When a gaffe is more than a gaffe

ImageI’ve written here before about messaging gaffes, whether they come from the principal himself or herself, an authorized surrogate or anyone else. They force you to waste time and resources explaining what happened (or “revising and extending,” in Washington speak), rather than conveying the message you want to convey. They make you look disorganized, weak and untrustworthy.

One type of gaffe is even more damaging – a gaffe that reinforces a preconceived notion many share of you. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, committed such a gaffe earlier this year. And President Obama, trying to hang on to his job, committed one last week.

Speaking at a White House press conference on the economy, President Obama pointed to the gains – albeit very sluggish gains – in private sector employment since the economy bottomed out. He noted that while the economy itself has a ways to go, that “the private sector is fine.”

In the words of Carl Lewis, “UH OH!”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that saying the private sector is fine is a stretch at best, especially given the last two months’ unemployment reports (though it is true that public sector job cuts are responsible for a lot of the still languishing unemployment rate). More important are these realities:

1. Most people perceive the economy to still be bad (and in a lot of ways it is).

2. President Obama is perceived by many to be out of touch and incompetent on the economy.

Perception is very often reality. Because of perception #1, this gaffe reinforced perception #2. The President and his aides had to spend the rest of the weekend walking back his remarks. And you can expect this sound bite to get replayed frequently over the remaining months of the campaign, especially if the economy continues to languish or (even worse) slide backward.

In a lot of ways, this gaffe is worse than the one I mentioned from the Romney camp. While Romney’s gaffe certainly makes him seem unlikeable and ill-equipped to relate to middle class Americans, Romney’s campaign is not based on likeability. Mitt Romney is not George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, and, fortunately for him, he realized during the primaries that he couldn’t pretend to be so. What Romney emphasizes is competence and the idea that his private sector expertise will translate to getting the economy turned around as President.

Whether or not Romney’s message is true in reality is an entirely different question. But it paints the starkest contrast to an incumbent who inherited a rotten economy and is perceived (again, rightly or wrongly) to have made it worse. Obama’s gaffe, much like John McCain’s similar “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” gaffe during the 2008 campaign, makes him look oblivious to the problem, let alone to be the person who can best solve it.

The importance of having one voice

I apologize for not having posted in more than six weeks. I started a new job a couple of months ago, and that has kept me plenty busy. Hopefully now that I’m settled in some I’ll be able to write more and post more on social media.

This new job has been great. I work with great people, I get to do intense but fun work and I work for a company that is helping a good cause. There are many great stories to tell.

This is true for many businesses. The key is to tell those stories through one voice that reflects the company’s broader positioning strategy.

Most of my career up to this point has been in relatively small businesses – under 500 employees. My last employer only had 10 employees. Now I work for a company with more than 3,000 employees across the country. And it is responsible for communicating the stories for businesses in many different states. That’s a lot of different interests to consider, and a lot of possible stories that can be told. That makes it all the more challenging to maintain one voice.

This can take a lot of forms. In some cases it is due to the corporate bureaucracy parodied by the Dilbert cartoon above. And in most cases the conflicts are accidental and/or done with good intentions. But they nevertheless can result in more aggravation for the people responsible for conveying the story and/or lead to mixed messages coming out of the company. And that is not a good thing in the world of public relations.

Any entity – whether it has five employees or 50,000 – needs to speak in one voice. The message needs to be the same no matter who is doing the talking. Whatever stories the company is telling need to fit within the company’s overall positioning strategy. The larger the company, the more challenging this communication management is.

What will Timeline format mean for businesses using Facebook?

Facebook announced last week that it would be switching Pages – its online offering for businesses, organizations – to the same Timeline format it began rolling out for its personal users months ago. No longer will visitors to a business’ Facebook page be greeted by a landing tab to entice consumers to “Like” them. Now the previous conversations on the business’ timeline – which are more easily accessible under the new format – will have to attract new subscribers.

The idea makes some sense. Since Social Media emphasizes two-way conversation (as opposed to the one-way shouting of an advertisement), wouldn’t you want your conversations to be the focus of your Facebook page? But what will this impact mean in reality for for businesses and organizations using Facebook?

What new opportunities does this change provide? What challenges does it provide?

We discussed this topic – at least in a healthcare context – last night on the weekly Health Communication and Social Media Tweetchat that I participate in most Sunday nights on Twitter. One participant noted that the Timeline format, and the ease it provides in accessing older content, allows businesses to engage their audience using older content. Another participant noted that the new format allows page viewers to send a private message to the administrator of that Facebook page, even if said viewers don’t “like” that page.

