Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Marketers and Communications Pros - Listen and Listen Well

Five Tips for Bringing Back the Lost Art of Listening

As a marketing consultant and writer, I often collaborate on client projects with other marketing and communications consultants retained by the clients.  The purpose is usually to (1) collect information about the client’s business, strategy, products or expertise; (2) obtain the client’s feedback on programs that we have created; or (3) brainstorm with the client.

Collaborating with other professionals is almost always a good thing. It gives me the opportunity to work with other professionals who have complementary skills and who share my interest in making the client successful.

However, in the last few years, I have noticed a disturbing trend.  Many marketing and communications people don’t listen – usually to the detriment of the client and the project.

Here are a few examples of what I mean. 

  • In interviewing a CEO, a PR person loses critical time from a tight 30-minute timeslot with his ham-handed attempt at bonding with the CEO.  The false start not only wastes time, but also gets the “speed” interview off to a false start, from which it never truly recovers.
  • The head of a PR firm talks on and on about social media 101, without taking a breath. She is apparently unaware of the client’s familiarity with the subject – and his growing irritation in being talked down to.
  • In conducting an interview with a customer for a case study, a marketing person deviates on the very first question on the list that was sent to the customer in advance. Instead of asking the short, open-ended question, the marketer twists it into a loaded question that reflects his own biases – and shows how “smart” he is. The customer is so confused that she asks that the question be repeated.  The interview is derailed, and the client’s careful preparation wasted.
In all three cases, the problem was lack of listening.  The PR person, agency head and the marketer were all intent on talking about themselves or talking to themselves instead of listening to the client. They were falling short on their jobs as professional communicators: understanding what the other person wants, needs and values – and what knowledge he can contribute to the project or program. 

I’m certainly not immune to this.  Recently, I caught myself blathering on and on about some obscure detail.  The client was polite but annoyed, and I apologized later for not being a better listener.

One challenge:  Technology can often work against us.  Many meetings and interactions today take place over the telephone or via audio-only Web conferences. Without the benefit of body language, we often lose important cues about whether we are talking too much, or whether the listener is confused, irritated or bored.  In addition, even the best communications systems introduce a time delay – even if it is barely perceptible – creating an asynchronous discussion.  As a result, we should all listen harder and be more creative in our approaches to listening.

Here are five tips for being a better professional listener:

Stick to the agenda: If the purpose of your conversation is mainly to elicit information from the client, put your energy and focus on that. When preparing for conducting a telephone interview, I usually send along a short bio in advance with my list of questions. The list of questions also includes a sentence about the goal of the interview. This cuts down the need for extraneous conversation before you get to work listening.

Stop selling:  Don’t waste time selling yourself – you’ve already got the business, or you wouldn’t be on the call, right?  Conversely, if you’re already on shaky ground, you’ll just make things worse.  In arranging the call or conference, send a brief agenda with names and titles in advance. I am amazed at how many meetings or calls waste time with introductions – an open-ended opportunity for people to sell themselves, based on their agendas – when simple business etiquette could have nipped this in the bud.

Slow down:  Speak clearly and more slowly than you do in person. Take a beat at the end of sentences, so people have an opportunity to break in and ask a question or make a comment. This will help prevent the conversation from getting off track.

Don’t assume:  Before delving into a soliloquy about a subject, ask your audience about his level of familiarity; then adjust your explanation accordingly. You’ll win points for empathy and brevity, as well as save some energy.  Everyone wins.

Watch” for verbal cues:  Train yourself to listen for verbal cues in people’s voices: irritation, satisfaction, confusion and so on.  Some body language does come through the phone line or the web. This is the reason that I always try to smile when I am on telephone calls – and sit up straight so that I don’t compress my diaphragm and “depress” my speech. People can tell.  Hint: practice recognizing body language with your spouse or business partner. Have him or her talk to you with various facial expressions, while you have your eyes closed.

Whenever you’re in doubt about the value of talking, stop and take a breath.  You’ll feel better – and just maybe jog yourself back into creative listening.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Outsourcing Your Social Media Marketing? Beware.

