• 05Jan

    I have been talking to a lot of executives over the years, gathering information for press releases, case studies, and strategic plans. And as I have become more involved in customer relations, I spend a lot of time talking to IT managers and C-level executives about tactical issues that affect their business. Interviews are tough, because you don’t want just the Jack Webb interview – “Just the facts” – but you want to get the Piers Morgan interview, with deep and colorful, quotable responses.

    Many marketing and PR pros (and even journalists) are being consumed by the ever-increasing demand for content. They have lost the fine points of conducting a really meaningful interview that yields more than just who, what, when, where, and why. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced or you get rusty. I want to thank Carol Tice for providing a refresher course from the freelance writer’s perspective. Here are some of her tips on the best way to conduct an interview, adapted with some of my own experience to make them more relevant for the marketer:phoneinterview

    1. Email exchanges are not interviews. I have been relying more on email questionnaires for convenience, but the information I get from those exchanges is always sparse. I have seen more journalists and analysts doing the same thing, and I have to urge my clients to dig deeper and provide a little color with the facts when they write their responses. Carol also notes that emails are not really quotable as part of best journalistic practice; live interaction is always preferred. You always get more from a spontaneous exchange that is fresh and quotable.

    2. Make a connection. I find that the best interviews come when you establish a rapport with your contact. Take the time to set the stage with a couple of ice breaker questions about family, sports, the weather – something to forge a connection. If you need to use that contact in the future, then be sure to leave the door open for future discussions, and try to leave a thread to reestablish the link. If they are fans of the Red Sox, for example, open with a baseball reference they next time you call.

    3. The subject is as worried about the outcome as you are. Your job is to gather the information for that killer case study, application profile, or for use in a press release. You have something at stake in the conversation. So does the other party. He or she wants to make sure you get your facts straight and don’t make them look foolish to their boss, their peers, or their customers. Use that mutual concern to work together toward the common goal – getting the best story down on paper.

    4. Be prepared. Don’t walk in cold saying, “tell me what you do.” Do your homework. Read the company  web site. Understand the basics of their business. Research their business challenges. You want to bring sufficient knowledge to the interview to ask meaningful and revealing questions, not waste time asking questions to which you should already have the answers.

    5. Respect the interviewee’s time. Schedule your interview in advance, be prompt, and be brief. Executives don’t want to waste a lot of time talking to you so be focused and get the information you need. If possible, leave the door open for a follow-up call or contact for clarification or more information, when you can go into greater depth if you have to.

    6. Be prepared to follow up. Thank your sources. Keep them apprised of the progress for a specific project. Get them to review the content as part of your fact-checking. Be sure that you have your subject’s complete contact information, and determine who else in their organization should be involved in reviews and approvals, or who else might provide additional information.

    Developing marketing content is not the same as writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but the rules of a good interview are still the same. Your objective is to get the best story you can, with all the facts and in living color. The final approval process will be different. You will won’t just be fact-checking, but you usually share the finished product with the interviewee for formal approval. That doesn’t mean you should put the onus on them to fill in the blanks or correct a sloppy interview. Think like a reporter and get everything you need the first time around. It saves a lot of effort and embarrassment later on.

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  • 12Oct

    lampoon

    The Web has given new power to consumers as well as to marketers. The power of Yelp and online protests have been proven time and again as noisy consumers who complain about bad customer service or faulty products win out over corporations. Yet it still surprises me that name brands continue to abuse their customers in the name of greed and expect customers to just accept it.

    Netflix is the latest example. If you have been following the Netflix story, you know that Netflix first decided to raise its prices as part of the strategy to monetize its online streaming service, then they announced they were going to split their DVD operation and their streaming service in two with the launch of Qwickster. The customer backlash was substantial. Complaints started rolling in and the blogosphere was abuzz with commentary about Netflix’s insensitivity to its customers and its stupidity. It’s not as though they were the only game in town. Hulu Plus has been gaining momentum and there are other video services available.

    Netflix arrogantly was counting on its customer loyalty to see them through.They assumed that the goodwill they had built with their customers gave them the right to abuse that customer loyalty.

