There’s an app for that – great marketing?

Apple has applied to trademark that expression.  Even if they hadn’t it always reminds you of them.  They made having thousands of apps available for you to buy and install on your phone something we all thought was very important.  They made it so important that all their competitors had to copy them.  Google, Microsoft and RIM (BlackBerry) now tout the thousands of apps you can choose from.  Of course the reality is that for most of us, having thousands of apps to choose from is nice but we are never going to actually buy thousands of apps.  I have about 40 apps on my iPhone.  I used to have a few more that my kids had downloaded but most went unused and I managed to purge them from my phone.  When I do buy a new app, I tend to buy from the top 25 list.  Only rarely will I seek out an app not amongst that list.  Now I’m sure the apps I need differ from the apps most students want.  Indeed my daughter has games that leave me cold.  Even then she has no more than 100 apps.  So, by my calculations, less than 1% of the apps for sale actually get a big market.  Put another way, the vast majority of apps get no audience whatsoever.  Today’s app developers are like the Victorian prospectors in search of gold.  They’ll invest in a piece of land in the hope that they’ll strike it rich.  Most of course don’t.  So when you think about it, all the app choice message that Apple started is effectively just marketing.  They want us to believe that we should buy their phone because somewhere out there is an app we don’t know about that we might need.  Truth is the universe of apps we really need is really small, maybe a 1000 at the most.  I don’t blame Apple for taking this path.  They are, after all, protecting the market they created.  But sooner or later, two things will happen:

1.  All the phones will be able to offer all the apps you want

2.  Consumers will realize that they don’t really need hundreds of thousands of crappy apps.  Instead a few hundred good ones will do very nicely.

Until that happens, the app war will continue and we’ll all wonder if there is an app out there that would make our day that bit better.

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.

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.

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 ( 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!

Back to school

Across America it’s back to school time.  Families are getting used to packing lunches, the joys of nightly homework and arranging after school activities.  It’s also a time when work calendars fill up as people return from vacations, supposedly refreshed.  Of course in America they don’t take the long vacations that are common in countries such as France and Sweden.  Instead they stretch to ten days, or two weeks if they are feeling particularly brave.  Either way, Americans are now ready to do battle with the economy while their kids do battle with mathematics and English.  In the world of communications and marketing in general, the summer is a quiet period where only a real crisis will garner much attention.  The Fall on the other hand is a period where news floods out as businesses launch products and make acquisitions.  The flood of news does of course make it harder to get people’s attention.  You are, after all, competing with others for your fifteen seconds of fame (the Internet equivalent of Warhol’s prediction).  So does this make sense?  I appreciate it is difficult to get things done over the summer when so many people are away and the argument goes that: what’s the point of announcing things when nobody is around to read about it?  I’d argue that in the age of social and online media, the summer is no longer a dead time for getting attention.  It is merely a dead time for people seeking it.  While I was away I checked on the news, industry and otherwise, everyday on my iPhone and I’m not that unusual.  With today’s technology people hear about the news whether they are at work on a south pacific island.  So it makes me wonder whether companies should rethink summer media madness and use the fact that attention is easier to get to their advantage.  Perhaps, therefore, it’s time for us communications folk to go back to school…

Is brand loyalty real?

It’s every marketing chief’s goal: brand loyalty.  Achieve this and you have a revenue stream for life, even if your next product isn’t quite as good as your last.  Some brands achieve this status for periods of time but few can sustain it over more than a few years.  Apple has it right now, Ford used to to have it, Coke has had it for decades.  It’s arguable that Coke has been able to maintain such loyalty because it hasn’t really had to change its core product.  They tried to and it almost cost them that loyalty.  Instead, they’ve tinkered with the packaging and played around with the distribution.  Outside the food and drink category, it’s hard to find products that have endured and brands that maintain loyalty.  This is because innovation constantly threatens brand loyalty.  But does it?

While watching the world cup, you couldn’t help but notice the immense pride people have in their nations.  The painted faces and died hair, the regrettable tattoos and the silly costumes all demonstrate a level of national loyalty most brands can only dream of.  Indeed, I can’t think of a brand that has ever manged to get thousands of people to dress up, paint their face etc without being paid to do it.  In short, we show unwavering support for our nations and are prepared to even die for them (well some are) even though they have given us little more than a birth certificate, passport and a tax bill.  Indeed it would seem that national loyalty is real loyalty. It isn’t paid for by the nation, it is simply given by its citizens.  If this is real loyalty, then what is brand loyalty?  Brand loyalty it would seem is just a current infatuation.  It is a kind of love affair that in most cases ends with all the inevitability of a high school romance.  Looked at it in this way, brand loyalty becomes a very different challenge.  To keep a love affair going is very different to simply maintaining a relationship.  Love affairs are all about passion and romance. They require you to constantly think of the other person, to be creative and spontaneous.  So next time you are in a meeting and the conversation turns to brand loyalty, be sure to show your passionate side.  It may well spark a really good conversation.

Is Advertsing better at PR than PR?

PR awards are much sought after by agencies.  They are meant to show off the talent an agency has.  So it’s perhaps surprising that TBWA/Chiat/Day (an advertising agency) should win the PR award at the Cannes Lions.  The campaign was a great idea: Create a rematch for two high school football teams who  have one of the longest on-going rivalries in the USA and who played to a 7-7 tie on Thanksgiving Day in 1993 (see video here).  In other words it was a classic PR stunt.  Except it was apparently created by an Ad agency.  This proves once again that what really matters is a great idea, and a client that is smart enough to embrace that idea, not what kind of agency created it.  Watch out PR agencies, the advertising world is on our turf.  Of course we can also go play on theirs…