Corporate Social Media Done Right: 5 Lessons Learned

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

©iStockPhoto.com/thesuperph

©iStockPhoto.com/thesuperph

To tweet or not to tweet? That is the business dilemma.

Some companies see value in embracing social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the like as a new way to connect with their customers. Nothing says we care like a status update such as “Just keepin’ the customer satisfied!” But despite the push for businesses to exploit social media, some of them can screw it up if they don’t think it through.

Before I get to that, first off, there are those who are decidedly anti-social to social media. Some companies prohibit use of it by their employees because of security risks. Surveys asking “Which ‘Mad Men’ character are you?” could be a delivery device for maladies that could infect the computer network and steal valuable company information. For others, it’s just considered a time waster. When the boss reads your status update, “Gawd, will five o’clock EVER come?” she’ll give you more work to pass the time.

But even for those who embrace social media, including blogs, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it that has nothing to do with the risk of viruses on your network or dawdlers in your office. Social media experts speaking at a recent Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston detailed five ways to fail at social media. A catchphrase heard at the conference that sums social media up is clever: “It’s not rocket surgery.”

First, a company’s social media strategy should go beyond just pushing sales. An example that came up is from Citrix, a company that delivers virtualized software applications to desktop computers. Its blog discusses a broad array of issues related to telecommuting, so it’s not just an ad for Citrix virtualization. A health insurance company promoted a community bicycle sharing program to keep people healthy, not to convince people to buy a policy from them.

Another way social media strategies can go wrong is if there’s no there there. That is, if a company invites customers to comment and share their opinions on a particular subject and doesn’t respond to their suggestions, it’s an empty gesture. Southwest Airlines considered following other airlines in making assigned seating aboard its flights. By posting its proposal on its blog, Southwest heard from customers who liked the first-come-first-served approached and kept it, with some modifications, based on that feedback.

A social media strategy can also fail if the company doesn’t embrace what needs to be an adaptive technology. The company’s blog or Facebook page needs to be simple for anyone within the company to operate without having to submit a work order to IT.

That said, there needs to be some corporate discipline in how social media are used. Attendees at the conference warned of the “rogue employee [who] ‘goes off’ on Twitter” as something to watch out for. Social media conversations can be casual and free-wheeling, but message control is still important.

Lastly, a social media strategy can fail if the corporate culture doesn’t truly embrace it. The strategy needs to be customer-focused, which seems obvious, but in some cultures, process, policies and products can take precedence over using social media to serve the customer.

Oh, I guess this is the point where I should invite your comments, to which I’ll be eager to reply.

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Positioning: Dare to Differentiate

©iStockPhoto/hidesy

©iStockPhoto/hidesy

Most of us occasionally suffer from “following the herd” mentality, but effective positioning requires companies to deviate from the norm and establish their own unique position. When formulating a positioning statement, the statement should (1) clearly articulate the company’s understanding of market needs, and (2) present a defendable value proposition that is meaningful to target audiences. At Attain, we find that this second requirements is particularly challenging for young companies.

In a recent client engagement, we did a competitive positioning audit and found that 6 in 7 of the companies in the space claimed a market leading position — and yet our client was hesitant to drop “leader” from their positioning for fear that potential customers would not consider them as a viable market player.

This line of reasoning is prevalent in the technology industry. If ‘Company A’, the true market leader as defined by market share, claims it is the leading provider of widgets, the new market entrant ‘Company B’ claims it is the leading provider of next-generation widgets, and so on until you have the whole sector claiming they are “the leading provider of [insert adjective] widgets”.

How is it possible to create a defendable value proposition by following the herd? The answer is, it isn’t. It doesn’t matter what a company believes or wishes to be true. Positioning is about how companies are perceived in the minds of their target audiences. And I have yet to meet a prospect who cares to split hairs over the semantics of a company’s messaging.

Dare to put the differentiation back into positioning by answering the prospective customer’s question, “Why do people choose your company?” (Hint: it isn’t because you are 1 of 6 “market leaders”) To find the real answer to this question, try talking to customers, prospective customers and competitor customers (if possible).

A defendable and meaningful positioning platform requires that you understand the factors that motivate the buying decision within your space. So ask customers what factors they considered when making their decision (i.e., quality of offering, breadth of offering, depth of offering, pricing, innovation, value, credibility, market expertise, etc.) and then divide those attributes into the following hierarchy:

  • Compelling Attributes: What attributes actually compell them to buy from you instead of the competition?
  • Differentiating Attributes: What attributes begin to differentiate your company from the competition? You may share these attributes with some, but not all of your competitors.
  • Necessary Attributes: What attributes establish you as a viable vendor but do not, however, differentiate you from your competition.