    Clearly, Netflix is not Apple. They don’t command the same rabid customer loyalty, but they also don’t offer the same level of customer service or the same level of innovation. Apple has build a trusted relationship with their customers. They have created a unique and consistent customer experience, and they keep their customers well informed about product changes and innovations, usually with a lot of fanfare and support.

    Which brings me to Comcast. In my household we have been having a challenging experience with Comcast Internet access over the past week. Comcast has an anti-virus service they are touting called Constant Guard, a malware security suite from Xfinity. This apparently is a free package offered to Comcast subscribers, but instead of promoting it through conventional opt-in marketing, Comcast is using malware marketing to force customers to adopt it. Comcast apparently monitors virus activity on computers connected to their network, whether you want them to our not and no matter what anti-virus software you use. And when Comcast sees a preset level of malware attacks, they hit you with their own popup that says your computer is infected with a bot. The popup requires you to make several clicks to a customer service center to deactivate it.

    We have four computers in our family, including both Macs and PCs, and they are protected by different anti-virus packages. We have all experienced this malware marketing program from Comcast, and we have all had issues getting rid of their popup. At first, we were naturally suspicious and assumed this was a malware attack, but after a couple of calls to a bewildered support team we finally found a representative at Comcast who admitted, “Yep, it’s ours.” In fact, we received a very empathetic call back from the regional customer service executive, who also seemed baffled and filed a trouble ticket. Ultimately, we received a call from another service rep who basically told us, “Yeah, it’s ours, We have uncovered tens of thousands of attacks on your computer. If you want it all to go away, just download our free software. And by the way, we are perfectly within our rights to do this so get over yourself” (or words to that effect).

    So this is how Comcast is selling its triple-play strategy, although I think it’s more like three strikes and you’re out. Comcast wants to force you to use their anti-virus solution, whether you want it or not. (I also should note that a scan of all the computers turned up no evidence of a problem, so clearly whatever protection we have in place seems to be working.)

    Let’s hope this is not a harbinger of things to come. Consumers should always have a choice as to what services they want to buy and what price they are willing to pay. There are times when even free looks too expensive.

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  • 20Apr

    bloggingLately I have been spending a lot of time educating my clients about the power of social media. Many of them come to me and tell me their customers are bankers or executives who don’t hang out on Facebook, or they don’t have the time to blog about their company. They can’t see the ROI for the trees. What would I get out of trying to build a social media campaign?

    Whether you are a butcher or baker or ice cream maker; whether your target audience are a small group of professionals or a demographic that doesn’t seem suited to social media (if there is one), a social media campaign can lend focus to your brand, and help you crystallize your value proposition and ultimately build sales. And it all starts with the weblog.

    Why blogging? Because creating and maintaining a blog forces you to think about your target market, your audience, and what you have to say to your customers that is fresh, meaningful, and valuable. If you can’t continue to provide insight and value to your customers, then they won’t stay your customers. And it doesn’t matter what your profession is. If you have something to offer, then you need to shout it from the rooftops.

    One of the interesting things about the phenomenon of the Web is that it has served as a great equalizer for business. Just as the DARPAnet has evolved into the Internet and ultimately the web, the core infrastructure is still maintained by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a neutral body that maintains the standards, protocols, and infrastructure that make up the Internet. The Internet is not owned by any one entity or country, but is a set of interconnected computers that link us all together. It’s like Switzerland – a neutral body that provides equal access to everyone. And just as the Internet is unbiased in providing access, the World Wide Web has become a neutral platform where the corner flower shop can create a web site to compete with 1-800-Flowers. If you can make your business searchable, then you can compete on a global scale.

    So why blog? Because a blog gives you a platform from which you can launch a global social media campaign. I am an advocate of reusing content. If you have a good story to tell, then you should retell it over and over using different media. And blogging is a great way to develop new content that can then be reused. Blogging allows you to engage with your customers and others and share ideas that stimulate new ideas and ultimately promote you as a thought leader. And the insights you develop in blog posts can evolve into white papers, sell sheets, material for other social media channels, articles, you name it. Blogging provides a forum for corporate creativity that can be harnessed to drive your brand.