I’m a little skeptical of the latter point. A private message on Facebook is essentially the same as an e-mail (or a direct message on Twitter), so I have a hard time considering that “engagement” in the Social Media sense. But making it easier for current and potential future customers to contact you via Facebook could build more trust. You need to make sure, however, that the administrators can truly speak on behalf of your company. Ideally, they will be actual employees of your business. But since that may not be economically feasible in this day and age, a really good agency with outstanding knowledge of Social Media, consumer engagement and your brand could do this too.

What do you think of this change? Do you see Facebook going to the Timeline format as a positive for businesses and organizations? A negative?

Forget Big Government: How big retailers can learn intimate details about your life

Can you imagine being a teenage girl in high school who gets pregnant and having your father learn that fact from seeing coupons for baby goods in his mailbox one day? Thanks to the power of today’s marketing technology, that recently happened to a Minneapolis high schooler who shopped at Target.

The New York Times had a piece last week on what big box retail giant Target – and presumably other, similar merchants with the means – are doing to learn more about their customers. Using data on their demographics and purchase history – tracked using credit card numbers or e-mail addresses, they make educated guesses on what people are looking to buy and their marketing team can target them accordingly.

This concept of one-to-one marketing is nothing new – Amazon.com has thrived on it for years. But what made the New York Times story so interesting, as this analysis on Forbes.com notes, is how it can lead to you being targeted so specifically that details about your personal life get out to people you don’t necessarily want to know them, at least not that way.

As Forbes‘ Kashmir Hill and the Times’ Charles Duhigg describe, Target used a mathematical formula based on products purchased and even the colors of those products to calculate a “pregnancy prediction score” – a number indicating the likelihood that you’re expecting. Target’s statisticians have even developed a means of guessing how close you are to your due date. And this data can be remarkably accurate.

Duhigg reports that Target sent coupons for baby clothes and cribs to the aforementioned Minnesota teen based on her “pregnancy prediction score.” When her father saw these coupons, he angrily went to the local Target and demanded to speak to a manager, who apologized. But said father was the one apologizing a few days later when he found out that his daughter was indeed pregnant.

I don’t intent this to be a rant against one-to-one marketing. Businesses are out to make money and the more finely you can tune your marketing to the needs and desires of specific customers, the more likely you are to get sales.

But it does illustrate the power of the data merchants like Target have at their disposal. And it also illustrates the need to be careful with what information you give out.

Have any of you had an experience where a merchant started targeting you with offers based on information you didn’t want out in the public domain?

Don’t like devoting Social Media resources to Google+? You may have no choice

I’m not a big fan of Google+, the web search engine giant’s new Social Media tool. It tries to be an all-encompassing Social Media utility like Facebook while not offering anything unique that I find useful. And the numbers show that I’m not the only one who is reluctant to warm up to Google+: while a BrightEdge Survey in December found that while 61% of the top 100 brands in the United States had Google+ pages, none of those pages have more than the 65,000 fans  of Google’s page. Contrast that with Facebook, where dozens of top brands have more than 1 million fans. Ford has 5 million fans on Facebook compared to only about 27,000 on Google +.

But businesses may have no choice to devote marketing resources to this still fledgling platform. And there are two key reasons why:

1. SEO and Google’s incorporation of Google+ results into its search results

Superior page rank in web search results is critical for businesses today. Consumers increasingly are turning to the web to obtain information, and the higher you are in search results, the better the chances of consumers finding you.

Google is using this fact to its advantage by, according to Huffington Post, incorporating Google+ pages into its search results. Its search algorithm will now recommend Google+ pages for you to look at based on your search and web browsing history.

This makes good business sense for Google – by making its social media platform appear more prominently in its own search results, it can drive people to Google+ pages. Even if they don’t adopt the tool themselves (and some will adopt it upon seeing the pages), they’re still going to view the pages. And the consequence for businesses is that they then have to use Google+ – and use it thoroughly – to maximize their SEO.

2. Google’s powerful brand

When we think of web search engines, we think of Google. It is the most popular web search engine; I personally rarely use any others. But the Google brand portfolio now includes email, document storage and writing, a financial information product, a now-defunct health product and, of course, the Google+ Social Media product.

Given the size and influence of the Google brand, it stands to reason that more consumers will look to Google+ as a source of information and that adoption will continue to increase even if Google does nothing to improve the product.

