The Challenge of Social Media Authenticity

Online networking requires authenticity. I have clients who come to me saying, “This social media phenomenon is interesting. We want to play but don’t have the resources. Can you do this for us?”

The whole notion of online networking is based in authenticity. Social media is about engaging with others in an authentic way. As long as you disclose who you are and your intent, then you are being authentic. It’s when you start trying to hide who you are or deceive others as to your true intentions that you run into trouble.

Which is why corporations looking to harness social media to drive their brand need to be cautious when they turn online networking over to marketing. Marketing experts tend to want to control the message, which runs counter to the open nature of social media, and they often want to present the executives as experts. That often means ghostwriting posts for the CEO or the VP or Sales or other busy executives who don’t want to take the time to engage. You can argue that executives find ghost writers for books all the time, but ghostwriting for social media engagement is something else.

Ghost blogging, for example, runs counter to everything we know about social networking. And yet, I know that PR firms and others are offering comprehensive social media programs as a service to clients – turnkey social networking. But is it right? Jane Fonda defends her blog as being written exclusively by her, without benefit of publicists. Kevin Spacey also explains to David Letterman why he has embraced Twitter, without the benefit of third-party writers.

So can PR take a role in social media on behalf of its clients? Of course we can. We need to advise them, help them find the right connections online, and guide their social media activities. We also can post stuff on their behalf, but only if we continue to disclose our role in the process.

It’s about authenticity. And the ethical thing to do is to reveal the man behind the curtain.

Friends for Sale: Social Media Clashes with Conventional Marketing

I spotted an interesting item on SFGate today. The Scavenger blog reveals that a company out of Australia, USocial, is selling friends. No, it’s not a white slavery ring. It’s a scheme born from conventional marketing that lets you buy “friends” for Facebook and Twitter campaigns just like you would buy a mailing list. It’s strategies like these that will co-opt social media and create new opportunities for the social media equivalent of spam.

The concept is fairly simple, and apparently has already been tried by everyone from the U.S. Marine Corps to the Church of Latter Day Saints to the Jackson family. You identity a special interest group and USocial will scour the social networks looking for matches and friend-request them on your behalf 1,000 users at a time (with discounts for 5,000 or more). Of course, USocial is never revealed as the source of the requests, and their clients get to build their online following by leaps and bounds.

USocial has been dinged by a number of social media sites for this practice. Apparently Digg sent them a “cease and desist” letter. But founder Leon Hill told AP, “We’re really only doing for our clients what they could do in their own time if they put their minds to it.”

So what’s wrong with this picture? Everything. The biggest outcry I hear from companies trying to figure out how to harness social media is that the marketing people just don’t get it. The concept is to engage online in an authentic and open way; to create a dialogue. Social media is not just another channel for one-way marketing messages, and spamming social media services with friend requests to increase the number of followers runs counter to the spirit of social media. Granted, I have already seen some blatant violators on Twitter and Facebook, including the Twitterers who have nothing more constructive to say than “buy my product,” or the follow requests from thinly disguised porn sites. You can manage those requests on a one-by-one basis, ignoring the idiots and reporting the violators. But when you have commercial spam generators trying to get your attention it’s a different story.

As with the early days of e-mail, we will find ways to address the emerging social media spam problem. I recall the early days of spam-free e-mail when I had some confidence that every message received was from a friend, client, or colleague. Now with two spam filters in place about one in 50 incoming messages are relevant. And so the next wave of social media technology will be spam filters for Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

 As they say, in cyberspace no one really knows if you are a dog.

When It Comes to Information, Free is Worth What it Costs

Okay, I’ll admit it. I have a hobby horse about the state of journalism today. I have to ask myself if the concept of “free” information on the web has sustainable value. During my years in the publishing industry, I learned that value is perception. You put a newsstand price on a magazine not because of its real market value, but because of its perceived value to the reader. The real revenue comes from advertising, so newsstand revenue is all about what the market will bear for the price of sale, which provides caché to the magazine.

