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Friday Fodder: Changing face of reputation management

I recently re-read for a research project a 1980 Public Relations Quarterly article (available only via academic databases, apologies) about the integration of consumer affairs and issues management. One of the recommendations made by author Merrill Rose in her article is to stay abreast of emerging communications technologies. She couldn’t have predicted in 1980 the social reality of 2010, but she raised a good point, one I’ve written about a few times – the need for communications professionals to stay abreast of the technologies that shape their media environment. That’s our job and professional responsibility.

If that need to stay ahead of technology is now apparent for individuals, then the need for the organizations they serve to embrace them is equally profound. Indeed, the business of reputation management, including issues and crisis management, is now a discipline in tumult. Issues management historically has been a discipline steeped in planning and preparedness. That’s still true today, but it’s now a discipline driven by technology and scale which tests the organization’s ability to respond. Gatorade knows this and created an impressive Command Center in response. I believe that model will become the norm, although perhaps without the catchy name.

That raises the burning question every PR person, brand manager and marketer should be focused on answering – what am I doing, personally AND professionally, to be proficient at managing in this environment? That’s this Friday Fodder, and I look forward to the discussion.

New wrinkle in Facebook advertising

Photo credit: Rob Pongsajapan

I wrote in January about the new Facebook advertising product – Sponsored Stories – that takes mentions a user makes of a product or service and allows advertisers to recapture that content and serve it up as an ad unit to the same user’s own Facebook community. It’s sort of a pseudo-endorsement product and Facebook contends that it respects privacy boundaries since it is only shown to your existing network which, ostensibly, would have seen the original comment anyway.

Fast forward to May. Facebook CTO Bret Taylor got a grilling in DC this week on privacy-related issues related to age and protection of minors. This same week, new criticisms emerged related to the Sponsored Stories product. The critics claim that since Facebook does not have built-in age verification (witness the reported 7 million-plus minors on the service in the US), there is no way for a parent or guardian to give consent for images to be used for advertising purposes. That violates the spirit, if not the letter, of state laws requiring adultconsent for usage of a person’s name or likeness.

This creates a legal quandary for marketers. We want to push the innovation envelope and tap new sources of innovation for building brands and sustaining interest in products and services. Products like Facebook’s advertising suite give us a very rich source of fairly turn-key solutions to do just that. But if it turns out that we’re reaching minors, will we be culpable? This is an area where I have witnessed marketing innovations teams and corporate legal do battle many times. The marketing teams want to rush in and capture the opportunity before the competition; lawyers want to study the issues and ensure there are no landmines about to be tripped.

I’m on the side of the marketer in most of those cases and generally my advice is this: start with something small and don’t try to reinvent everything in one big bite. If you want to test new ad units on Facebook, try testing it on a smaller product category rather than your core product. Partner closely with your legal team and learn together. I have often witnessed a marketing team go to their legal counterparts for blessing on a big new plan only to get a frustrating “smack down” and walk away. Remember that there are multiple legal issues at stake with social channels. Go bravely into the sun.

Friday Fodder: Are you ready for a mobile nation?

So much has been said and written about mobile lately that it almost seems passé to even suggest that it’s news. After all, nearly 2 billion people globally access the Internet via their mobile device. Morgan Stanley predicted in a recent study that mobile usage of the Internet will surpass desktop within 5 years.

And yet, a new study from Pew this week might suggest there are nuggets of news to be discovered here. Over the past 9 months, usage of SMS has increased among adults about 10 percent, suggesting that parents are catching up with their teenage children (who still reign supreme in speed texting, no doubt). The Pew study also confirms past data that Hispanic and African-American adults are more likely than caucasians to own a mobile device and use it for texting.

That’s the topic for this Friday Fodder: What does this mean for your organization? Are you ready for the reality of mobile? Is your organization even thinking about mobile as part of the marketing mix?

Houston, we may have problems: Facebook ad engagement

Reports are circulating today of a new AP/CNBC poll citing that vast majority of survey respondents (82%) say they “hardly ever” or “never” click on Facebook ads. Houston, we may have a problem.

The promise of ads on Facebook stems from its massive reach – nearly a billion users – combined with nearly unprecedented targeting options that should enable marketers to be very specific about when and by whom their ads are seen. This should lead to all sorts of advantages including:

  • a lower-cost basis for ads (never serving an impression to someone who didn’t need to see it)
  • better engagement rates (since it’s highly-targeted, the end-user may be more likely to take action) and
  • improved conversions compared to non-targeted ads

It would appear, based on this new research that this model may be flawed. There are several reasons why this could be happening.

