Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Determining Social Media's Value Can Be A Difficult Proposition

Ever since the first blog went live, PR pros have been trying to figure out how to capitalize on the medium on behalf of clients. And while social media is in many ways no longer an experiment, determining its actual value largely still is.

There are lots of great social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others. Some have a decidedly more business-oriented focus like LinkedIn, but basically they all purport to bring like minded people together in the name of establishing valuable relationships.

Although it took some time from the emergence of MySpace and other networks for businesses to pay close attention to the trend, soon companies started trying to figure out is what value should be placed on the trend as a whole and which networks should receive priority in their marketing efforts. Once that happened, PR agencies started opening new media practices and there were also a host of social media evangelists that hit the Web espousing their value. And while some of them have certainly proven popular, the jury's still out as to whether social media is a trend that's worth a significant investment of a business' time and/or money.

In a recent report titled "Exploring the Link Between Customer Care and Brand Reputation in the Age of Social Media," the Society for New Communications Research examined how consumers are using social networks and which ones they value. While 74 percent of respondents say they choose companies and brands based on the experiences shared online by customers, most still indicated they used conventional search engines for their research rather than social media networks. In fact, several leading social networks scored poorly when it comes to consumer influence, with only 39 percent saying they used micro-blogging sites like Twitter or Pownce; 27 percent used YouTube and 22 percent turned to Facebook and MySpace.

Not surprisingly, technology and e-commerce companies tended to dominate the online discussion landscape, with Dell Computer Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. taking top honors as the companies most often discussed by consumers online. That said, those who do turn to social media networks are a desirable demographic, with an average net income of more than $100,000; most are college educated and range from 25-55 years old.

As with all things new, especially those involving technology, there's been a rush to adopt social media networks. One of the problems, however, is the fact that the social media sector is still quite decentralized, with several companies trying to jockey for the lead spots in the marketplace. This makes it especially hard for companies to know which investments will generate reliable returns. Historically, in the early phases of a new trend's emergence, this factor hasn't mattered very much; however, the fact that little attention has been paid to a return on investment has meant that technology-related trends have experienced harsher than normal boom and bust cycles.

I was in a discussion earlier today with a group of legal marketing executives and a consultant who helps law firms set up their own blogs. The discussion originally started when an executive asked others whether they used Twitter, and if so, how? That spawned a lengthy conversation as to whether social media is judged in the same vein as other marketing activities and, if so, how a return-on-investment can be reasonably calculated. Even though the cost to set up a social media presence may be minimal, there should still be goals set and those should ideally be linked to a positive impact on a company's bottom line; after all, no matter what business you're in, time really does equal money.

The blogging consultant was of the mind that people responsible for bringing in business do the best when they're engaging in activities they truly enjoy under the theory that the use of these mediums mean a firm has the opportunity to reach potential customers that their competitors, who aren't embracing the platforms, are missing. That's certainly theoretically possible, although I suspect it will be some time before we really know for sure.

In the meantime, I still encourage companies – especially small and mid-size firms with limited PR and/or marketing budgets – to continue mining opportunities within conventional media channels. Those channels may not be as “sexy” as social media, but they still deliver an audience of many potential customers with desirable demographics.

Do It Yourself PR Isn't The Value It May Seem

Anyone who practices public relations has probably run into a business owner of some type who started chatting them up about a new, "do-it-yourself" book on public relations that makes PR out to be something almost anybody can do with only a little reading. If only it were that easy.

As with many professions that don't require licensure or advanced credentials, PR has come to be one of those things almost everybody thinks they can do as well or better than those currently doing it. It seems almost every month, there's a new book by a former TV or print journalist or some type of business expert that promises to tell you all you need to know about PR in about 200 pages. While these books may do a decent job of touching on the basics, they leave out a lot of details that are key in determining the success of a campaign.

The biggest problem with the "do-it-yourself PR" view is it completely overlooks the fact that a business owner will almost never be able to look at their business subjectively. By that I mean, if they were to talk to a journalist about their business, they'd hype to the extreme and often make it difficult for a journalist to tell what their compelling value proposition is. In a world where at best you have about two or three minutes to make your case, a bad approach to a journalist can blow a potential opportunity quickly.

Also, business owners have no formal experience in putting together a message that's part of a larger trend. Anyone whose been successful in PR will tell you that's the difference between success and failure; in other words, don't position your company in a self-serving way, but rather in a way that will have readers and viewers feeling it's "news you can use."

