Monday, December 24, 2007

Where Do You Find Your Inspiration?

Centre Pompidou: The source of inspiration for a line of Nike athletic footwear

The New York Time’s Magazine recent issue on the big ideas of 2007 got me thinking about our sources for new business models, products, services, strategies, and tactics. Do our ideas come from familiar places or unexpected sources? Is it possible to look for them or do we have to stumble upon them, and when we do find them, do we know how to apply them?

And more appropriately for the purposes of this blog, how can social media help us find the inspiration we need?

For me, I regularly read a list of blogs and publications that discuss advertising, marketing and public relations. Their content is highly useful, infinitely practical, often insightful, but inspirational is a tough one.

Beyond creating an echo chamber, the web allows us to tailor our news through bookmarks, tags and RSS feeds. The good news is that we can concentrate information and focus on news we can use and points of view we support. The bad news is that it promotes insularity. We become niche focused and lose our ability to see the macro. It limits our exposure to different ways of thinking and topics unrelated to our professions. What we save in time, we can lose in diversity and variety.

Inspiration: Just Do It

It is hard to be inspired when we stay in our comfort zone. Inspiration is unanticipated. When we stumble upon it, it’s liberating. It frees us from conventional thinking and allows us to break free from the steady flow of familiar ideas. Hitting us like a two by four, inspiration alters our world view. Once inspired, we can’t imagine a world that came before.

Take Nike’s CEO Mark Parker. In a word, he is inspirational. I was struck by a passage of a cover profile in the Wall Street from earlier this fall.

Mr. Parker later worked on signature brands such as the Air Pegasus running shoe. His breakthrough came in 1987 with the invention of the “Visible Air,” which showed off the hidden cushioning system of Nike’s successful Air Max line. The new idea came after fellow designer Tinker Hatfield visited the Centre Pompidou, the controversial Parisian art museum where gas and electric lines are exposed on the exterior. The two decided to cut away at the shoe’s sole, revealing its innards in a new futuristic way.

From interior design, cuisine, art and music. Parker finds inspiration in places that few marketers of athletic footwear dare to tread. Mr. Parker is a visionary; I include myself in the “everybody else” category. I marvel at his ability to make connections where others don’t, just as I marvel at scientists who examine the life of bees to better understand human communications and the movements of ants to explain network theory.

Where is your Centre Pompidou?

So where is your Centre Pompidou? Where do you draw your inspiration – from your peers or somewhere else?

This is not a trick question. The choice is not binary. It is critical to engage our peers, share ideas and draw on their thinking and recommendations. It is also important to stretch ourselves and immerse ourselves in blogs unrelated to our profession. (Candidly, I need to leave my comfort zone more often.)

The collaborative nature of the Web gives us a platform to seek out different ways of thinking. By tapping its diversity, we can connect with viewpoints that challenge our assumptions and take us in new directions.

The Web has the power to not only bring together people from different parts of the world; it has the potential to connect neighbors with different perspectives. We can seek out discussion groups or we can create forums for open discussion to identify new ways to address old problems. Need an example. Dell’s Ideastorm. It has become a place for Dell to tap the collective knowledge of its customers and consider ideas from an outsider’s perspective.

The Mark Parker’s of the world will continue to inspire us. They seem heroic. They stand apart. But it can be lonely out there. Fortunately, the Web has the capacity to do some of our heavy lifting — introducing us to new ideas and new people with a click of a mouse. The Web connects us and can bring us closer together.

That’s a little comforting this time of year. So as we enter the new year and make our new year’s resolutions, let’s venture outside our comfort zone. The results may be inspiring.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Extending PR’s Influence Through SEO

Seth Roseman, a friend of mine, recently confided in me about the challenges of getting publicity as a CEO of Payless Décor, a discount window shades and blinds business here in Atlanta.

“At my current company, we have a very compelling mix of quality and price, but in a competitive market, it is difficult to get the word out in a cost effective way. Also, since we go straight to the consumer most general corporate communications devices have little chance to get to our target consumer.”

