Friday, December 16, 2011

Pottingers, Wikipedia, & WikiLies

Last week, The UK newspaper The Independent revealed that Bell Pottinger, a leading PR agency, had engaged in the covert manipulation of Wikipedia entries related to some of its clients. Using multiple, anonymous accounts, staff at the agency had eradicated negative information, inflated positive references, and altered the facts of numerous Wikipedia entries. It also became apparent that agency executives routinely pitched to clients and prospects their ability to alter Wikipedia entries as part of their services.

I propose that henceforth we name an entry in Wikipedia that has been willfully manipulated a "Pottinger" in their honor. I challenge readers to create the "Pottinger" Wikipedia entry.

Your immediate reaction to this story might reasonably be this – how stupid can you get??? My reaction was a little different: I’m a marketing professional with over 15 years’ experience running PR programs for big organizations, and I must confess to having altered Wikipedia entries too.

A few years back I started a new job at a well know technology company, and on my second day got a call from the CMO: Could I come to his office immediately. When I got there he showed me the Wikipedia entry for a senior executive. I was shocked. The entry had been altered by several anonymous people and contained openly slanderous statements. Some of the changes seemed downright bizarre. I had a Wikipedia account (I’d created a number of entries years ago), and I worked to get the changes removed and details corrected. It was an uphill struggle because I didn’t disguise who I was, but eventually things were made right (then right again, as the entry continued to be changed). We made no attempt to catch the perpetrators – that was too complex and time-consuming.

Of course, unlike Bell Pottinger, my actions didn’t breach any of Wikipedia’s guidelines (that I know about) or hide any truths – in fact, the reverse. And I’m not alone: I know of many instances where company employees or agency staff altered entries related to their employer or client, almost all correcting wrongs, adding missing information, or providing context. Wikipedia is a crowdsourced entity, open to anyone; laudably democratic, but ripe for abuse, neglect or simple error. Fixing things can feel unnecessarily arduous and often frustrating.

Needless to say, none of this excuses the stupidity of Bell Pottinger. They’re dolts, with a history of ethical issues.

However, you can’t argue BP is a unique case, or even out-of-the-ordinary. Far from it. There’s a long history of Wikipedia abuse. WikiScanner, Wikipedia Review and others have catalogued many examples over the years, and others have pointed to the inherent problem with a trust-based, crowdsourcing model for gathering information.  Indeed, Wikipedia deletes over a thousand entries every day.

In general, crowdsourcing anything should invite scrutiny and skepticism. We certainly shouldn’t assume that Wikipedia is the bastion of unalienable truth. And unfortunately, nor should we think of Bell Pottinger as an anomaly – expect continued revelations of WikiLies as Wikipedia, already the sixth most visited website worldwide, gains in significance.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fortune 500 Lag in Social Media Adoption, To Their Great Cost

At the end of last month McKinsey published the results of their fifth annual survey on the ways organizations use social technologies.

For the most part, the results are a snooze: The adoption of social media tools, from Twitter to Quora, is steadily rising; measurable benefits are steadily if slowly increasing; and the sophistication in the way organizations use social media has seen significant gains. All good, although hardly ground-breaking news.

But wait. The McKinsey people aren’t anything if not thorough, so they also tried to show a correlation between adoption of social media and self-reported organizational performance (that is, market share gains, operating margin compared to competition, and being first in industry market share). To my surprise, on the latter measure – showing a link between market share leadership and adopting social tools – the correlations are mostly negative. This suggests that the adoption of social media is adversely associated with being a market leader, a counter-intuitive and strange result. If it were so, then the good people at McKinsey should be telling the titans of industry to flee Facebook, ban blogging, and terminate Twitter post-haste.

But wait. The researchers’ explanation of this is that “while market leaders may use social media technologies within the organization, they might be less inclined than market challengers to push for a full range of benefits [and use social media externally].” So, according to McKinsey, they suspect that market leaders as a group are actually under-utilizing social media.

This sounds plausible. Indeed, very detailed research by UMASS Dartmouth shows that for blogs, about 23 percent of the Fortune 500 (large, market-share leaders) have corporate blogs, compared to well over 50% if the Inc. 500, a list of the fastest-growing companies compiled by Inc. magazine. There are similar results for corporate adoption of Facebook and Twitter – the Fortune 500 lag the rest of industry, especially the fastest-growing companies.

Put these two pieces of research together and we have strong data suggesting that large, market-share leaders – think companies like WalMart, Exxon-Mobil, Proctor and Gamble, Hewlett Packard, Boeing and Dow Chemical – are collectively failing to extract value from the social media revolution. These findings play into the stereotype of the lumbering, bureaucratic multinational that often enjoy a market-share lead but fail to take first-mover advantage of new innovations.

And the research clearly shows that the price of late adoption of social media is very high indeed.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Latest Update: A Definitive List of Social Media Measurment and Monitoring Tools

Way back in April 2010 I compiled what I boldly claimed was a definitive list of social media measurement and monitoring tools. Since then, I've updated the list a couple of times and critically reevaluated my 'definitive' claim: Most likely, I've missed a lot of solutions and have certainly struggled to keep pace with the constant changes in the evolving social media measurement market.

My latest update saw numerous changes, reflecting increasing competitive pressures in a very cluttered marketplace. A half-dozen companies have disappeared completely, and several others have moved on to provide different solutions only tangentially related to social media metrics. There's also been a small number of acquisitions, most notably buying the market-leader Radian6 in March this year. The net result is that the total number of solutions has fallen, although the quality of the survivors is very high.

