Don’t Let Customers Talk Behind Your Back – Join the Conversation

You have to love social networking. It’s not only a great way to keep up with friends and old classmates; it’s also a great way to get pearls of wisdom from former clients. Mitchell Savage works for a cool start-up company called Vidoop, which has an innovative approach to web and password security. (In the interest of disclosure, they’re not only a former client, but I am a daily user of MyVidoop.) Mitchell’s last blog post about joining the social media conversation seemed especially timely, and a topic I can readily relate to having finally convinced a long-time client to launch a social media program.

As I’ve said in this blog in the past, one of the hardest things for marketing people to understand is that to become part of social media, you have to stop trying to control the message and just join the conversation. As Mitchell says,

The reality is that people are talking about you, your organization, your products and services, and the complete experience of your company.  They’re doing it right now while you’re reading this.  So the question is not whether or not the conversation will take place.  The question is whether or not the conversation will have the benefit of including you.

I sometimes have a similar argument with my clients about press coverage. Some say all press is good press, and other only want the good news and blame you when they see the bad news in print or online. In a sense, all press coverage is good coverage because at least you are being included in the conversation. You can’t address negative press if you don’t get any press at all.

So if people are going to talk about you, then the least you can do is joint the conversation so you have some control over what they are saying. It’s not so much damage control as it is being proactive, being positive about promoting your brand message, and being seen.

So what’s the best strategy for proactively joining the online conversation? Mitchell identifies the four cornerstones of effective social media:

  1. Listen – Before you engage, put our ear to the pavement. Listen to what they are saying about you. As Mitchell points out, social media is a great place to hear from your customers, for free. Most comments about companies are normally positive, so see how you fare in the ratings. Are your customers “yelping” about you? Is it good news or bad? The answer will help you form a response.
  2. Speak – Once you year the comments, good or bad, you can formulate an intelligent response. Show your customers that they have been heard and that you care, and you will get their loyalty for life.
  3. Provide value – Don’t just be defensive, be proactive and be positive. Don’t just cover your ass; promote your assets. Give away information, offer insider tips, give away freebies, be a mensch worth following. The more positive your contribution, the more positive the feedback and the more followers you can expect.
  4.  Build community – From the positive response of your followers, others will follow them. It’s a pied piper effect, or the same thing that happens when you stand in the middle of the street and look up. Everyone else will follow you to see what all the fuss is about. Take that positive feedback and share the love through multiple channels. Use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Digg it – shout it from the rooftops and let people find you and follow along.

You created your own brand image, and all your customers will do is share their experience as it is mirrored in that brand image. If you give them a positive customer experience, they will sing your praises and invite others to join the chorus. Social media is merely the amplifier that lets your customers sing louder than ever before. Don’t try to shut them up; help them. If they are going to talk about you anyway, then listen to your customers, hear them, and give them something good to shout about.

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More Twitter Types: Where are You in This Picture?

Twitter continues to gain momentum as a marketing and networking tool, and with that momentum comes a new set of rules. All social interaction has rules of etiquette, and since Twitter offers a new form of conversation, it comes with its own set of rules. We already touched on some of the “Twitter types” in the last blog post, but Twitter is a new medium, which means the rules are still being defined.

Thanks to Guy Kawasaki for his addition to the Twitter conversationalist profiles. Kawasaki has identified six Twitter types  (as opposed to the four in our last post) and there is even a downloadable poster for easy reference. (Don’t you hate people who pigeonhole everything into categories?) The question is, which type are you?

The Newbie – This is the novice who has decided to chronicle his or her life on Twitter. Those new to Twitter think it’s all about where you are having coffee or watching paint dry, and these types of Tweeters reinforce that notion. The Newbie has a choice: evolve to a higher level of conversation, or risk having your tweets left on the “block” list. Apply a little understanding here and see how they grow.

The Brand – This Twitterer understands the power of Twitter to promote personal brand, so the dichotomy is how to balance self-promotion with conversation; how to promote yourself without baking it too obvious. Many of these Twitterers are worth watching.

The Smore – The term is short for “social media whore.” This Tweeter is all about “what do I get out of this?” These Tweeters see Twitter as a self-promotional tool, nothing more. Some are obnoxious and others are personable, so tolerance is a good approach, if they aren’t too over the top.

The Bitch – This is the Twitterer whose mating call is “kvetch!” Kawasaki calls them the “shock jocks” of Twitter, but basically they are bitter Twitterers who complain about people who have figured out social media. Block them!

The Maven – This is the self-proclaimed expert in his or her field, and their Tweets offer real insight into their profession. If you are looking for gurus in your field to follow who can offer insight, then follow the Maven by all means.

The Mensch – These types of Twitter birds are rare, but incredibly helpful. They offer assistance where needed.  These are the online altruists whose mission is to help their fellow followers. These are rare birds, but when you find one, follow and adore them.

So consider your Twitter strategy and think about which Twitter type best fits your strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all (I told you the pigeonholes don’t work). But it’s interesting to consider different approaches to Twitter and how microblogging continues to evolve as a marketing and branding tool.

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Embracing Social Media Means Letting Go of Control

WhisperThere is a prime rule about social networking that PR and marketing people have difficulty adhering to, or believing – it’s letting go of the message. To be effective you need to let your social networks build the buzz, if there is a buzz to be built, and trust your network to keep the momentum going and keep it upbeat.

If you are a student of social media, then this concept should not be foreign to you. If you are familiar with David Meerman’s Scott’s book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR,  then you are already familiar with the notion of letting go of the message. Scott advocates shifting away from trying to send a message and instead, tapping into the viral marketing of the web by engaging in the conversation. The power of the online conversation will move your brand message faster and more effectively than a one-way marketing pitch. Consider what happens of you try to control or dominate a conversation in a meeting or at a cocktail party; pretty soon you will be talking to yourself. The same is true online, which is why you need to engage in conversation and let go of the message.