How to Avoid Out-of-Brand Experiences that Wreck Your Credibility

Social media marketing is the hot marketing trend today – so much so that many marketers can’t get enough of it fast enough. Some marketers are choosing to outsource their social media marketing programs, or portions of them. And there is no shortage of social media marketing “experts” ready to take your money and take on your brand.

And possibly trash your brand, as Chrysler recently found out. An employee of Chrysler’s social media marketing agency posted a Tweet that included profanity and criticized the marketer’s home town. In short: the employee stepped out of brand, making a personal comment that reflected negatively on the Chrysler brand. Although Chrysler responded promptly and decisively, the situation was a black eye for the brand, and the agency lost the business.

I can understand why companies – particularly larger ones – may choose to outsource their social media marketing presence. But I wonder how many realize the risks – and take steps to protect themselves?

Before you entrust your brand to someone – be it a social media marketing agency or an enthusiastic employee – make sure that he understands, respects and cares for your brand as much as you do. The most important part of social media marketing is the social part: the people who converse on your behalf. So choose carefully and plan wisely.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Who’s representing my brand? As a former corporate public relations manager, I always wanted to know exactly who from our PR firm would be representing my company to the media – preferably a seasoned, knowledgeable business person and not the newest hire. Fast-forward to 2011: why wouldn’t I want to know exactly who would be representing my company and brand to the world via social media?

Understand who is representing your brand: his qualifications, his feelings about your product or company, his demeanor. Ask to meet and interview that person. Picture yourself talking with this person at a bar or a softball game. How does it feel? If your feelings are anything but positive, ask for someone else on your account.

What are the rules? Create a written social media policy that everyone understands and agrees to. Keep it simple – a page or so. List what you will talk about, what you won’t talk about, and how to handle special situations (such as negative comments or product complaints). It’s usually prudent to review your social media policy with your legal counsel.

Have three to five brand attributes that your social media reps should adhere to and convey during social media conversations. Better still, print this information on an index card that reps can post on their computer monitors, or create a note that they can reference from their mobile devices.

If you are outsourcing your social media marketing to an outside firm, ask how the firm trains and supervises its people. Also ask about policies for handling and reporting errors.

Finally, make sure to incorporate social media into your crisis communications plan – as a potential crisis not just part of your media mix.

What’s my technology risk? HootSuite, TweetDeck and other applications can automate social media posting for both individuals and teams. Technology can be good when it makes you more efficient, smarter, and more scientific about what you’re doing. But technology can also be bad if it replaces common sense, caution or thinking.

Understand the risks in the tools that you use. For example, the HootSuite dashboard gives you a birds-eye (no pun intended) view of multiple Twitter accounts, using a single log-in. You can post a single Tweet to one or all of the accounts in a single step. It’s all too easy, if you are not careful, to post a Tweet to the wrong account.

This simple mistake may not be a tragedy if it involves your personal accounts. But what if you’re mixing multiple client accounts – or multiple brand personas – in a single dashboard?

So, use technology defensively, not just prospectively. For example: clearly separate personal social media accounts from official brand accounts.

Also, use technology as a buffer or a sanity-check. For example: HootSuite allows you to schedule Tweets – great for when you are going to be on an airplane when you want a Tweet to hit. However, I often make use of the scheduling feature to sanity-check important Tweets before publication; by scheduling a Tweet 15 minutes into the future, I can proofread the Tweet and check any links or cross-references before it is published.

The bottom line: think before you Tweet or post. Most social media are relatively forgiving – you can sometimes correct errors if you are quick about it. However, the social media audience is usually less forgiving – as Chrysler and Aflac now know all too well. A faux pas by a major brand can be around the world – and on its way to “viral” – in seconds. A moment’s thought can often prevent heartbreak.

My advice is to spend time thoughtfully designing, testing and bullet-proofing your program up-front – no matter who is going to run it for you. This investment will pay off.

Businesses that treat social media marketing as a checklist item will get what they pay for: good and hard.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mea Culpa Marketing: Does It Work?