If you're looking to buy a social media measurement solution there's a few important takeaways from all these changes:

  • It's a Buyers Market
    Despite the predicted consolidation, there's still an abundance of companies supplying solutions. Companies are eager to get your business and you should be able to cut a deal for the right solution.
  • Buyer Beware!
    Expect the consolidation to accelerate over the coming year. Be cautious about companies that aren't able to demonstrate good market traction, supply a full list of references, or just seem too desperate; they may well be gone in a year or two.
  • Understand Your Requirements
    There's a broad spectrum of solutions out there, and every day new features are being added. Make sure you have a strong understanding of what you need to do and how a tool will help you do it. Take a look at the guides from many industry analysts (mine is here).
  • Recognize that the Market is Still Maturing
    There is no perfect solution out there. Sourcing data, avoiding spam, providing adequate filtering, integration to marketing automation systems, providing easy-to-configure dashboards and reporting, alerting for your customer services folks... these are just a handful of important issues that are still being worked out.
  • The Giants are Coming
    Finally, we 're still waiting for the obvious market giants... Google, Microsoft, maybe Facebook... to really enter this market. There's been ongoing rumors that Google was going to release a full-blown media monitoring solution; if they ever do, it could upturn the market and put an end to many of the companies I list. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Any Ideas What Public Relations Is?

When you’re in the business of managing the image of others it’s a little embarrassing to acknowledge you’re suffering from an identity crisis.

This week, the good people at the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) began an effort to better define what “public relations” is. This isn’t their first attempt: Two previous tries at a definition, in 2003 and 2007, ended in failure.

A perfectly reasonable question to ask is ‘why doesn't a working definition for public relations already exist?’ After all, the modern discipline of public relations was pioneered at the turn of the last century by Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee and others; the PRSA itself was formed in 1935.  Isn’t it fairly obvious what PR is about? And you don’t see physicists, lawyers, or dog trainers agonizing over what their chosen profession is all about, so why the debate with PR?

One answer is that PR and Corporate Communications are enduring monumental change. The economic collapse of conventional journalism has permanently altered the way news is created and shared. Opinions are formed and reputations altered through a labyrinth of social connections. Managing a public image has become more complicated, and the role of a PR pro less clear.

Another, less palatable reason is that most things in the world of marketing and communications are badly defined. If we were to take Voltaire at his word – “if you wish to converse with me, define your terms” – then a discussion with marketing pros would be very abbreviated indeed. As a profession, we bandy about overloaded terms like “brand”, “image”, and even “marketing” itself with only a fuzzy and shifting sense of what we mean.

So the PRSA, in an act of either abdication or inclusion, depending on your perspective, has asked for crowd-sourced inputs on what a definition should be. In my view, they’re asking the wrong question. We know full-well what PR is. The issue is how to make PR effective.

Bernays, the grandchild of Sigmund Freud, was very blunt in his assessment of what PR is about and its underlying intent, with his notion of “engineered consent” being rooted in ideas borrowed from propaganda. Ivy Lee was gentler:

"In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public…prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about." 

Modern PR hovers uneasily between the two truths offered by Bernays and Lee. Not much has changed at this level. The PRSA is thoroughly confused; we don’t need a new definition of what PR is, but rather we need to understand how to make PR more effective in a new communications landscape. The goals of PR are the same; the mechanisms for reaching those goals are changing and uncertain. The PRSA’s energies would be better spent on addressing these real challenges.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marketing by the Numbers

One of the side-effects of our always online existence is that everything has become visible and measurable. As we all rummage around in the virtual world, we leave behind a trail of digital detritus that others can find, accumulate and sequence: What we do, where we go, who we are and what we think can all be discovered and refactored with unnerving ease. This has raised many alarms about privacy and security, but has also introduced opportunities for marketing professionals.

I’d argue that the new world of digital marketing is upending the whole marketing profession.

Marketing used to be a largely subjective, qualitative, artful enterprise. For sure, we could do research, conduct elaborate focus groups, and painstakingly gather data to inform decisions and discover the impact of our marketing activities, but all this was arduous and often ad-hoc. We’ve moved from an environment of information sparcity to information overload. Instead of ‘mining’ for data, we’re dealing with the avalanche.

Today, data-driven marketing is becoming the norm. Expectations of what marketing can achieve are changing. Most important, there’s a new level of expected accountability.

Some years back I got a Ph.D. and as a result accumulated more knowledge about statistics and research methods that I thought was healthy, or useful. Turns out, my old stats texts are the books I’m referring to most. I’ve been interviewing for a new job and a common ground for questioning is “how do you measure the effectiveness of what you do?” I’ve even seen job descriptions that single out the ability to conduct A/B and multivariate analysis of campaign data. Being able to read data – and to conduct marketing from a data-driven perspective – is a vital skill today.

Of course, data isn’t wisdom, as Wharton Professor George Day has pointed out. According to him, the amount of data a company faces is doubling every 18 months, while our ability to sift and assimilate the data is remaining pretty much static. Day and his colleagues advocate ‘adaptive marketing experimentation’, an approach to marketing that fosters data-driven decision-making by continually testing variations on different solutions – a fail-fast, discover-quickly methodology. Their views are informed by a recent IBM research report created from interviews with over 1,700 CMOs. The leading issues for these CMOs: data overload, social media, channel proliferation and shifting demographics.

Professor Day’s recent article is a great read. And after you’ve finished, see if you can find those old statistics textbooks in the attic.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Klout, Qwikster, and Mob Marketing

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about Klout, a tool that attempts to measure an individual’s online social influence. As with all scales that try to quantify individual prowess – think IQ to SAT – there’s a healthy debate about the basic validity of what Klout purports to do: After all, what exactly is “influence”?

I’d hazard a guess that whether you’re a fan or a foe of Klout has a lot to do with how well you score on their 100-point scale, though I may be being overly cynical. But whatever you’re opinion of Klout I think we can agree that finding some way of articulating relative influence is a big marketing problem we need to solve. We desperately need a way to sort the wheat from the chaff, because in our noisy online world there’s an awful lot of chaff.

Personally, I don't see Klout as a permanent fixture of the social media landscape. Klout thinks it is selling a solution when they really only have a feature: Most social media monitoring tools of any worth have in them a way of determining salience, aka influence. Most search engines will get there soon too. This is where this "feature" belongs, in a context that has some value.

But there’s another problem, neatly exemplified by the well-publicized and stock-shrinking antics at Netflix. To recap, after doing a great deal of research with users, Netflix decided to split the company’s identity in two, and launched Qwikster so they can focus on their rapidly growing steaming media business. About the same time they also changed their fee structure. Within days the online hordes were screaming foul, droves left the service, and as of today the stock price is down about 70 percent from its high this year. A quasi- apology was made.

