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Hi, I'm Tom Woolf and I have been practicing public relations and offering marketing communications strategies for 20 years. And I'm still learning from people like you. Drop me a line!

  • 26Jan

    I wanted to share an interesting blog from today’s Daily Fix on MarketingProfs contributed by David Reich of Reich Communications. In light of the changes in the role of today’s marketing professionals, the PRSA has been struggling to update the formal definition of Public Relations. They solicited input from their membership and 625 responses were distilled into three definitions. Reich sees flaws in all of them, center_prand so do I. You would think that professionals who deal with branding and brand communications for a living would be able to find a better way to define their own profession, but then this definition has become more challenging because the rules dictating PR have changed.

    I, personally, have been struggling with how to label my evolving role in the marketing and communications process. People ask me, “What do you do?” and I reply, “I’m in public relations.” What image does that conjure up? If you are old school (like me) you think of the characters from Mad Men, schmoozing reporters over cocktails and trying to get stories printed about your clients. Although that perception is antiquated, I know it’s still out there.

    Others who have worked with PR people that our job has to do with helping our clients refine their market message, package it, and get the word out to people who need to hear it. It used to be that our primary job wasn’t really public relations, but rather media relations. Sure, the clients needed help refining their story, identifying what might be newsworthy, and then creating materials like press releases to tell the story, but if I wasn’t working the phone and pumping the story with reporters and the trade editors I clearly wasn’t doing my job. Clients wanted press coverage, period, and that meant getting in front of the media influencers.

    These days, the “public” is back in public relations. Sure a lot of my job still consists of a calling on editors and dealing with the media to promote client news, but now that the Web serves as a self-service news bureau, so it’s equally important to format brand messages to reach consumers and target customers directly. I spend more of my time feeding blogs and developing SEO strategies than I do pitching editors.

    So how does this all translate into the latest definitions of “public relations” as refined by the PRSA? Here are the three definitions that are currently up for consideration:

    Definition No. 1:

    Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.

    Definition No. 2:

    Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.

    Definition No. 3:

    Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals.

    Like Reich, I am not really crazy about any of these definitions. The problem with opening these types of initiatives to public vote is you try to create by committee, and the end result is usually a compromise at best and not a definitive statement of purpose or intent. My issues with these definitions is they are too broad, and tend to have buzzwords and catchphrases which are rapidly becoming meaningless. The word “stakeholders” is overused and is starting to lose its core meaning. I also am not sure I understand how to interpret “key publics” or “strategic goals.”

    Reich notes that PR pundit Jack O’Dwyer commented that none of these definitions don’t take into account vertical specialties, such as health care, technology PR, and the like. I agree, and I also note that these definitions fail to capture the broader role of today’s PR professional. These days I find myself doing customer relations, SEO consulting, market research, and general marketing support as well as what could be considered traditional PR work.

    Perhaps the greatest challenge we all face is that the communications market is changing rapidly, and with it our role in that market. The  rules and the tools have changed. I recently cleaned out my office and I found boxes of dusty print labels for press release mailings. It dawned on me that I hadn’t done a press release mailing in over a decade and would probably never have to do one again. And although I continue to work with editors and analysts, I also know that reaching customers directly is now even more important than influencing the influencers. My role continues to change with the needs of my clients, and trying to define what PR really people do on a day-to-day basis is becoming more like holding smoke in your hands.

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  • 01Dec

    In our last blog entry, we highlighted some of Roger McNemee’s predictions for the future, one of which is that indexed search is on its way out. Whether or not Google will dominate search a decaded from now is in question, but for now Google is the king of search, so how they optimize search matters.

    Here is an interesting infographic care of Silicon Valley Watcher on the latest iteration of search, and therefore SEO. I wanted to share the attached infographic which demonstrates how Google is changing its thinking about search.

    Google Longtail Keywords.

    Infographic by SEO Book

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  • 11Sep

    An interesting discovery came to light this week that may give all those self-proclaimed social media gurus pause. According to new research conducted by URL-shortening service bitly, the average shelf life of a social media post is about about three hours. I originally spotted this tidbit in a repost from HubSpot, which offered its own insights:

    By calculating what bitly is calling the link’s ‘half life’ (the time it takes a link to receive half the clicks it will ever receive after it’s reached its peak), bitly evaluated the persistence of 1,000 popular bitly links, and found some strikingly similar results.

