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?