Has your marketing got engaged?

Last night I did something unusual.  I sat an watched TV.  For a whole hour!  It wasn’t live TV of course.  It was something recorded but still it was TV.  It was great.  I just got to sit there and be entertained and because it was off the DVR I could skip all those pesky ads.  My teenage daughter joined me for a while but she spent equal amounts of time engaged with the show and with her friends online.  Nothing unusual there.  But the experience really brought home to me the problem many companies are facing with their marketing.  For decades marketing departments looked at forms of media that were non-interactive.  Consumers simply looked and listened.  We read stories around which adverts were draped, or we watched shows interspersed with ads that we sometimes watched.  It seems many companies are approaching the challenge the online world has created by producing marketing that assumes we are passive consumers of marketing, rather than people to get engaged with.  This is strange because what I’ve just said is nothing that new.  People have been saying for a while that the online world is all about getting engaged with consumers, yet for some reason it seems the vast majority of marketing dollars are still spent on forms of marketing that are passive.  Why?  I think the answer has two parts:

1.  Brands are struggling with ROI – the new marketing model requires new tools to measure its effectiveness.  There are no shortage of tools but there is a shortage of any agreed standard when it comes to measurement. Furthermore the goal of linking campaigns to sales still eludes most marketers.  It’s definitely possible.  We’ve run some highly measurable and thankfully successful campaigns for clients but it’s sad to say that too many campaigns are still run that go unmeasured and therefore hard to justify.

2.  Failure to innovate – many brands view innovation in online marketing as some clever pop up ad that you can’t avoid.  We all know that’s not innovation.  Innovation is where brands start with a clean sheet.  Instead of taking their old world tactics and applying them to the online world, they start with an online mindset.  They create and/or find content that engages with their audience.  We recently created a campaign for AMD that involved a virtual scavenger hunt.  It is designed to engage with developers so it hooks in to that community in a way that appeals to their inner geekiness.  In other words we gave developers a reason to interact with AMD and thankfully it seems they’ve jumped at that chance.

Now as a consumer I should point out that I don’t want to spend my day interacting with brands but I do expect that when I am looking for, or at something online that brands will try and engage.  Brands that sit and wait for my attention will struggle to get it.  So ask yourself a simple question:  how engaged is my marketing?  As far as I know there is no agreed percentage that is the new standard but if the answer to that question is: less than my competitors, it should be cause for concern.  Another way of answering it would be to brainstorm how engaged your brand could be and then analyse the gap between where you are now and where you could be.  For many brands engagement will be a journey but one they have to get on board with fast.  Otherwise they will become as irrelevant as the TV ads I skipped past while I watched TV last night.


Facebook valuation is a measure of the opportunity facing marketing agencies

There’s been a lot of commentary about the amount of money people are paying to get a slice of Facebook and the valuation that’s placing on the business.  Seven year old Facebook was recently valued at $82.9 billion on secondary exchange SharesPost Inc, making it more valuable than a host of businesses that have been around for decades.  The reason people want in on Facebook, Twitter and for that matter Zynga is because the world knows that majority of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on marketing are moving away from traditional media outlets to these new social and gaming platforms.  Investors believe that these platforms will grow at alarming rate over the next few years as traditional channels continue to decline and even collapse.  These valuations are therefore an indicator of where agencies need to be devoting their attention.  If agencies are not focused on how to use these channels to help brands attract customers, investors, staff etc, then they are in a dying business.  Facebook is adding millions of users a month and it owns the most important demographics making it a near perfect marketing platform.  The same goes for Twitter.  So the question every agency should be asking itself right now is: are we experts in these platforms?  If the answer is no, then you’d better start investing and fast.  The rate of growth of Facebook and others demonstrates how quickly the old agency model is declining.  So next time you read that Facebook’s valuation has increased by a few more billion, ask yourself if your business has also moved forward in its social capabilities.  The answer will make it all too clear what you have to do.


Should PR agencies hire experience or raw talent?

