The end of Push PR/Marketing

I’ve been a little slow in making this mental leap but it occurred to me today that we have (or at least should) now finally seen the end of push-based marketing activities.  For years people in PR, advertising, direct mail etc have created marketing campaigns designed to push information at consumers as a way of engaging with them.  While brands may well have done research on their customer base they had limited contact with them outside of the sales and customer support processes.  All that has changed with social media.  Brands no longer ‘control’ what messages get put out OR when those messages are communicated.  While brands do still push messages out, consumers create their own messages and communicate them when they want.  Messages like: “the PlayBook from BlackBerry/RIM is a me too product.”  Indeed, managing this aspect of the conversation around a brand or product is now at least as important than managing the company created content.  Yet I wonder how many brands really do manage the conversations consumers are having?  I meet quite a few senior communications people in my work and many talk about the importance of this but it still seems that 90% of the effort is directed towards the content they as businesses create.  Listening and shaping the conversations already taking place?  Well they may do the former but rarely the latter.  I believe this is largely because they don’t know how to, or have never really tried.

Why wouldn’t brands try and shape existing conversations about them?  In large part brands seem to feel that it’s much harder to try and change someone’s argument than it is to start a new one.  That may be true but in reality, shifting the debate is a way of shaping a conversation.  It just needs some careful thought, planning and action.  It’s my belief that brands should be sitting down every week (at least) and discussing the conversations taking place on-line about them.  These online conversations are really a digital version of what their customers believe be it good or bad.  By understanding these conversations they are getting a valuable pulse check on their customer-base which in turn should enable them to join in discussions with real integrity.  Again though, I don’t see enough brands doing this.  All too often brands will monitor the conversations but then review them long after the debate has moved on or take little action when they do see a rising topic.  This isn’t true of all brands of course.  Some have jumped in to the social marketing world feet first and are learning some great lessons in the process.

In closing I want to talk briefly about the worst way to tackle social marketing.  This is where brands simply replace their current marketing tools with social tools.  This largely means they carry on trying to push messages at consumers, they just use Facebook, Twitter etc to do it.  Ironically some brands believe that by doing this they have really embraced digital/social marketing and are being progressive.  In my mind all they’ve really done is swapped one bad habit for another.  In short, I’d urge brands to give some thought to how much of their marketing is them joining in the conversation versus starting it.  If you are always the one starting a dialog, it isn’t really a dialog, it’s a speech.  So unless you are Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill you’re better of using those things on either side of your head that Apple designed the iPod for.  RIP Push.


Time for the social PR pitch process?

Let’s face it, PR pitches have all become very similar.  All agencies present some research showing they understand the problem, some measurable objectives and then some creative, strategies, tactics and costs.  There may be one or two additional elements to please a certain client but that is about it.  Aware that many agencies use their best people to create pitches and their best sales people to deliver pitches, clients ask to see the ‘real team’ on the day.  In other words they want to interview the team they’d get to work with.  Makes sense.  But all this has started to change now that digital has come on the scene.  The team, their thinking, ideas and their research are all still important but now agencies are also presenting digital content and in many cases technology created by specialists that will rarely interact with the client (for good reason).  This is a world that the advertising agencies are very familiar with.  They are used to having a person who manages the client relationship and then draws on the skills of a great many people, many of which the client never sees.  And so the pendulum swings back in the other direction, leaving the client with the challenge of trying to base their decision on the quality of ideas presented, the track record of the agency and in all likelihood the personality of their account handler.  This is far from ideal for the client and suggests that some work to change the process is required.  With that in mind, may I suggest the social pitch process?

We have all become very used to social networks and social media.  Perhaps we can create a process that embraces ‘social’ to enable better decisions for the client.  Imagine the client puts its RFP out on a Ning or Grouply like site.  Agencies are then invited to work collaboratively with them on refining the brief, through a series of conversations.  With a better brief (which agency has not wanted to improve the brief?) the agency can then start to use social tools to develop concepts and campaigns that demonstrate their thinking and also the roles of the people at the agency.  Instead of a client seeing who presented an idea, they could see who came up with it and how others worked on it and made it what it is.  The client can test out over a period of days the thinking, enthusiasm and skills of a broader team than was ever possible in the 90 minute pitch they have today.  I should be clear, I’m not envisioning a process limited to short blog posts, tweets etc.  I’m envisioning a process that includes video chats, group discussions AS WELL AS blog posts, tweets etc.

I doubt for a minute that many firms will have the nerve to hire an agency just by using a social approach but I do hope that a large enough number wake up to the fact that digital has changed the PR game and that we should embrace it in the way agencies are hired, not just in the work we expect from them.


Will Foursquare Survive?