The vastness of Facebook’s network combined with abbreviated amounts of time a consumer spends on any one Facebook page pretty much guarantees exceedingly large numbers of impressions served for an advertiser. In contrast, it also pretty much guarantees a low CTR compared to other mediums and the AP/CNBC research would seem to support that theory. Consumers may be less likely to click on ads in a Facebook environment, but that does not mean they did not take note of the message and given the propensity for people to spend inordinate amounts of time every month on Facebook, chances are good they will be exposed to an ad many times over.

Problems emerge, then, when marketers put unreasonable expectations on a Facebook media buy and assume it will be perform like a search environment. In search there are generally pretty clear indicators that someone is searching for a brand or category based on the search terms they have used. On Facebook, that connection to the path-to-purchase is much less clear and marketers should not have the same expectation of engagement. That’s one problem.

The other problem is that marketers may also be misunderstanding the nature of Facebook’s network. People may be more likely to click on an ad if it keeps them within the Facebook network, and may be less likely to take action if an ad leads them to a page elsewhere. In campaigns I have tested for clients I have found this premise to widely supported and creative that is directed to Facebook engagement – such as fan acquisition – generate better and more consistent results than those going off-site to another destination. I have seen that trend hold particularly true if the destination is an e-commerce site.

Part of the issue then is the nature of the creative unit itself. If the focus needs to be on generating awareness and engagement within the Facebook environment, the capability of the Facebook ad units in their current incarnation do not make it easy to stand out. This is evolving and in Facebook’s defense they have introduced some interesting ad units to help brands overcome this hurdle, but much work remains in this space for the ads to effectively generate awareness for a brand when the ad units themselves seem designed for immediate call-to-actions.

All of this frames why some brands – like General Motors – are deciding to suspend advertising on the Facebook platform. However, if you are a brand looking to establish and grow presence of your content on the Facebook platform, paid media within that platform remains one of the strongest ways to support your goals. Organic and earned media alone will not propel you to achieve those lofty KPIs you set out to accomplish!

If you find yourself questioning the nature and continuity of Facebook within your media strategy, perhaps start by reconsidering some of the elements discussed here to see if you can revise your creative to optimize it for engagement on the Facebook platform. For the time being, at least, that seems the surest way to take advantage of the capabilities of the Facebook network. And if you’re looking to learn more, this BusinessWeek story does an excellent job.

Fulfilling your brand’s destiny through technology

Mashable continued its “future of social media” series last week with a story about ad agencies and technology, proselytizing bold advances in location-based marketing and group buying. The most interesting of the trends highlighted in the piece, though, is this: software is the new medium.

Software – and, by extension, the underlying technology from which it is derived – will be the single key contributor to a brand’s success from this point forward. The role of a brand manager is rapidly evolving along with all of the agencies that serve it into a blend of IT manager, brand marketer, consumer relations expert and PR person. There are so many ways that technology can boldly empower an organization to become an exciting, customer-driven entity. Agencies, too, are morphing into fascinating shops where hack-a-thons, aggressive experimentation, applet development and software engineers join brand experts to bring true innovation to their client work.

I have picked up some tips in my career that are useful for navigating these new territories, experience applicable to both agencies and brands. In no particular order, summarized in a concise 3-tip package:

1. Know thy limits
As cliche as it sounds, the ideas and engagements enabled by technology truly are essentially limitless and know no bounds. However, the ability for a brand and/or its agencies to execute them generally is not limitless, and is bounded by a variety of externalities. FTC disclosures, privacy policies, time, budget, the economy – all of these can have a direct impact on the ability to push an idea from inception to execution. I’ve seen so many outstanding ideas die simply because they were not grounded in reality.

Agencies can be particularly guilty of this tendency. For example, in the rush to pitch new business and wow a new client, an agency team will devise a devilishly-smart campaign comprised of some pretty advanced technology that does not exist in the marketplace. The new client, impressed by the agency’s creativity and bold thinking, signs on for the work only to find out that the team who pitched it didn’t do a reality-check. Either their capabilities to build it were overstated, or in truth it’s far too advanced for time or budget to allow and would require an army of developers. The idea then gets stripped down to a simpler core that the client feels less inspired by but is obligated to fulfill. Now, you might be saying to yourselves – “technology doesn’t evolve without ideas that push the envelope of absurdity and cause disruption,” and I could not agree more. What you need to be asking yourselves is this – “is my organization (or my client) that bold pioneer?” And particularly for agencies, know precisely how you will scope out and execute an idea before risking your client falling in love with it.