Target Audience Motivators

Target Audience Motivators

When you understand the attributes that compel someone to buy your product/service instead of the competitions’, you can begin to define a position that is both differentiated and defendable.

Interview with Patrick Conte: Sales and Marketing – Friends or Foes?

Patrick Conte

Patrick Conte

One of the unfortunate realities of today’s market is that many marketing campaigns do not yield the results that were hoped for or promised. This usually leads to finger pointing between sales and marketing, and the battle is usually won by the finger with the greater amount of data, no matter how flimsy.

We asked Patrick Conte, whose career spans more than 25 years of leadership roles with high technology companies in both the private and public sectors, to give his insight on this phenomenon. Patrick is highly regarded for his ability to help high-growth companies successfully navigate market challenges, leverage opportunity and emerge as industry leaders.

Attain Marketing: In your many years in sales and as an executive, often overseeing large teams of sales and marketing professionals, you’ve probably witnessed some interesting dynamics between Sales and Marketing teams. How would you characterize the typical Sales/Marketing relationship and what factors influence the dynamics?

Conte: It is my experience that Sales and Marketing are frequently not on the same page and often the relationship ends up in some sort of conflict. But I believe this can always be traced back to the fact that the senior executives in all functional departments (marketing, sales, engineering, product development, finance) have not agreed upon a single set of shared objectives for the company.

Politics exist in both small and large companies, so unless senior management is united on common corporate goals which keep Sales and Marketing marching in the same direction, personal agendas tend to rear their ugly heads – which may end up affecting the relationship between Sales and Marketing. Since the two organizations are the most “out front” functions, it’s natural that there may be contention unless those organizations sit down and compare notes to make sure they are in synch about what the corporate objectives are and how each will help achieve them.

Attain Marketing: In your opinion, why does a disconnect – and at times animosity – develop between two departments that are supposed to be focused on the same goal of getting more revenue for their company?

Conte: A lot of the time, differences and disconnects in the trenches can be traced back to the fact that the VP of Sales and VP of Marketing, especially in young companies, may be atdifferent places in their career and may be focused on a personal agenda for success vs. the overall success of the company. Obviously it’s very difficult for companies to synchronize the selection of VPs that are in the same place in their careers when they hire them, so it becomes incumbent on these managers to sit down and sort out where their respective positions are so they can make sure they are in synch with overall corporate objectives.

Ultimately the overall goal for the company is to find customers it can help with a set of solutions. Its Marketing’s job to appeal to a broad group, and then its Sales job to find a way to deliver that technology to individual customers. If the Sales and Marketing teams can look at their mission and decide that they are part of a relay where one team will “hand off” to the other when it’s time, they can achieve success even if the VPs are at different points of their career.

Attain Marketing: Now we know everything is usually Sales’ fault (poke), but seriously, what are some of the common complaints you hear from Sales about Marketing? And how often does Marketing become Sales’ scapegoat when revenue numbers don’t match expectations?

Conte: “Your leads suck”, “you have not done the positioning so I don’t know how to talk about this stuff”, “the technology is complex so the messaging needs to be better”, “I am out here alone with no support” are some of the old excuses Sales may fall back on when revenue numbers fall short.”

Ultimately if the revenue numbers are not being met, each organization will come up with a set of reasons why that’s happening. When you believe you are doing a good job and yet expectations are not being met, then its human nature to point a finger at the guy closest to you. If it’s not Marketing’s fault, then let’s blame Engineering for developing a product that does not work, or Finance for being too tight with contracts or compensation packages.

This is something that organizations need to try to avoid, and part of that has to do with how well they hire. Do you hire people that have a level of maturity, not just talent, and who can be introspective about their own jobs and won’t take it personally when you point it out where things can be done better or differently?

Attain Marketing: What tips can you provide Marketing to be more successful engaging and working collaboratively with Sales? And how can Marketing better demonstrate their value to both Sales and the executive team?

Conte: I touched on this previously but the most important point is that senior management from all functional departments need to agree from the beginning “what” is the most important set of corporate objectives and most importantly “why” they are so important. The “why” may be the hardest to agree upon, but it needs to be addressed before the “what” can be successfully delivered.

The main tip is that a common set of objectives must be met. For example, we need to touch ‘x’ number of customers or deliver ‘x’ revenue, or we need to have ‘x’ many impressions in market places, or we need to be included in ‘x’ many analyst reports. Then, based on these objectives, Sales can say “ok Marketing, this is what I need.”

In my opinion, these items – in order- usually are:

  • Strategic positioning – this is where we fit in the marketplace, how we project our vision, where our products fit in the competitive environment, and how do the analysts and press view us.
  • Sales tools and collateral – these are the tools that allow internal folks, sales force, partners and others to readily understand what the company does and product benefits without the need to talk to someone directly. You want people to know about what you do before they talk to someone in Sales – this shortens the sales cycle.
  • Support for the channel or partners – this is a different way of conditioning the sales tools so they are consumable by your unpaid/commission-only salesforce. Or it’s a strategy to reach partners and get them on board with marketing activities.
  • Warm leads – these are different from raw leads in that warm leads are ones in which a prospect has responded to a campaign or set of messages delivered by the company.

I believe that if Marketing can deliver these items, then its Sales job to take the “hand off” from there, which really makes the two organizations partners in what they do. Now, if Marketing successfully delivers all the above and revenue numbers are not met, then Sales has some “splaining” to do (as Ricky would say to Lucy).

Attain Marketing: Any last thoughts, Pat?

Conte: Sales can easily be measured in metrics and numbers to quantify their results, so it’s very easy to blame Sales if revenue numbers are not met. And ultimately it is Sales that is accountable for closing customer deals and delivering revenue results for the company. But it’s fair to get Marketing to agree to metric-based goals – such as how many articles will the company be included in, how many analysts will they talk to, where you want to end up in their reports, how many sales tools will be delivered both internally and to partners, and ultimately, how many warm leads will be developed. This makes it a fair “fight” ;-). In other words, if Sales is going to be measured on numbers – and they should be – then Marketing can be as well.

Is it Time to Place an Embargo on PR Embargoes?

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

Under the heading of things that can be both a blessing and a curse, journalists and the PR people we work with are in agreement on one: embargoes. They can be a simple and fair way for a PR client to disseminate news about themselves to the media, or they can be a way to manipulate journalists into doing a story because they know everyone else is.

All sides of the debate about embargoes were aired one recent evening at a panel discussion in San Francisco that featured journalists from old and new media and an audience of more than 50 media and public relations professionals. The organizer of the event was Waggener Edstrom, the huge PR agency whose most famous client is Microsoft.

First, here’s a primer on embargoes, just so we’re all on the same page. When a company wants to get the word out about something it thinks is newsworthy it reaches out to reporters with whom it wants to share the news. In order for all media to get the story at the same time, the company imposes an embargo that the news can’t be reported until, say, 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on Monday.

The reporters who agree to the embargo are then entitled to an interview with key people from the company a few days ahead of time, called a prebrief. They may also be referred to industry analysts who’ve also been briefed who can provide some independent perspective on the news. Then the reporter can take his or her time writing the story with perhaps a little more thought, detail and insight than if they quickly rewrote the press release once it came out at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Sometimes, though, the embargo process fails.

“Embargo is from a Latin phrase which means ‘[to heck with] you,’” blurted Dylan Tweney, senior editor of Wired.com, the Web site of the high-tech magazine. (Use your imagination to fill in the real word in the brackets.) Tweney resents being forced to agree to embargoes in order to get the news.
Embargoes work — to get news out to readers in a timely fashion – except when they don’t work, Tweney said, and then provided examples of instances where he agreed to an embargo only to learn some other media outlet broke it and got the story out first. It happened twice within a few weeks on different stories handled by the same PR agency.

“I recognize both the utility and the anxiety and danger of embargoes,” added David Darlin, technology editor for the New York Times. While it can be a convenient way to report news, he also feels manipulated by the process.

“[The embargo] is a tool for PR people to co-opt the media to turn them into part of the PR apparatus,” said Darlin.

But the alternative to embargoes, which would be just putting the release on PR Newswire and only responding to reporters seeking interviews is impractical for the companies making the news, said Doug Free, public relations director for Microsoft’s operations in Silicon Valley.

“I can’t have my staff scrambling to take calls from 30 reporters,” said Free, from his seat in the audience. Using the embargo system sets up a more orderly process for arranging interviews ahead of time.

As the discussion continued, it became apparent that there remains some suspicion among reporters, PR people and their clients about who’s responsible for broken embargoes.

Sam Whitmore, founder of Media Survey, a consulting practice for tech PR people, and moderator of the discussion, listed what he thought were bogus “excuses” media gave for breaking embargoes, such as the story was posted by mistake, the embargoed story was mistaken for a non-embargoed story, there was time zone confusion about when the embargo lifts and the all purpose “I forgot.”

But Wired’s Tweney said embargoes are also broken by the client who, despite the PR agency’s efforts to control the embargo, leaks the news to a favored blogger or someone else who gets the jump on reporters who agreed to the embargo.

The debate ended 45 minutes later with no real consensus on how to fix the embargo dilemma, which with the expanding universe of media bloggers, corporate bloggers, PR bloggers, Twitterers and other new media sources, isn’t going away.

But both journalists and PR people agreed on one essential element for a fair embargo system: Trust.