If you are Google or Apple, getting coverage and maintaining an online presence is not a challenge. You have plenty of resources at your disposal and even no news is news. But what can small businesses and news-challenged companies do? How do they extend their brand to a wider audience with a limited budget?

One much discussed solution is repurposing the tried and true press release with Search Engine Optimization. Releases are a great tool for optimizing rankings within natural search by creating new content external to a company’s main web site, with relevant linking. To my friend Seth and many others, the number of people who actually read a press release is not a key performance metric — it is the search-engine spiders and how they handle the press release that concerns him.

“The intriguing thing for me is that old-world devices such as press releases would have such completely different value today to a large extent because Google incorporates them in their algorithm.”

50 Percent Adoption Rate

Despite its obvious strategic advantages, adoption is not universal. While it’s difficult to nail down a percentage, Sarah Skerik, vice president, distribution services at PR Newswire, estimates that more than 50 percent of all releases use SEO.

Part of this adoption rate may reflect a lack of awareness or confidence in SEO’s utility or value. Seeing themselves as media relation’s experts, some PR professionals view SEO as marketing. They are resistant to the rules of engagement, which require new ways of writing and organizing information. Paying attention to such tactics as key word ratios and links may not be a priority. Beyond the issue of job description, others may be resistant out of concerns of “gaming” the system. Manipulating or abusing SEO can lead to changes in the underlying algorithms and black listing a company’s domain.

For some perspective on leveraging SEO, I went to Sarah with a few questions. On any given day, PR Newswire distributes between 800 and 1000 releases a day.

Interview with PR Newswire’s Sarah Skerik

Daniel Greenfield: Who is more likely to use SEO, big or small companies?

Sarah Skerik: The size of the company really doesn’t seem to determine the SEO program. Some companies (small or large) are doing a great job, others are just beginning to utilize SEO.

Greenfield: For most non-material announcements, is there a growing sense that press releases are being increasingly used more for SEO than for the actual news? If no, will it ever be more valuable?

Skerik: Many companies are challenged when it comes to developing content for their web sites. However, fresh content that’s regularly updated is a cornerstone of a good SEO program. Search engines give extra consideration to sites that are regularly updated. For many companies, press releases are an important source of fresh web site content, and the company’s SEO plans should include a strategy for press releases.

There’s no question that more companies are issuing press releases for reasons other than disclosing financial news. That said, the content of the release still matters. Press releases are still public record, and function as online ambassadors, introducing new audiences to a company’s message. Issuing releases that are bereft of news, or are poorly written, is never a good idea, and will do little to achieve publicity objectives – online or offline.

Greenfield: What are the biggest mistakes that companies make in using SEO?

Skerik: I suppose you can start with not using SEO in the first place.

Not taking time to understand what search engine optimization really is – and how it’s really done, and the timeframes involved – is the number one cause of poor results and thus disappointment and frustration. Issuing a press release and seeing it on Google News is not search engine optimization, for example.

Search engine optimization is the art and science of being found. It means understanding intimately how your audiences are communicating about your product, service or issue, and crafting your communications using SEO techniques to ensure that your message is relevant for certain keywords — and thus highly ranked in natural search results for those keywords. SEO requires an understanding of how your public communicates about your subject, and then requires you to use that information, in the form of keywords, as the cornerstone of your communication.

As you build upon the foundation of those keywords, good SEO requires the communicator to adhere to certain rules, such as using those keywords within the headline, lead and release body, measuring the density of those keywords within the message, and linking from those keywords to related web pages (for starters.) Optimization involves the actual release content.

Greenfield: How can SEO be used most effectively?

Skerik: It’s most powerful when it’s integrated into the company’s overall SEO strategy, and communicators are using the keywords that have been identified through the company’s web site optimization efforts in press releases and other communications. The end goal is building the overall relevance and visibility of the company web site for specific topics, and press releases can contribute powerfully to that effort.

Greenfield: How can you measure its results?