Is “Going Viral” Worth It if It Kills the Host?

As consumers, we’re increasingly being assaulted with marketing campaigns that irritate us, shock us and enrage us. The new formula goes something like this:

• Marketer creates and airs a television campaign that blatantly insults or stereotypes a segment of the population, depicts anti-social behavior, or is just in plain bad taste. (Yes, the latter is still possible to achieve if one works hard enough, even with today’s low bar.)

• Consumers recoil in horror. They flock to social media, posting thousands of messages about the campaign.

• Marketer pretends to be stunned by the market response, and suggests that it never dreamed its campaign would offend so many people.

• Marketer issues apology. It enlists the Professionally Offended – for example, advocacy groups or academic experts– to assist in its rehabilitation. It makes some sort of charitable donation to the offended group(s). Mainstream and social media duly report on the mea culpa, creating another wave of free news coverage for the marketer.

Recent high-profile examples of mea culpa marketing include:

Groupon: This marketer used the plight of the Tibetan people as the introduction for discounted coupons for Himalayan restaurants, chirped with a smug face by actor Timothy Hutton.

HomeAway: This marketer apparently thought it hilarious to launch an infant (played by a doll and labeled “test baby”) into a wall or through it. And even more hilarious to give people a Web-site game where they could place someone’s face on a baby before launching it.

Kraft: This marketer used a scolding, black-clad Greek grandmother to sell Greek yogurt to young women, raising hackles in the Greek-American community.

Mea culpa marketing campaigns tend to proliferate at Super Bowl time. Businesses that have invested millions in TV production and time – including startups – clearly want to get the most out of their investments. Super Bowl advertising has become a mini-industry, attracting lots of press coverage by the mainstream media and consumer engagement on social media. It’s apparently no longer good enough to aim to be the best commercial. Or even the worst commercial, securing your brand’s place in infamy. Marketers today have to really think creatively about how to break through the clutter.

As a consumer, I resent being so blatantly manipulated by marketers. And I respond accordingly, by shunning the marketer and not buying its products.*

As a marketer, I am curiously waiting to see the net effect of these campaigns. The cynic in me believes that many of these offensive campaigns were completely intentional. How could a professional marketer think that launching a baby (albeit fake) into a wall would possibly be perceived as okay by most people? Or that it is funny to exploit the plight of politically oppressed people to sell restaurant meals to overfed Americans?

As a marketer in the pre-Internet days, I was involved in my share of bad-news marketing situations. Our policy was to act quickly and decisively to acknowledge the situation, take corrective action, and then communicate the action thoroughly and clearly. The goal was to prevent press coverage of the story from extending beyond one or two days maximum.

Clearly times have changed, mostly because of the Internet. Groupon appeared to stumble around for days in responding to its situation, extending the story for nearly a week after the Super Bowl broadcast.

Time will tell whether these mea culpa marketing campaigns were profitable for the marketers.

In the meantime, here are some observations.

There is no such thing as an inside joke any more: The Internet brings anyone and everyone to your campaigns, not just the people you are targeting. This means people of different cultures who speak different languages and so on. Someone will be confused, or offended, or both. Your inside joke may be their first – and only – exposure to your brand.

The Offended is big business: There are private advocacy groups that represent segments of the population (for example, Greek-Americans) or problems (child abuse, brain injuries, political oppression in Tibet). There are also published authors, academics, government organizations and NGOs. All can be counted on to respond to a mea culpa campaign, because their missions, businesses and livelihoods depend on it. Further, today social media gives virtually anyone who is offended a platform for expressing himself – and a ready platform for such forms of expression as organizing a worldwide boycott of your product, inciting the vandalizing of your premises, or harassing your executives.

Most consumers have short memories: Particularly given information overload, consumers over time may remember your brand or company name, but not why they remember it. And, once they have vented their initial outrage online, many consumers will move on to the next thing and may continue to buy your product. The lure of discounts for restaurant meals may win out over moral outrage – particularly for people feeding families in today’s economy. Or not.

The Internet has a long memory: Conversely, a quick search on Google or Bing will instantly remind a curious consumer why they heard of you. Far into the future.