    Half Life Research Results

    • The mean half life of a link on Twitter is 2.8 hours.
    • The mean half life of a link on Facebook is 3.2 hours.
    • The mean half life of a link via ‘direct’ sources such as email or instant messaging clients is 3.4 hours.
    • The mean half life of a link on YouTube is 7.4 hours….

    image

    From this, bitly concludes that when it comes to the lifespan of a link (if you exclude YouTube from the equation), it’s not where the link is shared that matters; instead, it’s more important what the link shares (the content) that has the potential to attract more clicks and engagement.

    So what does this mean for marketers? HubSpot’s conclusion is that you need better quality content to promote engagement. That’s only part of the equation.

    I think of successful social media engagement as encompassing the three C’s: Content, Conversion, Community. The quality of the content drives conversion to build a following. It’s no surprise that social media content is short-lived. That’s the idea, and I often counsel my clients that social media content is highly perishable, so while it is important to think before you post, agonizing over the perfect tweet or a Pulitzer-worthy blog post can run counter to the purpose of social media – to provide easily digestible sound bites that add to the online conversation while promoting your perspective, i.e. your brand. The trick is to give those sound bites enough impact to promote resonance.

    So with this new revelation from the bitly research, marketers need to rethink their online activity in light of the three C’s:

    1. Content – The quality of the material does promote interest and engagement, so be sure you post quality information in order to gain the trust of your audience and give them something they can share with their own social media followers.

    2. Conversion – Whenever possible, give followers an ongoing reason to engage. If your material is consistently informative or entertaining, or particularly poignant about a specific topic, you will be able to convert readers into followers. Which leads to the third “C.”

    3. Community – If you can build an audience then they will share the wealth, and as a byproduct promote your brand. You want to build a loyal following who is willing to engage with you and spread the word.

    So even though your specific social media efforts have a relatively short half-life, the lasting impact should be felt through resonance. Whatever stone you choose to throw into the social media pond should produce ripples that will be felt long after the original post has been archived.

    And, of course, there are more tangible benefits, such as searchability. Everything posted on the web is discoverable, and even when the immediate echoes of a social media post fade away, that original content is still there to be rediscovered either by search or happenstance. The Internet has a long memory, and social media just feeds the discoverable archive, so even if the shelf-life of a post is an average of a few hours, that post still becomes part of the discoverable web, so you never know when some Internet archaeologist will uncover you post for some future purpose.

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  • 14Jun

    These days, social media has become a resource for sales and marketing; an essential tool in any marketing or media arsenal. Remember when, not so long ago, Facebook was banned from the workplace as a time waster? There are any number of companies that still block access to Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media destinations because they don’t see these outlets as essential to employees’ jobs. They want them to stay productive, not chatting with friends online.

    digital-distractionAnd despite the many benefits that have been demonstrated about social media, they have a point. Todays’ work environment is incredibly disruptive. I hate to say it, but I am old enough to remember working in an office free of email and where the only disruption was an occasional phone call. I also recall those days as being much more productive, where I could focus on writing an article or editing a column without interruption. The age of instant communications has created a disruptive, multi-tasking approach to work, which is not the most productive.

    Not long ago I spotted an article on Mashable, “The 3 Pressing Questions Facing Social Media,” that talked about the disruptive nature of social media, and the fact it will only get worse.

    The conversation about social media in our society is shifting significantly. We’re no longer asking questions like, “Will people use social media?” or “Are sites like Facebook and Twitter simply trends that will soon lose steam?” After billions of tweets and 600 million people on Facebook, it’s settled: People want to share online. And with Facebook moving toward a $100 billion valuation, there is money to be made.

    The emerging conversation is not if we will be connected but is instead, “How can we effectively and productively connect?” Now that we can get constant updates on just about every aspect of our friends’ lives, how do we receive that which is relevant?

    I think the three questions are worth considering closely as we continue to forge ahead into the disruptive world of social media.

    1. Are We Being Driven to Distraction? Remaining continually connected means being continually distracted. I am sure you have experienced it – email interruptus or the Facebook vortex. You are in the middle of trying to construct a thought for a report, or a calculation for a spreadsheet and you hear that little “ding” or see that popup that someone has posted to your wall. Being the tribal creatures that we are, we drop everything to see who is knocking at our virtual door.