I’ll admit right now that I was never a fan of this technology.  The idea of people knowing where I was at any given time was always a challenge to me.  I can see why some people got excited about it and the whole ‘Mayor’ thing certainly got people buzzing for a while but unless I’m mistaken it would seem that buzz around Foursquare has started to die.  I used to get tons of tweets from people telling me which airport they were at. or which coffee shop they were frequenting.  This week I’ve had less than a handful.  It’s as if the novelty of it has worn off. I also think that Facebook and Twitter adding similar functionality has made the idea mainstream and it seems that when it comes to social media/networking, mainstream isn’t good.  If you read or watch any of the media devoted to Foursquare it all sounds very compelling as a business model.  Crowds open up to where they are and what they’re doing and receive a benefit as a result.  Problem is that for a lot of people, the cost of losing their anonymity isn’t worth the half price day old muffin they just received.  No doubt I’ll learn next week that they’ve been bought for billions and I was wrong but from looking at Twitter, it would appear Foursquare has had its day and could end up like MySpace…


What digital skills should a PR PRO have?

PR agencies are all trying to figure out how best to take advantage of the shift to digital.  The main point of debate for most agencies is whether they should embed digital skills across the agency or simply create a group of digital gurus.  This is a real challenge and hard to get right.  Given we all know that in time digital is going to be as commonplace in PR as the press release has been in the last 50 years, it would seem to make sense to take the route of spreading the skills across the agency.  The counter argument to that though is that some of the skills needed to excel at digital communications are not ones all PR people can easily learn and are not ones they’ll always need.  Some skills are so specialized that to load them on to the skill list of the average PR consultant is simply unrealistic at best and a waste of time at worst.  Looked at this way it seems logical that some middle ground is the answer.  Yes PR operators need to understand digital but they don’t need to be masters of everything, instead they need to call on experts to help them out.  In many ways it’s like asking a crisis comms expert to come in when you need one.  Most PR operators know the basics and could make a pretty good job of handling most crises but when a company’s reputation is on the line it seems sensible to bring in an experienced pro.

So what digital skills should a PR PRO have?  Here’s my suggested list:

  1. They need to understand the basic online analytical tools that are available to capture what is being said on Twitter, Facebook, a Ning or Grouply site etc.  They also need to be able to interpret the results of these social media measurement tools and connect the dots between this data and other data such as traditional media measurement output.
  2. They need to know how to manage a community so that it becomes a real community and not just their client posting to a sea of indifferent followers.
  3. They need to be able to create content that is suited to the various platforms the Internet offers.  This is potentially the most difficult area as it requires PR people to move away for pure text-based content to visual images, audio and video as means of influencing people.  PR people need to be able to think in terms of the impact an image or a video or a  can have on someone’s perception of a brand.
  4. They need to understand search.  This of course means SEO not just how to look something up on Google.  It therefore means knowing how to optimize text, images and video so people find them.  This is an area that is evolving.  Right now all PR people should learn the basics but equally every PR agency should have access to an expert.

If you are just starting out, or have been in the industry for some time, these are skills that are going to be essential in the next few years.  There are of course many others but in my view if you have a grasp of these you will be on the right track.


Apple After Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs has done an amazing turnaround at Apple since he retook the helm.  Apple was in a death spiral it appeared; yet today they are the most valuable tech company in the world.  For a while Apple was a bitter, twisted company that produced nice looking products that nobody but fanatics bought.  Today, everyone but my mother has an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad.  Some poor souls like me have all four.  Apple, in short, is king of consumer tech right now.  Will that last forever?  I for one doubt it.

Right now Apple has a great team headed by a visionary leader.  At some point that team will grow old, run out of energy and start to fragment.  Apple’s future will be determined by the ability of the company to create a new generation of leaders.  I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that but my point is that it is easy to assume that Apple has that problem nailed in the same way they have their product strategy right now.  But do they?

When news of Steve’s illness was pushed on to the market, people speculated about who would take over from him.  All of that speculation tended to focus on internal rather than external candidates.  This makes a great deal of sense and is most likely what will happen. However, if they do go internal we can expect the losers of that battle to be at best disenfranchised and at worst leave.  This will in turn lead to a weaker team at the top.  Furthermore Apple is likely to have to live through a period where any new CEO is constantly being measured against Steve.  That’s a hard act to follow.  They’re not going to get standing ovations like he does when they walk on stage at the Moscone for product launches.  The crowd isn’t going to laugh at the little jokes that are thrown in.  In other words the ‘Steve factor’ will be lost and Apple will be just another good company, rather than a great one.

When this happens, the door will be wide open for rivals large and small.  Right now Apple is all but impossible to beat in the consumer space.  Sure there are some that hate them but they are a minority.  That could change very quickly.  Microsoft could fix its mobile strategy, RIM could design a BlackBerry that iPhone users would like or some new player could appear.