2. Know thy consumer
Technology does not abate the need for all those smart segmentation insights you’ve amassed over the years. An Apple consumer will have very different technology needs and interests from a Clorox consumer although their motivations may be similar. Innovation only works when it’s executed in direct alignment to your consumer and sometimes you have to be willing to just ask them what they’d like.

For example, if you’ve started to think about the role of mobile in your brand’s story arc you need to understand the platforms that are of interest to your consumer. Are they iPhone users who are heavy gamers and would salivate over a sexy game that you give them for free? Or, are they household organizers who relish saving time in their chores, and would respond to a simple SMS-based daily tips program? Brands left and right are launching iPhone apps, when in truth they might be faced with a consumer who skews more to being an iPod Touch and flip phone user. The success of the technology you deploy will be dependent on these insights so be aggressive about discovering them.

3. Be nimble, not obsessive
The thing that excites a lot of people about technology is the pace of its evolution. In the computer chip industry there is a law – called Moore’s Law – that defines the capacity of the processors that make up computing devices. Essentially, the capacity of these chips doubles every two years meaning that their associated functions – such as processing power, memory and speed – double with that capacity. That means the chips you are developing software for today will be replaced in 24 months with something twice as fast. It also means that whatever cool tool you’ve developed today will have an exceptionally limited shelf life, probably much less than 24 months. How can you use this insight to your advantage?

Think in terms of outcomes. There will always be something faster and newer and there will be new devices that require altogether new formats. You can leverage this to your advantage by creating a brand organization that values this innovation versus seeing it as an obstacle, and creating an agency network that isn’t steeped in just one technology. What you want to be looking to achieve is the creation of an innovation ecosystem in which amazing ideas develop and marching orders are written to go find ways to get them done. What you want to avoid is getting too invested in any one platform that will force your hand in future decisions, and prevent you from porting over all of the innovations you have amassed.

These are three pretty simple insights but they’re areas where I consistently see brands and agencies going down the wrong path. Time will sort out a lot of this noise but by consistently asking these questions you will keep your brand (or client) centered and steady.

Why experiences are the new swag

Why experiences are the new swag

I’ve been in marketing for 15 years and have seen every manner of imaginable swag. Koozies. Water bottles. Pens. Buttons. Bags. Free merchandise. Even cars. I believe the era of swag is in major decline, and your brand is probably going to be better off for it.

There are many reasons for people’s shifting tastes. Some people see swag giveaways as wasteful, trading away either money or earth’s resources in exchange for a momentary hit of fading brand recall. “They’ll keep this on their desk,” desperate marketers think, “and remember us when they’re ready to buy enterprise software again.”

What’s really happening, though, is consumer behavior is changing. Research has already proven that the millennial generation is uniformly unimpressed with stuff. 3 in 4 millennials would choose to spend money on a desirable experience rather than buying stuff, and those experiences shape lifelong memories. The millennial generation believes they create lasting connections at live events, bonds that tie them to their community and to the world. They’re not wrong – people who experience something together regularly report it be more satisfactory. My friend Bryan Kramer has a whole blog post about that.

The millennial zest for engaging experiences is dripping over into other generations. New research from a team at Cornell University, led by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, has tracked the confluence of money and happiness for more than two decades. Their findings are startling and defy general convention (that’s called the Easterlin paradox or – simply – that money buys happiness). Gilovich’s research suggests that experiences, rather than physical things, are the root of happiness. Humans will adapt to an iPhone and eventually tire of it (maybe good news to Apple), but they will recall experiences for the rest of their lives and that helps foster happiness.

How does this affect your brand?

Well, clearly, if you count millennials among your target demographic, you already should be focusing on building experiences rather than giving away free stuff. Beyond that, it’s probably worth considering if you need to reset your promotions mindset – are you giving away too much, and creating too few experiences?

Experiential marketing itself has been around for many years and is generally thought of as a live event. But think about the digital manifestation of those experiences and you see how powerful they can become. Humans love to watch other humans react to situations, and experience is at the heart of that reaction. For example, you might recall a video, filmed in a cafe setting, where an angry customer feigned telekinesis to the horror of other customers. It was a stunt to promote the movie Carrie. No doubt for those directly involved the experience was borderline horrifying. The stunt has so far captured the imagination of more than 61 million viewers on YouTube. Experiential does not always have to be a live event to be memorable.