This will certainly be no surprise since I'm in the PR business, but I firmly believe that there are enough "mission-critical" things for business owners – especially small-business owners – to be doing that they should focus on the day-to-day tasks associated with administering the core function of their business.

While it may seem simple to fire off an e-mail or make a phone call to a reporter you've seen write stories on subjects that are similar to your business, a poor approach will not only cost you time, but will potentially leave the reporter with a negative feeling that might be very hard to recover from. As someone who spent a decade as a journalist, I can honestly tell you I remember people who made very bad PR pitches and once I was put through a bad pitch or two, it was very unlikely that I'd consider doing a future story on the company in question.

I also realize that entrepreneurs are often tempted to handle almost everything on their own. Their reasoning is nobody can do things as well as they can and/or no one can understand their business as well. While it's not always easy to think of someone else helping to market your own company, it can often be a smart move. Your options are two-fold: either bring someone in-house to handle the efforts or hire a consultant. The chief benefit of the latter is you'll get a higher level of experience for the fees you pay than if you were to use an equivalent amount of money and put that toward a full-time hire. Not to mention the fact that you'll be relieved of payroll taxes and other burdens associated with employees.

Ideally, you'll locate someone to help you who has substantial experience working with small companies and/or start-ups. They'll be able to sit down with you and help determine what your compelling advantage is and how best to communicate that. You should also be willing to accept honest feedback about your messaging and be willing to put into place the recommendations that your consultant makes. While it's never easy to hear anything that resembles a critical word, it's better it comes from someone working on your behalf than a journalist or other key stakeholder.

When meeting with a prospective PR counselor, make sure you're clear with him/her about what you want to achieve and give as much information as you can that will help the counselor. Even though a seasoned PR pro will be able to give you a lot of guidance on how to structure an effective message, their success will depend on large part on the quantity and quality of information you supply them.

If you retain an outside PR professional, make sure they're kept up to date on new hires, new product/service launches, new office openings and other events that can be translated into stories and briefs in business and trade publications. Most any successful PR pro will tell you the more information they have, the better. This will allow them to respond quickly to journalists they know are working on stories for which you're company will be a fit and/or to answer requests from reporters who might be considering a story on your company but need more information first to seal the deal.

Lastly, when embarking on a new PR campaign, remember to give it time. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, it's not realistic to expect hits to start rolling in immediately. While I've scored major media hits for new clients right out of the gate, I would never tell a prospective client that it's likely, simply because if relatively few people know about a company and what it does, it takes time to educate them on who a company is and why they're worthy of media mention. However, with the right blend of cooperation and experience, the hits will come.

Trades Can Often Be A Good Sale

To public relations professionals, dropping the names of top-tier outlets in which they've secured clips for their clients is a sort of “A list” approach to selling. While it does indeed make for an impressive feat in many ways, it's not always the best method over the long term.

It's understandable that clients like to see their names in top-tier publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Simply put, meeting that bar gives a sense of validation to a company that sets it apart from its competitors. While they will unquestionably raise a company's visibility level, their impact on sales in many cases won't be all that dramatic.

To put it in simple terms, let's reflect on the old, familiar slogan used by USA Today, which is "not the most words, just the right ones." I think it makes sense to look at media outlets and campaigns in the same way. While it's natural to take pride over having your name seen by hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions of readers, stop and consider how many of those readers are prospective customers of your client's product or service? In all likelihood, there's a good chance that number is relatively small. This, of course, is especially true in the case of a company that sells primarily to businesses and not consumers.

Trades serve a much narrower, more focused audience; while their circulation is definitely smaller, many are widely read in their industries by key executives who turn to them for the latest in product developments and a whole host of industry news. Another big benefit of trade publications are reader-service cards. They provide actual sales prospects because readers actually go the extra step of volunteering to receive more information on a featured company's product or service.

Even better, most publications will send you periodic reports containing a detailed list of sales prospects who've submitted those cards. This information can easily be imported into a company's database for sales tracking purposes. In addition to the obvious benefit of having actual names and contact information for prospective customers, the feedback allows a sales team to put together a sort of “geographic hit list” based on the sales inquiries. This allows them to spend more time chasing qualified prospects rather than cold calling or some other method that doesn't yield much efficiency. So, for example, a client can often say that a specific story in a trade publication generated X number of leads and that translated into X number of sales.

