Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Marketing of Paula Poundstone

How an original comedian has built an enduring brand - and what we can learn from her

I’ve been a huge fan of comedian Paula Poundstone for 25 years. I love her product: wry, intelligent and reflective comedy about the absurdities of everyday life in America. I recently saw her perform in Western Massachusetts, and it was a thrill.

It was also a 100% marketing experience – something one thinks about when buying a book or clothing, or staying at a hotel, or eating at a restaurant, or buying a car, but not necessarily when buying a comedy performance.

But Ms. Poundstone “gets” marketing in a way that other entertainers – even those with bigger names and vastly bigger marketing budgets – don’t.

Over the years, she’s built an enduring brand and, lately, is using social media to create a very effective integrated marketing strategy. The Paula Poundstone brand just “pops” from social media, delivering a consistent experience across all media.

For example:

She has an active Twitter presence, with more than 20,000 followers. She tweets frequently, and apparently does it herself (either that, or she has a scarily competent social media marketing person). The tweets sound just like her, and they are hilarious.

She makes goofy short videos, which she posts on YouTube. (Check out her Thanksgiving video.) These videos are low on production quality, high on hilarity content – just like Ms. Poundstone, who famously performs on stage with only a three-legged stool, a Diet Pepsi and a microphone.

She is also on Facebook, where she has more than 9,000 fans. This site allows people to converse with her, see where she’s appearing and so on.

She integrates and repurposes her content across these three marketing platforms. Her web site is pretty basic and unapologetically under construction. Fans can subscribe to her email updates, so they know where and when she’s appearing. Fans can also order her CD here.

Ms. Poundstone adheres to what I consider the three important principles of effective contemporary brand marketing:

Know your brand
Live your brand
Share your brand

Know your brand: Understand your brand characteristics and what they mean to your customers – and understand the risk of precipitous changes. For her comedy “product,” Ms. Poundstone draws on her own complicated life: three kids, 13 cats, motherhood, a demanding job and crazy travel schedule, her frustration at getting older, and a bag of neuroses, including her famous inability to ever shut up. She also questions her own limitations and the absurdities of everyday life. In other words: she’s just like many of us, albeit with a bigger audience and much better improvisational skills. She’s politely querulous, unglamorous, relentlessly untrendy, and refreshingly honest.

She’s been doing this for years. It makes fans laugh, and her fans love her. She does update her brand – for example, she’s become a regular contributor to National Public Radio – but everything she does is consistent with her brand image (wit, intelligence, insightful social commentary).

Live your brand: Paula Poundstone offstage equals Paula Poundstone onstage. (This is not automatically true of all comedians.) After the show that I saw, she met with fans for a few hours. She autographed CDs and her book, posed for photos, insisted that her fans be in the pictures (“I don’t want to look like a dork”), and continued to entertain fans even as she spoke with each personally. In other words, her brand is consistent across all her distribution channels.

When a substance-abuse problem landed her in the news (and, briefly, in jail) about 10 years ago, she handled it in classic Poundstone fashion: with honesty, humility and earnestness. (Note to Tiger Woods.) That consistency helped her weather what could have been a real brand-damaging incident.

Share your brand: Ms. Poundstone shares her brand in order to sell it. She uses social media to keep her brand in fans’ lives, giving fans many different ways to consume her brand and stay connected with her. She invites fans into her life (through her tweets and videos, in particular) and she constantly provides value (lots of free samples of her comedy product) before asking for the sale. After the recent Western Massachusetts show, she met with anyone who wanted to meet with her, saying “you don’t have to buy my book or CD, come by even if you just want to say hello or take a picture.”

Product sampling (sharing) creates interest in her CDs and performances. (I bought the CD on site, then came home and ordered the book. And I am going to share her brand with a few people when I give them the CD for Christmas.)

Entertainers are doing some of the most exciting marketing around today by using the new rules of marketing and PR defined by David Meerman Scott – even as piracy and other trends disrupt their industry and the traditional ways they have made money. Marketers in other industries should pay attention and look for inspiration in what entertainers are doing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Public Relations Pros: To Get a Seat at the Table, First Get Out of the Highchair

Good PR professionals are always-on, trustworthy representatives of the brand – just like the CEO

Public relations professionals often complain that senior management doesn’t take them – or the discipline – seriously. They say that PR often isn’t involved at a strategic level. This disrespect prevents professionals from doing their jobs effectively in managing the company’s brand image and contributing to business growth.

But PR has to earn that seat at the table. However, some professionals seem to be striving to achieve just the opposite – they sabotage themselves (and the rest of the profession) through unprofessional business behavior. Here’s an example.

This past weekend, I attended a performance in Massachusetts by my favorite comedian Paula Poundstone. Part of Ms. Poundstone’s show involves engaging audience members in an improvised dialog about their jobs. One audience member mentioned that she had retired from a large insurance company. (The retiree mentioned her employer by name; I am specifically NOT mentioning the company by name because I feel it would be unfair.)

Ms. Poundstone then asked the audience if anyone else worked for the company. A young woman in the balcony shouted out that she did. On further questioning, the young woman said “I write corporate propaganda” for the company, working in the “Internal Communications” department. There was some additional bantering about the young woman’s job and what it involved.

I was appalled. The young woman effectively demeaned her employer in public, in order to aggrandize herself. Regardless of whether there is a corporate policy against such behavior – and having worked in another insurance company, I am willing to bet that there is – this person is supposed to be a professional communicator. What was she thinking?

I can answer that: she wasn’t thinking.

Can you picture the CEO of the company doing this? What about the CFO? The chief counsel? The VP of human resources? Or any other senior manager with whom PR wants to “share the table?”

It’s tempting to write off this incident as an isolated incident, and a mistake committed by an inexperienced professional. But I see this behavior far too frequently. For example: there’s the senior VP of a large PR firm who is notoriously blabby about the internals of her clients’ businesses (and her own agency’s business). Her peers joke about it, but I am guessing that the CEOs or chief counsels of her clients wouldn’t joke about it if they knew about it. How can a client trust her – or her agency for that matter?

I would like to think that this behavior is just thoughtlessness or sloppiness. It’s undoubtedly aggravated by our celebrity culture and the let-it-all-hang-out world of social media. But I believe that there’s an attitude at play here: “I want a grown-up responsible job but still want to be able to act like a child.” Companies can’t afford to have people like this staffing their communications departments –let alone giving them a seat at the table with the CEO.

Mature PR professionals consider themselves always-on representatives of their companies or their clients’ businesses, and act accordingly in public and private. Just like the CEO, CFO and so on.

I have met hundreds of mature, trustworthy PR professionals like this – of all ages –and many do have well-deserved seats at the table.

Companies need to be proactive about protecting themselves by hiring trustworthy adult professionals. Search engines and social media can often reveal potential loose cannons.

As for our young friend, she’ll be lucky if her remarks don’t end up on some future CD of Ms. Poundstone’s.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When Offline Service Undermines Your Online Brand

Hysteria, slackerism and other bad habits to watch out for

There are several online brands – including Amazon.com, Zappos and Dan’s Chocolates – from which I would buy practically anything. Their customer experiences are spectacular: efficient, empathetic, and enjoyable.

Office superstore Staples has long been on my list – until recently.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Staples.com’s ease of ordering, special deals, record-keeping, Rewards Program, and free shipping for orders over $50. The site is both wildly convenient and dependable, and it is always the first place I turn when I need supplies.