In a perfect world, Google would do more to improve Google+ and use a better product to drive more adoption by businesses and consumers. But for the reasons above, consumers will flock there regardless of the quality of the product. While businesses may not want to devote increasingly scarce resources to a Social Media tool they consider to be inferior to others, reality says they may not have a choice.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Lauren Proctor Internet Marketing, a blog on web marketing strategy. Please visit this blog to see this post in its original form.

Pinterest should be of interest to merchants in 2012

I finally tried out Pinterest this week. It is the first new Social Media tool I have tried since my underwhelming experience with Google+ this past summer. But I liked what I saw with Pinterest. It has its shortcomings and its limits, but I can see why it is growing so fast. Most importantly, however, I can see some very good applications for it with merchants.

Launched in March 2010, Pinterest allows users to post pictures, videos or discussions of things of interest to them and categorize them on to boards. People can follow other users and like ones “pins,” as is the case on Facebook. But it is not an all-encompassing tool like the aforementioned Social Media giant. I would say that Pinterest is most similar to Tumblr, though the presentation is much different. And this presentation should make Pinterest of particular interest to merchants.

Users can post pictures of themselves wearing particular brands of clothes, shoes or accessories. Those following them or searching on Pinterest can see those pictures and get an actual image of how those items will look when actually being used, as opposed to simply sitting on a rack at the store or on a shelf in a warehouse. By the same extension, merchants can post pictures of a few of their items (the site’s etiquette discourages using it purely for self-promotion) likely to stimulate excitement and, using Pinterest’s linking feature (you can add a URL after initially pinning something), redirect users to their website, where they can learn more and place orders.

Land’s End went one step further in November 2011 by launching a “Pin It To Win It” contest for the Holiday Shopping Season. It encouraged users to create pinboards with Land’s End Canvas products, with the winners getting a $250 gift card. In addition to engaging its customers, the contest served to drive people to the company’s website. And this tool worked far better for this kind of promotion than Facebook or Twitter.

I like Pinterest because it has a unique purpose and serves that purpose well. My main reason for disliking Google+ is because it tries to compete with Facebook while not offering anything extra that I find useful. Pinterest fills a void in the Social Media landscape. No wonder it gets over 1 billion monthly pageviews. No wonder Land’s End Canvas called Pinterest “the social media platform to watch in 2012.” Hopefully other merchants will see these same opportunities this year.

What do you think of Pinterest?

 

 

#McFail: How McDonald’s Twitter strategy went awry

The beauty of Social Media – the opportunities it provides for businesses to engage and interact with their customers, and vice-versa – can also be its curse if not done correctly. Just ask fast food giant McDonald‘s, which is cleaning up a major public relations mess after a Twitter ad campaign went so horribly awry that it earned the hashtag moniker “#McFail.”

As PaidContent.org‘s Jeff Roberts reports, McDonald’s launched a 24-hour campaign last week using Twitter’s “promoted tweets” function. This utility allows businesses, at a cost, to craft tweets that appear at the top of certain search results on Twitter. The idea is to get your tweet in front of Twitter users no matter when they happen to log on during the period of your campaign. You can read Twitter’s help center page on promoted tweets for more information.

In the case of McDonald’s, it used two different hashtags as part of its promoted tweets campaign. The first,

#MeetTheFarmers, went uneventfully. But at 2 p.m. last Wednesday, it switched to a new hashtag, #McDStories. The promoted tweet quoted a McDonald’s potato supplier, with a link to a video of a happy potato farmer. And that’s when McDonald’s lost control of things.

Twitter users began telling their own McDonald’s stories, and not ones that were exactly flattering to the company. Some were jokes by stoners, others referenced heart attacks (since fast food usually isn’t particularly healthy food) and others still referenced the ongoing fight between McDonald’s and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Within a few hours, the hashtag had become a trending topic on Twitter. And as a result, the promoted tweet in question has remained a “Top Tweet” even nearly a week after the debacle occurred.

The moral of the story: you need to be very careful before launching a campaign, particularly one on social media where people can respond directly. Do your research and try to envision how people might interpret your message before you send it. Just because McDonald’s believed that the #McDStories hashtag would encourage the sharing of positive stories does not mean customers will see it the same way.

In hindsight, if McDonald’s might have been better off keeping the original #MeetTheFarmers hashtag. Instead, it got a Big Mac-sized social media fail.

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