Skerik: Get next to your webmaster, and get a regular look at the analytics report for your web site. This report will illustrate by day, week, or month (or other timeframe) exactly how many visitors each page had, and what site referred the visitor to that page. From that information, you can learn whether or not your press releases were a driver of traffic to your web site.

One important thing for PR people to keep in mind, however, relates to the timeframe for SEO results. We’re often used to immediate results. SEO results, however, measure human behavior — specifically, the number of times people searching the web find your message using keywords that they generate. Good results indicate that you’re in touch with your audience and are communicating with them effectively.

Greenfield: Isn’t there a danger in gaming the system and how do search engines like Google and Yahoo guard against it?

Skerik: The search engines are actually pretty good at identifying sites that try to ‘game’ the system. I advise against going head to head with the ranks of Internet geniuses that these companies employ to develop and refine their search services! Write naturally in the language of your audience, and you should be fine.

Greenfield: Lastly, we have seen a lot discussion about social media releases as a replacement for traditional ones? Does either format leverage SEO more effectively?

Skerik: Relevant links within and assets such as photos that are arrayed around a message can reinforce the relevance of your message, because search engines do consider the inbound and outbound links from a page, and they look at the content on the other end of those links. Even if you elect not to adopt the social media release format entirely, you can use elements of the SMNR to enhance your release visibility and contribute to your company’s overall SEO results.

Greenfield: Thank you Sarah for your insights.

————-

Over the past few years, there has been much debate over the press release’s future. Some stick to the traditional press release, while others swear by the social media release. Regardless of the form it takes, its function is changing along with that of a PR professional.

Given that SEO is still in its early adolescence, PR pros can use press releases and other tools to widen their role as subject matter experts and seize a territory that traditionally was in the realm of marketing and advertising.

More fundamentally, the web is changing the relationship between news generators and readers. Through SEO, news challenged companies can draw traffic to their websites as my buddy Seth is doing. It can also help companies bypass reporters and communicate directly to their customers or potential customers. In fact, last year Information Week reported on a study by the research firm Outsell that found that press releases have surpassed trade journals as the leading source of information for knowledge workers — truly a PR professional’s dream. Of course, what you get in disintermediation, you lose in third party validation.

But as SEO plays an increasingly larger role in content distribution, the barrier to entry is no longer the reporter; it’s an algorithm. I am not sure it is any more forgiving.

Let me get back to you.


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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Keeping the Sting in Buzz Words

Last week I spoke on a panel at the BDI Convergence 2007. Moderated by Peter Himler, the panel included Russell Meyer, chief strategy officer at Landor, Bruce Ertmann who heads up Toyota’s corporate blogging efforts, and Jessica Luterman the newly minted managing director at DeSilva and Phillips. The topic was Authentic Communications – Examining Social Media and the Online Conversation.

Quite a topic for an hour, but plunged we did.

For sometime I have used the term transparency to describe the goal of a corporate blogger. But is that realistic? As Josh Hallet has pointed it out, if we were really transparent, we would be sharing all our personal and proprietary information with anyone who asked. Not likely.

I am warming up to this notion of authenticity. It conjures up an old timer from Maine with a thick New England accent. He is real, genuine and the only thing he spins are the yarns from his childhood.

Now there is a suggestion that selling authenticity is a new thing. Growing up, wasn’t Coke supposed to be the real thing?

More than a slogan, authenticity is about using a distinct voice to communicate the culture and values of your company or client minus spin and marketing speak. It’s about telling it like it is in your unique way.

On the panel, Bruce Ertmann talked about the Toyota way. That way is about respect for others. Authenticity takes that way of thinking to a higher level. By speaking honestly, you are elevating your respect for the audience.

The Drive Toward Authenticity

This drive for authenticity reflects the intersection of three trends – less formality, more intimacy and new tools that foster collaboration and conversation.

Less Formality: Let’s face it. We are less formal in our dress, speech and relationships with our parents and bosses. Any doubts? When was the last time you wore a tuxedo to go clubbing? Tell that to those party animals from a 1930’s Screwball Comedy decked out in evening gowns and tuxedos.