    People have forgotten how to turn off the data stream, just as they have forgotten to turn off their cell phones or unplug from the larger world. Many give the excuse that their bosses or their clients expect them to be “on call,” but the truth of the matter is we are all insecure in this new world of social media, and we are worried about missing an important factoid or an important connection that could lead to cyber rejection.

    The price of distraction is a decline in productivity. According to a survey cited in the Mashable article, social media is costing companies an average of $10,375 per year because we can’t learn to disconnect fast enough.

    The drive to stay connected is tapering off. For the first time, Facebook has seen a drop in traffic in the U.S. and Canada as people are starting to realize that social media does not require real-time consumption. But we are still struggling to find the right balance to get us back to productivity.

    2.  How are We To Filter the Stream? What to follow has become an important question. You want to sample the social media stream in a way that suits our informational needs. I cited a recent presentation by MoveOn board president Eli Pariser on how our web experience is already being filtered. We need to be wary of imposing our own filters so we get what we need from social media channels.

    Of course, we need to understand how the data is being filtered, and given the option to impose our own controls, or open the tap to unfiltered content so we can determine what we want to sample. It’s all about promoting transparency; a principle that is at the root of the creation of the Internet.

    3. How Do We Manage the Social Media Flood? The sheer volume of social media content has become overwhelming. Can you effectively follow more than 500 people on Twitter or LinkedIn? How many Facebook friends can you have and still maintain any kind of meaningful connection? When do we start hitting diminishing returns from social media because the sheer volume has become too great to manage? Like dipping your toe in the data stream, where you choose to sample the stream is going to be self-selecting, but the stream is rapidly becoming a flood, which will make it harder to choose the right location.

    And it’s just going to get worse. More traffic for the Web is on the horizon, and with it more social media traffic. So users will have to become more discriminating in their use of social media:

    Providing people more ways to share online is no longer the challenge. That was the old paradigm. A new paradigm of relevancy is emerging, which goes beyond the question of whether “to follow or not follow” or “to friend or not friend.” Companies need to see that their job is not to provide us data, or even keep us updated — it is to serve our needs.

    Which offers some new opportunities for marketers. As we continue to feed our corners of the social media stream with content that is relevant for our microcosm of the social media macroverse, we will be able to start appealing to a niche following of more loyal and more relevant connections. It’s going to become more about quality rather than quantity, and the conversations will become more focused as we become more discriminating. As a result, social media will give us the capacity to connect more quickly and efficiently to people who matter to us, and the timewasting will become less of a factor in the social media equitation.

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  • 26Apr

    I have a client in the social media market who refers to the Holy Trinity of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Certainly these are the three most popular social media destinations where users flock to hear the latest news and connect with friends, family, and associates. But as I have noted previously in this blog, these are private companies, they are not part of the Web or the Internet, although they certainly use those resources. And while the open structure of the Internet means that the Web is likely to endure, these companies are capitalists after all and will only continue to grow as they become profitable.

    Which brings us to Twitter.

    My wife recently directed me to an article in Fortune entitled “Trouble @Twitter,” and the story read to me like the biography of a typical Silicon Valley startup,with all it’s ups and downs. One of the great things about technological innovation is the ride is never boring, and today’s boom can be tomorrow’s bust. You can have the best technology on the planet, but without a solid understanding of your roadmap and the value your customers get from your service, there’s no guarantee of staying power. (How many remember to dot.bomb bubble a decade ago when the slogan was, “If you build it they will come”?)

    Okay, the concept of microblogging is cool, and Twitter has developed a huge following – 200 million registered users compared to 600 million for Facebook. However, how many of those users are active? But what is Twitter doing to monetize all that traffic? They’ve tried paid tweets, but is that really paying off? This from the Fortune article:

    Just two years ago Twitter was the hottest thing on the web. But in the past year U.S. traffic at Twitter.com, the site users visit to read and broadcast 140-character messages, has leveled off. Nearly half the people who have Twitter accounts are no longer active on the network, according to an ExactTarget report from January 2011. It has been months — an eternity in Silicon Valley — since the company rolled out a new product that excited consumers. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg used to watch developments at Twitter obsessively; now he pays much less attention to the rival service. Meanwhile companies are hungry to advertise, but Twitter hasn’t been able to provide marketers with enough opportunities. Last year the company pulled in a mere $45 million in ad revenue, according to research firm eMarketer. Facebook brought in $1.86 billion.