Which is part of the reason I was excited when a client called me this morning to share his new micropayment strategy for a new research product he was developing. He referred me to a recent article in the New York Times profiling the online business model for the Financial Times. As John Ridding, the FT’s Chief Executive notes:

“It was pretty lonely out there for a while in paid land. But it has become pretty clear that advertising alone is not going to sustain online business models. Quality journalism has to be paid for.”

What? There is no free lunch? Shocking! Quality journalism comes at a price, and with the number of newspapers that are folding in recent months, it seems that there are fewer members of the public willing to pay the price, but maybe the FT has hit on an approach to keep quality journalism alive.

Which brings me back to a topic I blogged about earlier, the fact that there is no free lunch, and despite the fact the web makes information easier to access, someone reputable still needs to deliver the information. The real flaw in Chris Anderson’s theory in his book “Free: The Future of Radical Price” is that the revenue from a free business model is not sustainable. You truly get what you pay for, and information that is available for free is worth exactly what you paid for it. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his review of Anderson’s book in The New Yorker:

“And there’s plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free. The Times gives away its content on its Web site. But the Wall Street Journal has found that more than a million subscribers are quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading online. Broadcast television—the original practitioner of Free—is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine. Apple may soon make more money selling iPhone downloads (ideas) than it does from the iPhone itself (stuff). The company could one day give away the iPhone to boost downloads; it could give away the downloads to boost iPhone sales; or it could continue to do what it does now, and charge for both. Who knows? The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”

In the case of journalism, I think the notion of free is just too costly. There needs to be someone willing to pay to uncover real, credible information. Micropayment models, like that of the FT, may prove the new wave of the future, but the piper must be paid or the tune has no value.

So tell me how you think the world of journalism is morphing. What is the next incarnation? Can you still make a living as a journalist or will citizen journalists storm the barricades to claim the fourth estate?

PR Pros Need to Practice What They Preach

When I launched this blog a few weeks ago, I cited the problem that many marketeers have finding the time and resources to service their own marketing needs. It’s interesting that Marc Hausman, founder of Strategic Communications Group, cited the same issues a few days later, and even used a similar headline, “Fallacy of the Cobbler’s Shoe-less Children.”faucet_Full

As Marc notes, there are a number of agencies out there that fail to practice what they preach. They deem social media and networking as a business strategy, as long as they aren’t too busy doing something else that makes real money. Marc cites two agencies who let their blogs languish while they were pursuing paying clients. As many agencies (and clients) have discovered in this economic recession, you can’t abandon your marketing strategy or your pipeline will dry up.

One commentator to Marc’s blog noted that the best agencies have a dedicated marketing team to make sure that marketing the agency’s services doesn’t fall between the cracks. I have seen that work in some settings, but most agencies are resource-constrained and the rank-and-file has to find a way to build agency marketing into their daily routine. I have worked on the marketing committee for a few agencies, and we managed to build in web redesign, collateral updates, social networking, and other tasks into the day-to-day routine – it’s all part of the MBOs. In fact, it should be part of your DNA.

In fact, I am writing this blog while I take a lunch break from developing a new business proposal. You can always find time to market yourself if you make marketing a priority.

So thanks to Marc and those other PR professionals who walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

PR Pricing Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

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.

Newseum, Pamphleteers, and the Evolution of Blog Journalism

Newseun News History Gallery

This week, I have been traveling to Washington, DC, to get my stepdaughter settled in at George Washington University. While sightseeing, I had a chance to stop in at the Newseum, the recently opened news museum. If you ever have a chance, I urge you to visit Newseum – it’s an incredible experience.

As a follow-up to my last blog post, it was interesting to see the role that citizen journalism has played throughout history. One of the exhibitions, the Pulliam Family Great Books Gallery, included a number of historical printed documents, such as Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica,” Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” a few Revolutionary War pamphlets, and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I was struck by the role these early political observers and commentators played in the evolution of modern journalism. Viewing some of the archival material at the museum and the very moving 9/11 exhibit, it reminded me that much of citizen journalism is a matter of being a witness and recording what you see. It’s often a matter of being in the right place at the right time and making observations.

So in a sense, today’s bloggers and tweeters are carrying on the tradition of the pamphleteers, commenting on events of the day. There were a number of Newseum exhibits that talked about Internet technology and its impact on journalism today, such as the Twittering of the recent Moldovian revolution. Blogs have the potential to be the pamphlets of the 21st century, and as with the early pamphleteers, there is a responsibility that comes with blogging. This is part of the reason I am so concerned about making sure there is transparency in the blogosphere. Whether you are on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or maintaining a weblog, you need to tell visitors who you are and where your interests lie.

The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism

AllthePresidentsMenThere is no doubt that the newspaper industry is in trouble. The information explosion driven by the web is making it easy to access information from any number of sources, which is making it harder for local news sources to compete. So they change their editorial formats or they fail. A case in point is the San Francisco Chronicle’s online version, SFGate. As the Chronicle has had to make cuts across the board, from the Sunday comics section to staffing cuts, they have been supplementing their online coverage with citizen journalism as the print edition gets smaller and smaller. The site has added a Twitter feed and a new section called City Brights, where local professionals, politicians and pundits get a chance to share their views.

But what is happening to professional journalism?

Having been a journalist myself for over a decade early in my career, I have an appreciation for what it takes to research the story and get it right. One of my favorite films, “All the Presidents Men,” documents the lengths that Woodward and Bernstein had to go through to verify the facts in the Watergate cover up before they could go to press. That’s journalism! With advent of the web, the rules have changed as the difference between blogger and journalist becomes blurred. I want my news researched and verified before it gets served up online or in print.

I recall a Business Wire Media Breakfast where different Bay Area journalists talked about how and why they blog. One technology reporter for the San Jose Mercury News shared his criteria for when a rumor becomes a news story: if he could verify a story with three sources, it goes into the paper; if he couldn’t verify the story, it went on the blog.

While the growth of new media outlets such as Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the millions of blogs across the Internet are changing the way we communicate with one another, they are also undermining the profitability of newspapers and conventional news media. Many news outlets are adapting as best they can. CNN uses Twitter feeds very effectively with multiple micro newsfeeds. Anderson Cooper has a big online footprint with a blog, a Facebook fan page, and more. These are great for brand reinforcement to promote the credibility of their television news coverage, and more importantly, they are a means for viewers to participate and engage in the conversation.

And then there are newspapers like the Chronicle. I fear that more papers will let the professional journalists and substitute content with online information and cheaper (read free) sources to cut costs.

The news industry is changing, and as new revenue models emerge to support the new media, it’s important to remember the old values of professional journalism. I want my information researched and processed by professionals. I only hope that professional journalists can still find a way to be adequately paid to be professionals.

[This blog post was sparked by a recent review of Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of Radical Price written by Malcolm Gladwell and published in The New Yorker. There are some interesting ideas shared in that review and we will revisit it in a future blog post.]

Social Media? Sister Marta Kagan Explains It All For You

What the F**K is Social Media: One Year Later

View more documents from Marta Kagan.

Interested in social media? Don’t understand social media? Trying to determine the real market value of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn? Well welcome to the club.

The pundits abound, and everyone is trying to make sense of the online media phenom. Which is why I wanted to share this presentation from Marta Kagan of Espresso. She calls herself a bona fide marketing genius, and she admits that she swears like a sailor, but she has a fresh (albeit off color) perspective on social media.

Is the revolution coming? Is it here already? And who will be the first against the wall? I’m adding social media to my client recommendations, for the obvious reasons that Marta highlights here, but it’s only one component in a comprehensive PR/marketing program.