More Intimacy: We are more intimate. It is perfectly acceptable to share personal details with friends and millions on the Internet. The confession is a way of life. It is not a source of shame; it’s an opportunity to rebrand yourself.

New Technology: Blogs, wikis, social networks allow us to more easily share, converse and collaborate.

The Result: Companies want to be our friends and share experiences. We PR and marketing folks are scrambling to build a whole new business vocabulary to reflect these more personal relationships.

I want to avoid replacing one set of marketing terms with another. Wishing to avoid shorthand, I want my words to be authentic. I want my new media buzz words to keep their sting.

Consider authenticity. We want our conversations to be authentic. We tell our bosses and clients to strive for it. But can we define it? You know it when you experience it, but it is tough to pin down.

  • Is it authentic to refer to your company’s fries as “world famous” – even when they are?
  • Is a question from a real person on YouTube to a presidential candidate any more authentic than that from a seasoned journalist?
  • Is a Wikipedia page authentic because it does not permit a company’s direct input?

It’s easy to throw out the word authenticity; it’s tough to make a corporate voice authentic. If you are paid to have a point of view, your voice is immediately suspect. But your compensation should not be an obstacle to authenticity.

Undisputed Credibility

Corporate voices can be authentic as long as they embody the essence of authenticity: undisputed credibility.

If what’s being said is believable, sincere and unfiltered, it doesn’t make a difference whether it’s a employee or customer, a vice president or a call center rep. You can have an agenda and be authentic. You just have to believe in what you are saying.

The quest for authenticity opens up new opportunities to engage customers. But in advocating its use, let’s follow the Toyota way and avoid making authencity just another buzz word to be tossed around.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Interviewing in L.A.

If anyone is looking for my Monday posting, I’m in L.A. interviewing and will post later in the week.

Wish me luck!

Let me get back to you.

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Meeting Up and Staying Warm in Manhattan

I am finally back in Atlanta thawing out after a week and a half running around to meetings in New York and participating on a panel at the Business Development Institute’s Convergence 2007 conference. I missed the free Wi-Fi and warmer temperatures here in Atlanta. But along the way, I had a chance to break French bread with Constantin Basturea, Paull Young and Christi Eubanks from Converseon and discuss, with accents from Romania, Australia and Alabama, Linkedin vs Facebook, Wikipedia and the state of new media.

On my last night, I attended the December meeting of the New York Tech Meetup over at IAC’s futuristic headquarters on the far west side of New York City. It was apparently the 50th such meeting for this group. Howard Greenstein was kind enough to share some cashews, show me around and make introductions.

As is the case on the first Tuesday of each month, several hundred geeks, investors, entrepreneurs, hackers and interested individuals were on hand to applaud, boo, laugh with and at the six presenters. Each had 5 minutes to demo his service. Scott Heiferman, Meetup’s CEO and Co-founder, kicked things off.

Among the presenters was Ignighter – a new online group-dating network. IAC is truly a good sport given that Match.com is an IAC property. Other presenters were Evolvist and TheFunded.com. Evolvist is a dynamic directory of eco-friendly and socially responsible businesses and organizations. TheFunded.com allows entrepreneurs to research, rate, and review venture capital sources worldwide. It is the brainchild of Adeo Ressi who appears to be on a mission to lift the curtain on VC buzz words and practices.

Scott Heiferman also presented, conveniently “forgetting” to start the timer and enabling him to speak for a few extra minutes. His announcement was the launch of a Meetup alliance – giving people the power to network with other meetup groups – to form informal alliances of networked groups. Last time I heard about a network of networks – the power of the Internet was unleashed. Heiferman candidly admits he can’t predict what power his alliance will unleash, but he can’t wait to see.

Unquestionably, building communities and enabling others to connect online tied the presenters together, and in many cases, humans not algorithms were the driving force. All in all, the Meetup meeting capped a flurry of activity. I had reached out to like minded individuals – face to face and handshake to handshake — except one person with a cold – who share a more than passing interest in social media, doing a little good and making some money.