But lately, Staples’ offline service is undermining all the great work the company has done in building its brand online – at least in this customer’s mind.

I receive too-frequent calls asking me about how my Rewards Program is “working out for ya.” The caller reminds me that I should have received my latest Rewards check (yes, I know this and I always spend them). She is there to help me if I need anything (yes, I know this too). As a small-business owner (who, for better or worse, is the office manager as well as the president of the company), I am not usually thinking about office supplies first thing on Monday mornings. I said this the last time I picked up the phone. (In fact, I usually think about it on the weekends - and love the ability to place orders 24x7.) Worse, the transaction, on the Staples end, has an edge of hysteria, making me wonder about the stability of Staples’ business.

The personal touch is important, but not if it’s intrusive – and only if it delivers real value to me as a customer.

Instead, why not send me a personalized email every Monday morning, with the representative’s contact information? This would enable me to react and respond based on my needs. And spare me the poor diction of the caller. (In the past, Staples employed clear-speaking people who would field service calls – and even call me if my shipment was delayed. Those days appear to be gone.) I still skim all mail from Staples. The vendor would have found this out if it ever surveyed me.

It gets worse.

Last week, I received a call from the IT services group of Staples, Thrive Networks. The caller inquired if “you guys” had anyone taking care of our IT systems and asking if the caller’s company might help “you guys.” First, I am not a guy (obvious by my name and voice on the telephone). Second, I am a PROSPECT with MONEY to spend on office supplies and tech support – not your friend from the bar (otherwise why are you calling me?) This was the all-important first chance to make a good impression – and the caller failed. He also introduced more cognitive dissonance into my decade-long good feelings about the Staples.com brand.

The most troubling thing about these transactions was not the transactions themselves. It was the fact that they demonstrated a startling lack of empathy or understanding of the customer (a small business-owner who by definition is busy and one who is obviously a woman). I no longer feel that Staples knows me at all - even though the company has collected all that information about me. (Much of the information is in fact available to me in my online account).

One might argue that Staples was a bricks-and-mortar company first, and an online company second, making the comparison with Amazon, Zappos, et al., unfair. But other bricks-and-mortars do a great job of delivering a consistent brand experience across offline and online media. (I wrote about one recently, Hafner Vineyard, a small family-owned business.)

My advice to marketers: if you struggle with this problem, go back to the basics. Think about who you are selling to, what their problems are, and how you can best help the customer. That’s a good start.

PS: I am still a Staples customer, and fervently hope that it can fix these problems.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is Marketing Gobbledygook Destroying Your Brand?

How Hafner Vineyard avoids the trap and builds a brand that pops.

I spend a lot of time in this blog talking about the use of Internet technologies to build brand image and sell products, particularly for smaller businesses. David Meerman Scott recently wrote a blog article about technology marketers’ use of stock photos of people – you know, those indistinguishable photos of too-beautiful-to-be-true people.

For me, the article raised an important question: is marketing gobbledygook destroying your brand?

Do you find yourself copying words, pictures and graphics that make you look and sound like your competitors? If so, it dilutes the distinctiveness of your brand. In today’s cut-and-paste society, technology makes it all too easy for marketers to fall into the marketing gobbledygook trap – and many do.

Not Hafner Vineyard.

Hafner Vineyard is a small, family-run vineyard in the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. It makes wonderful Chardonnays and Cabernets. You can get their wines if you dine in dozens of restaurants in California, or by ordering it from the vineyard. That’s it.

I was introduced to Hafner a few years ago, when I received a direct-mail piece from the company. I am a wine-lover, so I assume that they bought my name from one of the many wine and travel publications that I subscribe to.

Regardless, the direct-mail piece was so beautifully designed, written and produced that it immediately drew me into the winery. It appealed to me as a wine-drinker who is always looking for new wines and wine-drinking experiences. I bought. And I bought. And I bought for clients at Christmas. The products are wonderful, and I have become a raving fan. As have my clients, who all asked: “where did you find this wine?” (It found me and made me love it, like all great marketing.)

Hafner recently published a new web site, and their brand just pops off the page. Like that first direct-mail piece, the web site makes me feel like I am at the winery. It brings me into how they make the wine, who makes the wine (no stock photos or self-consciously hip bios here), and how to buy the wine.

Hafner is notable because of how it uses technology. And sometimes less is more.

When I placed my first order, I received a personal confirmation phone call from the head of marketing, Scott Hafner. I always know when my standing order will arrive because I receive a postcard (how low-tech but reassuring – a person sent this!) When I placed my Christmas-gift order, I received a confirming call from one of Scott’s colleagues to review the information.

Shipments usually include a little gift – some hand-drawn postcards of the winery, or some permanent corks for resealing wine. When you buy something from Hafner, you can always speak with a person if you want. (And, when I posted a comment about Hafner wines on a New York Times article, Scott recognized my name and called me again.) I have an open invitation to visit, as I am reminded on occasional postcards. I am, for sure, not their biggest customer, but they always make me feel as if I were their most important customer.

Granted, some of these processes may not be scalable for a larger business. But it’s the thought that counts. Hafner’s marketing works because it is 100% empathetic: Scott and his family put themselves in the customer’s shoes, and use marketing – high-tech and low-tech – to create a 100% marketing experience. Larger businesses can achieve this by using technology creatively: just think about Zappos - another favorite of mine.

The trick is to let your brand values rule, not the technology or “popular” marketing practices.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Curing Blogorrhea and Other Mysterious Social-Media-Marketing Maladies

Just because you can say anything online, doesn’t mean you should

For me, one of the best things about social media is the ability to learn things from other people.

Because of people’s willingness to share expertise, I have learned a lot from professionals in my field and the industries I cover, as well as from talented amateurs. I hope I return the favor by writing this blog and participating thoughtfully in Twitter and Facebook.

I’ve also learned what NOT to do, by witnessing some mysterious behavior.

Perhaps emboldened by the bits and bandwidth to say as much as they want – and the relative anonymity – some people do say anything. And usually to the detriment of their personal brands and careers.

Here are four examples of mysterious social-marketing maladies, along with my prescriptions for them.

Blogorrhea: An irresistible urge to run off at the mouth on one’s blog without considering the big picture, context or long-term ramifications.

An example: A colleague and talented fellow consultant has a really interesting blog. Recently, she criticized – by name – a prominent public figure from her past, as well as a past employer. She also disclosed what seemed to me like confidential information about the employer. These comments were presented within the context of a thought leadership article that had some valid points. But if I put on my CEO hat, I would have to ask myself: “Would I hire this person as a consultant? What’s to prevent me and my company from ending up as a subject in a future blog post?”

I would also be hesitant to introduce her to any of my clients, for the same reason. Perhaps there was a strategy behind this article, but I remain mystified. I consider client and employer relationships lifelong relationships – even if they end badly. (The bad guys usually will get out-ed, by someone else.) I also take client NDAs very seriously. I don’t blog about the internals of clients’ businesses without their explicit permission.

My Rx: if you must write about clients and employers, anonym-ize what you say. Yes, this is probably not as tantalizing and self-aggrandizing, but it’s safer from a career perspective.

Projectile Preciosity: An assumption that everything about you is interesting to everyone equally.

An example: Babies think everything about them is interesting. Today, many adults apparently do too, and social media sites enable them to share this information ad infinitum. I am appalled by the number of mature professionals (not just college students) who are shooting themselves in the foot by posting inappropriate information on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Most recently, I was shocked to see a former colleague – a great technical marketing professional – use a picture of herself in a bathing suit on her LinkedIn profile. (And she was seeking employment in her field, not in lifeguarding, modeling or adventure travel.)

