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.


Real Time/Social Media is making us spoiled – time for the ‘long idea’

In the old world, the one before the Internet and social media, we got our content when they gave it to us.  It was akin to three square meals a day if you were lucky.  Newspapers flopped onto driveways, radio stations paused at the hour to bring us news and the family (well the parents) sat down to watch the evening news.  These content outlets created funnels through which we got our news, views and perspective.  All that changed when the Internet arrived.  We could now get what we wanted when we wanted.  Well sort of.  Google and Yahoo! served up huge amounts of previously inaccessible content in ways that changed the world forever.  We quickly got used to being able to get news headlines and perspective at our time and place of choosing.  But with this change in behavior came a change in expectations.  Because we can now get news on a subject 24/7, we now want news on that subject 24/7.  If there is no news to report then we are disappointed.  We are, it seems, the spoilt kids when it comes to content. This creates a challenge for brands because you never want to disappoint your customers.

A quick study of top consumer brands show they re all struggling with this challenge.  Whether they are conscious of the challenge is debatable but many are trying to engage more frequently with their customers and partners online to avoid going dark for a few hours.  Think about that.  A decade ago a brand could go dark for days, even weeks and nobody had a problem.  Today we expect our brands to be talking to us, introducing us to their friends, entertaining us and of course keeping us informed every hour of the day.  Big brands, it seems, are being pushed to behave more and more like media outlets.  But constantly creating compelling content is only part of the solution.  Brands need to learn more about how and when their customers want to engage.  They need to plan the engagement cycle rather than the news cycle.  For many this requires a wholesale rethink of how they structure communications and marketing so that they focus less on how to get the news out and more on how to drive engagement on a consistent basis.  That word ‘consistent’ is critical.  Brands that engage around a new campaign and then go dark are the ones that create the largest expectation gap with their customers.  Avoiding going dark requires a rethink of the ‘big idea’ approach to marketing and instead a focus on what the guys at our Bourne agency have termed the ‘long idea’. After all, today’s world needs ideas that drive lasting engagement by creating a series of conversations, not just one.

I challenge you to look at the frequency with which your brand or your clients are creating a reason to engage and then compare that with the competition.  While pace of engagement isn’t everything it is rapidly becoming a key measure of a brand and its value.  So if you are trying to drive brand value, take a long hard look at how frequently you are engaging with customers, stakeholders and partners.  In today’s world, it’s not the only way to drive brand value but it sure is a crucial one.  Oh and while your are at it please make sure to feed my insatiable appetite for updates, insight etc.  In todays’s world can you engage too much?  Let’s leave that topic for another post.

Later.

 


PR PROs should drive insight not just news

PR agencies do more than drive news BUT they do tend to focus on the news cycle a great deal for obvious reasons.  Yet PR has to recognize that the way we consume news has changed drastically in the last five years.  Five years ago people had a primary news source, either via broadcast or a daily newspaper. Today they have a broad array of news sources that includes these same outlets, albeit online, but also includes bloggers, friends and people they follow on Twitter or are connected to on LinkedIn.  In such a fragmented market for information it is harder for companies to control their message.  This makes it far more important that companies determine the insight they want the news to create, which in will in turn drive the way they engage with the brand.  Yet all too often companies are so focussed on how to best to get the news out that they spend little, if any, time on what the news means and what they expect the people who should be connected to that news to do as a result.  In a world where we are drowning in information, the brand that goes the extra mile and helps us figure out how to make use of that information will win.  For PR agencies this means changing the way we think about the news cycle.  We need to work with our clients to make sure they understand the real and or desired implications of the news they want to promote.  There’s an old saying – there’s no such thing as bad news.  Perhaps PR consultants should worry less about the news and more about the insight.  Insight drives behaviors and actions and without these a client may well wonder why they engaged with you in the first place.


OBSESSED WITH SOCIAL MEDIA? YOU SHOULD BE OBSESSED WITH SEARCH!

I keep reading about brands that have used social media to reach their audience.  It’s kind of funny when you think about that.  First it’s funny because traditional media is writing about the very media that is killing them.  Second, it’s funny how obsessed we are that social media is ‘different’ from old media.  There seems to be a belief that social is inherently better.  Why is that?  Is it because social is seen as more democratic?  Is it because social is seen as more real?  Or is it because social is just the new way?

Before I go any further let me get one thing off my chest.  While there is some traditional media left, the vast majority of media is now social.  Most of our media has social aspects to it.  We can share it, comment on it, create our own versions of it and directly influence it.  Some purists would say that organizations such as the BBC are traditional media businesses.  Yet if you look at almost all their online content it has a social element to it.  The BBC has made real efforts to embrace social media and social network concepts.  I still feel they could go a lot further but they have come a very long way in the last year.  Organizations such as the New York Times have also taken bold steps as have publications such as Forbes.  Again, there is more they could do but you have to applaud their efforts.  We now follow their editors on Twitter, we get their news in real-time, we see comments from other readers.