    It’s interesting that Twitter was born out of chaos. As the article explains, co-founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey found their start-up, Odeo, made obsolete by iTunes and were trying to figure out what to do with their venture money when Dorsey Came up with Twttr to let other people know what you were up to. I think any business expert will agree that “throwing it against the wall to see what sticks” is not a sound business strategy, yet that was the birth of Twitter. To this day, Twitter seems to lack a clear business objective, partially because of changes in leadership, but mostly because the vision seems to have been lacking from the start. Mark Zuckerberg has been with Facebook since Day 1, guiding its operations and providing a consistent vision for growth that seems to be paying off. Twitter doesn’t have those same strong roots, and it shows.

    So even the most popular technologies can fail without proper nurturing. Remember the Betamax? Imagine what would happen if Twitter pulled the plug tomorrow because they couldn’t #gettheiracttogether. The short answer is, not much. The world would keep turning and the loss of Twitter would be noticed by a fraction of those 200 million subscribers, but something else would rise in its place. Another platform would emerge to make up the third part of the Holy Trinity of social media.

    I am not sounding the death knell for Twitter. They have a huge market opportunity, but they still haven’t figured out how to make it pay. Once they find the right formula, they could be innovators for years to come, or they could fade away. But the hole they would leave will be filled by another entrepreneur with a better business plan, or by an existing company that can acquire Twitter and take it to the next level.

    Twitter has demonstrated the power of connection. And whether they succeed or fail, they have proven that we want to connect, even at 140 characters. No matter what for it takes, the power of connection will continue to open up new possibilities for marketers.

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  • 15Mar

    wolf-in-sheeps-clothing-2There is an evil walking among us. An unseen danger that can creep up on the unwary and seduce them with promises of fame and glory. They are unscrupulous media outlets that sell editorial space but refuse to call it advertising. These are the con men who have perfected the three-card monty of advertorial, the bait and switch that can cost your client a lot of money if you are not wary.

    I seem to be running into more of these kinds of “media” outlets of late. They have caused me professional embarrassment, since they often don’t get to the sales pitch until after after they have the interview in the can and are ready to go, assuming you are willing to pay for the privilege. I recall recently being approach by a Midwest business publication (no names, please), offering to do a profile of my contractor client as part of a “special edition” on construction trends. I checked them out to the best of my ability and they were listed in my editorial database, and their web site looked legit. Once we completed the interview and they were ready to write the article, they sunk the hook: “Oh, to get this story into print we will need some advertising backing. Can you share the contacts at six of your vendors whom we can then contact to advertise with this story?” The story never ran, the client now asks me in advance if we have to pay for the next interview I just scheduled, and I have added that publication to my editorial black list.

    This morning I received a call from another organization that I have heard from many times before. They are based in Florida and use the wire services for business prospecting. So the pitch usually goes like this:

    “Hi, my name is Shyster Fagan and I represent Bait and Switch Broadcasting. We have a national radio/television/Web show hosted by [insert celebrity name here] and we think your client would be a perfect candidate. We reach 200,000 business professionals and…”

    It’s a great pitch designed to get you really excited. And when you get to the end of the spiel you are ready to schedule an interview for your client, thinking you will look like a hero. Then, when you dig deeper, you realize that it’s a small syndicated Web program or, worse, a feed on one of the airlines’ audio channels, and the price tag is only $10,000 or more.

    I have been in publishing all my life. My mother was a magazine editor, my dad used to sell advertising, and I was a journalist before going into PR and marketing. One of the lessons drummed into me at an early age was the cardinal rule of separation of advertising and editorial. If you can buy editorial space, then the publication’s editorial credibility was nil. I have seen (and even worked for) a few trade publications who have found creative ways to blur the rules; to give advertisers preferential editorial treatment. Those in the know would get the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” and know that they could get a little extra press exposure if you sign that next insertion contract. However, the reputable magazines were never (okay, seldom) influenced by the ad buy.

    Today, however, with the explosion of the web and new editorial formats and content delivery models, the rules have changed, or have they? I have clients quizzing me about blog coverage, and our challenge becomes finding bloggers who use good journalistic approaches and follow the rules. The same is true for magazines and e-zines. If you can buy influence, it’s not worth the price of admission. What irks me is that these con artists hide the fees and drop the boom once they set the hook. Just be honest and admit up front that it’s pay to play. Don’t try to pretend you have editorial credentials that you don’t.