This thinking can completely change the game for marketers. Are you focused on continually giving away product, swag, merchandise or discount codes to keep people engaged with your brand? You are probably experiencing declining returns on that approach. Think instead about how you can use experiences to create enduring memories, and how you can use your digital ecosystem to sustain exposure to it.

If you create a live event experience that only a handful of lucky participants can attend, your exposure will be limited those few individuals and their social networks. That’s probably a weak use case for your budget. However, use your digital ecosystem to make the experience virtual and real. You can even use a tool like Periscope or Meerkat to make it a real-time engagement with your fans.

Experience is the new swag. That’s great news for your brand, and it should have you very excited.

Cautionary tales and the requisite 2011 roundup

2010 is officially winding down and the predictable ritual of pundit predictions for the coming year has commenced. Depending on what you read you will probably surmise that 2011 is going to be “the” year for a lot of disruptive brand innovations that we started hearing about this year, including these three:

  • Group buying will merge more closely with location-based technologies to create smarter targeting options for businesses of all sizes
  • Gaming will find solid footing and become more pervasive (that is, we’ll see consistent gaming experiences across devices and platforms)
  • Usability will drive functionality – the ability for marketers to leverage the tools unique to a mobile phone, for example, will enable them to provide richer and more engaging functionality than they could on their website (or gasp, their actual products)

One of the best sets of predictions that I have seen comes from Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT’s Sloan School (and brother to Elliot Schrage, who I worked with at Google and is now VP of communications at Facebook). His list of six innovations is refreshingly comprehensive and covers important territory – user design, politics and public affairs, gaming and digital coupons. I agree with just about everything he says, but there is a seventh missing prediction – marketers and will become increasingly savvy about measuring the innovations they’re testing within their brands. That will give all six of Schrage’s predictions some solid footing and ensure that they stick around.

There are also cautionary tales from the year, stories of brands that have tested ideas and executions that either didn’t work as intended or over delivered on their intent. There have been grumblings from some Groupon merchants that they were unable to handle the large volume of new customers that the 50% off deals drove to their business (funny how that happens). That is a kink that will have to work itself out if the trend is to get some wind in its sails for 2011. In other examples, companies have continued finding themselves caught off guard by the connectedness of their consumers, struggling to respond in a timely and/or appropriate manner.

The editors at Fast Company had an interesting overview of their recent social media experiment – dubbed “The Influence Project” – and the lessons they learned. The team hired Mekanism, a digital agency, who promised to make the social media campaign go viral. The campaign was met with some criticism which required both their time and their energy in response and defense, and challenges with the technology powering the campaign’s micro-site led to slow loading times and probably left some would-be participants on the sidelines.

Their take is that earned media is called “earned” for a reason, and that no wise marketer would hand over a campaign to a vendor or service provider and expect hands-free results from their investment. Those are lessons that a lot of brands learned in 2010, some of which resulted in “#fails” and punctuated our year with interesting case studies and lots “thank GOD that wasn’t me” wincing.

Innovation and change isn’t easy, and it’s far from turn-key. Instead of offering predictions for 2011, I’ve chosen to provide three simple bullets of advice.

  • Try small things first versus pushing for major investments. Even better if you can execute your ideas yourself, which will give you key learnings and insights into how your organization adapts to innovation and change that you can leverage in expanding your new program ideas.
  • Measure and be diligent about it. Brands and agencies need to do a better job of storytelling using solid metrics. This will mean different things to different organizations, but set some goals up front and be deliberate about measuring them. Don’t duct tape that piece on after the fact and hope for a good review by your peers.
  • Think outside what you know and what you’re reading. True innovation comes from within, not from reapplying others’ case studies to your particular situation.

That’s it – have a great end to the year and keep these recommendations and predictions top of mind as 2011 encroaches upon us. Happy holidays!

Friday Fodder: Crises causing PR’s decline?

Matthew DeBord this week published a fascinating article about the recent major crises – BP, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, others – causing the profession that for decades has been positioned as the centerpiece of managing them to enter a tailspin. The response (at least in the comments to the article itself) was more muted than I’d thought it would be, given how closely to home it hits for a lot of the industry.