So does all this mean that social is now the norm?  I’d say that many aspects of social are the norm.  Publications have realized that the value of content is directly linked to the number of people that share that content.  Sharing an old fashioned print story was hard and rarely happened.  Sharing a news story via twitter, Facebook, email etc is all too easy.  So easy in fact that we are now looking for ways to filter all the content.  When social arrived we all loved the idea that we could effectively let our friends filter the content for us.  If our friends thought it was worth re-tweeting it was probably worth a read.  With thousands of tweets landing on our feeds each day that method is a bust.  We now need tools to filter the filter.

So the challenge for the media isn’t to become more social.  The smart ones have already done that and are now struggling with how to break through all the clutter.  Put another way, social media is starting to deal with the very same challenge most companies have been wrestling with since so much commerce went online.  When people started buying products online search optimization took off.  Now of course most social content has some optimization built in.  But I’d argue that most tweets, blogs and YouTube videos are not that optimized (this blog is a great example).  Indeed it would seem that content optimization is still a huge opportunity for the creators of content.  Indeed I’d argue it is THE opportunity.

I’m sure some of the social media gurus out there will say I have this all wrong but IMHO there is still more talk than action on search from comms staff.  Most comms staff don’t discuss search strategies, they talk about content strategies.  They don’t conduct search audits, they conduct messaging audits.  This is not surprising.  Most of the people in communications have grown up with content as king.  We are trained to find ways to craft messages not optimize for real time search engines.  I’d argue that our obsession with content is a good thing BUT that we need an equal obsession on search if we are to win in a digital world.  Content, however great it may be, has no value if nobody can find it.


Should owners use agents when selling their agencies?

Seems my last post has annoyed some of the agents who represent sellers of agencies.  So I thought I should address the issue of whether agency owners are better off using agents, or whether they should fly solo.  Here’s my take:

  1. Not all agents are sharks – some actually help firms understand the value they have created and get them to realize what would constitute a good buyer.  In other words they add value to the process.
  2. Not all agents charge on a commission basis.  Put another way they are not necessarily focussed on the price but rather the sale itself.  Some even argue with owners that they are not ready for sale.  These are the ones you should hire as they are giving real counsel.
  3. Not all agents are in a hurry to make the sale – some appreciate that the right deal may take a long time.  This could mean as long as a year if there are complexities to sort out on equity holdings and or tax.
  4. Not all agents ignore chemistry and culture – some appreciate that there has to be good chemistry and a cultural fit between buyer and seller.  After all, they are going to be working together for years to come.

Of course there are agents who do quite the opposite on all of these, just as there are real estate agents who will happily sell houses that are about to fall down.  In other words, there are good agents and bad ones.  The good ones are worth their fees and will earn them, the others are not.  My bigger issue with the use of agents is when they effectively auction off businesses.  I completely understand why this happens but in the people-based industry we live in, this creates challenges.  When buyers pay top dollar for a business, they will need that business to perform at its peak for quite a few years to come.  This often means running a business for short term profit.  This often means the staff who work there feel they are being pushed too hard and the clients in the business can sometimes feel they are getting a lesser service.  Put another way, buyers can only pay what a business is really worth, so if a seller demands an inflated price, then the buyer will demand inflated performance to cover that price.  Good agents will respect this and make it clear to the seller what the consequences of the best price are, some will not.

So should owners use an agent?  Only if they find the right one.


Is now the time to sell your PR business?

Few agencies live forever.  Most eventually get bought as the founders seek to cash in on their years of investment.  Every year, as a result, these people sit down and ask themselves: “is this the year to sell?”  So is it?  Is 2011 the year that agency owners should cash in?  Here’s a simple check list that may help:

The questions you want a ‘Yes’ to:

  1. Is your agency growing faster than the average?  10% growth means yes btw.
  2. Is your agency likely to carry on growing for the next few years?
  3. Is your agency making decent profits? (15% margins and above)
  4. Is your agency positioned well in the digital transition?
  5. Do you have a strong leadership team or is it all dependent on you?
  6. Could you carry on working hard for another 3 to 5 years?
  7. Is your agency REALLY positioned well in the digital transition? (no lies please)

The questions you want to answer ‘No’ to:

  1. Does any client account for more than 25% of revenues?
  2. Is the equity in the agency only held by the founders?
  3. Is price what really matters in a sale?
  4. Are you in a hurry to sell?

Now Next Fifteen has bought quite a few agencies in the last decade.  We love the agencies that are now part of the Group.  In every case we acquired firms that weren’t ‘For sale’.  They were firms we spent ages getting to know.  First and foremost we had to have good chemistry with the people and vice versa.  We jokingly say that we’ll never buy a business run by people that we’d hate to spend an evening with.  Actually it’s not a joke.  And in truth, in the PR world anyone who sells their firm to people they don’t like is crazy.  Stephen Elop, who just took over running Nokia, recently reprised a Drucker quote: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Agencies that put strategy before culture will fail.

So is 2011 the year?  There are certainly a LOT of businesses that think it is.  We get approached by agents selling firms every week.  We tend not to buy these businesses because a) they are ‘for sale’ and b) agents want to rush a process that is best done more slowly.  They also simply want to get you to pay the highest multiple to justify their fees.  I get it but I’d much rather find firms that we connect with, rather than firms who have agents that connect us.  So if 2011 isn’t your year, let’s talk.


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.


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