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  • 01Jan

    Anyone who has worked in the technology has heard of Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web. He continues to be a force shaping the Internet, and he sees social media as a threat to the principles of the web, as he notes in an article in the December issue of the Scientific American, “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.”

    According to Berners-Lee, what makes the Web work is the principal of universality, the ability to connect to anything and offer information in a common format that can be read by anyone. Whether the connection is wired or wireless, and the data is written, graphic, or spoken, it should be accessible from any device that can connect to the Internet. Along with universality, the Web calls for decentralization. As with the Internet itself, the Web has no central server or authority that monitors or approves content. In fact, the open nature of the Web has made it a truly democratic world medium. As a recent editorial on Technorati notes:

    The principles of an egalitarian society where all are equal immaterial of race, colour, class, wealth or nation is embodied in the web today. It has become the beacon of democracy and is more vital to free speech than any other medium, because it is perhaps the least censored most used and universally connected resource in the world.

    What Berners-Lee sees as a threat to the openness and democratization of the Web are the increasing numbers of walled off Internet content. We are talking about social media. Emerging business models that are attracting lots of users and inviting them to a private party where information is shared only among those who have been invited to join in. As Berners-Lee writes in his article in the Scientific American:

    Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.

    With the social media explosion, I believe that Web users are confusing social media and the Web. Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, ant Twitter are not open platforms. They are proprietary platforms that are operated as businesses, but that fact is becoming obscured by their popularity. Facebook is now the most popular destination on the Internet, even surpassing Google, but it’s still not an open platform. As Berners-Lee notes, the threat of monopoly limits innovation, and freedom.

    The social media and Web explosion has led to mega-monopolies like Google and Facebook. These entities have become so popular that they have developed their own juggernaut-like momentum, and yet they are still not open platforms but businesses. Democracy does not thrive in a business setting, since money is the fuel that drives the business. Granted, companies like Google say they will protect your privacy, and things like Gmail are protected by the company. Google even has the phrase “don’t be evil” as part of their code of conduct. But even a benevolent despot is still a despot.

    Then you have to consider entities like Facebook. If you haven’t seen the film “The Social Network” I recommend it, not only as a good film but to give you some insight into the ethics that went into forming the company. Facebook is in business to make money, billions of dollars in fact, and they do it by maintaining a closed infrastructure and gathering information about its users that they can use for profit. Facebook has had a number of privacy issues arise in the past, and they will sell your information for a profit This from InfoWorld commentator Bill Snyder on “Why Facebook is selling you out – and won’t stop”:

    The root of Facebook’s most recent transgression (allowing third-party apps to harvest user IDs) is greed — greed for the millions of dollars that app developers are pulling from the site. Facebook wants a piece of that action, and if privacy, freedom of speech, or any other trivial concern users may have get in the way, that’s just too bad.

    One of the other guiding principles of Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web is “no snooping.” Content in e-mail and even the TCP/IP data stream need to be considered private, and freedom of speech needs to be protected on the Web. Private entities like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter don’t have to adhere to those principles.

    So what are the implications of all this for marketers? You have to dance with those who bring you to the party, and as long as the party is happening at online locations like Facebook and Twitter, that’s the place you need to be. But be wary. Remember that places like Twitter and Facebook are still a private party and you are there by invitation only, and subject to the rules of your host. Conduct yourself accordingly.

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  • 16Nov

    As I speak to clients more and more about social media strategies, it is clear that the potential power of social networking has almost everyone mesmerized. Social media offers the potential to interact with prospects and customers in new way that promotes peer-based marketing. Through the power of buzz, you can get your message in front of hundreds or even thousands of new people, who tell their friends, and they tell their friends. And how cool is that.

    But most executives still don’t understand social media marketing. They think if they set up a Twitter feed or a blog their marketing woes are over. Or if they simply use Facebook and LinkedIn to spam their prospects with marketing messages they will fill their sales pipeline for the next six months.

    As with any discipline, social media marketing has its own unique set of rules, and its own discipline. Anyone turning to social media as a panacea for their marketing woes is kidding themselves. Sure, adding social media can strengthen your marketing program, but it can’t do the whole job.

    I recently spotted an article in Web 2.0 Journal outlining Five Misconceptions About Social Media Marketing, where SEO and Web marketing strategist Brace Rennels points out the biggest fallacies that most marketing execs have regarding social media:

    1. Social media works as a standalone program – Social media doesn’t work without a foundation behind it. You can use social media to promote other aspects of your program, like a webinar, a white paper, or some other offering, but what you have to say has to have some value to your audience. There has to be real content behind the program.

    2. You need a social media expert – Actually, you shouldn’t outsource your social media, although you can contract some help to guide you. The best programs are the one that find the internal experts, tap their knowledge and their passion, and then show them how to build their social network themselves. With social media the idea is to share your ideas with others, and there is no substitute for authenticity.

    3. “If you build it they will come” – Just setting up a Facebook page or a Twitter feed won’t build a following. You have to have a plan that includes what your social media objectives are, who you want to attract, and how you can engage with those people in a compelling way. It takes time, thought, and commitment to build an online community, and you have to nurture online relationships to get your followers to keep coming back for fresh insights.

    4. How do you stop the naysayers and the critics? – You don’t. The whole idea is to provide an open forum that welcomes critics as well as fans. If you try to shut down the naysayers or you can’t honestly engage with the critics, your social media program will backfire. By way of example, check out this week’s blog post on PR101 by Jeff Cole. He offers the example of Cook’s Source magazine, who used its social media forum to address a charge of copyright violation and the disastrous result until the editors took a deep breath and realized they were in the wrong. (It’s a great parable in the power of social media.)

    5. You don’t have a social media presence – If you have employees, then you probably have some kind of social media presence whether you want one or not. Facebook now has 500 million active users, and Twitter has 190 million users tweeting 65 million times per day. Chances are someone is talking about you behind your back, and the best way to control the message about your company is to engage in the conversation.

    When used effectively, social media can be a great tool to reinforce your brand and your brand message. I have one client that publishes a weekly report for the banking industry on deposit rates, and we use social media as part of a larger marketing program. In addition to an opt-in mailing list, we give these weekly reports a prominent place on the company web site. And we use the content in the company blog, which we use to feed conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Over the past few months blog traffic has consistently doubled, and we are gaining a following among target readers and media outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and CNBC, who regular report about my client’s research. Social media helps us expand our reach so followers can find the information they want in the format that best suits them, and then comment on the findings. However, the only reason this strategy works is because it’s part of a larger marketing program that we are continuing to refine.

    So don’t be fooled by the placebo effect. Social media marketing is not a cure-all, but it can be an important extension of your marketing strategy. The key is to set your social media objectives, and make sure they mesh smoothly with the other elements of your marketing program.

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  • 30Sep

    The Web has been bending our understanding of traditional journalism for some time. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that guarantees freedom of the press as a constitutional right. Part of the basis of that freedom is the implicit understanding that advertising does not affect editorial. To maintain journalistic integrity, your editorial opinion cannot be bought by advertising dollars. Those of us who have worked as journalists refer to the separation of advertising and editorial as the metaphorical separation of church and state.

    Forbes just broke that model with the acquisition of True/Slant. According to the profile story this week in Advertising Age, with the acquisition, editor Lewis Dvorkin returns to Forbes with a new editorial model where staff writers, contributors, and even paid advertisers are given a Forbes-branded blog forum; a model that Dvorkin has labeled a “much more scalable content-creation model.” To quote from AdAge:

    This isn’t the “sponsored post” of yore; rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand…

    “In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment,” Mr. DVorkin said in an interview at an empty restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the historic headquarters of the 93-year-old magazine.

    The product itself is called AdVoice, and the notion is that in a world of social media, corporations have to become participants and, in a sense, their own media companies. Corporations these days also have to face the practical problem of fewer business reporters left to pitch. “There’s fewer ways to get your message out, because there are fewer reporters, and that’s a fact,” he said.

    Granted, in the world of social media content is king, but to give paid advertisers equal access seems to be going a bit far. It wasn’t that long ago that the influence of bloggers granted them access to the press room. Although we PR pros are continually reminded that “bloggers are different” and “read their content and approach them gently,” the blogtocracy have been granted the same privileges as card-carrying journalists, even though they aren’t constrained by the same rules of ethics. In the blogosphere, opinion rules and facts, well they are sometimes nice to have as well.

    So with this new shift in Forbes editorial direction, the rules haven’t just changed, but the entire rule book has been thrown out the window. Granted, there are fewer traditional news vehicles than ever before, and we are moving into a brave new world of online journalism. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the lessons of the past. Early on in this blog, I commented on the important role of pamphleteers and citizen journalists. What differentiates the citizen journalist from the Dvorkin model is avarice – pimping the Forbes brand to give advertisers space in the blogosphere seems to be a violation of the rules to me.

    One of the first rules of social media is disclosure – tell them where you are coming from and which side of the ax you are grinding. Disclosure does not excuse bad reporting or bad behavior, but at least the reader is forewarned. This new model that Forbes is experimenting with seems just plain wrong. It not only blurs the lines of legitimate journalism, it erases them completely. As the article states:

    Consumer marketers such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson have years of experience creating branded entertainment, and many have arms dedicated to creating entertainment properties. But the motivations have broadened in an age of social media. There’s an ongoing conversation about corporations — not always nice, as BP or Toyota could tell you — and corporations feel they must participate.

    The changes at Forbes since it bought True/Slant and brought Mr. DVorkin back have gone beyond strategy. They’ve also included an exodus of top-level editors, two of whom declined to comment for this story.

    So where does online entertainment end and dispassionate reporting begin, or vice versa? In a world where everyone becomes a news source, all sources become suspect. As so-called “legitimate” news vehicles struggle to survive in a world where information is available at the click of a mouse, other news groups like Forbes decide to turn the old journalistic values on their heads for the sake of profit cloaked as participation in the online conversation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need a journalistic touchstone to tell the real news sources from the emerging online imposters.

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  • 10Aug

    Here’s a really interesting tidbit from Fast Company. The July issue featured a profile by Adam Penenberg of Professor Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University, a.k.a. Dr. Love, who is pioneering a new field, neuroeconomics, the study of brain chemicals and their impact on consumerism.

    In a series of studies spanning nine years, Zak has changed our understanding of human beings as economic animals. Oxytocin is the key (and please, do not confuse the cuddle drug with the painkiller oxycontin). Known for years as the hormone forging the unshakable bond between mothers and their babies, oxytocin is now, thanks largely to Zak, recognized as the human stimulant of empathy, generosity, trust, and more. It is, Zak says, the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, and societies, and as such, acts as an “economic lubricant” that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions. Zak is a walking advertisement for oxytocin; his vanity license plate reads oxytosn, and he hugs virtually everyone he meets. (“I’ll hug you, too,” he warns.) It’s this passion for the hormone that led to his Claremont campus nickname, Dr. Love.

    What Zak discovered is that oxytocin, the cuddle chemical, not only engenders generosity and trust, it also promotes social networking. Apparently, hanging out on Twitter or Facebook stimulates the release of oxytocin in our brains.

    “Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for,” Zak says. “E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.

    Consider what this really means. According the the article, when 200 University of Maryland students were asked to give up social networking for a day, many of them actually had withdrawal symptoms. The implications for business are huge. If companies start trading in trust, they can reap greater profits:

    The idea is that if businesses wish to thrive in our interconnected world, where consumers’ opinions spread at the speed of light, they must act as a trusted friend: create quality products, market them honestly, emphasize customer care.

    So the reasoning goes something like this. Companies that engender trust in their customers will gain customer loyalty and even customer evangelists. If you have a positive experience with a vendor then you Tweet or post to Facebook about it – it’s the entire business premise for Yelp! The actual act of sharing information online promotes trust, not only because of our sense of online connectedness, the tribal nature of social media, but because our brains are wired to release oxytocin while networking, which promotes trust and a sense of connected well-being. Ergo, companies that engage in building trust online have a leg up on the competition, not only because they build a closer relationship with their customers, but because people’s internal hormonal chemistry makes them more disposed to trust their online connections.

    Not long ago, when sitting in a marketing meeting with a client, the Vice President of Sales repeated a worn marketing axiom, “People are motivated by fear and greed.” If Dr. Love’s research is any indicator, people are also highly motivated by trust, and it’s time that companies started realizing that they will go farther by building a loyal customer following than striving to scare of con them into buying a better mousetrap.

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