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.