My Rx: If you are a job-seeking professional, decide on a personal brand strategy that provides the proper context for everything you do and say online. Then stick with it. (There are a lot of great resources about personal branding.) I actually advise a personal-brand strategy for everyone, even my retired mother: your social media footprint is searchable, permanent, and universally available (in spite of social-media sites' policies about privacy and data-sharing). No social media site is an island, and you are what you Tweet and who you Friend even if you protect your updates. (And, yes, my mother took my advice.)

Marketing Misanthropy: Using social media for negative or self-absorbed brand marketing.

An example: On my personal Twitter account, I recently posted a mini-review about a wine from New Zealand that I had tried and liked. Another winemaker (whom I follow) replied to me with a condescending comment about the wine. In about 120 characters, he (1) managed to insult me as a prospective customer (I buy a lot of wine, which should be evident from my Twitter account); and (2) missed an opportunity to introduce me to one of his wines. In fact, looking at his Twitter account, he hardly ever promotes his wines. Clever cool-guy points: 1, Marketing points: -10. Why is his brand on Twitter? If this is a personal Twitter account, why would he link it with his brand?

My Rx: If you are tweeting or blogging on behalf of a brand, remember that you are representing the brand – not yourself. Let your personality shine through, but in an unobtrusive way that strengthens not weakens the brand. Look for “teachable moments,” like the one above. That’s called marketing, and social media gives brands a unique opportunity to create personalized dialogs – with millions of teachable moments. You’re crazy if you don’t take advantage of this opportunity.

An update
: the winemaker has since protected his Tweets. Probably a good idea: if you can't stand the heat, best to stay in the cave.

Terminal Coolness: Using social media for mindless, distracting and irrelevant self-promotion.

An example: Another colleague has a great blog about marketing writing. He has a regular, ardent follower who regularly replies and re-tweets him on Twitter. But the re-tweets generally consist of: “You, @XXXXX. That’s bad, man” and variations on this theme. The follower’s bio suggests that he is a professional, not a professional rapper or a rapper-wannabe. He doesn’t appear to be a spammer. Perhaps there is some scam here that it isn’t evident – and I am just not smart enough to figure it out. At the risk of sounding undemocratic, he’s a waste of bits.

My Rx: Get some therapy.

Most of the problems above could be solved with mega-doses of three virtual vitamins: Vitamin A (awareness), Vitamin C (context), and Vitamin E (empathy).

Do you know anyone with these maladies? What do you think?

Monday, September 14, 2009

How and Why I Tweet

A journey into the dark underbelly of Janice L. Brown’s Twitter life

In my last blog post, I wrote about how I created my own Twitterverse to meet my business and personal goals.

Here are some of the ways that I have created my own private Twitterverse, and what you can expect from me if you are part of it:

I tweet about topics of professional interest to me: technology, healthcare, marketing, advertising, journalism, corporate communications, writing, language, social media, social trends, my clients' businesses, and the downfall of the American empire (a.k.a., secular degradation.)

I don’t tweet about things outside these topics. Why? Because these topics define me and my personal brand. Tweeting about only these topics creates a critical mass of opinion that helps other people – the right people – discover me.

I have started another personal Twitter account to cater to my other interests: food, wine, travel, films, music, books and the evolution of popular culture.

I tweet whenever I do posts on my blogs.

If I have to think too much before tweeting on a particular topic, then I don’t do it. This means it’s outside my span. My “blink” is usually right. (Although politics ever tempts.).

I try to limit my tweets to a few per day. But if I don’t have something valuable to say, I won’t tweet – even if I miss a day.

I un-follow people who tweet too much. Ditto people who use so many clichés and mantras that my teeth hurt: they are typically lazy thinkers and conformists.

I try to SEO my tweets and my profiles so the right people will find and follow me. Sometimes I succeed.

I try to be provocative but always relevant (not sensationalist). I also try to be polite and constructive (that's just my personality).

I re-tweet items of interest from people I follow. I often find interesting new people to follow in what my followers tweet. So my personal Twitterverse grows organically.

I usually don’t follow people who don’t use their real names or who lack robust profiles, including ideally a real photo (clothed). I stopped watching cartoons as a kid. What are they hiding?

I don’t block anyone except people pitching sex (or criminals or apparently crazy people). I have nothing against selling or buying sex. I just think it’s incredibly rude to make me look at your naked picture (or worse) if I didn’t request to do so. Particularly before I have had my second cup of coffee. Blocking seems…un-Twitter-like.

I report spammers. You wrecked email; please don’t wreck Twitter.

I get ticked off if I follow a business thought leader and all he talks about is baseball or trips to the dentist. I often un-follow – it just takes too much work to find the nuggets. (A few personal moments are ok, but I save mine for Facebook.) I know that TMS (too much sharing) is part of the social media game, but I need to protect my time and my sanity.

And I get really ticked off if I follow an organization or business, and the resident Tweep starts tweeting about her boyfriend or going shoe-shopping. Brand, people, brand! (Un-follow.)

I don’t thank everyone who follows me, but I appreciate those who do (except spammers).

I don’t automatically follow people who follow me – even if they are my offline friends or colleagues. They have to post content I am interested in. Otherwise, I will catch up with them the next time I see them in person. Or on Facebook.

I take highly personal comments offline – to Direct Message – but I can’t do this if you don’t follow me back.

I use hash tags sparingly. Great for events and established groups, but otherwise overused in my opinion. Except for #spam.

I never tweet while drinking. (Sorry for those of you who like the entertainment value.)

I value my followers and those I follow, and try to protect the integrity of these groups as much as possible. My followers and those who follow me, in a sense, define me and my brand. I know that I don’t have total control, but that’s just part of the organic discovery process of social media.

How and why do you tweet? Please comment below.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Own Private Twitterverse

As a marketer, what can I learn from my own behavior?

When I began my career in marketing and corporate communications many years ago, I created a regular morning ritual. I would get up very early, skim the major business daily newspapers, clip stories for my files, and forward select articles as a courtesy to my clients. To do my job correctly, I have always found it important to stay on top of trends and look for competitive or commentary opportunities for my clients.

Of course, my ritual has changed over the years, as technology has changed.

Today, I still get up early. But I go online to skim the major business dailies, to bookmark or share important stories, to add my comments to stories, and to read my Google alerts and RSS feeds. And I spend more time reading blogs than I do reading mainstream media sites.

The biggest change has happened in the last year. I now start my morning by checking my Twitter account first.

My personal Twitterverse – the few hundred people I follow – are a trusted group of colleagues and sources. These are chosen relationships, not forced ones (“must read The Boston Globe because I might miss something important”).

My Twitterverse can often point me to news and content – from mainstream-media sources and non-mainstream-media sources – that I care about faster and better than I can find it myself. On Twitter, I can essentially subscribe to opinions from bloggers, as well as headlines from mainstream publications. And I can share things that are important to me, with people who I care about or have come to value. Twitter has dramatically changed the process of discovery for me.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the value of Twitter. Critics point to the low signal-to-noise ratio, the increasing amount of spam, and the number of inactive accounts. But Twitter has become an important and valued part of my professional life. (It’s also become an increasingly valuable marketing tool for my clients, which you can read about elsewhere on this blog.)

