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?

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.

Be careful when offering web offers and specials

When a consumer spots a brand on social media, they expect some degree of interaction with that brand. It could be an actual conversation. It could also be a special offer, either offered directly to social media subscribers or through a third party such as Groupon.

As one small business here in Philadelphia recently learned, you need to be careful with such offers. If you don’t know the risks and too many consumers take you up on the deal, you can find your business in a world of financial hurt.

Problem Number 1: Not knowing how Groupon web offers work

The business in question, Food For All Market in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood, is a small specialty grocery/deli shop for people with food allergies. Last year, it entered into a three-month deal with Groupon allowing an unlimited number of customers to get $30 worth of merchandise for $15.

The first problem came about because the store’s owner, Amy Kunkle, got caught up in the buzz over Groupon and web offers and didn’t quite know what she was getting into. In addition to the actual discount, Groupon also took an additional $8 for each sale made using the offer. So while the deal was $30 of merchandise for $15, Food For All was actually losing $23 on each $30 sale. It was almost giving away $30 of inventory on each sale.

Problem Number 2: Too many consumers taking up the offer

According to Newsworks.org, 451  consumers used the Groupon offer during the three-month period, an average of five per day. Between the steep financial hit on each sale and the number of customers taking advantage of the offer, Food For All came out $10,000 in the red during this period.

While a major chain business could survive a hit like that, Food For All could not. And this week, it began a liquidation sale, and will soon close its doors completely.

This story is not to say that businesses should avoid Groupon and other web offers entirely. They can be very valuable for drawing attention to your brand, bringing in new customers and hopefully keeping those customers once the offer ends. But there are lessons that other small businesses like Food For All can learn from this unfortunate story.

Do your homework about web offers and how they work: Like with any communications tactic, web offers won’t succeed if you don’t utilize them properly. Make sure you do your homework before offering that great discount.

The steeper the discount, the shorter the length of the offer: Had Food For All only offered this special for a day or a week or even just on one day a week for three months, it would probably still be alive today. But it couldn’t handle the financial hit from giving away more than 75 cents on each dollar of a $30 purchase. If you want to do a big special like this, limit it to a short period of time.

Read the fine print before signing on with third parties like Groupon: This is self-explanatory. Make sure you completely understand what you’re agreeing to before signing the contract.

Consider getting insurance to protect you: When businesses run contents where they could potentially be on the hook for a large prize (such as TV game shows), they sometimes take out insurance policies to protect themselves against the resulting financial loss. If you’re going to offer a major discount that could go viral and be utilized by too many people, you may want to look into getting insured as well.

 

What is to come in 2012?

It’s hard to believe, but another year is almost over. Christmas is only a few days a way, and a week after that, we’ll flip the calendar to 2012.

What will happen in the year to come in communication? In healthcare? In public relations? What new technology (or technologies) will emerge? Which existing technologies will be relegated to the dustbin of history, like coin-operated pay phones? What great advances will happen in healthcare and healthcare delivery? Which organization will build a strong foundation for years to come with strong, carefully planned and executed public relations efforts? Which organizations will be tarnished by bungling their public relations, particularly in a crisis situation?

We can ask those questions at this time every year. But here are some unique ones to think about as 2011 comes to a close:

1. Will Google+ seriously challenge Facebook? I was not impressed with it when I first got on, and I still use it only rarely. But it does appear to slowly be catching on. Will it become real competition for Facebook in 2012?

2. Will organizations reevaluate and improve their crisis communication plans? We saw the tattoo scandal at Ohio State and the horrible sexual molestation scandal at Penn State – they were just two examples this year of poor crisis PR. It’s an area to which many organizations do not devote sufficient resources or planning, and they can and have paid a huge price for that. Hopefully this year’s prominent crisis PR disasters taught them a lesson.

3. Will more pharmaceutical companies get serious about social media, even with no FDA guidance on the horizon? One of my favorite reads in the area of pharmaceutical marketing – Rich Meyer’s World of DTC Marketing blog – praised Sanofi’s “Why Insulin?” Social Media campaign as an example of how pharma companies can creatively and effectively use Social Media while not running afoul of the FDA. With no specific FDA guidance likely to come anytime soon, pharma companies can and should learn from Sanofi’s example. Will they? The cutbacks to marketing that many pharma companies made this year won’t help any.

4. Which Presidential candidate will do the best job crafting and selling his/her story? Next year will be a presidential election year (the Iowa Caucus is on Jan. 3!). Which candidate will put forth the best story? Which candidate will be the most effective at selling that story? And how much of an impact will the stories told by PACs and outside groups – who were greatly enabled by last year’s Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court – have on the election? While I do find the partisan bickering in Washington to be tiresome, I do find campaigns themselves to be fascinating, and the upcoming election will definitely be fascinating, no matter which side you want to win.

That’s all for me in 2011. It’s been an interesting year for me in many ways – finishing my masters degree, helping build a start-up pharmaceutical company into a tangible product that could attract a merger with a major pharmaceutical company and now looking for the next opportunity.  I leave you with what, in my opinion, is an underrated holiday song from an underrated movie. Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2012.

Overreacting can worsen a PR crisis

I have written here several times about the importance in PR of responding as swiftly and unequivocally as possible to crises. But you can’t panic either. Overreacting to a crisis can exacerbate the problem just as much as trying to ignore or hide it, if not make it worse.

Let’s look at the recent case of Lowe’s, the home improvement retail giant. It came under fire from the Florida Family Association, along with dozens of other businesses, for advertising on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim. The association, a social conservatism activist group that is known to protest TV shows, movies, businesses and other things its Evangelical Christian supporters find offensive, called on Lowe’s and other advertisers to withdraw from the show because it considers the show to be “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” according to its statement on the matter.