Trade publications also often make for great case studies, since placements in them will generate qualified leads and sales. For example, I've been able to craft a number of successful “David vs. Goliath” story pitches that have resulted in stories chronicling how a small company in an industry vertical dominated by one or more large companies found a niche that separated them from the competition. By using a time-tested formula that presents a problem and goes on to describe how a company solved it, case studies serve as a sort of “how to” road map that other companies can follow. Think of it as the corporate America version of “news you can use.” Just as traditional media outlets love those kinds of stories, business and trade publications often do as well.

Another obvious benefit trades provide is the opportunity to expand your media target horizon. For every sector that a company sells to, there's almost certainly a fair number of publications that track the industry. By getting to know the publications, their editors/reporters and what they write about, you can create several pitches with each one containing specific information about how your client addresses a key need businesses in the industry have.

Unfortunately for PR pros and their clients alike, many PR counselors are afraid to give any kind of counsel that does anything but parrot and cheer on what the client says they want. So, for example, if the client says they want The New York Times, their PR pro in most cases says, "sure, we'll go get it." Again, high-level placements can indeed be very valuable; that said, just as much time should be spent ensuring your reaching a proper target audience and that's where trades play a key role.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Client Does Some Negative PR On Its Own Agency

Every public relations agency around has at one time or another helped one of its clients handle a situation with a negative consequence. While that may be a staple of the business, the industry was abuzz this week following a well-publicized efforts by one agency's client to flip the situation around.

Clean Air Gardening, a Dallas-based retailer of environmentally-friendly gardening and lawn-care supplies, went public this week with its battle against Christie Communications, its public relations agency. The company claims it was a victim of poor reputation once Christie Communications sent out a press release without its approval and created a press kit that, as Clean Air Gardening puts it, "was so badly designed and riddled with errors, that it looked to me as if a middle school student had created it for a school project."

These issues led Clean Air to decide to fire the agency immediately, which set off a back and forth tussle between client and agency. Basically, the company is alleging that it should receive a refund for the $12,500 in fees paid to the firm based on the poor quality of work provided.

CleanAir President Ron Hundley says he tried on several occasions to work things out with the firm, but couldn't get company executives to return his phone calls and e-mails. After going public with the dispute, he did receive a response from the firm that detailed the work that had been done on his behalf, which he took issue with.

Upon receiving is latest complaint, the company reportedly accused him of libel and defamation as a result of claims made on the Web site he uses to air his dispute. In his latest response, Hundley has advised the firm to send specific examples of factual inaccuracies on the site and he also claims he offered to take the matter to mediation in mid-September.

While this is certainly an extreme example, it points to issues that can quickly spiral out of control when there's a dispute regarding work done for a client. Although no assurances can be made that these situations can be avoided in all cases, if the client's allegations that the firm stopped responding and/or making an effort to resolve the dispute are true, they illustrate how important it is to not only handle such issues as both quickly and cautiously.

Monday, October 06, 2008

This Is a Chance to Reinvent

By now, most everyone who follows business and economics concedes that we're likely in a recession. While it's unknown just how deep things will go and what it will mean for individual sectors and businesses within them, it's important to note that it presents opportunities as well as challenges.

One of the things I've always maintained is that the business world, and the U.S. in particular, needs to refocus the way it thinks about work. Although the majority of American workers are now white-collar or "knowledge" workers, the way we go about our day largely reflects an approach that's rooted back in the industrial age. We have set work days, devise uniform policies that treat large groups of workers alike and don't really have any systems in place to reward superior individual contributions, apart from one-time "atta boys."

Worse still, refusing to change the way we think about work has led to many outmoded models that reflect increased costs. While sales professionals and client-facing personnel are often out of the office as part of their duties, we cluster everyone who has administrative or management tasks into expensive office space that accounts for one of any company's largest expenses.

There are some companies that have shifted away from this model, particularly companies that are based on the "freelance" consulting model, like Axiom Legal; that said, there's no reason more can't adopt it. Now's a perfect chance to do just that and not only bring about a scenario that's a lower-cost environment, but one that's more productive as well. Study after study points to increased productivity gains when more flexible work arrangements are adopted, pointing to a scenario that's truly a win-win for everybody.

Since it's usually the case that by the time an economic downturn brings a panic-like scenario, such as we're seeing even today on the world market stage, there's a good chance that we'll be in this mode for a while. Let's not miss this opportunity to stop talking about superficial methods of streamlining and gaining efficiency and truly taking a look at the way we look for the better.