The race is on for agencies to build their digital assets.  Get it right and PR firms will grow faster than they have in decades.  Get it wrong and they’ll have a struggle on their hands.  So as agency heads look at their talent base and their potential new hires, they have a tough question to answer.  Do they hire experienced marketing professionals who have some digital skills or the typically younger, more digitally literate who have only limited experience?  Sadly for the more experienced group, the answer appears to be that agencies are trending towards hiring younger digerati, rather than grey hairs.  This in turn is reshaping agency structures, product offerings, and pricing.  To twist an old saying, we are who we hire.  With agencies moving from a classic pyramid model towards something that looks more like a coat hanger, the opportunities for today’s experienced professionals are becoming fewer by the day.  Is this fair?  Probably not but this drive to hire younger, cheaper talent is in part the result of another force, not just digital.  Client procurement departments have acted like sand paper on PR budgets for years and have increasingly made it more desirable to hire doers over strategists.

Most agencies are racing to build a ‘new’agency on top of their existing one.  While they do need some experience to prevent the thing from collapsing in heap, what they need most is staff that can get on and ‘do’ at a price point that makes the investments the agencies are making viable.  This effectively forces agencies to hire lower cost staff.  These of course tend to be kids from college who have no real experience but can tell you anything you want to know about Facebook and Twitter.  For this generation, SEO is a form of grammer and html was a choice alongside Spanish and French at school.  Given a brand is now defined by the size and strength of its social network, it’s hardly surprising that many agencies will value these skills over someone who has known the editors at a business publication for a decade.

So is it all doom and gloom for us oldies?  Far from it.  We can start and build these new agencies, they do after all need some adult supervision.  We can also explore the boundaries of owned, earned and paid media.  These are the places where real value lies and where experience can really come to the fore.  But we cannot assume that because we have decades of experience that our futures are secure.  We have to bring something of value to the transition to digital.  Identifying what this is is crucial and could yet save the careers of many.  We are in an era of marketing where the value of experience is trending downward.  In years to come that will of course change as digital becomes the norm but for now the digital natives are set to become the new leaders.  That may not be what people want to hear but our industry is, like many, Darwinian.  In our case the fittest are the digerati.


Online PR isn’t just about conversations

In the last few years, PR people have rightly stopped talking about stories and started talking about conversations.  The idea being that brands can start or join conversations that their customers are interested in, or are already having.  They can do this by contributing news, perspective, insight and raw content.  This shift is both important to the way PR is carried out and to the role it plays in the marketing process.  It opens new doors and new budgets for an industry that has long believed it deserves a bigger slice of the marketing pie.  But I’d like to remind PR people about something advertisers have known for a long time.  Getting our attention doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in a conversation with us.  My daughter’s laptop can often get her attention without any information being exchanged.  She simply enjoys watching entertaining content, or playing some mindless game.  She is no different from any of us in this respect.  We all have parts to our day when we simply want someone to take over our brains and let us escape.  Advertisers have figured this out to the extent that during some computer games, such as a car racing game, you will see billboards advertising products.  They recognize that the brands that ‘sponsor’ escapism are as important as the brands that sponsor educating us about the important issues of the day or the decisions we have to make.

Now the idea of creating content that helps people escape isn’t something you hear a lot in PR meetings.  PR meetings tend to be all about getting the message across in an increasingly noisy market.  But what if you created content such as a game or a video that was just so darned entertaining that people WANTED to watch it AND they knew your brand had sponsored this little mental vacation?  Wouldn’t that be just as powerful as that major news item you were hoping to get someone to blog about?  I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all ditch conversation management and move to entertainment.  I’m simply suggesting that digital channels open the doors for PR to much more than just conversations. Try this on for size in your next PR brainstorm.  Oh and happy 2011.


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.


Companies walk the fine line on Haiti with PR

As the terrible news unfolds about the earthquake in Haiti, companies are trying to figure out how they can help but also how they can get credit for helping.  I’ve talked to several clients on this subject and they all raise the same challenge:  how do we get credit for the help we give without it coming across as though we are only helping so that we get some positive press.  The reality is of course that good companies won’t try and exploit a disaster to get attention.  Good companies will do the right thing and if in doing the right thing people notice, then all well and good.  I know that many PROs will be encouraged to try and get people to notice the good things being done to help the people of Haiti but I for one would prefer to all the effort go in to helping people rather than into publicity.  Now if publicity in turn helps people by making more people give money or time then go get that publicity.  In other words make your relief efforts genuine and not a thinly veiled advert for the company.

When Katrina struck, a poster child for good action was WalMart.  They loaded trucks with basic goods and drove to the region.  They didn’t send out a press release telling people.  Truly good acts don’t go unnoticed.  Sometimes it takes time for people to notice but notice they will and word of mouth will eventually make sure people find out.  I’ve already noticed that major online brands such as Google, Amazon and eBay have links on their homepages so you can help the people in Haiti. Interestingly though I can’t find a major offline brand that has a similar link.  There’s no good reason I can see for that. Follow Google’s link for example and it tells you how you can donate.  It doesn’t tell you what Google is doing itself.  There’s no reason why Ford, Bank Of America, Coca Cola, Next Fifteen or anyone else couldn’t do the same…

At the end of the day, good corporate social responsibility boils down to:  Doing what’s right and doing what you can.


PR agencies are obsessed with bullet points

Look at a PR plan from a PR agency and it will have lots of bullet points.  There will be three key messages displayed as bullets.  There will be three or four key strategies displayed as bullets. There will be a dozen tactics displayed as.. you guessed it.  And so it goes on.  Why the obsession with lists and bullets?  In part because it makes it easier for people to read but mainly because.. well that’s how everyone does it.  But why?  Why are we so obsessed with having these lists?  I may be having a senior moment here, if so please just ignore me but I’m starting to believe that PR agencies lack some serious self confidence. Why do I think this?  Well here are some reasons:

1.  We should have the confidence to have a really great creative idea that marries insight with a perfect message and which naturally lends itself to a tightly defined set of tactics and metrics.  In other words we shouldn’t always need some back up, some other idea just in case the first one fails to get the client excited.  In other words there need not be a number 2.  Now I appreciate that software applications like Word and PowerPoint love bullet points or lists but they’d get used to people not pushing that button I’m sure.

Take a look at that PR plan you wrote for 2010 and ask yourself if you really do need all those messages, strategies, tactics and metrics.  If the answer is ‘yes’ then either you wrote a really insightful or really bad plan.


Don’t just have serious converastions

I just read a short book that interviewed advertising guru Charles Saatchi, of Saatchi & Saatchi fame.  In it he refers to a period in advertising when people actually looked forward to commercial breaks because the advertising was that entertaining.  People it seems looked forward to the latest ad from brands in the way they now get excited about the next movie staring their favorite celebrity.  I remember that era and he’s right.  I recall wanting to see the latest Levi ad before the start of a movie.  The closest we get to this now is a Budweiser ad during the Superbowl.  That’s sad.  Very sad.

My point here is that marketing should entertain as well as inform.  It should get us on the edge of our seats waiting to be sold to.  In a way Apple has adopted this approach by on the one hand helping fuel rumors about its latest products (see all the rumors around the tablet for example) and on the other making sure it says nothing publicly.  In short we are all dying to find out what Apple will do next.  This is a launch though, so building hype is to be expected.  But what can brands do to build expectation into their marketing AFTER a product is launched?  I’d argue that marketing has lost the art of entertaining and is too wrapped up in having a dialog that is focused on the ‘key points.’  Talking about the key points after the news is out gets, well, boring.  Also, as a consumer I don’t want to spend all my time in a serious conversation with a brand.  I want that brand to entertain me, surprise and even shock me.  Not in  the Tiger Woods way perhaps but you get my drift.

2009 was a year when everyone feared for their jobs and people ran a mile from risk.  In the race to avoid risk, they also avoided anything that was just plain fun.  Please let’s not repeat that in 2010.  Let’s create marketing programs that have a serious conversation but which also engage with customers in other, less serious ways.  Ways that may be harder to rationalize but which we all know just plain work.  Let’s have a Happy New Year.


Will PR budgets increase in 2010?

The answer is of course that some will go up and some will come down.  But which will go up and which will fall?  Here are some answers:

The winners:

1.  It seems obvious to expect the businesses that are doing well to spend more on PR.  They might but it isn’t guaranteed.  Growing businesses will spend money on marketing that has a clear ROI.  If there is one thing this recession should have taught agencies it is to focus on ROI.  If don’t yet have a measure – get one.

2.  PR that directly links to product sales will do well in any economy.  The trick is making the connection.  That is easier said than done, especially when you are working with larger businesses that have comprehensive marketing programs.  In this situation everyoe wants to take the credit.  What is still surprising to me is how rarely PR people do some simple analysis that shows the results they generated on a graph that connects to sales a company has made.  It isn’t a perfect solution but in the absence of anything better…

3.  IPOs are set to bounce back in a big way in 2010.  Investor focussed PR will clearly be immense importance and value.  This isn’t a market you can just jump in to though.  Relationships with investment banks and law firms are critical.  If you are not connected to this world, don’t expect to see many opportunities.

4.  As governments around the world continue to try and drag their respective economies out of recession and fix the problems that got them into the situation, legislation will continue to be passed.  This legislation will affect businesses large and small.  Agencies that offer help to those businesses have a great opportunity in the next year.  If you don’t understand the world of public policy, now may be the time to do some reading.

5.  Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.  Companies that got hit in the downturn but survived learned how to become more efficient.  The challenge is that they want to carry on finding new efficiencies.  This creates an opportunity for agencies able to offer clients a more comprehensive, global solution.  This is of course an area where agencies will make promises they can’t keep.  But clients want efficiencies, so efficiences will be offered.  The real winners will be those able to actually deliver on these efficiences.

The losers:

1.  Agencies that survived the recession may feel they are owed a future.  But if they didn’t learn anything from the recession then in reality they will continue to struggle.  Make a list now of the lessons you learned.  This should include the things you want to change and the things you believe you did right.

2.  Agencies that paid lip service to their staff during the downturn will pay a huge price as the recession ends.  Staff will be grateful that you gave them a job but if you aren’t offering a career don’t expect to keep them when the good times return.

3.  Digital is the obvious growth opportunity but it is also the area that successful agencies will invest in the most.  If you don’t focus on digital and invest the time and money they do, you will fall behind and that could ugly, fast.  Are you focusing on digital and making the necessary investments?

4.  Agencies have all taken on clients that they shouldn’t have.  During the recession, agencies justified taking on the less than perfect clients by telling themselves it is about survival.  But the reality is that in better times, better staff will leave to work on better clients.  They may not have had that choice in the recession.  In the months ahead that choice will return and they will leave.  Client makeovers are not easy but if you need one, start working on it now.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means but if you take one lesson away I hope it’s that we all need to learn from the recession we’ve just been through.  If we fail to learn, we’ll fail to improve.  If we fail to improve, we won’t just stand still, we’ll get overtaken.


Is the PR industry still in recession?

PR people tend to be glass is half full people.  This means that when the recession started they tended to put a very brave face on it and were almost in a north African river (denial).  Indeed it was only when things had hit the bottom that many PR heads would really talk about how bad it had been.  But has the industry really started a recovery?  Here are some arguments for and against:

FOR:

1.  Clients have released project dollars that had otherwise been held on to

2.  Budgets cuts are no longer taking place and in some cases clients are modestly increasing their spend

3.  Staff are starting to get recruited as agencies feel more confident of their revenue streams

4.  Staff who are moving are starting to look at agency work rather than in-house.  In-house is often considered the safe place to be in a recession (relatively)

5.  New business opportunities have improved for agencies and the process has become more normal (number of agencies involved and budgets are back to normal)

AGAINST

1.  The release of project dollars is potentially just a year end phenomena.  Many clients have calendar fiscal years and so they are now starting to think about their budgets for 2010.  If they don’t spend their ’09 budgets they will have a challenge getting $$ in 2010.

2.  PR budgets are generally linked to the sales of companies.  Given sales are still sluggish, across the board rises in PR spend are unlikely for quite some time.

3.  While the new business environment is much improved it is still very tough relative to a non-recessionary environment.  Procurement departments have used the recession to sharpen their teeth and get better deals.  It will be some time before agencies can get back the concessions made during the recession – if ever

The above would suggest that as an industry we are still in the early stages of the recovery (assuming you are still a glass is half full person).  But what it really says to me is that we should not be looking at the recovery as a chance to get back to where we were but rather as a reminder that we need to innovate and come out of the recession offering a better solution to the one we did going in.  This is easier said than done and I suspect that many agencies will look at progress in social media and feel that they can tick the box called innovation.  I’d urge them to think again.  The shift towards digital is important but every part of the industry has embarked on that mission.  Real innovation is spotting the less obvious challenges and embracing them along with the obvious.  Good luck in that challenge.  Oh, and if you figure it out, do let me know!


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