Lowe’s response to this complaint from one group of Evangelical Christians was to pull all of its advertising from the show, and this move has brought it under even more criticism, from all religious sectors. In a statement released Monday, Lowe’s claimed that it made this decision not just because of the Florida Family Association but because the show is “a “lightning rod for people to voice complaints from a variety of perspectives — political, social and otherwise.” But it doesn’t matter – Lowe’s has been branded as gutless at best, as bigoted at worst.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Lowe’s bigots, but I would definitely call it gutless and guilty of pandering. Yes, there is a significant amount of Anti-Islam paranoia in this country; it has been here for many years and has only gotten worse since the 9/11 attacks more than a decade ago. But the vast majority of Americans do not share the views of the Florida Family Association and similar groups.  And businesses, like people, need to show guts to do the right thing. Pandering to one group of Evangelical Christians who (wrongly) associate all Muslims with terrorists is most certainly not the right thing.
Lowe’s would have been much better off addressing the Florida Family Association’s complaints but continuing to advertise on the show and explaining why. It could have even used the moment as an opportunity to do a public good. Instead, it made a panic reaction that only hurts its brand.
Lowe’s experience should be a lesson for all public figures and entities. You need to be proactive and emphatic in responding to problems. But you can’t panic either.
What other examples can you think of like this, where a person or business overreacted to a crisis and made their PR problem worse?

The best businesses allow customer criticism

One of the blogs I have feeding into my RSS Reader in Outlook is Phil Baumann’s “Health is Social” blog. In his latest post, he makes the argument that the best hospitals enable customers to provide negative feedback.

I would venture to say that this same argument can be made for businesses in most or even all industries, not just hospitals.

Nobody likes negative feedback. Nobody likes being told that they’re bad or doing something wrong. But such feedback can be very valuable as well. You can learn about your mistakes and flaws and (hopefully!) fix them before they become more costly. And businesses can learn about how to adapt their product or service offering to better serve its customers.

The ability to receive and harvest that feedback is the greatest benefit of Social Media. Previously, the only way businesses could get steady feedback from customers was from watching whether their sales increased or decreased, by which point the problem was costing the business money. And even then you might not ever know what the problem really was.

The pharmaceutical industry has been perhaps the most hesitant to embrace Social Media, partly because of the lack of guidance, and also partly due to its fear of patients sharing adverse events that, even if they had nothing to do with the drug itself, could still convict the company in the court of public opinion (see my earlier blog post on this subject). But even that feedback can be beneficial. If nothing else, it could provide more insight as to who their customers are, where they are and what they do, allowing the company to refine its marketing strategies and tactics. This knowledge could even identify a new therapeutic area might want to investigate.

It never feels good to get criticized. But it is often the best thing that can happen to us. When the news is good, we are more tempted to ignore the areas still needing improvement. But negative feedback allows us – and businesses – to confront our shortcomings and fix them.

The sins of Marketing, PR and Communication

Yom Kippur begins at sundown this Friday. By translation, it’s the Day of Atonement. It’s the day that the 13 million or so Jews in the world (including yours truly) fast and spend the day praying in synagogue to be forgiven for sins against God (I believe the day should be about much more literally than asking God for atonement for our sins, but that’s another story). Not surprisingly, at the heart of the Yom Kippur prayer liturgy is a series of confessional prayers that list sins that some Jew, somewhere, committed over the course of the previous year; all Jews recite them as a sign of solidarity.

With this day fast approaching, I was thinking about what mistakes people in my field commonly make. What are the “sins” of Marketing, Public Relations and Communication in general? Here are several that I thought of:

1. Giving your customers the message you think they SHOULD want: The most important element of a successful business is providing a good or service that your customers want. Many aspiring business owners and marketers make the mistake of trying to force feed their vision to consumers rather than serving their customers. If you own a Ford dealership and car buyers in your area prefer driving pickup trucks and SUVs, make sure you stock a lot of Ford Explorers and F-150s and convey to your potential customers why Ford’s products in these classes are better than the competition. If you stock a lot of Fusion Hybrids and tell your customers that they should buy them instead because they’re more fuel efficient, the dealership probably isn’t going to last very long. The ideal business should know what its customers want so thoroughly and have an offering so finely tuned to those desires that the product sells itself.

2. Letting your opponents define you and your brand: If you don’t aggressively define yourself and your message to your audience, your opponents will, and not to your advantage. Many businesses, celebrities and politicians make the mistake of not being proactive, particularly in crisis situations. Get your message out there early and keep repeating it.

3. Not being up-front and transparent in crisis situations: Many businesses make the mistake of thinking they can hide bad news from the public. You can’t, especially now with the web. And the cover-up is always worse than the crime itself. If you don’t come clean yourself and do so right away, someone else will do so on their terms, not yours. Now in addition to the consequences of the bad news itself, you have the added image damage that comes from not being forthright with your consumers.

4. Using Social Media as just another means to shout at consumers: The most valuable characteristic of Social Media are that they allow for two-way communication. This provides businesses opportunities to actually engage consumers and build relationships with them. A business that simply uses Facebook and Twitter as another channel to send out the press release announcing their new Chief Financial Officer is not going to get the most out of those tools.

5. Using a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing: This somewhat goes back to #1. No two businesses are exactly alike, so no two sets of marketing and communication strategies should be exactly alike either. What works for Amazon.com won’t necessarily work for Southwest Airlines. Know who your audience is and where it is, THEN design the strategy.

What about you? Can you think of any other “sins” of marketing, PR and communication?

And to my fellow Jews, G’mar Chatima Tovah – may you be sealed for a good year ahead.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: