Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Business Getting Soft?

Five Pieces of Weak, Confusing Patter to Ban from Your Language

President Barack Obama has been criticized of late for weak messages and language. This doesn’t surprise me: he’s a 21st-century politician in an industry (politics) that’s fast reaching its nadir.

What does surprise me – and scares me – is the growing number of business people who regularly use weak, unnecessary language or patter.

“Patter” is language that fills in the breaths between statements and questions. Patter appears to be on the upswing, probably because we have so many bits to fill – hence its extensive use in social media. But just because the bits are there, you don’t have to fill them.

Here are five pieces of patter that you should exorcise from your business language:

“Just Saying”: As opposed to what?

“IMHO”: If you feel unqualified to offer an opinion, then don’t.

• “My Two Cents”: If your opinion is really only worth two cents, then why say it? And why admit to it?

“Oh, and” (often followed by “did I mention?"): Did you really forget to mention it? If so, was it because you don’t think clearly? Or because it was an afterthought? Many people seem to use “oh, and” and “did I mention” to set off the most important item in a list. This makes no sense to me at all.

“Kind of,” when used to obscure what it refers to (“we were kind of confused”), not distinguish it (“Kate Moss is a different kind of cover girl”)

In business, “kind of” is a pox on precision. It calls into question the truth of whatever term it modifies, as well as the knowledge and seriousness of the speaker. The phrase is cropping up in many executive quotations in news stories, making me wonder if reporters’ word processors have a macro that automatically inserts it into quotes.

“Kind of” is particularly deadly when it describes a corporate action or financials. It makes me wonder: “Doesn’t the speaker know how much, or how little?” “If he means ‘approximately’ or ‘estimated,’ why not say this, instead of using the verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders?”

Here are two recent examples:

Example 1: “When [former Walmart CEO Lee] Scott was thinking about what qualities his successor should have, he saw a match with [new Walmart CEO Mike] Duke’s skills. ‘I kind of thought -- and I think the board thought - that the company could be better managed,’ says Scott, who is careful to say that it was the directors who picked Duke for the job, not him.”

Example 2: “Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company, wanted to increase its visibility to U.S. investors but worried about associating with over-the-counter offerings, says Thomas Kudsk Larsen, head of investor relations in North America. The OTCQX designation addressed those concerns, and the company started trading there in 2007. ‘By segregating out high-quality companies, we kind of get away from the reputation of the Pink Sheets,’ Larsen says.”

Perhaps by using equivocal patter, business people hope that they won’t offend anyone. (Offending anyone is the third rail in our Post-Crisis world.)

True, if you wallpaper your business speech with weak, equivocal patter, you probably won’t offend anyone. But I can almost guarantee that people won’t remember you – or the points you are trying to make.

Perhaps this is the idea?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Reluctant CEO Blogger

When Blogging, CEOs Should Do it Right or Not Do It at All

There’s been a lot of debate about whether CEOs should blog. The CEO’s main job is to allocate and optimize resources – including his own time – to meet the company’s goals. So, why don’t more companies apply this criterion to CEO blogs?

In my travels as a marketing consultant, I have encountered some CEOs who start blogging and using other social media merely because it's trendy - not because it's central to their business strategies.

The thinking usually goes something like this:

“The people at [my company] have finally persuaded me to share my ideas via social media. So, I'm now blogging about [subject]. Here goes."

In situations like those above, it seems as if the company has no clear goal or strategy – other than to jump on the blogging bandwagon. The company also does not have a well-thought-out plan: the CEO seems unsure about what to do, how to do it, or why he’s doing it. Precious resources – starting with the CEO’s time – are being allocated to a project of ill-defined value.

My opinion: this CEO should not be blogging.

In contrast, meet my long-time colleague and client Guy Hoffman. A former software entrepreneur, Guy is founder and CEO of U.S. HomeTeam, a company that offers new property and casualty (P&C) insurance products that make more profits for carriers and agents while providing more choice and value for consumers. The goal is to make everybody involved in the insurance transaction a winner – hence the use of “team” in the company’s name.

The P&C insurance industry being pretty resistant to innovation, Guy started his CEO blog, “Insurance Matters,” to help educate consumers, carriers, agents and service providers about the value of change. The blog talks about the importance of insurance in a good personal financial plan – something that most consumers don’t spend much time thinking about – and about the constraints of current products.

Equally important, the blog communicates the company’s Conscious Capitalism philosophy. It shares the company’s purpose and the culture it is building to achieve that purpose.

Guy writes the blog himself: it sounds like him and is authentic. He has a regular editorial schedule, and he SEOs his topics and blog headlines. His team promotes the content through the company’s social-media program (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn).

The blog is attracting followers and fans, and it’s generating click-throughs – albeit a bit more slowly than Guy would like (not a surprise given the subject matter). However, Guy knows he’s creating a body of content that keeps his Web site fresh and the company well-represented in search engines, while having other potential uses. The blog is cathartic and stimulating for Guy, helping him create a dialog with the industry and shape his ideas for new products, markets and customers. In short: the blog is meeting his business goals.

Before sending your CEO off to blog, I recommend the following:

Have a goal. Know what you are trying to achieve, who you are trying to reach, and why.

Make an honest assessment of your CEO’s potential as a blogger. Does he have the time? Does he have the willingness? Can he and will he contribute substantively to the growth of a blog, which is a long-term proposition?

Have a plan, including:

• an editorial mission and guidelines, including what the CEO will and will not write about.

• an editorial calendar, defining how frequently you will publish. (If someone must edit or approve the CEO’s blog articles before publication, remember to build this additional time into your calendar.)