So, before considering a mea culpa marketing strategy, ask yourself: “Do I feel lucky?” All the market research in the world may not help.

According to Nielsen, Groupon’s Super Bowl ads boosted traffic to the company ‘s Web site by only 3%. By comparison, HomeAway’s post-Super Bowl traffic was up 27%.

* Obviously, I am contributing to the wave of press coverage of bad behavior.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Three Ways to Wreck a Marketing Interview

Tips for Fixing Common Mistakes in Marketing Interviews

As a business writer and marketing consultant, I conduct a lot of interviews, many of them by telephone. I interview my clients’ customers, partners, external consultants and internal experts to obtain information, insights and “color commentary.” I have conducted more than a thousand interviews over the course of my career.

Sometimes I am asked to participate in interviews conducted by other people. From these interviews, I have observed common interviewer behaviors that undermine the interview process.

Here are the three most common mistakes, with tips for preventing them. (For purposes of this article, I refer to the interviewee as “the speaker.”)

Deviating from the Questions: Experienced interviewers almost always send a list of questions to the speaker in advance. If the speaker has the questions in advance, he can prepare better. (Even experienced speakers appreciate this opportunity.) At a minimum, the speaker knows the goal of the interview, what to expect and roughly how long the interview will last.

If you send the questions, stick to them – particularly at the beginning of the interview. If you begin with a different question than the speaker expects, you will likely rattle him and get the interview off to a rocky start (from which it may not recover). An experienced speaker – one who participates in many interviews – may be able to roll with the punches; however, other speakers may become distracted or even terrified by a starter question from left field.

Tip: Follow the questions provided in advance. To ask questions not on the list, look for natural opportunities to work them in – later in the interview. Interviewers call this technique “branching.” It works.

Interrupting the Speaker: In the interest of moving the interview along, inexperienced interviewers may interrupt the speaker – usually cutting in at the end of the sentence. Resist this! It’s the number-one interview killer. When you interrupt the speaker, you interrupt his train of thought, which slows down the interview and hurts content quality. Worse, speakers often deliver the best content at the end of sentences – which you will “clip off” if you interrupt. Poof – gone forever.

Tips: Train yourself not to interrupt. (It took me years to train myself.) Practice on your colleagues and friends. Also, record your practice interviews so that you are aware of your interruption habits (and other not-so-good habits.)

Try this instead of interrupting: When a speaker arrives at the end of a sentence, silently count to three before asking your next question. In fact, before moving to the next question, I often will ask: “Anything else about [insert topic of the question here]?” Often, the speaker will have an additional thought that (a) succinctly sums up his answer (sound bite!) or (b) gives you the headline for your marketing document.

Special Bonus Tip: The habit of interrupting usually develops because inexperienced interviewers pack too many questions into the allotted time for the interview. I typically allow one question for every four to five minutes. If you finish your questions early, you will get points from the speaker – or you can ask another wrap-up question. (Wrap-up questions often yield the best content of all, because at this point your speaker is completely warmed up and relaxed.)

Meandering: In the courtroom, lawyers never ask a question to which they don’t know the answer. In a marketing interview, experienced interviewers never ask a question that doesn’t contribute to the purpose of the interview. Experienced interviewers go into interviews with an end-result in mind. For example: you want the speaker to validate (or invalidate) an idea, or to provide three ways that your product helped his business.

Don’t attempt to turn an interview (a structured Q&A) into a free-form brainstorming session crammed with many different topics. It never works. You will confuse and usually irritate your speaker, and you will generally not get useful content. If you want to conduct a brainstorming session, define it that way and state your purpose in advance.

Tip: Clearly understand and state the purpose of the interview in advance; include details on how you plan to use the information, the content approval process, and the timeline for your project. An interview is a process – not a transaction – and providing context will help the speaker through the process. If you insist on asking a “while-I-have-you-here” question during the interview, allow time for it at the end.