My point in all this is that innovation within a company is directly linked to its success but is also linked to the people that run that company.  They are the ones that decide which products to sell to whom and at what price.  They are the ones that create the markets, the excitement and so on.  While some companies do a good job of creating a culture of innovation, even they know that it is what you do with that innovation that matters.  Put another way, you will only keep on winning for as long as you have the best team.  Today Apple has that team but there will come a time when they don’t.  And come that day, others will take their chance.


What agency would you launch today?

We are what we are.  For many that means middle aged and over weight.  For others it means happy but a little lacking in the career department.  In short we all have thoughts about what we’d do differently if we could start again.  PR agencies are a collection of people that are, like all of us, imperfect.  As a result, agencies often find themselves riddled with the very flaws these people possess.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great firms out there but we all know they could also be a lot better.  Even the good ones would love to turn back the clock and change a few things.  Given that’s not going to happen the only real choice, for some, is to wipe the slate clean and start again.  But the decision to start again doesn’t guarantee that the ‘new agency’ will really be any different.  Most people who start firms, do so with a set of skills derived form experience.  In other words they know what they know.  This makes it hard for them to really innovate.  To get revenue they have to sell the services they have always sold and hire others they already know.  In all likelihood that means they quickly start repeating the same mistakes, albeit with a new business card.  To really start anew requires people to do things differently.  This means offering new services and delivering old services in a new way.  This is best done by hiring people that are not familiar with the old ways, people that challenge even the simplest assumptions of the old business model.  This is harder to do than you’d think.

I’m therefore proud that in launching Beyond (www.bynd.com) we are doing just that.  We could have hired a bunch of PR people we knew and sold services that sounded a little different but were, in reality, existing services with a coat of paint.  Instead we’ve hired people that scare me because they talk a language I don’t always understand and have a way of looking at challenges that is alien to me.  I’m sure we will learn that some of what we are offering isn’t what customers want but I also know that we are offering is truly different to anything customers can get elsewhere.  For those entrepreneurs out there who are thinking about starting their own firm, I hope Beyond will remind you to create a business that is truly something new.  Go Beyond!


The Media Still Matter

The popular view is that traditional media is dying as we all stop reading the newspapers and instead pass our time on Twitter and Facebook.  For the generation that grew up with the Internet, the idea of reading traditional print media and watching the 6 o’clock news is an anathema.  They get their news and perspective from a raft of sources: friends, Internet friends (bloggers, communities etc), people they follow on Twitter and of course online media.  But it would be wrong to say that the media’s role has been relegated to a bit part.  The media still fuels the vast majority of twitter feeds for the adult world for example.  Indeed without traditional media, Twitter and Facebook would be very dull places.  Sadly the direct consumption of that media has dropped as people opt for the 140 character summary.  This is unlikely to change very soon.  Society now expects us to cram more and more and more in to our day.  In turn we are evolving as entertainment, news and perspective consumers into a population that expects to have its content delivered in a concentrated form.  We expect the middle east crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan and the latest jobless report to be summarized into a sentence or two.  We may be willing to look beyond the headline but a 5000 word article is just not going to be read, unless it is an amazing read, regardless of its import.  For journalists this is a nightmare come true.  These people were/are trained to dissect the news and give us the important perspectives.  They don’t even try to do that in 140 characters, or even 140 words in most cases.  But the future of journalism relies on their ability to adapt to this evolution in consumer behavior.  Some journalists get this and are embracing the opportunities online brings.  Many are simply ignoring the winds of change and are hoping that consumers will simply go back to the good ol’ days, or at least their publishers are.  This isn’t going to happen just like we haven’t all ditched our cars and gone back to riding horses. So, the media must adapt and adapt fast.  Here are some of my thoughts on how it could adapt:

1.  Fragment even faster.  The media has become fragmented but instead of fighting it it could champion it.  Instead of subscribing Forbes we can subscribe to Quentin Hardy.  Instead of making the magazine the icon, make the reporter the rock star.

2.  Create a new content model.  We currently have news, news analysis, features etc.  This model hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years.  Why not have news analysis pieces and features that are 200 words long but link to ten separate features that are also 200 words in length?  In other words make a 2000 word feature a collection of 200 words articles that fit together.

3.  Charge by the article not by the magazine.  We have all got used to iTunes and paying 99c or $1.29 for a track.  Why not offer news related content on the same basis from rock star reporters?

4.  Personalize it.  For over a decade the media has talked about making news more personal.  It hasn’t really happened.  My homepage gathers a bunch of news from traditional sources.  It doesn’t to appear to have learned anything about what I like or don’t like.  At least half the content gets ignored and much of the rest gets only a cursory view.  It’s time for the media to REALLY act in this area.

My view is simple.  The media has all the assets to succeed.  It has talent and content.  It simply needs to rethink its channel strategy.  We all care about the media and we all want the media to succeed but that doesn’t mean we always will.  A diminishing role for the media is a realistic prospect but it isn’t inevitable.

PS – I just realized that most people stopped reading (even if they started) some 3000 characters ago.


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