• an editorial “machine,” for identifying timely topics that the CEO may want to blog about. This machine might include Google alerts, a marketing assistant who monitors the Web and forwards news and articles, or both.

• a promotion plan, for promoting the blog on social and traditional media – including other blogs that your CEO may want to follow and comment on.

• a policy for how you will handle comments on the blog.

• a simple measurement program.

Have the first several posts written before the blog goes online. This will enable you to get off to a strong start while the blog gets established.

Remember that the best CEO blogs are those that reflect the personality of the CEO and the brand characteristics of the company – and bring both alive in a natural, authentic way.

If you don’t have a clear understanding of your goal and your ability to meet that goal, do not proceed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Don’t Let Me-Marketing Wreck Your Brand

Guinness’ Message in a Bottle Falls Flat

My husband likes to have a beer before dinner. Although he’s a committed Corona man, once in a while he likes to try something different. Recently, he picked up a six-pack of Guinness Draught.

While taking his first sip, he froze. He heard something clinking inside the bottle. Rock? Used syringe?

As it turns out, it was neither. It was not product tampering; the object was put there intentionally by the company.

The object was a “rocket widget delivering you the same great taste of Guinness Draught” (the company’s words). Of course, silly us, we would have realized this had we read this information before opening and drinking the beer. After all, the information was printed on the bottle: sideways, on the side of bottle, in small, all-caps white type reversed out of brown – visible only through a magnifying glass. (The kind of print a company’s lawyers hope you won’t read.) To read the message at this point in his beer-drinking experience, my husband would have had to turn the bottle on its side – spilling its contents. Instead, he dumped the contents in the sink, hoping to be able to see the object.

After being relieved that my husband wasn’t poisoned, we were stunned and then angry. How could the company think that inserting a foreign object in a food product was okay? Moreover, how could Guinness – a brand that has been around since 1759, has a reputation for quality, and stands behind its products so much that its founder’s (trademarked) signature is proudly stamped on each bottle – think it was okay? What were the marketers thinking?

My answer: they weren’t thinking – at least about their customers.

Was the rocket widget part of some big advertising campaign, or some point of purchase promotion, or some new social media viral campaign? My husband may not be in Guinness’ target demographic: perhaps there is some group of consumers that think it’s cool to have pieces of plastic in their food to “fun it up?” Or was there a technical reason for the piece of plastic in the beer bottle? (We later found out that there was.) But if so, why isn’t this more clearly communicated on the bottle instead of buried in small type, in vague marketing copy? Particularly if the company is trying to attract new consumers to the brand, or bring former consumers back to the brand?

I don’t know. I don’t care. I am not intrigued. I am confused. I am angry. This is thoughtless marketing: the marketers thought more about themselves than about the customer experience. The marketer is indulging in “me-marketing,” or marketing to themselves.

And, as far as our family is concerned, the marketer frittered away 250 years of brand image. We will never buy or drink Guinness Draught again.

I don’t pretend to know what was in Guinness’ head when it created the marketing communications campaign for their new technical advance. Or how (or if) they tested the marketing copy before putting it onto the market, although I assume that they must have.

There’s an object (sorry) lesson here for the rest of us marketers: When designing marketing campaigns, it’s essential to put yourself in the customer’s place.

Here are four things to remember:

Ask yourself what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the marketing experience – really. Better still, ask your friends or a stranger unfamiliar with your product.

Test test test. If you’re a small business without a big marketing budget, test new marketing concepts on your current customers or on your Facebook and Twitter fans before rolling the concepts out to everyone. Customers and fans are usually flattered to be asked, and most will be sincere in their responses.

Don’t assume that every customer is reading all your advertising or news releases, or following every opinion on social media, or receiving every marketing message within the nice, neat context of a campaign. Yes, some people want to be “in the know” and will “work” for your product. But many other people just want a beer. So, each marketing message has to stand on its own. This is certainly the case with something as dramatic as changing the actual product configuration.

• Finally, remember that every marketing technique should be consistent with the brand. If it isn’t consistent, you’re sending the wrong message to the market.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A PR Succession Strategy – Do You Have One?

Chief PR Person Leaving? Have a PR Plan, or Face the Consequences

Most companies have established communications policies they follow when important executives leave. For publicly held companies, the departure of certain executives may be material information. For any company, saying the right thing is just good business. An executive’s departure (or temporary illness) may affect the company’s reputation.

So, why do so many companies fail to have a similar policy in place for when their chief public relations person leaves? PR people come and go all the time – either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Your chief PR person is usually the front line to journalists, bloggers, industry analysts, and possibly financial analysts. His departure will be noticed – possibly more quickly than the departure of a senior executive. His departure also may send a message (accurate or inaccurate) about the company and its stability. Many reporters and journalists assume that the chief PR person has insights into subtle changes in the company, which may or may not figure into the departure. (For example: a good high-level PR person will spot a change in the CEO before anyone else does.)

And reporters often keep track, as one company I know learned the hard way. When the chief PR person left, the beat reporter remarked to the temporary replacement: “That’s the seventh PR director to have left in 10 years, you know.” The temporary replacement to the PR person was aware of only five – but the reporter was right.

So, it’s important to have a communications policy that kicks in when your chief PR person leaves, to both protect the company’s reputation and ensure continuity. (It’s usually good to check with Human Resources and your Legal Department when you develop your policy, as there may be contractual or other legal considerations.)

It’s critical to make a seamless and immediate transition to a successor – even if it’s only a temporary solution.

Keep in mind that many reporters routinely watch for clues of senior managers’ attitudes toward the Public Relations department – for example, senior managers who disdain, ignore or fear the PR department. Therefore, when a senior PR person leaves, sloppiness or delay in the transition may reveal or confirm those attitudes.

So, you need a policy and a communications plan to execute it. Here are five things to think about as you create your plan:

(1) Check All Connections
Change access (passwords) to the chief PR person’s company phone/cellphone, phonemail and email immediately, and forward to a successor. This should be done immediately, or by the end of the day at the latest. (In a company under fire, this is crucial – the chief PR person may get dozens of calls or emails every day.) If your PR person used a personal cellphone for business, ask that he change his voicemail message temporarily to refer company calls back to the company. The bottom line: Never leave the press hanging.

(2) Don’t Drop the Ball
Debrief your chief PR person about projects in progress. Identify what press opportunities or inquiries are in progress, and understand their status. Proactively call or email reporters on important inquiries to provide them with the new PR contact.

(3) Agree on a Statement
Just as you would for a departing senior executive, have a statement about the chief PR person’s departure that the departing chief PR person and the company can agree on. Provide it to the successor, the chief PR person’s manager and anyone else who may have to answer questions about the departure. Then stick to the script.

(4) Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Sometimes employment or consulting relationships end badly. Don’t be surprised if news about the PR person’s departure ends up in blogs, on social networks and even in the mainstream media – remember you are dealing with a communications professional who is both concerned with his personal brand and adept at using the media. Most PR professionals are ethical and governed by their profession’s code of conduct, but never rely on this alone.

(5) Don’t Drop Your Guard
Set up Google Alerts to monitor for the person’s name, and keep them in place for a reasonable amount of time. This way you will know immediately if any stories run, and can respond accordingly.

By having an established communications policy in place for your chief PR person’s departure, you can ensure continuity of service to the press and other important constituents. And you can usually prevent PR from becoming the story, instead of telling your story.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Tweet Not Taken

Sometimes What You Don’t Say Sends the Most Powerful Message

At an awards show last fall, the world went wild when a well-known rap star grabbed the microphone from America’s country-music sweetheart and went on a rant during her acceptance speech. People posted hundreds of thousands of messages on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, expressing their outrage. In the process, they of course mentioned the rapper’s name, thereby raising his profile on the Web – and playing right into his ham-handed publicity ploy.

Not me. I practice the fine art of Twunning – the modern-day, social-media equivalent of shunning.

In our searchable, SEO-ed, social-media-dominated world, sometimes the best way to “send a message” is not to send a message at all. Don’t reward marginal or anti-social behavior with a Tweet or a post. Instead, punish it with inattention.

True, there are plenty of examples where the power of social media has helped focus attention on important social problems or injustices. And I think we will see more of this good work in the future. But the Rapacious Rapper doesn’t fall into this category.

The urge to share and be heard is apparently winning out over common sense – even for seasoned professionals and other adults. Beyond bestowing attention on Rapacious Rappers, I see people saying things on social media that they would never say in person. Their comments are instantly broadcast to the world. They are also instantly searchable, stored forever, and permanently associated with the commenters’ names (and reputations).

Many people are frustrated with Facebook’s continually evolving privacy policies for its free service. But you shouldn’t count on Facebook – or Twitter or any other business – to protect you.

How about starting to take responsibility for yourself, by just saying [ ]?

Before you post that Facebook message or make that Tweet, THINK. Is it really worth it?

Do you really want to broadcast your location, or the fact that you will be away from home on vacation for the next two weeks? Or show a photo of your expensive new car? (Ever searched for your own home on National Geographic's Map Machine?)

Do you really want people to know that you had a very successful business meeting with a prospect – mentioning that prospect by name?

Do you really want to argue with a sibling in public, on Facebook?

I have seen all of the above – and worse – over the last few weeks on social media.

Privacy settings will continue to be a moving target, even as the open web evolves into more services that offer privacy for a price. So-called “walled gardens” can only be so effective. (I also suspect that private services may become targets for hackers because of the greater perceived value of the information within.)

So, whether you are consciously and strategically building a personal brand or not, best to think before you Tweet.

And sometimes it’s better to just say [ ].

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How to be a Good Consultant

Three Important Lessons from 20 Years in the Trenches

This year, I celebrated my 20th year in business as an independent consultant who provides marketing communications strategy, consultation and content to companies. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a good consultant, both from “on-the-job” training and from watching other consultants.

Delivering great work – on strategy, on time and on budget – is of course job #1. But I’ve also learned that how you deliver the work – client service – is equally important.

Before I started my own company, I worked for several public relations and advertising agencies, where I had an opportunity to learn about client service from some of the best. These include people like Bink Garrison, Ned Carboni and Ray Welch at Quinn & Johnson/BBDO, and the legendary PR man Bob Strayton. Conversely, in the last 20 years, I’ve also seen some pretty dumb behavior from other consultants. This been equally instructive.

Here are three important lessons that I have learned. (Although I am writing about marketing consulting in this article, these lessons apply to any kind of consulting where the product you are selling is ideas or expertise, such as management consulting or architectural design.)

Always tell the client what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear – Clients count on me to bring an honest, unemotional outside perspective to their business and to tell them straight – even if it’s “bad” news. In presenting bad news, it’s important to be succinct, well-prepared with backup points for your argument, and ready with a solution. The one time (many years ago) when I broke my own rule (emotion got in the way), the outcome was painful for everyone involved. I have learned to balance passion for the client’s business with a dispassionate perspective. Clients need – and deserve – both.

Don’t talk down to the client – Just as I’m smart about my business (communications consulting and writing), my clients are smart about their businesses. When I am hired, it’s usually because my expertise fills a gap in their expertise. That’s why I consider myself a partner to my clients, not a nanny or a tutor. Other consultants don’t always think this way. They treat clients as if they were children.

For example, when attending a seminar recently, I overheard another consultant tell her client: “To coin a phrase, we need a pain-killer not a vitamin.” This phrase – pain-killer not a vitamin – is so old that it’s a business cliché. To pretend it is original to the speaker both insults the client’s intelligence and undermines the consultant’s credibility.

Then there was the consultant who started his presentation about social media with the statement (spoken very slowly): “You are going to hear me use the word ‘con-ver-sation’ a lot today.” The concept of “con-ver-sation” in social media has been broadly covered in books, business magazines, newspapers and Internet media – only an awakening Rip Van Winkle could have missed it.

Good consultants put information – including clichés and trends – in the right business context for the client and his business. Treat your client as a partner and don’t waste his time. Determine his level of understanding about a topic before assuming he knows nothing about it – and start from there.

Beware of "Not Invented Here" syndrome - My job is to provide clients with the best possible solutions for their problems. Most of those ideas come from my head or my past experience, but not always. Great ideas are everywhere, and many of those ideas are free. Applying ideas from elsewhere in a strategic way can often create a solution that delivers great value for less cost than “100% invented here.” Yes, I may give up some income, but I am in the business of delivering creative solutions, not freight.

If I do adapt others' ideas, I always give the source credit. The fact that an idea has worked successfully elsewhere adds credibility to my recommendations. And citing the source protects my credibility (unlike Mr. “Con-ver-sation” above).

For example: David Meerman Scott’s best-selling book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, is a great source of ideas for many companies. I have used some of David’s techniques in campaigns for clients, with excellent results. When using his techniques, I always credit David in front of my clients; in fact, I have given his book to many clients as a gift. The smarter I can make my client, the better we can work together to produce great work. And the longer the client stays my client, in my experience.

And now, a special bonus lesson…

Always be on time for meetings - I landed one of my first clients in the agency business because my competitor arrived late to his presentations. The client loved my presentation, and the ideas and recommendations I presented later worked very well for the client. However, one of the first comments the client contact made when we asked why we had won the business was: “Agency XX was late for the meetings.” Often, it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions on clients. And this story made a lifelong impression on me.

Of course, there are dozens of client-service techniques and rules of conduct that I’ve ingrained in my business over the last 20 years – and now use instinctively in my daily work. But these four lessons in particular have been important ones for me.

What have been your most valuable lessons?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Marketing Lessons from the General Store

The Fussy Marketer Gets Four Free Reminders of Marketing Fundamentals – along with Her Morning Coffee

Although I work with clients all over the world, I’ve been fortunate in that I can live anywhere. I choose to live north of Boston, in a small town on the edge of the Western White Mountains.

Practical lessons in great marketing often come from the simplest and most unlikely of places – like my local general store. In their own way, the store’s owners understand marketing fundamentals better than many Fortune 500 companies.

Know Your Customer: The store gets a lot of its business from workers at the local saw mill. When the mill’s business started to pick up, it went back to running two full shifts a day. And that means more workers, who are hungry on a rolling schedule. The store added a small deli and meat counter, where people can buy hot and cold take-out items for their breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as meat and other items to take home. The coffee pot never runs out, and the coffee is fresh all day (unlike many general stores, if you have spent much time in Vermont). To help staff the deli, the store hired away a much-loved cook from another general store.

Business is booming. The store paid attention to changing customer demographics – hungry workers coming back into town, who have money and will pay a premium for choice and convenience. And the store responded quickly.

The lesson: Keep current with your customer. Formal research is great, but so is anecdotal information. Talk to your customers. Ask them what’s happening in their lives. The Internet also offers some great, inexpensive ways to take the pulse of prospects and customers. Look at social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, or business rating sites such as OpenTable and TripAdvisor.

Understand Your Competition: Because they own the only place to shop within a five-mile radius – and the last stop before the 15-mile drive to the Vermont border and the interstate – the store's owners could be tempted to think that they have a monopoly. But they know that they have competition and respond accordingly. Customers always have a choice, and they will take it if motivated strongly enough.

For example, the closest competitor is the general store in the next town, which is larger and carries more items. But my local store is now getting many people who drive the 10-mile roundtrip to shop or even to get morning coffee.

How? The rival store has poor customer service. In particular, there is one clerk, a GenXer who apparently sees his job as a personal platform for his stand-up comedy skills. He thinks it’s funny to ask - loudly - a burly 55-year-old logger “Do you really need those potato chips with all that beer?” This store’s obliviousness to its poor customer service handed our local store a big marketing opportunity. Our local store staffs with middle-aged women, who are polite, efficient and respectful. They are often contemporaries of the loggers’ wives, and they know the latest news about the school, the local weather and so on.

Our local store also competes against a supermarket and a big-box store 12 miles away. To get some of that business, it has expanded to carry more items, including meat and some fresh produce. It also carries items such as farm-fresh eggs and hydroponic tomatoes from my neighbors – things you can’t get at the supermarket and big-box store.

The lesson: Give your customers fewer reasons to go elsewhere. Shop your competitors, stay on top of their strategies, and exploit their weaknesses. Small, thoughtful changes can often communicate volumes to customers.

Make it Easy to do Business with You: Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet: nothing keeps my local general store from opening. The owners understand that the store is an important part of its regular customers’ daily lives. I have often seen the owner herself out on her own tractor clearing snow in the parking lot, if no one else is available. She knows that the parking lot is the front door for the store, and that a messily cleared lot will turn people away. Moreover, it will damage the store’s reputation for reliability.

By comparison, I often see web sites that have the equivalent of an un-cleared parking lot: obtuse language or awkward pieces of navigation. This tells me that the marketing people don’t respect their customers’ time. The marketers may have delegated the design to a web site designer who doesn’t understand the marketing goals. Or to a webmaster who lacks an “owner’s” mentality and views the web site as his own personal artistic playground. But that’s no excuse.

The lesson: Stay on top of your customer experience. “Shop” your own store or your web site personally to see what customers are experiencing – and do it frequently. Don’t rely solely on mystery shoppers or your marketing automation software. Get out there yourself once in a while.

Deliver Value Beyond Your Product or Service: Make your business a destination for people, not just a place to buy things. My local general store innately understands this, even though it has no marketing program or budget per se.

The store has a comfortable bench on the front porch, where people can sit as long as they want (as long as they don’t drink or swear). There are picnic tables for use in sunny weather. There is a clean public restroom (don’t laugh – many general stores don’t have public restrooms or have filthy public restrooms). There’s a nook inside the front door where the kids can stay warm in the winter while waiting for the school bus, or where people can congregate to sip their coffees.

There’s a bulletin board where people can post ads, business cards, or services. There’s a Halloween tradition where kids in costume come by and have their pictures taken for a photo gallery. And, if you’re looking for a good deal on firewood or a contractor to work on your house, the parking lot is the best place to inquire.

These are a lot of small things, but they add up to a big message that says: “Spend more time here.” More time translates into more money spent in the store.

The lesson: Look for creative ways to weave your business location into people’s daily lives. Make your business indispensable to your customers. Do things that encourage them to make it a destination site for their own purposes.

These four lessons are basic, but important for large and small businesses alike. Small, inexpensive changes and ideas can often pay big dividends. The most important investment is your thoughtfulness.

Monday, March 1, 2010

When No-Boundaries Marketing is a Bad Thing

The Internet has redefined customer relationships, but not always in a good way.

The Internet has broken down many of the barriers between businesses and their customers.

Because of the Internet, it’s much easier to find, reach, and target the people most likely to buy your product – even if you don’t have a huge marketing budget. Because of the Internet, businesses can think creatively about expanding the boundaries of their businesses – opening them up to make them more accessible to customers.

However, as the technical boundaries between businesses and their customers have changed, so have the behavioral boundaries – and not always in a good way.

Perhaps emboldened with more-direct, conversational access to customers, some businesses seem to have forgotten who they are talking to. The result is marketing behavior that throws up new walls between the business and its customers.

Here are three examples:

The Buddy: The Buddy Marketer talks to prospects and customers as if they were his friends from the office or the bar. He calls you by your first name on the first call or contact. He sprinkles his marketing copy with intrusive, self-absorbed patter. He assumes a level of familiarity and informality that he hasn’t earned. He often only has one name, usually something like “Chad” or “Justin” or “Nicki.” The Buddy appears more concerned with being “cool” than solving your problem and earning your trust. I don’t know about you, but even if the product offer is exceptional, I’m hesitant to buy from this marketer because of his cavalier attitude. I figure, if he’s this bad and un-businesslike before he gets my money, he’ll devolve into a total slob after he gets my money.

The Buddy Marketer isn’t strictly an online phenomenon, nor is he damaging only in business-to-business marketing.

Here’s a real-life business-to-consumer marketing example. A financial advisor at a multi-billion-dollar investment firm – someone covering for my regular advisor – called to apprise me that a corporate bond had matured. “Good thing that p___ of s____ matured, eh?” he chortled. Did he forget that his company sold me the p___ of s____ in the first place? But in his attempt to appear cool and to Buddy me, he irrevocably damaged his company’s reputation. (And yes, I moved my investment account.)

And then there’s today’s universal greeting for restaurant patrons: “How are you guys doing today?” For many consumers, a big part of the experience of dining out is being served and being catered to, by someone who knows how to do it – certainly not a Buddy.

The Autocrat: The Autocrat is presumptive. He tells you what to do, with stern words usually punctuated by today’s most-overused punctuation mark, the exclamation point. “Call me at your earliest convenience!” “Get back to me as soon as you get this email!” His emails, phone calls and direct-response letters smack of self-absorption (me, me, me) and disrespect for my time. Why would I ever give this person any of my business? [Added 3/2/2010] Case in point: I received a voicemail today marked "urgent." It was from my Staples "account manager," who was "just checking in."

And then there’s the top technology publisher whose high-powered and deep-lunged telemarketers sign you up for tomorrow’s webinar before you can get a word in edgewise. I am sure that this technique helps them “stuff” the seminar with prospects for the advertisers, but how effective can this be if many prospects have no interest and don’t show up? I made the mistake of giving them my email address – now they are controlling my time. Not good.

The Goofball: The Goofball tries to amuse and defuse by acting like a child. “Oops!” in the header of an email, or as an explanation for a 404 error on a web-site page, isn’t cute – it’s annoying. It undermines my confidence in your company or your brand. Incompetence and errors in business aren’t laughing matters to most customers. A simple “we’re sorry” is more reassuring.

At the root of all three of these problems is lack of empathy for the customer – and a lack of appreciation for what makes a good customer relationship: honesty, integrity and trust.

Great marketers keep the customer in their minds during every interaction and transaction. They define how they want to treat customers, and weave it into the marketing of their products – from advertising and social media, to how employees behave on the phone or in the store.

Creating detailed buyer personas – or even tacking a photo of your best customer to your computer monitor – can be powerful, evocative reminders.