A great interview is like a river. It gently flows, providing new insights and delights as it turns around the bends. Occasionally, it reveals rapids or a rock. However, if you picture the interview as a river, you will keep the canoe upright and navigate around obstructions – or turn them into productive, instead of destructive, moments.

For more tips on conducting successful interviews, see “The Customer Interview and How to Ace It" and "The Customer Interview and How to Ace It - Part II."

Happy interviewing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do Your Customers See Dead People?

The Importance of Looking at Your Business with the Customer’s Eye

When your customers interact with your business, do they deal with real people? Or mindless automation? And how do you know?

Automation and the human touch clearly aren’t mutually exclusive in customer interaction. Businesses like Zappos.com have proven this. And many smaller businesses are proving it through the use of social media. Properly used, social media mixes live people with automation to help find customers and make fans.

But a lot of businesses get customer interaction wrong: dead wrong. They make easily avoidable mistakes – in spite of the millions that companies invest in automation and in software for monitoring the customer experience.

Often, it’s the little things. Consider the story of the national debt collection agency that robo-signed a dead employee’s name to thousands of affidavits in debt-collection lawsuits.

Beyond landing the company in the public eye and under regulators’ scrutiny, what sort of message does this practice send about the company? If they make this kind of mistake with legal paperwork, what else might be wrong at the company?

We’ve learned that the financial industry is a bit of a protected species, so perhaps it doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of the business world. However, other companies – including large, publicly held companies in other industries – often suffer from the same disease.

In his book Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Instantly Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now, David Meerman Scott recounts his experiment with contacting the Fortune 100. A prominent blogger and contributing editor to publications, David contacted, via email, the media relations people at each company, with an inquiry for an article he was writing; he included his journalism credentials. He heard back from 28 of the 100. The relative response times for the companies ranged from snappy (10 minutes) to never, and a number involved inane and completely irrelevant robo-responses. (His experience in finding whom to contact is a story in itself.)

Why was this so hard? David was a customer: a journalist writing about a public company. All of these companies make a pretense of being reachable. They all have Web sites – often lavish Web sites. Many have automated forms and links on their Web sites. But the system breaks down there for many. So much for the real-time economy.

More recently, I was thwarted in reaching a firm in the information publishing business. I tried every avenue (except the US Postal Service). I navigated a confusing phonemail tree and left a detailed message in their general mailbox. I clicked on their Press Inquiry link on their Web site – and had three emails bounce back (I tried from both my email client and Webmail). I finally identified the human being who might be able to help me. But my personal email to that person was never returned, nor did I receive a response from the handy contact form that they provided on the contact’s bio on their Web site.

My recommendation: Marketers or business owners should regularly test their customers’ experience with the business. Personally. Beyond any automated testing you may do. Or secret shoppers you may employ. What’s it like to buy from your company? Return a product? Get a question answered? What does it feel like?

True, as a marketer or business owner, you can never be 100% objective about your own business. But just spending an hour in the customers’ shoes might be a revelation.

When I was working for an advertising agency many years ago, a retail client hired us to walk through a few of their locations “with the customer’s eye.” Yes, the results were subjective – and perhaps even biased, you may say – but they were very human. And the results added a dimension to the retailer's traditional research.

The good news is that small changes can often make a big difference.

Here are three obvious places to start:

Your Web Site: Test the email addresses, contact forms and links. Do they work? How quickly do you get a response? Is the response relevant? Coherent? Indecipherable? Lawyer-ese for “go away?”

Your Phone System: Make sure that your phonemail is easily navigable. Have a process and schedule for checking the general mailbox and routing or responding to the inquiries.

It’s also helpful if the automated voice on the system matches your brand. It’s disconcerting to a call a bank or brokerage firm and hear what appears to be a five-year-old girl answering. Pick the person on your staff who most represents your brand – a successful broker or financial adviser, in this case – and have that person make the recording. Or outsource this task to a firm that specializes in this type of thing.

Your Social Media Program: Have a protocol for responding to questions to your company on social media. Promptly. Most large companies – particularly those that consciously use social media for customer service (such as Comcast) – have this down pat, often using teams of people with real names and faces. For better or worse, these companies are setting the bar for all companies. Respond to queries promptly, and in the tone of your brand.