And I want to thank C.C. Chapman for inspiring this blog post. If you haven’t checked out his podcast, Managing the Gray, I recommend it. Managing the Gray is all about “no control PR.” I was catching up on podcasts over the holidays and was struck by C.C.’s Veteran’s Day interview with MAJ Mary Constantino talking about ArmyStrongStories. I’ve blogged about how the U.S. Air Force is harnessing Web 2.0 technology, and this podcast interview is another great example of how the U.S. Army is promoting its brand with the help of “no control” social media.

ArmyStrongStoriesArmyStrongStories gives you unedited stories from the men and women serving in the U.S. both here and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. It’s a powerful recruiting tool for the Army, since it gives interested parties a candid “day-in-the-life” look at what it’s like to serve. Some of the posts are quite interesting, including everything from mind sweeping to dentistry, complete with pictures. Naturally, sensitive information about troop movements and covert activities aren’t included, but it’s surprising that the military, which is traditionally known for controlling its brand with an iron grip, has given such latitude to its recruits to share their experiences and speak their mind.

There is a lesson here from which every brand manager will benefit. If you can learn to plant the seed of your story and let it go, social media will help it grow. You need to understand how to plant the seed effectively by becoming part of the online conversation, but you can’t micromanage it. I heard an interesting description of the Web today. It is like a spider web in that a rustle in one part creates a ripple across the entire web. Your best promotion strategy is to make a ripple and watch it work.

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What are Your PRedictions for 2010? Everything Old Is New Again

crystal_ballIt’s the time of year when all good pundits dust off their crystal balls to predict what the coming year will bring. I have been looking on the Web to see what the PR gurus are offering as PR predictions, and there seems to be some consistency:

  • More consolidation of PR agencies as big agencies gobble up smaller ones;
  • Growth will return, although with a cautious optimism as the year starts out slowly for some; and most interesting
  • The current boom in social media will morph into something more substantial and more sustainable.

Some PR pundits are predicting a social media gold rush as new social media players flood the market seeing attention, which could mean a boom for PR as well. Here’s Lou Hoffman’s prediction as cited in Media Bistro:

“Virtually every Ph.D. student who can say ‘algorithm’ and chew gum at the same time devotes their thesis to building a social media monitoring tool. Each is convinced he or she has cracked the code on the best way to capture every word, visual and action that transpires in this alternative universe called social media. These 500+ companies scamper to find a PR agency, creating a dotcom-like boom for the PR industry.” Lou Hoffman, CEO, The Hoffman Agency

I believe that we will see the luster of social media start to dim as companies start looking to get more from social media branding. As David Mullen points out in his blog, Communications Catalyst, PR professionals will start to learn that the blog/Facebook/Twitter holy trinity is what he calls a “three-trick pony” for social media. PR professionals will have to go beyond the social media basics and dig deeper into their clients’ business and their brand to drive awareness and create value.

I agree with Mullen that if PR agencies don’t crack the code on social media soon, the emerging new media ad agencies are going to dominate here. I have already seen a number of agencies successfully step into the social media arena and offer very effective programs as an extension of pay-per-click and web marketing programs.

Once again, PR is going to have to demonstrate its real value to stay in the game in 2010. If you have been reading this blog, then you know that traditional media outlets like newspapers are either going under or struggling to survive, which means our role as media professionals has to evolve with the times. Mullen predicts that the lines between advertising and PR will start blurring. They are already are. In tough times, you have to be able to demonstrate that your communications program will add to your clients’ bottom line. Smart ad agencies and marketing agencies are creating programs that do just that, and they are using tactics like social media to do it. With the value of media relations increasingly in question, I see a turf war brewing between PR and other marketing and advertising agencies for client programs.

So it looks like old fashioned values are going to be new again. It’s up to smart PR people to take a hard look at their clients’ programs to identify where they can provide that deeper value that has a positive impact on sales. And they have to be able to show that value by measuring the results. We all will need to improve our game and remind ourselves the rules haven’t really changed with the  New Year.

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Twitter or Chatter – Tweets Aren’t Just For Breakfast Anymore

TwitterIconMany thanks to Paul Gillen for sharing his latest insight on Twitter traffic trends. There is a common perception that Twitter generates mostly meaningless traffic, like what I am having with my coffee or who I am voting for on American Idol. Paul conducted an innovative experiment. He clipped a 100-block stream of Twitter traffic go assess the amount of useful traffic. If you are discriminating about your Twitter followers (I at least make sure there is a bio with something remotely relevant before I follow someone), then you should see similar results.

What Paul found was:

  • 42% of the tweets were random.
  • 12% contained news of general interest, including a lot off real-time information about the Samoan tsunami.
  • 33% were referral links to interesting information.
  • 7% were notable quotes.
  • 6% were either self-promotional messages or requests for advice.

 Actually, the most telling statistic was Paul’s statement:

“The bottom line is that the 4 1/2 minutes it took me to read 100 tweets yielded at least 20 items of interest.”

That’s powerful. And it demonstrates the power of Twitter to promote your brand online. If you can come up with an online persona that you can promote through multiple social media outlets – Twitter, Facebook, Plaxo, LinkedIn, whatever – then you have something worth promoting.

The other aspect of Paul’s anecdotal research I found interesting was that 45 percent of the tweets included a link. I tell my clients that social networking is about laying out a trail of online bread crumbs that lead a path do your door. Linking to interesting content is what makes you interesting and significant on the social networking world.

I follow a number of people on Twitter, but there are only a few I listen to closely. Like the old EF Hutton commercials, when they tweet, I listen. That’s online brand building.

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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.

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Shoes for the Cobbler’s Children

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.

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