Much of what we do involves a keyboard and staring at our screens into the online abyss. So on a blustery, bitter night in Manhattan, we all drew heat from the glow cast from the illuminated screens in IAC’s lobby and made a personal contact or two. I couldn’t have asked for much more.

Let me get back to you.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Challenger PR – Turning Underdog Status to Your Advantage

It’s not easy being Pepsi when there’s Coke, Avis when there’s Hertz and everyone else when there’s Google. But advertisers have turned a brand’s challenger status to its advantage…And so can PR professionals.

Yes, representing number two and especially number three in a given category is tough. You are too big for startup status and too small for the top dog position. You have fewer resources at your disposal and a smaller share of the media’s attention.

Over the years, I have worked for challenger brands. With MCI and EarthLink, I did not represent the market leader and rarely called the shots with national reporters. Challenger PR poses an interesting set of, well, challenges. But with challenges come opportunities. I keep thinking of the book, The Art of War. Sometimes in battle, the weaker opponent can use its position to gain a strategic advantage.

Rather than a sign of weakness, I view my experience as a badge of honor. The idea of positioning oneself as a challenger PR expert came to me by way of a former EarthLink colleague, Jerry Grasso. And like any good PR pro, I will gladly attribute, but freely appropriate.

Challenger PR Rules of Engagement

Whether it’s beverages or e-commerce, challenger PR follows a common set of rules.

You rarely get stand-alone coverage about your company or client’s company in the national press. You are generally a foil to the larger player, an alternative to the market leader. Your role is to validate the leader’s position or reveal its weaknesses. Conversely, you also don’t get the benefit enjoyed by a start-up whose size makes an interesting angle or whose product or service creates a whole new category.

But fortunately, the race is not always to the swiftest or the battle to the strongest. The key is to play off their strength to make your company stand out. As part of a communication strategy, challenger PR involves:

• creating a rapid response team that combs the morning headlines about the competition and offers reporters a fresh perspective to extend the story.

• pitching features that deliberately include your top competitor to help reporters convince their editors of an article’s merit.

• managing expectations of clients and bosses so they understand that success is generally about inclusion not necessarily an exclusive.

• using social media to engage customers.

I know big companies use social media, but it poses an interesting challenge for them. Remember market leaders have more resources, but generally take fewer risks; the stakes are too high. Market leaders are bigger and therefore less nimble. They are more centralized and therefore less open. And because they are the leader, they have less incentive to change. The status quo is fine with them.

Here’s what was said in a Shel Israel and Robert Scoble podcast last year:

17:15 “Microsoft & Sun use blogs to their advantage. Google & Apple not so much. What gives? MSFT satisfaction levels up; new product ideas; Might take years to see impact of blogs; Companies that are winning maybe don’t need to change.”

And social media is about change.

“It’s not about convincing gatekeepers”

Social media is not about convincing gatekeepers, it’s about creative story telling. By leveling the playing field, social media gives you the freedom to tell your story in the way you want and when you want. Social media allows you to circumvent traditional channels to share your story directly with customers. It gives you a forum to experiment with a new medium whose rules are a work in progress.

In analyzing challenger brand culture, Adam Morgan cites Hans Snook in his book, The Pirate Inside. He writes: “The role of the challenger is not to unseat the Market Leader, [sic] it is to reframe the category. Meaning we need to get the consumer to see the category on our new, redefined terms, rather than the way they have always seen it.”

Social media can help companies to redefine their category. As John Moore said, “Blogging can make big companies small and small companies big.” A word of caution, however: all the reframing is for naught if you lack a compelling story and a useful product.

Brady Bunch Wisdom

I am reminded of the wisdom of The Brady Bunch television series and Jan Brady’s lament: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” Stuck in the middle between Cindy’s curls and Marcia’s good looks and numerous accomplishments, a number two or three is neither a start-up nor the market leader. But as Jan Brady learned in another episode, wearing a black wig to stand out just makes you look silly.

Gimmicks and tricks are not the answer; an effective challenger PR strategy involves taking risks and engaging customers in open conversations that capture a company’s passion.

Let me get back to you.

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