Remember that these forms of electronic media are proxies for your brand. They should reflect the personality of your brand, even though they are automation not actual people.

Or, you can continue to let your customers see dead people – and suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Navigating a Corporate Crisis: Would You Sail or Fail?

Why Every Business Needs A Crisis Management and Crisis Communications Plan

As part of its year-end analysis of 2010, The Wall Street Journal published a post-mortem on the top corporate crises of the year – from BP’s Gulf oil spill to Toyota’s safety recall. With the help of crisis-communications and crisis-management experts, the article briefly examines each crisis, how effectively the company responded, and what the company might have done differently to achieve a better outcome.

While I disagree with some of the statements in the article,* it contains some useful lessons and ideas for every business.

The main lesson: Every company – even smaller businesses – should have a crisis communications plan in place. Smaller companies may not be in the public eye or under government scrutiny as much as larger, publicly held companies. However, smaller companies may be less able than larger companies to absorb the business damage from crises such as a product problem or a fire.

Professional PR or reputation management consultants can often be extremely helpful in such a crisis, but they can be pricey. If you are a smaller business on a tight budget, you can create your own crisis communications plan. It’s mostly common sense.

Here are a few tips:

First, define the most likely crises. What are the most likely crises that could happen in your business? What are the likely elements of the crisis (for example, interest by your local media)? Describe the scenario in detail. You can’t anticipate every possible scenario, obviously, but at least you will have some crisis thinking in place.

Next, outline a brief plan of action for each scenario. For example, in the event of a serious customer complaint that “goes viral” on social media, what is your policy for dealing with customer complaints? Do you refund or replace, without question? Or require a return? Does the policy need to be revisited? Then, define how you will communicate your actions and to which audiences. What’s the most efficient way to reach each audience?

Create a phone or email “tree” of the people in the company who need to be notified or involved in resolving the crisis. Keep it detailed but short and updated. In some cases, you may want to include your legal counsel on the tree.

Identify key members of the media and other important channels for reaching your audience, such as local business leaders or industry analysts. Make sure you have current contact information for each person.

Identify who will be your media spokesperson, and make sure that that person is readily available to the media via cellphone and email.

Write everything down, and share your plan with managers and executives. Make sure that everyone understands the process – and who to contact if they have questions.

Don’t forget employees. Make sure that line employees – often the first people to become aware of a crisis – know the process. Typically, you do not want non-authorized employees speaking to the media on behalf of the company. So, tell employees simply and exactly what they should do. Don’t leave them guessing in the heat of the moment about what to do or who to contact.

Always do a post-mortem. After any crisis, analyze how well your process worked. Update your process as necessary, in writing. Don’t forget to close the loop by briefing employees on how you handled the crisis and answering any questions they may have. Employees also may have ideas for improvement.

Don’t forget social media. Social media can accelerate some crises, by broadcasting the event and enabling lots of public discussion. On the plus side, social media – a company blog, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – can help assuage crises by giving you a real-time, unfiltered way to convey information and engage in a direct dialog with your audiences.

If you are already using social media, make sure you include social media in your plans. If you are not using social media, familiarize yourself with it now because it more than likely will play a role in your crisis. Members of the traditional media (magazines, newspapers, local media, and Web press) participate in social media, and may use social media discussion as a source for information or stories.

In a crisis, it’s important to respond to public discussion using the same media. For example, if a customer complaint goes viral on Twitter, you must respond on Twitter (although you may use other media as well). That’s where the audience is. Ignore it at your peril.

David Meerman Scott’s book, Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Instantly Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now, contains some great advice about using real-time media in a crisis (see pages 124-131).

Obviously, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible crisis. However, if you follow the steps above, you will have a template in place to work from. You won’t be starting with a blank piece of paper if a crisis does happen.

Finally, view every crisis as an opportunity to deepen your engagement with customers. By doing the right thing and communicating it quickly and effectively, you may end up with more customers and an improved reputation.

*Particularly that the oil spill was unexpected (I think it was inevitable)