The Internet makes it easier and more inexpensive than ever to understand the changing marketing boundaries that customers appreciate. Customer satisfaction surveys, informal temperature-taking on social media, or just plain talking to customers are all within your reach. Use them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Up in the Air: Social Media and the Launch of the PiperSport

How social media helped sell a $140K airplane

When Piper Aircraft decided to launch the PiperSport – its entry into the light sport aircraft (LSA) category – the company took a traditional approach. It planned to announce the new plane at the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo 2010 at Sebring, Florida, with demonstrations, a press conference, and press rides. But Piper Marketing Director Jackie Carlon also invested in an integrated social media campaign, commissioning Michael Kolowich and his video production firm DigiNovations. The campaign included a YouTube channel, a Facebook fan page, and a Twitter feed.

Michael Kolowich, DigiNovations president and executive producer (and a pilot himself), created and managed the campaign. With only one week to prepare, he assembled and coordinated the efforts of a virtual team of micro-bloggers that included Piper staff (on the ground at the expo) and my company, Janice Brown & Associates (in cyberspace).

Michael, in this article and video, tells exactly how and why the campaign worked.

The campaign reached out to pilots, flying enthusiasts, journalists and bloggers around the world – quickly extending the excitement far beyond Sebring and creating fans all over the world.

And generating demand for the plane. The first plane sold on site, the second day of the show. (The sale was, of course, immediately reported on Facebook and Twitter, with a picture of the lucky buyers.)

The campaign of course started with a phenomenal product. But it was successful because of several strategies:

Authenticity and empathy– the right tone and content dramatized the PiperSport experience for the online audience

Engaging multimedia content, created by informed people (Piper and its fans/followers)

Emphasis on interactive conversation instead of just publication

Tight integration of the three social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) and integration with the marketing goals and overall marketing campaign

Careful timing and pacing

Marketers can learn from this case study, even if they aren’t selling a $140K consumer product.

(And yes, you can buy a PiperSport over the Internet, using PayPal. Click here.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Are You Making These Common Mistakes in PR Management? - Part 3

Three Mistakes That Can Make Your PR Less Effective – and How to Avoid Them

In my last two articles, I talked about two common and costly mistakes that businesses make in managing their public relations: leave the PR firm alone and treat PR as an afterthought.

In this final article in the series, I talk about a third common mistake that businesses make – treating your PR firm like an adversary, not a partner – and how to fix this mistake.

The Mistake

PR firms make money by selling you time and expertise, right? So, their main goal is to sell you as much time and expertise as possible, right? So, you shouldn’t do anything to help them sell you more time and expertise – particularly if you don’t think you need it, right? Wrong.

Good PR firms know their job is to make you wildly successful in meeting your marketing goals. First, they get paid for this. Second, they usually get “paid overtime” with customer loyalty from you and more business from your referrals. So, good PR firms act as your partner and invest themselves in your success – including investing some of their own time in learning your industry and business at the outset.

The Fix

Level with your PR firm. If you have a big need but think you don’t have the budget, present the problem and ask for their advice – you will often be pleasantly surprised. Remember, creativity is the hallmark of good PR people, and this creativity should extend to business and client relationships. PR is a relationship business: good PR people are experts at negotiation, compromise, and reaching consensus such that everyone involved feels good at the end of the process – and that they achieve the desired result.

The best results can’t happen if you treat your PR firm like an adversary.

Here’s a story. I once had client who routinely came to me at the last minute when he needed a news release written. By “last-minute,” I mean 6 PM, when he needed a draft by 10 AM the next morning. Until I figured out the game, I usually ended up staying up until midnight to produce a quality draft, so it could go through our editing/fact-checking/QA process first thing in the morning. My job was to produce something of sufficient quality that it would be of interest to journalists and get picked up (this was in the days before the Internet, direct-to-consumer news releases, and SEO). I was usually successful, but at a cost: aside from lost sleep, there was always the chance that the product would not be high-quality.

My detective work eventually identified the problem. The client feared that if he gave me a more reasonable lead time – say, three days – I would “use up” more hours and therefore charge him more dollars. If the client had just leveled with me in the beginning – “we can only spend XX dollars on this news release” – I would have promptly identified a solution that worked for both of us – thereby removing the risk of a poor product. I eventually did this, but look at the time we wasted. (The client stayed with me for many years, so all’s well that ends well.)

If you’re treating your PR firm as an adversary, ask yourself why. Unless it is because you really don’t trust your PR firm – and for legitimate not hypothetical reasons – talk to your PR firm. Working together, you can almost always come to a meeting of the minds – or at least know that you can’t. An adversarial relationship wastes everyone’s time, wastes your money and jeopardizes good results.

If your PR firm doesn’t rise to the occasion, get another firm.

Businesses continue to make three common mistakes when managing their PR firms. They leave their firms alone too much. They think of PR as an afterthought. And they treat their firms as adversaries instead of partners.

All of these problems can be solved, usually with easy fixes – by working with your PR firm and by taking advantage of their creativity, relationship skills and can-do attitudes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are You Making These Common Mistakes in PR Management? - Part 2

Three Mistakes That Can Make Your PR Less Effective – and How to Avoid Them

In my last article, I talked about why leaving your PR firm alone – on its own, with no ongoing input and direction from you – is a common and costly mistake.

Here I talk about a second common mistake that businesses make – treating PR as an afterthought – and how to fix this mistake.

The Mistake

Great news! Your company has just signed a new partner or closed a big sale to a customer, or maybe you have a special sale or promotion you are running. Or perhaps you have tentatively agreed to be acquired. In any case, these events are important for your company and the people who do business with you, and some events may be important to the world outside your company.

Many businesses crank up the marketing machine – ads, direct-response letters and so on – but “remember” to call their PR firms only at the very last minute.

The Fix

Do yourself a favor: when you begin planning something important, let your PR firm know as soon as possible. PR can lead and almost always can amplify your other marketing activities, contributing to a highly integrated campaign that gets better results.