I think there is more than a measure of truth to his assessment, though. I do believe that the smartest PR practitioners today are rapidly teaching themselves and their colleagues the skills needed to manage any communication in an era of social media transparency, be it a crisis, a product launch or an earnings announcement. These are the tools of our profession, and it’s our professional responsibility to adapt to using them.

Sadly, not everyone IS adapting to the new tools. It will result in some attrition across the board as new talent comes onto the scene equipped to manage communications scenarios that are infinitely more complex and instant. But the truth is the tools available to a PR practitioner always evolve, and in the end they’re just channels. Yes, the pace has accelerated and caused some to throw their hands up in frustration. But the need for consistent messaging – even if it requires as few as 140 characters – means those PR people who do embrace these technologies will be even more critical to the organizations they serve. In the face of a crisis in a social media landscape, the job becomes more about managing a team and the flow of their collective thought and response than messaging the media, to be sure. It’s about scale.

That’s it for this Friday Fodder: What do you think?

Status updates, get your status updates! For sale here

Note: this is cross-posted on the Threshold Interactive blog.

Facebook today launched a new feature for advertisers that repackages certain social actions on the network – say, a check-in at your favorite retail outlet – into a “Sponsored Stories” ad unit that will run in the right hand column on the site. Facebook has attempted to sidestep privacy criticisms by building a users’ privacy settings to the ad distribution – that is, only those friends within your network who would have already seen your check-in or other social action will be eligible to see the ad bearing your name and likeness.

This is a big step for advertisers as they will be willingly absolving themselves of the creative unit – context and content will be determined by the user who penned the status update in the first place. That is a fairly significant mindset shift for a lot of advertisers.

The bigger question here is the potential impact of this announcement on users. Facebook has a track record of challenging privacy issues including its now infamous Beacon program that was shuttered in 2009. Sponsored Stories is bound to draw criticisms stemming from the inability to opt out of being featured in an ad, and questions about whether Facebook can sell and profit from the written word of its members in this manner.

Of particular note to that last point – Facebook expressly prohibits users themselves from leveraging their personal profiles for commercial gain. This is a clause from its current Statement of Rights and Responsibilities:

So Facebook can sell status updates (or the sponsoring of said updates) to an advertiser, but users themselves are not allowed. There is a delicious irony there that is bound to be the target of attention in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for the ensuing debate.

Here is the full Facebook video with additional details.

Friday Fodder: Do companies need social media teams?

Each Friday we take a question from the week and provide a more detailed discussion, designed to stimulate debate or conversation and drive clarity. Some weeks the questions will come from clients or blog comments; others, such as this week, will be pulled from one of the week’s key stories from the week.

This week’s Friday Fodder: Do companies need social media teams?

Felix Gillette lays out some compelling arguments in Twitter, Twitter Little Stars, polling the strategy of some heavyweightconsumer brands and examining their approach to staffing and fulfilling the social media role.

From my perspective, organizations have rushed to fulfill their social media needs in many cases by hiring someone or some agency. These are positioned as the most “progressive” brands in the space when in truth, the hiring of the role did not result in social media leadership. The fact that the organization decided to fund headcount for the position might itself dictate a commitment to test and learn in the space, and a desire to win over fickle consumers on the Web.

Social media is rapidly manifesting in multiple business units – consumer relations, e-commerce, PR, advertising, interactive/web design – and if an organization’s leaders don’t set a strategic course for the team to execute programs that fulfill the objective, they are failing to challenge their people. This is one of those critical times when organizations need to politely but firmly require employees to get up to par on skill sets. It cannot rest on the shoulders of one person or one team alone long-term.

For example, at my prior agency (a PR firm) we made the strategic decision not to build a whole practice devoted to social media, but to make it an evolutionary event for each employee. This, I believe, is a realistic and practical approach to solving a business challenge.

The other point to make here is that social media is so new, there are very few individuals with more than a few months “lead” in the industry. Individuals can catch up on skills and knowledge quickly, but there is a dangerous over-reliance on “gurus” and self-proclaimed experts who might be very knowledgeable but against a poorly established set of benchmarks. There are some very smart people in this space, and there are some very well-connected people in this space. Seek out those who have a solid grasp of business, marketing and technical fundamentals and can demonstrate that their experience and their networks can be put to use for your organization.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that consultants can play an important role in helping an organization refine, define and deploy its social media strategy. Like any good change management agent, such consultants should be steeped in their business – not just established as good networkers – and have a demonstrable track record of innovation and impact in the space. Ask tough questions about their experience.

That’s it for this Friday Fodder: what do you think?

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