There are many complex financial and business issues at play here, and there's no question that Netflix management failed on many levels.  There's also a consensus that, from a strictly business standpoint, Netflix was making the right decisions. All that aside, my question is this: Given that Netflix did extensive research and consulted with their community of users before they made any changes, why was the subsequent reaction so profoundly negative?

One answer gets at the root of the real problem with Klout, which measures an individual’s influence. Often, this is the wrong unit of analysis. I’d argue that Netflix, like many brands before it, fell victim to a mob – a highly vocal minority that individually may have no clout at all, but collectively exert enormous influence. Worse, this vocal and passionate minority may not even represent the feelings of the silent majority of users, but they exert a disproportionate control.

Mass Marketing is passé. Welcome to Mob Marketing.

The communities that care about a particular brand or organization are diverse – they’ve always been so. What’s changed is the leveling effect of our online world: Everyone has equal voice, which means that amid all the babble it’s very hard to discern who matters individually and collectively. And it’s almost impossible to guard against a loose coalition of marginal naysayers once they’re mobilized.

What to do? Here's some suggestions:

  • First, make sure you are engaged with all constituents of your brand. Listen widely, respond selectively. Make sure that your communities feel appreciated. This is the responsibility of everyone in your organization.
  • Remember that all change attracts enemies. No matter what you do, it’s likely someone will take offense. Remain in control and have the courage of your convictions. Recognize that, despite what believers in crowd sourcing may say, giving over decision-making control to an unfiltered community may be unwise. Consult, inform and listen.
  • Make sure you understand what the valuable – and often silent – majority want and do everything you can to get them involved. Activating your core base is critical: The weight of their collective opinion is the best defense against a marginal mob. Find ways to amplify their views and champion your brand.
  • Finally, learn to recognize the marginal fanatics. Don’t overly invest in trying to change their hardened views – your energies are better spend cultivating and engaging your loyalists, and attracting new fans and supporters.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brand America

In these fractious and partisan times it’s interesting how U.S. politicians of all stripes are eager to distance themselves from their chosen profession. Democrats and Republicans alike, no matter their actual tenure, are all suddenly Washington “outsiders.” Many have also developed a newly found appreciation for how businesses are run, and think government could learn a trick or two from corporate America. We don’t need a President, they seem to be saying, we need a CEO.

Government-as-business is an interesting concept, which got me thinking: Why not elect an American CMO, a kind of Marketer-in-Chief?

The question isn’t as facetious as it might seem. Lots of countries actually do elect or appoint someone – often a “president” with limited legislative clout – to represent their country without having any overt political baggage. Truth is, in Europe that’s what royalty’s for.

America desperately needs a Marketer-in-Chief. America the Brand isn’t so brave anymore. You don’t need to conduct an audit to see the signs of dwindling brand loyalty and a confused brand identity. A good CMO would have read the signals long ago: The latest Rasmussen Poll shows that only 16 percent of likely voters think their country is “heading in the right direction,” while only 35 percent think America’s best days are to come. This is Quickster bad. The truth is, behind all the Tea Party bluster and Take Wall Street theatrics, there’s a shared disquiet that the US has lost its way and compromised on some ideals.

Overseas, Brand America is being bashed as bad as tainted Tylenol or New Coke. A couple of foreign wars certainly don’t help, and a worldwide financial pandemic is also souring the mood. Interestingly, Obama’s reputation abroad remains strong – his personal brand is relatively unscathed.

But Brand America has dealt with crisis before and come through, so, what’s the problem now? I blame the politicians. As some famous American once said, “a house divided cannot stand,” and Brand America has some deep-sea-trench divisions on strategy and values. No self-respecting CMO would stand for this. It used to be that the country coalesced around a universally accepted brand promise: Liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness, etc. This was considered enough. Now, while we might agree on the brand promise, we dogmatically disagree on how to deliver on that promise. Even the role of government is being questioned. Meanwhile, as our fearless political leaders seem to encourage polarization, we flounder dealing with looming competitive threats from Brand China and the rest.

As any CMO knows, brand equity is a fragile commodity, hard to earn and too easily lost. However, in the case of Brand America, I think the gloomy prognosis is overstated.

A couple of months ago I was sworn-in as a US citizen, along with 260 others from over 30 different countries. It was a moving and sobering experience – I sat next to a Somali woman and a Nigerian man, both with harrowing stories of lost relatives and exile. An Indian man told me about the Pharma start-up he was creating – in the US. That same week, I listened to American scientists from the Kepler project describe discovering the first planets from other solar systems. And this year U.S. citizens netted seven Nobel prizes. On the global stage, America is still a place of invention and promise. The old cliché is true: American is a land of opportunity.

All we need is a Marketer-in-Chief to sell it better.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is social media saturating – and what are the implications for marketing?

According to the latest data from Nielsen Research and Experian Simmons, the adoption of social media in the US has skyrocketed to 80 percent of those with online access, or over 40 percent of the overall population. Putting this in perspective, among those 35-and-younger, the adoption of social media is approaching that of US car ownership. Safe to say, it is clearly foolish to think of social media as something new or novel – it is an everyday part of most people’s lives.

Collectively, Americans now spend almost a billion hours a month exchanging news, information and gossip at social media sites. Last I checked there are still only 24 hours in a day: As you look at these stats, especially for the college-age set, the use of social media starts to look like borderline addiction. For many teens and tweens being connected online is an umbilical necessity for sustaining life. You wonder if Facebook and the rest shouldn’t carry warning labels, like cigarettes: Using Social Media Is Not A Substitute For Food, Sleep Or Reality.

More seriously, as social media adoption becomes mainstream, what are the consequences for marketing?

First, marketing pros should understand that media use overall is usually a zero-sum game: If we’re all spending more time online with social media, it usually means we’re doing less of some other media activity. There’s evidence to support this view, with online activities eating away at everything from watching television to reading. Second, we should anticipate that the use of social media is saturating. The amount of time we spend on social media is cresting, especially among those 35-and-younger.

This is a familiar scenario for marketing folks who have lived through other communications and marketing revolutions. I can remember when email marketing was a novelty, with response rates for well-targeted campaigns routinely reachig 3-5 percent (I’ve seen similarly impressive stats for the novelty-of-the-moment, QR codes). As social media saturates we should expect it to become harder and harder to create and sustain relationships between prospects and our brands. Saturation equates to clutter, attentions wane, and people become weary and guarded.

We should also remember that social media got that name for a reason – it’s a tool for staying in touch with friends and family, not primarily for finding your company, not matter how lovely it may be. Understand that social media is only one part of an integrated marketing program. Have realistic expectations - and make sure you communicate these to your management teams. As you work with social media, be true to yourself and your brand. The fundamentals of good marketing have not been re-invented: Be engaging, be credible, be trustworthy, and be unique.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sales and Marketing May be Better Aligned Than We Think

When I was asked by Bob Johnson at IDG to be on a SMEI panel to discuss the divide between sales and marketing, I had a strong feeling of déjà vu: I can remember ten years ago being invited on another panel to debate the exact same issue. That event had been in London, hence there was an open bar before the panel convened; I recall the discussion getting very heated indeed.

As I prepared for the SMEI panel I began to wonder if the marketing/sales feud had improved much in the intervening decade, so decided to pull together a short survey to find out. Using social media I got just under 100 responses from an assortment of friends, followers and colleagues  – certainly not a representative sample, but diverse nonetheless.

Q: Over the last 5 years, do you think the relationship between sales and marketing has: 

Grown Worse:                                                 24%
Stayed about the same:                                   33%
Grown Better:                                                 43%

The results surprised me; I’d guessed that as we endure a drawn-out recession, relations between sales and marketing would have become more frayed. I was wrong, and by a large majority the audience at the SMEI event also believed sales and marketing were getting along much better these days.

I then asked was might be the root cause of any conflict:

Q: The main cause of conflict and disagreement between marketing and sales is (pick one): 

Lack on alignment on goals and objectives:        43%
Resource allocation:                                          11%
The quantity and quality of leads:                       23%
No clear demarcation of responsibility:                4%
Lack of processes to coordinate activities:         12%
Lack of professional respect:                               8%

By a wide margin, most respondents think that conflict is caused by a lack of alignment around goals and objectives. This view was echoed by my fellow panelists, Ann Marie Beasley from CA and Mark Blessing at Bright Computing.

I discussed how the most common model used for engineering alignment across sales and marketing – the ubiquitous marketing funnel – may be long overdue for an overhaul. Whatever model you use, successful alignment across the two organizations starts with a candid discussion on joint KPIs and metrics. Measured accountability, agreed and shared, is the root to success.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Marketing and Sales: Closing the Great Divide

I'm excited to have been invited to speak at the Sales and Marketing Executives International event here in Boston on September 14th. The subject is a perennial favorite -- Marketing and Sales: Closing the Great Divide.

I'm interested in your views - over the last five years has the relationship between sales and marketing improved, grown worse, or stayed about the same? What causes friction? Leave me a comment -- or better yet, take 30 seconds to complete this three-question survey. 

I'll share results of the survey in a later post. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Science of Marketing?

Reading recent headlines and watching the gyrations of the stock market it’s easy to see why economics earned the epithet “the dismal science.” But is marketing any better? Indeed, is there any science to marketing at all?

Usually not.

Take social media as an example. Normally, marketing treats social media data in the same way that air traffic controllers treat blips on a radar screen – as signals that require careful help in landing, or emergencies demanding evasion on interception. The only difference is we marketeers attempt to land customers and intercept naysayers, rather than planes. Don’t get me wrong – marketing needs radar – but this hardly qualifies as science.

Data by itself isn’t science: Marketing pros usually have an excess of the former and very little of the latter. A scientific approach would require proposing a hypothesis to explain observations or ideas, then devising an experiment to test the hypothesis. It requires the rigorous definition of terms and ways of quantifying things. It demands objectivity.

Tom Webster gets at this distinction is his recent blog post, and argues that we’ll always need a mix of qualitative and quantitative information. It’s tempting to agree with Seth Godin and others and say marketing is both art and science, but this feels like a cope-out to me.

What we can say is that marketing is getting much more quantitative. This is a good thing. I can remember from my teaching days that marketing undergrads hated even the most rudimentary classes on quantitative analysis and statistics – today, they’d be well-advised to take these courses very seriously indeed. Science or not, the future of marketing will clearly move toward a more disciplined and measured approach. But the real gains will be with those organizations that go the next step, and apply more scientific rigor to their marketing investments.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Brand Potter: What Harry Can Teach us about Marketing

This month, at midnight, I took my daughter and a gaggle of her friends to the opening night of the final film in the Harry Potter franchise. Dressed as favorite characters – Luna, Bellatrix, McGonagall and Hermione – we arrived an hour before the show to find the movie theatre packed and transformed to a mini-Hogwarts. “Wingardiam Leviosa!” exclaimed our would-be Luna to the ticket guy, to which he responded brightly “Diffindo!” as he ripped the tickets. It was another world. And when we left the theater at around 3am it felt more like mid-afternoon on a busy weekend – the parking lot was packed and another crowd of Dumbledores, Snapes, Rons and Ginnys were piling in for the next show.

JK Rowling published her first book in 1997: Seven novels, 4,000 pages and eight movies later, Harry has become a pop-culture phenomenon unparalleled in modern times. A whole generation of kids – including my daughter and most of her friends and cousins, not to say her parents – have grown enthralled by a fully-realized world of magic. Commercially, the Potter phenomenon has no equal: Over 400 million books sold in every language imaginable, a worldwide movie gross over $7 billion, and even a theme park in Florida. How on earth did this tale of a boy wizard going to school become so successful?

There is no question that Rowling’s vision – and her near-flawless execution in her books – was the core of the success. She created wonderful characters, embellished her plot with great imaginative touches, and had a story in her mind that she knew would hold an audience across a decade of reading.

But Rowling did more than that. Famously, she demanded great control over all things Harry, from franchising to having full creative control over the movies and their scripts, even selecting actors. She also remained true to her readers – she was almost possessive of them – and communicated directly to young fans in her blog and elsewhere. My daughter talks about “JK” as if they’ve met recently and are close friends: This is remarkable. Rowling also embraced the runaway success that Harry enjoyed. She has said that Harry and his world felt almost independent of her, and there must have come a point where the pop-culture juggernaut also felt outside her control. Despite this, there is a fidelity to the world she created that has never changed despite the movies, the fanzines, the endless media hoopla and the passage of time. Among her many other talents, Rowling has expertly managed the Harry brand. Her focus and fidelity to a vision is something we all could learn from in marketing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Marketing and Me

Last week, after three great years, I left my job running corporate communications for a large software company.

I was very fortunate – I left of my own accord, and I had plenty of time to think about the transition. Even so, I had two contradictory reactions to being gainfully unemployed: a feeling of delight at having oceans of time; and a feeling of mild panic at having no viable income. It’s hard not to oscillate wildly between indulging in projects and activities I’ve put off for years, then frantically job hunting.

I’ve worked almost all my career marketing, mostly in the high tech world but also for professional services firms and some consumer brands. In the last few weeks I’ve learnt that marketing feels very different when the subject at hand is You. Thinking about Brand You does a lot to focus attention on the fundamentals. Here’s some observations:

  • Know Thyself!
    It’s easy to have an instinctive understanding of what your professional value is, but I found myself having to work hard to organize my search. What are my target markets? What is the current demand in that market? What’s my professional objective? What differentiates me from the many other candidates? Like any other marketing program, answering these fundamental questions is Step One.
  • Resumes Revisited
    For many decades the basic tool – the promo piece – for advertising for work has been the resume. Nolonger. I’ve found that many conversations start because someone “found me” at this blog, because of press coverage I’ve appeared in, or via some other online imprint. Increasingly, our online resumes – our brand – is a diffused collection of activities. Managing these properly is critical.
  • Networks and Friends
    The influence of word-of-mouth on brand perceptions is well understood, but the reality comes sharply into focus when you’re searching for work. A recruitment consultant told me that over 75% of jobs are found through an individual’s immediate network of friends, colleagues and family. We often forget that the same is true for how most people make decisions about what brands to trust and invest in.
  • Social media works – and doesn’t
    A recent Pew Research study showed that fewer than 10% of “friends” on Facebook have never met in person. Social media is a wonderfully efficient way to maintain connections to our extended network of friends and colleagues, but it’s not so efficient at broadcasting beyond that network. Once or twice removed, the signal seems to get attenuated.
  • Professional networking and career sites can work
    I’m using Ladders, LinkedIn, Indeed and the rest, and they are remarkable. One reservation – moving to a premium, fee-based service on some of these sites has only a marginal benefit. The basic service is often enough, raising questions about the business models for some of these companies.

One other thing – I’ve come to realize how much I enjoyed the ‘Company of Friends” I worked with over the last few years. Good luck to you all!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Graying of Social Media

A popular myth about social media is that it's a fancy of youth, something endemic in the teen set but largely ignored by those well past their college years. If there was any doubt that this is a fallacy, read the latest Pew Research report.

According to their numbers, 47% of American adults have used some kind of social networking site, close to double the number recorded in 2008. The average age of users has shifted up from 33 to 38. On first blush this may not seem like much, but it's significant: Those 50 to 65 accounted for only 9 percent of social network users in 2008 and today they account for 20 percent of users. The numbers tripled for those 65 and over.

There's no question that the Early Adopters of social media were largely young, but we've long moved past the early stages of adoption. Social media is a part of the online landscape for most everybody.

What astonished a jaded marketeer like me was the response to the question “most people can be trusted.” Be honest – you'd expect a healthy majority to lean towards a “Nah” on this question – and indeed there is a majority, but far less than I'd thought. Forty-one percent of adults are trusting, and this actually increases slightly to 45% for social media users (non-Internet users are a gloomy bunch, with only 27% being trusting).

What emerges is that active users of social media are far more engaged, open and have more social support that non-users. Stating the painfully obvious, social media is about being social. It's about sustaining existing relationships (only 9% of Facebook “friends” have never met in person) and rekindling old friendships.

The implications for marketing pros are clear. First, the days when social media was a playground for consumer-facing youth brands are over. But we've known this for a while. What may be more important is that social networks are focused around trusted relationships that preexist. For marketing to engage with these close-knit communities will require creating a persona – a brand – that can feel familiar, that is already a part of the extended social network, and that can instinctively be trusted.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Viral Marketing and the Short Tail

Viral marketing has very little to do with marketing – or so I argued in my last post. I also suggested that we've done a pretty poor job of defining what the term “vital marketing” even means.

Being viral is mostly a function of a product or idea, not of the tools and tricks employed by marketing pros for promotion. That said, being viral is also about the vectors that transmit and pass on information about the product or idea – that is, the people involved. Said another way, certain people are receptive to an innovation, others are not. And some people are better equipped to retransmit and amplify the viral effect – the are better connected themselves, and better respected – and are thus more coveted targets for viral marketing.

This all has echoes of an old mass communications theory – adoption of innovation, championed by Everett Rogers. He's the guy that gave us familiar terms like Early Adopter and Late Majority to describe groups of people that characteristically are receptive to new ideas and are viewed by others as trusted sources of information.

Many of the today's models for viral marketing focus on the medium – Twitter, Facebook and so on. This is a mistake. Some enlightened folks start by looking at the product or idea itself. Very few also consider how audience targeting can influence viral marketing.

There's a lot of chatter in marketing circles about long tails – a statistical reference to the fact that the total sales of relatively unpopular items often outweigh the combined sales of very popular blockbuster items. An oft-cited example is book sales at Amazon, where cumulative niche sales of The Bagpipe Maintenance Book and its ilk far outstrip Potteresque blockbusters. If the warehouse and distribution costs can be managed, then marketing to the long tail can be very lucrative.

The reverse logic applies to viral marketing – we are short tail marketing. To see what I mean, consider the frequency distribution of Twitter followers, Facebook 'friends' and Facebook 'likes', all of which are more-or-less classic power distributions (that is, the kind of distribution people refer to when they think about long tails and marketing):

Ask yourself: who do you want to target when you consider attempting viral marketing? The answer, of course, is the most influential, and all other things being equal this equates to the very few people with the most followers, likes or friends – the short beginnings of the distributions in the graphs. (This effect is also self-fulfilling – we tend to crowd around the already crowded, follow those that have a lot of followers. We see this effect in social media and we see it in high schools, politics and the entertainment industry.)

Of course when I say we should target based on influence I'm stating the very obvious, but this all seems lost on many marketing pros when they think about viral marketing and new media.

The arguments get even more complicated if there's any real audience targeting to be considered. The undifferentiated masses that haunt social media aren't a target for anyone unless you happen to have a social media product to hawk. For the rest of us, we're interested in influencers and buyers, and we usually have some ability to describe these folks in at least broad demographic ways. Virality only matters if it impacts these few. But even if we're interested in created gross awareness we should think about the short tail.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What is Viral Marketing?

When we think of cloud computing we don't envision winged mainframes sitting angelic on fluffy cumulus, yet too often in marketing a clever metaphor morphs into a definition, leaving behind empty buzzwords. Such is the case with viral marketing.

What is viral marketing really? Go to Wikipedia and you will leave none-the-wiser; the page has become the battleground of an ongoing dispute about who originated the term, but provides little insight into what it really means. Other attempts at a definition vier off at two tangents – either getting lost in epidemiology or waxing rhapsodic about social media. Or we revert to the “I know when I see it” school, which ladles out a stream of ex post facto cases-in-point that illustrate the effect without enlightening us about what is taking place.

Arguably viral marketing is nothing new. If you look at early research into the effects and efficacy of propaganda, the mechanisms by which mass media impact ideas, or the ways that innovative ideas are adopted, they all suggests ways that messages and ideas are disseminated through a population. The concept of viral marketing is really a restatement of these old theories, adapted to the new communication tools of today.

A good theory and definition of viral marketing would provide an explanation based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning. It could be tested and confirmed and would help explain and predict the way some markets work or how some products become popular. It would build on what we already know from propaganda, mass media and public relations. What we've got instead is a lot of sound a fury every time a YouTube video gets a boatload of views, without any reasoning or insight.

At least, that's what I thought until I came across this blog post by David Skok. David applies some simple math along with a useful concept – the K factor – and provides an abstract model of how viral effects work. He also derives some very useful variables to consider, and some principles describing what makes viral marketing viral. To take one example:

Virality is not a marketing strategy that can be executed by the marketing department. It has to be built into your product right from the beginning. This is a function that needs to be thought through by the product designers and developed by the engineers.

This is not how most people think and at first it appears counterintuitive, but he's right. Marketing may play a role in amplifying a viral effect, or reducing the time cycles on virality, but it can rarely be the prime mover in making a product “go viral.” There really is no substitute for a good idea well executed.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Radian6 Sells for 10X Revenues to Salesforce

There's over 100 tools available to measure or monitor social media traffic, but ask the average marketing pro for a product by name and they're most likely to mention “Radian6.” Whatever you think of their products – and there are detractors – the Canadian company has done an undeniably phenomenal job at marketing itself.

This week, we learned that Salesforce has acquired them for $326M in cash, plus $50M is stock. In interviews, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff claimed Radian6 has annual revenues of about $35M, so he paid a handsome 10X multiple. Why so much, and why now?

Despite the cruddy economy, there's a nascent bubble emerging in social media-focused companies. Evaluations are skyrocketing even for start-ups unencumbered by income of any kind. Radian6 is on the peripherary of this market, but no doubt the evaluation reflected some of this hype.

Second, Radian6 has attracted a large pool of the kind of customers attracted to Salesforce's core CRM technology. At between $400 and $600 per month, Radian6 was priced such that SMBs could buy-in. The company also did a great job at selling through influential intermediaries – advertising and PR agencies.

Finally, the company ate its own dog food. The social media outfit worked the social media world tirelessly. Anyone remotely connected to their world, even lowly Uninfluentials like me, have been contacted by them.

Did Salesforce pay too much? Maybe. Certainly the hopes of many competitors will have been raised, and rightly so: expect more consolidation over coming months. Arguably there's also a new opportunity for these other companies to take up the position Radian6 held, and become the “leading independent” in the category. For sure, this is an early-stage market. Radian6 is a good company, but there's plenty of room to improve on their technology, and I speak from experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is the Public Relations Bubble About to Burst?

A few weeks back the good people of the Publicity Club of New England invited me to speak on a panel with journalists from TechTarget, InformationWeek, and Mass High Tech, as well as a director from the PR agency Weber Shandwick

Ostensibly, the subject at hand was advice on launching a new technology product, but as is often the way with these kinds of events the conversation got tangential and we talked about a host of entirely unrelated topics. Things really got interesting when the journalists discussed the harsh realities of their working world. We all know that journalism is getting a beating these days and that the underlying economics of the news business stink, but hearing firsthand how threadbare tech journalism has become was shocking. The pool of professional journalists is evaporating fast.

Nor are new professionals entering the field. Earlier the same day I'd gone for lunch with an industry analyst, an old friend from my days teaching at university, who told me that journalism undergraduates are openly questioning what career future they have in an environment that places little value on professional news gathering.

None of this is new. What struck me, however, was the apparent nonchalance of the PR professionals attending the event. I'd argue that the wholesale destruction of professional journalism will have profound repercussions for PR pros, yet I don't see much concern.

The Hack/Flack relationship is symbiotic: If one disappears then arguably so goes the other. PR professionals, and especially PR agencies, need to rethink what value they deliver and how they fit in a new ecosystem for information gathering and sharing. Some thoughts:

  • The Content Kingdom?
    If journalism is crumbling, where will authoritative content come from? The question seems ridiculous, given that we're all drowning in a sea of conversations, a Babel of social media banter. Everyone's a journalist, right? The reality is more complex. Increasingly, creating credible, trusted content – developing a voice that is a part of the social media landscape – will be a critical part of PR. To my mind, this requires a degree of authenticity and originality that places a new burden on PR professionals to do what journalists have done.
  • How does news get transmitted?
    The age of mass media is dissolving so that most of us are exposed to numerous different sources of news and information, rather than a few monolithic and ubiquitous news organizations with formidable reach and influence. How information gets transmitted – and retransmitted – across a web of social connections is a problem that will plaque PR pros. In the old, massive media days, it was easy to operate within a limited network of gatekeepers, or push press releases out to a waiting audience. With this gone, PR pros need to think about how they can influence awareness and drive information transmission.
  • How do you measure success?
    One of benefits of our always on, always online world is that everything becomes visible and hence measurable. This is a boon to PR pros, who can make themselves more relevant and more effective by taking accountability for more meaningful business outcomes. Gone are the days when PR could measure activities and feel that is enough. And measuring nebulous levels of “awareness” is only a step in the right direction. PR pros need to meet real business goals – and take actions now to figure out how they can hold themselves accountable.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Social Media ROI by Olivier Blanchard

Search on “social media” on Amazon books, and you get an astonishing 1,300 titles – you'd never know there's a crisis in the publishing biz judging by this embarrassment of riches. For those seeking guidance on social media, this overabundance makes it a struggle to sort the wheat from the chaff.

First-time author Olivier Blanchard's book initially caught my attention because of the brevity and bravery of the title; many writers may have been tempted to appended a question mark after Social Media ROI, but Blanchard is fearless. He is trying to address the key question being asked by many in marketing, public relations and the media, and he does so with clarity and without dodging the complexity.

The book is especially good at rooting social media in a recognizable marketing landscape. Readers familiar with marketing principles, strategy, goals and objectives will quickly understand Blanchard's arguments and frame of reference.

The book is refreshingly straightforward in determining what a meaningful ROI should be, and realistic in how to attain returns. I'd have liked to have seen more real-world examples (and less of the now tired case studies from Dell and the like). In places the book labors the obvious.

The book is not for those looking for tactical details on how to use Twitter, Facebook and the rest, or indeed an understanding of the tools and techniques for measuring ROI – Blanchard defers to others on these details. Rather, this book will help marketing pros understand how social media can play a role in programs and campaigns, and suggest ways of using social media that are results-oriented and driven by common-sense business objectives.

I'd specially recommend the book for marketing managers.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is “Ethical PR” an Oxymoron?

It's very hard to conjure up a sentence containing the words “ethical” and “public relations” without inviting ridicule and invective. In the popular imagination the whole point of public relations is to flex the truth, to manipulate and obfuscate the facts of things in the self-serving interests of a client. In the war between Hack and Flack, most often it's journalists who come off as the protectors of truth's virtue, and PR pros as grubby low-lifes. They make Oscar-winning movies about investigative journalists; I can't think of a single movie that has a flack as its hero.

This all came to mind when I read that Cambridge-based consulting firm Monitor Group had taken on Moammhar Khadafy and Libya as a client, their brief being to somehow rehabilitate the dictator's image and “generate positive news coverage of the country.” Yuck. Then today Kirk Hazlett, writing on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America in the letters page of the Boston Globe, felt inclined to point out that (a) Monitor Group is most definitely not a public relations agency, and (b) organizations like the PRSA have a code of ethics designed to deal with just these sort of nasty situations. Needless to say, Hazlett's letter was greeted with the ridicule and invective mentioned above.

So, what's the truth here? Are PR firms – and their employees – a bunch of unscrupulous peddlers of lies, damn lies and even more damn lies? Are they turning a blind eye to obvious evil in exchange for a retainer contract plus expenses? Do they meddle in political affairs and do business with dictators?

Well, sometimes.

Lets first agree that if your client is Rwanda, Uganda, Kazakhstan or Sri Lanka, you're doing business with folks that have reputation issues that go well beyond your usual brand management challenges. These countries, and others like them, engage in torture, corruption and murder of their own citizens on a grand and well-documented scale. And they've all had representation by PR firms, including major names like Hill & Knowlton. Edelman represented Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and even today the Brit PR agency Bell Pottinger is representing Bahrain. Rehabilitating third-world despots is a thriving business.

So, whatever the PRSA may say, plenty of PR firms do deals with devils. But is this sufficient to damn a whole industry?

Of course not. The other side of the flack coin is that many agencies do wonderful work for organizations that are fighting the most to make changes in these dictatorships. Amnesty International, UNICEF, Oxfam and others have all relied on agency support.

The problem, I suspect, is in the toothless declarations made by organizations like the PRSA about “codes of ethics.” We should ask ourselves what consequences arise if these ethical codes are violated, and to what extent the PRSA and others police agencies to ensure compliance. It's interesting to note that whenever a TV shows attracts the ire of public watchdogs, as MTV's Skins has recently done, advertisers vote by removing their financial support. I don't see many clients of PR agencies taking a similar view, and this too should be questioned.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Apple is like WalMart and Content is Still King

Image: Apple Corp.
It was Sumner Redstone who famously stated that “content is king,” a thesis being sorely tested these days. At the time he said it Redstone was running the family business, the movie theater chain National Amusements, which he parlayed through a series of acquisitions into the media giant Viacom. Redstone believed that content would become more important than distribution mechanisms, and so sought out content producers such as Paramount, CBS and MTV. It made him one of the hundred richest men in America.

Reading the news these days, it feels like we've come full circle. Today, the focus of attention is all on the devices that are delivering information, be they iPads, 3D Televisions or the latest 4G phones. In many ways they are the modern-day equivalents of the National Amusements movie palaces.

This doesn't feel right. It's as if we all suddenly became fixated with the copper pipes in our house, and forgot about the clean running water. Don't misunderstand me – there's no question that this plumbing is very sexy. My iPad feels like a sleekly engineered work of art, in the same way that a 1960s Ferrari does. And the ergonomics are so intuitive that my 6 year-old is an adept user, killing me at Angry Birds. But this isn't enough.

There's a fight going on to control the information supply chain, to become the new gatekeeper. This explains the move by Apple to make iTunes subcription billing mandatory; they want to become the focus of the relationship with consumers, relegating the content providers. In a sense Apple is emulating WalMart, with their relentless focus on supply-chain and market control. The difference is, WalMart is selling plastic crap from China, while Apple is trading on everything from the latest Black Eyed Peas hit to the news that informs an electorate.

Then I saw the news from The Huffington Post and AOL, along with the launch of News Corps' The Daily. In case you missed it, the ailing AOL put-down $315 million to buy the fast-growing Huffington, and pledged to continue to invest in new and original content. And News Corp released a new newspaper specifically for tablet computers, to be quickly followed by Yahoo's Livestand.

Seems like the news is all about the news; how it is created, distributed and consumed. Its not clear to me who will wind-up winning this war of words, images and ideas. I tend to think Mr. Redstone had it right all along and that content is still king, and not just royalties to the likes of Apple. After all, the iPad and its ilk are otherwise tabula rasa.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New Update: A definitive list of social media measurement and monitoring tools

It's been over ten months since I originally published my list of over 80 social media measurement and monitoring tools, and I continue to get a lot of updates. Many thanks to everyone for the corrections and additions.

This is my second round of edits and changes. This time, I've seen a handful of companies disappear (Intelligent Technologies, Kaleidico, Net Equity and Scanblog among them), as well as a few changes in business model or products offered. I've made updates to about half the listed, including Meltwater, Dow Jones, Appinions, Lithium, and Millard Brown.

You can find the complete and updated list here.

 I remain confused by the different capabilities and use-cases these products support -- am I alone?

Please let me know any omissions or errors.

Monday, January 31, 2011

What CMOs want from Social Media

A week or so ago The CMO Club published a short whitepaper titled CMOs on Social Media Plans for 2011. The report is a continuation of research begun in 2009 and gives a longitudinal view on how marketing leaders are thinking about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest.

So, what's the Cliff Notes summary? The research is a classic example of a glass half-full or half-empty, depending on your preconceptions. Take the question “What social marketing activity brings you the highest return on investment?” The glass half-full answer is that for most social media tools, the percent of CMOs that believe they provide “average to significant” ROI has more than doubled. In contrast, the glass half-empty answer is that well over 50% of CMOs either don't know or see no ROI for the vast majortity of social media activities.

What explains this? Certainly not a lack of data on which to draw an ROI conclusion – under 20% of CMOs have no way of measuring the value of social marketing. But the majority are measuring activities rather than outcomes, by which I mean things like site traffic, number of mentions, or number of posts. This is the More School of Marketing, who's thesis is that if we do more things, and we see more things happen, then we must be doing more things right. This is, or course, wrong.

Only a small minority of CMOs report measuring increased sales, or order size, or reduced call volume – all things that can be tied directly to a real ROI. Why so few? Because it is so hard.

Despite the abundance of data that comes with much online-based social media, there's very little insight into how social marketing really impacts the bottom line that isn't anecdotal. Take the example of a typical corporate blog: it is trivial to measure-to-death the traffic on the blog, and even to understand visitors feelings and dispositions. Blog comments and the migration patterns of visitors might give you richer insights. But unless your Zappos selling shoes or Amazon selling books, its tricky to equate all this traffic to a purchase, a sales problem solved, or a repeat buyer. For most of us in marketing, the trail from social media activity to eventual ROI is convoluted, long and indistinct.

Despite this, my glass remains half full. Saying that social media has value to marketing is like saying the sky is blue; saying that social media has ROI for business is hardly controversial either. What is difficult is quantifying where the value emerges and how much value can be gained. This is what CMOs want to know. The report is silent on these questions, and for most of us the answers will remain elusive.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Does the Mass Media Matter?

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Dunblane, Hungerford... and now Tucson. The recent, dreadful news from Arizona has energized an old debate about the root-causes of apparently mindless violent acts. The usual suspects – lack of gun control, healthcare for the mentally ill, and a caustic political environment – have all been suggested as “causes” for these terrible crimes.

And in this current debate, as in the past, the media have also not escaped blame. This time, it's the highly partisan, charged nature of the current news media that is held partly responsible, as if a lack of civility has somehow energized a clearly deranged individual. In the past, the focus has more often been on the violent content of the media, which is thought to desensitize viewers or encourage copycat acts. In both cases, the media is seen as articulating violence across our culture.

Is there any evidence to support the belief that the media can have these dramatic effects?

There's certainly no lack of research on the effects of violence in the media – the American Psychological Association claims an astonishing 3,500 research reports – but there's nothing like a clear agreement on the results. Both the APA and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, do claim that all this research does clearly show a link between exposure to violent and inciting media content and an increased propensity toward violent feelings and actions. Indeed, the link between media violence and violent behaviors has been said to be as significant as the link between smoking and lung cancer.

In all likelihood this is a gross overstatement and a wild oversimplification. I wish it were otherwise.

When the well-respected media researcher George Comstock looked across 219 examples of media violence research, he did indeed find a modest link between exposure and actions (the researchers found that the vast majority of the “3,500” reports cited above failed to meet basic methodological criteria or had not been properly reviewed or even published). However, Comstock (and later others) also pointed out that the so-called “file drawer” effect (where inconclusive or negative findings go unreported), as well as significant problems defining and measuring aggression, probably account for any remaining effect. The American Civil Liberties Union argued these points well. In other words, if there is any link between watching violence and acting violently, the link is superficial at best.

Most research suggests that the media is not as powerful as you might think, at least in terms of altering human behavior. Researchers talk about so-called “small effects” on audiences. In one example of this, dubbed agenda-setting, the media is shown to be very unsuccessful at telling people what to think, but rather good at telling people what to think about. Said another way, the media raise awareness and create a public conversation about a subject they highlight, but rarely impact actions or alter attitudes. Advertisers, take note.

Would that life be so simple that dramatically limiting violence and aggression in the media would somehow dramatically limit violence in the real world. The answers for Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Tucson are more complex and deep rooted.