Good PR people can and will also tell you – honestly – how important your news is to the outside world. Good PR people also monitor your industry as part of their jobs, and they may know trends to which they can link your event to make it more newsworthy. Finally, good PR people almost always can recommend creative and effective approaches – such as using social media, bloggers and direct-to-consumer news releases to “narrowcast” your news to the people who are most interested, instead of just doing the standard dialing-for-dollars pursuit of major news outlets. In short: good PR people can almost always add a lot of value.

If you are hesitant to share confidential information with your PR firm, have them sign a non-disclosure agreement (if they haven’t already). Or ask them to document their procedures for protecting confidential information. If you still don’t trust them, then get another PR firm.

Next: why it’s a bad mistake to treat your PR firm like an adversary instead of a partner.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Are You Making These Common Mistakes in PR Management?

Three Mistakes That Can Make Your PR Less Effective - And How to Avoid Them

During my long career working in marketing and PR (as a client and an outside consultant), I have watched companies repeatedly make three common mistakes in how they manage PR.

These mistakes almost always make the PR program much less effective and therefore more expensive for the client. And they can usually be fixed easily and inexpensively.

The three mistakes are:

Leave your PR firm alone.

Treat PR as an afterthought.

Treat your PR consultant as an adversary instead of a partner.

I will address these mistakes one at a time, in this article and my next two articles.

Veteran PR people will have their own work-arounds for addressing these mistakes made by clients. But you as the client can help them by investing in small adjustments to your own behavior - and in the process, get more efficiencies and effectiveness from your PR consultants.

These common mistakes - and my suggestions for easy fixes - may be particularly important knowledge for smaller businesses that are hiring their first PR consultants.

The Mistake

The first common mistake is to leave your PR firm alone.

You've located and hired your PR firm - check. You've given them a brain-dump on your business - check. Now, it's their job to "make news." Wrong.

It's their job to increase traffic to your web site, acquire more sales leads, obtain donations, get you votes and so on - in short, help you meet your marketing and business goals. Your PR people can't do this effectively if they don't know your goals, your target audiences, and other basics about your business - and when these basics change.

The Fix

First, start with a firm foundation. Give your PR firm a thorough briefing at the beginning of the relationship. Have them prepare a plan - this can be as simple as a few PowerPoint slides - that lists your goals, target audiences, key corporate and marketing milestones for the next three to six months, the PR program(s) with intended results and roles & responsibilities (including how much time you, the client, will invest in the program), and a quick accounting of how they plan to spend your budget, with any anticipated outside expenses.

Second, work out a process for keeping your PR firm updated. This can be anything from a quick weekly call, to a customized intranet or internal social network that's run by your PR firm. It does not matter what the process is - just have a process and stick with it.

Third, working together, update the plan every quarter as necessary.

With this framework in place, you can then let your PR people do their jobs. But they will not be truly effective if you (1) do not approve the plan and (2) do not keep them apprised about what's happening with your business.

Good PR consultants have best practices and can help you set up a working relationship that meets the needs of your business - including making the best use of your limited time. Take their advice - or, if they do not have any advice or best practices, get another firm.

Next: why it's a bad mistake to treat PR as an afterthought.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Social Media

Will the tragedy of the commons destroy social media?

In a previous article, I wrote about how certain types of antisocial behavior are harming social media. I called these characters The Blammer, the Drive-by Shooter and the Hitchhiker.

Today, I am adding one more character to my list: the Hijacker.

The Hijacker is a more intense, annoying and destructive version of the Drive-by Shooter. This person typically starts a discussion or discussion forum on a topic, then immediately hijacks it for other purposes (personal or professional).

Recently, I have seen this happen on LinkedIn, where some unqualified, marginally qualified or just plain disturbed people start Groups or join Groups then subvert them with out-of-context commercial content, off-topic discussions, and inappropriate comments - including personal attacks and romantic overtures (some alcohol-fueled, I am guessing).

For example: recently a member* of a Professional Group on LinkedIn posted what seemed to be a good question, although poorly structured and worded. Other members started responding in earnest – many with very useful, thoughtful comments, others with less-useful, off-topic comments. The discussion soon degraded into an unintelligible, off-topic mess with personal sniping between the person who posted the original question and several other members of the discussion. The discussion eventually got back on track – until it was derailed again by a long, off-topic comment and flirtatious overture to a female group member by the person who posed the original question. I left the discussion and deleted all my comments. I am now wary about participating in any discussions in this Group.

In another group, the CEO* of a large company posted a question that was naïve and confused –completely at odds with his industry stature. I read the question three times before I understood what was going on. He was overtly baiting people. Several people responded in earnest to his question. He then proceeded to excoriate and taunt those who responded for their naiveté. He dangled offers of work, asking people to respond privately; then later revealed parts of those private conversations in the discussion. This whole exercise was obviously a ham-handed attempt to promote his company’s services – products that replaced the type of people that he was trying to “hire.”

This is sad. LinkedIn is a great place for professionals to connect, collaborate and learn from each other. It is based on free-market principles. LinkedIn’s operator provides the framework, but LinkedIn members shape the content with their mutual interests. Members also shape the community by following unstated but mutually understood rules of etiquette.

Unfortunately, I fear that LinkedIn is falling victim to the tragedy of the commons. A few people are hijacking Groups and Discussions – the commons, or shared resources – and using them for their own self-interest. By putting their self-interest above the interests of the community, the hijackers are over-using and depleting the resources. The behavior of a few will eventually make the resource less valuable for all.

LinkedIn has established some basic controls and guidelines to help ensure the integrity of the community, such as the ability for Group administrators to pre-approve members and delete comments. But, at least in my recent experience, these basic controls aren’t universally applied.

As a professional, the best I can do is manage my own behavior so that I contribute constructively to LinkedIn and get the most benefit for my personal brand. This includes not participating in Groups and Discussions that have turned destructive.

My advice: If you really care about your personal brand and reputation, don’t try to fake your motives or your professional credentials/expertise. Many people do start Groups that are specific to a company or have a commercial goal, but they usually they state their objectives publicly.

If you want to participate in a Professional Group to learn the profession – admirable – do so – but listen, learn and contribute honestly. Before contributing, watch how others behave and get a feeling for the tenor of the Group or Discussion. There are a number of people on LinkedIn who do a great job of balancing self-interest (self-promotion) with the interests of the community – find some and learn from them.

Most people on LinkedIn are honest and helpful – which is what makes the service so valuable. Return the favor by not wasting people’s time and good will by injecting false motives or credentials into the system. Just because the bits are free doesn’t mean you should eat them all.

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

Monday, January 4, 2010

Six Words or Phrases to Ban from Marketing Writing in 2010

Resolve to set yourself apart by getting rid of the vague and the vacuous

In my many years as a marketer for technology, health care and consumer companies, I have gradually watched marketing become polluted by the vague and vacuous language popularized by politicians. As a result, much marketing writing has become white noise: everything sounds the same.

Smart marketers have an opportunity to break out of this white noise simply by using descriptive words instead of the vague and vacuous words that so many other marketers use.

As a consumer, when I see these words or phrases, I automatically write off the marketer as a poor or lazy thinker – or so uninspired by his own product that he can’t articulate its benefits more powerfully. Why in the world would I want to select this product?

Here are six of the more vague and vacuous words used in marketing today– and why you should ban them from your lexicon as a marketer.

“It’s All About”: “It” is very rarely “all about” anything, unless “it” is a work of art like a film, book or painting. “It’s all about” is not believable, except perhaps by the impulse buyer.

“Drive”: Do not use this if you aren’t talking about a motorized or animal-powered vehicle, or baseball. I am sure that this marketing gruel was cooked up by some expert: “It’s a very powerful word.” Allow me to point out that “drive” can be directionless: it can take you in reverse, off-course, or over a cliff. There is almost always a more precise and descriptive word. Here are some examples.

“Issues”: This is usually government-speak for problems that no one can define, no one wants to own or take responsibility for, and everyone has an opinion on – guaranteeing that they will never be solved and will eat up mass quantities of the federal budget. Why would you want to use this term in marketing? There is almost always a better word. Problem. Challenge. Opportunity. Controversy. Disagreement. Complication. All are stronger, more descriptive and more motivating words.

“Around, as in “our strategy around XX” where XX is anything other than “the world,” “the town,” or some other piece of geography: Often used by wimpy speakers and writers in place of more-precise words such as “for,” “about,” or “on.” It’s evasive and therefore has no place in marketing writing.

Here is an example:

In reporting about Intel’s latest technology for the home and office, an Intel blogger wrote: “Secondly, we are focusing our strategy around a primary 'hero' client brand which is Intel® Core™.” (italics added) Putting aside the concept of a primary “hero” client brand (?), if one is in fact “focusing” – a strong word that suggests directing one’s attention at a single point – how can one simultaneously be “around,” which suggests a circular or unfocused motion? The two terms conflict with each other. The use of “around” suggests confusion. Is the writer confused about his company’s “primary hero client brand?” If not, why didn’t he say “focusing our strategy on?”

Even scarier, here is “around” misused in a financial news release.

In disclosing his company’s second-quarter 2009 financial results, Citrix president and chief executive officer Mark Templeton said: “I’m pleased with our second quarter results. We are still in a tough economic climate, especially in the EMEA market, but our customers are embracing IT as an on-demand service, confirming our strategy around desktop virtualization, the next generation datacenter and SaaS.” (italics added)

Putting aside the barrage of buzzwords, I am confused. If the company really has a strategy, why not say “for” – or even better, “for taking advantage of” or “for making products to meet customer demand for” desktop virtualization, the next generation datacenter and SaaS. Desktop virtualization, the next-generation datacenter and SaaS are three fairly well-defined IT market segments or opportunities. By using “around,” the speaker makes it sound like the company’s strategy is just a pipe dream at this point.

“Smart,” when used to describe anything other than the intelligence of a person: Putting “smart” in front of the name of a mundane product does not (1) automatically make the product different/better/new or (2) make me feel better or more intelligent because I chose the product.

For example: As part of upgrading its guest bathrooms, Holiday Inn Express created a brand called Simply Smart.™ This brand applies to everything from the bathroom itself to the showerhead (ok, I might be able to believe this – fine engineering by Kohler), towels and amenities. Guests can buy Simply Smart products to take home at – where else – the Smart Mart.

One thing that isn’t very smart about these products is the labeling of its amenities: bottles prominently labeled “Wash,” “Tame,” and so on. It takes a bit of searching and very good eyesight to read the fine print that explains that “Wash” is in fact shampoo (and not bath gel or face scrub) and that “Tame” is hair conditioner (and not body lotion).

“Resonate, as in “it really resonated with our customers": What does this mean? I still don’t understand it. If it resonated with customers, perhaps this is because they are living inside an echo chamber, in which case it will be meaningless to prospects outside the echo chamber. Net result: lost sales.

By saying what you mean – with precise, descriptive words, not clichés or vague, politically correct words – you can engage, enlighten and inform people. You can dramatically distinguish your company and product from competitors, and establish yourself as a thoughtful marketer who really understands and cares about your audience.

Happy New Year.