Twitter works for me because I have made it my own private Twitterverse. In my case, I have carefully accumulated followers, and I think carefully about everyone I follow. I have gone for quality over quantity.

With millions of people participating in Twitter – many of them inactive or marginally active – it is increasingly important for marketers to be able to find and engage with the most active and thoughtful among us.

So, what engages me, as an active member of Twitter?

I like tweets that are:

Provocative – give me information and ideas that get me thinking

Relevant – appeal to my interests and use SEO so that my standing searches can find good tweets easily

Valuable – provide working links to valuable content or information that I can take action on easily (for example, an ebook I can download)

Obvious – favor descriptive language over cutesy but obscure language

Sharable – leave enough space so I can easily re-tweet (I suggest at least 20 characters)

Consistent – stick to an area of expertise and don’t go off on tangents

Respectful – don’t waste my time

Authentic – come from a real person or brand, with a real profile and a real photo or company logo

In my next blog post, I will provide some insight into how I created my own private Twitterverse: how I tweet.

(The picture above is me on the stage set of my first press conference, in the 80s. And yes, I am communicating with a colleague in Europe using a telephone - not a cell phone, SMS or Twitter.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why “Social” is the Most Important Part of Social Media Marketing

Why It's Vital to Put Your Best People Forward

I am getting a lot of calls from businesses today about social media marketing. The gist of these conversations is usually: “I need to get some of that social media.” And many of these conversations conclude with “But I don’t have the people to put into it.”

My advice: then you should forget it.

That may sound a bit unilateral, but for the most part it’s sound advice. Because the “social” part of “social media marketing” – people – is the most important part.

Ok, there are some exceptions. For example, we’ve seen Dell sell millions of dollars of its products over Twitter, by simply posting what’s on sale. Food trucks are boosting their sales by using Twitter to advertise their locations, and retailers are using Twitter to clear out excess inventory. Arguably, the amount of “sosh” (social interactions and content) that goes into these sales-oriented programs is minimal: the value to the customer lies in the price, the timeliness, and the location. (Although I would also argue that if companies are just pushing out products and not taking advantage of the ability to have a two-way conversation with the people they sell to, they are missing an important business opportunity.)

But for most programs the true value will be in the “sosh.” And “sosh” equals people. Their expertise and their knowledge. Their personalities. Their familiarity with your products and your customers’ problems, and their pride in helping solve those problems. Their enthusiasm and their ability to converse on behalf of the business.

These factors are what will make you a valuable resource to customers and prospects, and someone they want to do business with.

Some of the businesses who call me want to outsource their social media – in other words, check it off their marcom to-do lists.

But if this describes you, ask yourself: are you really ready to delegate your newfound, highly interactive and content-rich conversation with your customers to someone outside your company? As my colleague Greg Jarboe of SEO-PR says of “outsourcing” your social media strategy: “Do you want to create opinion leaders who aren’t internal subject matter experts? That's like shipping weapons to the Mujahideen. Yes, they may use them to fight the Russians now, but they can also use them to fight us later.”

If you’re really struggling with manpower, look for creative ways to staff your program. For example:

There may be people inside your product organization (beyond the official product managers) who are already blogging or engaging in social media. Can you draft and train them?

Could you create an employee blog, but empower your Corporate Communications team to review content from hundreds of employees before it is posted – as Southwest Airlines did successfully with Nuts About Southwest?

Could you empower current students to answer questions from prospective students like the Wharton School has done in the Student2Student forum on the MBA Admission Blog?

For some other examples of creative staffing of social media programs, see my previous posts: “Bringing Brand Image to Life through Social Media Marketing" and “Does Social Media Work for B2B Companies?”

Social media marketing can be an invaluable strategy for most businesses. But it requires a social commitment, and that means people. It requires time to create compelling content and create a living, three-dimensional brand. Taking a checklist approach to this challenge is a sure path to lackluster results or even failure.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Are You Guilty of Anti-Social Marketing?

How to avoid being an accidental blammer, drive-by shooter, or hitchhiker.

Social media marketing is evolving pretty quickly, so many of us are learning as we go. Learning means trying new things, and testing limits.

Unfortunately, I am seeing some people really testing the limits of social media – to the point of being anti-social. I think a lot of this behavior may be inadvertent. But it goes against the spirit of social media marketing and it will hurt – not help – the craft of social media marketing in the long run.

Here are three common offenders* – and some advice on how to avoid becoming one.

The Blammer: The urban dictionary defines a blammer as “someone who spams blogs in order to obtain backlinks to their own site.” Here’s one example. A colleague of mine posted an extensive, well-written “10 tips” article on his blog. A woman posted a one-line comment that essentially said “hire me for this part of the problem,” with a link to her web site. The comment seemed too intelligent to be an automated spam, but the effect was the same: thoughtless, selfish and, well, anti-social. The sad thing: this woman is tops in her field, but I would never hire her on principle for fear that she’d act thoughtless and selfish with my clients.

My advice: Don’t be an accidental blammer. If you comment on someone’s blog, leave some value behind – not just a sales pitch. Spend five minutes making some substantive comments, adding some educational value and some context before you make your sales pitch. You might just spark a dialog that enhances your reputation and opens up even more business opportunity – even if you have no blog of your own.

The Drive-By Shooter: By my estimates, more than half of comments to blogs and other social media sites are off-topic, crazy or just plain mean: offhand comments lobbed just for the heck of it, and usually anonymously. So I was surprised when I received an offhand comment like that in the relatively intimate and accountable world of Facebook.

A friend of a friend made an offhand comment about something I had posted. While I was tempted to dismiss it for what it appeared to be, I didn’t. Reading between the lines, I saw that the commenter was making an interesting point. So, I responded in public: I thanked her for her comment and encouraged her to blog about it if she wasn’t already. She later sent me a personal message apologizing for the offhand remark, and thanking me for responding seriously and graciously. We are now Facebook friends. I have met someone new with professional interests and personal interests similar to mine – the value of social media.

My advice: Don’t join the mindless ranks of drive-by shooters, or lob-em-and-leave-em commenters. Do be thought-provoking and sensationalist, but also be thoughtful. Take advantage of the available real estate in comments sections: provide your thoughts, get a dialog going, spark a useful debate. Dialog and debate is incredibly powerful, and it advances not only your personal brand but also the cumulative value of social media.

And remember: a lot of what you say is searchable forever, so it contributes – positively or negatively – to your personal digital profile on the Web.

The Hitchhiker: Ok, this one really ticks me off. A Tweep Tweeted his own blog as if it were someone else’s: “wow, here’s a great blog! Tell everyone!!” He also tacked on the names of three other Tweeps – unrelated (as far as I can tell) to anything in the blog. And this wasn’t an isolated Tweet; it’s apparently his standard M.O.

This seems like a cheap way to amass followers. Ironically, the blog is actually pretty good. But I would never follow it on principle, because I now don’t trust the blogger. If he uses such transparent trickery to promote his blog, he’s completely untrustworthy in my opinion. I can’t trust his content.

My advice: Let your blog content stand on its own. Use your Tweets to get the right people to your blog. Be controversial, colorful and “out there.” SEO as you go. You may not build your followers as fast, but you will create a more valuable, committed audience – which ultimately has much more marketing value.

Social media marketers seem to be diverging into two camps: the Sluts and the Substance. The Sluts want to get business and followers without extending themselves. The Substance are people who understand that great, thoughtful content is more likely to attract the right followers – and that good business will follow and sustain itself.

Call me naïve, but I aspire to the Substance.

* I am avoiding real names here because lawyers have apparently identified social media as fertile ground for defamation lawsuits.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Online Marketing Video: From Truth to “Truman Show"

I saw two pieces of video in the last few weeks that drew my attention.

The first: J&K’s Wedding Entrance Dance video, a homemade video that went viral on YouTube and helped answer the burning question: “How will YouTube make money?”

The second: the infamous Beer Summit, a video storyboarded (and probably scripted, she said cynically) by politicians and apparently shot by a pool news videographer.

I was drawn to these two pieces of online video for a couple of reasons.

As a consumer, I am increasingly being marketed to with documentary-style Internet video like this – as opposed to traditional television commercials. As a marketer, I am learning how to use this medium effectively for clients – and more importantly, how not to mis-use it.

Comparing these two pieces of video may seem like comparing apples with tiramisu, but they are both essentially marketing videos.

J&K wanted to market their love for each other and their special day to the world – or at least beyond the people who were in the church. (Or maybe I am naïve – perhaps they were plotting all along to become a YouTube monetization star.) The politicians wanted to market the idea that race relations – a huge problem in America that has everybody jumpy – can be solved if we just started talking to each other as individuals and not as symbols.

My understanding of their intentions aside, I picked up some good lessons from these two videos: what worked and what didn’t. Here are my observations as a marketer:

J&K: High engagement level can trump low production quality: I have watched this video at least five times when I could have been doing billable client work, and I don’t even know these people. J&K (and their friends) cared enough to invest some time in making something that other people would enjoy and that would be memorable – there was some serious rehearsal time involved here. They used humor gently and very well: although there was some really comical dancing and some people looked silly, it was endearing, laugh-with-you humor not laugh-at-you humor (compare with the man-bashing that passes for humor in your average TV commercial). The story was real and very human. This silly video was uplifting and it made me feel good. (And, yes, good enough to buy the song from Chris Brown.) My verdict: two thumbs up.

Politicians: Good production quality can’t overcome an awkward storyboard. Although there were some engaging moments – yes! politicians get peanut shells on their trousers too! – I felt distant, disengaged and distrustful. It didn’t help that the video was shot from 50+ feet away, making it essentially a silent movie or the video equivalent of a photo opp. The whole thing had a stagey “Truman Show” feel to it. My verdict: two thumbs down, but a free six-pack of Heineken for giving it a try.

My personal conclusion: good marketing video is video that…

Has the honest ring of truth in its storytelling (for example: if it’s fantasy make it obvious that it’s fantasy)
Cares about and respects the audience
Engages me and makes me honestly care about the subject
Uses humor in a natural vs. cartoonish way
Surprises me, on the upside

What else makes marketing video good video? What do you think, as marketers or consumers? Please comment below.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Social Media: Good News, Bad News

Why It's Important to Have a Policy for Handling Bad News

David Meerman Scott, author of the international best-seller The New Rules of Marketing & PR and World Wide Rave, has a great interview in the Oneicity blog about how the new rules can help nonprofits. This statement caught my eye:

“DMS: Many company executives and public relations people trace their worries about social media to their belief that ‘people will say bad things about our company.’ This fear leads them to ignore blogs and online forums and to prohibit employees from participating in social media. In every discussion that I’ve had with employees who freely participate in social media, I’ve confirmed that this fear is significantly overblown. Sure, an occasional person might vent frustrations online, and now and then a dissatisfied customer might complain (unless you’re in the airline industry and then it might be more than a few).”

I agree with David.

But you know what? People will say bad things about your company. It is inevitable. So why not be prepared for this, by creating a policy?

This policy doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be written down and shared with everyone who represents your business in social media. Of course, if you work for a large or multi-division company, you will probably want to check with corporate legal counsel — you know your company culture. And if you’ve got a corporate crisis communications plan, you should update it (if you haven’t already) to incorporate the Social Web.

I’ve created simple bad-news-handling policies for several clients. My policies typically have three guidelines, or areas of “best practices”:

Tone: What is our demeanor in answering negative criticism or comments that appear in public (such as in a public Twitter feed or on Facebook)?

Example practice: “Always thank people for their comments. Acknowledge them. Be humble.”

Escalation: What do we do with negative comments or problems?

Example practice: “Tell the customer that we always want to make things right. Request an email address so we can contact him personally. Escalate to the General Manager for resolution.”

Resolution: How do we know how and when the problem has been resolved?

Example practice: “Follow up with the General Manager a day after the escalation. When the problem has been fixed, post a public message: 'Thanks to XXX for bringing this to our attention. We’ve fixed the problem.'”

Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate every bad-news situation, so your policy by definition will always be a work-in-progress — just as it was before the era of social media. And, like everything else in social media, you will learn by doing, as you go along.

The worst thing you can do is prescribe behavior so tightly that your social media ambassadors’ personalities and initiative are stifled. Making good public use of your employees' personalities and expertise is a big part of social media — and why it's so powerful.

But a few basic guidelines can help prevent most little problems from becoming big problems, and can ensure a consistent experience with your brand.

Here’s a real-life example of what I mean.

Recently, one of my clients saw someone post a public comment on Twitter about a bad experience with the business. The tone of her comment was snide (we sensed that there was something more going on here, and probably nothing to do with the business).

As individuals, we might have been tempted to ignore the comment because of its tone, or to respond defensively. But because we had a policy about how to respond – thank, acknowledge, and take offline – the business was able to make things right with the customer, to everyone’s satisfaction.

And we observed an interesting phenomenon: immediately in the wake of her negative comment, several other customers jumped right in with positive comments.

That’s the power of the Social Web. People have a heightened, more-personal connection with your brand – which can help spread good news and defuse bad news.

As another client put it: “In social media, you can’t be a wimp. You just have to put yourself out there, and be prepared for both the good and the bad.”

That’s wise counsel.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beyond Marketing – How Social Media Can Improve Daily Business Operations

An Interview with Tanya Fox of Naples Tomato

Companies are flocking to social media for marketing purposes. However, beyond acquiring and keeping customers, social media can improve daily business operations – as Naples Tomato, a nationally recognized restaurant in Naples, Florida, is finding out.

The Fussy Marketer recently interviewed Tanya Fox (photo), who manages the social media program for Naples Tomato, to learn how. (Disclosure: Naples Tomato is a client.) Tanya’s experience and tips are valuable even if you’re not in the restaurant business.

Q. Tanya, what is Naples Tomato?

A. Naples Tomato is a restaurant in Naples, Florida, that specializes in something we call Vine Dining. Vine Dining is a uniquely American way to experience the Mediterranean lifestyle, where every meal is a celebration of life. We provide a flexible dining experience so you can match inventive food and wines to your mood, the moment and your budget. We are located in North Naples, Florida, and we serve 100,000 guests a year.

Q. Describe Naples Tomato’s social media program.

A. We have an active Twitter feed with nearly 3,500 followers, and we do between three and seven tweets a day. We tweet about daily specials and menu items, and about local events and attractions that our guests might enjoy. We also look for people who are coming to Naples and invite them to our restaurant. We offer a special treat to guests who mention Twitter.

We also have a Facebook fan page with about 130 fans – and growing. We also use OpenTable, a commercial Web 2.0 online reservations system with customer feedback and reviews, which is very important to our operations. And we track restaurant consumer ratings sites and respond to comments. These sites include Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat, and Chowhound. We started our social media program in March 2009.

Q. How have social media helped Naples Tomato’s business?

A. It’s been an inexpensive way to reach foodies and wine lovers internationally. We’ve acquired many dozens of new guests who found us online, mostly through Twitter and OpenTable. We’re also building a fan base of people who have joined our Facebook page and who regularly re-tweet us on Twitter. This is all great, but the biggest value has been in improving our operations.

Q. How so?

A. We now get immediate feedback, good and bad. It’s like having 200 mystery shoppers watching us every day. It keeps us all on notice to do a great job. The staff know a good experience or a bad experience can be all over the Internet instantly.

We've improved our customer service because we can take immediate action. We have let staff go based on social media feedback. We also give rewards to staff who have been recognized by guests on social media.

Social media also provides a more accurate picture of guest satisfaction. Guests now have an easy way to be vocal, both positive and negative. In the past, we only heard when people weren’t happy. Today, we have an ongoing online conversation with our guests, so we know what they are thinking – good and bad— and we can respond. It’s been tremendous in helping us build good will.

To maintain and continually improve our service, we recently established a new quality-control program: we formally investigate and respond within 24 hours to any guest who gives us less than a 4-star review on OpenTable. Every week, we also reward the top server and servers mentioned by our guests on OpenTable. [November 23, 2009 update]

So, you can see that we take social media very seriously.

Q. Which tools do you find most valuable?

A. Twitter and Facebook are great for instant feedback, and for reaching out to current fans and for finding new fans. People are very engaged and very responsive. People blog about us and re-tweet us. Many bloggers and members of the press are on Twitter and Facebook, so we can develop relationships with them here.

OpenTable provides a lot of data about our guests. Things like what they ate, who their server was, when they like to come in, and how many times they have come in. We now know our guests much better, so we can take a very personal approach to customer service, even with the large number of guests we have. We serve 100,000 guests a year, and one-third reserve through OpenTable.

For example, we might send a free dessert platter over to a repeat guest, or have the owner stop by the table to wish that person a happy anniversary. I’ve even picked up information on Twitter, and phoned in to the restaurant from home on a weekend to make special things happen.

Q. Any advice for restaurants considering social media?

A. My number-one tip is to be honest and open – when things are good and bad. Don’t post fake reviews. Do share good news. Do admit when you’ve made a mistake. Do talk with people, not at people. Do be a resource to people, don’t just push your products and services. For example, we promote Naples and Naples attractions on Twitter and Facebook. We follow lots of people on Twitter and participate as fans on other Facebook pages.

It’s also important to proceed with confidence if your operations are good, but with caution if they aren’t. Our guest satisfaction rates are around 98% and our operations are strong. If your satisfaction rates or your operations aren’t good, your warts will show on social media.

Also, have a strategy for how you will handle negative feedback. We’re not perfect. At Naples Tomato, we want to hear if people have a negative experience. This helps us be better. On Twitter, we encourage people to DM [direct message] us if they have a bad experience, and let us respond personally. However, if they feel strongly about their experience, it’s their right to post to the Twitter community. You have to be ready for this – you can’t be wimpy. Our main goal is always to delight the guest and respond quickly when things aren’t right. Social media is really helping.

Finally, have fun. Social media is a great way to connect with more guests and prospective guests, and get to know them personally to serve them better. We’ve met some great people, from all over the world.

Q. Where can we find Naples Tomato on Twitter and Facebook?

A. On Twitter, we’re @naplestomato and on Facebook we’re at http://www.facebook.com/naplestomato.

October 14, 2009 Update: Naples Tomato today announced that it will offer franchises. More than 300,000 guests have dined at the flagship restaurant since it opened in 2005. According to Tanya Fox, social media marketing will play a prominent role in the new franchise business.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Customer Interview and How to Ace It – Part II

How to Interview a Customer

When writing a customer case study, you typically only have one chance to interview the customer, so it’s important to get the interview right. In my last post, I talked about how to structure an interview. In this post, I will talk about how to conduct an interview.

Tip #1 - Record and Transcribe, Always: You cannot effectively take notes, ask questions, and think of your next question simultaneously – at least I can’t, even after 20+ years of interviewing customers. That’s why I record every interview and pay for transcription. With audio and text, you will have every nuance of the conversation. This helps – a lot: in fact, it usually gets me very close to a strong first draft of the case study because I can boil down the transcript. Your draft will also be more accurate, which usually means fewer customer edits and shorter approval times. A hint: Run two tape recorders, and test your setup in advance of the interview.

It pays to be paranoid: I once got a new client because the previous writer’s batteries ran out in his tape recorder, requiring the interview to be repeated. This was an important customer – and the client was fortunate that the customer was willing to repeat the interview.

The transcript also has residual value. Sales and marketing people often go back to these transcripts and mine them for customer intelligence or marketing sound bites.

Tip #2 – Watch Out for the Pile-On: Getting a customer interview is a big deal, particularly if you work for a start-up company. And it’s an important marketing event, in all companies. So, it’s not surprising that many people want to “just listen in.” Here is my general rule: just say no.

Pile-ons often cause poor interviews. Here’s why: First, having multiple people in the room or on a call may make the customer nervous; he typically will feel compelled to “perform” (by parroting the company’s marketing messages) or he may clam up from nerves or fear of giving the “wrong” answer in front of “the audience.” Second, the interview ends up being a hodge-podge of opinion and rubber-stamped company messages, instead of a natural flow. Why pay for a customer story if it’s the same information that’s in your product literature?

Instead, try to limit the interview to the customer, the interviewer and potentially one other person: usually the sales rep or relationship owner. If the rep and the customer have a good relationship, having the rep involved can provide a comfort level for the customer. Exception: It’s okay if the customer wants an assistant or secretary in the interview (the fourth person in the interview). These people tend not to interfere but they often add value quietly, by looking up information or following up for their boss after the interview.

Ask, at a few pre-arranged places in the interview, if the sales rep has anything to add or ask. Usually he won’t, but when he does, it will be valuable. At the end of the interview, ask him if he has a final question or comment – this gives him a chance to thank the customer on behalf of the company.

Tip #3 – Listen: We live an interrupt-driven society, so it’s no wonder that many interviewers have to control themselves from interrupting during an interview. Ask your question, then get out of the way! Listen to what the customer is saying, until he stops talking. Take a deep breath – count to three slowly – then ask your next question and listen while he answers that. Then repeat. During pauses, resist the temptation to jump in, until you are sure that the customer is finished with his point and is not just thinking. I find it helpful at the end of a question to say “anything else?” The customer will either say no – or sometimes comes up with a great, tight sound bite summarizing what he took the last five minutes to say.

The Take-Away: When conducting an interview, less is definitely more. By less, I mean less interruption (by you) and fewer distractions (in the form of unnecessary additional participants and intrusive technology). By following the three tips above, you can create a smooth, pleasurable and productive interview. And, in my experience, you will have come most of the way toward a strong finished first draft of your case study.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Customer Interview and How to Ace It

In my last post, I talked about modernizing the customer case study and bringing it into the Social Web.

Even in the Social Web, prose is prologue: a story doesn’t exist until you write it down. So, in this post, I talk about the first step in creating a customer case study: the interview.

This step is crucially important. When writing a case study, you typically have only one shot at the customer, so it’s important to get it right. The interview also has residual value: for example, you can forward it to the sales team or customer service reps, who often can get great insights from the interview transcript. (Sometimes a customer will share good – or bad – comments about the product with an “impartial” interviewer that he would never share directly his sales or service rep.)

I’ve interviewed hundreds of my clients’ customers over the last 20 years. In this post and the next, I will describe some techniques for structuring a great interview and conducting a great interview.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it isn’t once you get it down to a system. And the payoff – in interview quality and customer relations – is huge.

The end goal is a case study that sounds organic and authentic. You’ve probably noticed that some case studies sound natural and true, while others sound unnatural and contrived. Usually it’s the interview that made the difference. Remember: today you’re writing for direct-to-consumer publication and to encourage conversation. So, naturalness is important.

How to Prepare for a Customer Interview

Tip #1 - Limit Your Questions: I once had a client send me a list of 25 questions for a 45-minute interview! This is far too many. You would not only exhaust your interviewee, but also virtually guarantee that you would run overtime. I usually plan on one question for every 5-7 minutes – particularly for B2B and more technical products. This is a comfortable pace, and it allows for branching and clarification questions – where you often get great sound bites.

Tip #2 - Always Include a Summary or Wrap-Up Question: It’s often where you get the headline for the story. For example, my standard wrap-up question is: “Please summarize our conversation or make any final statements as you wish.” You will be surprised at the gems you get by asking this question.

Tip #3 - Ask Open-Ended Questions:
Never ask a question that can be answered simply “yes” or “no” or with a single word. In general, use questions that begin with “why,” “how” or “how much.” On your personal copy of the questions, jot down prompting questions in case you have a terse customer.

Tip #4 - Forward the Questions in Advance: This sounds like “Interviewing 101,” but I include it because many interviewers don’t do this. Send your questions a few days before the interview, to allow the customer time to prepare. The result is a more relaxed customer and a better interview. The customer may also be able to gather previously published materials to answer some questions. This gives you more time to spend on questions that are more complex or difficult. Also: many customers don’t get much interviewing practice, so don’t expect them to be as efficient or practiced as a CEO or a salesman. Your questions have to work hard.

Tip #5 - Draft Your Sales Guy: My main goal in the customer interview is to get colorful sound bites from the customer: how the client’s product improved his business, made his company more competitive, got him promoted and so on. So, don’t waste your questions on the nitty-gritty of the customer relationship – for example, the configuration of the products he is using, when he became a customer, etc. Instead, draft your sales guy in advance: he usually will know the answers to a lot of these nitty-gritty questions. You can then weave this information into one validating question (if necessary) for the interview, or just include the information in the first draft of the case study.

By following these five tips, you will get the kind of information that will help you create a customer case study that meets my three E’s: easy to love, easy to find and share, and easy to talk about. You will also usually provide a more positive (and memorable) experience for the customer – one that contributes to the relationship instead of detracts from it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Making the Customer Case Study Work Harder on the Social Web

Is the customer case study becoming obsolete in today’s Social Web? A world where every customer has an audible opinion and an instantaneous, inexpensive way to broadcast it?

No. The customer story is more important than ever. Here’s why.

The customer case study is the marketing intellectual property that gives people the detailed story as presented by your brand. But it’s also the source document for blog content, Tweets, and so on – and a jumping-off point for conversations with your market. There was an old saying in traditional PR: “If there is no conflict, there is no interest.” Today it’s: “If there is no conversation, there is no interest.”

To make your customer story conversation-worthy, rethink the content. Stop thinking of it as an ad for your product or your expertise. Instead, think of it as a tutorial on how customers and prospects can improve their business and personal lives. This can be particularly challenging for companies that sell very technical products – for example, I work with a lot of companies that sell deep infrastructure information technology. But these are the vendors that tend to benefit most from this approach to customer case studies. Remember: the ultimate goal is to find more customers like the customer you are writing about.

To better exploit a customer case study on the Social Web, here are three ideas:

Make it easy to love. Tell a story – the customer’s story. People like to read about people and talk about people. Tell how you solved the customer’s problem and made his life better. Leave the feeds and speeds in your product literature. Go for natural quotes that capture the customer’s personality and enthusiasm, and don’t “PR-ize” the quotes. Use your biggest asset – an enthusiastic customer – to engage, enlighten, entertain. (And yes, even business customers can wax enthusiastic.) A bonus: I have found that the more the story is about the customer’s business, the more likely it will get through his corporate approval cycle. If you do a really good job, the customer may end up using your story to promote himself.

Make it easy to find and share. Put the content – or part of it, or a link to it, or a customer logo – on your home page. Don’t require registration to get the case study. Consider distributing a direct-to-consumer, SEO-ed news release about it, highlighting the business or life lessons learned by the customer by using your product.

Make it easy to talk about. Cross-promote, cross-promote, cross-promote. Blog about it, and encourage comments. Tweet it, including using appropriate hash tags. Create a customer corner on your Facebook fan page, or have an interactive discussion. Do a Tweet chat. Look for vertical industry Web sites or topical sites (for example, food or wine sites) where you can create and engage in conversations using the content. Conversation makes the case study a living, evolving thing.

Also, consider using video and podcasts to bring the print customer case study alive. This can create additional publishing and social networking opportunities. For example, I love podcasts of a peer-to-peer nature: where a vendor’s senior manager interviews the customer. A money-saving hint: if you do an annual customer conference, try to set up your video or podcast interview operation there. You can often capture multiple customers, and at their most enthusiastic.

There’s obviously a lot more you can do, and I am probably overlooking things, because I am not a “social media expert.” But by applying a few simple techniques, you can start to create more “sociable” customer stories and get much more mileage from them.

Customers: The Experts in Who’s An Expert

Peter Shankman (founder of the terrific “Help A Reporter Out” service) and his colleague Sarah Evans had a great blog article yesterday, entitled “Is Your Social Media Expert Really An Expert?”

Great reading and sage advice for companies seeking professional help in navigating Twitter, Facebook and other social media as part of corporate communications strategies.

A follow-up statement by Peter on Facebook caught my eye; “If you say you’re an expert, you aren’t.”

I am not sure I completely agree, aside from the current pig-pile of unqualified people trying to make a quick buck on social media. But it is always better to have other people say you’re an expert based on the value you have provided them. So the experts in who are the experts are customers, when you think of it.

This is a great segue into my next post. It’s about that time-tested marketing tool – the customer case study – and how to make it work harder for you on the social Web.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bringing Brand Image to Life through Social Media Marketing

The venerable Washington Post became the story itself last week. The occasion: a series of “salons” to be held at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home that would bring together Beltway insiders and Post reporters with sponsors who paid anywhere from $25K to $250K for the privilege. The story, of course, went all over the Internet, and it’s not surprising why. The Post – with its long-standing reputation for high-integrity reporting in a town not known for integrity – appeared to be selling access to its reporters. The Post acted quickly: it cancelled the salon series, and a spokesperson blamed “overzealous marketing” by the parent company’s conference group. (New York Times reporter David Carr wrote an excellent post-mortem on this story.)

But that phrase “overzealous marketing” caught my eye. If the marketers couldn’t anticipate that the salon idea might damage The Post’s reputation, who was minding the brand image?

Today, everyone must mind the brand. Much of a company’s marketing takes place – either by design or by default – on the Internet and in social media: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, consumer rating sites. This means that “minding the brand image” must be the responsibility of everyone in the company: not just the Chief Marketing Officer who creates the brand messages, but the employees who deliver the brand messages with every customer interaction, online and offline. We’re in the era of behavioral branding: we must live the brand 24x7.

Social media marketing campaigns can not only build the business, but also strengthen the brand image. Effectively planned and executed with the brand image in mind, campaigns can bring the brand to life and engage a broader spectrum of customers. And this doesn’t have to be expensive.

Here is one example. My company created a simple, “starter” social media program for a small business (it sells food & wine to consumers). Our Phase-One program consists of a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page. In the three months since we started the program, it has been very successful. It has brought in new customers, generated new revenue, and created more than a dozen ardent new fans who blog and Tweet about the business on a regular basis. Free marketing help – what could be better?

To run the program, we selected a young employee – a digital native who is very familiar with the business and its products. She is also enthusiastic, and she aspires to run her own business some day. She has fairly wide discretion in what she posts – such as making special offers, handling customer situations, or running small contests. Our brand messages – 5 simple attributes that could fit on an index card – are her guidelines. The business owner just asks that anything she posts support one or more of the brand messages.

By using this tactic, we’ve created an authentic, organic presence in social media that accurately reflects the brand image. The business owner periodically participates, but otherwise our young ambassador keeps the conversations going. Sure, once in a while we have a misfire or glitch, but overall, the online brand image tracks the business neatly.

If you want to try this tactic yourself, here’s my advice:

Keep your brand messages simple and memorable – use 3 to 5 messages, and use words (“flexibility”) or short phrases (“award-winning wines”) instead of the long sentences you might typically use in a marketing plan

Ask your online ambassadors to sanity-check their posts or comments against the brand messages before they post (this will become second nature after a while)

Don’t hover! Let your ambassadors “own” what they do and take pride in it.

This one powerful tactic can help you create a program that’s not only effective but also cost-effective.

We will be expanding the social media marketing program for this business in the coming months. I will be writing more about the campaign in the future.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Does Social Media Marketing Work for B2B Companies?

You betcha. This new style of marketing is as relevant to clients selling high-ticket B2B products as it is to clients selling B2C. I’ve seen it in my own work: for example, the power of social news sites and bloggers to reach database architects.

In early 2007, I helped launch Vertica Systems, a company with an ultra-fast, low-maintenance relational database management system (RDBMS). This database lets companies store huge amounts of data for a fraction of the cost of other databases. It also enables non-technical people to query the database anywhere from 10X to 2000X times faster than competitive products. Therefore, the product is of huge interest to database architects, the people responsible for building corporate data warehouses and business intelligence/analytics applications.

We used social media (database-savvy bloggers, one very sharp blogger in particular), social news sites (Slashdot.org) and Wikipedia to get the word out. The engineering staff commented on social news sites and blogs, creating a dialog with their counterparts in corporations. Our technical advisors wrote technical articles and papers, which we promoted on social media. We also used traditional technology trade media, with an emphasis on reporters who were social-media-savvy: for example, reporters who routinely cross-promoted their own stories to Slashdot.org or other social media.

Pre-launch, we talked about the business need for a new kind of database and for speedy access to huge amounts of data. We talked about the limitations of current databases and the new technical requirements. We talked about everything except the product details.

This story and the combination of communications techniques positioned the company as a thought leader. It also created a critical mass of interest in the company and published opinion about the company in advance of its formal launch.

As a result, the launch generated 10 times the anticipated traffic to the Web site and 10 times the anticipated signups/downloads for the company’s Early Adopter program.

The company went on to start its own (successful) blog, and today its executives and senior technical people are active on Twitter (director of field engineering Omer Trajman, VP of marketing Dave Menninger, director of marketing Andy Ellicott, director of business development Colin Mahony, and CEO Ralph Breslauer).

Two big reasons for the success of this launch were:

(1) a marketing and sales strategy that truly leveraged the Web, instead of the traditional enterprise sales model (expensive advertising and bag-carrying sales reps) and

(2) a visionary management team and marketing director who really “got” the new marketing and weren’t afraid of losing control.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Making Marketing Content More Sociable

If the Web gave marketers reach, the Social Web gives us responsibility.

To be successful with social media, marketers need to create better, more “sociable” content – content that’s thoughtful, clear, and meaningful to customers.

More so than ever before, content needs to “pull.” It needs to engage readers intellectually and emotionally. It needs to earn their time, as well as their confidence – or they won’t believe it, talk about it or share it with others. And it needs to adapt to their consumption patterns. This means that I now need to be as engaging and entertaining in 140 characters as I have been in the past with 1,500 words, and on a BlackBerry screen as well as a PC screen.

This change may be a big shift for many brand marketers. Most marketers are accustomed to pushing tightly controlled stories over tightly controlled, paid channels. Today, every customer has an audible opinion – and many inexpensive and instantaneous ways to air it. So, customers and other influencers are constantly rewriting and contributing to your story.

As a result, brand marketers need to be constantly “on,” in listening mode, and able to respond quickly to brand challenges and opportunities. As marketers we may hate Yelp and other consumer-rating sites, but they are a fact of marketing life. Today, marketers need to practice “behavioral branding,” by delivering products and services that work as advertised. Think good works well-communicated; errors promptly acknowledged.

I see all of this as a very positive change for marketing. (For one thing: I am looking forward to having the word “spin” disappear from marketers’ lexicons.)

The Marketing Revolution Will Not Be Televised

I grew up in the 60s and 70s. This was a time of great political turmoil and activism – a lot of it pretty effective. As a result, I have remained a bit of a rebel.

I’m also a closet optimist. In spite of the terrible economy and our decreasing individual freedom, I believe that people – working together – can achieve things that institutions can’t. And that the Internet is a powerful force in bringing people together in new ways.

So I am thrilled that the Internet is forcing a revolution in marketing by moving it into “the streets”: social networks, blogs and other democratized online media. The marketing revolution is creating some interesting times for brand marketers, particularly those in larger companies and institutions. It’s creating huge new opportunities for smaller businesses. And all of this is great for consumers: more choice, more bang for their bucks.

I specialize in creating and telling stories for brands, including writing a lot of thought leadership content: white papers, articles and e-newsletters. Today, low-cost Internet publishing technologies and social networks make it easier and cheaper for my clients to:

Find out what customers and prospects are really thinking – so we can make our content more meaningful and valuable to them

Deliver our stories directly – and more precisely through SEO – to customers

Extend the reach of our stories, using a “flattened” media that includes bloggers and micro-bloggers in addition to print and Internet journalists

Engage mainstream journalists and editors, many of whom are accessible on Twitter and other social networks

Assemble and inspire groups of consumers to help market the brands

And, of course, find new customers and make money

These ideas aren’t original with me, certainly. But I am taking advantage of them and will be writing about my experiences with them.

The marketing revolution won’t be televised (thank God). It will be Web-ified, Twitter-ized, Googled, Facebook-ized, YouTube-d, Slashdot-ted, delivered over consumer-run Internet radio stations, and narrowcast over brand-owned Internet TV channels.

Long live the revolution!


Please see my blog roll. It includes blogs from some very smart people who inspire me and make me better at what I do. A special call-out goes to my longtime colleagues/former clients, Internet publishing pioneer Michael Kolowich, founder of ChannelOne Marketing; and SEO-PR chief Greg Jarboe, who’s a genius at using SEO to accelerate results from PR. Also to the inspirational Web marketing guru David Meerman Scott and my mentor and long-time editor Joe Roy (aka Mr. Clarity).