    So what do you need to start blogging? The basic technology is simple. You can add WordPress or any an open source blogging platform to your web site, or you can start a blog on Typepad or Blogger or any of the public platforms. The real thing you need is discipline, and inspiration. The New York Times reported in 2009 that only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs tracked by Technorati remained active (within the last four month). There are millions of orphan blogs abandoned along the information superhighway, so before you start blogging you need to be prepared to commit. Post weekly, monthly, with some kind of regular schedule. Find your inspiration from other ideas posted on the Web. I maintain an electronic clip file of interesting ideas I find in my daily web surfing and some of them turn into blog fodder. This entry, for example, was loosely inspired by a TechCrunch blog post on why start-ups need to blog. Whatever your inspiration, keep it fresh, keep it relevant, and keep it coming. The content will give you new material you can then use to talk to your customers on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or give you inspirational insight you can use in your next new business meeting.

    Don’t be shy. There’s enough room in the blogosphere for all.

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  • 19Jan

    I just finished writing a new business proposal and, as always, I ran up against what seems to be the age-old question for consultants – what do I charge? I have experimented with different pricing models over the years – hourly rate, retainer, by the project. I have even developed a rate card that I use with prospects for project work, but inevitably, to be competitive, you have to haggle. There are many times I think I should hire an Arabian rug merchant and learn the gentle art of haggling for a better price.

    What continues to amaze me is that in public relations and marketing consulting, everyone sees pricing as negotiable. Do you question the fees of your doctor? Or what you pay your plumber? Sure, you have to be prepared to accept a market rate, but in the current economy it’s gotten harder to get a fair wage. I actually challenged my accountant last week when I was quoted a rate for a routine task, and we struck a compromise. But you can’t sell your services on price alone.

    Once again, I have Peter Shankman to thank for some great advice about getting paid what you are worth. As Peter notes, when you set your price, remember you can come down but you can’t go up. Also determine what you think your time is worth and calculate accordingly. I know that many consultants don’t necessarily adjust their rate but they miscalculate time, so a project takes twice as long as they anticipate, which means they get paid half their normal rate. And, of course, you have to charge market rate, but you also have to charge what you think your services are worth. If you have a healthy ego, you should be able to name a fair rate and stick with it. If the client doesn’t think your services are worth the rate, then you probably shouldn’t take the contract because they won’t respect the quality of the work if you underprice it.

    When working with a new client, you also have to be sure to understand the intangibles that may affect your rate. For some clients, this might be translated as the “hassle factor.” I was revisiting a thread on one of my LinkedIn Groups today where a PR professional was asking how much information to share with a client; should you share contacts, pitches, and enough detail to allow the client to micromanage the process? My response was, “Of course not. The client is paying you for your expertise.” If they want to tell you how to do your job, then the rates should go up. As one of my first clients told me (and I have lived by these words ever since), “You can pay me for process, or you can pay me for results. Process is a lot more expensive.”

    And to echo one of Peter’s other points, there are times when working for less pays off. I have a couple of clients that are on a very small retainer, and I know I over service them. More importantly, they know I over service them, which means they never hesitate to offer a referral, send new business my way, or help when I need something. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship that pays off in many ways.

    So is there a hard and fast rule about setting fees? I guess the golden rule is never sell yourself short.

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  • 23Nov

    I have been talking to a number of clients about branding lately – what goes into a brand, how personal branding ties to corporate brand, how to think of social media and branding, etc. These discussions let me to one of my old standby texts on branding by Al and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. And I began to consider how exact is the science of branding? Can you really define a brand using scientific terms?

    One of the more active discussions on one of my LinkedIn marketing communications groups asks the question, “Define ‘a brand’ in a single sentence.” The responses are quite diverse (all 750 of them) and range from “a slogan” or “a promise delivered” to “the emotional relationship between a company, a product or a service and a purchaser” or a “reputation.” The fact that this question elicited so many different replies just shows that it is challenging to define a brand. However you define it, a brand is subject to specific rules.

