jargon liberally sprinkled in public sector advertising.  Allan Burman, a former administrator for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), commented to the Wall Street Journal about one particular ad, "ISR?  I'm not sure on that."

"ISR" stands for "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" and there is no reason why an OMB worker should know that.  ISR is primarily the domain of intelligence and defense agencies.

Is it a problem that federal government focused systems integrators, contractors and technology vendors produce ads and other forms of communication that are so jargon heavy?

The Washington Business Journal's Jill Aitoro believes so.  In a November 2010 column she pleaded with companies to embrace plain English in their releases and other press materials.  (Disclosure:  I write a column for the Washington Business Journal's FedBizDaily that Jill edits.)

My take is two-fold:

1) It's perfectly appropriate for a company to employ language in its marketing programs that has relevance to its intended audience.  What might be jargon to Silverman, Furman, and (even) Aitoro, is actually quite descriptive to customers, prospects, partners and investors who are engaged in military programs.

2)  Delivery of this message via advertising channels is a savvy play, even though much of the dollar investment is lost on eyeballs that don't matter.  That's because financial strength and viability are essential attributes of companies that serve federal agencies.

The ability to fund an advertising program communicates that a company is in a position of leadership with a solid financial footing.

I once questioned a director of marketing at a global technology client why they invest budget advertising a somewhat vague corporate branding message on CNN.  His answer:  "Because we can...and our competitors can't."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

BYU's Principle Stand

An organization's commitment to its core principles is often adhered to out of financial convenience.

Consider the plight of college football.  Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated (SI) published an investigative report of the number of players on pre-season ranked football teams who had criminal records. 

We're not talking modest offenses either.  Of the 277 incidents identified, 56 involved violent crimes such as assault and robbery, domestic violence, and aggravated assault.  There were also more than 100 drug and alcohol incidents, including DUI, possession and intent to distribute cocaine.

SI's Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian appropriately write, "The number of players with criminal histories reinforces a pervasive assumption that college coaches are willing to recruit players with questionable pasts to win."

Of course, in big-time collegiate sports winning equates to more money -- for the coaches and the school.

The story is quite different at Brigham Young University (BYU).  This week, a top player on the school's highly ranked men's basketball team was dismissed because of engaging in consensual relations with his girlfriend.  Apparently, this is a violation of the BYU's honor code.

Brandon Davies, BYU.  Photo source: Herald Extra
In its first game without Brandon Davies the team suffered its third loss of the season.  More important, BYU's hopes for a top seeding in the NCAA tournament are now in jeopardy.

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we have two core principles that guide our business decision-making: 1) great work for great clients; and 2) a strong commitment to work/life balance for our employees.

Are we as rigid as BYU in staying true to these principles?  Not quite. 

Yet, we have made decisions that limited our top-line revenue growth and reduced profitability because we ran the risk of straying from our convictions as an organization.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Company Wide Social Media Engagement: A Bridge Too Far

After a successful and momentum building invasion of Normandy, the Allied forces in World War II went for a knock out blow with an ambitious offensive called Operation Market-Garden.

The costly defeat at the hands of the Nazis led British Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning to refer to the failed mission as a "bridge too far."

Lt. General Boy Browning
Would Browning say the same about a Chief Marketing Officer's (CMO) plan for a well integrated social media program that extends across an entire organization?  My experiences during the past four years point to a "yes."

The vision of an enterprise-wide social program is certainly compelling.  It would harness the combined resources of an organization to enhance impact, while delivering efficiencies and cost savings. 

It would directly align with key benchmarks in sales, customer service, recruitment and investor relations to produce a measurable return on investment.  And it would increase market awareness and credibility, while enhancing organic search engine optimization (SEO).

Yet, Strategic Communications Group's (Strategic) work on social media campaigns for some of the world's largest technology companies have steered us to the conclusion that, at this point in its maturation, social is most effective when viewed as a tactical and project-oriented function.

Allied Forces during Operation Market-Garden. Image may be subject to copyright.

Social for the Enterprise - Why We're Not There (Yet)

The reasons are three fold.  First, unlike traditional communications activities like advertising, public relations and direct mail, there are no extensive and well proven best practices that marketing executives can lean on to develop and internally validate a social approach.

Corporate usage of social media is still new and remains the province of earlier adopters.

Second, the Web 2.0 communities, tools and technologies that form the foundation of social media engagement continue to evolve.  Consider the rapid rise in buzz earlier this year about social question and answer site Quora.

This shifting landscape leads to confusion about applications and approaches.

Finally, the very nature of social media -- a near one-to-one interaction in an online environment -- is most effective when its participants are untethered from corporate constraints.  Authentic engagement and interaction typically exists outside the structured walls of messaging and organizational positioning.

For Social Success, Think Tactically
So, how can today's CMO overcome the risk of taking on a bridge too far with social media?  We suggest they get tactical to ensure success in a manageable environment. 

Here are three proven approaches:

1.  Piggyback on an already prioritized and funded initiative.  For instance, Strategic is in development of a soon-to-launch campaign for a global IT services provider that will leverage content created for an advertising campaign and series of executive-level events.

2.  Align social media with the day-to-day activities of the sales team.  Who are their key prospects?  What challenges do they face in the sales cycle?  What are the key issues that stimulate buyer behavior?  Utilize social as a channel to address these tactical requirements.

3.  Put a portfolio of existing content to work.  I've found that most marketing teams have a myriad of high value content pieces lying dormant on the server.  White papers...sales decks...presentations from industry conferences...re-purpose these materials through social media to solidify a leadership position in a specific segment of the market.