    Which is why I was fascinated to run across this presentation on TED by Dan Cobley, who offers a new perspective on the science of branding. Apparently, the laws of physics also can be applied to marketing and brand management. Cobley makes some interesting parallels:

    • Newton’s second law of motion – Force = Mass x Acceleration. The more massive a brand, the more force you need to change its positioning or direction.
    • Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – The act of measuring a particle changes the measurement, just as the act of observing consumers changes their behavior. (Think of that the next time you set up a focus group.)
    • The Scientific Method – You cannot prove a hypothesis by observation, you can only disprove it. The same is true of brands; they fulfill their expected promise,until they don’t and let you down. A single brand disaster, such as the Toyota recall, is enough to destroy the brand.
    • Increasing Entropy – The measure of the disorder of a system will always increase. In today’s world of social media, the stronger your brand image, the more you will lose control of it to digital comment and social media as you brand becomes dispersed.

    Some interesting ideas about the “science” of branding and and how physical laws can serve as marketing metaphors. The floor is now open to comments….

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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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  • 31Aug

    1limbo1After working in Silicon Valley for more than two decades, I have watched the booms and busts. In the good times, it seems as though the high-priced PR firms won’t touch an account for less than $10,000 or $15,000 per month, and freelance work usually commands top dollar. In tough times, the agencies cut their retainers in half and start looking for account work to just keep the lights on, and freelancers are willing to cut their rates just to keep the work flowing.

    In this most recent recession, I have seen more panic than usual. All the marketing budgets were slashed in December and are just now they starting to rebound. With the increase in marketing layoffs there are more “consultants” out there than ever before, and agencies have been signing contracts for a fraction of what they used to charge. So as companies are now realizing they can’t dismantle their marketing machines and continue to generate sales, they are are starting to shop for PR and marketing talent at bargain prices.

    All the rates have been slashed so services are generally available dirt cheap. In tough times, marketeers tend to abandon their rates just so they can stay competitive, and in the end, it’s all about price…

    “Attention marcomm shoppers, we now have a blue light special in Aisle 5 – discounts on press releases and media tours.”

    If you have tried to use any of the online freelance referral services, like E-lance, you know that most of them put contracts out to bid, and the result is that it’s all about price. With online referral services, you find yourself competing with international rates as well as domestic. It’s hard to compete with writing and PR services in less expensive markets that have little or no overhead. They may not be able to deliver results , but they certainly can deliver the process for less. (One of the many reasons I steer away from RFPs.)

    I have been guilty of discounting along with many other PR professionals, but it’s a cannibalistic practice. If you bill $60, $70, or $80 per hour today, or offer to do a press release for $200 or $300, why should that same work be worth two or three times more when the economy improves? Better to stick to your guns. I, for one, have developed a rate card for common PR services so clients and prospects can estimate cost for my services, just as though they were estimating a press wire drop. I don’t think you have to drop your rates if you can adopt a “no surprises” policy when it comes to pricing. Clients understand they get what they pay for, as long as you tell them the price in advance.

    So stick to your pricing and resist the temptation to offer discounted contracts, no matter what the economic climate. It just makes it that much harder to charge a fair rate when market conditions improve.

    To dramatize the point, I want to direct you to a YouTube video that has been making the rounds among the consulting set. Everything else in our lives has a predefined rate. You don’t negotiate the price of groceries, or gasoline, or a haircut, so why are PR services negotiable? Set your rate and stick by your guns. In the long run, it will pay off.

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  • 21Aug

    cobblers-shoesI have been providing public relations, branding, and marketing communications services to clients for 20 years now. In recent years, I have been advising my clients in how to tap the blogosphere by working with bloggers and becoming citizen journalists, and how to leverage emerging social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. And, like many successful consultants, I have been sufficiently busy servicing my clients that I have neglected marketing my own brand. It is time I started following my own advice.

    Hence the launch of The PRagmatist, which I hope will evolve into an online forum to exchange insights and ideas about the rapidly changing world of marketing, communications, and public relations. I run across interesting insights and tidbits every day that I share with clients and colleagues. By launching this blog I now have a forum to share my thoughts and ideas with a wider audience, and solicit your feedback as to PR and marketing ideas that make sense, and those that don’t in today’s market.

    Much of my insight will relate to revelations from client projects and exchanges with other professionals. And I hope to interject some fun and personal insights as well. The challenge, of course, will be finding the time to keep up with posts on a timely basis. Unlike the shoemaker whose children go barefoot, I will endeavor to make this online destination insightful, interesting, and worthy of your attention.

    Feel free to engage, comment, critique, and keep me honest. I look forward to hearing from you.

    6HA94YFYBRAG

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